TBR Challenge: Kiss of Steel (London Steampunk #1) by Bec McMaster

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

When Nowhere Is Safe

Most people avoid the dreaded Whitechapel district. For Honoria Todd, it’s the last safe haven as she hides from the Blue Blood aristocracy that rules London through power and fear.

Blade rules the rookeries – no one dares cross him. It’s been said he faced down the Echelon’s army single–handedly, that ever since being infected by the blood–craving he’s been quicker, stronger, and almost immortal.

When Honoria shows up at his door, his tenuous control comes close to snapping. She’s so…innocent. He doesn’t see her backbone of steel-or that she could be the very salvation he’s been seeking.

Rating: B+

Published in 2012, Kiss of Steel is Bec McMaster’s début novel and the first in her London Steampunk series.  Rather like Kristen Callihan’s Darkest London novels, the books in this series are set in a recognisable Victorian London, which enables the author to get right into the story without the need for extensive description, as the locations and references to things like the London Underground and the rookeries are already familiar.  She can then focus on initiating the reader into her vision of London as a grim, dangerous and divided city where the elite, quasi-vampires known as blue bloods rule and regard all other species – humans, mechs, verwulfen – as scum, useful only to them as menial workers, servants or thralls, slaves who provide a supply of fresh blood in exchange for protection. The blue bloods will stop at nothing to retain their power and influence, their superhuman strength and ability to self-heal making them virtually indestructible. But these abilities come at a price, as the virus to which they owe them – a virus they deliberately pass from generation to generation  – will eventually turn each blue blood into a fully-fledged vampire, a mindless, almost invincible killer; and to prevent that happening, anyone showing signs of entering the Fade (a pre-vampyric state) is summarily executed.

Ms. McMaster does a fabulous job of getting across all those facts – and many more – during the story as and when the reader needs them without resorting to static info-dumps which disrupt the flow.  The world she has created is a fascinating one that mirrors actual Victorian society in the huge divide that exists between the haves and have-nots, as well as putting a different twist on familiar paranormal tropes and setting the stage for the conflict between blue bloods and the other races that is going to run throughout the five full-length novels and two novellas that comprise the series.

Until the death of their scientist father six months ago, Honoria Todd and her younger siblings, Lena and Charlie, had lived under the protection of the Echelon, the ruling class formed of the highest aristocratic houses of the British Empire.  Artemus Todd was working to find a vaccine against the craving virus, principally to prevent the accidental infection of servants, thralls, women and anyone else the Echelon deemed unworthy. But Todd also had a hidden purpose; he theorised that if sufficient numbers of the uninfected aristocracy and their children could be inoculated against the craving virus, the blue bloods would eventually die out.  Unfortunately, he died before he could complete his experiments and Honoria and her siblings disappeared with his diary/notebook, infuriating Todd’s former patron, Lord Vickers, who has put a massive price on Honoria’s head.

The family has retreated to the one part of London that is more or less safe from the Echelon, the rookeries of Whitechapel, where Honoria changes her name and works as a finishing tutor at a local school.  Life is hard; she doesn’t make enough money to keep them warm and fed, but even worse, Charlie has been accidentally infected with the craving virus and the medicine needed to keep it at bay is extremely expensive.  Rogue blue bloods – anyone infected unintentionally or deemed unworthy – are not tolerated by the Echelon so Honoria is desperate to keep Charlie’s condition hidden for fear he will be taken away and either enslaved or killed.  Worried about her siblings, their lack of money, the fate awaiting them if they are discovered…  the last thing Honoria needs is a summons from the Devil of Whitechapel himself, Blade, a rogue blue blood who managed to escape the Echelon and make an empire of his own among the rookeries where he has ruled for the past fifty years.  Nothing happens in Whitechapel without Blade’s knowing about it or allowing it, and the people who life on his turf are expected to pay for protection in one way or another.  Having no wish to become his mistress or his thrall, Honoria offers the only thing she can; her services as a teacher of elocution and etiquette three evenings a week.

This rather odd bargain is the jumping off point for an action-packed, steamy and very well-devised story with a heartbreaking twist towards the end that had me glued to every single page.  Blade and Honoria are strongly-written, flawed characters you can’t help but root for, and there’s an equally well-fleshed-out secondary cast, many of whom will no doubt feature as future heroes and heroines in their own books.  At first glance, Blade is the sort of damaged alpha-hero found in many romances, but his struggles against the inner darkness that threatens him and the traumatic events of his past nonetheless made me care about him and want him to triumph over them. He’s got his own brand of charm, too; most definitely a diamond-in-the rough, he takes no prisoners but is deeply loyal to those he considers his own, and especially to the small ‘family’ he has built around him.  He delights in rattling the rather starchy Honoria and delights just as much when she gives back as good as she gets – although he readily admits to himself that sometimes she confuses the hell out of him.  Honoria is stubborn, intelligent and strong-willed; her desperation to protect her brother leads her to make one or two questionable decisions, and also to keep the truth of Charlie’s situation from the one man she knows who could help her for perhaps a bit too long.   It’s somewhat frustrating to read, but it does make sense in the context of her character; she’s had to become completely self-reliant and to eye everything and everyone she encounters with suspicion in order to keep her family safe and hidden.

The relationship between this unlikely couple crackles with sexual tension from the moment they meet, and their romance is superbly developed.  Large, well-muscled, brooding and careless of his appearance, Blade is the complete opposite of the elegant, pale-skinned, ennui-laden aristocrats amongst whom  Honoria grew up, so she is surprised at the strength of the fascination she feels toward the dangerous, rogue blue blood who is everything she’s never wanted.  Blade is just as drawn to the prim Honoria, sensing straight away that she is keeping secrets and determined to get them out of her. He’s impressed by her courage and inventiveness, her loyalty and her inner strength; they’re a great couple, the love scenes are sensual and earthy and their HEA is hard fought and well-deserved.

Kiss of Steel is a wonderfully imaginative, dark and gripping read featuring a seriously sexy and intense hero, a spunky heroine and an intriguing cast of secondary characters.  I thoroughly enjoyed it and am eagerly looking forward to the next in the series, Heart of Iron.

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TBR Challenge – My Lady Thief by Emily Larkin

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Lady by day, Robin Hood by night…

Arabella Knightley is an earl’s granddaughter, but it’s common knowledge that she spent her early years in London’s gutters. What the ton doesn’t know is that while Arabella acts the perfect young lady by day, at night she plays Robin Hood, stealing from the wealthy to give to the poor.

Adam St Just is one of Society’s most sought after bachelors. He’s also the man responsible for Arabella Knightley’s nickname: Miss Smell o’ Gutters—a mistake he regrets, but can never erase.

Bored by polite society, Adam sets out to unmask the elusive thief … but he’s not prepared for what he discovers.

Rating: A-

The Historicals prompt in the TBR Challenge is my Busman’s Holiday, but it can nonetheless be quite difficult to choose a book from the many still sitting unread on my Kindle. In the end, I decided to go for something I was pretty certain would be a winner and picked up Emily Larkin’s My Lady Thief, a standalone title that was first published as The Unmasking of a Lady in 2010, under her Emily May pen-name. Every book I’ve read by this author has proved to be extremely enjoyable and well-written; she creates attractive, well-rounded characters and puts them in interesting situations and her romances are always well-developed and laced with sexual tension. My Lady Thief most ably continues that impressive track record.

Miss Arabella Knightley is beautiful, poised, intelligent, self-assured and the granddaughter of an earl – a most eligible parti were it not for the fact that her early years were spent in the London slums owing to the fact that her father, the second son of an earl, was cast off by his father for marrying her mother without permission. When, after her husband’s death, Arabella’s mother, Thérèse, approached the earl for help, he agreed to take in the daughter but not the mother. Unwilling to be parted from her child, Thérèse took Arabella to live with a friend of her late husband’s and became the man’s mistress. After this, she was rumoured to have had a number of protectors, but eventually she and her daughter ended up in the slums. After her death when Arabella was twelve, the old earl took his granddaughter in and made her the heir to his fortune after his sons all died without issue. So not only is Arabella beautiful, on her twenty-fifth birthday, she will inherit a considerable fortune – but she is not interested in marriage and intends instead to retire to the country and run the girl’s school she has secretly set up. Good society tolerates her because of her lineage and wealth, but she knows she is not really accepted, and, for the most part, doesn’t care. She presents a calm, unruffled exterior to the ton, the veiled and not-so-veiled insults she elicits merely glancing off her façade of tough insouciance and affecting her not at all. Apart from that one time six years earlier when she’d learned that Adam St. Just – handsome, wealthy, charming and one of the ton’s most eligible bachelors – had described her to his set as smelling of the gutters, and the nickname had stuck. She is still referred to behind hands and fans as “Miss Smell O’Gutters”.

Adam St. Just heartily regrets his actions that day, which had been borne of anger and frustration after his callous father had taken him to task about the fact that he had singled out “the daughter of a French whore” for his attentions. Adam had neither known nor cared about Miss Arabella Knightley’s origins, having been struck by her beauty and intelligence – but his father’s disdainful interference had sent Adam to the bottle and he’d been well into his cups when he’d made that damaging, crass remark. In the intervening years, he and Miss Knightley have done their best to avoid contact with each other, although moving in the same circles means that they are often present at the same events. Adam is therefore surprised –and not especially pleased – to see Arabella sitting with his sister one evening and to note that whatever Miss Knightley is saying to Grace is being well received and seems to have bolstered her spirits, which have been somewhat dampened of late.

Adam is very protective of his sister, and it worries him that she does not appear to be enjoying the season as so many other young ladies are. When he discovers the cause – that she has been blackmailed over some letters she wrote to a young man with whom she’d believed herself in love – Adam is furious with the man and the blackmailer, guilty that he had not seen how miserable Grace was and curious as to the identity of the person – identified merely as “Tom” – who has returned the letters and the jewellery with which Grace had bought the blackmailer’s silence.

Given that readers are privy to Tom’s true identity from the start, it’s not a spoiler to say that Arabella quickly emerges as a kind of Robin Hood figure, who goes one step further from stealing from the rich to feed the poor. She uses the proceeds from her thefts to finance the school she has set up outside London for girls who might otherwise be forced into prostitution AND chooses as her victims those members of the ton who have been cruel, duplicitous or just downright mean to those weaker than themselves.

Adam becomes determined to discover the identity of the mysterious Tom, and finds himself developing a sneaking respect for the man, who seems only to steal from people who can a) afford it and b) deserve it. It’s only when he starts to look deeper that he begins to suspect Tom’s true identity – and once all is revealed to him, his respect for Tom – Arabella – only increases.

Both central characters are extremely likeable and engaging, and their romance is beautifully written. The way these two circle around each other warily, alternately flirting and mocking and then retreating when threatened with exposing their vulnerabilities had me glued to the pages and their progression from suspicious enmity to admiration to love is perfectly paced and wonderfully romantic. I particularly liked the way Adam is gradually shown to be altering his perceptions of Arabella; to start with he admits he is strongly attracted to her, but that there can be no question of his marrying her, but as the story progresses and he comes to know and understand her better, he is entirely captivated by her; her intelligence, her spirit and her compassion – and sees her for the woman she really is. As Arabella starts to let Adam know her, she shows him something of what her life was like as a child, and exposes him to a side of London he has never seen or really considered. What he sees appals him, and he is genuinely motivated to do something positive and practical to help, while also being more impressed than ever by Arabella’s determination and strength of character.

The chemistry between Adam and Arabella is sizzling, although I have to say that the first sex scene (which comes quite late on) is a little off-key and that, together with a very poor decision Arabella makes near the end, accounts for this book not getting a straight A grade. Otherwise, My Lady Thief is a terrific read that features two fully-rounded and sympathetic central characters, a strong secondary cast and an intriguing storyline. If you’ve never read this author before, this would be a great place to start; and if you’re familiar with her work, it most certainly won’t disappoint.

TBR Challenge: Lady Cat by Joan Overfield

This title may be purchased from Amazon

For years Lord Stephen Rockholme had been a rake of the first order, devoted to the pursuit of sensual pleasure, if not to the women who so willingly provided it. The decision to rejoin his old regiment and depart for the peninsula meant only that he faced one last evening of intimate delight, He found himself bewitched by the emerald eyes of the woman who called herself Cat…

Five years later, Stephen returns to England a changed man with only one desire – to find the elusive Cat, whose memory haunted and sustained him through the horrors of war. But the reunion he craved is soon overshadowed by the suspicion that Cat harbors and unimaginable secret. Now Stephen must discover if Lady Cat is the answer to his prayers – and the woman of his dreams…

Rating: B+

I always look forward to the ‘Kickin’ it Old School’ prompt in the TBR Challenge, because there is such wealth of material for me to choose from.  That can be a curse as well as a blessing when it comes to selecting just one book from my TBR, but this time around, it wasn’t too difficult as my eye was drawn to this particular book a few months back when AAR featured it as a DIKlassic review.  I’m always interested to see how older titles bear up over time and this one has a premise I rather like, so it was an easy choice.

That premise is one that is also featured in one of my favourite historical romances, Lorraine Heath’s Waking up with the Duke; that of a man who needs an heir but is incapable of doing the deed necessary to create one and asks his wife to sleep with someone else in order to become pregnant.  In that book, the storyline follows the central couple as they progress from the extreme awkwardness of having agreed to have sex with someone they wouldn’t normally have chosen (and in the case of the woman, she’s got to deal with the guilt of committing adultery, too) to their eventual falling in love during the period they spend together in order to pursue the babymaking activities. Lady Cat, however, takes things in a different direction by focusing more on dealing with the fallout a few years down the road.

Lady Catheryn Brockton married her older husband three years earlier after having been governess to his two daughters, Elizabeth and Lydia.  She is strongly attached to Edward and adores the girls to the extent that she would do anything to keep them safe, which is why, when her husband asks her to sleep with another man in order to provide him with an heir, she agrees to the plan in spite of her misgivings.  If Edward dies without a male heir, his estate will pass to his slimy toad of a cousin, Jeremey Sedgewood, who is not only in debt up to his eyeballs, but is also a “brutal, drunken swine” who has already tried to force his attentions on Cat and has his eye on Edward’s eldest daughter.  In order to keep her family safe, Cat agrees to do as Edward asks, and seek out his second cousin, Stephen, Lord Rockholme at an upcoming house party.  Stephen is widely known to be an unrepentant rake and Cat should have no trouble seducing him; and as they have never met, he won’t know her true identity as she will attend the gathering under an assumed name.

Things go to plan; Stephen has recently rejoined his regiment and will be leaving for France in the morning, so is very much open to the prospect of a last-minute dalliance with a lovely widow.  The couple shares a night of intense passion and then they go their separate ways.

Fortunately for Edward and Cat, their scheme is successful and Cat gives birth to a healthy son, named for his (legal) father.  Five years pass. Edward dies not long after his son is born, and his will names Cat as executrix to the estate and co-guardian of the children, along with Stephen and the odious Jeremey, who proceeds to be a complete pain in the arse whenever he can, dropping by unannounced and behaving offensively towards Cat and the girls.  Returned to England after Waterloo, Stephen, whose experiences over the past five years have changed and matured him, intends to track down the woman who had gifted him with such pleasure, whose memory he had held close and whose image had sustained him through some of the worst times of his life.  He attempts to find her by writing to Edward’s widow, but is rebuffed, so instead he travels to Larks Hall to ask for information in person – and is dumbfounded to discover that the woman who has inhabited his dreams for the past five years is none other than Lady Brockton.  Stephen is furious at the deception, especially as he inadvertently cuckolded a man he liked and respected, and further incensed when he realises he’d been used as a stud and that Cat has intentionally kept his son from him.

Cat’s reasons are sound of course; any hint that Eddie is not the son of her late husband will mean the odious Jeremey will have cause to challenge the terms of Lord Brockton’s will and possibly overturn it.  In the heat of his anger, Stephen is determined to hurt Cat as she has hurt him, and insists that she provide him with the heir she has denied him.  He can never acknowledge Eddie as his son, so he and Cat will marry so that she can bear Stephen an heir who can inherit his lands and title.  Cat fully recognises that Stephen is entitled to be angry, but even so, is not prepared for his insistence that they marry and then part once she has given him a son.  She has little alternative but to agree, but has a condition of her own, which is that they pretend, for the sake of Lydia and Elizabeth, that they are marrying for love.

Lady Cat is an emotionally charged, angsty story in which the author skilfully guides her characters through the messy, complicated emotions that follow Stephen’s discovery of the truth.  Tensions between him and Cat run high and that includes tension of the sexual variety; their marriage might begin under less than auspicious circumstances, but there’s no denying the passion that sparks between them in the bedroom.  They are complex, likeable characters, and I was pleased with the way the author developed the story without veering into Big Mis territory, so that instead of a couple at loggerheads for an entire book, we get two sensible, mature characters who talk things through and arrive at decisions together.  Cat is a beautiful, spirited and intelligent woman who cares deeply for her son and step-daughters, sometimes to the extent that she puts them before all other considerations and ignores her own needs and wants, which does cause a little conflict between her and her husband.  And Stephen is terrific hero; it’s true that he lashes out when he’s hurt, but he quickly recognises that he is being unjust and is able to see those feelings aside in order to try to build something real with Cat, and be a good father to his son and step-daughters.

Lady Cat was originally published in 1998, and has definitely stood the test of time.  I’d encourage fans of character-driven historicals to give it a try.

TBR Challenge: Again, My Lord (Twist #2) by Katharine Ashe


This title may be purchased from Amazon

The one that got away . . .

Six years ago, Tacitus Everard, the Marquess of Dare, made the worst mistake of his life: courting vibrant, sparklingly beautiful Lady Calista Chance—until she broke his heart.

Is the only one she wants.

Six years ago, Calista Holland made the biggest misstep of her life: begging handsome, wealthy Lord Dare to help her run away from home—then marrying someone else.

Now, trapped by disaster in a country inn, Calista has one day to convince the marquess she’s worth a second chance, and Dare has one goal, to steer clear of déjà vu. But when the day takes an unimaginable twist, what will it take to end up in each other’s arms?

Rating: A-

I had a bit of a struggle to find a book to suit this month’s prompt to read a book in a series I’m behind on, because I’m pretty much caught up with all the ones I’m currently following. There are some I haven’t started yet, but I wanted to try to stick to the prompt and finally, I came up with Again, My Lord, the second book in Katharine Ashe’s Twist series. In the two books in the series so far, she’s taken a couple of well-known movie plots as her starting points and adapted them into historical romances which, while certainly out of the ordinary in terms of the premise, are nonetheless well done and very entertaining, possessing a depth of understanding and exploration of character motivation that wasn’t possible in the films which inspired them.

Tacitus Caesar Everard, Marquess of Dare has two requirements in a bride. First, she must have good teeth; second, she should be someone with whom he could live a contented, sensible life without becoming emotionally involved. When he meets the vivacious, eighteen-year-old Lady Calista Chance (sister of Ian, hero of My Lady, My Lord), Tacitus is delighted to note that she has excellent teeth and that she is so different from him in terms of personality – she’s lively and outgoing whereas he tends to be shy and somewhat subdued – that there’s little chance of his falling in love with her, and immediately decides she’s the girl for him.

He sets about courting her, putting up at a country inn close to the Chance estate where he remains for a month while he takes Calista on drives and outings, usually accompanied by her younger siblings. Calista chatters on and teases him in a way he’s never experienced before and isn’t sure how to respond to; he doesn’t exactly dislike it, but can’t shake the feeling that perhaps she is simply making fun of him. Still, he continues to spend time with her, coming to realise that she has a keen mind behind the bubbly exterior and pretty face – and after a month has passed, decides that it’s time for him to make a formal offer. He is about to make his way to her home when she arrives at the inn and promptly tells him she is running away and asks him to take her to London. Believing Calista is asking him to take her to meet another man, Tacitus only now realises he’s fallen in love – and curses himself for an idiot. He takes her back home and leaves her without another word, determined to fall out of love as quickly as he’d fallen into it. But it’s not easy – even when, a few weeks later, he sees the notice in the paper of her marriage to another man.

Six years later, Lady Calista Holland is trying not to fall apart as she bids farewell to her five-year-old son, Harry, who is going to stay with her mother and sister for a month. Calista’s husband, however, has not granted her permission to accompany him; he’s very possessive and resents any of her time or attention being given to anything other than him, so all she is allowed to do is deliver Harry to her sister at the inn near the small village of Swinly and then she must return home immediately. Everything is set – when a huge horse thunders into the yard and would have knocked Harry down were it not for the fast reflexes of its rider. Calista is astonished to recognise the autocratic, severe, yet handsome-as-ever features of none other than the Marquess of Dare, the man she fell in love with six years ago and the man who abandoned her when she needed him the most.

The horrible weather only gets worse, aptly reflecting Calista’s gloomy mood, and when she wakes the next morning to discover that the storm is so bad as to have flooded the roads and made it impossible to leave the village her feelings are conflicted. On the one hand, she has a respite from her miserable, abusive husband; on the other, if she cannot get home on time, she has no doubt Richard will take out his anger on her and, later, their son.

I don’t want to spoil the twist in the story, although it will quickly become apparent once things get going, so I’m not going to say more about the plot. Instead, I’ll say that Again, My Lord is a wonderful tale of love and redemption that encompasses a gamut of emotions from dejection to elation, from despair to hope. The majority of the story is told in Calista’s PoV, so we are privy to her transformation from a woman who has been beaten down by life and who has little regard or care for anyone or anything – except her son, whom she loves dearly – to someone who knows how to live life to the fullest and make the most of each day and opportunity that comes along.

Through her eyes, we see that Tacitus has changed in the intervening years, too, and very much for the better. The oh-so-correct, somewhat gauche young man Calista first knew has become a man whose natural authority commands attention without his having to say a word; even better, he seems to have acquired a dry sense of humour and the ability to laugh at himself somewhere along the way. He’s the most gorgeous romantic hero; thoughtful, sweet, passionate and kind and I loved the way the he’s so patient and considerate with Calista, even when he has no idea what she’s doing or talking about or when he’s irritated with her.

The romance that re-kindles between the two is extremely well developed – even moreso given the restrictions the author has imposed upon herself by the twist – as Calista and Tacitus gradually rediscover each other and fall in love all over again. In fact, it’s probably true to say they never really fell out of love with each other, but they have to get to know the people they are now, and it’s quite the journey for them both, albeit in different ways. It’s far from easy, however, and there’s a lot of heartache along the way for Calista especially, as she starts to realise that the time she has been granted to spend with Tacitus is a double-edged sword, because for her, every day brings new discoveries and new facets of him to fall in love with, whereas for him… well, suffice to say it’s not the same for Tacitus which is one of the things that adds such a note of poignancy to the story.

Katharine Ashe pulls off this unusual conceit with immense quantities of style and panache. Her writing is lyrical and completely engaging, the characterisation of the two leads is excellent and she’s one of those authors with a real talent for writing dialogue that feels natural and in which the humour is never forced. Again, My Lord has pretty much everything I could ask for in an historical romance, and is another of Ms. Ashe’s books to find its way onto my keeper shelf.

TBR Challenge: The Wedding Journey by Carla Kelly

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Set against the vivid historical background of the Napoleonic Wars, “The Wedding Journey “is the unforgettable story of Captain Jesse Randall, assistant surgeon of Marching Hospital Number Eight, and his undying love for beautiful, young Nell Mason. A battlefield is no place to wage a campaign of love, and even if it was, Jesse is far too shy to ever confess his love to Nell, who helps the surgeons in the field hospital.

Her father, Captain Bertie Mason, is a compulsive gambler, and when Nell’s mother dies, he desperately agrees to marry her to the despicable Major William Bones to relieve his crushing gambling debts. To prevent such a fate, Jesse hastily weds Nell. He doesn’t dare hope she’ll ever return his devotion.

A marriage on the front lines of the Napoleonic Wars would be difficult enough, but now Major Bones is out for vengeance. As the British army retreats from Burgos for Portugal, Jesse, Nell, and a handful of the sick and stragglers are left behind to fend for themselves. The newly married couple must now draw on all their strength to survive and save their small band, and somehow nurture a love that can endure the most trying of journeys…

Rating: B+

For June’s prompt of Favourite Trope, I turned to Carla Kelly’s The Wedding Journey, the story of a marriage of convenience made during wartime in order to protect the heroine from the threat of being sold off in marriage to pay her father’s debts.  In the hands of this author, however, the story is so much more than the story of two people thrust unexpectedly into marriage; set amid the slaughter and chaos of the Peninsular War, it’s also a story of the struggle to survive against the odds and of how the most ordinary person can call on reserves deep inside to achieve the truly extraordinary.

Elinore Mason  – Nell – has followed the drum for as long as she can remember.  Her father, a captain, is a hard drinker and gambler who doesn’t spare a moment’s thought for his wife and daughter – other than for what they can do for him – and the time Nell doesn’t spend with her ailing mother is spent in the hospital tent, tending to the sick and wounded and helping however she can.  Captain Jesse Randall is a highly competent surgeon, widely respected, well-liked, but quiet and shy – and has been hopelessly in love with Nell for years.

The smarmy Major William Bones also has his eye on Nell, but his intentions are not at all honourable.  After Nell’s mother dies, her father, who is deeply in debt to Bones, agrees to give Nell to him as payment – but to prevent this, Jesse steps up and offers to marry her instead.  He doesn’t have any hope that Nell will ever return his love, but he knows she likes him well enough; and in any case, they can have the marriage annulled at a later date.

Bones, furious at having Nell snatched away from him exacts his revenge in a most appalling way.  With the army preparing to retreat from Burgos into Portugal, Marching Hospital Number Eight is packed up and ready to go the next morning – and awakens to discover that they have been abandoned thanks to Bones’ machinations.  The unit’s commanding officer, Major Sheffield, Jesse and Nell are left with a handful of sick soldiers and army stragglers to fend for themselves and make their own way into Portugal without transport, supplies or protection – and with the French army not far behind them.

The Wedding Journey is probably the most unusual marriage of convenience story I’ve ever read.  Jesse and Nell are both likeable, sensible and determined people and there’s never really any question that they are meant to be together, but the circumstances in which they find themselves continually test them and the bonds they forge as they face danger, sickness, great tragedy and even a madman are perhaps all the stronger for everything that they are forced to go through together.

As is the case with all of Carla Kelly’s books set during the Napoleonic Wars, she doesn’t sugar-coat the difficulties her small band of brothers are facing and nor does she pull her punches when it comes to gritty reality, unafraid to show the terrible consequences of war in all its dirt, blood and horror.  But while the odds against Jesse and Nell are overwhelming, Ms. Kelly still manages to find time for them to talk and learn about each other and even to share the odd joke to lighten the mood.

The book is narrated almost entirely by Jesse, who is, quite simply, the most adorable beta hero.  He’s a ginger-haired Scot, with a dry sense of humour – his inner monologue with Hippocrates is funny and allows us to learn quite a lot about him – he’s resourceful, kind and protective, and is thoroughly dedicated to doing the best for those under his care.  He’s also got a steel backbone and an innate authority that he doesn’t use very often and didn’t really know he had, but which makes him a natural leader and someone who inspires trust in others and makes them want to do their best for him. With the bulk of the story told from his PoV, the reader is able to really connect with him and to see and understand the depth of his compassion and his love for Nell, whom he would do absolutely anything to keep safe.

We don’t spend as much time in Nell’s PoV, so she feels a little less well-developed, but it’s easy to see that she’s clever, strong and resilient and that she’s a little bit smitten with Jesse, but, believing herself to have nothing to offer him besides bad luck and a wastrel father, hadn’t ever thought to look for anything more than friendship.  But as they journey through a Spain laid waste by two opposing armies, she comes to love him as he loves her, the respect and admiration she has long-felt for him morphing into something far deeper.

I suppose the one criticism I can level at the book is that the adventures and misadventures of Marching Hospital Number Eight overshadow the romance somewhat.  Jesse and Nell have so much to deal with that although they spend a lot of time together and clearly make a great team, they don’t have a lot of time to explore their feelings for each other or their new relationship.

The Wedding Journey encompasses high-stakes drama, tragedy, trauma and a very realistic portrait of the sufferings wrought by war, but at the same time, it’s uplifting and imbued with warmth and humour.  The love story between Nell and Jesse is tender and sweet and the writing is intelligent and devoid of sentimentality and yet emotionally satisfying.

TBR Challenge: Atrophy (Atrophy #1) by Jess Anastasi

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

No one on Erebus escapes alive…

Twelve years on the prison planet Erebus makes a man long for death. The worst part for Tannin Everette is that he was framed for murder. He’s innocent. When the ship Imojenna lands for emergency repairs, Tannin risks everything to escape…only to find himself face to face with the captain’s undeniably gorgeous sister.

Zahli Sherron isn’t planning on turning Tannin in. In fact, she actually believes him. Sure, he’s sexy as every kind of sin, but he’s no criminal—so she hides him. But no one escapes from Erebus and lives to tell about it. With every day that passes, Zahli further risks the lives of the entire crew…even as she falls in love with a man she can never have for herself.

Rating: B+

When I saw this month’s prompt was to read Something Different, I knew pretty much exactly which genre and which book I was going to choose. Last year sometime, one of my fellow reviewers at AAR reviewed a Sci-Fi romance called Quantum, which was the second book in Jess Anastasi’s Atrophy series. I really liked the sound of it and it struck me that while I’m actually a fan of Sci-Fi in TV and film, I don’t read it – so I picked up the first book in the series, Atrophy for the May prompt.

I admit that I hadn’t realised, going in, that it’s part of a series in which there is an overarching story that runs through all the books (there are three so far). Still, it’s a thumping good read and I’m sufficiently invested in that particular plotline to want to read the other books – when I can find the time! I also liked that the book is very much an ensemble piece, with a handful of principal characters to start and a few new ones introduced along the way. There’s a romance with an HEA to be sure, but that’s not the primary focus of the story and I was perfectly okay with that; there’s plenty of action and the gradual emergence of a really intriguing plot, all of it skilfully woven together into a rip-roaring, enjoyable yarn.

Due to the latest in a string of mechanical failures, the cargo freighter Imojenna is forced to land on the prison planet, Erebus in order to pick up spare parts and make repairs. On duty when the ship applies for permission to land is Tannin Everette, one of the number of inmates who is allowed to work in the prison administration. Twelve years earlier, he was convicted of a murder he did not commit, and when the chance of escape presents itself, he takes it, planning to stow away aboard the Imojenna. He’s not without misgivings; the penalty if he gets caught will be heavy and he’ll be a fugitive for the rest of his life. But on balance, it’s a risk he’s willing to take.

Crew member – and captain’s sister – Zahli Sherron, is in the marketplace buying supplies for the next leg of the Imojenna’s journey when she is approached by an officer and taken into a deserted building. Knowing the officer for one with an unpleasant reputation where women are concerned, Tannin is immediately suspicious and follows the sounds of a struggle only to come upon the young woman kneeling on the officer’s body with her hands around the knife in his chest. Tannin helps Zahli escape – and she later returns the favour by sticking up for him when he is discovered aboard the ship. There’s an instant attraction thrumming between them, but her immensely scary brother makes it clear that Zahli is firmly off-limits; and ship’s captain Rian Sherron reminds Zahli that while she’s his sister, as a member of the crew the same rules apply to her as to everyone else – which includes the non-fraternization policy.

Tannin is a likeable character, a whizz-kid hacker who somehow managed to keep the authorities on Erebus from finding out about his mad hacking skillz. These make him very valuable to Rian, who has his own reasons for choosing to captain a rickety freighter instead of returning to the military where he could be hero-worshipped until the end of his days. I liked the way the author shows Tannin’s loyalties becoming more conflicted the more time he spends aboard the ship; he’s falling for Zahli and he owes her his freedom and his life, but Rian, once he’s realised that Tannin has useful skills, has allowed him to stay on board and in effect given him a home of sorts. Tannin wants to be with Zahli but owes Rian, too, and doesn’t want to repay the trust he is gradually being given by directly disobeying orders.

I didn’t warm to Zahli all that much, though. She’s supposed to be kick-ass and competent, but even she sometimes questions her position among the crew, seeing herself as someone who just deals with the finances and does the shopping. I suppose she’s the crew’s peacemaker, sometimes standing between them and Rian and frequently calling her brother on his shit the way no-one else can. The sibling relationship is quiet well done, but she’s rather a bland character on her own.

The romance between Zahli and Tannin works well-enough for all it’s based on insta-lust, but the thing which really captured my interest is the plotline that is clearly going to run through all the books concerning Rian, a former military officer with a reputation for bad-assery of the highest order. Three years before the end of the Assimilation war, he disappeared without trace and was presumed dead, and then, just as suddenly, he reappeared and single-handedly ended the war with one daring, completely mad and potentially suicidal act. But he returned a changed man, bitter, reckless and distanced, always careful not to let anyone see the bleak darkness inside him, the intense and barely-leashed rage that he battles daily to contain. Ever since his return, he has been set on achieving one goal – to hunt down the shape-shifting aliens who captured and tortured him and make them pay. His quest for revenge sees him sometimes making questionable decisions, ones which could have disastrous outcomes for him and his crew, but he makes them anyway, putting nothing ahead of his achieving his goal. One such decision is to accept another shipment of cargo from a known shady-dealer, which turns out to be a woman, more specifically, high-priestess Miriella from the planet Aryn. The Arynian priestesses are known to have powerful psychic abilities and it’s immediately clear to Rian she could be a valuable bargaining chip, weapon or both. But he’s wary of her; her telepathic abilities unsettle him and he keeps his distance, although there’s definitely a spark there which I really hope is going to be explored in future books.

Ms. Anastasi weaves a fast-paced, complex (but not unintelligible) and enthralling story with nary a dull moment as the Imojenna wends its way across the skies, evading pursuers, avoiding traps and generally making more enemies than friends along the way. The various crew members are engaging and have important parts to play; these are secondary roles, but they are all clearly defined as characters and all contribute to the overall feeling of camaraderie among this closely-knit bunch.

While there are a few things that didn’t quite work for me – there’s a situation near the end which is resolved in a way that feels like a bit of a cop-out, for instance – on the whole Atrophy is a terrific read and one I’d certainly recommend. The world-building is excellent and while there are quite a few characters and plotlines introduced, I was never confused as to who was whom or who was doing what. Lucky for me, there are two more books in the series (Quantum and Diffraction) available with a fourth book, Entropy, coming in 2018.

TBR Challenge: The Italian’s Pregnant Virgin by Maisey Yates

This title may be purchased from Amazon

You will be my wife…

Esther Abbott was backpacking across Europe when she was approached about being a surrogate. Desperately in need of the money, Esther agreed. But when the deal falls apart, she’s left pregnant and alone, with no one to turn to… except the baby’s father!

Learning he is to have a child with a woman he’s never met is a scandal Italian billionaire Renzo Valenti can’t afford. Following his recent bitter divorce and with an impeccable reputation to maintain, Renzo has no choice but to claim the child… and Esther as his wife!

Rating: B-

I haven’t read a Harlequin Presents (or Mills and Boon Modern, as we call them here in Blighty) for quite a while, so I picked one up for the April’s TBR Challenge prompt of Contemporary Romance.

Sometimes, a girl just needs to get sucked into that glitzy world of rich, alpha playboys who are eventually tamed by love that the Presents line does so well, and The Italian’s Pregnant Virgin certainly didn’t disappoint on that score.  Maisey Yates also comes up with one of the most believable reasons for her twenty-three year old heroine being a virgin that I’ve come across. It must be harder and harder these days to convincingly write about a young woman in her twenties who has no sexual experience whatsoever (outside of Inspirationals, perhaps), but making Esther Abbott the product of a strict upbringing in a commune that allowed no contact with the outside world makes her inexperience  completely plausible.

Esther left the commune and her family following a confrontation – in front of everyone – with her incredibly strict father during which he told her she could denounce all the ‘evil’ things (like books and CDs) she had brought in from the outside or be thrown out – and she left.  Determined to make her own way and her own life, her ambition is to go to college, but for now, she is travelling and working abroad with the intent of seeing a bit of the world while she makes sufficient money to support herself through her studies.

But she’s not earned enough yet, and has run out of money in Rome, where she is currently working at a bar waiting tables. Completely out of the blue, she is approached by a woman about becoming a surrogate for her and her husband – and the amount of money involved convinces Esther to agree to the idea.  But just a few short weeks later, the woman tells Esther that her plans have changed and that she wants her to terminate the pregnancy.  Esther baulks at this, believing that the father should at least have some say in the matter.  Which is how she ends up on Renzo Valenti’s doorstep, explaining that she’s carrying his child.

Renzo is astonished and – not unreasonably – extremely sceptical.  It seems that his ex-wife had planned the whole thing without his knowledge (and here I had to stop to wonder if doing something like that without the consent of both potential parents is even possible), but even knowing this, he finds himself unable to believe such a ridiculous story, and Esther leaves, believing she’s at least done the right thing by telling him. But over the next few days the thought that she might possibly be carrying his baby nags at Renzo, and he eventually seeks her out at the bar and insists she accompanies him home.

Renzo is heir to the vast Valenti business empire and is the product of a fairly strict, old-fashioned upbringing.  His disastrous marriage to the most unsuitable woman he could find was made, in part, to spite his father for something that happened a long time ago, and partly out of Renzo’s deep-seated feelings of worthlessness.  At the age of sixteen, he fathered a child as the result of a brief affair with a married woman, but was forced to give up all claim to his daughter and to agree never to acknowledge her.  He hates himself for the ease with which he allowed himself to be manipulated – although he was only sixteen, which poses the question as to what he thought he could have done instead? – but it makes him even more determined to keep Esther’s child – or, as it turns out, children.  He pretty  much tells her they’re going to get married, but when Esther turns him down flat, he realises he’s going to have to tread more carefully.  He very reasonably points out that she will be able to do all the things she wants to do – travel, go to college – if she marries him, and makes it clear that he will not interfere; but the only marriages Esther has ever seen are ones in which the husband has complete control and in which the love they profess isn’t love, but a way of exerting that control.  Even her father’s supposed love was a way of tying her down and that’s something she certainly doesn’t want.  When Esther refuses Renzo’s proposal of a marriage of convenience, he plans a seduction instead – something that certainly won’t be a hardship for him considering that he is already attracted to Esther –  fully confident that he can make her fall in love with him and agree to marry him. They strike a bargain; Esther will move in with him and act the part of his fiancée until the babies are born, which will afford Renzo the necessary time to convince her that marrying him is the best way forward… and to put his planned seduction into action.

I won’t deny that the premise is more than a bit implausible. Surrogacy is illegal in Italy, but the author gets around that by having Esther travel across the border to undergo the procedure; and I can’t deny that I rolled my eyes at the throwaway line about Renzo’s ex-wife getting his sperm from a condom!  But if you can get past the unlikely set up, then the story is a reasonably enjoyable rags-to-riches tale buoyed up somewhat by Esther, who, despite her upbringing, isn’t a doormat and isn’t prepared to just roll over, do what she’s told and put up with Renzo’s crap.  He’s got issues of his own, too, although I didn’t really  buy that whole “I married a crazy-pants woman because I’m not worth anything better” thing; he’s thirty-two now and I was puzzled as to why he’d waited so long to pull that particular stunt.

Overall, however, Renzo and Esther make an engaging pair.  He admires her spirit and finds her innocence and lack of artifice refreshing, while she can’t help falling for this man who, she realises, is much more than the rich playboy he is widely believed to be.

The Italian’s Pregnant Virgin satisfied my temporary craving for a quick, fairytale-like fix and I enjoyed reading it.  It’s not something I’m likely to pick up again, but it did the job, and I think perhaps other HP devotees may enjoy it.