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Kai Ashante Wilson's novella A Taste of Honey is a bittersweet story of love and loss, of sacrifices made for love, and the eternal question of what might have been.

Aqib bmg Sidiqi is a member of the minor royalty of
Great Olorum, is in training to follow his father as the Keeper of the Royal Menagerie. His family has great hopes for him, that he will marry well and raise their status, thus improving his warrior brother's chances of promotion and his scholarly sister's chances of making a good marriage herself.

But Aqib places all this at risk when he becomes the lover of Lucrio, a soldier with the diplomatic delegation from Daluça. In Olorum, sexual relationships between men are taboo and the penalty is death. Lucrio and Aqib fall passionately in love, just ten days before the delegation is due to leave.

The story unfolds in two times, the events of each night of their relationship interwoven with scenes from Aqib's future after Lucrio is gone, his marriage with a highborn royal woman, the childhood of their daughter Lucretia, his career with the Menagerie, all the things that he would have lost had he left Olorum to be with Lucrio.

But Wilson is not content with giving us just such a straightforward story, and nothing more, and in the end takes us much deeper into the realm of duty, sacrifice and love to an unexpected but satisfying conclusion. Beautifully and evocatively written.

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Mary Robinette Kowal's Ghost Talkers is a book that crosses genres with impudence and verve. It's a World War I historical romance, with a spunky red-headed heroine and a dashing military officer. It's a wartime spy thriller, with traitors and murders and secret codes. And it's a historical fantasy in which the British make use of a distinctly paranormal source of intelligence - the ghosts of soldiers killed in combat.

In Kowal's slightly alternate world, mediums are real, and the war effort has recruited them to interview the souls of those lost in battle for information about enemy weapon placements, troop movements, anything the revenant remembers about the circumstances of his death. And in turn, the mediums record their final messages for those they leave behind.

Ginger Stuyvesant is one of the mediums of the "London branch" of the Spirit Corps - so named to hide its true location in Le Havre - and her fiancé, Ben Harford, is an officer in British Intelligence. She, like all the other mediums, spends her days talking to the dead, reliving their last moments with them, and then dismissing them to the next plane. And then everything changes, when one of the ghosts reporting in is an officer she knows, stationed in Le Havre, who tells her that he thinks he was murdered - and the last thing he remembers is overhearing is a discussion between two spies that could mean the Germans are planning on targeting the Spirit Corps.

What follows is a fast-paced story of spy vs. spy as Ginger hunts clues to the identity of the spies across war-torn France. There are plenty of red herrings and false leads, dead ends and desperate plots. And of course, a love story.

What gives the narrative extra depth is Kowal's focus on the women (the mediums employed by the war department are mostly women, but the war also relied on the services of nurses, female couriers and other support personnel) and people of colour who were part of the war but are so rarely seen in fictional accounts of The Great War.

Sexism abounds. When Ginger attends a staff meeting as the acting head of the Spirit Corps, she's asked to make coffee. Her reports on the murder and subsequent related events are downplayed because she is a woman. The work that the mediums do - soul-wrenching and potentially deadly should the medium fail to disengage from the departing ghost - is dismissed as "sitting around," in a way that recollects the minimalising of the value of so much women's work. Not even Ginger's beloved Ben, who has learned to acknowledge her value and strength, is completely free of overprotectiveness disguised as gallantry.

Racism abounds as well. The strongest and most experienced medium is Helen, a woman of colour - but not only is she unable to take her natural position as leader of of Spirit Corps, she and other black mediums can't even fraternise with their white colleagues. At the same time, skilled and experienced soldiers from the Indian colonies are sidelined as drivers, and are excluded from the conditioning given to all white soldiers that ensures that they will report after death - then be mercifully dismissed, rather than left to wander the fields they died in.

Kowal's narrative moves swiftly, capturing both the horrors of war (she makes effective use of Rupert Brooke's war poems) and the "whistling in the dark" kind of humour so often found side by side with death and the constant pressure of being in a war zone. In a book which deals so powerfully with darkness, separation, sacrifice and death, she reminds us that there is also love and courage, and that after the dead have passed, life goes on.

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The Star-Touched Queen, Roshani Chokshi's first novel, is a romance-centred fantasy based on Hindu history, religion, myths and folktales. It is a delightful read - Chokshi's prose is rich and smooth, and her protagonist, the princess Mayavati of Bharata, is an enchanting character from the first time we see her, hiding behind a screen to watch the funeral of one of her father's wives.

In short order we learn that Maya is the only unbetrothed daughter of her father the raja, that she survived her mother's death in childbirth, that she has an unfortunate horoscope that warns of a marriage connected to death, and that she is a bright, strong willed, independent young woman who has some mysterious magical/mystical past/destiny that she is wholly unaware of. Growing up with the knowledge that no one would want to marry someone with a horoscope as disastrous as hers, she has imagined herself with a future outside the harem, perhaps even in a position of power and authority in her country.

Then it all changes. In order to bring peace to a war-torn country, her father announces that she will marry one of the leaders of their enemies, although he promises to allows her to make her own choice from among the suitors. But afterwards he tells her privately that it is all a ruse to lure his enemies to the palace, and that he expects her to kill herself so he has a pretext to destroy them.

When a dashing and mysterious suitor calling himself Amar interrupts her attempted sacrifice and promises to take her to his kingdom where she will rule beside him, Maya goes with him rather than take her own life. But Amar is not what he appears to be, his kingdom is not an earthly one, and he is somehow connected to the mysterious hints she has received concerning her past.

I must admit that even without much knowledge of Hindu religious symbolism, I figured out the basics of the mystery of Amar and her connection with him long before it was revealed in the text. But it was still an engaging, though not particularly demanding read.

Light, romantic fantasies often leave out the difficult issues. A review of the book by Samira Nadkarni [1] that addresses the ways in which Chokshi handled the historical and religious source material, points out some of the problematic areas, notably the exclusion of India's diverse peoples - the book presents everyone as Hindu - and the omission of issues of caste and class, and a downplaying of the sexism that pervades much of the source material.

The Star-Touched Queen is a light and enjoyable read, but I would urge readers to look at critical reviews such as Nadkarni's to gain more perspective.

[1] http://strangehorizons.com/non-fiction/reviews/the-star-touched-queen-by-roshani-chokshi/

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Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, Lois McMaster Bujold's latest entry in her long-running Vorkosigan series, is a domestic romance, with nary a hint of military action or undercover missions, and only the barest of political subplots. But that's just fine, because the romance is both sweet and mature, and it allows for many reminiscences that harken back to the earliest volumes of the series and remind us of a lifetime of events.

It also asks us to accept a revisioning of one of the central relationships of the series, that of Aral Vorkosigan and Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan. We learn, with very little warning, that for the latter decades of Aral's life, their relationship had been not one between two persons, but one between three - Aral, Cordelia, and Aral's one-time military secretary Oliver Jole. From conversations and recollections, we learn that Aral had been the one to bring Jole into the relationship, and with his death, Cordelia and Jole had not continued the relationship, although they remained friends.

The book opens three years after Aral's death, as Cordelia, Vicereine of the Barrayaran colony of Sergyar - the planet where Aral and Cordelia first met - returns after a voyage to Barrayar. She is met, as befits her rank, by Jole in his capacity as Admiral and commander of the Barrayaran troops in Sergyar space.

Slowly, they discover that time has sufficiently healed the wounds made by Aral's loss that they are both ready to contemplate relationships again - and that they are drawn to each other even without Aral to be the bond between them.

Romance between mature adults is rare in fiction, and thus a delightful thing to read. One aspect of their growing relationship and how they handle multiple issues that could derail it is that being mature and intelligent people, they don't keep secrets or hide things, they talk to each other. They know that communication, not sex, is what keeps a a relationship of the level of intimacy they desire alive year after year. I was so delighted to read a romance that is not riddled with the standard foolishness of lovers who can't be honest with each other.

Family and continuance is also at the core of this gentle romance. Miles, Ekaterin and their children make a significant entrance, and Miles' clone/brother Mark and his partner are clearly part of the family even if not present. Even more, the developing relationship between Cordelia and Jole is woven around Cordelia's plans to use preserved genetic material from Aral and herself and extrauterine reproductive technology to have the daughters that she and Aral never had the time to bring into the world. And she offers Jole the use of some of Aral's genetic material, and several of her own ennucleated ova, so that he can, if he wishes, have sons who will be both his and Aral's.

In this novel, all the action, all the suspense, is driven by decisions surrounding relationship, and yet it captivated me as much as any high-octane thriller.

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Heather Rose Jones's The Mystic Marriage is a sequel to the delightful Daughter of Mystery. Margerit and Barbara are key characters, and it is wonderful to see them further developing a unique and loving relationship throughout the events of this novel. The protagonists are Antuniet Chazillen, disgraced and self-exiled alchemical student and sister of executed traitor Estevan Chazillen, and Jeanne, Vicomtesse de Cherdillac, a wealthy and bored widow noted for her eccentricities, among them quiet affairs with other society women.

There are mysteries to solve and plots to unravel, and with all four women working to restore Antiniet's reputation and protect the royal family of Alpennia, an engaging story of intrigue and romance unfolds.

Now looking forward to the upcoming third volume in the annals of Alpennia.

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Heather Rose Jones's delightful Daughter of Mystery, is a historical fantasy of the Ruritanian variety, taking place in a not-too-alternate Europe where the napoleonic wars (or something very like them) have taken place but where there is an extra country, Alpenna, nestled somewhere between France, Switzerland, Italy and Austria and having political and military involvements with all of them.

The fantasy element in the novel comes from the existence of the mysteries - real formal magic dependent on ritual invocation of the power of the saints. In that, it is somewhat reminiscent of the religious ritual magic practised by the Deryni in Katherine Kurtz' novels.

The novel combines a number of elements - coming-of-age, romance, political mystery. The protagonists, Margerit Sovitre and Barbara are both young women not quite of age, brought together by the will of the eccentric Baron Saveze, Margerit's godfather and Barbara's employer and bondholder.

Margerit, the daughter of a wealthy but untitled family, is just starting her dancing season, during which her family hopes she will attract the best possible match - but what Margerit most desires is to be able to study the philosophy and ritual of the mysteries. Barbara is Baron Saveze's armin - a servant of special rank, his bodyguard and a skilled duellist, the daughter of a man of noble rank who died impoverished in debtor's prison, who is at the same time his bondservant and as such a chattel and part of his estate.

When the Baron dies, he leaves the bulk of his estate to Margerit, including the bond service owed to the estate by Barbara - leaving to his wastrel nephew on;y the title and the lands that are legally attached to the Saveze name.

With her fortune dramatically increased, Margarit is now one of the most interesting single heiresses in the country. Her change in status means that she can persuade her family to allow her to occupy her new holding in the capital, where she can study at the university while seeming to circulate in high society and attract a suitable husband. Barbara, now her armin, and frustrated that the Baron had not freed her in his will as he had promised to, goes with her as bodyguard. And the Baron's nephew Estefen plots his revenge on them both.

The core of the novel is the developing relationship between Margerit and Barbara, which is a slow-moving and sweet romance with many obstacles, from the differences in their rank and the mystery of Barbara's heritage to the schemes of Estefen which draw them into a treasonous plot.

I enjoyed this novel very much, although it did move a bit slowly. The characters are very well delineated, and their romance a delight to read.

Jones has written a second Alpenna novel, The Mystic Marriage, and a third, The Mother of Souls, is due to be released later this year.

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Elizabeth Peters' early standalone novel, the Camelot Caper, attracted me with its promise of an Arthurian theme. While there was just enough of Arthur to satisfy me, I was quite delighted to discover that this novel was very reminiscent in tone, plot and characterisation of one of my favourite childhood authors, Mary Stewart.

This novel, like many of Stewart's, is a sort of romantic suspense adventure built around a female protagonist who is neither weak nor stupid, although occasionally young and a touch naive. I'm not sure if anyone writes these any more - an everywoman who confronts some kind of unexpected danger, and who finds along the way a romance with a man who is not so much a saviour as a partner, who shares the mystery and the danger, but needs as much help as he gives. Wikipedia describes Stewart as "... a British novelist who developed the romantic mystery genre, featuring smart, adventurous heroines who could hold their own in dangerous situations." And that's very much the genre that The Camelot Caper falls into.

The protagonist is a young American woman, Jessica Tregarth, visiting Britain for the first time at the behest of a dying grandfather. Her own father, who died when she was young, had been long estranged from his family, but had kept a family heirloom, a not very valuable man's ring, which Jessica's grandfather had asked her to bring with her.

The mystery begins when Jessica realises that someone else wants to get the ring before she can take it to her grandfather, and seems prepared to go to some lengths to get it. Fleeing from the two men pursuing her, she meets David, a writer of romantic mysteries, who at first thinks her story is part of a practical joke cooked up by his friends, but who is soon drawn into the mystery and offers his help in getting her safely to her grandfather in Cornwall.

The Arthurian connection comes in through the belief of the grandfather that their family is descended from a bastard son of Arthur's. His conviction that there are remnants of an Arthurian fortress, perhaps Camelot itself, on the family land has nearly bankrupted the family with repeated archeological excavations.

Along the twisty path to Cornwall, Peters also treats us to visits to a number of historical churches, and of course a stop at Glastonbury, as Jessica and David chase, and are chased in turn - and captured on several occasions - by the two mysterious men.

There are no red herrings here - the resolution of the mystery is directly connected to the ring, the excavations, the bankruptcy and the ancient legend, in a satisfying way. The romance is handled lightly, growing slowly as Jessica and David manage to figure out the connections, escape their captors, and set things right.

In The Camelot Caper, Peters has written a fine example of a possibly dated but nonetheless enjoyable genre.

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I first read Anya Seton's novel Green Darkness when I was a teenager, and I haven't had the opportunity to reread it since then. Nonetheless, the story of reincarnated lovers drawn together by their karmic debt to each other, fated by memories from 400 years before their birth to either relive their tragic past lives, or transcend them, struck a deep chord in me, and I've never forgotten that aspect of the book. What I had forgotten, as unbelievable as it is to me now, was that the couple's past lived had been played out against the years of the rapid succession of Tudor monarchs from Edward VI to Mary, and finally to Elizabeth I. So the person I was then was already familiar with the theory of reincarnation, but not yet a Tudor Dynasty fanatic.

Upon rereading, I note that the modern sections of the novel seem a bit forced, with psychiatrist Jiddu Akananda being perhaps too mysterious at the beginning and his explanations too didactic at the end of the book. But the sections set in the past are so lyrically written, so wonderfully rich with detail and so well researched that I have no other quibbles. Indeed, my enjoyment of the book was perhaps greater now than when I first read it, because the supporting cast of characters (many of them, particularly the families of Anthony Browne and his second wife Magdalen Dacre, real people who did most of the things we see them doing in the novel) and the turbulent period of constant religious and political upheaval are so well portrayed, and the story of the fictional lovers Celia de Bohun and Brother Stephen Marsden so delicately woven into what is known about the historical Browne family.

A rediscovered treasure.

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I loved Lo's two earlier YA fantasy novels, Huntress and Ash, so I was quite naturally eager to read Adaptation, her foray into YA science fiction. Perhaps because of the "real world" setting - the US, only a little into our own future - the book was more obviously YA, and very much a coming of age story for the main character, Reese. It's also a story about finding your own identity, coming to terms with your own sexuality, and learning to question the authorities who try to define and confine your reality.

There's a grand government conspiracy involving aliens and biotechnology that Reese and her friend (and future love interest) David literally stumble into. There's also the beautiful stranger (also a future love interest) who turns out to be at the heart of the secret alien conspiracy. And there's a refreshing suggestion that there are more ways than one to resolve a love triangle. At the end, I found myself quite eager to read the second volume of the duology. I must add, however, that while I enjoyed it, I found that Lo's writing style is somewhat more suited to fantasy than to SF.
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The genre of fantasy is rapidly subdividing these days, and I'm not entirely certain what the distinctions are any more. I am sticking with urban fantasy as something that ha
a definition of urban fantasy as something that involves humans interacting with non-humans (vampires, demons, werewolves, elves, whatever) and the use of magic or psychic powers virtually indistinguishable from magic, in an urban setting that is directly based on real world settings (modern-day Toronto or Chicago or whatever). It may involve crimes or mysteries, or it may involve supernatural romance. Or both. I"m not all that fussy.


Jes Battis, Inhuman Resources

Battis' OSI series has held my interest through three volumes to date, and I have the fourth in my TBR pile. The premise is that there is an investigative force, CORE, complete with Occult Special Investigators, that is charged with the responsibility of dealing with all sorts of non-human and occult communities (vampires, necromancers, sorcerers, and so on) secretly co-existing with "normate" human society, investigating crimes involving members of these communities, and keeping the whole business quiet so those ordinary humans can never know. The stories focus on OSI Tess Corday, a woman of mixed heritage (and by that I mean human and demon) and her investigative partner (and roommate) Derrick Siegel. Together they solve crimes! - with the aid of an interesting collection of supporting characters, of course. But behind the episodic nature of the occult crime procedural is a sweeping arc that has to do with Tess' demon heritage.


Katharine Kerr, Licence to Ensorcell

With her lengthy Deverry Cycle epic fantasy series completed, Kerr has decided to explore the urban fantasy/paranormal romance genre, and in my opinion she quite nails it with this first volume in the new Nola O'Grady series. O'Grady is a an operative with a secret agenct whose mandate you can probably figure out right away, and her new case is to find a serial killer targeting werewolves. It's personal - O'Grady's brother was one of the victims. Her partner on the case is a hard-boiled Isreali operative, assigned to work with her because the serial killer has claimed victims in both Israel and the US. I like this new series, and the next volume is in my infamous TBR pile.


J. A. Pitts, Black Blade Blues

This is a first novel from author J. A. Pitts, and there is some roughness to it, but the premise - a lesbian blacksmith who moonlights as a props manager and is part of a medieval reenactment society - was not the sort of thing I could resist. And there are dragons! To continue the refrain, the next volume is in my TBR pile.


Kevin Hearne, Hounded

Another first novel, and a very fine one too. But how could I resist a novel about the last of the Druids, currently living in Arizona under the unlikely name of Atticus O’Sullivan. The rest of the cast of characters includes his Irish wolfhound, a werewolf and a vampire who happen to be his lawyers, several Celtic deities, the spirit of an ancient Hindu sorceress and a coven of witches. And it's funny too - Hearne has a pleasantly dry wit that is well integrated into the style and storytelling. The next volumes is... oh, you know where it is.


Tate Hallaway, Almost to Die For

You, constant reader, already know that I think very highly of Lyda Morehouse's work, and of course you are aware that Tate Hallaway is the name Morehouse uses for her contemporary supernatural urban romance fantasy work (did I cover all the bases there?). This is the first volume in a new YA series about a teenaged girl whose father happens to be the leader of the vampires in her city, and by vampire tradition, that makes her his heir. I liked it, and... you guessed it, the next volume is in my TBR pile.


Tate Hallaway, Honeymoon of the Dead

And, to balance all these new series, this is the last volume in Morehouse/Hallaway's Garnet Lacey series. Garnet and her vampire lover Sebastian von Traum are finally married - but Garnet's past gets in the way of their planned honeymoon in Transylvania. A good ending to an enjoyable series. No more volumes to put in my TBR file. Sniff.

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Michelle West, writing as Michelle Sagara, has another interesting series going full blast: the Chronicles of elantra, perhaps better known as the Cast series.

At this point, I've read the first two books in the series, Cast in Shadow and Cast in Courtlight, and I am enjoying them, although not quite as much as West's other work - but I'll get into that a little later.

Fantasy doesn't often pay attention to the function of policing, being generally more interested in the doings of princes, heroes, wizards and occasional thieves, assassins and other folks from the underside who have great destinies ahead of them, for whom the local police are just another obstacle to get around. In this series, West has made her protagonist - Kaylin, a young women with a mysterious and traumatic past - a cop. She and her colleagues police the streets of the capital city of Elantra, where humans and a number of assorted other races dwell in uneasy proximity, surrounded by a band of lawless territories known as the Nightshade.

Kaylin was born in the Nightshade, where as a child she was caught up in a macabre series of ritual murders of children. she's grown now, and happy with her life - until the murders begin again and shadowy characters from her past come into her life once more.

There's a lot that I like to this series - the character and development of kaylin, the highly complex and structured society she lives in, which its multiplicity of cultures and people, all with different abilities, psychologies and customs, Kaylin's interactions with many of her colleagues and acquaintances - but this is another series published by Luna, and as with Judith Tarr's Luna series (published under the name Caitlin Brennan), there's sense that the romantic elements - which West is quite capable of handing in a way that I appreciate in other books - are just a little too foregrounded and formulaic at the same time. There's a little too much of the stereotype in some of the dark and mysterious men out of Kaylin's past, too much of the "is he evil, or just misunderstood" in their characters, too much of the annoyingly eternal triangle in their interactions with Kaylin.

That said, I'm reading 'til the end, because Kaylin herself is just too interesting to resist. Plus, she has a mentor who's a dragon, and I'm just a real sucker for that.

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The Fires of Bride, Ellen Galford

Lizzie is a researcher with Caledonian Television’s Features and Light Entertainment department. It’s time for the channel to fulfil its “statutory obligation to provide a certain number of programming hours of cultural and social material covering peripheral Scottish viewing areas” and so Lizzie is sent off to Cailleach, “the outermost island of the Utter Hebrides” to hunt down subject matter for a documentary.

There she meets former lovers Maria Milleny, an artist who has lived on the island for years but is still called “the incomer,” and Catriona MacEochan, local doctor and clan chieftain.

Their story, told in flashback, slowly unveils an ancient tradition of Goddess-worship centred on the island’s two archaeological sites – the ruined convent of St Bride and the standing stones of the Callieach Ring – and a renewed recognition of the social, sexual, economic and spiritual power of women on the island, much to the dismay of the Reverend Murdo MacNeish, minister of the Second Schismatic Independent Kirk of the Outer Isles.

A wise and witty exploration of women’s sexuality and spirituality, with a large dose of social satire and feminist sensibility – and it’s funny, too.

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Romancing the Dead, Tate Hallaway

Yep, Garnet Lacey is back, with another mystery to solve among the undead of otherwise fantastical denizens of Madison Wisconsin. Sebastian, Garnet's vampire fiancé, is missing, his ghouls (human he has a feeding relationship with) are jealous of her, his renegade half-human son Matyas has reappeared in town, there's something terribly off-centre in the new coven she's trying to form, and there's a very strange shape-shifter on the loose.

The first two books in the Garnet Lacey series, written by Lyda Morehouse under the penname of Tate Hallaway, were pleasant supernatural romance romps with solid metaphysical underpinnings, and the third volume continues in that vein - part of what I like about them is that while both Morehouse/Hallaway as the writer and her protagonist Garnet are serious and respectful toward the occult, Garnet as a character is a woman with a keen sense of the ironic, the comic and the ridiculous as well as the serious. The combination of the two perspectives in one character, and one book, creates as if by alchemy a result that seems both satisfyingly real, and patently fantastic all at once.

As supernatural romance mystery "chick-lit" goes, this is definitely some of my favourite stuff.

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In other serial reading, I have read two more books in Lois McMaster Bujold's series of books about Miles Vorkosigan, diplomat, courtier, spy (now retired), leader of a mercenary space fleet (now retired), and possibly the best-known hero with disabilities in all of science fiction.

In Komarr, there has been a serious accident in space that threatens an massive terraforming project, and Miles is dispatched in his new function as Imperial Auditor to determine if it was really an accident. The investigation morphs into a spy-terrorist plot thriller, and is all very standard Vorkosigan stuff, with one major exception - Miles is falling in love. With a woman that he really shouldn't be having anything to do with.

A Civil Campaign pursues the very tricky matter of Miles' love life against a background of court plots and significant challenges to Barrayar's very conservative thoughts on gender and sex.

Both are fun to read, and my only complaint is that after this, there is only one Miles Vorkosigan book left in the series.
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Diana Gabaldon:
Voyager
Drums of August
The Fiery Cross
A Breath of Snow and Ashes

Last year, I discovered Diana Gabaldon’s timetravelling romance series about modern-day English nurse (later doctor) Claire Duchamp and 18th century scottish laird and Jacobite supporter Jamie Fraser. I read the first two volumes, Outlanter and Dragonfly in Amber, and enjoyed them very much. I liked the dynamics between the lovers, and the complexities resulting from the displacement of Claire, with her medical experience and modern values, to Jamie’s violent and often superstitious Scotland.

In Dragonfly in Amber, we met Brianna, the grown-up daughter of Claire and Jamie, raised in the 20th century by Claire and her first husband, Frank Randall (the descendent of Captain Jack Randall, the main villain of the first volume), and celebrated at last the reunion of Claire and Fraser after a 20-year separation.

But there were a lot of books in the series still to read, and earlier this year, I read them.

Voyager takes Claire and Jamie from Scotland to the New World, while in the 20th century, Brianna begins to form an attachment with Scottish historian Roger MacKenzie (who is the descendant of the timetraveller Geillis, who is a minor antagonist in the 18th century stoyline, and a collateral branch of Jaime’s own family). Drums of August, The Fiery Cross, and A Breath of Snow and Ashes tell the story of Claire, Jamie, Brianna and Roger in pre-Revolutionary America.

There are many twists and turns, with Jamie re-establishing himself as a landowner and leader of a community of (mostly) Scottish immigrants to the Colonies, trying to negotiate a path between the Crown and the growing revolutionary movement (warned by the timetravelling members of his family that the revolutionaries will win in the end) in an attempt to keep his family and his community safe in violent times.

After six volumes, some of the plot devices are becoming repetitive. This is Jamie and Claire’s second rebellion, this is Jamie’s second time trying to protect the people he counts as his from war and political turbulence. Just about everyone has been abduct at least once, and in some cases more than once, Claire keeps running into other timetravellers at the strangest moments and so on. But the sweep and momentum of the tale remains strong, and the story of Claire and Jamie is just as engaging, even compelling as ever.

I hear the there is at least one more volume coming, and I'll be waiting for it.

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More Skolian space opera romance, by Catherine Asaro
Skyfall
Catch the Lightning

Two more volumes in the very long, and still interesting, saga of the Skolian empire and its powerful psion rulers, the Rhon telepaths of the Ruby Dynasty. Skyfall takes us back almost to the to the beginning of the time period in which the series to date, explaining just how the heir of the Ruby Dynasty, Roca Skolia, ends up marrying Elrinson Valdoria, a minor more-or-less feudal leader on an only recently re-discovered Raylicon colony, founded thousands of years ago during the first flowering of this interstellar empire.

Catch the Lightning, on the other hand, comes near the end of the series, and recounts the adventures of one of Roca and Elrinson’s grandchilden, Althor, as he becomes trapped by treachery in another dimension – where he too manages to find a Rhon telepath to fall in love with and marry, on an alternate Earth.

Formulaic by now, especially with respect to the romantic conventions, but still fun. Brain candy is a good thing to have during the holidays.
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Dragonfly in Amber, Diana Gabaldon

The second volume of Gabaldon’s saga is just as good as the first. The characters remain interesting and believable, the plot keeps moving, the romance touches the heart and the historical detail continues to give the reader a sense of “being there.” And – very important for me - unlike the gender dynamics of many of the historical romances I’ve sampled in the past, lovers Claire and Jamie continue to be full partners in their on-going quest to avert the slaughter of the Scots at Culloden.

And the use of gendered plot elements continues to be non-traditional. It’s true that Jamie occasionally voices a historically correct desire to give his 20th century wife a beating. However, the radical gender reversal of the standard rape plot, in which it is Jamie who must recover from kidnap and assault at the hands of a man obsessed with him and Claire who must contend with what’s happened to her partner and support his healing, on top of the initial reversal of sexually experienced woman matched with sexually inexperienced man, makes the whole gender dynamic read differently.

The two time periods in which this saga takes place have become disjointed in this second instalment. The 20th century timeline has advanced some 20 years; Diana is a widow with a nearly grown daughter. However, the 18th century narrative continues where it left off, with Claire and Jamie in France seeking to dissuade Bonnie Prince Charlie from mounting a full scale military engagement to regain the Scottish throne for the Jacobite lineage.

Given how the book ends, I’m not sure just how there can be four or five more chapters in Claire and Jamie’s story (and no, I’m not going to spoil the ending of this one), but I’m looking forward to finding out.

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My excuse is that I had a week of relative down-time (work was slow) and I really wasn't feeling very well, and I wanted some light reading that was interesting and engaging but not intense or overly challenging. And I'd gone out and bought a number of books in this particular series based on my enjoyment of the first one. So I read seven more of Catherine Asaro's Skolian Empire books.

The sheer fun of a sprawling space opera continues, along with enough strange dynastic and family secrets, ancient artifacts from long-lost civilizations, political intrigue and adventuring to satisfy just about anyone who'e into that sort of thing.

Schism
The Final Key

These two books are set before the time period of Primary Inversion, and focus on first introducing us to Sauscony Lahaylia Valdoria Skolia and her very unusual family, and thenshowing us how Sauscony becomes the kick-ass warrior and Imperial Heir that we met in Primary Inversion.

The Radiant Seas

This book immediately follows the events of Primary Inversion and covers about 15 odd years in familial and political developments for the Skolia family and the Empire they head. It ends with a really big space war, which is of course a necessity in a space opera, sooner or later.

Ascendant Sun
Spherical Harmonic
The Quantum Rose
The Moon’s Shadow

All four books cover roughly the same time period, from the perspectives of, respectively, Sausony's brother Kelric, her aunt Dyhianna, her brother Havyrl and her son Jaibriol. I found it very cool the way the four books interlocked, each one telling a little more of the events in the year or so following The Radiant Seas as the invlove the family of Skolia, and the politics of the Skolian and Eubian empires, until in the final book of the quartet, all the lines pull together and you finally have the full story of what's going on.

One thing I will note that became annoying for me was the increasing emphasis put on some of the more annoying of romance tropes, including the ones about people meeting for just an instant and becoming totally obseesed with each other, and forced marriages turning into real love. Sure, with telepaths, you can, I suppose, get an instant grokking of eachother - but not all of the relationships that form in weeks or even days are between two telepaths. And sure, royal families have been forced into political marriages for as long as humans have had royal families - but that's not always the reason behind the forced marriges in this series. I found The Quantum Rose particularly disturbing on this count, and it is my least favoured of the series to date. The later books of this series are definitely not for someone who in not able to deal with such tropes as extensions of romantic or sexual fantasies that, one hopes, are not sought after in real life.

The space opera aspect of these books is, for me, far preferable to the romance aspect, which I am largely ignoring at this point.

So, mixed feelings. There are three more volumes in this series, and I do intend to read them all, and I'll probably check out Asaro's other series to see if the blend of sf and romance remains acceptable, but I really hope that whatever romance there is in them is a little more realistic and a little less Wuthering Heights.

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Dead Sexy, Tate Hallaway

This is the second of Tate Hallaway’s supernatural romance novels, featuring the adventures of Garnet Lacey, witch on the run with a penchant for getting tangled up with vampire lovers, vengeance goddesses, and just plain wonderfully weird shit.

Garnet is trying to live quietly in Madison, Wisconsin, following the murder of all the members of her coven by a Vatican hit squad, and Garnet’s overshadowing by the goddess Lilith – who promptly took out the Vatican assassins. But it’s hard to hide that many bodies forever, and now the FBI is looking for her for questioning. And if that wasn’t bad enough, suddenly the town is just crawling with zombies – and you know that’s always bad news.

Hallaway – who is actually the alter-ego of Lyda Morehouse, author of the Archangel Protocol books – has a delightfully light touch that carries the reader through twists and turns of plot as Garnet tries to keep the FBI agent from finding out too much, deal with the zombie invasion, and keep current lover Sebastian from finding out that she’s letting former lover Parrish crash in her storage locker.

Dead Sexy is quick-paced, cleverly tongue-in-cheek (what else can you call a book that opens with a zombie buying a copy of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Voodoo - with counterfeit cash?) and a hell of a fun read.

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A Monstrous Regiment of Women, Laurie R. King

This is the second of the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes mysteries to be published, and I enjoyed it quite as completely as I did the first.

In this novel, Russell, about to finish with university and just on the verge of reaching her majority and gaining control of her fortune, meets an old friend who has become involved with a charismatic woman preacher and social reformer, Margery Childe. Russell, who has taken degree in theology (and in chemistry, but that is much less relevant here) is at first interested in Childe's profoundly feminist but theologically naive interpretation of Scripture, but following an attempt on her friend's life, and the discovery of a series of deaths associated with Childe's organisation, the detective in her takes over.

The Russell/Holmes relationship heats up somewhat - well, quite a bit toward the end - and while I'm not entirely certain that I would have written that aspect of the story the same way the King did, still it worked for me. However, after reading this novel, which is the second in publication order, I read somewhere that O Jerusalem is actually the next novel in chronological order, so I must read that next. Possibly it will fill in the gaps that made a few notes in the advancing Russell/Holmes relation seem not quite in key.

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