2 stars, largely based on the painfully bad narration of the first half
I normally LOVE the Molly Harper-Amanda Ronconi team. This time the narration was painfully bad--so bad that it distracted me from following the story and came close to ruining the book for me. What the hell was she thinking to go with such a broad "pahk the cah in Hahvahd yahd" Boston accent for an Irish woman? I understand that for part of the time she was presenting herself as having come from Boston, but in that case only her dialog should have featured that accent, not her first person narration.
The only way I managed to get through the book at all was because she pretty much drops that accent for the second half of the book. This allowed me to focus on the plot, which seemed particularly slapdash and full of holes. Admittedly, I don't read Molly Harper for her tightly plotted prose, but this was especially weak. There also seemed to be less wit than usual, but that may have been obscured by the horrible narration.
I'm certainly not giving up on Molly Harper audiobooks, but I will no longer view them as a guaranteed good time. Better to relisten to one of her Jane Jameson titles (which Amanda Ronconi narrates brilliantly) than to bother with this on audio.
Even better as an audiobook. Nicholas Boulton is a fabulous narrator, perfectly capturing the desperate frustration Jervaulx suffers, as well as his innate ducal arrogance. It's a fine line to tread and he does it beautifully.
My only complaint with the book is that Maddie becomes fairly unsympathetic for a time, largely because we don't get much from her perspective during a longish stretch near the end. However, In the grand scheme of things, this is a fairly minor quibble. This is definitely not your average romance novel but well earns its place as one of the best.
Really a 3 star book but with 5 star narration.
In general, I love Laura Kinsale. In addition to her beautiful writing, with her you always get something just a little different, which is definitely the case here. In this case, we have hero and heroine who are both very damaged and very flawed, though in totally non-cliched ways. Unfortunately, the plot is also pretty flawed in places and the heroine is not only flawed but also pretty unlikeable through most if the book. This is a long book, with many subplots, some of which work better than others.
However, if you listen to this as an audiobook, none of that will matter because Nicholas Boulton's voice is so beautiful you wouldn't care what he was reading. It is really hard to narrate romance well, but he does it perfectly. His French is irresistible and his drunken S.T. was hilarious. He doesn't give women an annoying falsetto. He doesn't overdramatize. I will go off into cliches if I try to describe his deep, rich voice. Suffice to say, his narration is perfect.
Definitely not your average historical romance. This book deals with a far grittier reality than that of ton balls and vouchers to Almacks. The protagonists are barely part of society (him) or clinging to the fringe of society (her). The book opens with Marietta going to Gabriel in desperation to ask his help in proving her 18-year-old brother innocent of a series of Jack the Ripper-like murders. Their relationship develops as she collaborates with him to search for evidence that could free her brother.
There are many things to like about this book, and the novelty of the characters and plot is a major one. Unfortunately, I was never able to warm up to Marietta enough for the romance aspect to completely work for me. Part of that may have been the audiobook narration. It was actually pretty good but it's possible that the portrayal of M wasn't as sympathetic as it could have been and that influenced my perception of her. I would also be interested to see what their life would look like a few years down the road, because their HEA seems a little fragile. It's great that they recognize that they love each other, but how are they going to make a life together?
The climax of the book was heartbreaking and will stick with me for a long time. I don't want to say much else about it in order to avoid spoilers.
Finally, the cover and title seem to promise one kind of book, while what we get is far different and, in my opinion, better. I can see someone being disappointed if they were expecting a very hot historical and got this complex, psychologically gripping murder mystery instead.
Another fun Molly Harper. Similar to Susan Elizabeth Phillips, she puts her characters through hell, often leaving them desperate and broke in some unlikely location, only to let them claw themselves back for their HEA. I'm not always a big fan of gratuitous protagonist suffering, but like SEP, Harper seems to make it work.
I have two quibbles with the book, one with the narration and one with the story: First of all, Colin's voice was not very masculine. It made him sound like a wimp, even though he wasn't. Pretty unsexy. This was a shame because the rest of her narration was perfect.
Mild spoiler ahead:
My second quibble is the heroine's actions toward her former fiance. Yes, he was a total scumbag and he probably deserved a great deal of psychic pain, but breaking someone's nose is just not funny. A good way to test this is to ask, would it have been funny if the characters' sexes were reversed? No one would ever try to play a man breaking a woman's nose for laughs, under any circumstances, and I thought it was offensive here too. Ineffectual attempts at violence by a woman toward a much stronger man can sometimes be mildly funny, but a broken nose isn't ineffectual violence. This made me dock the book by a whole star.
I re-read (re-listened to) this book recently and found that it had all the things I love as well as all the things I kind of hate about Courtney Milan books. First, the hate: it dragged. The ratio of action--which I would define as anything at all happening, if only a conversation--to interior monologue and exposition of the characters' thoughts and motivations was just too low. The story ground to a halt all too often. And this from me, a person who loves Mary Balogh's books, a writer who spends a lot of her time describing the same events from everyone's perspective and then rehashing reactions and motivations, so I actually have a very high tolerance for slow paced, cerebral romances.
I have also come to the conclusion that the novella is Courtney Milan's best format. She writes such beautifully crafted shorter works that it always feels to me that her novels are bloated by comparison. That is definitely the case in this, her first novel.
My other major problem was how isolated Jenny was. For all we're told of what a warm person she is, we don't see any evidence that she had any friends in London. The Madam Esmeralda persona might have made it difficult to allow anyone too close, but it's hard to believe there was no one besides Ned she'd really consider a friend, particularly since she schools Gareth in the art of friendship.
As for the good, well, she writes beautifully and does an almost too-good job of conveying lower class poverty and desperation. She also does a particularly nice job of depicting a socially awkward hero, not someone whom we diagnose in hindsight with our 21st century knowledge (as opposed to Ned, who is clearly bipolar), but someone who is simply ill at ease with small talk and never has known how to relate to people. I also loved how she shows that as a fortune teller, far from being a fraud, Jenny actually provides a valuable service to her customers in acting almost as a therapist, decades before such an idea would even emerge. I'm glad I revisited this one.
I loved seeing Ivan-you-idiot get his day in the sun. Bujold is a master storyteller and it's always a pleasure to put yourself in her hands to take you where she will, which she does here in typically witty and engaging fashion. Ivan and Tej were both terrific as the somewhat disappointing scions of extraordinary families. Neither are as dismissable as their families view them so it's lovely for them to find in each other someone who truly admires them for who they are.
This is a long series, and this book is chronologically near the end of it, which leads to the question of whether you need to have read the others first. I would say no, with some caveats. The only ones I have read are Shards of Honor, Barryar, Young Miles, Komarr and A Civil Campaign and I got along just fine. I probably missed a lot of the nuances about the Cetagandans and Jackson's Whole, but that didn't diminish my enjoyment of this story. Likewise, if you hadn't read Shards of Honor/Barryar you would miss some of the depth of Barryan history and culture and of the backstory of Ivan's birth, but she does a really good job of giving you all you need in the present book without boring longtime readers with repetitive description. If this is your first entry point to the series, I think it will inspire you to read more, which is just what I plan to do.
What a poorly plotted mess of a book! I'm sorry I wasted my money on it. The worst of it is, the book had real potential. The author writes well, has some interesting turns of a phrase and makes some nice incidental observations. The broad outlines of the plot are promising--the bluestocking Egyptologist and the former Army officer turned unexpected Duke meet when both are investigating the aftermath of an expedition to Egypt in which his brother went missing and her father had an apoplexy, leaving him unable to speak. From there, unfortunately, the plot went completely off the rails and left the characters behaving like complete ninnies. By the end, I thought they were among the stupidest, shallowest people I'd ever spent time with. It didn't have to turn out that way by any means. I think the author could develop into a decent one if she had a really good editor who could point out the idiocies and inconsistencies in her plotting and characters' motivations. Alas, I suspect that won't happen. Don't waste your time with this.
This book is just a lot of fun. Turnip is an unlikely hero--he didn't get his nickname for being the sharpest knife in the drawer, and he has execrable taste in waistcoats--but he's truly kind, caring and considerate, unlike so many other young bucks of the ton. It doesn't hurt that he's also something of a hunk, carnation waistcoats notwithstanding. The mystery is somewhat beside the point. I really love the narration of this whole series on audiobook. This is definitely a seasonal re-listen for me.
The three novellas comprising this book are all thought-provoking and disturbing in different ways. All three give wonderful insights into the demons that drive Miles, in a way that maybe isn't as obvious in the novels.
In "The Mountains of Mourning" we are taken into the Barryaran backwoods to see up close the culture of mutie-phobia that Miles grew up in and that formed the basis of his very difficult relationship with his grandfather.
In "Labyrinth", we are exposed to a very personal encounter with the products of Jackson's Whole's amoral genetic engineering labs and learn the background of Taura.
"Borders of Infinity" may be the most powerful of the stories, but is also the one I am least likely to re-read,precisely because it is so searing. In it, Miles wakes to find himself in Hell, no wait, a domed Cetagandan prison camp that might as well be. The story of how he gets out of there is so stained with bitter regret that I expect the experience will forever haunt him, as well as the reader.
I know the framing story was just tossed in as an excuse to publish these three novellas together, but it was fine and not at all intrusive. The insights into Miles's character that are gained by reading all three novellas at once completely justify the repackaging of them in this format.
Final note--I am beginning to really appreciate Grover Gardner as a narrator for this series. He doesn't go to great lengths to "do" the different characters as some narrators do, yet it is always clear who is speaking and he does enough with accents to subtly create different characters. It's a somewhat different style of narration than I'm used to, but it has grown on me, primarily because most of these books are largely from Miles's perspective and Gardner does a great Miles, perfectly capturing his rather sardonic wit.
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