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Why are male UF protagonists badass and female protagonists… not?

I have been noticing this for a while. Although we have all these ‘strong female protagonists’ in urban fantasy – to the level that an author friend of mine said it was nearly impossible to get a publisher interested in a book with a male protagonist – I’ve noticed a disturbing theme.

Giving the protagonist a personal stake in solving the problem is a recognised way of upping the tension in the book: you, the reader, care about what happens to the protagonist. If they are in personal danger, rather than simply solving an interesting intellectual puzzle, this makes the book more exciting.

So, when you look at Book 1 (and often later books too) in an urban fantasy series, you often find that the first problem the protagonist has to solve has some kind of personal element to it, or something from the protagonist’s past is going to come back to bite them (sometimes, in urban fantasy, literally).

So, let’s have a look at who we’ve got.

Men

  • Harry Dresden. Badass wizard. His problem: he killed his evil black-wizard foster-father/mentor (Justin DuMorne) with magic in a fair fight and then killed the monster DuMorne sent after him. Killing people with magic is against the Laws of the Magic, so the White Council is after him even though it was self-defence.
  • Alex Verus. Badass wizard. His problem: he killed his evil black-wizard fellow-apprentice and escaped from his black-wizard evil teacher. Now he just wants to be left alone to run a magic shop, but nobody believes he isn’t a black wizard himself (even though he isn’t), so he’s fair game.
  • Atticus O’Sullivan. Last of the Druids. Seriously badass. Currently running an occult shop (there’s a lot of that going around) and protecting a magic sword. Practically the first thing he does in Book 1 is to see off a whole bunch of attackers without much trouble.
  • Lucian (Lucy) Colt. Badass debt collector with an MA in Art History. Ends up even more badass when given a demon heart transplant, the alternative being death.
  • John Charming. Monster-hunter – until he got turned into a werewolf. Badass. Now runs a bar.

Women

  • Owl. Gets kicked off a PhD programme for talking about the supernatural, and then offends some vampires, thus needing to accept a job from a badass dragon in exchange for his protection, thus Book 1.
  • Elena Michaels. Werewolf… and trying to pretend to herself that she isn’t one.
  • Rachel Morgan. Starts the series with a price on her head because she breaks her employment contract without having the money to pay it off. Continually has to be rescued from the consequences of her own screw-ups by her co-workers.
  • Georgina Kincaid. Bottom-of-the-pecking-order succubus. Moons after male character, allegedly-sexy Seth, because she can’t have sex with him without ripping out his life force. (So I didn’t find Seth sexy at all. So sue me.)
  • Kitty Norville. Bottom-of-the-pecking-order werewolf. Although Kitty seriously improves over the series.
  • Luna Wilder. “Tough-as-nails” werewolf police officer… who can’t control herself around her chief suspect.
  • Meg Corbyn. Sweet, but needs protecting from everything.
  • Anita Blake. Necromancer with more ‘issues’ than the National Geographic.
  • Samantha Martin. Imp. Book 1 happens because she can’t control her hellhound and gets blackmailed into helping track a killer. Because, of course, nobody would do that unless forced to.
  • Alex Craft. She’s the family embarrassment. Has to be rescued from certain death by… Death.
  • Jade Crow. She’s on the run from a powerful sorcerer, and only wants to be safe and have a quiet life. Only gets involved in the plot because she is accused of dark magic and has to clear her name before she is executed.

Is it only me that thinks that these supposedly ‘strong’ female protagonists are often… not? They may be able to kick ass, but a common theme seems to be that they have got into the situation through their own stupidity and/or carelessness, or complications arise because of their lack of ability to control either their emotions, their hormones, or their power. They also frequently need rescuing by other characters, often (though not always) male.

Their motive for getting involved in the plot also tends to be self-protection: they’re threatened, blackmailed, or otherwise forced into it. Conversely, the men are more likely to act of their own volition to protect others.

Compare this to most of the male protagonists, who most definitely have their shit together. If they’re ‘outsiders’, it’s usually because they’ve Done The Right Thing, and the authorities are corrupt/blind/ignorant/stupid/all of the above. They don’t tend to need to be rescued by anyone else, and if they have issues, they don’t whine about them.

Don’t get me wrong – I actually enjoyed a lot of the series above with female protagonists; Kelley Armstrong, particularly, is one of my favourite authors (and for seriously badass, see Casey Duncan in City of the Lost). It’s just that I would really, really like to see a few more heroines who don’t need to be rescued, who don’t get themselves into stupid situations through their own idiocy/carelessness, aren’t running away from their problems, and who actually have their shit together. Why is that so hard?

What do you think? Is this an observer effect, or is it real? Is there something about female characters that makes authors – mostly female! – want to write them as less badass and more vulnerable than the men?

Addendum:

Jane Yellowrock, in Faith Hunter’s Skinwalker series. Definitely doesn’t need to be rescued. 🙂

Addendum 2:

Carro (see comments below) has noted Joanne Walker of the Urban Shaman books – an Irish/Cherokee cop and mechanic (and shaman, obviously) as another heroine who doesn’t have to be dragged into the plot at gunpoint. Proactivity rules! 🙂

Review: Roaring Blood

Roaring Blood
Roaring Blood by Ambrose Ibsen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, which is the second in the Demon-Hearted series.

Lucy (Lucian) Colt is back, and starting to learn a bit more about the side effects of his demon heart-transplant. He’s also convinced he can kick serious necromancer ass without any of that wishy-washy teamwork stuff. And you just know how that’s going to go.

If you want a main character who’s an all-round good guy, who’s nice to old ladies and upright and honest and all that, go and read a different book. Lucy reminds me of no-one so much as Flashman (a la George MacDonald Fraser), except with arrogance and recklessness instead of cowardice. What saves him as a protagonist, though, is that Lucy – like Flashman – is shatteringly honest about his own shortcomings. Lucy’s voice as the protagonist-narrator is what makes these books. He’s like that guy who you want to smack a lot of the time, but you still can’t help liking him.

Plotwise, I thought the first book in the series (Raw Power) suffered from a bit of pacing problem. Ibsen has definitely sorted that out for this one: the action starts early and doesn’t let up. There’s lots of zombies, lots of violence and mayhem, right up till the very end. Admittedly, you won’t find much in the way of complexity here, but sometimes, that’s not what you want from a book. Sometimes, you want a likeable (sort of) protagonist and lots of zombie-killing, and that is precisely what this book delivers.

I picked up this series for something to read while waiting for Jim Butcher’s Peace Talks to come out: I really needed some urban fantasy that didn’t have any hints of romance, and Roaring Blood fills that hole admirably. Not only is there no hint of romance, but poor Lucy’s love life has got to be even worse than Harry Dresden’s.

Demon-Hearted has something of the feel of the Dresden Files, which may be due to the first-person narration by a main character who is saved from being someone you want to kick in the nuts by his self-deprecating sense of humour. I like a flawed protagonist; both Harry and Lucy screw up (big time, in Lucy’s case), but they admit it, and they learn from it (slowly, in both cases). I do wonder where Ibsen will take Lucy; he needs to move on, and I think the events of Roaring Blood indicate that he is starting to do so. I also wonder whether Ibsen will do what Butcher has, and widen his world – one of the strengths of the Dresden Files is the cast of supporting characters. There is at least one character introduced in Roaring Blood that I’d like to see again.

I’ll definitely be reading the next book – Happy End of the World.

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What makes a good story?

BooksI spend more time reading than I probably should. There are many other things I ought to be doing: laundry, ironing, writing… I console myself with the thought that somebody-or-other said that to be good at writing, you should spend a lot of time reading.

This month, I haven’t been having much luck with books. I’ve started reading several, and ended up just not feeling the love. One book was so not-feeling-the-love that I gave up completely after 15% and resolved never to read anything by that author again (at least, until someone tells me he’s stopped doing the really annoying thing he’d started doing that has made me abandon a series six books in). Another, I kind of enjoyed, but couldn’t get into, and found myself distracted by something else.

Luckily, someone recommended that I read Radiance, by Grace Draven. I burned through that in a day or so and reviewed it. It was like being thrown a lifeline: suddenly, I was reading something that I enjoyed. All my mind was on the characters, and their predicament(s), not on how much left there was in the book, and how long it was going to take, and whether I really ought to go and do some ironing instead. And when the ironing starts sounding like a good bet, you know you’re not enjoying the book.

It did, however, make me start thinking about what makes a good story for me, personally.

  • Characters. Personally, I don’t like characters who are too nice. Maybe that’s because I’m just not a very nice person myself, but give me a character who’s at least a bit grey. I particularly loathe good, self-sacrificing heroines. A heroine I particularly like at the moment is Kim Harrison’s Peri Reed: Peri is a materialist. She likes expensive cars and expensive tech. She likes having a job that gives her power and influence, and she’s not into self-sacrifice. Personally, I think we have a few too many heroines who – regardless of how ‘kick ass’ they’re marketed – still go all goody-two-shoes and self-sacrificing at the drop of a hat. I think it’s because there’s still a lot of social conditioning over what ‘nice girls’ do and don’t do – and admitting to materialistic impulses (except when it comes to clothes and shoes) is a no-no.
  • Relationships. I like a romance story every now and then, but that’s not really what I’m talking about. One author I’m continually banging on about how brilliant he is, is Jim Butcher. His Dresden Files is one series I’d hate to give up – and one of the reasons the series is so good is because of the relationships Harry Dresden has with the supporting characters. The poor guy almost never gets laid, but Butcher has surrounded his MC with a circle of friends, enemies, acquaintances, and others who are all fully fleshed-out characters in their own right. This makes the stories much more  complex and multi-layered (insofar as a series based on noir detective fiction can be complex and multilayered). Benedict Jacka’s Alex Verus series is touted as the London equivalent of the Dresden Files, and I can see why. But – despite the fact that Alex Verus is English – I still much prefer Butcher’s books. The reason, I think, is that Alex, despite several books in the series, is pretty much still a lone wolf. It limits the stories, and besides, I find myself thinking that anybody with any sense who gets attacked as often as Alex Verus does should start building his own power bloc out of self-preservation if nothing else. But the lack of people in Alex’s life really makes the books feel a bit flat.
  • Emotional connection. I like a book where I feel I know the main character – their personality, their motivations. I abandoned a very well-regarded book recently because I just couldn’t connect to the main character. It was very well written and everything, and I could see why it gets such good reviews – but I just found myself not caring what happened. Book abandoned. On the other hand, Jim Butcher (again!) is great at emotional connection. Harry Dresden is definitely a bit of a prat at times (a lot of times in the earlier books!) but he’s very easy to make a connection with, even if you’d like that connection to be your fist and his teeth. Crucially, though, Butcher himself manages to write the books through Harry’s eyes, and still show Harry as being a bit of a prat whose prattishness makes him lose out to the less testosterone-poisoned persons around him. You may sometimes want to punch Harry, but you always care what happens to him.
  • Plot. To be fair, this is a bit of a strange one. For me, I think the characters are the most important thing. Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Guns of the Dawn doesn’t have what I’d call a plot so much as it has a character arc, but I still really enjoyed the book. But whatever it is, it has to be coherent, and it has to make sense. If people do things, those things should be believable (bearing in mind that people are not always logical in real life). Also, don’t dangle things in front of the reader then fail to follow up. One of the things I disliked in The Late Scholar was the mention of a couple of land law/tax concepts that made me think there was going to be a really cool land-law/tax mystery. Then there just wasn’t. Those mentions were just left dangling, as if the author had thought of doing a cool land-law-tax mystery, then found the research to be too difficult/boring and given up.
  • Meta-plot. I’ve come to the conclusion that there are two types of series: ones with a metaplot and ones without. The Dresden Files is one of those with a metaplot. Every book (after maybe the first one or two) advance the metaplot to some kind of conclusion that Butcher already has planned. One of the things that make the Dresden Files so brilliant is that you can see that Butcher has carefully plotted the route to the final destination. You read one of the later books, and you can see ideas and plot points that were carefully seeded several books earlier; seemingly minor events suddenly turn out to have been important. The alternative is the non-metaplot type, where the hero’s situation generally does a sort of reset-to-start between books: the classic example is the noir detective who is always poor, always on the brink of bankruptcy, and always single – if he ever gets the girl, she leaves him or dies. Both – metaplot or no metaplot – are valid options, although I prefer the former. However, if you are going to have a metaplot, you need to advance it. You can have a book where the metaplot takes a back seat (or appears to), but in general, each book should take the plot a measurable step towards resolution. Otherwise, readers start getting impatient and wondering what the hell is going on. Likewise, it’s useful if your readers can tell what the metaplot is. If you just appear to have all this stuff going on, people start to get confused.
  • Not stopping the story to add a sex scene/sermon. This is a deal-breaker for me. Sex scenes irritate me much less than being preached at, whatever that says about me. But if you’re going to add a sex scene, make it mean something. Otherwise, I will just skip it (because unless I’m in the mood for a sex scene, it will bore me), and you wrote all those words for nothing. And other readers might end up skipping the whole book, or even all your books. People are funny about sex that way. However, preaching is to me what explicit BDSM-orgy-erotica is to the Clean Romance reading market. If I detect it, not only will I skip that part, I will skip the entire rest of the book, rest of the series, and quite possibly the rest of the author’s work for the rest of my life. One of my favourite authors is Terry Pratchett, and at his height, he was a master at including political and social concepts in his books. But – at his height (he got a bit obvious later on) – he never preached. The message came through the plot, and through the characters’ actions, and was far more powerful for it. I cry every time I read the passage in Going Postal about John Dearheart’s name being kept alive in the overhead. I’ve never forgotten the way he laid out the unpleasantness of Jingoism and false nationalism in JingoNor his skewering of racism in Thud! and, to a lesser extent, SnuffNight Watch deals with the revolutions, and the hypocrisy of revolutionaries who find that they have not only the wrong kind of government, but also the wrong kind of People. I could go on and on about the important political and social concepts dealt with in Pratchett’s Discworld books. Many authors who wish to make a social or political point should go and read Pratchett, and realise that the best way to make an impression on your readers is not to harangue them, or preach at them, but instead to show them – through the actions and reactions of your characters – what you mean, and why it’s important.

So, there we go. I’m going to go back to reading The Death of the Necromancer, which I first read years ago. I just found out it was really cheap on Amazon Kindle, so I’ve got myself a Kindle copy. And it’s just as good now as it was then.

What do you think?

Review: Penric’s Mission

Penric’s Mission
Penric’s Mission by Lois McMaster Bujold
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was written by Lois McMaster Bujold. To a great extent, this is all you need to know.

Penric and Desdemona are back – Penric is thirty now, and has been dispatched on a secret mission by the Duke of Adria. If everything went right, it wouldn’t be much of a story – and things go wrong almost immediately. But how? And why?

In this story, we get more information about how demon magic works, the advantages, the perils and the pitfalls, and a few tantalising hints about what Penric and Desdemona have been doing in the years since Penric and the Shaman. But really, as with all of Bujold’s work, the characters make the story – they leap off the page (not literally: even Amazon hasn’t managed that yet) and present themselves, three-dimensional and real.

The feeling I get from the Penric books is always a rather gentle amusement – I think this is greatly due to the relationship between Penric and Desdemona: somewhere between best friends, older sister/younger brother, and conjoined twins. The strong bond between them is the foundation for all of the novellas, and one has the feeling that if that endures – and it will – then they will get through anything. Together. Until finally, Desdemona has to go on alone – but only when she must.

These novellas don’t put you through the emotional wringer, but they do provide an escape into an ever-more-detailed world with fascinating, complex characters.

The ending is rather sudden – however, I rather liked it. But I hope we will have another novella; although I’m perfectly capable of making up my own after I would prefer to read Bujold’s.

And, reading this one, I realised that Desdemona sounds a lot like Lois McMaster Bujold herself. 🙂

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Writing Women in Traditionally Male Roles

Thankfully, we’ve got beyond the idea that a woman’s place in literature is to be the hero’s (prospective) love interest, and to scream and break her ankle a lot. However, I don’t think we’re quite at the stage where we’ve got it right yet – this is not surprising. What gets written in books reflects (at least in part) the author’s experiences – whether experiences in life, or what they’ve learned through deliberate research. And society has not yet figured out gender equality. To be fair, this is a pretty big ask, given how many thousands of years has been spent on the patriarchal model. It’s a bit much to expect all of that to be binned in a few decades. We’ve made a lot of progress since my grandmother’s day, when women were expected to give up their jobs when they got married, and it was normal to have the “women’s pay scale” (less) and the “men’s pay scale” (more) for the same job. We can recognise how far we’ve come, while still acknowledging that we’ve some way to go yet.

One of the less obvious issues is, what do we mean by equality?

Some kinds of equality are easy to define: women should get paid the same as men for doing the same job; men should be allowed to be midwives, and women should be allowed to be soldiers. More subtle are things like the value we put on different job roles, and different personal qualities. Traditionally female/caring roles tend to be valued less than traditionally male/aggressive roles. Personal qualities seen as traditionally “feminine”, like being caring, or diplomatic, are seen as less valuable or praiseworthy than traditionally “masculine” characteristics like aggression. When we look at literature, where there is currently an emphasis on “strong female” protagonists, especially female characters who adopt traditionally male roles (e.g. warrior/soldier) it’s interesting to note that these women are often written with so many “male” characteristics, that the impression is (quoting from someone else) “a man without a cock”.

Now, how much of this is just gender-bias, and how much is true? Is there really a psychological difference between males and females which should be written into a character?

Partly, this depends on how much of gender differences in behaviour are genetically determined, and how much is social. If we believe that there is no real psychological difference between men and women, and that all apparent differences are due to social conditioning (which a character may ignore or overcome), this has two consequences:

  1. Homo sapiens would be just about the only species that doesn’t have differential gender roles. Just about every animal species I can think of has differential gender roles between the sexes – whatever those roles might be. Since animals presumably act mostly on instinct, this must mean that in the majority of cases, females have different instincts to males.
  2. Gender dysphoria/transgenderism could not exist. You cannot simultaneously declare that there is no difference, psychologically, between males and females and then say that it’s possible for a person to be physically male and psychologically female (or the other way around). The most you can say is that you have a person of one gender who expresses the characteristics demanded of the gender role of the other gender, and societally-dictated roles are so iron-clad that it’s easier for that person to declare themselves to be the other gender, than to say that they are gender A but prefer the things that gender B is supposed to prefer.

So, yes, there’s a lot of societally-determined gender role enforcement going on – but I don’t think that we can say that there is no real psychological difference between men and women.

So, if we accept that men and women are fundamentally different, psychologically, then what does that mean for writing?

For instance, I attended a fantasy convention this year where in all seriousness one of the panel discussions was “Can a female character be an anti-hero?” I think that – given the context – the organisers were doing the “women are nice and good and moral, and men are base beasts controlled by their lusts” angle, but what this actually means is “Do women have the full range of moral and emotional responses that men do?”

Another example of rampant sexism is this article in Writers’ Digest, which defines male anti-heroes by what they do, and what their morality is, and female anti-heroes by their appearance (smudged lipstick), who they have sex with (men she doesn’t know well), and an inability to fit into traditionally female roles. Admittedly, this was published in 2008, but seriously…!

However, sexist these two examples may be, but they do have one thing right: men and women are psychologically different (just not in the way these examples assume). It’s obviously a sliding scale in both cases, with some overlap – but writing a female character does not mean taking the “easy way out” and writing a male character then adding something stereotypically female, like an obsession with shoes. Or crippling self-doubt about her looks or attractiveness. Jack Reacher and James Bond don’t have problems with self-doubt, so why should your heroine? If we accept that women and men are psychologically different, writing a female character who is essentially male (or is a caricature) can be just as sexist as writing only female characters who scream and break their ankles a lot. Equality is not achieved if the result is to obliterate femininity, or present a one-dimensional view of it.

So, how do you write a character who is female, yet does traditionally “male” things, without making her into a caricature, or just “a man without a cock”?

Furthermore, if we accept that women and men are psychologically different, this will affect how they respond to the situations they encounter, and how they relate to the other characters in the book. What is it like to be female when most of your co-workers are male? What are the characteristics of women choose to move into traditionally male roles/jobs?

To be fair, I don’t have the answer to this. My mother would be the first to tell people that I never got the hang of femininity myself, so I’m hardly in a position to explain it to anybody else. My advice would be to go and talk to women who do things similar to your “strong female” protagonist. Or if you don’t know anyone like that, read words written by those women and listen to interviews. At the very least, read about such women – what problems did they encounter, how did they handle it, how does history see them? How did their contemporaries see them?

Here are some suggestions:

Women working in traditionally male roles

Diaries and Memoirs

Women who dressed as men

Diaries & Memoirs

Other Non-Fiction

Women who have worked in traditionally male roles (personal experience) and are now authors

Women who have researched women in traditionally male roles

  • Mary Gentle. Did an MA in War Studies at the University of London, looking at the roles of women in combat/war. Wrote Ash: A Secret Historywhich is a sort of weird alternate-history/fantasy/sci-fi novel/series about a female mercenary, starting in 15th century Europe.

Fiction written by men or women who have not performed those roles, about women in traditionally male roles

These authors don’t have personal experience (as far as I know) of being a woman in a traditionally male role, but either I’ve read their stuff and I think it’s well done, or someone else has mentioned it as being good.

I intend to add to this list, as and when I can. If you have additions you would like to suggest, please comment!

Review: The Restorer

The Restorer
The Restorer by Amanda Stevens
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What I Liked
Well, I burned through this in about 24 hours. That should tell you pretty much all you need to know. However…

Amelia. Amelia is not your usual urban fantasy/horror heroine. So far, she doesn’t seem to have mad martial arts skills, she doesn’t have some amazing world-destroying power, and she isn’t drop-dead gorgeous (but insecure). Nor does she have a string of alpha-males panting after her. She’s a pretty ordinary woman running her own business – except for her ability to see ghosts.

This ghost-seeing thing was something else I liked about this book/world. It’s not what you might call a power – more like a problem. If the ghosts know you can see them, they’ll be able to fasten on you and suck your life energy away. Cool stuff. So Amelia spends her life avoiding ghosts, and the people they haunt – hence the job that means she can spend a lot of time on hallowed ground, where she’s safe from ghosts.

I liked Amelia for her very ordinariness; it gave the story a scarier feel, I think. There wasn’t that comfortable disconnect that comes from reading about a character who’s so gorgeous and powerful that you can’t quite believe in them.

There’s obviously some background involved that we don’t get – maybe that’s for a later book.

I also liked that Amelia has a trade, and we get a few little details about what cemetery restoration involves. What can I say? I like collecting odd little bits of knowledge.

The World. Interestingly, this is pretty much the real world, except for the existence of ghosts (and maybe some other stuff). But – at least as far as has been revealed – you’re not tripping over werewolves and vampires everywhere you go. This is also a pleasant change (not that I’ve anything against werewolves and vampires, but it’s nice to have a change of pace every now and then).

It’s pretty obvious that there are things Amelia doesn’t know about – hopefully, we’ll find out more in later books.

The feel of this book is different from most urban fantasy – it’s quieter and creepier, and I’d put it somewhere between urban fantasy and horror.

What I Could Have Done Without
That thing where someone says “I’m going to tell you there’s a secret, but I’m not going to tell you what it is, or I’m going to be interrupted before I tell you.” It’s so… done to death.

Other
I did spot who the murderer was quite early on – although not why.

Conclusion
A solid four-star read; it only doesn’t get five stars because it didn’t have that extra special sort of something. However, I’m definitely going to read the others in the series, and can recommend this unreservedly for anyone who wants UF/horror that works on the creep-factor rather than just splashing blood about.

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Review: Raw Power

Raw Power
Raw Power by Ambrose Ibsen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ordinary bloke gets demon heart-transplant and finds it does more than just pump blood. Plus, he now has a new job, and life has got more complicated.

What I Liked
Lucian. Lucian (who doesn’t like being called ‘Lucy’, but had probably better get used to it) rang true for me. He’s bright but lazy, making a reasonable living prodding buttock and collecting debts – and, later on, art. He’s allowed himself to drift to where he is, without thinking about any of the morality involved – and he’s so overconfident you just know he’s in for a shock. Shocks. In short, he comes off as a realistic twenty-something lad with more testosterone than brains (and since he’s a bright lad, that’s a lot of testosterone). However, he has enough self-awareness to make him someone I would actually like to spend time with.

The whole demon-heart business. This is a new idea, or at least a sufficiently new spin on an old idea that it looks new. There’s some interesting hints that we’ll see more ramifications later on in the series.

Lucian again. Lucian doesn’t go from ordinary ass-kicker to supernatural hero overnight; he does what most twenty-something lads would do in that position: he screws up. Repeatedly. It’s the testosterone thing again. It can be irritating to watch, but Ibsen made the right decision, I think. Lucian is a more interesting character for being just a bit morally ambiguous, just a bit too laddish for his own good. It’s just not realistic for an ordinary person to be given some kind of supernatural power and then to immediately think “With great power comes great responsibility; I must be sensible and mature from now on.”

The magic system. We don’t actually get much information on the magic system, but Ibsen seems to have some interesting ideas.

What could have been improved
Pacing. Apart from a few blips, everything seemed to go a bit too much according to plan. There wasn’t that sense of imminent failure and risk that heightens the tension late on in most books.

Character interactions. I’ve observed before that the best urban fantasy (at least, for me) tends to be where the main character has a team he can bounce off. Where the character is isolated, either because he has no friends, or because his colleagues aren’t sharing, it makes the story a bit two-dimensional. I’m hoping that in further books, Ibsen will lighten up and let the other characters have a bit more page time (come on, Ibsen, you’ve set up some really good stuff and I want to know!).

Conclusion
This is a solid three-star read for me; I can’t quite justify giving it four stars, not when I compare it to such authors as Kim Harrison, Faith Hunter, Jim Butcher et al. However, I think Ibsen definitely has the potential to get there. Technical things like pacing can always be sorted out with practice; what Ibsen has is the ability to write an engaging character whom you’re actually interested in reading about – and I think that’s more difficult to learn.

So, Ibsen is a new author I’m going to read more of. I love it when that happens. 🙂

I’ve already bought Book 2, Roaring Blood, which has zombies.

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Review: The Fervor, by X. Kovak

The Fervor, by X. Kovak

The Fervor, by X. Kovak

This short story introduces both Claire (who has recently discovered she is part-succubus, which explains a lot but is basically Bad News for her), and Lucas, who is an alpha werewolf (Bad News for other people).

Being a succubus means that there’s a risk that you may flip out and cause an orgy by pumping pheromones into the air around you. Being a werewolf means you can flip out and rip people into little pieces.

Pay attention, because these people are going to reappear in later books, I think.

What I Liked

Claire. I liked Claire immediately; her life has just been turned upside down by the news that she’s now classified as Supernatural, and Kovak gets a nice balance between too much complaining about the unfairness of it all (whiny and annoying) and too brave and calm (not believable). She comes off as real, and someone that I wouldn’t mind spending time with in real life.

Lucas. Now, this came as a real shock. Generally, I hate alpha male characters because they tend to be a) interchangeable and b) a$$holes who need to die. Lucas actually has a personality, and his role in the story is more than just object-of-heroine’s-lust. Kovak has put in some other things that made him different from the usual run of interchangeable alphas, which you will discover when you read the story.

The situation. Honestly, I don’t think that the blurb does this justice, because the blurb implies that we’re going to get a sort of standard unpopular-girl-does-something-embarrassing-in-class situation, and the alpha will feel sorry for her, mop up her tears, and they’ll get together…. Not happening. This is not one of those nasty, preachy books where the author tries to beat you over the head with Issues – but, really, people, the potential to accidentally cause a pheromone-induced orgy amongst a bunch of people who might be strangers (or, worse, family!) isn’t amusing. Who is to blame when people end up having sex with people they wouldn’t normally choose to? What might the consequences of removing everybody’s inhibitions be? Kovak has thought through the implications for the people involved; it’s not played for laughs, and we end up with a far more satisfying read for it.

The background world. This is a short story; we don’t find out much about the background because there just isn’t the space, but Kovak has set up something interesting. Reminds of me of some parallels in American history, which you will discover when you read the story.

What I Didn’t Like

Honestly, there wasn’t anything, and I can usually find something to bitch about.

Conclusion

  • The characters are young-adult, but the “feel” is more mature, so don’t be put off by that.
  • The sex is part of the plot, thanks for that, Kovak. Also, not overdone.
  • Thoroughly recommended; I’ll be keeping an eye out for the rest. Kovak’s got a fan here, I think. 🙂

Review: To Have and to Hold

To Have and to Hold
To Have and to Hold by Lauren Layne
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I used to say, I don’t ever read contemporary romance. Since this is the second I’ve read, I shan’t be able to say that any more!

I heard about this on the
Caffeinated Book Reviewer
blog and liked the idea. So I got a copy. Then I read it.

So, here we go. This is your traditional formula romance, so I wasn’t expecting Great Literature. I wasn’t even expecting the complexities of plotting and characterisation that I’d expect from Great Fantasy, or Great Sci Fi, which are the genres I usually read. This is formula romance: it’s supposed to be mind candy; it’s supposed to be a fast, fun read that gives you a happy pink feeling. And sometimes, that’s what you want out of a book. My star rating reflects what I expect from the book.

So, four stars.

Brooke is a wedding-planner, who’s just had the embarrassment of her professional and personal life when her fiance got arrested by the FBI at the altar. Upon which, she discovers he’s a con man – and she didn’t even know his real name.

Cue the end of Brooke’s business, and she flees up to New York to join a firm of wedding planners who’ve just lost a member to marriage. Her first wedding to plan is for Maya, a hotel heiress – and it’s being paid for by Maya’s brother, Seth, who suspects the groom is a wrong ‘un.

Insta-lust between Brooke and Seth, and the bone of contention is obviously Maya’s wedding.

Sooo…..

What I Liked
Brooke
The failure of Brooke’s business wasn’t her fault, and she’s trying to make a new start. The story did not require her to do something unutterably stupid and then get rescued from the consequences by a man.

Brooke wasn’t perfect – she was capable of saying, and doing, mean things in a fit of temper. Then she would apologise. Brooke might have been a bit too determined to look on the bright side, but she wasn’t so nicey-nicey that I wanted to smack her.

To be strictly fair, she’s not the kind of woman I’d probably spend much time with, but I could see that she was a decent person, and I wanted her to be happy.

Seth
Seth, I really liked. He had drive, commitment, and control; I do like a rational man. He wasn’t your typical chest-beating alpha male, so lots of extra points there. There was a certain amount of Mr Darcy to him – he’s the responsible, hard-working, control-freaky one who could do with learning to lighten up a bit.

Relationship: Brooke and Seth
This is make-or-break for me. I’ve read romances where I’ve just thought, “This is going to last, like, six months after the end of the book. The sex might be great, but you’ll bore each other to death.” Not so with Brooke and Seth. They’ve each got enough spine to stand up to each other, and their differences are complementary. Brooke tends to look on the bright side too much; Seth tends to be rather more of a cynic. They can each learn from each other, smooth each others’ rough edges, and have the kind of give-and-take that makes a relationship work. I think they’ll make it. 🙂

Also, this is not one of those books where you think, “If this were real, he’d be arrested for harassment or sexual assault.” You get insta-lust, but at least it’s mutual.

Maya
I loved that bit right at the end. You’ll know it when you get to it.

The Plot
This is a romance; it’s about the characters and their relationship, not about the actual plot, which is kind of fortunate because there wasn’t much of a one. But it worked.

The Writing
Layne can write. The book whizzes along, with cute banter between the characters. The editing could have been a bit better – tell me once, you don’t have to tell me again a few pages later – but it wasn’t enough to spoil the enjoyment of the story.

What I Didn’t Like
Brooke
Given what had happened to Brooke, I thought she’d be rather more suspicious of Maya’s fiance. Maybe the author was trying to get across that Brooke’s method of dealing with the issue was basically to ignore it and try to pretend it not only never happened but could never happen, but if so, that didn’t come through quite strongly enough to work properly. I was more like, WTF? Hello? Pollyanna.

Seth
There wasn’t anything I didn’t like about Seth. Apart from his name.

The Plot
The big thing that triggers the “boy loses girl” part of the book, I was left thinking, WTF? (again) Why is this such a big deal? Sounds like a sensible course of action to me. Then I thought, maybe it’s me? But no, it’s me and a bunch of other reviewers.

Overall
I really enjoyed this – hence the four stars. It’s like candy-floss: sweet and sugary and insubstantial, but great fun while it lasts. It does what it’s supposed to do: give you a nice, happy pink feeling. The world needs books that just give you a happy pink feeling without demanding much in the way of intellectual effort or being put through the emotional wringer.

Will I read another book by Lauren Layne? Quite possibly. There are two more in this series, apparently – the next one doesn’t attract me quite as much as the third.

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Review: Sovereign

Sovereign
Sovereign by C.J. Sansom
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s taken me years to get around to reading this, and having finished, I’m left with one inescapable thought: Why did it take me so long?

Matthew Shardlake and his trusty sidekick Jack Barak are off to York with the Royal Progress. King Henry is intending to to prod some serious Yorkshire buttock, and Shardlake is along to help with the legal petitions. He has also been given the task of ensuring the health and welfare of an accused traitor, who is being brought back to London for “questioning”.

Pretty soon, it’s clear that something is rotten in the county of Yorkshire (other than the King’s ulcerated leg, and the bits of traitor still nailed up over the gates), and before the tale is done, there are murders, attempted murders, lies, betrayals, seductions, narrow escapes, and celebrity gossip.

Shardlake and Barak make a good team, even though they don’t always see eye to eye, and Sansom is obviously moving their story on: this is a good thing, as it’s always vaguely unsatisfactory when the main characters’ lives never change, despite what’s happening around them.

Sansom also manages to get the paranoid atmosphere of Tudor England under the latter part of Henry VIII’s reign: an increasingly tyrannical and unstable king with nearly absolute power. Religion and politics inextricably linked. The danger that a wrong word or look to the wrong person in the wrong place, and someone might end up in the Tower of London however innocent they might be.

This series is going from strength to strength, and I will definitely be reading the rest of it.

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