Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Vanessa Kelly - Mastering the Marquess

After the death of her father and stepmother, Meredith Burnley took on the responsibility of looking after the estate and her half-sister Annabel. When her uncle shows up she knows he is up to no good. He wants her to marry his son, if she refuses Annabel will be put in an asylum. Since he is Annabel’s legal guardian he has every right to do so. Meredith has now but one choice, with the help of her servants she runs to their estranged grandparents’ home.

Annabel’s grandmother welcomes them with open arms; her family has influence, respectability and is part of the Ton. She also knows the solution for all their problems; Annabel must marry her nephew, Stephen, who is the Marques of Silverton. But love seems to have something different in mind, for Stephen is bewitched by the bold and independent Meredith and Meredith is not quite as indifferent towards him as she wants to be, for he is the most handsome man she has ever seen. He wants to claim her for himself but dutiful Meredith will never allow her feelings for him to blossom if only for Annabel’s sake and besides she is just a shop girl, not a member of the Ton.

Stephen is the ultimate hero for every romance reader who loves the Regency genre. He is tall, handsome, a little arrogant and commanding but he also takes care of his family and is true-hearted. As a young man he fell in love and was rejected and ever since he has made sure that his heart never really got involved in any of his amorous adventures. Now at the age of 35 his whole family is pressuring him to get married, but there is just no woman he can picture himself with for the rest of his life.

Meredith is bold, pride, opinionated and very independent. She has not had an easy life so far and is a real country girl; therefore moving to London is not so easy for her. She wants to see her half-sister settled into a safe, new life and has no expectations for her own life. She learns quickly that she doesn’t fit in with the Ton and since her father made his fortune in trade she is considered just an ordinary shop girl.

Against the background of the continuous scheming and cruel society of the Ton, both Stephen and Meredith struggle with the pressure of what is expected of them. Annabel’s introduction to the Ton needs to be flawless and while Annabel seems to have no trouble taking up her rightful place next to her grandmother, it is Meredith who has trouble with all the strict rules of the Ton and she makes mistakes. Stephen is determined to help both Annabel as Meredith but struggles with his duty and loyalty towards his family, his passion for Meredith and the pressure of society.

Throughout the story you see the changes mainly Meredith has to make. Meredith has to adjust to the strict rules of society, she has to give up some of her independence and accept that Stephen’s love for her is real. Although this story has a fast-paced historical suspense plot, it is really a character-driven story. The development in the relationship between Meredith and Stephen is the pivot on which this story really hinges.

Vanessa Kelly knows how to create a superb various cast of characters. Young Robert is a nephew of Stephen and sees him as a mentor. Their interactions are hilarious and Vanessa Kelly writes witty dialogues that feel really English because she uses phrases as “old chap” and “my dear”. The Earl of Trask is Stephen’s closest friend and he is very intriguing and certainly hero material, I would love to see him in a story of his own. The dialogues between Stephen and Meredith are heated and they leap off the pages. The real threat and danger comes from Meredith’s family and Vanessa Kelly does an excellent job in making you take an instant dislike to them.

Vanessa Kelly’s debut story Mastering the Marquess is a solid and classic historical read. The only thing that bothered me a little is that it is definitely not an innovative story and it could easily be overlooked among the many new releases in the regency genre. That would be regretful, for Vanessa Kelly immediately pulled me into her story with her fluent writing. She knows how to create a drool worthy hero that reminds me of Stephanie Laurens’ heroes and her dialogues are spicy and radiant.

Mastering the Marquess will most certainly enchant every romance reader out there!

3,5 stars

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Jean Johnson - The Flame

“The Seventh Son shall he decree:
Burning bright and searing hot
You shall seek that which is not
Mastered by desire’s name
Water shall control the Flame

Eight brothers, born in four sets of twins, two years apart to the day – they fulfill the Curse of the Eight Prophecies. Though no longer trapped in exile, their growing family faces new problems. Now that it’s his turn to look for a bride, the seventh-born brother burns with curiosity and anticipation…

Koranen of Nightfall is tired of the Curse – in his case, a destructive flame that courses beneath his flesh. His brothers have wives and lovers, but all Koranen has are blistering reminders of a touch that burns… unless he can find a woman able to endure the literal heat of his passion. Then the Aquamancers arrive, at last affording Koranen the chance to find his Destined bride.

Ostracized for being too good at her job, Danau is resigned to her punishment: never knowing love. But fire and water always create steam, and things do get steamy as Danau and Koranen gradually realize they were meant for each other – even as Nightfall’s future becomes flooded with more trouble than either of them could have imagined.”

Of the eight brothers, Koranen undeniably is the hottest guy around on Nightfall Isle. But he did not really catch my eye until The Song where Jean Johnson described Koranen in his forge as a hot, lean, muscled guy wearing only a loin cloth. And now with The Flame his own destiny is finally known. Jean Johnson takes us back to Nightfall to follow the twins’ journey to find their true love and to create an incipient kingdom.

After two very humiliating experiences in the love department Koranen decided to stay away from anything that has to do with love so he cannot hurt anyone with his burning touch. For years he watched his brothers making out and enjoying themselves but now his own time has come to experience with love. He is kind, generous, understanding and a real gentleman but also lonely and frustrated, he cannot wait to passionately practice what he has learnt in theory.

Danau also had a humiliating experience with love, only she had the misfortune that her former boyfriend broadcasted her defect to the world. Now she only focuses on her work and she has given up all hope of ever experience love again. She avoids physical contact with anyone because she does not accidently want to frostbite anyone. Danau is very prickly and businesslike, a social outcast. She is very lonely for she does not have any friends and she hungers for what she cannot have. Love.

I have to say that I had real trouble with finishing this story, of all seven stories so far The Flame has the most characteristics of a true Fantasy story. For me it also felt different than the previous stories in this series. The first 100 pages were very fast-paced with lots of witty banter between the brothers and their destined brides, they are very well-matched. When the four aquamancers arrive it is very interesting and sometimes hilarious to follow Koranen’s courting adventures in discovering who his destined bride is. But as soon as he discovers that Danau is the one the focus of the story shifts to the fixing of the desalinator (a machine that provides the isle with fresh water).

There are now 3,000 people living on the isle and they all need fresh water. The plans to create an incipient kingdom are coming along nicely with lots of practical problems of course. And so we get a lengthy description of every detail that has something to do with the desalinator or the plans for Nightfall. This is where the story slows down, all the other characters fade into the background while we watch Koranen and Danau fall in love and their attempts to fix the desalinator. The problem I had from this point on with this story was that the romance plotline did not work for me. It was too sweet and I missed the raw passion and intensity that one would expect from two people who both had to do without love for so long. Furthermore Koranen was too much the gentleman and he gave in to Danau too many times. I did not feel the connection with them the way I did with other couples in previous parts of this series.

Another thing you would expect while reading the last but one part in this series is a serious further development in the ongoing plotline, but there really isn’t any serious development going on. Yes a few pinpricks here and there regarding the attempt to resurrect the Convocation of the Gods and a murder takes place, but these mini plotlines are not deepened enough and therefore do not add anything to the story and that is annoying. The romance part is not strong enough to counterbalance the lengthy descriptions of fixing the desalinator and the lack of serious developments in the ongoing plotline.

Fortunately we can count on matchmaker Morganen to put in a frequent appearance. His interactions with Danau regarding a dress are gawky and hilarious. Kelly is also a force to be reckoned with, but especially in the second half of the book I miss the banter between the other brothers. The three other aquamancers spice up the story, they all have their own disposition. Reuen is a real bitch, Chana is a real flirt and Amati is gentle. Koranen sure has his work cut out for him in his dealings with them!

So this story was definitely not what I expected and it did not knock me off my feet. For me it lacked certain intensity and the descriptions of things were too lengthy for my taste. I did not feel the emotional connection with the characters and I missed the action between the brothers. To me it feels like this part is too isolated from the rest of the series, it was an enjoyable read but nothing more. I do hope Jean Johnson is going to end this series with a phenomenal bang; the Corvis brothers certainly deserve that!

2,5 stars

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Meredith Duran - The Duke of Shadows

From exotic sandstone palaces...

Sick of tragedy, done with rebellion. Emmaline Martin vows to settle quietly into British Indian society. But when the pillars of privilege topple, her fiancé’s betrayal leaves Emma no choice. She must turn for help to the one man whom she should not trust, but cannot resist: Julian Sinclair, the dangerous and dazzling heir to the Duke of Auburn.

To the marble balls of London...

In London, they toast Sinclair with champagne. In India, they call him a traitor. Cynical and impatient with both worlds, Julian has never imagined that the place he might belong is in the embrace of a woman with a reluctant laugh and haunted eyes. But in a time of terrible darkness, he and Emma will discover that love itself can be perilous – and that a single decision can alter one’s life forever.

Destiny follows wherever you run…

A lifetime of grief later, in a cold London spring, Emma and Julian must finally confront the truth, no matter how hard one tries to deny it, some pasts cannot be disowned… and some passions never die.

OK. Right from the prologue this story had my full and undivided attention. I immediately surrendered myself to this story and was thrown back in time to the exotic sceneries of British India in the late 1850’s. Before I was even halfway through this story I realized that I discovered a real treasure that would leave me deeply impressed and utterly in awe. You don’t get to read a perfect and powerful love story like this every day and therefore it will linger in your mind long after you have closed the book. I can honestly say that it has become one of my favorite novels that I will re-read from time to time.

Meredith Duran takes you back in time to a period when England ruled over India, but England’s grip is not so firm anymore and rebellion hangs in the air just waiting for the right moment to strike. Most members of the British Indian society are so arrogant to believe that nothing will happen to the mighty society so they ignore all the signs. Well, their pride will have a fall. It is against this setting that you will meet Emma and Julian.

Emma is a rich, educated, young heiress who has come to India to marry her fiancé Marcus. But she soon discovers that the man she fell in love with is gone for good, she cannot trust Marcus for he frequently strays and is not discreet about it either. He does not love her, he only wants her money. She likes to paint and to learn more about the Indian culture but that is not allowed, proper English ladies do not mingle with Indians. Then she meets Julian and their attraction is immediate, he warns her for the rebellion and guides her through the pits of society for she does not really fit in with the British Indian society. Then the rebellion starts and Marcus betrays and leaves her, in order to survive and escape the Indians’ wrath Emma has to trust Julian with her life.

Julian is the heir to the Duke of Auburn, he is rich, handsome and also part Indian. Like Emma he is an outsider too for the Indian society thinks of him as British and the English only accept him because he will be the Duke of Auburn one day. The rejections in his past by both worlds have made him cynical and kind of a loner. He has tried over and over again to warn the English authorities for the rebellion to avoid bloodshed but no one wants to listen. The instant Julian meets Emma you feel the connection between them; they start as friends who share a certain loneliness and a love for the Indian culture. He does not sugarcoat things for Emma who is still young and naïf, circumstances throw them together and during their long journey towards safety their love starts to blossom while the world around them falls apart.

But one single decision changes everything and in the middle of the rebellion they get separated and cannot find their way back to one another. Misunderstandings keep them apart until fate throws them together again in London a couple of years later. For both of them it seems like a lifetime separated the persons they are now from the ones they had been back in India. Time apparently does not heal all wounds and Emma and Julian have to come to terms with their past and their future.

Duran’s book grabbed me by the throat and while I breathlessly followed the many ups and downs of Julian and Emma’s emotional journey, my own emotions run parallel to theirs for the length of the story. Meredith Duran’s writing is fast-paced and smooth but most of all it is rich in details, emotions and intensity. It is also very expressive which makes it easy to visualize the story and by fits and starts it is even poetic, turning every page into a lyrical masterpiece!

The book is divided in two parts; the first part takes place in India and the second part in England. During this story we see Emma change from a young, innocent, radiant woman into this bitter woman who is not fit to hold a candle to her younger self. The mutiny, the betrayal and the horrors she had to endure still haunt her every day. Julian’s masculinity radiates from the pages; he always keeps his feelings and emotions in check except when it comes to Emma. There is a whole cast of secondary characters that surround Emma and Julian, they all have their own input to the story but Marcus is the most important one. He is like a bad penny that always turns up. His life is so interlaced with Emma’s that somehow she does not get rid of him and he is trouble with a capital T.

The combination of the plotlines, historical facts, the characters, the romance, the suspense and the pace of the story is superb and unique. It is all perfectly in balance. The romance permanently sizzles from the pages, the suspense is brilliantly intertwined and towards the end of the story all the plotlines come together to be unraveled in a breathtaking, exciting and satisfying grand finale. What more can you ask for!

The Duke of Shadows is a stunning debut novel that will absorb you in a heartbeat and leaves you breathless at the end. It is one of the best historical novels out there. Meredith Duran has set the bar very high to surpass herself with her next novel. This story has captured my heart and I will always cherish it for it truly is a perfect read!

5 stars