Promise of Darkness (Dark Court Rising #1) by Bec McMaster

promise of darkness

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Princess. Tribute. Sacrifice. Is she the one prophesied to unite two warring Fae courts? Or the one bound to destroy them?

In a realm ruled by magic, the ruthless Queen of Thorns is determined to destroy her nemesis, the cursed Prince of Evernight.

With war brewing between the bitter enemies, the prince forces Queen Adaia to uphold an ancient treaty: she will send one of her daughters to his court as a political hostage for three months.

The queen insists it’s the perfect opportunity for Princess Iskvien to end the war before it begins. But one look into Thiago’s smoldering eyes and Vi knows she’s no assassin.

The more secrets she uncovers about the prince and his court, the more she begins to question her mother’s motives.

Who is the true enemy? The dark prince who threatens her heart? Or the ruthless queen who will stop at nothing to destroy him?

And when the curse threatens to shatter both courts, is her heart strong enough to break it?

Rating: B+

I’m a big fan of Bec McMaster’s London Steampunk and Blue-Blood Conspiracy series, and was excited to read Promise of Darkness, the first book in her new fantasy series, Dark Court Rising.  Dabney Grinnan – publisher of All About Romance – is also a huge fan of Ms. McMaster’s work, so we both eagerly dove into this one, and then had a chat about what we thought of it.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

Lord of the Last Heartbeat (The Sacred Dark #1) by May Peterson

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Stop me. Please.

Three words scrawled in bloodred wine. A note furtively passed into the hand of a handsome stranger. Only death can free Mio from his mother’s political schemes. He’s put his trust in the enigmatic Rhodry—an immortal moon soul with the power of the bear spirit—to put an end to it all.

But Rhodry cannot bring himself to kill Mio, whose spellbinding voice has the power to expose secrets from the darkest recesses of the heart and mind. Nor can he deny his attraction to the fair young sorcerer. So he spirits Mio away to his home, the only place he can keep him safe—if the curse that besieges the estate doesn’t destroy them both first.

In a world teeming with mages, ghosts and dark secrets, love blooms between the unlikely pair. But if they are to be strong enough to overcome the evil that draws ever nearer, Mio and Rhodry must first accept a happiness neither ever expected to find.

Rating: B-

May Peterson’s début novel, Lord of the Last Heartbeat, is an intricately constructed gothic fantasy with an intriguing storyline, set in a world that reminded me somewhat of eighteenth century Italy where dark secrets lurk behind the scenes, political backstabbing is rife and influential families jostle for power.  Adding to that particular vibe is the fact that one of the main characters is an opera singer, and I loved the way his vocal talent is incorporated into the fabric of the world the author has created.  In fact, I liked almost all the different elements that went to make up the novel – the worldbuilding, the characters, the plot – but ‘almost’ is the key word there, because there are two fairly major problems I couldn’t overlook.  Firstly, Ms. Peterson’s writing style just didn’t work for me – which I recognise is entirely subjective – and secondly, the romance isn’t well-developed; it springs almost fully formed out of nowhere and there isn’t a great deal of chemistry between the leads.

Mio is the son of Serafina Gianbellici, a powerful witch whose ambition is to control the government of the city of Vermagna, which she does by learning the secrets of its members and using that knowledge to keep them in line. In this world, a mage’s magical power lies in a specific part of the body, and Mio’s lies in his beautiful voice, which he can use to enter someone’s mind and soul to uncover their deepest, darkest secrets – which his mother then uses against them. Mio hates doing what amounts to mind-rape, and hates himself for helping Serafina, but he does it nonetheless, partly because he fears her power and partly because, well… she’s his mother.  On the night the story opens, Mio is pretending to be a footman at the house of Pater Donatelli, Serafina’s latest target, waiting until she calls him inside to sing, when he is accosted by a drunken guest (who mistakes him for a pretty girl) who tries to drag him away.  Mio has barely begun to try to free himself when the man is pulled off him and dunked into a nearby fountain by a large, dark gentleman Mio quickly realises must be a moon-soul, someone brought back from the dead and invested with the spirit of a noble beast (in this case a bear).  Once upon a time, these shape-changing elite had been numerous but now, they are very small in number and coming across one is rare. Feeling unexpectedly comfortable in the man’s presence, Mio decides to take a chance to escape his mother’s machinations once and for all.  Before he is summoned inside, he presses a note into the man’s hand which says just three words: Stop me. Please.

From that intriguing beginning unfolds a story of mystery and magic that builds slowly and kept me guessing as it moved towards a shattering climax.  When Mio finally breaks free of his mother’s control, he runs to the one person ever to make him feel safe  – Rhodry, the moon-soul, who bears a terrible curse he can never escape.  Twists and turns abound as Mio and Rhodry gradually begin to understand the nature of the curse and the dark forces at work in Rhodry’s home; it’s an engrossing story and unlike anything else I’ve read recently.  I liked Mio’s strength and determination – even in the face of his greatest fears – and Rhodry’s dry (sometimes naughty) sense of humour.  I even liked (well, liked to hate!) Mio’s mother, a complex character intent on dominating a world set against her kind who is prepared to use her children while also loving them quite fiercely.

As I said at the beginning of this review, the book has a lot going for it.  The worldbuilding, (even though it’s a bit shaky in some areas) the plot, the characters, and the inclusion of a non-binary, femme character in a main role and Rhodry’s unconditional acceptance of Mio for the person he is. But I had problems with the prose, which was overly flowery for my taste; so much so that it often got in the way of the story and the storytelling.  And…er… then there was this:

He fondled my chest, as if feeling the shape of my muscles. Maybe it was good to be so firm. Speaking of firm—he jumped slightly as I took a liberty. Heavens, did he have a bouncy little plum. Sweet cleft, muscle tensing under my grasp—damn, I could hold on to that forever.

bouncy little plum?!  (I’m sorry, but once an author has made me laugh (and not in the good way), during a love scene, they’ve lost me.)  Not only is it ridiculous, it’s so out of character for Rhodry; he’s a big, dark, brooding presence who knocks back whisky like it’s water and swears like a trooper… and he takes “a liberty” and thinks “Heavens!” ?  But it’s also an illustration of the point I was making about language getting in the way and obscuring meaning.  What exactly is Rhodry grasping?  Is the bouncy little plum in question Mio’s arse?  Mio’s cock? A nearby  fruit bowl?

And then there’s the underdeveloped romance. There’s no doubt that by the time Mio and Rhodry are on the same page romantically they care for each other deeply and that they’re both prepared to make extreme sacrifices – their lives if need be – in order to keep the other safe.  But the movement from initial attraction to full-blown love was weak; it’s pretty much insta-lust/love and there was no real build-up of romantic and sexual tension.

Writing this review and grading this novel has been difficult.  Lord of the Last Heartbeat has a lot to offer, and I fully admit that the problem I had with the prose is very subjective.  Ultimately, however,  I can’t quite bring myself to wholeheartedly and honestly recommend a book in which the writing so often gets in the way of the story – although I’m sure there are many readers for whom Ms. Peterson’s writing style will work better than it did for me.

Spellbound (Magic in Manhattan #1) by Allie Therin

This title may be purchased from Amazon

To save Manhattan, they’ll have to save each other first…

1925

New York

Arthur Kenzie’s life’s work is protecting the world from the supernatural relics that could destroy it. When an amulet with the power to control the tides is shipped to New York, he must intercept it before it can be used to devastating effects. This time, in order to succeed, he needs a powerful psychometric…and the only one available has sworn off his abilities altogether.

Rory Brodigan’s gift comes with great risk. To protect himself, he’s become a recluse, redirecting his magic to find counterfeit antiques. But with the city’s fate hanging in the balance, he can’t force himself to say no.

Being with Arthur is dangerous, but Rory’s ever-growing attraction to him begins to make him brave. And as Arthur coaxes him out of seclusion, a magical and emotional bond begins to form. One that proves impossible to break—even when Arthur sacrifices himself to keep Rory safe and Rory must risk everything to save him.

To save Manhattan, they’ll have to save each other first…

Rating: B

The synopsis for Allie Therin’s début novel  Spellbound caught my attention immediately.  Supernatural relics, powerful psychics, romance, magic and an unusual setting -1920s Manhattan – it all looked like a recipe for a great read, and for the most part, it was.  The story pulled me in right away, I was impressed by the worldbuilding, the plot is intriguing, I liked the characters, and the setting is vividly described; pretty much everything about the book works, although I had a few issues with the central romance.

Twenty-year-old Rory Brodigan is a psychometrist, possessing a unique talent that allows him to touch an object and discover its history.  More accurately, the object pulls his mind into its history and there is often a very real possibility that it may never be able to return to the present.  Feeling himself to be something of a freak – and following a scrying that went badly wrong – he’s become something of a recluse and lives with his aunt, an antiques dealer in Hell’s Kitchen in New York City.  Thanks to Rory’s talent – which they are careful to keep secret – she has built a reputation for being able to distinguish real artefacts from fake ones, which is what brings congressmen’s son Arthur  Kenzie to her shop with a rush job he’s prepared to pay handsomely for.

A veteran of WW1, Arthur is the scion of an incredibly wealthy, well-connected, New York family.  He’s handsome, well-educated, sophisticated – and lonely, taking pains to keep his relationships casual, infrequent and usually outside the US.  During his wartime service, he learned of the existence of magic courtesy of two of his closest friends – both of whom he saw die horribly – and although he doesn’t possess a scrap of magic of his own, he’s dedicated himself to protecting the world from supernatural relics that could destroy it.  He’s received word that an extremely dangerous and powerful artefact is on its way to New York, possibly into the hands of a fearsome enemy; and with it due to arrive any day, he’s racing against time to find someone with the necessary talent to be able to help him and his small band of allies to find it.  Having heard of someone in Hell’s Kitchen who has been uncannily accurate in discerning the provenance of various items, he prepares a test – a set of skilfully forged letters that he says he needs authenticated straight away – and takes them to Mrs. Brodigan’s shop.

When – unimpressed – she meets with Arthur the next morning to give him the news – all the letters are fakes – he explains he wasn’t wasting her time, but was instead assessing her suitability for another, much bigger job.  He gives her a case containing a relic packed inside a secure, lead-lined box, a ring that has defeated his associates’ attempts to assess its power or purpose  – but before he can explain, he’s called away, and leaves her with instructions not to open the box until he arrives at the shop so they can discuss it further.   It’s this relic – a ring that can control the wind – that ultimately reveals the truth to Arthur and brings him and Rory together.  Unable to resist taking a look inside the case – wondering what the rich arsehole who brought them a bunch of fake letters could possibly want this time – Rory opens the ring box, touches the relic, and is immediately pulled into a vision from which he very nearly doesn’t make it back.  Livid, he telephones Arthur Kenzie to tell him where he can stick his ring, and Arthur, realising the ring box has been opened, rushes to the shop to find out what’s going on.  Realising eventually that Rory is the psychometric, Arthur and his closest friends and allies – Jade, a telekinetic and Zhang, an astral walker – band together to protect him and his unique gift from those who would abuse it.

Rory, however, doesn’t want anything to do with them.  He’s rude and abrasive and mistrustful; life has taught him that’s the only way to stay safe, and when we learn more of his past, it makes perfect sense that he would be slow to trust – and fortunately for him, Arthur and his friends aren’t going to give up on him that easily.  He pushes them away – or tries to – at almost every opportunity, even as his attraction to the handsome and urbane Arthur grows stronger.

The story is well conceived and well executed, and the author does a fabulous job of integrating the prohibition era setting and the details of her secret magical world into it.  I enjoyed learning about the existence of relics and their power, of the use of magic for good and evil and of the prejudices facing supernatural beings in the society in which they live.  The main secondary characters are easily as interesting as the leads; Arthur’s principal allies Jade and Zhang are well-developed characters whose presence is integral to the suspense plot.  The first part of the book was a five-star read, easily, and I flew through it, eagerly immersing myself in the world Ms. Therin has created.  But somehow, the second half of the book didn’t quite live up to the first.  The plot – in which Arthur faces a devastating betrayal at the same time as he, Rory, and their allies must race to save Manhattan from spectacular destruction – is tense and exciting, but the villains were somewhat underdeveloped.  I also had a problem with the romance, because try as I might, I found it difficult to see what the gorgeous, sophisticated and world-weary Arthur saw in Rory who, while only eight years younger than him (Arthur is twenty-eight) often acts more like someone in his mid-teens than a young man of twenty.  I understood Rory’s prickly nature – his backstory is heartbreaking – and I understood Arthur’s natural instinct to protect; they do have chemistry, but Rory’s brattish behaviour goes on too long, and when he does eventually drop it, the couple goes from zero-to-sixty in the blink of an eye.  This is a series, so there was no real need for things to progress quite so quickly – and the book’s single sex scene is all build-up and then fades to black, which is a missed opportunity for relationship development.  When done properly, intimate scenes are an excellent way of showing the connection between characters, something which was sorely needed here given Rory’s trust issues and the way he treats Arthur for the first part of the book.

Despite those reservations however, Spellbound was an impressive début and a truly enjoyable read.  I liked the found-family quality of Arthur’s relationships with Jade and Zhang, and Rory’s with Mrs. Brodigan (who turns out to be a bit of a badass in her own right!), and the diversity of the cast, which felt right for the location and time period, was another big plus.  The book ends with a firm HFN for Arthur and Rory, and a clear indication that there’s more to come, so I’ll definitely be picking up book two when it comes out next year.

Static by L.A. Witt (audiobook) – Narrated by Michael Ferraiuolo

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

After two years together, Alex has been dreading the inevitable moment when Damon learns the truth: Alex is a shifter, part of a small percentage of the population able to switch genders at will. Thanks to a forced implant, though, Alex is suddenly static – unable to shift – and male. Overnight, he’s out to a world that neither understands nor tolerates shifters…and to his heterosexual boyfriend.

Damon is stunned to discover his girlfriend is a shifter and scared to death of the dangers the implant poses to Alex’s health. He refuses to abandon Alex, but what about their relationship? Damon is straight, and with the implant both costly and dangerous to remove, Alex is stuck as a man.

Stripped of half his identity and facing serious physical and social ramifications, Alex needs Damon more than ever, but he doesn’t see how they can get through this.

Especially if he’s static forever.

Rating: Narration: A; Content: A-

I think it’s safe to say that the premise of L.A. Witt’s Static is one of the most original I’ve come across. It’s set in a world very like our own with one major difference – shifters are known to exist, but instead of being able to assume animal shapes, these shifters are able to change gender at will. Some are straight, some are not; some are happy to spend their lives as one gender, some gravitate towards one but do shift sometimes, and others – like Alex in this story – are non-binary which, in Alex’s case, means spending roughly half the time as male and half as female. But while the existence of shifters isn’t a secret, many of them choose to keep their ability under wraps due to the overwhelmingly negative perceptions of them by the “static” public, and the amount of prejudice they encounter.

Damon and his girlfriend have been in a relationship for a couple of years now, and although it’s not been without its ups and downs (Alex can be very moody and sometimes drinks heavily) they love each other and Damon would like them to get married – although Alex keeps dodging the issue. When she doesn’t answer his calls one morning, Damon is immediately worried about her; she went to visit her parents the night before, and he knows she finds those visits incredibly difficult – so he heads over to her house to check on her, and is astonished when a young man opens the door.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

A Ferry of Bones and Gold (Soulbound #1) by Hailey Turner (audiobook) – Narrated by Gary Furlong

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

When the gods come calling, you don’t get to say no.

Patrick Collins is three years into a career as a special agent for the Supernatural Operations Agency when the gods come calling to collect a soul debt he owes them. An immortal has gone missing in New York City and bodies are showing up in the wake of demon-led ritual killings that Patrick recognizes all too easily from his nightmares.

Unable to walk away, Patrick finds himself once again facing off against mercenary magic users belonging to the Dominion Sect. Standing his ground alone has never been a winning option in Patrick’s experience, but it’s been years since he’s had a partner he could trust.

Looking for allies in all the wrong places, Patrick discovers the Dominion Sect’s next target is the same werewolf the Fates themselves have thrown into his path. Patrick has been inexplicably attracted to the man from their first meeting, but desire has no place in war. That doesn’t stop Patrick from wanting what he shouldn’t have. Jonothon de Vere is gorgeous, dangerous, and nothing but trouble – to the case, to the fight against every hell, and ultimately, to Patrick’s heart and soul.

In the end, all debts must be paid, and Patrick can only do what he does best – cheat death.

Rating: Narration: B+; Content: B

I’ve been snapping up and enjoying the audiobooks in Hailey Turner’s military/sci-fi Metahumans series and was pleased to discover that last year, the author had begun a new Urban Fantasy series called Soulbound, set in and around a recognisably familiar New York City and featuring characters with magical and supernatural abilities. I added book one, A Ferry of Bones and Gold, to my TBR mountain but surprise, surprise, haven’t got to it yet, so I was delighted to see it come out in audiobook format with Gary Furlong – a narrator I enjoy listening to – at the helm.

Patrick Collins, a mage working for the Supernatural Operations Agency (which seems to be a kind of supernatural FBI), isn’t pleased when he gets a call from his boss cancelling his vacation and sending him instead to New York City, where a spate of ritualistic killings (the bodies are mutilated and have astrological symbols carved into their eyelids) seems to be ramping up as the Summer Solstice approaches. A former combat mage-turned-supernatural law enforcement agent, Patrick is assigned to investigate the most recent murders and immediately senses the presence of dark, demonic magic pointing to the involvement of the Dominion Sect, a cult set on stealing the godhood from one of the ancient gods and then transferring it to their leader.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Salt Magic, Skin Magic by Lee Welch (audiobook) – Narrated by Joel Leslie

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

Lord Thornby has been trapped on his father’s isolated Yorkshire estate for a year. There are no bars or chains; he simply can’t leave. His sanity is starting to fray.

When industrial magician John Blake arrives to investigate a case of witchcraft, he finds the peculiar, arrogant Thornby as alarming as he is attractive. John soon finds himself caught up in a dark fairy tale, where all the rules of magic – and love – are changed.

To set Thornby free, both men must face life – changing truths – and John must accept that the brave, witty man who’s winning his heart may also be about to break it. Can they escape a web of magic that’s as perilous as love?

Rating: Narration – A- : Content – A-

This original and entertaining fantasy romance was one of my favourite books of 2018, so I was delighted when I learned I’d be able to experience it again in audio format performed by a narrator I’ve enjoyed listening to on several occasions; it’s always nice to know something you’re looking forward to is unlikely to be a huge disappointment! Salt Magic, Skin Magic is set in a Victorian era in which magic is known about and practiced, and author Lee Welch does a terrific job, right from the opening lines, of pulling the listener into the tale, creating an atmosphere of menace and uncertainty that immediately grabs the attention.

Soren Dezombrey, Viscount Thornby, was happily kicking up his heels living a life of luxury and dissolution in London until his father, the Marquess of Dalton, burst into his home one morning and forced him to return to Raskelf Hall, the family seat in Yorkshire. That happened eighteen months earlier, and Thornby has been unable to leave ever since. He’s not physically restrained in any way, but something stops him each time he gets near the estate boundary; he feels panicky, he’s assailed by all sorts of doubts and fears, his mind keeps telling him there’s something else he should be doing (like the Victorian equivalent of “have I left the iron on?”) – he literally CAN’T leave.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

 

Iron and Magic (Iron Covenant #1) by Ilona Andrews (audiobook) – Narrated by Steve West

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

No day is ordinary in a world where technology and magic compete for supremacy…. But no matter which force is winning, in the apocalypse, a sword will always work.

Hugh d’Ambray, Preceptor of the Iron Dogs, Warlord of the Builder of Towers, served only one man. Now his immortal, nearly omnipotent master has cast him aside. Hugh is a shadow of the warrior he was, but when he learns that the Iron Dogs, soldiers who would follow him anywhere, are being hunted down and murdered, he must make a choice: to fade away or to be the leader he was born to be. Hugh knows he must carve a new place for himself and his people, but they have no money, no shelter, and no food, and the necromancers are coming. Fast.

Elara Harper is a creature who should not exist. Her enemies call her Abomination; her people call her White Lady. Tasked with their protection, she’s trapped between the magical heavyweights about to collide and plunge the state of Kentucky into a war that humans have no power to stop. Desperate to shield her people and their simple way of life, she would accept help from the devil himself – and Hugh d’Ambray might qualify.

Hugh needs a base; Elara needs soldiers. Both are infamous for betraying their allies, so how can they create a believable alliance to meet the challenge of their enemies?

As the prophet says, “It is better to marry than to burn”.

Hugh and Elara may do both.

Rating: Narration – A : Content – B+

With the popular and long-running Kate Daniels series drawing to a close, Ilona Andrews has begun a new series set in the same world, featuring one of the major secondary characters from those books. Iron and Magic is the first in the Iron Covenant series, and takes, as one of its principal characters, Hugh d’Ambray, the villain from the Kate Daniels series. When I picked up a review copy of the book several weeks ago, I hadn’t realised it was a spinoff, and when I found out, was worried I might not be able to follow the story. Fortunately, however, those concerns were unwarranted; I asked a friend for a bit of background, but otherwise, this book works fairly well as a standalone, and there is enough information and backstory given for the newbie not to feel lost.

Hugh d’Ambray had, for almost his entire life, enjoyed a position of peculiar privilege as the right-hand-man of Roland, the god-like being who rules the magical world. As the Preceptor of the Iron Dogs, Hugh was warlord, assassin and enforcer; but when we meet him at the beginning of Iron and Magic, his life has been turned upside down. Cast out by Roland, the life he’d known has been ripped away, and he’s in a downward spiral of despair and hopelessness. Deprived of his sense of self, no longer certain of his place in the world and no longer immortal, Hugh is not even trying to adapt to his change in circumstances; he’s down for the count and seemingly intent on living at the bottom of a bottle.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.