Alternate History

Review: Sword Dance and Saffron Alley by A. J. Demas

02:00

Title: Sword Dance (Sword Dance #1)
Author: A. J. Demas
Date of publication: 31 July 2019
Genre: Alt-history Romance, queer romance

Author's links:

My rating: 4 stars

Blurb
Five years ago, Damiskos’s brilliant military career was cut short, leaving him with a permanent disability and scars that are not all physical. Adrift and still grieving, he tries to find meaning in an unsatisfying job.

Work takes him to the remote seaside villa of an old friend, where, among an odd assortment of guests, he meets the eunuch sword-dancer Varazda. Enigmatic and beautiful but distinctly prickly, Varazda is the antithesis of the straightforward and serious Damiskos. Yet as they keep getting in each other’s way at the villa, their mutual dislike is complicated by a spark of undeniable attraction.

Then the villa’s guests begin to reveal their true characters and motives—no one here is what they seem—and Damiskos finds himself at the centre of a bizarre web of espionage, theft, and assassination. Varazda may need Damiskos’s help, but not as much as Damiskos, finally awakening to a new sense of life and purpose, needs Varazda.

Sword Dance is the first book in the Sword Dance trilogy, an m/nb romance set in an imaginary ancient world, with murderous philosophy students, sex acts named after fruit, and love blossoming in the midst of mayhem.

Review

This is the second book I read by this author and it is set in a vaguely similar world - alternate historical world reminiscent of Ancient Greece and Rome. I liked the world building before and I liked it here. It's a rich and vividly depicted world.

I liked suspense/murder mystery at a house party plot and was invested in it despite finding it all going a bit silly towards the end, still it''s very enjoyable and good enough background for the romance plot.

I found both MCs very interesting and likable. Damiskos and Varazda are opposites in many ways but both are decent human beings, who care about others and are open to exploring the attraction between them.

Damiskos is an ex-soldier, uncertain about his future, disabled. He struggles to find his direction in life but at the same time is comfortable in his desires and sexuality. Varazda is a non-binary sword dancer, an eunuch, a freed slave. Acting was part of his job (dancer and a spy) but women's style is also part of who he was - long hair and kohl and dresses and accesories. I found him to be a captivating character, both strong and loyal but also insecure, lacking experience in consensual sex, never before having  had a lover/partner on his own free choosing.

Their relationship started under extreme circumstance and was to some extend adrenaline driven, though their moments of tender heart-to-hearts were my favourite. The awkwardly shared fears and doubts and dreams under the cover of the night melted my heart. 

There is no HEA at the end of this book, just the promise to explore things between Dami and Varazda further.

Add to Goodreads / Buy on Amazon


Title: Saffron Alley (Sword Dance #2)
Author: A. J. Demas
Date of publication: 6 Feb 2021
Genre: Alt-history Romance, queer romance

Author's links:

My rating: 4 stars


Blurb

A month ago, eunuch sword-dancer and spy Varazda collided with ex-soldier Damiskos at a seaside villa during a dizzying week of intrigue, assassinations, and a fake love affair that—maybe—turned real. Now Varazda is back home in Boukos, at the center of a family and community he dearly loves, and Damiskos is coming to visit.

Things aren’t going according to plan.

Varazda’s family members suspect Damiskos’s motives. Varazda grapples with his own desires. Add in a horrible goose, a potentially lethal sculpture, and yet another assassination plot, and any man other than Dami would be boarding a ship straight back to Pheme.

It’s going to take all of Damiskos’s patience, and all of Varazda’s strength, to make this new relationship work. After all that, solving one more murder shouldn’t be too hard.

Saffron Alley is the second book in the Sword Dance trilogy, the continuation of Dami and Varazda’s story from Sword Dance. It crosses over with One Night in Boukos, but you don’t have to have read that book to enjoy this one.


Review


I was happy that I could read this book right after I finished the first one so I could pick up Dami and Varazda's story right where they left off.

I loved the romance here even more than in book 1 but also found the suspense, especially the whole plotline with Varazda's friend Ariston even more ridiculous than in book 1. This did nothing to detract of my joy of the rest of the story though.

Seeing Dami and Varazda becoming a couple, navigating V's family and friends, deepening their intimacy (which had its ups and downs) was wonderful.

My favourite element in the romance is how much of it is basically caring about each other, being mindful of the other person's issues (Dami's disability impairs his movement and V is also considerate of that without making a big deal about it; V's trauma impacts his ability to be intimate of Dami and Dami did his best to make their intimate experiences as comfortable, as satisfying as possible for V without making him pressured or inadequate in any way).

I absolutely loved seeing them navigate V's family and domestic routines. Dami is great with V's found family, no questions, no doubts, complete understanding of V's obligations and care for his loved ones. I liked how they navigate their intimacy, made accommodations for the traumas and disabilities of the other without making it a big deal. There was awkwardness and misunderstandings, but also a lot of care for each other, subtle gestures of support, love, trust which I loved seeing on page.

This book delves deeper into Varazda being non-binary/genderfluid. I enjoyed seeing him embrace himself (and his friends' absolute acceptance of who he is) but since I am a cis person myself I don't feel qualified to judge how well the non-binary representation was done.

The story ends abruptly but with a tentative HFN and the promise of a HEA. I am excited to read the next book in the series and see how Damiskos and Varazda and their loved ones will settle together as one big family.

Add to Goodreads / Buy on Amazon

Historical Romance

Review: The Gentle Art of Fortune Hunting by KJ Charles

02:01

Title: The Gentle Art of Fortune Hunting
Author: KJ Charles
Genre/Themes: Historical romance, M/M romance
Release Date: 24 Feb 2021

Author links: Website / Twitter / FB Group / Goodreads

My rating: 4.5 Stars


Blurb 

Robin Loxleigh and his sister Marianne are the hit of the Season, so attractive and delightful that nobody looks behind their pretty faces.

Until Robin sets his sights on Sir John Hartlebury’s heiress niece. The notoriously graceless baronet isn’t impressed by good looks, or fooled by false charm. He’s sure Robin is a liar—a fortune hunter, a card sharp, and a heartless, greedy fraud—and he’ll protect his niece, whatever it takes.

Then, just when Hart thinks he has Robin at his mercy, things take a sharp left turn. And as the grumpy baronet and the glib fortune hunter start to understand each other, they also find themselves starting to care—more than either of them thought possible.

But Robin's cheated and lied and let people down for money. Can a professional rogue earn an honest happy ever after?

Review 

This is a standalone m/m historical romance, similar in vibe to Band Sinister (which I love btw) and enjoyed it immensely.

KJ Charles is auto-read author for me and often pick her books even without reading the blurb. This is one of those times and the general promo as soft romance was enough for me to make me request the ARC.

And this story is just what I need - soft romance, high heat, no murders.

It's an engrossing story which for the most part kept me on my toes as to how the main romance (and all secondary relationships ) will play out. It is a rare thing in romance, especially when there is no action packed suspense plot. Somehow KJ Charles managed to do it, keep me guessing almost till the end and loved the unexpected twists and turns so much.

I liked both MCs and found their families and friends, even the truly bad ones, to be well drawn. Robin and Hart are opposites in many ways, grumpy-sunshine kind of romance which is my absolute catnip. 

We got intriguing full-fledged characters who read like real people. Some are beautiful and graceful and funny, others - not so much. Some love social events and being the center of attention, others - prefer the countryside or mathematics. 

I didn't expect the debt/payment bit that came at the start of Robin and Hart's relationship and was initially apprehensive how it will be handled re consent in a sexual relationship. But they talked things through every single step of the relationship and this left me confident that there is not pressure/forcing of any sorts. And apart from the surprising start, I absolutely loved their romance with all its complexities and mis-steps and finding a way to apologise and change oneself into a better person. 

I want to make a special note about families in this story. We see both amazingly close and supportive families but we also get  families that are abusive and harmful. This aspect in the story was very important for me and it is what makes it not exactly a light-hearted romance in my eyes. It's serious and moving and emotional and I loved it.

I highly recommend this book and tentatively hope for a sequel (Alice and Marianne's adventure in Europe totally have the potential to be awesome).

CWs: abuse, child abuse (in the past), neglect (in the past)

Add to Goodread / Buy on Amazon

Paranormal Romance

Review: Big Bad Wolf by Suleikha Snyder

02:01

Title: Big Bad Wolf (Third Shift #1)
Author: Suleikha Snyder 
Genre /Tropes: PNR, politics, mafia
Release Date: 26 Jan 2021

Author's links:


My rating: 3 Stars


Blurb

In 2016, New York became a Sanctuary City for supernaturals...but things quickly spun out of control. Now, Third Shift is an elite team of operatives tasked with exposing the gritty underbelly of New York's criminal-supernatural underworld, taking down the worst of the worst and protecting human- and shifter-kind alike.

Joe Peluso has blood on his hands. But lawyer and psychologist Neha Ahluwalia is determined to help him craft a solid defense...even if she can't defend her own obsession. Because Joe took out those Russian mobsters for good reason--they were responsible for the death of his beloved foster brother. Those six bad guys were part of the ruthless clan of bear shifters who control Brooklyn's Russian mafia, so his vigilante justice has earned him countless enemies in New York's supernatural-controlled underworld, and no friends in a government that now bends to Russia at every turn.

Joe knows that creatures like him only deserve the worst. Darkness. Solitude. Punishment. But meeting Neha makes him feel human for the first time in forever. He's never wanted anything in his life like he wants Neha, and he'll break almost any rule to spend a minute alone with her. But when the Russian mob attacks the jail for payback, Joe and Neha are forced to escape. Before long they're on the run--from monsters who want him dead and from their own traitorous hearts.

Review 

This is an intriguing PNR that I read in one sitting. It's action-packed, engaging, with a wonderful cast of supporting characters. Despite enjoying a lot of elements in this story, there are also some things that  didn't work that well for me.

This a paranormal romance set firmly in the politics of present-day America. I found the political messages, which I understand and fully support, to be very heavy handed in the text, very in your face, overshadowing the paranormal and romantic aspects in the story. Quotes from the news is not is not what I am looking for in PNR. 

It's the first book in what shapes to be multi-book series and I felt the world building was very sketchy and was overshadowed by the thriller aspect. I am sad to say at times it read more like a mafia book than a PNR. 

I did like the diversity of the cast, the fast pace and the whole secret operations/team of super soldiers aspect worked very well for me. There was tension and intrigue and humour, a side romance that I very much liked. 

I have mixed feelings about the main romance though. It was steamy and the sexual attraction was off the charts. At the same time, I was not a fan of the danger banging and felt there is not enough substance in Neha and Joe's relationship. It was a fated mates sort of situation though both Neha and Joe very much insisted in entering the relationship on their own free will. Both Joe and Neha acted on their attraction their own, not just being led by some supernatural forces. 

Yet, I didn't understand fully her attraction to him and they kept having the same argument over and over again of him not being good enough/worthy of her. It was repetitive and didn't really show any growth of their relationship beyond the sexual attraction.

I was not bothered by Joe being  grumpy, surly, mostly unrepentant about his past. Giant surly heroes with the softest heart are my catnip. What I was bothered by was his lack of trust in her, no growth in their relationship. 

On the positive side, I absolutely loved the side characters, all of them, Neha's friends/bosses and relative, the whole third Shift crew, they were all great, full-fledged and I can't wait to read more about them. 

Overall, this book was not what I expected and it had both things that worked great for me and things that I found annoying, making it very hard for me to review it. It's very much a YMMV situation, so I would suggest you give it a try if you like high-stakes, fast-paces, PNR with strong political aspect and diverse cast. 

Add on Goodreads / Buy on Amazon

Alix E. Harrow

Review: The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow

03:28

Title: The Once and Future Witches
Author: Alix E. Harrow
Genre /Tropes: Fantasy, Witches
Release Date: 13 Oct 2020

Author's links:

My rating: 4 Stars





Blurb

In 1893, there's no such thing as witches. There used to be, in the wild, dark days before the burnings began, but now witching is nothing but tidy charms and nursery rhymes. If the modern woman wants any measure of power, she must find it at the ballot box.

But when the Eastwood sisters--James Juniper, Agnes Amaranth, and Beatrice Belladonna--join the suffragists of New Salem, they begin to pursue the forgotten words and ways that might turn the women's movement into the witch's movement. Stalked by shadows and sickness, hunted by forces who will not suffer a witch to vote-and perhaps not even to live-the sisters will need to delve into the oldest magics, draw new alliances, and heal the bond between them if they want to survive.

There's no such thing as witches. But there will be.
 

Review


I absolutely loved this author's debut, The Ten Thousand Doors of January, and was very excited to read this one too. In the end reading it was a wild ride, it's a rich, mesmerizing and loudly feminist but also dark, slow at times and disturbing. 

It started a bit slow for me and it took me a while to warm of the the three sisters but after the half mark, it picked up pace significantly and I couldn't put it down till the end.

The author creates a rich world of spells and witching populated with diverse characters, all standing firmly on their own, all of them quite memorable. At the same time there were some dark and painful to read scene for me to read personally

In full honesty it all felt very gender essentialist to me at aroudn 30%, and I was worried it will go fully into "all men are bad and all women must fight them with any means at their disposal". I am glad to say this changed and as the story continued there was less focus on gender but rather on power dynamic, people with all the power and rights and people with none of them. 

It was truly empowering, there were moments of joy, true friendship and camaraderie. I would say the focus is on building relationships of all kinds - familial, between friends and co-workers, between lovers. 

I appreciate the casual queer rep and the way the author explored racial relations, labour and voting rights. 

There are strong love/romance elements which made the romance reader in me ecstatic. They were not the main focus of the story but they were solidly drawn and made me believe in them and in their HEAs. 

The ending was both unexpected and fitting in a way. It felt right but also made me ugly cry, so there is that and I am not saying anything more in order to avoid spoiling it for other readers. 

In short, I would recommend this book with the caveat that you need to be in the right headspace for it. 

CW: abuse, torture, difficult childbirth, burning at the stake, sexual harassment

Add to Goodreads / Buy on Amazon


2020

Favourite Books of 2020

02:00




2020 was a rough year and reading was a struggle for me at times. I barely read 45 books this past year, the lowest number for me for the past couple of years. Despite the small number, there were some real gems among them and I have compiled them in a list with 10 favourite books of 2020. 

1. Boyfriend Material by Alexis Hall. Simply the best queer romcom I have read. Funny and sweet and touching, both very real and very over the top. You can read my full review here.


2. Network Effect by Martha Wells. I binged read the Murderbot series and they basically saved may sanity during the lockdown. Never in a million years I thought I would come to care so much about a sentient murder bot and their friends. 


3. Whiteout by Adriana Anders. I really this early in 2020 and it was such a great start to what turned to be a really difficult year. The story was pure adrenaline rush with a dose of romance and I am super excited for the next book coming out in August 2021. You can read my full review here.


4. Chaos Reigning by Jessie Mihalik. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, mostly after reading the previous two book in the series, I approach this one as SFF with romantic elements, rather than as a proper romance. Two people falling in love amidst trying to save their world in some space adventures. You can read my full review here.


5. One Night with the Sexiest Man Alive by Ainslie Paton. This book is all the titles as - one sexy, tropey romance that pushed all my buttons. Strong Pretty Woman vibes (minus the sex work), movie worthy grovel scene in the end. You can read my full review here.


6. Headlines by Lucy Parker. I have loved all of Lucy's books and this one is no exception. Such great enemies to lovers romance. You can read my full review here.


7. Wolf in Sheep's Clothing by Charlie Adhara. This is book 4 in an ongoing series following the same couple (human and werewolf) investigating crimes together. It's high heat, intense suspense and an ever growing romantic relationship. You can read my full review here.


8. Alpha Night by Nalini Singh. Another winner in the Psy-Changeling series. These books were my introduction to paranormal romance and continue to be my favourtie till this day. What I love the most about this story how unique it is in the Psy-changeling world yet it fits perfectly in it.


9. Sweet On You by Carla de Guzman. It's a Christmas romance set in the Philippines and I loved it. steeped in local traditions and delicious food it was a balm to the soul to read. You can read my full review here.


10. To Have and to Hoax by Martha Waters. It's a delightful regency romcom that made me laugh and swoon. You can read my full review here.


And bonus entry:

11. Division Bells by Iona Datt Sharma. I picked this on a twitter rec and was taken by surprise how gorgeous it is. It's a bit melancholy, a bit sad, a lot political and ultimately charming and hopeful and i loved it. You can read my full review here.



Historical Romance

Review: To Have and to Hoax by Martha Waters

02:00

Title: To Have and to Hoax 
Author:  Martha Waters
Date of publication: 7 Apr 2020
Genre / Themes: Historical Romance / Marriage in trouble / Romcom

Author's links: Website / Twitter / Instagram / Goodreads

My rating: 4 Stars


Blurb

In this fresh and hilarious historical rom-com, an estranged husband and wife in Regency England feign accidents and illness in an attempt to gain attention—and maybe just win each other back in the process.

Five years ago, Lady Violet Grey and Lord James Audley met, fell in love, and got married. Four years ago, they had a fight to end all fights, and have barely spoken since.

Their once-passionate love match has been reduced to one of cold, detached politeness. But when Violet receives a letter that James has been thrown from his horse and rendered unconscious at their country estate, she races to be by his side—only to discover him alive and well at a tavern, and completely unaware of her concern. She’s outraged. He’s confused. And the distance between them has never been more apparent.

Wanting to teach her estranged husband a lesson, Violet decides to feign an illness of her own. James quickly sees through it, but he decides to play along in an ever-escalating game of manipulation, featuring actors masquerading as doctors, threats of Swiss sanitariums, faux mistresses—and a lot of flirtation between a husband and wife who might not hate each other as much as they thought. Will the two be able to overcome four years of hurt or will they continue to deny the spark between them?

Review 

This is a delightful historical romcom, a solid debut by Martha Waters. It's a marriage in trouble plot and the MCs have been estranged for four! years after they had a fight. There is a also ridiculous game of pretend she starts as a way to make him show his feelings for her. It is not something that should work for me on paper but in reality, it was great fun, whimsical and light-hearted but also going deep into issues of family, marriage, intimacy. 

The writing is engaging and clever, the humour worked great for me and overall the story felt rich and very atmospheric. 

The main conflict in the story, a massive row that left Violet and Audley barely speaking to each other for four! years, could have been easily resolved with an honest conversation. It felt like they have wasted four years over nothing, and all their friends agree with me but at the same time it didn't bother me as much as I expected because of them never being in denial about their feelings and then when their game of pretend began they quickly saw through it and went on pretending while admitting their feelings to themselves (and each other eventually).

Audley is the uptight, highly determined and focused, a white knight in shining armour kind of herop (my catnip basically) who is madly in love with his wife but he is really incapable to talk about his feelings, admitting he made the wrong assumption was very difficult for him. Violet is flirty and frivolous, smart and curious and energetic and absolutely loved her. 

They have a turbulent relationship, they have to work on being more open, more trusting, need to find a way to be together but I can see they both want it and ready to put in the effort, so I can see them work as a couple in the long term and that is what got me over their stubbornness and stupidity to cling to their anger for four! years.

I love their tight circles of close friends and can't wait to read more books in the series featuring them. 

I would recommend this book with the caveat that the main conflict is based on a misunderstanding that could have been easily resolved if the MCs just talked to each other. 

Add to Goodreads / Buy on Amazon

Contemporary Romance

Review: The Forever Girl by Jill Shalvis

02:00

Title: The Forever Girl (Wildstone #6)
Author: Jill Shalvis
Date of publication: 12 Jan 2021
Genre / Themes: Contemporary Romance / Small town 

Author's links: Website / Twitter / Facebook / Goodreads

My rating: 3,5 Stars


Blurb

When Maze returns to Wildstone for the wedding of her estranged bff and the sister of her heart, it’s also a reunion of a once ragtag team of teenagers who had only each other until a tragedy tore them apart and scattered them wide.

Now as adults together again in the lake house, there are secrets and resentments mixed up in all the amazing childhood memories. Unexpectedly, they instantly fall back into their roles: Maze their reckless leader, Cat the den mother, Heather the beloved baby sister, and Walker, a man of mystery. 

Life has changed all four of them in immeasurable ways. Maze and Cat must decide if they can rebuild their friendship, and Maze discovers her long-held attraction to Walker hasn’t faded with the years but has only grown stronger. 

Review

I haven't read the previous books in the series but this works perfectly as standalone. I'd say this story fall between romance and women's fiction - there is a central love story and a HEA but also a lot of time and focus is dedicated to the other characters (found family of the MCs).

I enjoyed the world Jill Shalvis, one were friendships and family matter, where people try to do their best despite the circumstances, where they make mistakes and take wrong turn along the way but are ultimately led by kindness. We get usual dose of pets and babies, mostly for comic relief without overshadowing the romance. 

On the negative side, I felt too much of the conflict was based on misunderstanding. I realise why the Maze ad Walker couldn't discuss things openly from the start. The trauma of their childhood is a serious one that has marked them and it was not easy for them to overcome their fears and to see themselves as worthy of love. 

There were some unexpected plot twists which I liked even though the story more or less went in the direction I expected it to go from the start. It's this familiarity, knowing what is coming, that makes these books comfort reads for me. 

I found this to be a comforting, hopeful story, making me buy the romance between the MCs, leaving me convinced they are right for each other and are good for each other and can make each other happy. It's this hopefulness, the promise of a better future together, that's the reason I read romance.

CW: Child abuse, neglect (in the past), fire, lost of a loved one

Add to Goodreads / Buy on Amazon 


Flickr Images