Murder by suicide

Review: The Magpie Lord by K.J. Charles

r/suggestmeabook: I want a fast-paced magical Victorian mystery with an unwilling earl and a clever magician spiced with some steamy guy on guy romance.

Movie rating: R

Pages: 204

Publisher: KJC Books

Series: A Charm of Magpies

From the publisher: A lord in danger. A magician in turmoil. A snowball in hell.

Exiled to China for twenty years, Lucien Vaudrey never planned to return to England. But with the mysterious deaths of his father and brother, it seems the new Lord Crane has inherited an earldom. He’s also inherited his family’s enemies. He needs magical assistance, fast. He doesn’t expect it to turn up angry.

This book was so much fun that I’m raring to read the next one. The protagonists are adorable: tall, rebellious Lucien Vaudrey and short, clever Stephen Day. I wouldn’t say this is a cozy mystery because there’s some quite a bit of swearing and some graphic sex in it, but it’s next door to one. 

K.J. Charles manages to make everything feel fresh in the story, even though she’s riding some well-worn tropes—the unwilling heir with the terrible family, a gothic house, possible madness, and hereditary curses. Part of it is the completely frank attitude of her new earl, who has completely lost any concern for Victorian sham, and part of it is the simple joy she seems to take in the love story.

As a CIS, hetero female, I can’t say how the romance will affect those who identify more with the sexuality of the protagonists, but from my point of view, it was completely absorbing, and, dare I say it, hot. It reminds me of the tone of Gentleman Jack; the story has similar sensibilities, but without Anne Lister’s conformity to her class.

Completely irrelevant side note, but did you know magpies are classified as one of the most intelligent animals in the world? They don’t live by me, so I’m fascinated by them, but I guess they could be a nuisance if they did.

At any rate: Run and get a copy of The Magpie Lord now. You’ll thank me later.

I don’t need no stinking prophecies

The 19th Bladesman is the first installment in this series and has my least favorite component of a book in a series—it simply ends, rather than really resolving much of anything. I’m fine with outstanding storylines, but I do like to feel like I’ve gotten to a stopping point. That’s a trait it shares with many other series that I have stuck with, so it’s not a fatal error, just an annoyance.

S.J. Hartland has done a commendable job with her villains. I would snarl at them as I was reading, which is always a sign that I’ve gotten involved with them. I’m not as enamored with the protagonists, though, as I didn’t get nearly as upset as they encountered travails along the way. A part of that is because she oversold some aspects: Kaell’s desire to please his lord, Val Arques aka Vraymorg; Vraymorg’s fight with his own feelings; and Heath’s emptiness. When you get to the point where you’re thinking, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, move it along,” you know that your compassion is not being touched.

However, if you weren’t bothered by repetitions in the Wheel of Time, you might like it. Like that series, the book does touch the familiar points that many readers of epic fantasy want to see. There are big battles and small ones, an evil lord lurking about, gods with murky motives, various kingdoms with different desires, monsters, magic, questionable deaths, betrayals, secrets, beautiful men and women, and some really nasty people with power. 

The series has promise, and the groundwork has been laid so that you aren’t completely sure whom you should root for and Hartland has successfully started a labyrinthine plot. I just haven’t decided yet whether I’ll take the time to find out how it all works out. 

Poe gets an antiracism lesson

As a teaser for a future series, or to get me to read more of April White’s books, this succeeds. As a standalone, I have some issues with it. However, the author earned brownie points from me for giving an afterward that gave the historical record. 

Let me start with my bias: I’m not fond of novellas generally, and this one is representative of why.  I like what is there quite a bit. Ren, the protagonist, is a woman you want to know more about. The author does a stunning job of adapting known facts about Edgar Allan Poe into this time travel book and the prose is well paced and easy to fall into.

What gives me problems is that it feels like so much is missing,. Perhaps this novella is meant more for readers who have already invested in the prior Immortal Descendants series, in which case many of the unexplained background may be obvious to those readers. But as someone new to the world, there isn’t enough world building. And even then, that background wouldn’t help me understand the murky motivations of the prime villain of the piece–or maybe it would. 

The other issue for me is that everything happens too quickly. Characters change their stances too fast and  believe the magical parts of the magical realism novel much too quickly. The plot is resolved almost instantaneously, which left me with a “Wait, did I miss something?” feeling.​

​This feels like it could have been a novel with a little more fleshing out, but it does its job well as an ad, because I know I’m going to read more of the series. 

Ghostbusting, dystopia style

The world of Archivist Wasp is unrelentingly bleak. Abuse, alienation, hunger, cold, poor medical, dying children: check. No apparent infrastructure: check. Malevolent religion to control behaviors: check. It all adds up to not much to live for, so the ghosts are understandably more interesting than the living.

Categorizing this book as children’s completely floors me, and the YA designation is a little misleading. For children, the swearing is a bit too much, but that’s not my objection so much as the dark tone and subject matter–I know kids can go through some bad shit, but it’s a bit much for a child who hasn’t.

As for the young adultiness of it…I get why the publisher would want to position it as YA (a hot market). But I think that’s a little limiting, as this novel doesn’t have the tropes that stamp it as YA only. Yes, the protagonists are teens. Yes, the book deals with a theme of interest to adolescents: how do you deal with a difficult past? But aside from those things, there’s none of the overwrought high school drama that tends to turn off some adult readers. 

But I noted “Chosen” as a descriptor. Isn’t the “Chosen One’ a YA trope? Yes, but Archivist Wasp does not follow the rules of the Chosen One that you’ve seen over and over.

My only gripe about the book is a tendency to keep hitting the same note. There were times where I thought, “I get it, it’s bad. You don’t have to keep telling me it’s bad.” Of course, I felt that way about Tor‘s Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey—the repetition there was about the character feeling she should have had a different life over and over. Aside from overstating the obvious at times, though, the writing served the story well.

For me, the plot was a little light on complications and I felt like it was dragging at times, so there’s the three instead of more stars.

In sum: Want to feel like your world isn’t so awful? This novel might do the trick.

Female detective in 1907 Japan. -Ish.

Sara Keefe’s debut novel introduces us to the world of the admirable Helen Motosu, an alternate early 20th century Japan that will challenge your preconceptions of time and place. Helen’s strength as a sleuth is mainly her ability to read people, and as much of her time is spent in navigating social norms, managing her “help,” and working through her grief as in solving the mystery.

The mystery is charming, but what stays with me are those piercing moments when Helen’s first steps to reorient her life, coming almost a year after her husband’s death, are so authentic they glow. Those gems are uncommon in literature generally; I cannot recall ever having had the pleasure of that experience in a cozy murder mystery.

The world of Motosu differs from ours in some significant ways: far more advanced technology than was available in 1907 and more freedom for women than I would have expected (despite the obstacles she faces). I was struck by how much more open to Westerners her Japan was than I believed was the case at the period, but I’m certainly not an expert in Japanese history. But I still wondered if the Meiji Restoration didn’t occur as it did in our world, or if the Hibaya Riots of 1905 didn’t happen. Perhaps the treaty ending the Russo-Japanese War had different terms, as it serves as the backdrop to the story, but isn’t fully explained.

Although the book blurb describes itself as steampunk, I saw very little steampunk sensibility in the novel but for one isolated instance that doesn’t bear on the main plot at all.  

Keefe is definitely an author to watch. I look forward to more world-building in the following Motosu Mysteries books as there are so many unanswered questions about how this Japan came to be, and how Helen found her place in it.