Author Archives: Isabel de Valera
With his days occupied with duties as Captain of the Guard, and nights consumed with upholding his reputation as a rake, Lord Sebastian Hastings’s schedule is filled. There’s no extra time to be anyone’s bodyguard, but the royal family’s safety is a task he sees to personally.
Prince Colton Townsend has loved Sebastian for as long as he can remember, but he’s done pining for a man who has vowed never to remarry. So he consoles himself with the second love of his life—horses. Stable building and horse racing consume his every thought, at least until he’s stuck with Sebastian dogging his every step.
While looking over the prospects at an auction, Colton is trying to ignore his sexy, pesky bodyguard when he feels compelled to take on a bully to protect an abused horse. Sebastian is dragged into the fray, and their good deed sparks a string of nasty rumors.
There’s only one way to quell the political storm: marry. But instead of solving everything, Colton realizes his new husband is a bundle of secrets, none of which he’ll give up easily. Unless Colton makes one, last-ditch effort that could break his heart for good.
Warning: Contains an obnoxious filly, a love-struck prince, a meddling king, a matchmaking duke, vicious rumors and hunky ex Special Forces soldiers.
J.L. Langley was one of the first m/m writers I encountered, and is still an autobuy for me. She’s not terribly prolific, so it’s always a reason for celebration when one of her books comes out.
My Regelence Rake has been a long time coming—the previous book in the series, The Englor Affair, was published in 2008. I wish I could say that it was worth the wait, but of the three books in the series (begun with My Fair Captain) My Regelence Rake is easily the weakest.
Don’t get me wrong—if you like Ms. Langley’s writing, and I do, hence the autobuy status—MRR is still a fun romp through what is a cleverly built futurescape. The conceit of these books is that there are planets in the far future (the date of January 12th, 4831, opens the book) which have chosen to replicate the era of Waterloo, the Prince Regent, and Jane Austen. One of these planets is Regelence, where same-sex marriages are the norm, and young males as protected and hedged ´round with rules as young girls were in the original. (The other is Englor, and the second book takes place there; while it is also Regency in culture, same-sex marriages are not the norm, and the situation creates a different type of tension.)
The planet is ruled by King Steven and his Consort, Raleigh; they have five boys, each of whom (at least so far) gets his own novel in the series. My Regelence Rake tells the story of Colton, who is in love with Sebastian, Viscount Wentworth, the rake of the title, who has demons of his own to battle—although he is and always has been in love with Colton, he has a Past that makes him feel that he is not good enough for the young prince. Circumstances throw them together, of course, and between Sebastian being assigned as Colton’s bodyguard and the mystery of Sebastian’s past, the two find themselves in various predicaments.
Although there are plots and subplots in each of the books, they are linked by a common thread—another mystery, involving the intergalactic navy that protects the planets in the union of whatever part of the galaxy, and betrayals and kidnappings and all sorts of fun stuff.
In fact, I think that that was what disappointed me the most about this book. The other two played more with the intergalactic stuff, and that world-building and the interplay between the sci-fi elements and the Regency-like cultures made the stories fun. This book sacrifices that interplay to focus on the social constructs of Regelence culture. But the “historical” elements of the planetary societies are the barest minimum, basically what everyone “knows” about the period: Tattersall’s, private clubs, gambling, balls. Nothing in depth, nothing that smacks of any real research, so while it might appeal to those with a Regency jones, it falls short of feeling real. The main plot is situational, based on Sebastian’s Past and his involvement with Colton; while there are occasional references to the intergalactic naval mystery, they don’t affect the story one way or another.
Another problem I had was with the relationship between Sebastian and Colton. Part of what I enjoyed in the first two books was the culture clash between Nate—a starship captain—and the prince Aidan, and Simon—officer of the more conventional Regency planet of Englor and heir to that throne—and first-time-away-from-home Payton. Here there is no such culture clash; it’s more of the traditional romance with difficulties thrown in, and there’s nothing of the sense of wonder and exploration and edginess that made the encounters in the previous two books so entertaining… and hot. MRR is still pretty hot, but not up to the level of the first two books.
My Regelence Rake is still an entertaining book by anyone’s standards. If it had been the first book in the series, though, I might not have read the others. As it is, I have hopes for the other two brothers in the royal family of Regelence and really look forward to reading those. Hopefully in sooner than four years, though.
Scion of Hudson Valley aristocrats John Seward and the son of poor Irish immigrants Michael McCready have only one thing in common—they have both been broken by the First World War, John in body, Michael in spirit. Once a promising young medical student, Michael now does massages—and more—in a Bowery bathhouse, while John lives the life of a recluse in his family’s country mansion.
When Michael is blackmailed into taking a job as a gardener on the estate, their paths cross. John is too wrapped up in his own crippling pain and misery to even acknowledge Michael, while the young gardener only sees that John’s selfishness makes his servants’ lives difficult. But as time goes on, Michael realizes the extent of John’s injuries, and John realizes that Michael might hold the key to his survival.
Bonds of Earth is the kind of book that sucks you into a time far removed from the present, and makes you feel as if you’re living there, right beside the characters. The men—and the side characters as well, John’s other servants, Michael’s family and the transvestite bathhouse owner that rescued him as a young boy—are real people, with faults and foibles; sometimes they’re admirable, and sometimes they’re irritating. John and Michael, despite being thrown together first through the machinations of the little granddaughter of John’s servants, and later, through Michael’s role as John’s physical therapist, honestly can’t stand each other at the beginning, and even through the end of the book sometimes have difficulty understanding or trusting each other. It only makes their relationship more realistic. There are moments when you’re so in sync with the emotions of the characters that you wish you could reach through time and space and comfort them. Or, sometimes, slap them.
And not just the main characters, either. I wanted to yell at Thomas Abbott, John’s servant, for mule-headedness; hug Sarah, the granddaughter, who has had so much tragedy in her young life, and stab Uncle Padraig repeatedly. Millie, the bathhouse owner, has her own story that I’d love to sit and hear, though I know it would make me cry. And as far as Margaret, Michael’s beloved sister, is concerned…!
Chevalier also has a deft hand with the historical elements here; never too heavy-handed, s/he sketches the time and setting in such a way that the behavior and reactions of the characters flesh out both. I picked up very little anachronism—I don’t know enough about the use of massage and physical therapy in the medicine of the day to know if that was accurately presented, so that didn’t bounce me out of the suspension of my disbelief. About the only quibble I have with the book is in the persona of the kindly Doctor Parrish, who plays a bit of a deus ex machina in several spots. However, I didn’t find it overpowering or unbelievable, just a little convenient.
I love stories set in the early twentieth century—it’s a time of such radical change and turmoil, the elements of a gentler, more refined age (at least in perception) juxtaposed against a backdrop of invention and revolution. Bonds of Earth does a lovely job of that juxtaposition—the quiet gardens and wholesome village life throws the horrors both John and Michael suffered in the nightmare of the European war into high relief, making them just that much more horrible. We suffer with them as they find their way through their nightmares, their traumas, their memories, into the small quiet space where they can find each other.
Bonds of Earth is a wonderful, slice-of-life historical that I can recommend unreservedly.
Her characters are quirky, too. Sometimes I wonder they’re that way because she is so imaginative, or if she’s consciously trying to not make them stereotypes. (Because, let’s face it, stereotypes are a serious danger in Romancelandia.) Either way, they’re usually memorable.
In Clear Water—a book I love and have read three times—it’s not just the main characters that are quirky. The secondary characters are quirky. The tertiary characters are quirky. Hell, even the fauna is quirky. There’s only one exception, and he’s glaring. But let me get to that organically.
Patrick is a young man who suffers from affluence and severe adult ADHD. While this does, indeed, make him quirky, it’s also a really accurate and painful depiction of the disorder—Ms. Lane obviously is familiar with it. Patrick is a sweet, intelligent boy whose neural misfires cause no end of distraction. His father, a wealthy, driven businessman, doesn’t understand him or the effects of the disorder, and writes him off as a flake.
He’s not a flake. He has real issues with self esteem, both because of the disorder and because of his father’s apparent indifference, but when he meets Whiskey, an ex-hippie scientist who lives on a decrepit houseboat in the river, he begins to display the depth of intelligence and practicality that his issues and his disorder mask. He finds a place assisting Whiskey and his partner-in-the-scientist-sense, Fly Bait, with their research, and eventually is pivotal in discovering the cause of the frog anomalies they’re studying. (See? I told you even the fauna was quirky!)
About the only real evidence of flakiness I found—I don’t count the erratic physical effects of the ADHD—is Patrick’s poor choice of boyfriends. And this was where my suspension of disbelief derailed—because Patrick’s boyfriend is such a stereotypical scumbag that I didn’t understand how a bright person like Patrick—self-image issues aside—couldn’t have figured out what he was up to. He was painted as so unpleasant and ugly that I couldn’t find what Patrick was attracted to. I think it would have been more believable if he’d been a little more slick—and not in the greasy way he’s described in the book. It was almost disappointing to see how predictably evil Scumbag Boyfriend turned out to be. I think I would have been more convinced if the Scumbag Boyfriend was a clean-cut businessman, to contrast with the scruffy Whiskey and make Patrick’s choice the more interesting.
But that was the only major quibble I had, and it really wasn’t that big a deal. The rest of the story is funny and charming and delightful. Fair warning—there is quite a bit of age difference between Patrick and Whiskey, and Patrick’s emotional innocence, as well as Whiskey’s role as Patrick’s protector and rescuer, makes that difference more noticeable. But it’s not squicky; Whiskey is very sensitive to it, but Patrick grows so much in the course of the book, that by the time the story ends, you can’t imagine one without the other. And to my mind, that’s exactly how a romance novel should end.
One of the nice things (usually) about reviewing is that you have the excuse to reread books. Sometimes that’s not such a good thing, if you’re committed to reviewing a book you absolutely hated. Other times, it’s bliss—to sink back into a world you loved.
The world of Wicked Gentlemen, by Ginn Hale, is a dark and brooding one, made up of equal parts Charles Dickens and the Brothers Grimm, with a splash of H.G. Wells and a healthy dollop of Wilkie Collins. The Gothic towers of Crowncross, the London-like city at the heart of the story, loom over a place almost entirely controlled by the Church, to the point that the higher professions—doctors, lawyers, bankers—are called “Orders,” and wear robes, and the police department are called the “Inquisitors.” The Church’s ascendence is due to an event from centuries before, when the literal Lords of Hell—the fallen angels of the Old Testament—came up from the depths of the Earth along with their demon hordes, and did penance for their evil before the altars of God.
These days, the descendants of these fallen angels and their demons live in the subterranean tunnels beneath the Holy City, in a place called by the Church “Hopetown,” but is more commonly called “Hells Below.” The Prodigals, the demon kind, can’t bear the light of day, but they have other talents, the legacy of their demonic past, talents the Church tries to control as they try to control the Prodigals themselves.
Wicked Gentlemen opens with the arrival of Captain William Harper, an Inquisitor, with his brother-in-law, at the shabby rooms of Belimai Sykes, a Prodigal prostitute addicted to the drug ophorium, an addiction he developed under the torturous “prayer wheels” of the House of Inquisition. The two are looking for a guide into the darkness of Hells Below, in search of Captain Harper’s sister, who has gone missing. He is also looking into the serial murder of several Prodigals, and suspects that they might be connected.
Harper, the fresh-faced dedicated Church officer, isn’t as blindly obedient nor as innocent as he seems, and Belimai, the seedy, cynical whore, hides a fierce loyalty and a longing for beauty that breaks your heart. They both have many secrets that they hide from the world and from each other, even as they fumble towards something resembling a relationship.
“Mr. Sykes and the Firefly” is the first story, told by Belimai in the first person point of view, and gradually opens up the world of Crowncross, unfolding it like a great old map with “Here Abide Dragons” marked on it. The story here deals with the serial murders. The second, “Captain Harper and the Sixty Second Circle,” is from Captain Harper’s third person perspective, and intertwined with the story of murder and corruption at the highest levels of the Church is the slowly blossoming love between Harper and Belimai, as the latter deals with his addictions and the former deals with the betrayal of his beliefs and the exposure of his past.
These stories are chillingly beautiful, and despite the Gothic setting and the haunting sadness that permeates such a dark place, still manage to maintain a sense of hope that Right will prevail. The characters of Harper and Belimai are as complex as the setting, light riddled with darkness and darkness longing for light, and despite their appearing to be polar opposites, are perfectly matched. There are touches of humor, mostly sarcastic, that lighten the tone, and the scenes of Belimai’s withdrawal at Harper’s home are full of hope and poignancy.
Wicked Gentlemen is a fairy tale, as dark and frightening and beautiful as the best of Grimm, and as truthful. It made me wish for more stories about Belimai Sykes and William Harper, and that is something I rarely do.
Buy on Amazon
The last of the three novellas that comprise the Talker series was up for review, but I can’t review just Talker’s Graduation without referencing the first two stories, because essentially, this is one book, broken into three sections. Normally, that would irk me, because if a story is as continuous as this one is, it should be in one book, not a series of novellas. But this case is an exception. Each of the stories has its own tone, its own identity, and I really don’t think they would have worked as a single volume. Each should be read and savored separately.
And I do mean savored. Amy Lane is brilliant at constructing characters that you actually care about, characters that are real and flawed and lovable. Every one of them has a distinct voice, and we get two in Tate Walker, nicknamed “Talker” because he never shuts up, and Brian, his quiet, shy foil. All three stories are told with multiple flashbacks between present day and the past.
We ride along with Brian as he meets Talker in the first book; his quiet, shy, home-schooled self taken aback by the tattooed, Mohawked stranger who sits beside him on a bus headed for a track meet. Tate Walker is the “weird kid”—the one that doesn’t walk to a beat of a different drum, but is the different drummer. He’s twitchy, nervous, and talks constantly to drown out the noise in his head, when he’s not humming or singing snatches of music. He’s also horribly scarred, both inside and out. The tattoos hide the outward scars; the talking hides the inward. From everyone but Brian. “Talker” is from Brian’s POV, and the pivotal traumatic event in this book is something that happens to Tate, and it’s Lane’s genius that makes the trauma even more horrific experienced at one remove, so to speak. It’s not Tate’s emotions that drive the story, but Brian’s—shy Brian, who can’t express his feelings for his roommate until it’s too late, and who then has to deal with the crushing guilt his inability has triggered. He does it in a way that is completely in character, both in his response to Tate’s trauma and in his own coming out.
“Talker’s Redemption,” on the other hand, is told from Tate’s point of view, and the pivotal part of that story is a trauma to Brian that is a direct result of Brian’s dealing with Tate’s attacker. An important secondary character is introduced in the persona of the boys’ therapist, and their sessions are interwoven with the linear narrative of the story, maintaining a stability that could easily go off track with Talker’s point of view. Talker’s head is a freaky place to be; his attention span is nonexistent, his train of thought easily derailed (in the third book, Lane gives him a metaphor that’s lovely—his thoughts are like fish in a school, easily scattered, and he has to concentrate to get them all back in the fishbowl). Tate needs to learn to accept what happened to him, accept what happened to Brian, and move on, and it isn’t easy.
The final book in the series, “Talker’s Graduation,” deals with both of the boys’ rehabilitation—Brian’s physical, Talker’s emotional—and their growth as adults and as partners. There isn’t any great trauma in this story, but small ones, which can sometimes be more destructive to relationships. Tate is again the point of view in this one, and it’s probably necessary, because he is by far the more dramatic of the two characters, and the small things that drive the narrative here are things that affect him far more deeply than they would Brian, or that Brian would be able to effectively communicate.
I enjoyed all three of these stories immensely. The only small, niggling thing that bothers me is that the constant, back and forth switching—particularly in the last book—sometimes gets confusing. The flashbacks are mostly in italics, which definitely set the flashback apart from the linear text, but are sometimes hard to read for extended periods. And within the flashbacks, it’s sometimes a little difficult to tell exactly where in the past the flashback is occurring. This is a risk that one takes when switching between time as much as is done here. But on the whole, the stories are compelling, beautifully angsty, and the characters will stick with you for a long time.
Highly recommended. Buy link
You know how when there’s a disaster or some kind of catastrophe, it’s human nature to find someone to take responsibility? And when there’s no one to pin it on, you kind of blame everyone?
This was a very difficult review to write. I kept wanting to blame someone for this disaster, and while one would expect that the author is the natural recipient, somehow I can’t help but spread the guilt around. In fact, I kind of feel sorry for the author. I mean, I assume that there was some beta reading somewhere along the line, and it had to be read to be accepted by the publisher, and then it must have gone through edits and proofreading. Didn’t anyone stop and say, “Wait a minute”? Didn’t anyone care enough to sit down with the author and say, “You have a good idea here, but your follow-through is a mite… lacking”?
The germ of the idea is a good one: Mafioso falls in love with the FBI agent who’s setting him up, and vice versa. There’s an enormous scope for an edgy, dark, passionate story with a peek into the grimy criminal underworld.
This story ain’t it.
Instead, what we get is a fairy tale, and not one particularly well handled. The characters are flat and one-dimensional. Chris, the FBI agent, was raised in an orphanage by a saintly priest. He is the Good Guy, with issues of abandonment. We meet Jarod, the “godfather” of the title, at his mother’s funeral, where his abusive father socks him around for crying and being less than manly. He is… also the Good Guy.
Fast forward a number of years, and Jarod Greene, the Godfather of Los Angeles, is in an alley beating up a thug called Carlos (one of the few ethnic names in this story. I mean, come on. This is Los Angeles. A story set in Los Angeles without any significant Asian or African-American characters? And only one important Latino character, Jarod’s right hand man, Mike. But this, dear reader, is not the last of the disbelief-suspending we are asked to do). A drunk man staggers out the back door, and instead of offing a potential witness, Jarod… screws him through the wall. It turns out to be Chris, whom Jarod quickly gets obsessive about. He breaks up with his current boyfriend, the nephew of another crime lord, and sets Chris up in his stead. This falls in with Chris’s plan, because, of course, he’s not just an intern—that’s his cover. He’s a Special Agent.
Jarod is variously described as “the Godfather of Los Angeles” and the “underground boss who ruled over California,” and people are said to be afraid of him, but he never actually does anything bad. His organization doesn’t even sell drugs. I’m not quite sure what it does, exactly, except run a couple of nightclubs and have meetings with rival gangs (the Smith clan of Nevada, or the Giordano gang. Seriously. The gangsters are either WASPs or stereotypes). The incident with Carlos at the beginning is supposed to show how bad he is, but my first reaction was “Really? The Godfather of Los Angeles does his own dirty work?” And he doesn’t do much, just roughs him up a bit before he sees Chris and decides—with that short attention span, how did he ever get to be Godfather?—that Chris was much more interesting. (“You betrayed me, Carlos! You’re going to suff… oooh, shiny!!”) Read the rest of this entry
Daniel Logan is on a lonely quest to find out what drove his lover, a wealthy, respected archaeologist, to take his own life. The answer—the elusive “key” for which Jason was desperately searching—lies somewhere on a dangerous and deadly section of Salisbury Plain.
The only way to gain access, though, is to allow an army explosives expert to help him navigate the bomb-riddled military zone. A man he met once more than three years ago, who is even more serious and enigmatic than before.
Lieutenant Rayne has better things to do than risk his life protecting a scientist on an apparent suicide mission. Like get back to Iraq and prove he will never again miss another roadside bomb. Yet as he helps Dan uncover the truth, an attraction neither man is in the mood for springs up against their will. And stirs up the nervous attention of powerfully placed people—military and academic alike.
First in conflict, then in passion, Rayne and Dan are drawn together in a relationship as rocky and complicated as the ancient land they search. Where every step leads them closer to a terrible legacy written in death…
Harper Fox is one of my “autobuys”—a writer I can depend on for interesting characters and atmospheric settings. In many ways, she reminds me of Mary Stewart, in the days when she wrote some of the most complex and romantic suspense thrillers. (Nowadays Stewart is primarily known for her Merlin and Arthur series, starting with The Crystal Cave, books that if they didn’t jump start the whole recent Arthurian romance trend, certainly contributed to it. I liked The Crystal Cave, a lot, but I loved her earlier suspense thrillers.) Fox has the same knack for making the setting part of the story, and The Salisbury Key is no exception. The great plain near Stonehenge is as much a character as Jason, Daniel or Rayne. Fox’s descriptions are lush and beautiful, and like the best of the old romantic thrillers, the suspense builds slowly but steadily after the trauma of Jason’s suicide.
The story is told in first person by Daniel, a young archeologist, as he first pursues, wins, and then grieves for his much-older mentor Jason. Daniel is an interesting and likeable character, a little wild and hedonistic. Jason is… frankly, a prick. Daniel’s near-adoration of the man informs the whole first part of the book; he not only is in love with the man, he is impressed with Jason’s status, his intellect, his achievements, and seems willing to let Jason lead him around by the nose. You get the impression that it’s less love than it is hero-worship; when Daniel quite naturally is attracted to younger men, he feels an enormous sense of guilt, even though he never acts on any attraction.
When Jason dies, Daniel blames himself, and Jason’s equally irritating friends encourage that thinking. The scenes of Daniel dealing with the fallout from Jason’s suicide are emotionally shattering, and while I felt that the beginning of the book, which was essentially a flashback to their first “date,” moved a bit slowly and was a little long for the purpose, it made Daniel’s reaction to his lover’s death all the more believable. He is not only grieving—he is destroyed. And he has no clue as to why Jason would have abandoned him like that, for no reason Daniel could see. The guilt and confusion Daniel feels is stark and painful, and completely believable.
But I think that led to one of the problems I had with this book; Daniel is so devastated, first by Jason’s death, and later by Jason’s secret betrayals, that I found it difficult to believe in his sudden relationship with Rayne. For his part, Rayne is a hard personality to get a grip on: he’s doing some grieving of his own, is firmly in the closet, and doesn’t have much patience with intellectual types like Daniel. Given the facets of his character and backstory as they are gradually revealed, I could see them building a relationship over time, but things happen too quickly on a physical level for it to work well. Daniel is grieving; Rayne is fighting his attraction to Daniel, as well as dealing with his own issues.
To be fair, modern conventions of romance, particularly m/m romance, demand a certain amount of sex fairly early in the story, but this is one instance where I can see that the old-fashioned suspense stories of Stewart and her ilk had an advantage—the tension of the unfolding story was paralleled with slowly building sexual tension. While I like well-written sex scenes as much as anyone, and Fox does write them very well, I think a slower buildup of romance, coupled with the revelations about Rayne, would have made the relationship between them more believable.
There is also a twist involving Jason’s previous career that briefly popped me out of the story. While it’s not unusual for scientists of whatever type to have a second specialty, it’s usually more like an archeologist/historian pairing, or an anthropologist/biologist pairing—something where the two careers complement each other. Having two distinctly different careers—and being notoriously successful at both—sort of stretched the believability for a moment, and was one of the few jarring elements of the story for me.
But those two issues aside, the steadily thickening plot draws the reader into the mystery with a steady hand. The suspense builds nicely, spiraling tighter and tighter; mysteries are uncovered, villains are revealed (I was quite happy with the villains; while one is sort of telegraphed, the other is completely unexpected, but logical, and dovetails nicely with the character’s earlier behavior), and in the end, the horrible secrets are discovered and the world saved—literally. Few writers can stretch the bounds of plausibility and still build to such a satisfying denouement. Harper Fox is one of them. 4 of 5 stars.
Buy The Salisbury Key at Samhain, here.