Phoenix Unbound by Grace Draven: I will be honest, I was a bit conflicted about reading this book. I love Grace Draven’s other fantasy-romance series, but the Goodreads reviews on this one were sharply split between high stars and low stars, with few in between. After having read it, I’d say I’m still a bit conflicted, but I think I know why. It’s mostly a pacing thing. For the first 100 pages, events happen in a tight chronological order, which lends it a fast-paced, almost claustrophobic opener. The next 200-something pages, the pacing shifts; there’s long stretches that are covered with a short time-passing transition, and months go by rather quickly. Firstly, once you’re past the first 100 pages, it becomes clearly a Grace Draven novel, so if you’re reading and, like me, felt unsure about the beginning, stick with it. For me at least, this choice of pacing and presentation had a fascinating emotional impact. Because of that fast-paced, intense first 100 pages, for a long while after, I found myself braced for it to slip back into that style, and it took me time before I realized that…it wasn’t going to. Which seemed to echo Gilene’s emotional state as she slowly comes to trust Azarion. You brace, ready for the situation to get worse, so much worse…but over time, you come to trust that it won’t. Even when things escalate at the end, it’s a different kind of escalation than in the beginning, and it almost feels safely epic. I will, however, warn that there is a lot of allusions to rape, physical and mental abuse, and slavery, especially at the beginning. It’s a hell of a dark start for what will, eventually, become a rather sweet romance built on trust and friendship, so if this is a concern, then I recommend steering clear of Phoenix Unbound and pick up Radiance instead. That said, for all my initial uncertainty, I enjoyed it.
Paladin’s Grace by T. Kingfisher: As always, T. Kingfisher’s fantasy-romance adventure tales are an absolute delight. This one came as a wonderful and unexpected surprise (I totally was going to read something else but…this was releasing in a week so…). While similar to Swordheart, the tone is more solemn, more somber, a bit more like Clockwork Boys (Paladin’s Grace, for more reason than one, felt a bit like a merging of Swordheart and Clockwork Boys, which, I might note, is certainly not a strike against it), though it has it’s moments of outrageous hilarity. Like Clockwork Boys, we have angsty guilt-ridden paladins yet, like Swordheart, they’re more militant types and, like Swordheart, the romance is pretty front-and-center (well, there’s also the poisoning thing. And the court-room drama. And the, er, heads—it’s a brilliant blend of a lot of different subgenres that work together, though on the surface, they shouldn’t). Like much of Kingfisher’s work, there’s this underlying note of darkness (in this case, someone is murdering people and, er, leaving only the decapitated head around—the answer to that little mystery is a bit disturbing). But Stephen is delightfully outraged that people are not taking this threat seriously! Honestly, this combination of weird and wondrous and tinged with a slight shadow of horror reminds me a lot of Doctor Who (both classic and reboot). Grace, with her sense of smell superpower (it isn’t really, she’s a perfumer so her sense of smell is a bit…keener than the rest of the world, but she also has training to identify smells), and Stephen, with his hobby of knitting, fit so wonderfully together. And I still love the idea of solicitors sacrosanct and the White Rat, and I was thrilled to see Zale again.
Clockwork Boys and The Wonder Engine by T. Kingfisher: I’m reading these all out of order. I started with Swordheart, moved on to Paladin’s Grace, and am now doubling back for what was originally the start (not quite of a series, but perhaps more of the world) but I just never quite managed to read it. So! Finally reading Clockwork Boys and I must ask myself why it has taken me so long. I am also going to review these two as one, since they’re very much structured as one novel broken in two, rather than two stand-alones (though, hypothetically, I suppose you could read The Wonder Engine without having read Clockwork Boys). I’m a bit torn on the end. While it’s ostensibly what I wanted, at the same time, I feel a little conflicted about how things resolved (and while I recognize that one character’s death was, emotionally, resonant, I feel I would’ve appreciated the twist being a little less sudden, particularly since I’d grown quite attached to that character). I also felt there were two rather large plot threads that didn’t get addressed all that much, and I’d have appreciated another touch or two, since everything else was bundled quite neatly (Boss Horsehead and the removal of the tattoos, namely; I would’ve really liked things to have come full-circle with a short epilogue addressing the tattoos, seeing that it isn’t explicitly stated that they’re, er, moot). The romance in these two, by the way, is not quite the same sort of fluffy of Swordpoint or Paladin’s Grace, and I appreciated that. The tone here is darker, and the two love interests are so clearly broken people, and certain events lead to a period of grieving which the narrative doesn’t shy from. There’s also so many bits that so brilliantly characterizes the characters in a line or two, making them both complicated and utterly fascinating. While the duology is probably not my favorite, it’s still a damn good read.