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Reviews: Books

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Every once in a while, you figure it’s time to read a book because it’s considered by many to be a classic and you want to see what the fuss is about. And besides which, it was on sale at Audible, so I finally checked out Backwards to Oregon by Jae. This is marketed as lesbian historical romance though, like a number of other reviewers, I have significant discomfort with that label. My one-sentence plot-summary might be “novelization of the classical ‘Oregon Trail’ computer game, centering a queer relationship.”

I’m feeling trapped between my (entirely personal, self-made) commitment to review (almost) all the media I consume, and how thoroughly behind I am at doing so. Hence, my all-in-one micro-review roundup, in which I give my impressions of everything on my “to review” list since last June. It may take me a couple more days to transfer these into the various review sites.

A short (novella?) historic romance between an impoverished middle-class woman trying to eke out a living on the fringes of the propertied class, and her childhood friend of that class who is struggling to find a way to be himself without losing everything. A Christmas masquerade ball provides the context for the masks to start slipping as our heroine connects the dashing man she meets at the ball with the eccentric young woman she thought she knew. A delightful happily-ever-after trans love story that threads the hazards of historic plausibility very neatly.

I’m never going to complain about the hints and beginnings of an openness in mainstream romance publishing to consider f/f historical romances. Hopefully we will eventually have so many that I don’t find myself pinning all my hopes on each individual title. Sebastian’s entry into the field branches off from an existing series, matching a lady’s companion with a haunted past and a maid with a suspicious present in something of a revenge caper. The romance worked for me, but there were a number of improbabilities in the depiction of the social context that kept throwing me out of the story.

All of the Dominion of the Fallen books have their harsh and horrifying moments, but this one feels like the darkest going in (though maybe not so dark coming out). If anyone with less skill than de Bodard were writing this series, I might have noped out after the first book, but she gets past my uneasiness around horror with gripping characters and masterful worldbuilding. The fallen angels, dragon kingdoms, and loose-cannon magical creatures of Paris are plunged into something close to all-out war.

In Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the character of Miranda is something of a cipher – a pawn who exists only in other people’s image of her and plans for her. Duckett’s novella images her after her father’s return to Italy, as she begins to shake free of being a silent pawn and ask some hard questions: like what actually happened to her mother and what is lurking in the tunnels beneath the castle? She makes an uneasy alliance (and finds the possibility of romance) with a serving woman who has her own reasons to distrust the power structures in Milan.

I read this book through an interesting lens, because I was reading it in parallel with a how-to book on writing romance plots. And while I loved 90% of Lady’s Guide, the parts that clunked for me were all plot elements that the how-to book insisted were absolutely necessary plot elements in a romance. While that didn’t lessen my enjoyment of Waite’s book, it did lessen my inclination to take writing advice from the how-to book. This is a well-grounded historical romance between two women with unusual avocations: astronomical calculation and fine embroidery.

The books in the Glamourist Histories series have been somewhat hit or miss with me. This one, I’m afraid, missed. I might have been more articulate as to why if I’d succeeded in reviewing it closer in time to reading. It mostly boiled down to the protagonists doing foolish things due to unwillingness to communicate or admit weakness, plus some contrived plot twists. At this point I doubt I’ll finish the series. I wish I’d liked it better because I think the author is an amazing human being.

A historic fantasy set in medieval Portugal and inspired by a legend of the miraculous transformation of bread into roses. But is it a miracle or a curse for your touch to turn food into flowers? This story explores themes of self-harm, disordered eating, and the legacy of religious intolerance, all tied up in a slow-growing romance between a future queen and the magical woman who may be her only hope of surviving. Pinguicha has the knack of framing her story with realistic historic attitudes, beliefs, and reactions without suggesting that it places a happy ending out of reach.

Evidently I’m making a habit of reading Vo’s Singing Hills novellas in odd contexts. I read the first sitting on a gurney in an emergency room, and this one hanging out in a park near the Apple Store waiting for my phone’s batter replacement to be completed.  This has nothing to do with the content of the books, but is a testament to their convenient length and engrossing content.


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