The Bastard, Belinda, Blood, & Bewitchery

It’s time for more book recommendations. Here are four!

Painting of Ista saving soulsIsta, mother of Chalion’s ruling royina, lives retired in Castle Valenda under the care of her anxious kinswoman and ladies in waiting. Considered a madwoman for years, and still a little … unbalanced, from her long ordeal, she endures the loving vigilance of her caretakers. A vigilance that only wearies and annoys her. But how to escape their loving restrictions, her culture’s limiting constraints, and the bitterness of her past baffles Ista. Until by chance she encounters a vulgar widow on pilgrimmage, and inspiration strikes.

I can’t decide whether I love Paladin of Souls or its prequel The Curse of Chalion more, but they both vie for the spot of most favorite read ever. In the classic choice of one book and a desert island, Paladin would be it. Unless it were Curse! Two books? No problem: both these!

Ista has spent nearly twenty years submerged in a prolonged eclipse. Now she stands poised for rebirth, ready even to shine. Reading her journey is sheer magic for the heart and soul.

Paladin of Souls at Amazon

Paladin of Souls at B&N

 

White gowned Regency lady on a balconyGilly – that is, the Most Noble Adolphus Gillespie Vernon Ware, the Duke of Sale – hates disappointing those who care for his interests. His devoted valet chooses his raiment, and Gilly acquiesces to all his selections. His estate agent informs him that his progressive notions are naive, and Gilly swallows the reproof. His garulous companion from his Grand Tour through Europe threatens to render his visit to London hideous, and Gilly shows him courtesy. But when his solicitous and autocratic guardian, Lord Lionel, announces that he’s arranged Gilly’s marriage, the duke decides he’s carried his amiability too far.

Gilly eludes his entire retinue to pursue adventure: a solo quest to save his young cousin from a villain bent on blackmail. Or, as Gilly tells his other cousin, his favorite one: “to slay a dragon.” But Mr. Liversedge is a canny scoundrel, well able to defeat his inexperienced adversary. Can Gilly – so amenable and civil – possibly prevail?

Like all of Heyer’s Regency romances, this one cavorts from absurdity to absurdity, improbably so, yet curiously plausible and thoroughly delightful. Her characters are so real they make the proverbial leap from the page, and her world-building, so superb, I wander Regency England while I read.

The Foundling at Amazon

The Foundling at B&N

 

Dark and ominous view of a candlelit candelabraShe never even heard them coming. But you don’t, Rae Seddon tells us. Fed up with her family, fed up with the coffeehouse – the family business, fed up with just everything, this young baker who loves feeding people drives out into the country by night to meditate at the lake. There, those darkest of the Others – the bloodsuckers – capture her to feed to a special undead prisoner: Constantine, a master vampire hated by their own master, Bo.

But Rae possesses an unusual lineage and unusual powers deriving from her hitherto-ignored legacy, and something strange happens in the derelict mansion where the vampires stake her as bait for Con.

I must make a confession: I don’t like straight-up romances. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the dance that ensues when boy meets girl. I simply need something more for the story to enthrall me. Add humor and stellar world-building, like Heyer, and I’m enchanted. Add mystery and deep emotional insight, like Sayers, and I’m engrossed. Add military adventure and intense inner journey, like Bujold, and you cannot pry me away.

So, how does this relate to McKinley’s Sunshine?

Well, it occurred to me as I wrote the above synopsis that the plot appears to follow the formula for paranormal romance: young woman with special powers that she doesn’t know about, must discover, and then master; undead or otherwise powerful and threatening counterpoint; and the unique path these two must tread to relate to one another fruitfully. So why do I like Sunshine? That formula proved insufficient for my taste when I attempted it previously. The answer: exquisite world-building paired with saving said world from utter destruction. The book riveted me to its pages. So much so that I’ve re-read it three times and will undoubtedly repeat the experience many times through the years.

Sunshine at Amazon

Sunshine at B&N

 

Painting of a tall, bizarre, rickety towerTwelve-year-old Conrad Tesdinic knows he’ll die in agony before the year is up. It’s his fate. In a previous life he either did something bad that he shouldn’t, or failed to do something good that he should have. And no one knows what it was. But his Uncle Alfred pulls strings to get him a job as footman in Stallery Mansion where he can clear his karma.

Conrad would much prefer to continue his schooling, to aim for university, to become someone brilliant: an aircraft pilot, a famous scientist, a great surgeon, anything other than staying in Stallchester drudging in his uncle’s bookstore, polishing boots at the mansion, or cooking meals for his mother and uncle. But karma calls, along with the clever wickedness lurking in Stallery.

So Conrad goes, but his new employment proves utterly different than he’d imagined. Secrets upon secrets lie piled in the mansion, and Conrad must unravel them all, including a few that connect right into the heart of his own family.

I love all of Jones’ stories, but my favorite was always Charmed Life, the first tale by her I ever read. No matter how much I enjoyed the rest of her stories, I never suspected another might knock Life from its preeminence. Until I read Conrad’s Fate. I can’t say it truly tipped Charmed Life from its throne, but surely it shares the seat. Sparkling, funny, and poignant by turns, its wheels within wheels entertained and astonished me through to the very end, when all the mysteries lay revealed, and everyone’s karma, balanced!

Conrad’s Fate at Amazon

Conrad’s Fate at B&N

 

For more book recommendations, see:
Gods & Guilt, Scandals & Skeptics
Courtship and Conspiracy, Mayhem and Magic
Mistakes, Missteps, Shady Dealing, & Synchronicity
Duplicity, Diplomacy, Secrets & Ciphers
Beauty, Charm, Cyril & Montmorency

 

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Courtship and Conspiracy, Mayhem and Magic

If you’ve never read any Bujold, A Civil Campaign is a great book to start with. Ditto Rose Daughter by Robin McKinley. The other two volumes in this list might hold up well under stand-alone reading, but they’re best following books one and two in their respective series.

Gregor and Laisa dance on their wedding dayEkaterin Vorsoisson has declared matrimony a no-go zone. Once was enough: the entire population of women in Vorbarr Sultana can have her share of eligible bachelors, thank you very much. But Miles Vorkosigan, count’s heir to his home district, hopes to persuade her otherwise.

Ivan, Miles’ cousin, decides settling your affections on a woman before you’ve even begun the courtship courts anything but a happy-ever-after. Time to dig up some rivals. Never mind that Miles plans to woo under camouflage, lest Ekaterin bounce him back before he starts. Some competition will do him good.

That’s where this “comedy of biology and manners” starts, but political cloak-and-dagger work, incompatible planetary sexual mores, an old Cetagandan scandal, and a bio-genetics experiment escaping the basement lab spin cunning strategies into a whirl of humorous confusion and conflict. With friends like this, who needs enemies? But Miles has those as well!

A Civil Campaign at Amazon
A Civil Campaign on Kindle

A Civil Campaign at B&N
A Civil Campaign on the Nook

 

Bren and Jago ride mechietiHuge differences create insurmountable barriers between alien societies, but resourceful individuals sometimes mediate the innate prejudices successfully. Bren Cameron, the paidhi from Mospheira, is one such individual. He stands between the human interlopers on the world of the atevi and the Western Association, the only governing body amongst the natives powerful enough to rule its diverse factions.

The Western Association under Tabini aiji engages in a breakneck space race, and Bren must supervise the program, translating the complex engineering diagrams needed to build a shuttle. The schedule is tight, the stress heavy, but as long as nobody starts shooting again, that counts as peaceful.

Troublemaker and patsy for a bigoted political group – Deanna Hanks – has been bundled back to the island of the human enclave. Jase Graham, intrepid rep for newly returned human spacefarers and potential friend, managed to drop safely to earth on an ancient petal-sail. Life is good.

Until illicit radio messages from across the strait impel the atevi elite to maneuver for advantage, and an unspoken dissatisfaction turns Jase morose and hostile. Bren declares a real vacation a necessity and turns to his ally Ilisidi, aiji dowager, for help. Ilisidi suggests Saduri, a fortress from medieval times for their destination. But Ilisidi possesses a hidden agenda for the trip, as does Jase Graham. Can Bren keep the precarious peace between species while his cohorts pursue competing goals?

Inheritor at Amazon

Inheritor at B&N

 

Heris Serano on horsebackSpace opera at its best, Winning Colors mixes interstellar mafia with a horse-mad 90-year-old, a cashiered ex-navy captain, and an assortment of spoiled young aristocrats to deliver up marvelous mayhem sprinkled with insightful exploration of the human spirit. Third in the Familias Regnant series with Heris Serano and Lady Cecelia.

Winning Colors at Amazon

Winning Colors at B&N

 
 
 
 
 
 

photo of pink roses against a blue skyRobin McKinley wrote Beauty, a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, as her debut novel and never dreamed she’d return to the story twenty years later. Uprooting herself to marry English writer Peter Dickinson, she waited to sell her lilac-covered cottage in Maine. Later, parting from her old home, severing one more tie to the land of her birth, proved surprisingly fraught. And her favorite fairy tale roared through her storyteller’s heart once more: Rose Daughter poured onto the page. Compelling and richly imagined, her new rendition of Beauty and the Beast conveys fresh perspective and insightful wisdom.

 

Rose Daughter at Amazon

Rose Daughter at B&N

 

For more of my favorite reads, check these posts:
Beauty, Charm, Cyril & Montmorency
Duplicity, Diplomacy, Secrets & Ciphers
Mistakes, Missteps, Shady Dealing & Synchronicity
Gods & Guilt, Scandals & Skeptics

 

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We Are Readers!

Some of my favorite reads have stolen upon me unawares. I remember my first encounter with the story: sheer magic! But how did I come to pull that book off the shelf? Select that particular author? I have no idea. The frame surrounding other discoveries grabs more memory.

I’ll never forget the how and why for one such blissful moment – a two-in-one, really, because the adventure brought two books, two authors my way.

I was in New York City with the entire fourth year class of the Architecture School. The two days of touring architectural highlights under the aegis of our professors were interesting and entertaining. I’d seen a lot of those buildings via slide projector in lecture class. Meeting them up-close-and-personal was satisfying. But the field trip came with an unavoidable challenge.

Most of my sister students had at least one friend in the A-school; some, many. I had none. My friends were among the RPG crowd, and they were grad students, or a year older than me, or a year younger, and all were in the College of Arts and Sciences.

So I came to New York friendless. This was no problem during the day while touring. I did have acquaintances with whom to trade commentary on the sights. It was the one night we would all spend in a hotel that provoked my uneasiness.

I’d been assigned to a room with three young women intent on enjoying the night clubs. They were nice enough to me. They were more than nice, actually, urging me to come with them and have some fun, exhibiting none of the social brutality common in high schools. (Who knew college would bring such civility?)

The rub was . . . I wasn’t keen on bar hopping. Yet saying, “thank you, but no,” seemed . . . so anti-social, so boorish, so unappreciative of their willingness to include. I wanted to say no, but I also wanted them to think well of me. And I wasn’t sure which choice would result in a greater sense of loneliness: out with a three friends who weren’t my friends? or skulking alone in a hotel room? Ugh! What a choice!

While I dithered, I got ready for clubbing: gauze peasant blouse in blues and greens with a tassel tie at the neck, woven leather shoes with a low heel (comfortable for dancing), and very tight jeans.

It looked like I was going out with my room mates willy nilly, borne along on the tide of their persuasion. They were sure: of course I’d have a better time with them.

I checked my pockets. Hard to do. Did I say those jeans were tight? I’d stored my money – a fifty dollar bill – in a pocket in the jeans in a dresser drawer in the hotel. Now was the time I would need it.

My pockets were empty.

One of the hotel maids must have done some rummaging while we were sightseeing.

Oh, there was a fuss! The hotel management was summoned. We got no change from them. Silly Virginia girl! Why did you leave your money in your hotel room? My room mates insisted on lending me money – enough for a night on the town. (They’d brought hundreds!)

I declined. There I felt no ambivalence. My college budget was tighter than my jeans. I’d borrowed $10 from each month to have some cash for this trip. I would need the sum remaining to get through the semester. If I borrowed money from my generous companions, I wouldn’t be able to pay them back. Or else I’d be unable to pay my share of the pizza order when I returned to my RPG mates.

The field trip ladies were regretful about my choice, clearly worried I’d be miserable. (I did say they were nice, right? They were nice.) But I was resolute, and they went off to their evening’s delight. I felt . . . relieved.

So, there I was, alone in a hotel room with nothing to do. (I was never a big TV watcher.) But I knew I’d figure it out. What next?

Surely dinner of some sort. My $50 was gone; luckily I had a few smaller bills, change left over from the day’s expenses. I’d noticed two deli’s in the same block as the hotel. And . . . there’d been a bookstore in the next block over! Abruptly my plans for the evening gelled. I was set! Why had I dithered and worried? A reader always has options.

One of the deli’s supplied me with a sandwich in a paper bag, and then I trundled off to the bookstore.

These were the days when bookstores still displayed their wares on wire racks with the book covers facing out. This bookstore, being in New York, had five segments (or more) devoted to SF&F. I was in heaven, browsing and browsing and browsing. Here was happy indecision. Which book would I chose?

After perhaps half an hour, it came down to two. Which should I carry away with me? Beauty by Robin McKinley? Or Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones? I dithered just as much as when faced with bar hopping, but this was a better choice: between two good’s, not two bad’s.

A startling idea popped into my head. Why not buy both? As a cash-strapped college student, I bought my books one at a time. But – I did some quick math – I had just enough money to splurge with a few pennies left over. Why not? I went home tomorrow.

You know how I answered that one.

Which book did I read first? That I don’t remember. But memory is vivid regarding the gestalt. I lounged on my hotel bed, well propped with pillows, munching my sandwich, and devouring the stories. I entered . . . not heaven (this was better than that), but a fairy tale city where three sisters grappled with loosing all their fortune and confronted the adventure that came to them in the cool forested land where they settled. I followed a young witch-boy struggling with betrayal and greatness in the steampunk world of Chrestomancy.

That night alone in a New York hotel room still ranks as one of the best in my life. I’m a reader, and I’m guessing you might be too. Have you ever had an unpleasantness (or a disaster) rescued by a good read?

I was grateful my room mates stayed out til one! I had time to savor both my treasures in peace and solitude. And was happy to greet the returning trio (not drunk, thank you) with good cheer and assurances that I’d passed an enjoyable evening.

In justice to the hotel maids, I must report that they had not stolen my $50. Remember those tight jeans? (I did say they were tight, right?) Apparently I didn’t push my fingers deep enough into my pinched pocket. The money was there all along.

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