book reviews: alaya gets weepy

Reviews! I don’t think I can call them weekly anymore, huh? But I’ve finished a lot of books of late, so here you go. Tomes brimming with romantic girl-cooties (sorry, fellas). Two of them made me cry! In this edition:

The Spymaster’s Lady by Joanna Bourne
Miss Wonderful by Loretta Chase
Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner
Thomas the Rhymer by Ellen Kushner
Peeps by Scott Westerfeld
Deed of Paksennarion by Elizabeth Moon

The Spymaster’s Lady by Joanna Bourne

This was shockingly good. I say shockingly just because though I attempt romance novels with semi-regularity, I rarely find them a satisfying reading experience (even on their own terms). Usually there’s far too little genuine tension between the romantic leads, and some sort of tossed-on external plot with a Snidely Whiplash villain and a generally unsatisfactory resolution. But I got lucky this time. For one, the writing is several notches above the average historical romance novelist’s. There are moments of banter, especially between Adrian and, well, anyone else, that feel within kissing distance of Austen. Her approach to sex scenes was occasionally refreshingly cerebral (I mean, they talked). My real quibble is that the resident love interest– the titular spymaster, Robert Grey– is far too Stock Romance Hero, and rather out of place given the excellent characterization of Annique and his fellow spies. He has many what I’ve decided to call “God’s Blood” moments. This goes something like:

“God’s blood, but her saucy beauty was enough to make the saintliest man’s thoughts turn carnal, and Sir Randy was far from a saint…”

If you ever read a historical romance, go ahead and count how many of these you find from the hero’s perspective. It makes a fun drinking game.

But really, it is a romance novel, and it does a great job of elevating the genre to a level it ought to achieve more often. Annique’s blindness is particularly well-handled. Even better, the spy plot holds its own interest! I can’t wait for the next few books in her spymaster world…especially if she writes one for Adrian.

Miss Wonderful
by Loretta Chase

This is the second novel I’ve read by Loretta Chase. I can’t remember the title of the first, but it was a more strict Georgette Heyer regency, with very arch banter and distant (to omniscient) third person. This is more in the voice of a modern historical romance, though it’s still in the regency period, and the two main characters’ dispute is, I think, far too vulgarly about politics for Georgette Heyer to have ever touched. Which of course makes it interesting, and Loretta Chase is clearly one of the solid standouts of the genre. Still, it never quite thrilled me the way a good Georgette Heyer does, and it didn’t go far enough into its politics to achieve something notably different. Also, she used one of those regency tropes I’ve come to despise, whereupon you learn at the very end that the blissful couple’s romance was in fact Engineered By A Lady of Quality (possibly in collusion of her husband). This lady of quality is generally a meddling aunt of greater pedigree than the hero/heroine. It makes me want to shoot her.

(Incidentally, my hatred of this trope is what makes Georgette Heyer’s The Grand Sophy so wonderful).

Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner

Wending my way from novels explicitly indebted to Georgette Heyer to one more obliquely influenced. Privilege of the Sword is a novel of manners set in a time that one might reasonably interpret as the Georgian or Regency period (though in a fantasy world), and it’s pretty hard to write something like that without a nod in Heyer and Austen’s direction. But Kushner has taken it far, far beyond these sources.

Let me say first that I adored this book, it’s possibly the best thing I’ve read all year, and that after finishing it at Wiscon I had to force myself to stop crying so I could go to dinner. It affected me profoundly. On some level, it does things without any apparent effort that I’ve always striven for in my own fiction. Among other debts I’m sure I can’t guess, it clearly has been strongly influenced by Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles. So, it’s nominally a coming of age story about a young girl forced by her mad uncle, the Duke, to dress as a boy and train with the sword in exchange for him saving her destitute family from ruin. Dialogue where everyone talks rings around each other, saying one thing and meaning something entirely different; exquisite descriptions of clothing and mannerisms splashed starkly against moments of extreme cruelty and violence; bi, hetero, homo and pan sexual encounters; gay prostitution as a pastime (lovingly indulged by the prostitute’s female girlfriend); a panoply of recreational drugs, and, of course, music. In particular, there is an interlude in the middle of the novel, where she is training deep in the country with a master swordsman, that was filled with such quiet, taut beauty I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach.

I can’t really say more without spoilers, so essentially: if you haven’t read this, get thee to a bookstore.

Thomas the Rhymer by Ellen Kushner

While in Madison, I purchased every other Ellen Kushner book available in the bookstore. Having recovered sufficiently from Privilege of the Sword, I started on this. I can’t quite tell if this is supposed to be a retelling of Tam Lin or not, but it clearly echoes and references the tale. I loved this, too. It was an especially marvelous touch to use the perspective of the old farming couple who mentor young Thomas and observe the progress of his strange courtship with Elspeth. I love the idea of telling the tale of a famous harper who has traveled to Faerie without once showing him in the courts and being glamorous and beautiful in front of the king and queen. No, instead we see Thomas plucking sheep from the muck and making hilarious mis-steps as he falls in love with Elspeth. The descriptions of Faerie are not terribly surprising for someone who’s read a lot of this type of story, but very deft and beautiful. I especially loved the nuances in Thomas’s relationship with the Fairy Queen. She had enchanted him, and yet she hadn’t. He loved her, but he loved Elspeth too.

And, once again, the end made me bawl like a baby. At least it wasn’t quite as abject as Privilege of the Sword. I swear, I caught tears leaking out of my eyes the day after.

(Yes, if you haven’t gathered by now, it doesn’t take much provocation to make me cry.)

Peeps by Scott Westerfeld

Hooked from the first line and then just along for the ride. Not like anyone needs me to tell them to read this, but I LOVED it. My favorite of his books so far. Any book that spends so many pages talking about toxoplasma, mind-control wasps and other parasitic lovelies has my devotion (what’s hilarious is that I’d heard of at least half the critters he mentions already because my sister has an obsession with parasites that rivals his main character’s). Not sure that I buy the reveal/True Purpose at the end (nuclear bombs, anyone?) but, whatever, it’s a quibble.

Deed of Paksennarion
by Elizabeth Moon

Tried and failed to finish more than a hundred pages. Why, again, would anyone like this? Done, and done better, by Tamora Pierce.