Distraction via YA: Mask of Shadows

Mask of Shadows (book 1), from Linsey Milller, out Aug 29, 2017
I Needed to Win.
They Needed to Die.

Sallot Leon is a thief, and a good one at that. But gender fluid Sal wants nothing more than to escape the drudgery of life as a highway robber and get closer to the upper-class—and the nobles who destroyed their home.

When Sal steals a flyer for an audition to become a member of The Left Hand—the Queen’s personal assassins, named after the rings she wears—Sal jumps at the chance to infiltrate the court and get revenge.

But the audition is a fight to the death filled with clever circus acrobats, lethal apothecaries, and vicious ex-soldiers. A childhood as a common criminal hardly prepared Sal for the trials. And as Sal succeeds in the competition, and wins the heart of Elise, an intriguing scribe at court, they start to dream of a new life and a different future, but one that Sal can have only if they survive.

This time of year is generally a slog of doom in the day job for me. It’s the end of season and everything is due, which means there’s usually a significant amount of insanity as people try to get things in before deadlines, miss deadlines and beg, try to set things up for the next season and get it right this time, lick wounds and plan for the travel season that usually accompanies Sept/Oct/Nov before the holidays smack us all into a food coma. That means usually I grab the lighter bites in my TBR pile and try to carefully manage my commitments.

I had forgotten about this book until the pre-press materials started showing up in my email box. I went digging through my kindle to happily discover the galley and dove right in, causing a few late nights and late to camp drop offs as I read over breakfast. This slow start for me introduced a world of haves and have-nots, where individuals scrape to get by and figure out how to get their safe bed and food without destroying their personal ethics. It’s these personal ethics that lead Sal to an encounter with a noblewoman and changes their fate.

Heads up: this is told in the first person, which allows for an interesting bit of storytelling that Sal is gender-fluid. In the audition, they tell Ruby:

“And you can call me ‘she’ when I dress like this. I dress how I am.”
“And if you dress like neither?” Emerald asked.
“They,” I said. ….”I’m not always ‘they,’ though.”

This fluidity in gender probably served quite well in Sal’s personal history throughout early life and provided interesting color as different needs in the book created different costumes required for tasks throughout the Auditions.

The Auditions are how the Queen chooses her personal assassins. You have to be willing to do what the Queen (or her Left Hand) commands, without question, to the good of the kingdom. The Queen is working very hard, through careful assassination and politics, to knit together two kingdoms that have come out of magical-laden war worse for wear. Her commands are in effort to clean up the individuals she cannot neutralize via politics or are individuals who would have been tried for war crimes, if the evidence existed. To get there though, the would-be assassins have to out last each other, learn to blend in with courtiers and servants while putting aside their personal feelings.

The last proves to be the hardest for Sal. In trying to honor the deceased and in remembrance of personal heritage, Sal takes a personal mission. This ripples into not having an alibi, a few chess pieces moving in to play that had been dormant and a significant challenge for the final Audition to determine whether or not personal feelings could be put aside at the Queen’s command. Through careful work, Sal manages to keep the letter of the command while sliding in personal goals in an artistic fashion.

The book does end on a bit of a cliffhanger, making it a series beginning and not something that can stand alone. While things are mostly settled, there are many outstanding questions. It also makes you immediately go back and re-read, to see the underlying plot and the clues that were laced throughout that you missed on your first quick read. The layers are fairly amazing.

Depending on your personality, you may want to wait until the next book(s?) are out so you can read straight through. I can see rereading this when the next comes out so I can refresh all the layers before diving back in to see where winter leads us.

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The Bad Luck Bride (5/2 release)

All were shocked at the announcement of the “cursed” Lady Claire Cavensham to Lord Alexander Hallworth, the Marquess of Pembrooke, especially since she is already engaged to another unfortunate Lord. Perhaps she will make it to the altar this time with one of these fine gentlemen! —Midnight Cryer

No one is left breathless at the imperious pronouncement of her engagement to Lord Pembrooke more than Claire. She hardly knows the dangerously outrageous man! But after three engagements gone awry and a fourth going up in glorious flames, she isn’t in a position to refuse…

Alexander requires the hand of his enemy’s fiancée in marriage in order to complete his plans for revenge. It’s his good fortune that the “cursed” woman is desperate. However, what begins as a sham turns into something scandalously deeper…

We’re kicking off a new series and a debut for Janna MacGregor. Cavensham Brides begins with two gentlemen ready to battle.  Alex, Marquess of Pembrooke, faces off with his once-friend Lord Paul. It is easy to instantly dislike Lord Paul, as he evades every question and seems to show no remorse. The problem is that Alex does not seem to be much better a speciman of humanity, as he holds himself accountable for his sister’s actions and take the blame for them out on another. Luckily both are saved by the timely arrival of our third gentleman, one Lord Somerton. Somerton seems to be the voice of reason and common sense and I’m hopeful we’ll see more of him soon.

Alex has claimed for himself, as justice for his sister, everything that was once Lord Paul’s – which includes his rather wealthy fiancee. Lady Claire is on the verge of finally having something go her way as the letter is delivered, breaking the news of her engagement. What I enjoy most about this scene is not the meeting between Alex & Claire but the contrast between their experience of what a marriage between peers should be. Alex tells Somerton

Neither of us witnessed sterling examples of happy marriages growing up…My father was miserable after my birth when my mother died, and he never remarried.

…you need to come to terms with this betrayl, or your grief will never heal. You’ll continue to live in isolation. That doesn’t bode well for a happy life or a contented wife.

Here, he’s the voice of reason. He doesn’t like what Alex has done to exact his revenge, but believes firmly that Alex can be redeemed. Alex makes a great start at this by sheltering and protecting Claire from the brief storm that introduces them to each other. He then protects her again from the impending scandal of yet another broken engagement.

There is much in the middle as Alex slowly wins over his wife’s affection and her love, but not enough for her to trust him completely with her heart. This causes further complications as Alex fails in trusting her. To be fair, I wanted repeatedly to smack both of them upside the back of the head, tie them to chairs in the sitting room and tell them to talk to each other. He failed to tell her why he initially married her, he failed to tell her he fell in love with her and he failed to explain why he was so driven. Conversely, Claire failed to open up about her superstious reasoning she was to blame for everything bad her life, failed to tell him when she was starting to trust him and failed to properly warn her cousin of her concerns about Lord Paul.

On the grovelling index, I’m not even sure where I’d put Alex at a single puppy level — not the adorable dogs gifted in Hardly a Husband nor the puppy cannon of Suffragette Scandal. He himself might qualify as a lovesick puppy with the way he shadows Claire. He does manage to be in the right place in the right time, and does confess his sins most admirably.  It just takes him a while to get there.

I’m looking forward to the next book, given my guess at who is going to be our pair.

 

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Review: The Irresistible Rogue by Valerie Bowman

When I was pitched this book, I was offered a Regency version of Philadelphia Story with a spy twist. Not having seen the Grant/Hepburn vehicle, I had to google the reference. Secret marriage to protect the girl and now she wants out for her “real” marriage that would be appropriate for society? Sold.

I started reading the book and it begins right in the thick of it all. If you have read the previous entries in the Playful Brides series by Valerie Bowman, you’ve met Lady Daphne Swift as she first disappears for two weeks, then is caught trying to sneak out of a ball and finally as a co-conspirator. Getting to read her story is like icing on the cake after reading the previous entries. We had glimpses of her brother, his friends and the couple she helped bring together while not being overwhelmed by their happy lives. It was good to see that Lucy was still causing trouble, Jane was after all the teacakes and Cass was the calming influence on them all.

If you haven’t read the previous entries, this book does work like a bottle episode. While we get glimpses of the couples from the previous novels, none of the actors or their interconnected lives has major roles to play with the unfolding spy work being done by Lady Daphne and her Captain Rafe Cavendish. Lady Daphne is the younger sister of Julian (hero of Accidental Countess) and he served with Captain Cavendish. To be honest, there were times where my first read through were more enjoyable than the second time through after re-reading the previous books in the series. Lady Daphne seems to have gotten significantly more timid and proper at the start of the novel than we saw her in the previous novels. I’d love to know what happened between her trying to sneak out a window (to see the injured Rafe) and the start of this novel to make her want to be so perfectly prim.

What I loved about this book was that we jumped right in. Everyone wants what is best for Daphne, but the only one who is willing to contradict her and point out that what she thinks is best is not what she really wants is Rafe until after the fact. Daphne is sure that she is making the right decision and has a list with rankings to back her up on her selection of a husband, even if he is dull and a social climber that none of her family or friends would willingly seek out for friendship. Everything breaks after a few glasses of champagne and we are tossed into the spy portion of the book.

I will say that this is where it gets a little muddy for me. I understand a slip of a girl in her mid-teens being able to pose as a cabin-boy, but from the descriptions of Daphne, other than her opposite of tall status she has the figure of a girl which might be a little harder to hide when she’s in her breeches role. But assume the role she does and works hard to earn her place with the other men onboard, even convincing Rafe to teach her to throw knives (Chekhov’s skill, anyone?). Rafe keeps her out of the way, using her when the mission calls for her Russian language skills, but otherwise avoiding her to keep his hands off of her. As required in a story like this, the girl he’s sworn to protect has to get in danger at some point – and despite her proving that she can defend herself, Rafe gets her out of harms way as fast as possible. This is where the Daphne we know returns, and convinces Rafe that he needs people and more specifically he needs her.

The push-pull in this book was an interesting one. We have the Big Misunderstanding — Daphne saw a blonde doxy in Rafe’s bed on their previous outing together and firmly believes that she was there for him, despite what he says. We have the heroine masquerading as a boy to have the freedom and adventure she wanted as a girl. We have the non-titled hero who thinks that all the titled folks are worthless snobs unless they served in the war or came at their title from some other way. We have spies to hunt down in France and revenge for a lost brother/associate. We have the hero thinking he can’t have the girl because of guilt and her being too good for him — despite him believing someone who (on paper) is good enough for her is wrong for her. All these elements blend together quite nicely and allow for a lovely story that wraps up quite well, right up into the epilogue, but that’s another’s tale.