PALADINS OF THE STORM LORD, by Barbara Ann Wright

Barbara Ann Wright, Paladins of the Storm Lord. Bold Strokes Books, 2016.

I was extremely disappointed in Wright’s last outing, Thrall: Beyond Gold and Glory. That novel was, to put it mildly, an incoherent Norse-inspired mess – although better at a sentence level than many f/f fantasy romances in existence. Her first novel, Pyramid Waltz, showed a great deal of promise, and I will confess to Some Hopes of her continuing career: but structurally the later novels of her first series (For Want of a Fiend, A Kingdom Lost, The Fiend Queen) really didn’t stand up well.

However, Paladins of the Storm Lord marks the beginning of a new series from Wright. This novel shows something of an improvement, both structurally and in terms of worldbuilding. It mixes elements from fantasy and science fiction into a planetary opera a bit reminiscent of Darkover (without the faux-medieval sexism), with small-town politics and fights and interspecies romance. It’s fun and fast and entertaining: promising, in the best SF-equivalent-of-sword-and-sorcery way.

I’m really hoping that she manages to actually structure the rest of this series so that the narrative pays off in satisfying ways.

Books in brief: Alexander, Hunter, Stark

There is nothing I can do about the news. So I may as well talk about books.

Mardi Alexander, Spirits of the Dance. Bold Strokes Books, 2015. E-ARC courtesy of the publisher.

Lesbian romance. Better than many of its ilk. Set in Australia, on a cattle ranch/in a small town, starring a leg-amputee ex-military officer and a young local with an abusive father. Lots of horses. Extended description of attempted (hetero) rape. (And when the barn goes on fire, I asked myself – homophobic foul play, or just Australian summer?) Somewhat off-balance in terms of pacing and structure, but nonetheless rather satisfying.

Cari Hunter, Cold to the Touch. Bold Strokes Books, 2015. E-ARC courtesy of the publisher.

Crime novel set somewhere around about Sheffield, as best I can tell. Starring lesbians, because Bold Strokes Books. It’s a pretty solid crime novel: with this and her last novel, Hunter has taken a step up in terms of structure, pacing and tension. There is murder, winter, relationship drama, and occasionally kissing. It is a very enjoyable novel.

Nell Stark, The Princess and the Prix. Bold Strokes Books, 2015. E-ARC courtesy of the publisher.

Lesbian princess romance is apparently a subgenre of its own now? Formula 1 driver meets Monagasque princess! Hijinks ensue! Batshit, and yet a ridiculous amount of (ridiculous) fun.

Queer Romances I Have Read

…while being too sick to think. I may have forgotten one or two.

Erin Dutton, Officer Down. Bold Strokes Books, 2015. eARC courtesy of the publisher.

A perfectly cromulent contemporary lesbian romance between a cop and an emergency dispatcher. It has nothing in particular to recommend it, and nothing in particular to disrecommend it, either.

Tanai Walker, Rise of the Gorgon. Bold Strokes Books, 2015. eARC courtesy of the publisher.

Lesbian romance/spy thriller – with a plot that belongs in a comic-book, rather than a serious thriller. A journalist, a drug that turns people into zombies, mind control, and an assassin whose memory gets erased and reprogrammed in a manner reminiscent of Joss Whedon’s awful Dollhouse. Shaken, not stirred. It’s… well, laughably entertaining is a good way to describe it?

Amy Dunne, The Renegade. Bold Strokes Books, 2015. eARC courtesy of the publisher.

Post-viral-apocalypse lesbian romance. This? This is bad, structurally, logically, in terms of characterisation, in terms of worldbuilding, and the prose isn’t great either. Some rapetastic stuff about a post-apoc religious culty community, and a resolution that’s pulled out of thin air and makes the whole rest of the novel make no sense. (If religious culty community’s #2 guy is Sekritly On The Side Of Angels, why didn’t he poison/shoot/otherwise dispose of rapetastic murderous religious cult leader guy and take over long before? Or leave.)

Ann Aptaker, Tarnished Gold. Bold Strokes Books, 2015. eARC courtesy of the publisher.

At last. This is solidly decent work – the second book in a series about art smuggler Cantor Gold, where I haven’t read the first. It works on its own. Set in 1950s New York, it has a very noir tone: in fact, I’d say it is noir: murder, trouble from the law and the mob, a missing art masterpiece, a lot of beautiful women, some of them heartless. What makes it interesting – I’m not usually interested in American noir – is the fact that Gold is a lesbian.

Barbara Ann Wright, Thrall. Bold Strokes Books, 2015. eARC courtesy of the author.

A couple of years ago, I read Wright’s first novel, Pyramid Waltz, and I think I said it had promise. It definitely appealed to me. But she hasn’t lived up to that promise since. This is particularly noticeable with Thrall, a standalone novel in a new fantasy setting.

The prose is rough but serviceable, and the characterisation is appealing, but the worldbuilding lacks depth and detail – the world doesn’t feel properly lived in, doesn’t have the grit of telling detail – and structurally, the narrative feels weak and rushed. There are the bones of a good novel here, in a scattered, disassembled fashion, but they don’t hang together. And it doesn’t have enough meat.

Still, it does have normalised queer female relationships and interesting violence.

Books in brief: Cari Hunter, NO GOOD REASON, and Karis Walsh, MOUNTING EVIDENCE

Somehow it came to pass that a certain publisher of queer fiction auto-approved me on Netgalley, which means that I received access to a tranche of new or forthcoming lesbian novels.

The best of that tranche, by me, are the novels by Cari Hunter and Karis Walsh.

Cari Hunter, No Good Reason. Bold Strokes Books, 2015. Ecopy courtesy of the publisher.

This is a crime novel set in the Lake District. The two protagonists, cop Sanne and doctor Meg, are best friends and occasional lovers. When a badly injured young woman is found by hikers, who appears to have escaped from an abductor, both Sanne and Meg are drawn into the hunt for the perpetrator. It’s a very readable novel, with very appealing characters, albeit with some pacing issues, and for that reason I went out looking for everything else Hunter has written when I was done. It transpires that No Good Reason is her fourth novel: the others aren’t quite as good but they’re still solidly enjoyable.

Karis Walsh, Mounting Evidence. Bold Strokes Books, 2015. Ecopy courtesy of the publisher.

A romance between a cop who comes from a family of dirty cops, and an environmental activist/single mother. Abigail Hargrove is a lieutenant with the mounted police unit. Kira Lovell is a wetlands biologist. They meet at the state fair, and murder and kidnapping and underhanded dealings interfere in their awkward courtship. Fun, although the prose is a touch clunky and the pacing on the uneven side.

Several books recently read

Here are some books which I read in recent weeks.

Karina Sumner-Smith, Defiant. Talos, 2015. ARC courtesy of the publisher.

Read for review for Tor.com. Excellent sequel to a very good debut.

Kate Elliott, Court of Fives. Little Brown, 2015. ARC courtesy of the publisher.

A really excellent Young Adult fantasy novel. Will talk about it in a Sleeps With Monsters column, and also probably closer to the publication date if someone reminds me – it’s AMAZINGLY good fun, with interestingly crunchy bits. Also tombs. I am fond of tombs.

Elizabeth Wein, Black Dove, White Raven. Egmont UK, 2015.

Another excellent YA from Wein – not quite as heart-wrenching as her Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire, but very good.

Stacey Lee, Under A Painted Sky. Putnam, 2015.

Historical YA debut. Two young women on the run for their lives in the 1849 American West. A lot of fun.

Sandra Barret, Blood of the Enemy. Ebook.

Fun fast not terrible space opera with queer women in.

Barbara Ann Wright, The Fiend Queen. Bold Strokes Books, 2015. E-ARC courtesy of the publisher.

Conclusion to series. Structurally off-balance, but entertaining enough.

Julie Cannon, Because of You. Ebook.

Lesbian romance. Not particularly great.

Gun Brooke, Advance. Ebook.

Lesbian SFF romance. Space opera. Terrible worldbuilding. Prose not-so-great. Characterisation could use work. Somehow it still entertained me.

A.J. Quinn, Hostage Moon. Ebook.

Lesbian romance with serial killers in. Neither great nor terrible.

A.J. Quinn, Rules of Revenge. Ebook.

Lesbian romance with spies in. Neither great nor terrible.

Merry Shannon, Prayer of the Handmaiden. Ebook.

Lesbian SFF romance. Fantasy, variant of epic. Worldbuilding on the naive side. Prose okay. Characterisation pretty good. Entertaining.

Rae D. Magdon, The Second Sister. Ebook.

Lesbian SFF romance. Fantasy, sort of fairytale retelling (Cinderella). Could have used better worldbuilding and smoother prose. Still entertaining.

Rae D. Magdon, Wolf’s Eyes. Ebook.

Lesbian SFF romance. Fantasy, starts out looking like a fairytale retelling, develops werewolves, turns into a variant on epic. Could have used better worldbuilding, smoother prose, and some more thought in its structure. Still entertaining.

M.B. Panichi, Saving Morgan. Ebook.

Lesbian SFF romance. Near-future solar-system science fiction. Could have used a stronger structure, and the romance felt rushed, but it was fun.

M.B. Panichi, Running Toward Home. Ebook.

Sequel to Saving Morgan. Very uneven pacing and I’m not sure it has a plot so much as a collection of incidents, but I found myself entertained anyway.

Heather Rose Jones, The Mystic Marriage. Bella Books, 2015. E-ARC courtesy of the publisher.

Wow. THIS BOOK. This book. FILLED WITH INTELLECTUAL LADIES OF QUEERNESS.

It’s not a romance, not structurally, though it appears to be being published as one: it’s a complicated novel of relationships, friendships, family, alchemy and intrigue. Jones has leveled up from Daughter of Mystery in terms of her skill with prose, narrative, and characterisation – and they were already pretty freaking good. The only point at which the novel weakens slightly is the climax: it is an effective climax-conclusion in emotional terms (although I really feel that one of the characters was a little short-changed), but in terms of concluding the current of intrigue underlying the novel, perhaps not so much.

I love it a lot. I am planning on writing a whole column about it.

nonfiction

Theresa Urbainczyk, Slave Revolts in Antiquity. Acumen, 2008.

A slight volume that nonetheless succeeds in providing a comprehensive – and enjoyably readable – overview of slave revolts in antiquity and their presentation in both the ancient sources and the historiography of slavery and antiquity. A useful addition to anyone interested in either slavery in antiquity or – particularly – the political situation during the late Roman Republic.