Category: Romance

Kushiel’s Dart

Cover image for Kushiel's Dart by Jacqueline Carey by Jacqueline Carey

ISBN 978-0-7653-4298-0

“Such a small thing on which to hinge a fate. Nothing more than a mote, a fleck, a mere speck of color. If it had been any other hue, perhaps it would have been a different story.”

Abandoned by her parents on the doorstep of the Night Court—home to the courtesans of Terre D’Ange—Phèdre is groomed for a life of service to Naamah in the City of Elua. But a red spot in her left eye marks her unfit to officially serve in the Night Court, so her marque is sold to the courtier Anafiel Delaunay, who raises her up to be a spy as well as a courtesan. Delaunay is also the only one to recognize what the red mote in her eye betokens; Phèdre is marked by Blessed Elua’s companion Kushiel, and she is an anguisette, doomed to take her pleasure in pain. Without knowing the depths in which she is swimming, Phèdre stumbles upon the key to a plot that threatens the Crown, and indeed Terre D’Ange itself.

Jacqueline Carey has built and elaborate world and religious system in Kushiel’s Dart, one that defies quick explanation. Indeed, the first hundred or so pages of the book have very little plot, and mostly contain exposition and world-building, which may be a hard sell for some readers to get past. The tone can also be somewhat baroque, as Phèdre is formally relating her adventures sometime after the fact. Carey’s world has very clear parallels to our Europe, but the story of Elua and his companions makes for a unique culture in which to set the story. Of those cast down from heaven to follow Elua, Naamah served by selling her body, and so in Terre D’Ange, courtesans are something akin to priestesses, practicing a holy art that is governed by custom and contract. Despite the information dumping to set this all up, I admire the way there is such a logical structure behind D’Angeline culture being kinkier, more sex-positive, and more accepting of open relationships than our own world—it is literally built into their religious system, and their way of life is logical extension of that. The sex scenes also tend to tie into the plot, as Phèdre seeks out information for Delaunay.

This isn’t our world, so it is difficult to label the characters in our terms, but most D’Angelines are what we might term bisexual. Once she enters the service of Naamah, Phèdre accepts assignations with both men and women, as does her foster brother Alcuin. This is not merely a matter of the Night Court and courtesans, however; Delaunay is also known to have loved both men and women, though some characters clearly have a preference one way or another. And of course, the great houses must make marriages to perpetual their lineage. Though both of Phèdre’s main romantic interests are men, she is captivated by her patron Melisande Shahrizai, a descendant of Kushiel’s house who understands and appreciates what it means to be an anguisette in a way that neither of the men do. But Melisande is also a wily and untrustworthy political player, to whom Phèdre cannot really give her heart.

Once the world is established, the narrative itself is a potent mix of sex and politics. King Ganelon de la Courcel is old, and his heir is his granddaughter Ysandre, who is as yet unmarried, though many have bid for her hand and failed. The succession was destabilized by the death of Ysandre’s father, Rolande, who was a killed in a famous battle driving back the Skaldi from the D’Angeline border. As Ganelon ails, the nobility are quietly skirmishing to upend the succession for their own gain. Anafiel Delaunay is somehow mixed up in the intrigue, and Phèdre and Alcuin spy at his bidding, but he does not reveal his full hand to them. This will lead Phèdre into adventures she never could have imagined when she pledged herself to Naamah’s service. Even as the succession is imperiled, Terre D’Ange is on the brink of war with Skaldia once more.

In many respects, this will be a series that is not for all readers. It is a romantic fantasy, but the sex scenes are explicit, and many of them are also violent; god-touched as she is, Phèdre is not so much kinky as we would recognize it as she is an utter masochist who takes pleasure in being subjected to violence that would be beyond the pale in reality. And while being a courtesan is a respected role in Terre D’Ange, this is not the case in other countries, and once Phèdre starts to travel, the situation gets a little murkier. I would recommend caution for anyone who has experienced sexual abuse or rape. But those who are up for it are in for a twisty, sex-positive political fantasy with many intricate layers.


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Of Fire and Stars

of-fire-and-starsby Audrey Coulthurst

ISBN 978-0-06-243325-1

“Princesses don’t play with fire.”

Princess Dennaleia of Havemont has been promised to Prince Thandilimon of Mynaria since childhood. The marriage will seal an alliance that will help the two countries defend against their mysterious and powerful Eastern neighbour, Zumourda. Denna has an Affinity for fire, one of the elements tied to worship of the Six. But magic is strictly forbidden in Mynaria, so she must hide her ability when, at sixteen, she is sent south to finally make her marriage vows. In Mynaria, Denna meets Princess Amaranthine, better known as Mare, who is the elder sister of her betrothed. Mare is charged with teaching Denna to ride a horse before the wedding, but soon sparks are flying between the two girls. When the assassination of a member of the royal family threatens to destabilize Mynaria, Denna and Mare must work together to solve the mystery before Mynaria is plunged into war.

Of Fire and Stars will have definite appeal for readers who hate love at first sight. The relationship between Denna and Mare is a bit of a slow burn. Denna appears to be the perfect princess, while Mare has rebelled against all of her family’s expectations, spending most of her time training horses. Her hobby is tolerated because the royal family breeds some of the best horses in the world, and horses are an essential part of Mynarian culture. Mare has no desire to teach a green novice how to ride, and the two get off to a rough start. But after the assassination, Denna feels sidelined by the Directorate, and Mare seems to be the only person who shares her concerns and suspicions about what is going on.

Whether it is because she is nervous in an unfamiliar place, or unusually emotional due to her unexpected feelings for Mare, Denna struggles to control her magic in Mynaria to an extent that never occurred back home in Havemont. She has succeeded in hiding her power, but her arrival in Mynaria nevertheless becomes controversial when it becomes public that the alliance will mean that Havemont will restrict access to the High Adytym, a key place of magical worship for Mynarian pilgrims. Audrey Coulthurst weaves religion and magic together, creating separatist factions, borrowing the term Recusant from the Reformation period. The political and religious conflicts are less well developed than the romance, and Zumourda in particular is a blank slate onto which anything can be written.

While a strong taboo against magic exists in Mynaria, and a slightly less stringent disapproval is noticeable in Havemont, same sex relationships are relatively free of stigma in the world Coulthurst has created. The tension in Denna and Mare’s relationship comes from the threat of upending an important political alliance between their two countries. Denna also feels guilty about breaking the promise she made in her betrothal, despite the fact that she had little choice in the matter. Mare and her brother do not enjoy a close relationship, so Mare feels less guilty about coming between them, and more angry about the fact that her brother doesn’t seem to appreciate Denna’s intelligence or respect her as an equal. There is plenty of complication in their romance, without the need for the shame of homophobia. This dynamic is very similar to the one Malinda Lo created in Ash, and indeed Coulthurst thanks her in the acknowledgments. Interestingly, however, gender roles and expectations still pose a problem for both Denna and Mare, even in a world where a woman can be captain of the guard, a woman is Queen in her own right of a neighbouring kingdom.

Of Fire and Stars is a slow-burn forbidden romance laced with magic, highly recommended for fans of Malinda Lo’s Ash.


Cover image for Soulless by Gail Carrigerby Gail Carriger

ISBN 9780316056632

“Miss Tarabotti was not one of life’s milk-water misses–in fact, quite the opposite. Many a gentleman had likened his first meeting with her to downing a very strong cognac when one was expecting to imbibe fruit juice–that is to say, startling and apt to leave one with a distinct burning sensation.” 

At twenty-six, Miss Alexia Tarabotti is a spinster. With a dead Italian father, and a rather plain visage, she has made her peace with that. More troublesome is her soulless state, a fact known only to London’s supernatural denizens, including vampires and werewolves. Unfortunately, no one informed the newly made vampire who attacked her at the Duchess of Snodgrove’s ball that touching a soulless would steal away his supernatural abilities. When Alexia kills her attacker, she finds herself under investigation by Lord Maccon, head of the Bureau of Unnatural Registry, and Queen Victoria’s deputy. But the investigation soon reveals that the attack on Alexia may have been merely the tip of a much bigger mystery.

I’m picking up Gail Carriger quite backwards, having started with her young adult Finishing School series, then Prudence, and now going back to the series that made her name, The Parasol Protectorate, beginning with Soulless. And it is a decidedly more adult series. It has all the wit and humour of Finishing School, but Alexia is not precisely a proper English spinster, and when she finds herself unusually attracted to the Scottish werewolf Lord Maccon, she is more forward than might be expected. And for his part, Lord Maccon isn’t at all bothered by her age, or her Italian complexion. And he seems to regard her unusual forwardness as an asset, even if it is sometimes rather vexing.

Soulless definitely has a good amount of romance mixed in, but it is also a mystery. The vampire that attacked Alexia smells of the Westminster hive, but no one there will admit to having made him. Meanwhile, Lord Maccon’s investigation reveals that rove vampires and loner werewolves have been disappearing for some time. And the incident seems to have brought renewed and unwelcome attention to Alexia’s soulless status. She longs to help solve the mystery, but is unable to convince Lord Maccon that BUR should give her an official position. Not only is she the subject of an investigation, but it would be completely unseemly to hire an unmarried lady of genteel birth. But she makes her own efforts, turning for counsel to her vampire friend, Lord Akeldama, who was also a fan favourite in the Finishing School series, but originated here in Soulless.

As I’ve come to expect from Carriger’s work, Soulless is a witty romp through an alternate, supernatural Victorian England, with an added bit of oomph in the romance department in comparison to the young adult works that introduced me to her oeuvre.

The Weight of Feathers

Cover image for The Weight of Feathers by Anna-Marie McLemoreby Anna-Marie McLemore

ISBN 978-1-250-05865-2

“On ne marie pas les poules avec les renards. One does not wed hens with foxes.”

The Corbeaus and the Palomas have been rivals for more than twenty years. As travelling performers, every year they cross paths at the Almendro blackberry festival, and their simmering hatred threatens to destroy both shows.  Sixteen-year-old Lace Paloma has just become a mermaid in her family’s river performance, and she knows only what they have told her about the Corbeaus. She has never seen them perform, and tries to steer clear their magia negra. So when she tells off her cousins for beating a young man she assumes to be an Almendro local, none of them realizes that this is the reclusive Cluck Corbeau, who builds the wings in which the Corbeaus perform as they dance through the treetops. And when Cluck carries her to the hospital after a disaster strikes Almendro, he doesn’t realize he has touched la magie noire of the Palomas. But when Lace’s family learns the truth, they cast her out, and Lace seeks out Cluck, determined to free herself of his curse.

The Weight of Feathers is a largely realistic YA romance with just a subtle touch of magic. The Corbeaus—who are descended from French Romani tightrope walkers—hide the feathers that grow beneath their hair, and the Palomas conceal the shimmering scales that fleck their backs inside their mermaid costumes. They each believe that the other possesses dark magic, but can never quite prove that their rivals are responsible for their ill luck. The accident that strikes Almendro, although not well explained at first, is industrial in nature. Superstition and bad blood have caused deaths before, and may yet take another life as the rivalry between the two families rekindles.

At the beginning of the book, the rivalry between the Palomas and the Corbeaus is so pronounced that their accounts of the feud sound like entirely different events, rather than two sides of the same story. Each believes the other possesses black magic, and that a Paloma must never touch a Corbeau without shedding blood. But when Lace and Cluck come together, the accounts begin to overlap and make a kind of sense, as the troubled history of the rival families is revealed. Almendro—a fictional town in California’s Central Valley—is a realistic backdrop that has its own history and problems, facing the difficulties of industrialization and poverty, and the harsh reality of the state’s long drought.

Lace and Cluck’s forbidden romance has definite shades of Romeo and Juliet, although the two warring families are ruled by iron-fisted women: Lace’s Abuela, and Cluck’s mother, Nicole Corbeau. Their rivalry is tinged with disparagement of one another’s heritage, and Cluck also seems to be an odd man out in his own family, bullied by his older brother, unchecked by their mother. Both families have some unhealthy beliefs, and Lace and Cluck are both of an age where they are beginning to ask questions and push back. However, they also have important relationships within their families. Cluck is close to his grandfather, Alain Corbeau, who once worked at the plant in Almendro. Lace’s father is a fierce ally who married into the family, and is willing to challenge the restrictions it places on her. Her Tía Lora is another outsider who married a Paloma. Family in all its complexity is on display here as the teens try to define their identities both within and apart from their circle of relations.

The tension in this story builds slowly, and so many answers are not immediately forthcoming. But McLemore’s atmospheric prose and my own curiosity kept me going. The subtle magical elements also serve as contrasting imagery, further setting the two families apart. Each chapter is headed by a French proverb or a Spanish dicho, which ground Lace and Cluck in their cultural backgrounds. Speaking French or Spanish among themselves is just one of the ways that the families deliberately differentiate themselves from one another, and also keep themselves apart from those who do not share their way of life. Inevitably, I was sucked into the forbidden romance and magic realism, and found myself enjoying the story despite the slow start.


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The Game of Love and Death

Cover image for The Game of Love and Death by Martha Brockenbroughby Martha Brockenbrough

ISBN 978-0-545-66834-7

“Someday, everyone you love will die. Everything you love will crumble to ruin. This is the price of life. This is the price of love. It is the only ending for every true story.”

Two eternal opposing forces have faced off thousands of times across the millennia, each choosing a player to represent them in the Game. From Antony and Cleopatra to Romeo and Juliet, Love and Death have fought through their proxies, and Death has always, always won. Yet they continue to play. In Depression-era Seattle, two new players are named; Flora Saudade and Henry Bishop. Flora is an African-American jazz singer who dreams of being the next Bessie Coleman or Amelia Earhart. Henry is the adopted son of a wealthy newspaper magnate, divided from Flora by race as well as class. Although they do not know that they are playing, let alone what is at stake, they must choose one another against all the odds in order to win the Game.

The Game of Love and Death is indeed, as you might expect, a love story. But it is also a story about history, inequality, and tragedy. Orphaned and dependent on his adoptive family for everything, forced to sacrifice his own dreams in order to please them, Henry doesn’t exactly think of himself as privileged. But spending time with Flora forces him to confront the fact that they cannot even go out to dinner together because no restaurant will serve a mixed race couple. He may be dependent on the good will of his adoptive family, but he still lives in a grand house, and has received a first rate education at a private school, with the promise of a college scholarship. Meanwhile, Flora’s family is being coerced by corrupt liquor inspection officials, who have the power to shut down their nightclub and destroy their livelihood. She cannot imagine how she will ever afford her dream of owning her own airplane.

Although not the main plot, the storyline of Henry’s adoptive brother Ethan is an intriguing thread running through the book. Ethan is destined to inherit the newspaper from his father, but Henry has long been helping him hide the fact that Ethan is nearly illiterate, struggling to read and write despite his innate intelligence. Henry has dreams beyond the paper, but leaving would mean abandoning Ethan. For his part, Henry is also unaware of the fact that Ethan is in love with him. Missing this crucial piece of information, he cannot see that his friend’s inability to accept himself prevents him from supporting Henry’s relationship with Flora, and their brotherly bond begins to crack.

Class conflict is evident not just in Henry and Flora’s relationship, but in Henry and Ethan’s unequal status within the family, and their work at the newspaper. Determined to sniff out a good story, Ethan’s father sends them to Hooverville, the shantytown that is home to the many men displaced and unemployed by the Great Depression. They are assigned to find out whether rumours about illegal alcohol brewing in the camp are true, forcing Ethan to decide whether he is willing to prey upon the livelihood of men who are already down and out. It would earn him his father’s approval, but it might cost him everything else.

Already divided by race and class, Henry and Flora’s star-crossed romance is further complicated by the machinations of Love and Death. When the Game begins in earnest, neither immortal is content to stand idly by. Though Love is forbidden to make either player fall for the other, and Death is forbidden to kill them, everything—and everyone—else is fair game. Flora has already lost her parents, but the Game may now cost her still more. Each immortal takes human form, insinuating themselves into the lives of the players, the better to manipulate them. Brockenbrough oversets expectations, embodying Love as a man, and Death as a woman as she transforms these immortal powers into comprehensible characters.

The Game of Love and Death is beautifully atmospheric, brought to life by Martha Brockenbrough’s exquisite writing. Marketed as Young Adult, likely due to the ages of the protagonists, it nevertheless has strong cross-over appeal. Shifting third person narration allows us to see into the minds of Love, Death, Henry, and Flora, and other minor players, as eternal themes play out on a new stage.


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Everything, Everything

Cover image for Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoonby Nicola Yoon

ISBN 978-0-553-49664-2

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book at ALA Annual 2015. All quotes are based on an uncorrected text.

“At first I just wanted to look out the window. But then I wanted to go outside. And then I wanted to play with the neighborhood kids, to play with all the kids everywhere, to be normal for just an afternoon, a day, a lifetime.”

Seventeen-year-old Madeline Whittier has lived almost her entire life inside the protective cocoon of her spotlessly clean house, breathing filtered air, and avoiding all of the possible triggers that could cause her own body to kill her thanks to Severe Combined Immunodeficiency. The extensive decontamination process for entering the house means the only people Madeline sees on a regular basis are her mother, who is also a doctor, and her nurse, Carla. So Madeline attends school online, reads extensively, posts book reviews on her blog, and enjoys game nights with her mom. For the most part, Madeline is content to explore the world through her books, but when Olly and his family move in next door, suddenly books don’t seem like enough anymore.

If, like me, you remember the terrible 2001 film Bubble Boy starring Jake Gyllenhaal, the premise of this book probably gives you hives. But while Everything, Everything is definitely a romance, crucially, it is not a romantic comedy, though Yoon definitely brings a healthy sense of humour to the table. Rather than playing Madeline’s condition for laughs, her illness becomes a meditation on wanting things we can’t have.

Madeline quickly becomes intrigued with Olly, and his odd hours and strange comings and goings provide ample entertainment outside her window. But her true feelings for him develop slowly, over email and IM, after his bizarre but charming antics convince her to give him her email address against her better judgement. Interspersed with Madeline’s narrative are drawings, emails, instant messages, and even short book reviews that she posts on her blog, all of which develop her character, and show how she builds a connection with Olly online, where she is a free to be a person rather than a patient.

For her part, Carla fulfills a role similar to that of the nurse in Romeo and Juliet, aiding and abetting Olly and Madeline’s romance with little regard for the consequences. But Carla allowing her to bend the rules while her mother is at work only leads to Madeline wanting more, wanting everything the world has to offer, not just Olly, but school, and friends, and travel. Taking what little she can have means opening herself up to hurt and disappointment and longing.

A quirky romance with a seemingly insurmountable barrier, Everything, Everything is an incredibly heart-felt exploration of first love under trying conditions.


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The Sculptor

Cover image image for The Sculptor by Scott McCloudby Scott McCloud

ISBN 978-1-59643-573-5

“My dreams keep growing, Harry. Even while my options keep shrinking.”

Twenty-six year old sculptor David Smith (no, not that David Smith) seems to have peaked early. After alienating his wealthy patron, the only bridge left unburnt in the New York art community is his childhood best friend Ollie, who is now a gallery curator. But even Ollie can’t get New York’s art collectors to look twice at David’s work. David is poised to spend his birthday drunk and alone, when he runs into his great-uncle Harry at a diner. A little the worse for the drink, it takes David a while to realize that Harry has been dead for years, and that the being inhabiting Harry’s visage is none other than Death himself. Death/Harry makes David an irresistible offer: the ability to sculpt anything he can imagine with his bare hands. The catch: he only gets two hundred days to do it. With his family long dead, David feels like he has nothing to lose if he can’t achieve artistic greatness. But then Meg drops into his life out of the blue the very night he strikes the irrevocable bargain.

Through David’s character, a typical tortured young artist, Scott McCloud confronts age-old questions about the significance of art and the desire for a personal legacy. Once David has the ability sculpt anything he can imagine, he is faced with the problem of deciding what he really wants to create, and what message he hopes to convey with his work. His first efforts fail miserably, as he can capture nothing but abstractions of everyday moments that are meaningful to no one but himself. As his numbered days slip through his fingers, David takes to the streets, not as a super hero, but as a street artist, secretly transforming pieces of Manhattan into sculptures in a desperate bid for attention.

Much like the gift of sculpting, David’s new love interest, Meg, isn’t quite as perfect as she initially appears. Though David persists in idealizing her, this prototypical Manic Pixie Dream Girls is an actual manic depressive who refuses treatment for her bipolar disorder. Their romance is somewhat bland, but it’s difficult to be too hard on McCloud when he describes David as “40% me” and David and Meg together as “70% my relationship with my wife, Ivy.” Abrasive and alienating as David is, he does need to connect to someone in order to overcome his tendency to spiral towards isolation and obsession. McCloud admits that the story itself is a simple one, but adds that “god is in the details. You have to fill the idea out properly.” In the case of The Sculptor, the filling is the art, 500 pages of it meticulously rendered over five years.

McCloud is best known for theorizing about comics in comic form, particularly in Understanding Comics (1993). But for the most part, The Sculptor is not one of McCloud’s formal experiments, or a demonstration of the breadth of possibilities extant within comics. McCloud is telling a story, intent upon pulling the reader into his world. However, we do get glimpses of McCloud’s deep understanding of the medium and all its possibilities. When David finally realizes that Harry cannot possibly be his dead uncle, two blank pages convey his glimpse of Death’s true form hiding behind Harry’s face. Many of the best sequences tread the line between fantasy and reality, such as an apparent dream sequence that turns out to be public performance art, or the moment when David plunges his bare hands into solid stone as if it was liquid.

McCloud’s rendering of New York is life-like but not stereotypical, a feat which he credits to Google Streetview. Thanks to the constant availability of actual images of New York City, McCloud didn’t feel he needed to drop in iconic sights such as the Empire State Building or the Brooklyn Bridge to help set the scene. Some of it, however, must be credited not to reference images, but to McCloud’s own ingenuity. When David walks through Times Square, hood up, head down, we don’t see the towering screens that normally define that scene, and the duotone colour palette precludes the requisite neon. Instead, McCloud locates the reader with snippets of sound, speech bubbles that float down from above carrying the chatter the advertisements that fill the ubiquitous screens overhead.

McCloud’s solid art and excellent layouts elevate a middling narrative to a commendable re-entry into the world of fiction for one of comics’ iconic voices.


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Urban Fantasy Mini Reviews: For a Few Demons More/A Kiss of Shadows

For a Few Demons More (ISBN 9781400104536)

Cover image for For a Few Demons More by Kim HarrisonAfter starting out with Dead Witch Walking by Kim Harrison and reading the first four books in The Hollows series in print, I had mostly decided the series wasn’t quite my thing. I was annoyed by the frequent spelling and grammar errors, cringing at a lot of the dialogue, and not really enjoying the constant stand offs between Ivy and Rachel. While browsing my library’s audiobook collection for something to alleviate the boredom of packing to move to a new apartment, I downloaded For a Few Demons More, narrated by Marguerite Gavin, which follows Rachel as she tries to solve a series of supernatural murders plaguing Cincinnati. Listening to the book in audio form sometimes highlights the bad dialogue, but not having to read the print pages took care of the fact that I was constantly being jarred out of the story by weird spelling errors. Combined with the fact that Rachel and Ivy have mostly stopped setting one another off every other chapter, I was actually able to really get into Harrison’s fast-paced action and enjoy this story. It seems that audio rather than print is the format for me to enjoy this series.

A Kiss of Shadows (ISBN 9780345490650)

Cover image for A Kiss of Shadows by Laurell K. Hamilton If I had looked into this book a little bit more before impulse purchasing it as an Amazon Kindle Daily Deal, I probably would have known that A Kiss of Shadows by Laurell K. Hamilton wouldn’t quite be my thing. I like my Urban Fantasy with a side of Romance, but this is really more Romance, or even Erotica, with a side of Fantasy that is only incidentally Urban. Merry Gentry is a fae princess who has been hiding among humans in Los Angeles, escaping the wrath of her aunt, Andais, Queen of Air and Darkness, and the Unseelie Court. Working for a detective agency, she stumbles over a case that involves the fae, and leads to her aunt discovering her whereabouts. But it seems that Andais has had a change of heart, and wants to bring Merry home to choose a consort, and help continue the faltering fae bloodline. While Merry makes for a strong and well-developed central character, I was struck by the relative lack of other female characters of any depth. Queen Andais mostly plays to type, and there are only incidental encounters with Merry’s Gran, and her childhood friend Keelin. Otherwise, the cast is overwhelmingly male. I also didn’t particularly enjoy the idea of Merry being welcomed home on the condition that she become a brood mare for the court. Overall, this series is definitely not for me.


More Urban Fantasy

Skin Game by Jim Butcher

Dark Currents by Jacqueline Carey