Category: Fantasy

Fragments of Ash by Katy Regnery

Fragments of Ash by Katy RegneryFragments of Ash by Katy Regnery
Series: A Modern Fairytale, #7
Published by Katharine Gilliam Regnery on 25th September 2018
Pages: 358
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three-stars

My name is Ashley Ellis…

I was thirteen years old when my mother – retired supermodel, Tig – married Mosier Răumann, who was twice her age and the head of the Răumann crime family.

When I turned eighteen, my mother mysteriously died. Only then did I discover the dark plans my stepfather had in store for me all along; the debauched "work" he expected me to do.

With the help of my godfather, Gus, I have escaped from Mosier's clutches, but his twin sons and henchmen have been tasked with hunting me down. And they will stop at nothing to return my virgin body to their father

…dead or alive.

With a flip in gender-roles occurring here, Katy Regnery takes on the Cinderella story with ‘Fragments of Ash’ and starts off with brutality. But then again, the fairy-tales in their original incarnations were morality stories with barely leashed-undertones of violence, which in some way, are well-captured in what Regnery is trying to write. They offer no happy endings but rather, grim and disturbing outcomes. In this case, the loss of innocence—not only sexually—is what these origin tales do indirectly talk about, and Regnery’s portrayal of Ash’s own loss of innocence certainly fits into this particular framework.

As the downtrodden, unwanted heroine, Ashley battles these circumstances, or at least, tries to find her own self-worth as she tries to escape a life of servitude. Her temporary place of refuge brings her to an older, disgraced ex-law-enforcement man, whose experience, in contrast to her naïveté, is as jarring as their decade-old-plus age-gap.

But if this started out deliciously dark and ominous, the story did take a bit of a downward turn thereafter. I couldn’t quite get Julian’s cold-to-hot stance that felt like the flip of a light switch; one moment he was lamenting about how he never trusted women anymore and in the next he was suddenly all in like an alpha-male protector with Ash that it gave me whiplash.

From that point onwards however, there was nothing more in ‘Fragments of Ash’ that resembled the significant bits of the Cinderella story—no ball, no magical meeting with a prince, no lost glass slipper, no country-wide hunt for the rags-to-riches girl. And I guess I was quite disappointed when those bits didn’t show up, even if a retelling is obviously, one that’s expected to veer off course, off the straight and narrow into new paths forged.

The shades of grey were lacking here in any case—given the archetypal nature of the fairy tale—so villains are evil to the core, and the good, well, stay resolutely good, though there were parts where the stylised stereotypes became unwittingly hilarious more than hair-raising.

In short, ‘Fragments of Ash’ turned out to be middling read: it’s good for a day’s worth of escapism at least, as Regnery’s retellings typically are.

three-stars

Nightchaser by Amanda Bouchet

Nightchaser by Amanda BouchetNightchaser by Amanda Bouchet
Series: Endeavor, #1
Published by Piatkus Books on 1st January 2019
Pages: 416
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four-stars

Captain Tess Bailey and her crew of Robin Hood-like thieves are desperate and on the run. Pursued by a vicious military general who wants them dead or alive, Tess has to decide if she can trust Shade Ganavan, a tall, dark and arrogant stranger with ambiguous motivations.

Shade Ganavan had oodles of arrogance, oodles of charm, and oodles of something that made me want to kick him in the nuts.

What Tess and Shade don’t know about each other might get them killed…unless they can set aside their differences and learn to trust each other—while ignoring their off-the-charts chemistry.

Being a well-conditioned Star Wars fan, having a ragtag bunch of misfits playing Robin Hood, with its leader as the ultimate rebel sounds exactly like the sort of rogue space adventure I will always want to read. ‘Nightchaser’ is so different from Amanda Bouchet’s Kingmaker Chronicles (which I admittedly did struggle with) with the promise of the swashbuckling adventure of space pirates, rogue traders and a large, sort-of evil empire—all with the shades of the much-beloved Star Wars universe that I inhabit—that it was compelling enough to get into: not too epic at the start that I was left lost and wandering in an asteroid field of complex world-building but with just enough futuristic technological details so that I was eased into Bouchet’s own brand of galactic adventure before the heavy stuff comes in.

 

Tess Bailey isn’t who she seems and her story gradually unfurls after a rollicking start, though a little more slowly by the time she encounters Shade Ganavan who in turn, is both enthralled and caught in a moral dilemma where she’s concerned. Bouchet juggles both Tess’s and Shade’s backstories quite well, buoyed by a strong and loyal supporting cast of characters who make up a crew of escaped convicts—all of whose pasts aren’t exactly fleshed out. By the time this instalment ends however, there’re more questions than answers, with things left very much unfinished.

What I find particularly jarring is the use of the first-person POV for Tess, which then moves onto the third-person for Shade, so much so that it feels like the former’s voice is coming straight out of a New Adult Fantasy novel versus the more distant yet crafted/sophisticated narrative voice of the author via Shade. My preference is firmly for the latter and even as I read on, I never quite got used to these switches, as infrequent as they may be.

Still, this is a read that’s not too heavy-going—I found myself putting it down more than I though I would nonetheless—and it’s not hard to get through, even if Bouchet does insert some of the socio-political themes that history cycles though time and again. The sage words of wisdom that several characters dole out are ultimately, variations on the typical but popular moral questions that syfy always posits, or at least, they provide a meta commentary that jumps out from the pages when this happens.

In all, ‘Nightchaser’ is a decent read, even if my lingering sense of frustration from an incomplete narrative arc is going to stay for a while longer yet.

four-stars

Ache for You by J.T. Geissinger

Ache for You by J.T. GeissingerAche for You by J.T. Geissinger
Series: Slow Burn #3
Published by Montlake Romance on 6th November 2018
Pages: 362
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one-star

In this fairy tale with a sexy twist, she’s a penniless San Francisco seamstress. He’s the king of Italian couture. Who’s got designs on whom?

Boutique owner Kimber DiSanto has seen better days. She’s been dumped at the altar by Prince Charmless, her business went up in flames (literally), and now she’s stuck in Florence, Italy, with an ice-queen stepmother, to try to save her late father’s failing dress shop. Only one thing could make it worse: another man in her life. The arrogant Italian fashion tycoon offering to buy her father’s shop is as rich as he is sexy, and their attraction is off the charts. But Kimber’s not about to get burned again.

Women don’t say no to Matteo Moretti—and certainly not with Kimber’s stinging precision. With all the heat and fury sparking between them, Matteo can’t resist baiting the gorgeous American. His plan? Win her over one scorching kiss at a time.

Kimber tells herself it’s all just a game. That her broken heart isn’t in danger, and that Matteo’s touch does not make her Lady Land dance with joy. But sometimes it takes the fieriest of enemies to turn a fantasy into a real-life romance.

Down-on-her-luck Kimber—dumped by a wealthy fiancé at the altar—makes it to Italy, though not without more drama following her around, mostly in the form of another rich Italian tycoon. Only to realise that her dying father has remarried a calculative barracuda, left her with 2 stepsisters, and an evil stepmother.

If this rings familiar, that’s because ‘Ache for You’ is a Cinderella tale of sorts from riches to rags and riches again, only that it involves a truly unlikeable heroine and a mysterious Italian fashion magnate who somehow gets turned on by rudeness and a judgemental attitude.

Kimber’s tendency to overreact, her exaggerated hysteria and self-pity pouring through the pages from the start as she makes everything all about her and her misery had me wondering if I’d accidentally stumbled onto a bitchy reality series instead of a reconstructed fairytale romance. Gritting my teeth, I hoped it would get better as I read on but instead, it became more and more farcical to be believable. I just couldn’t get the connection between Kimber and Matteo—are sparks supposed to fly if the latter gets off on being verbally abused?

In essence, as much as fairytales are supposed to be much-beloved archetypes, I thought Geissinger’s own characters felt too ‘locked’ in their stereotypes (the rom-com, first person POV style of writing confirms this) to be anything more than caricatures flitting through the winding plot.

As much as I liked the first book in the series, which did actually seem promising, I’m unfortunately going to count this as a total bust for me: the signs couldn’t be clearer when I found myself simply more exasperated than enthralled just a quarter way through.

one-star

Check by Mimi Jean Pamfiloff

Check by Mimi Jean PamfiloffCheck by Mimi Jean Pamfiloff
Series: Mr. Rook's Island #3
Published by Paper & Silver, Inc. on 21st August 2018
Pages: 137
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two-stars

Mr. Rook, eccentric billionaire and owner of the most exclusive island resort in the world, has a secret. Hint: Legends say it can make you young again. But when he’s no longer willing to pay the dark price to keep eternal youth on the island’s menu, the very thing that once kept him young is now turning on him.

With only hours left to live, the woman he loves is taken by the worst kind of man this world has to offer. Turns out she’s been keeping dark secrets of her own, and getting her back won’t be as simple as writing a check.

The cost will leave her broken hearted, hating him forever.

(Morbid?) Curiosity brought me here.

In ‘Check’, things do come to a head and with several twists and turns—this can range between absolute nuts and sort of believable if you squint—, somehow Stephanie and Rook break free of their curse, the bad guys miraculously get what they deserve and all’s well that ends well.

There’s no secret really, that I’ve found this series of Mimi Jean Pamfiloff’s a little too zany for me, but the odd licks of the paranormal and the mysterious here and there keep me coming back. There are tantalising ideas here—with part-gothic, part-supernatural vibes, with the sacred and the profane crossing so many times that this should be a sultry and deliciously forbidden read—but they aren’t fully realised or deeply explored enough given the novella-length stories in this entire series.

But ultimately, too much of this story I think, depends on having a huge suspension of disbelief here in the existence of the paranormal, which is all well and good. Still, Pamfiloff’s implicit insistence that some things should stay unexplained (skirting paranormal explanations by simply having the characters choosing to not want to know more for the sake of their own sanity) just might not be good enough when it comes readers like me needing a semblance of explanation for events that don’t entirely really make sense in a story because well, it still needs to be satisfactorily coherent and not cross the line into the ridiculous.

Still, what kept me on the back foot really, was also a ‘heroine’ whom I absolutely loathed by the end of the series. While Rook himself isn’t all that innocent, the self-sacrifices he made in contrast, simply showed Stephanie up as petty, vindictive, petulant and fickle by the end of it all…too small-minded not to grasp the bigger picture and made things all about herself and her own tragedy.

In any case, it’s been quite a ride. I’m not too sure still what to make out of this, but this series simply felt like it could have done much more and reached so much higher than it did.

two-stars

Entropy by Jess Anastasi

Entropy by Jess AnastasiEntropy by Jess Anastasi
Series: Atrophy, #4
Published by Entangled Publishing, LLC on 23rd July 2018
Pages: 271
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Captain Qaelan Forster is used to trouble. He lives on the wrong side of the law and he’s on the most-wanted lists. He’s mixed up in his cousin's mess who has problems on a cosmic level—like shape-shifting aliens who want them dead. But Qaelan’s not prepared for the cheeky kind of trouble called Camille Blackstone, whose infamous father has any man interested in his daughter executed.

After Camille drags Qaelan into an impulsive act of rebellion, she finds herself trying to defend the sexy captain from her overprotective father's wrath, even if she has to handcuff herself to the captain to keep him alive. However, it soon becomes apparent there are much more dangerous things lurking in the dark corners of the universe than a vengeful pirate lord. And she's just landed in the middle of it.

Qaelan Foster’s latest outings with his cousin have been more misadventures than adventures and mostly of the dodgy variety. But then he gets entangled with the likes of Camille Blackstone, which brings a whole new meaning of trouble.

But first, context is king: ‘Entropy’ isn’t exactly a standalone and there’s quite a backstory as to how this book begins. Basic knowledge of Jess Anastasi’s world-building surrounding the Imojenna and its ragtag crew would provide a fuller appreciation of Qae/Camille’s relationship and why we keep getting teased with Rian’s own ‘will-they-won’t-they’ relationship with Ella). And that’s as much as I should say, without needing to go into any longwinded recounting (which a book review isn’t supposed to be anyway) of the whole story.

Sadly, I wasn’t too sold on Qae and Camille to begin with: their (sort-of?) one-night stand, without the buildup or chemistry didn’t do much for me so very early on in the story, though it was a clever twist on how things ended up—Anastasi leaves a little bit to anticipate—before the story really kicks in.

Unlike the trajectory that the Atrophy series has been taking, ‘Entropy’, with the story of Qae/Camille, is like a diversion, steered towards a different path of space adventures because it isn’t directly focused once more on Rian, his demons and his endless chasing after an enemy that he may never overpower. Whatever few scenes with Rian/Ella/others I lapped up; the rest with Qae/Camille, I read with a bit more lukewarmness and frustration. Because despite their flirty push-pull, foreplay-esque tussles which I probably would have liked more if there weren’t the weight of the narrative arc already written into the series, all I could keep thinking about was Rian and when he’d finally get his own story straightened out. It’s that heavy of a presence he has in ‘Atrophy’, which I find impossible to shrug off.

Even if Qae/Camille’s tale and their frolic with the space pirates didn’t exactly keep me engaged, I still like the organic whole of the ‘Atrophy’ series and that isn’t often that I can say this. Reading any book of Anastasi is like having a mish-mash of scenes from syfy-series that I’ve enjoyed over the years flash fondly through my mind. There’re parts of everything I love/hate, along with the understated dashes of humour which make me laugh not only because they always serve as shadows of what I miss in those—like new wine continually put in old wine skin.

But until Rian’s story comes, I suspect I’ll be in a well of frustration.

Imperator by Anna Hackett

Imperator by Anna HackettImperator by Anna Hackett
Series: Galactic Gladiators #10
Published by Amazon Digital Services, Amazon Publishing, Anna Hackett on July 8th 2018
Pages: 206
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three-half-stars

Space station security specialist Sam has done one thing since her abduction by alien slavers…fight to survive. But now one strong alien gladiator stands at her side and Sam knows she is no longer alone.

Thrust into a lawless desert arena, Sam Santos has done terrible things in order to stay alive. As the Champion of Zaabha, she’s been fighting to find a way out. Everything changes when the Imperator of the House of Galen sacrifices his freedom to help her. The hard-bodied, fierce man has vowed to help her escape, but getting out of Zaabha is only the first deadly task they face.

Galen was bred to be a royal bodyguard and protect his prince. With his planet now destroyed, he’s grown powerful and forged his wealthy gladiatorial House on the desert planet of Carthago. All Galen knows is honor, service, and sacrifice. Now his life depends on working with one battle-hardened woman of Earth as they fight together to survive. But Sam Santos is not what he expected. Tough, yes. A brilliant fighter, for sure. But there is a softer side to the woman as well. And Galen finds himself irrevocably drawn to all of Sam’s captivating facets.

Then they uncover a devious plot by the Thraxians that could bring down the foundations of the Kor Magna Arena and all they hold dear. Galen and Sam will stop at nothing to defeat the evil alien slavers, even if it means war. In amongst the fighting, Sam may finally show a man who lives for everyone else, that he deserves more than just honor and freedom, but love as well…if they survive the coming battle.

‘Imperator’ closes out Anna Hackett’s Galactic Gladiators series, or at least it’s the end…for now, until the next House gets its own story as a spin-off in the future.

Opening straight from the end of the last book (best to read them in order at least), Sam Santos’s and Galen’s story is one that Anna Hackett has been promising for a while. The fight agains the mortal enemy in this world comes to a head in this book and it’s an exciting one, though it did get loopy at times, as if Sam and Galen went round the merry-go-round getting free from the Thraxians, only to be captured again.

Sam, the former head of security on a space station, is as much as a gladiator and imposing warrior in her own right—I keep imagining a very sweaty Beyoncé dressed in tight leathers constantly holding a sword and knife for some reason—and a perfect match for Galen. Uber-capable, super tough, straight-shooting and determined, it’s easy to root for a strong female protagonist that you wish would always grace the pages of adventure romance books—eclipsing even the stoic and ever-in-control Galen who’d always scoffed in resignation about his gladiators falling for earth women.

I’ll admit that this isn’t quite the series that I’ve been salivating over, despite the rush of romance, adventure and iron-clad HEAs that are guaranteed in Hackett’s books. With the same formula of pairing women from earth with alien mates, the last-minute miraculous rescues and the survival against all odds that’s found in all of the books, I’m guessing that I’m probably thirsting after some deviation…somehow, somewhere.

The world-building is nonetheless impressive—it’s why Hackett’s books primarily appeal, even if not always for the pairing for me at least—and the book’s easy enough to breeze through, which would make it a perfect escape for a couple of hours.

three-half-stars

Pestilence by Laura Thalassa

Pestilence by Laura ThalassaPestilence by Laura Thalassa
Series: The Four Horsemen #1
Published by Amazon Digital Services, Amazon Publishing on March 20th 2018
Pages: 382
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three-stars

They came to earth—Pestilence, War, Famine, Death—four horsemen riding their screaming steeds, racing to the corners of the world. Four horsemen with the power to destroy all of humanity. They came to earth, and they came to end us all.

When Pestilence comes for Sara Burn’s town, one thing is certain: everyone she knows and loves is marked for death. Unless, of course, the angelic-looking horseman is stopped, which is exactly what Sara has in mind when she shoots the unholy beast off his steed.

Too bad no one told her Pestilence can’t be killed.

Now the horseman, very much alive and very pissed off, has taken her prisoner, and he’s eager to make her suffer. Only, the longer she’s with him, the more uncertain she is about his true feelings towards her … and hers towards him.

And now, well, Sara might still be able to save the world, but in order to do so, she'll have to sacrifice her heart in the process.

Now then, how’s this for a monumental twist of enemies-to-lovers? Saying that ‘Pestilence’ subscribes to this trope is like putting a pram’s wheels on a Ferrari. Or some other super car. Somehow Laura Thalassa manages it at least in the beginning half with a chilling and riveting start of 4 horsemen of the apocalypse riding through earth bringing death and destruction.

Particularly visceral is the trek down the famous highway 99 from Whistler to Squamish, a dystopic vision of a lone horse rider and his unwilling companion now superimposed on my memories of one of the most scenic routes I’ve ever been down. The extended time Pestilence and Sara spend together is in itself unusual: one filled with macabre curiosity and horrors, necessitating a slow, slow burn as Pestilence somehow finds a human side to get in touch with.

Yet what started as fascination turned into uneasiness, which then turned into pure disbelief. Issues of faith, religion and judgement—or at least what Thalassa presented—were never far from my mind running as meta commentary as I kept on reading, which Thalassa definitely succeeded in doing if this was always her aim.

As a romance however, it just became painfully obvious that Pestilence and Sara was a pairing that became harder and harder to get invested in as time wore on, the primary difficulty being reconciling the idea of the otherworldly Pestilence falling prey to human charms and human fallacies with the perpetual image I have of these perfect and deadly creature who always seem far above imperfections. To be laid low by a 21-year old who pretty much showed the ever-changing sides of a young adult (part-petulant, part-annoying, part-compassionate and part-self-righteous) who came close and pushed away repetitively? It just seemed somehow below an eternal being who’d never once wavered from his monumental task since time immemorial, who was now swayed too easily by a firefighter with a crude mouth and a penchant for not making up her mind.

What finally turned me off her however, came tragically at the end, where Sara’s own twisted rationale of love gave her the courage to walk away as she finally deemed Pestilence—who had a heavenly duty to fulfil—unworthy of her affections. Accusing Pestilence of judgement when she was guilty of doing the same, then having him crawl back to her was when I felt Thalassa had personally taken off the shine of what had made Pestilence so unique as an anti-hero, before imbuing him with the earthly loyalty of a teenage boy with stars in his eyes.

On the other hand, the constant vacillation of characterisation had me struggling with Pestilence, vague as Thalassa is with his origins and more so with his personality, the reasoning being that we mere mortals can’t ever hope to understand his higher purpose (it just made him frustratingly unknowable and too mysterious for all the millennia he’d been around).

With an ending that had me more baffled than happy, the story finishes on a grim warning and a rather uneasy HFN (to put it badly, considering Pestilence had somehow condescended to be human for the time both he and Sara will be around). I was still left feeling out of my depth as a reader, unable to hang on fast a pairing that took root but didn’t quite take off.

three-stars