Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Review - The Hundredth Queen

Original Title: The Hundredth Queen
Series: The Hundredth Queen, #1
Author: Emily R. King
Published: June 1st, 2017

Publisher: Skyscape

I don’t usually read new releases, given my long, long list of to-read titles; I normally go for one of them, but this book was fixated in my mind for some reason, and honestly, I needed a good dose of fantasy after so many books about Regency England in a row. I have to say that I liked it, but I didn’t love it, for several reasons.

For starters, a good aspect. The worldbuilding is definitely different from the usual, because it’s not based on Europe, but on India, with everything it implies: names, society, clothing, food, traditions... It’s a good change, it breathes originality into the story and the genre. However, it fell short, because that same originality opens up a lot of possibilities to know new places in the world that’s being built, but this story doesn’t take place outside the Turquoise Palace in Vanhi, and Samiya, where Kalinda lives with the Sisterhood. On the other hand, I’ve seen reviews criticizing the mistakes on recreating India, especially on the fact that India is not a monolith, but I won’t delve into that because I’m not qualified to judge, as I’m not an expert on Indian culture and history. I’m just going to say that the author’s research, if not enough, at least it is visible, and even though there are mistakes in the accuracy, I feel like I have to say this: Tarachand may resemble and be based on India, but it’s not India, so the author was in her right to take liberties and throw her own spin on the world she created.

As for the protagonist, the orphan, eighteen-year-old Kalinda, I liked her, and I want to know how her story will continue, even when she seemed a little dumb at times. However, I went to this book looking for originality in the storyline and characters, and I stumbled upon a not very extraordinary MC. Her type seems to be a theme in YA books, as she is this low-profile kind of girl, with no remarkable beauty or talents, that manages to attract a rich, powerful, handsome man for no reason, who obsesses over her, and, by the way, already has hundredths of other women, both wives and courtesans, that, of course, are a lot more beautiful and talented than her, not to mention experienced and dangerous fighters that could easily kill her in combat, in the blink of an eye. The man could have anyone, as he is the rajah, but chooses her, among all women at his disposal… Right. It’s not badly done, but it has been read before, lots of times, and it cuts the originality a little bit.

And the romance…! Oh, my good Lord, the romance! Can we please talk rant about it? Normally, it is my favorite part in a novel, but here, it was the worst, and it got ruined as soon as it started. It was the worst case of insta-romance I’ve ever read, and not once it stopped feeling forced and unrealistic. It was bad for several reasons: everything happens way to soon and for no reason, I mean, Kalinda –just like most of the girls in Samiya– never saw a man in her life, but one glimpse, and she’s lost? Literally, it is one look, as she sees Captain Deven Naik from afar, as a part of the rajah’s entourage, and notices how handsome he is, which is ok, but jumping from there to love is all sorts of wrong. I think the author tried to show the spark between them, but she didn’t do it right, because Kali and Deven didn’t have enough encounters and conversations for me to say “yes, I want them to fall in love”. They don’t know each other! Their dialogue is poorly written, and I was never given a reason to root for them, as I couldn’t understand their attraction. Suddenly, they are madly in love, but I can’t see what they even like in each other, especially because he tells her that he fell in love with her since the first moment he met her in Samiya, and she liked him since she first spied him from the temple. And their kiss! It happened too soon, way before I had the time to start rooting for it! It really bothers me when the characters aren’t evenly matched, and I can’t explain their chemistry and their love. I just don’t buy that suddenly they can’t resist the pull to each other. And of course, as it never fails, this was another story in which I was not saved the trouble of reading about one of them, in this case Deven, saying, over and over again, that nothing should be happening between them, because she’s the Viraji, the rajah’s betrothed, and so on… It’s true, but, oh, my God, we get it! Please, talk about something else! 

Phew, that feels much better! Moving on. During the whole book we get to know more about the main villain, Rajah Tarek, which is well done, as I got to hate him. Power, greed and lust rule his life, as he has all those women for both pleasure and might, wanting to equal the gods. But later we find out that, although he wants many, he loved only one: Yasmin, his first wife, and he plans to bring her soul back to occupy Kalinda’s body as his hundredth wife. So far, so good. I credit to the author that I was very surprised by the plot twist of Yasmin being Kalinda’s mother, I honestly admit that I didn’t see it coming, and it left me with my mouth open. But… *deep breath* Kalinda isn’t exactly the sharpest tool in the shed. She had previously found out that Yasmin, being married to Tarek, was in love with Kashin, who was a bhuta, someone born with powers and control capacity over one of the elements, in this case, fire, which makes him a Burner. From the bhutas’ very first appearance, we know that Kalinda has fire in her, and we are able to connect that with the fevers that plagued her since forever. She even admits to herself that she’s a bhuta, which means a pariah, an enemy of the Rajah, and later, when she finds out Yasmin was her mother, I just can’t believe she still doubted her father’s identity! I mean, come on! Can’t you just connect the dots? It’s there, right in front of your nose! Yasmin was a regular woman, and your father was a Burner, you have power over fire, and you still think Tarek could be your father?? *Eye roll* I can’t. No. Just no.

As for the other characters, I’ll go by the most relevant ones. Lakia –Tarek’s first wife and Yasmin’s sister– is also a villain, but I didn’t hate her, although she was violent and vengeful, I rather pitied her, because no one ever loved her, she always had to share her husband with other women, knowing he never stopped loving her dead sister, even after two decades. She’s well written, and I was sorry to see her dead, because she made a really good villain that could have gotten better in the future. As for Natesa, the girl chosen along with Kalinda to become a courtesan, at first, I didn’t feel anything in particular for her, but I was surprised to discover that I had grown to like her, and I want to read more about her, to see how her story plays out now that she’s free. As for Jaya, there we are talking about pain! I was really sorry to read her death, but I would have loved to know more about her before that, because I can’t feel anything for a character I don’t know, and there’s nothing more than what Kalinda tells us about her in Samiya. As Kali’s voice of reason, Jaya had lots of possibilities for character development, she seemed very interesting, and I would have loved some deepening on her story before losing her, but I guess Kalinda needed that final trigger to stand up to Tarek, keep fighting, and fulfill her deal with the bhutas.

Honestly, I was not particularly eager to read about Kalinda and Tarek’s wedding night, as he was such a disgusting character, but I found original the way to kill him, instead of poisoning his drink, or a stab in the heart, as I was expecting. It wasn’t exactly enjoyable, we are talking about a murder, but still. And… well, I feel like I have to mention this. On their way to Vanhi, Kalinda and her guard meet this old couple on the road that give them food as a way to honor her as the Viraji, and later, they come back to see her in the tournament, but nor them or their scenes serve much of a purpose. Their return could have been easily cut from the book, as it is useless for the plot, because, if at least Tarek had used them to threat Kalinda, like “they will pay if you don’t do as I say”, that would have been something worthwhile, but no. They just appear, nothing comes of it, and they never show up again, so… why are they there in the first place?

Even so, it wouldn’t be fair if I don’t say that this book had good things. I ended up really interested in bhutas, as I like elemental powers in fantasy, and I’m curious about what they can do with them. Also, the tournament scenes are fast-paced and got me at the edge of my sit (though they made me think more of Rome and gladiators than of India). And finally, as I have probably mentioned before, I’m a fan of all kind of costumes, and I particularly enjoyed those brief but wonderful descriptions of clothing (especially Kalinda’s tournament and wedding saris), jewels, and weapons. I could truly see the locations the author painted for us, it was great.

So, in short, this isn’t exactly the best book ever, nor the first to grab me with a beautiful cover and an interesting blurb. It has a lot of flaws, and it’s clear that it is a debut novel. Yes, I will give the series one more chance, reading the next installment, although the promise of a love triangle isn’t the most appealing thing in the world, after that horrible insta-romance. I hope it gets better, though! Crossing my fingers!

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Review - The Dancing Master

Original Title: The Dancing Master
Series: -
Author: Julie Klassen
Published: January 7th, 2014

Publisher: Bethany House Publishers

It could be my least favorite book by this author. It’s impossible not to notice that she has written novels that are a lot better than this one, and although I liked it, and Julie Klassen is an excellent narrator, it didn’t grab me or kept me reading late at night, unlike her other books. The impeccable research and the amazing details make up for an enjoyable read, but The Dancing Master isn’t a five GoodReads stars book, and I’ll tell you why.

Dancing is, hands down, my favorite part in every piece of historical fiction. Nothing is more exciting for me than a ballroom scene, with all the lights, the beauty, the dresses, the jewels, the music, and of course, the dancing that always brings two people closer to fall in love, when something as little as a look, a mere touch of the hands, can be deep and beautiful, and speak volumes. *sigh* Alec Valcourt, the hero in this story, is a dancing and fencing master –a profession that runs in the family–, who comes to Beaworthy with her mother and sister, as an attempt to escape a shameful scandal that forced them to sell their academy in London, and move in with their uncle to start over. But the problem is that, of all the villages in England, they moved to the only one where he can’t practice his profession, because dancing has been forbidden for two decades by an unwritten law established by Lady Amelia Midwinter, following a tragedy involving a dancing master. That doesn’t mean there’s no people interested in dancing, but everyone is too scared of Lady Amelia as to disobey her. And here I get a few points to discuss.

Alec needs to work to support her mother and sister, but no one wants to hire him as dancing master, because of the prohibition. Then Lady Amelia herself hires him, as a clerk, only to prevent him from teaching dancing lessons, but he’s still in need of extra funds, and upon befriending the Allens, he learns that they, besides fencing lessons, would like some private tutoring in dancing, in despite of everything, but Alec doubts, because he doesn’t want to risk his job at Buckleigh Manor. And here it is when Lady Allen says: “Perhaps if I spoke to Lady Amelia, explained that we only want private lessons in our own home, not a public dance. Could she really object?” That line had me rolling my eyes, and l literally yelled at my book “She doesn’t need to know!”. I mean, she forbade dancing, but is she also the owner of everyone’s freedom? Why telling her in the first place? After the end of his working hours in the service of Lady Amelia, she can’t keep telling him what to do, or at least she shouldn’t.

Can we talk about the ban on dancing? In Beaworthy, everyone is scared even at the very mention of the word “dancing”, but nothing, or no one, ever tells me which are the terrible consequences of breaking the [unwritten] law, like if Amelia is some sort of witch or mind reader that can appear summoned by that word, and turn them all into toads if they dared to dance on her watch. Later on, we find out that it has to do with the duel between Amelia’s brother and her former dancing master, John Desmond, to defend her sister Anne’s honor, who was pregnant at the time and pointed at Desmond as the father of her child. As Graham Buckleigh died in the duel, Amelia, in her grief, forbade everything related to dancing masters, to prevent anything like that from happening again. And I, honestly, couldn’t take that with the seriousness it was supposed to have. During the entire book, Amelia complains about Julia being a rebel, always trying to get her way, and having this “unladylike” attitudes, but, how could she expect her daughter to be anything else, if she was raised by one of the biggest brats I’ve ever read? I mean, I understand that Amelia resents everything related to dancing in general, but, why on Earth that meant that every single person in Beaworthy had to stop with their traditions because of it? It’s ok if you don’t dance, but speak for yourself, lock yourself at home if you want to, and don’t attend another ball in your life, but you can’t force everyone else to share that decision. That attitude of “I won’t dance ever again, so no one else can do it either” pissed me off! She made an entire village pay the price of her broken heart, she made her pain everyone’s pain, and then complains about her daughter being a brat! Come on!

But, putting that aside, I actually liked how Lady Amelia is written, as a character that it is both strong and fragile. Her tyrannical stance hides her heartbreak, because she was in love with the man that killed his brother and supposedly was his sister’s lover, and after that, she entered a loveless marriage with a man who didn’t want her, or Julia, knowing that he was raising a child not his own. She always lived ruled by duty, and that doesn’t make her an especially sweet character. Amelia always wanted the best for her daughter and I get it, but her chosen method definitely isn’t the way to proceed, because it’s in human nature to go for that thing that is forbidden. The sterner the prohibition, the bigger the curiosity and the wish to rebel will be. As for Julia Midwinter, Lady Amelia’s daughter/niece, she isn’t the expected heroine you can read in other books by Julie Klassen. I didn’t fully like her. She’s that girl that normally opposes the sensible, levelheaded, and demure protagonist, being a flirt and a rebel. Although I considered her very human, given that, even though a main character has to be likeable, the truth is that not every person out there is likeable. People in real life are selfish, stubborn, and changeable, and very rarely we come across a paragon of virtues. But that doesn’t mean that I liked Julia through and through. She is insufferable at times, always wanting to rebel against her mother’s despotic behavior, and flirting with men in order to catch a husband to get her out of that stifling household she lives on. But, even though she proves herself capable of hitting the Wilcox brothers with her whip and I like that attitude of “you messed with the wrong lady”, she doesn’t do anything of the sort again. Pity, because that could have led to really funny scenes. 

The story revolves more around Julia trying to discover her true parents, after discovering that Lady Amelia isn’t her mother, but her aunt, than around the love story, unlike other books by Julie Klassen. Which isn’t wrong, but I felt that the romance had a lot of potential and wasn’t fully exploited. It’s dancing, after all! One of the best forms of deep touch and romance in historical fiction! I was definitely expecting more. Alec and Julia’s relationship is basically physical, mostly at first, and I just couldn’t buy that instant attraction Alec feels towards her in church the first time he sees her and notices her beauty. After that she proves to be the kind of flirt for which Alec’s family’s reputation was ruined, asking for private dancing lessons she uses to get closer to him than it is appropriate, so he tries to put distance between them. There’s pretty much no reason for their attraction. When they finally kiss, it is truly sigh-worthy, passionate, and not at all what Julia was expecting as she flirted with him, but… they never kiss again. It was so disappointing! In the the epilogue, Julia says that they are engaged to be married, but that kiss, by the middle of the book, was the deepest interaction they had, sharing only a few dances after it, without a truly heartfelt moment before the ending with only the two of them, save for the scenes in the bell tower and in the graveyard, but they barely talk about themselves and their feelings, there’s almost no chemistry between them... And I was looking forward to it. They always struggle to keep their distance, so nothing really allowed me to say, “yes, this two are made for each other, they have to get married”. It’s the first couple written by Julie Klassen that didn’t have me rooting for them. This story is more about Julia’s growing up and finding herself than romance, and honestly, I wanted the romance, especially after having a man like Alec Valcourt, a true gentleman, as protagonist, and the promise of dancing in the title. 

The plot around Julia’s real parents is engaging, and I was truly eager to find out who her father was. Julia finally was content knowing that she had been loved by her parents, but that’s all, her life doesn’t really change after her conversation with Lt. Tremelling. Honestly, the mystery and its resolution wasn’t so engaging as the mysteries Julie Klassen wrote in her other novels, that are gripping and you just need to keep reading to find the answers. There’s a reason why this book took me longer to finish than the others. Again, I’m not saying that I didn’t like this book, but I couldn’t help noticing a few things that contribute it to make it my least favorite by Julie Klassen. First of all, Alec and Julia’s riding scene, Alec’s horse breaks his legs trying to jump a wall, and then, as they can’t save him, Barlow shoots him. Besides being sad, it felt useless, because nothings comes from it, except Alec’s minor injuries, and another scolding for Julia from her mother. I felt that scene could have been cut from the book and nothing would have changed.

After that, already by the end of the book, some things fell a bit flat, when I really wanted more development on them. Like Alec’s father, after that big scandal that drew the plot in the first place. The man just comes back, saying that God’s grace saved him, regains his wife’s love, and then every conflict gets solved. And how…? There was no reunion scene, he just comes back redeemed to close that part of the story, and that’s it, there’s nothing else. As for the other love stories, at least we are told that Walter Allen and Tess Thorne started courting, and eventually they would get married, but what about James and Aurora? I really, really liked that pairing, and I was hoping for a little romance between them after the big finale. But nothing happens, except that James doesn’t make a move to try to court her because she’s still very young, which speaks of a gentleman, but of boredom for me as a reader. After all, we get to know that Uncle Ramsay and Mrs. Tickle got married, when they barely appeared a few times in the entire book, but there’s almost nothing about James and Aurora, that have more page time than them. I know that they aren’t the focus of the story, but I’m just saying that I would have liked a happy ending for them.

Oh, and Amelia and John Desmond! I utterly loved John, he was everything a man should be at the time, a true gentleman ruled by his honor and sense of duty, and any woman he loved would be very lucky. Even though he and Amelia fell in love, and even twenty years later they still loved each other, it disappointed me that they didn’t end up together. After such a drama, it’s not enough for me to read that he spends a lot of time “admiring a certain woman’s auburn hair and dainty figure, her quiet smile and fine eyes”. Seriously, that’s all we get? I wanted something more! Amelia forgave him, yes, but it would have been great if they actually had gotten married, taking that second chance to be together after all those things that delayed it, finally leaving the past behind and accepting the grace bestowed upon them. It was sweet, yes, but definitely scarce.

Finally, not too much to add, except that, as always, Julie Klassen’s research shines on its own. She doesn’t start writing a book without a good foundation, and this one isn’t the exception. However, I feel like it could have been a lot better, that there was a lot of potential in the topics she chose, and it wasn’t exploited. From the books by her I’ve read so far, this one is my least favorite, though it doesn’t mean it sucks. Julie Klassen is a good author, and all her books are good. Consider this the weakest among the great ones, that are all of them. Of course, I’ll continue reading! As I said before, I won’t stop until I read each book by this author, as she is one of my favorites, and one of the most talented I’ve ever read!