Robyn Reviews: In The Ravenous Dark

‘In the Ravenous Dark’ is an enjoyable, fast-paced fantasy romance with excellent LGBTQIAP+ representation and a fun cast of characters. The twists are relatively predictable and the plot simple, but it’s a solid read if you’re not looking for something complex.

In Thanopolis, those with magic are both prized and feared, bound to undead spirits to guide and control them. Rovan’s father gave his life to keep her from this fate – but when an accident leads to her revealing her powers, she’s thrust into a world of magic and politics that she barely understands. Her situation is further complicated when she finds herself falling for the beautiful Princess Lydea – and also Ivrilos, the undead spirit now bound to her for all eternity. Unsure who to trust, Rovan must uncover a centuries old secret at the heart of Thanopolis – and possibly betray everyone she loves in the process.

Rovan is a solid protagonist. Raised in an isolated village for her own safety, she understands little of city politics or royalty – and combined with a tendency for bluntness it leads to some hilarious, if cringe-worthy, situations. A powerful but untrained bloodmage, Rovan is capable of extraordinary feats, but regularly finds herself out of her depth. She’s so overpowered it does take some of the suspense and drama out of things, but despite this its impossible to dislike her with such an amazing matter-of-fact attitude.

The two love interests, Lydea and Ivrilos, are polar opposites. Lydea is a princess, but otherwise much like Rovan – fun-loving, relaxed, and unafraid of breaking the rules. Sparks fly almost immediately and the chemistry is palpable – however theirs always feels like a more surface level relationship. In contrast, Ivrilos is the stereotypical male fantasy love interest – quiet, brooding, and mysterious, a protector in the background betraying his family for the one he loves. He starts very two-dimensional, however as more about his past and personality is revealed, he develops into arguably the most interesting character in the book. His relationship with Rovan is a far slower burn, and feels more realistic for it.

It’s unusual to see polygamy portrayed in mainstream fantasy, and whilst the instant acceptance of anything might seem unrealistic, there’s enough tension in the plot without needing relationship friction to add to the drama. LGBTQIAP+ characters aren’t fully accepted in Strickland’s world – Japha, who is non-binary, is treated as male by the King, and lesbian Lydea is expected to marry and produce children with a man – but Rovan’s pansexuality and polygamy is never treated as abnormal. It’s great to have healthy representation of non-monogamous relationships, and whilst the overall ending is a bit too happily-ever-after it does make a pleasant change from all the LGBTQIAP+ characters dying at the end.

The plot is mainly focused around political intrigue and scheming, but it’s fast paced and engaging. It does feel very trope heavy, with most of the revelations easily predictable, but the tropes are written well. The main issue with the plot is that all the villains are a bit caricaturic. The protagonists are undoubtedly good, with the possible exception of Ivrilos, compared to the true irredeemability of their enemies. There’s a twist approximately two-thirds into the book which will likely divide opinion, but personally I found it an interesting addition if a bit out of keeping with the rest of the books mythos.

Overall, ‘In The Ravenous Dark’ is a solid addition to the fantasy romance genre, mostly notable for its depiction of a healthy polygamous relationship and LGBTQIAP+ diversity including pansexual, asexual, and non-binary representation. Recommended for fans of new adult fantasy romance, love triangles done right, and political intrigue.

Published by Hodder & Stoughton
Hardback: 18th May 2021

Robyn Reviews: The Viscount Who Loved Me

‘The Viscount Who Loved Me’ is the second book in Julia Quinn’s ‘Bridgerton’ saga, a series of historical romance novels following each member of the Bridgerton family in their quests for marriage and love. This particular installment focuses on Anthony Bridgerton, the eldest son, and is expected to be the inspiration for the second season of the Netflix show. Quinn continues to prove herself excellent at writing witty, humorous characters, and the chemistry she creates is just as electric as it was for Daphne and Simon in ‘The Duke and I‘.

A year has passed since the events of the first book, and the ton is gearing up for another season. This year, the diamond of the season is none other than Edwina Sheffield, a relative unknown from Somerset making her debut alongside her older sister Kate. Of course, the most eligible bachelor is one Viscount Anthony Bridgerton – but this season, Anthony has decided it’s time for him to settle down and find a wife. Naturally, he’ll settle for nothing less than the season’s diamond – but Kate knows more than enough about Anthony’s reputation and has no intention of allowing such a rake near her sister. The two regularly find themselves matching wits. However, when Kate finds her hatred morphing to grudging respect and then to something far more dangerous, she starts to wonder if her opposition to Anthony and Edwina marrying is to protect her sister – or to protect her own heart.

Kate Sheffield makes an absolutely spectacular heroine. Not particularly dignified, with any beauty she might possess completely overshadowed by her younger sister, she instead gets by with a sharp tongue and sharper wits. She adores her sister, placing Edwina’s happiness far above her own, and is quite content to let marriage pass her by and simply retire alone in the country. She also has a brilliant corgi, Newton – appalling trained but undeniably loveable, he leads to some of the funniest and best moments in the entire book.

Anthony played a very minor role in ‘The Duke and I’, but given centre stage here he shines. Like Kate, Anthony is devoted to his family – although his is considerably larger and more complicated – but he’s also far more troubled than he shows on the outside. Losing his father at eighteen, the most important person in his life, affected him deeply – and while he knows it’s his duty to marry and produce an heir, he cannot fathom falling in love with someone and risking that level of loss again. His verbal sparring with Kate is a delight, but the real tension is around waiting for the two to stop hiding everything and start trusting each other.

Like in ‘The Duke and I’, a good portion of the plot revolves around miscommunication and misunderstanding – a common trope in the romance genre, but one which can become frustrating when over-used. Quinn just about manages to keep the tension exciting rather than a chore, helped by the clear affection and chemistry between Kate and Anthony. She also excels at humorous scenes – Kate and Anthony’s Pall Mall game being a clear highlight. Daphne and Simon only play a very minor role, but Colin and Eloise get more page time – both are fantastic characters, which makes me intrigued to get to their installments of the series.

Overall, ‘The Viscount Who Loved Me’ is an excellent historical romance packed with humour and fun. It’s a very light read, but if that’s what you’re looking for it comes highly recommended.

Published by Piatkus
Paperback: December 5th 2000

Robyn Reviews: Red, White, and Royal Blue

‘Red, White, & Royal Blue’ is pure escapist fiction. Since its release it’s garnered constant comparisons to fanfiction for its idealism, tooth-rotting sweetness, and amalgamation of romance tropes between – of all people – the First Son of the first female US President and the Prince of England. Naturally, it’s an absolutely implausible read – but it’s also laugh-out-loud funny, joyously fun, and a much needed ray of light in a genre which contains too much tragedy. If you’re willing to go along for the ride, ‘Red, White, & Royal Blue’ is deserving of its reputation of one of the best books in the LGBTQIA+ romance genre.

Alex Claremont-Diaz is tabloid fodder – the twenty-one year old son of the first female US president, and the first half-Mexican in the White House. His entire life revolves around politics – and with election year approaching, it’s more important than ever that he remains the perfect marketing strategy. So, when photos leak of an apparent confrontation with his arch-nemesis – none other than His Royal Highness Prince Henry, grandson of Her Majesty the Queen of England – damage control is essential. Enter a clever scheme: a fake friendship between Alex and Henry stretching back years. Alex and his arch-nemesis must put their longstanding enmity aside and play nicely for the paparazzi. Except the more time they spend together, the more it becomes clear that they don’t hate each other after all… and the only thing more damaging for both of them than enmity is love.

Both Alex and Henry are instantly loveable characters. Alex is a charmer – intelligent, witty, and determined, he’s the consummate politician, always looking for the right thing to say (unless Henry’s involved). But underneath the politician’s sheen he’s a hot mess – unsure what he wants to have for lunch, let alone the direction of his entire life, and clueless about his own personal life even with things staring him in the face. Alex’s relationship with his sister is heartwarming, and his relationship with his mother complicated, but overall filled with love. (There’s a scene involving a PowerPoint which sums it up perfectly and is one of the funniest scenes ever put to paper).

Henry is, in many ways, an American caricature of what a British person should be like – uptight and repressed, faultlessly polite, but beneath that veneer kind, caring, and exceptionally poetic. It’s impossible not to like him. There has never been an outwardly gay member of the British royal family, and Henry’s relationship with his sexuality – and how it affects his perception of himself – is heartbreaking to read about. However, this is always a hopeful and optimistic book, and it’s always clear he’ll get a happy ever after.

The plot is stereotypical romance – enemies forced to play nice and pretend to be friends end up in a secret relationship which will undoubtedly be revealed at the worst possible time – but the characters and writing make it so much more. Alex and Henry get themselves into ridiculous situations and force you to laugh, cry, and gasp right along with them. Their chemistry is electric, but so too is the chemistry between the books many friendships – Alex’s White House Trio, Henry and his sister Bea, Henry and his friend from Eton Pez. There are elements which stretch the bounds of plausibility to its limit, but you want to believe it’s possible – you want to believe that Alex and Henry can beat the odds. (And yes, the Prince probably can’t just conveniently obtain the keys to the V&A for a midnight visit – but everyone wants to believe it could happen).

Overall, ‘Red, White, & Royal Blue’ is the sort of tooth-rotting fluff that everyone wants to read on a bad day. It’s ridiculous and over-the-top, but so likeable that it’s hard to care. Recommended for all fans of romance and LGBT fiction, and everyone who wants something happy and optimistic to get through hard times.

Published by St Martin’s Griffin
Paperback: May 14th 2019

Robyn Reviews: Winter’s Orbit

‘Winter’s Orbit’ is a sci-fi romance advertised as ‘Red White and Royal Blue’ meets ‘Ancillary Justice’. It’s brilliantly written with adorable characters and intriguing, complex worldbuilding – but it’s also got a darker side, and I feel like readers should be aware this isn’t quite the fun, lighthearted read they might expect.

Every twenty years, the treaty between the seven planets of the Iskat Empire must be redrawn. As the deadline approaches, the unexpected death of Prince Taam – the husband of Count Jainan, a representative of Thea – threatens hostilities between Thea and Iskat, casting doubt over the treaty. To solve this, a marriage is hastily arranged between Jainan and Prince Kiem, a minor royal with a reputation as an irresponsible playboy. However, it quickly comes to light that Taam’s death was no mere accident – and Jainan is the prime suspect. With the treaty on the line, Kiem and Jainan must learn to trust one another and figure out the truth before the Empire comes crashing down around them.

Kiem is one of my absolute favourite characters. He’s a social butterfly, a man who loves a good party and an adrenaline rush – but he has a heart of gold, throwing his soul into charity work and trying to make everyone happy. He knows his reputation and wields it like a shield, taking the blame for everything so others can live their lives in peace. He’s not particularly smart, constantly missing obvious signs – especially about Jainan – but he’s a real people person with an exceptional ability to network. He’s also hilariously clumsy, which leads to some truly brilliant scenes whenever he attempts to do anything practical (I love the bear scene so much).

Jainan is initially a hard character to warm up to. He’s stiff, cold, and formal, and constantly falling over himself to apologise for every menial slight – but it quickly becomes apparent that he’s scarred beyond imagining. Many of Jainan’s scenes are very difficult to read. His thought patterns are exceptionally accurate of someone who’s suffered prolonged abuse, and the way it affects his self-worth and demeanour is heartbreaking. Jainan is the main reason why this isn’t the light-hearted romance that some publicity makes this book out to be – for anyone with sensitivities around domestic abuse, this makes a powerful but harrowing read.

The worldbuilding is incredibly complex, and even after finishing the book some aspects are hard to fully understand. The story primarily focuses on Iskat, a planet with a monarchy which controls a seven-planet empire – but there are allusions to other empires and organisations, and the overall hierarchy is hard to parse out. That being said, the worldbuilding is still exceptional. Iskat itself is beautifully portrayed, and the complex politics between the monarchy, the military, and the intelligence service are intricately described. Everything feels real and plausible. The futuristic technology is neatly slotted in, and overall there’s incredible potential for future books to expand on the universe.

The plot has several threads – the slow-burn romance between Kiem and Jainan, the mystery of Prince Taam’s murder, the politics of trying to organise the treaty – all of which slot together very neatly at the end. The complexity and scope means the start is very slow, with a good third of the book passing before things kick into gear – but it’s worth it to have a backdrop and understanding as the action ramps up. At times, it can be a challenge to keep track of each thread, but it’s worth it for how clever the denouement is. There are many twists and turns, and whilst by the end some things are obvious, others come completely out of the blue. Maxwell’s writing is clever with lots of red herrings, but also plenty of foreshadowing of the brutal climax.

Perhaps the most impressive part is how truly fifty-fifty this is a romance novel and a science fiction novel. The two threads compliment each other beautifully, neither detracting from the other, and primary readers of either genre will likely find something to enjoy.

Overall, this isn’t always a lighthearted read, with graphic mentions of domestic abuse and torture – but it’s an exceptional debut, so with prior warning it makes an enjoyable read. I look forward to seeing what Everina Maxwell does next.

Published by Orbit
Paperback: 4th February 2021

Robyn Reviews: The Duke and I

‘The Duke and I’ is the first novel in Julia Quinn’s popular ‘Bridgerton’ series, recently adapted into a hit Netflix show. It’s a surprisingly humorous and witty historical romance which – other than one notable scene – makes an enjoyable, quick read.

Daphne Bridgerton knows that the rest of her life depends on her securing an advantageous marriage match. However, while she has formed friendships with most of the eligible men in London, none of them see her as a desirable marriage prospect. Enter one Simon Basset, the newly-titled Duke of Hastings. The Duke has no intention of marrying – despite every mother in town seeking his hand for their daughter – and merely wants to go about his business in peace. The two hatch a cunning plan – they will pretend to form an attachment. A woman who has the attentions of a Duke will seem a highly desirable match indeed, and all the ambitious mothers will assume Simon has found his Duchess and leave him alone. However, the more time Daphne and Simon spend together, the more their ruse starts to feel real…

Daphne makes an excellent protagonist. She’s charming, witty, and unafraid to speak her mind or stand up for herself. She’s naive and immature, and prone to making unwise decisions, but her intentions are usually good. She can be a tad self-centred, but then she’s an aristocrat who’s likely always gotten her own way. Daphne isn’t necessarily the most unique character, and there’s a touch of ‘not like other girls’ about her, but she’s engaging and that’s all she needs to be.

Simon, on the other hand, is less of a paragon of masculinity than is sometimes seen in historical romance, which is refreshing. Yes, he’s a duke, and a devastatingly handsome one at that, but he’s also dealing with a number of issues – mostly centering around his terrible father – and struggles with a speech impediment. Like Daphne, Simon is clever and fond of a good quip, and their chemistry is remarkable. It’s clear right from the start that the two make an excellent match, and their relationship is highly believable.

The plot is relatively standard historical romance fare, but beyond one twist is still enjoyable and suits the characters and setting. Quinn is an excellent writer, especially of dialogue, and there are a few laugh-out-loud moments. Everything is kept mostly light-hearted, and it’s easy to read this in a single sitting. It makes the perfect read at the end of a long day when you want something simple.

The one issue this book has is a scene of female-on-male sexual assault. The male character has made it quite clear that he doesn’t consent to a particular act, yet – while he is intoxicated – the female character knowingly chooses to do it anyway. She acknowledges afterwards that it was wrong, but states she doesn’t regret it, and after a time is forgiven for her actions. This scene made me very uncomfortable, especially how it was later glossed over and – in some ways – made to seem like a positive thing in the long run. Female-on-male sexual assault is given a lot less attention than male-on-female, and works which minimise it will only cause further hurt to victims.

Overall, ‘The Duke and I’ is an enjoyable read packed with light humour – other than one scene which tars the story. It’s a shame that it was included (and an even bigger shame that it was translated in the same form into the TV show with no further commentary). My biggest hope is that a greater public lens will spark positive and progressive discussion around the issue of female-on-male sexual assault, rather than minimise it further. If you’ve watched the show, or are considering watching it, this is a recommended read – with the caveat that one scene may be distressing.

Published by Piatkus
Paperback: 5th January 2000

Book Review: Death and Other Happy Endings

I plucked Death & Other Happy Endings, by Melanie Cantor, from my TBR pile expecting it to be light-hearted and humorous. I have been struggling to connect with fiction recently and wanted a story that I could read effortlessly. The opening chapters proved somewhat slow but fine in setting the scene and introducing key characters. Then, after a rather unsettling episode in a park, I wondered if I should continue reading. I rarely DNF a book and chose to give it to page 100 before deciding. I’m glad I did. The remainder of the story offered a cheerful if unlikely tale.

The protagonist is Jennifer Cole, a forty-something single woman who works in HR. She has terrible taste in men, mostly due to her romantic, rose-coloured vision. She invents excuses for their selfishness in order to feel appreciated and loved.

Jennifer does have good friends, especially Olivia. She gets on less well with her older sister, Isabelle, who was regarded as the beauty of the family and married into wealth. None of the characters appear to lack means. They meet in expensive venues around London where they drink cocktails and champagne. Their’s is a life of comfort and privilege, shadows cast only by their own foolish decisions.

The balance shifts when Jennifer is told by her doctor that she has a rare and incurable illness. With only three months to live she decides to tell those who have caused her heartache in the past how this made her feel. In reconnecting, she brings them back into her life. Time has not changed their inherent character traits.

The writing flows nicely as the plot develops. There are, however, few surprises and little depth. What is portrayed is a world of beautiful people in comfortable cocoons dealing with the challenges of daily living. There is foolish behaviour and occasional sadness. They benefit from a rare support network of family and friends.

I was impressed by the portrayal of an over the top argument scene. The previously reticent Jennifer lets rip when her eyes are opened to a loved one’s true nature. The denouement is improbable but this is, after all, that type of story. I enjoyed the way the author wrote her happy ending.

I usually avoid romantic fiction but this tale provided enough to divert me and retain engagement. For fans of the genre this could be a popular read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Black Swan.

Book Review: The Ludlow Ladies’ Society

The Ludlow Ladies’ Society, by Ann O’Loughlin, is a romance – one of the few genres I avoid. Bear this in mind when reading my review, especially if you are a fan of such stories. I am aware that there are many who enjoy the escapism of the happy ever after. Of all imaginative possibilities this is one I struggle to suspend reason for, even to facilitate story telling.

The tale is set in the small Irish town of Rosdaniel, County Wicklow. The town’s big house and its estate had been occupied by generations of the Brannigan family until a few years before. Financial mismanagement led to repossession and Ludlow Hall was bought by an American who subsequently died. Now his widow, Connie, has arrived hoping to discover why her husband sank their money into the property without telling her. The town still regards Ludlow Hall as the home of Eve, who was evicted by the banks when they acted to recover the debts her husband bequeathed.

Another widow in the town, Hetty, makes up the trio of women forming the backbone of the tale. All have tragic personal histories that are slowly revealed. The women come together thanks to the eponymous society that regularly meets to gossip and sew quilts. The women plan to enter their creations in a competition, the winners of which will have the opportunity to meet the American First Lady when she visits Ireland in just a few weeks time.

Eve is introduced as a seamstress who is unkindly judgemental about her clients. Finishing off the hemming on a skirt she ponders:

“Mary McGuane would hardly do it justice with her thick waist […] The red colour was too bright for a heavy woman.”

That larger woman should not be permitted to wear whatever they want did not endear Eve to me. Much later in the book Hatty appears to have similar concerns about appearance when Connie is preparing to meet an old friend:

“Last week she had gone to Arklow on Hetty’s insistence and had her hair coloured and cut.”

Given the trials and tribulations these women have suffered, and the strength they have shown in surviving and moving on, such superficial concerns diminished their supposedly supportive female friendships. After the emotional abuse their husbands subjected them to as a means of control it would have been refreshing to have them accepted just as they are.

There is much death and darkness in the story; the women have been badly used by their spouses. With this in mind I wondered why they would seek a replacement, why they would believe happiness could be found with another man. They cite love yet also recognise that they once loved those who caused them pain. This is the main flaw I find in romantic fiction, the lack of learning from experience.

The Ludlow Ladies’ Society is making quilts for the competition. When they decide the theme is to be memory they set aside their off-cuts and seek clothing donations with a personal history. Eve and Hatty in particular cut squares from high quality clothes that could have benefited others which seemed such a waste. I struggled to empathise with much of this tale.

The writing flows and the progression of the plot is well measured. The reveals maintain interest despite there being few surprises. For romance fans, especially those who enjoy crafts such as sewing, I suspect this could be an engaging read. As it was voted onto the shortlist I did my best to remain open minded but it was not a book for me.

 

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Black & White Publishing.

 

The Ludlow Ladies’ Society has been shortlisted for the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize 2017. I will be reviewing all of the books on this shortlist in the coming weeks.

Book Review: Keep Me Safe

Keep Me Safe, by Daniela Sacerdoti, is a tale of romance with a  touch of the supernatural. Its protagonist is Anna, a newly qualified nurse living in London, whose live-for-the-moment partner, Toby, decides to leave her and their six year old daughter, Ava, to start a new life for himself in Australia. Traumatised by the abruptness of her beloved father’s departure, Ava neither speaks nor eats for three days. When she comes around from this episode she starts to mention memories that make no sense. She recalls a life by the sea and, although acknowledging Anna, asks for her other mother and to be taken home to a place called Seal.

Anna has had a difficult upbringing. She spent much of her childhood in and out of foster care, eventually becoming estranged from her alcoholic mother. She is determined to provide her daughter with the love and stability she herself craved. Anna does not miss Toby but feels that she has failed Ava by not keeping their little family together. She tries to ignore Ava’s desire for this other mother, refusing to explore the reasons behind the impossible recollections. Anna believes that her daughter belongs to her, not appearing to understand that people cannot be owned, that they are individuals with emotions and free will.

When Ava’s school starts to suspect that the child needs help Anna finally investigates what her daughter has been telling her. She discovers that Seal is a small island off the west coast of Scotland. She decides that they will travel there for a holiday in the hope of putting these issues to rest.

Anna and Ava are readily accepted by the small, island community. There they discover love, and heartache, and the source of Ava’s memories.

I rarely read romances as I find them too simplified and predictable. The supernatural elements of this tale, although of interest, could not season it sufficiently for my tastes.

What grated most though were issues in timeline and continuity, plus abilities given to a couple of the young children. For example, Anna, portrayed as a deeply caring mother, seemed comfortable leaving her child alone in their guest room during the night while she went out, without apparently telling anyone. Five and six year olds were able to write multi-syllable words independently and neatly. Caty and Sorren’s ages and when events happened in their histories did not always make sense.

To return to the story arc, there were few surprises, plenty of romance, a touch of jealousy, and all ended up where I had expected.

This may be a story more suited to those who enjoy a little romantic escapism and are less irritated by plot technicalities. It was not for me.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.