Face aux Démons, d’Etienne Bar

Cartes sur table : Etienne est un ami, et j’ai bêta-lu son livre. Comme critique, je ne suis pas le plus objectif. Mais je ne l’ai pas bêta-lu pour lui faire plaisir, pas plus que je n’écris cette critique par complaisance. J’ai découvert Face aux Démons bien avant le public, et dès le début, j’ai été fasciné et absorbé par ce livre.

Difficile d’imaginer plus original qu’une utopie, en ce moment. Les auteurs semblent chercher des nuances de plus en plus sombres de fantasy, des anti-héros de plus en plus connards et brutaux, et on annonce la fin du monde pour vendredi en huit. Alors quand Etienne nous propose un monde où les choses vont plutôt en s’arrangeant, où les forces du Bien l’emportent progressivement, je salue d’abord son originalité et son audace.

Sauf que, il faudrait voir ce que c’est, le Bien, au juste. La plupart du temps, on reconnaît le Bien à ses postures moralisatrices, à son bon droit et à ses armures brillantes. Le protagoniste est le gentil parce que, eh bien, surtout parce que l’auteur prend son parti, honnêtement. Dans Face aux Démons, il n’est pas question de se trouver un prétexte pour se lancer dans une quête épique ou une guerre sainte. Peu importe de remporter des batailles épiques, de terrasser des démons et des sangrelins, de punir des seigneurs de guerre. Tout ça ne suffit pas à justifier une violence que les Edrulains, les « gentils » de l’histoire, utilisent avec parcimonie (et beaucoup moins que la bonne vieille politique). Ce qui est en jeu, c’est simplement de pouvoir vivre en paix, libres et heureux.

Bisounours est le mot qu’Etienne revendique lui-même. Ou parfois « Baisounours », parce que les Edrulains et toute Libreterre ont des mœurs qui font la part belle à la jouissance de la vie sous toutes ses formes. Le héros, Fronin de Lyr, fait figure d’exception et même d’anomalie : élevé en-dehors de Libreterre, il a du mal à adapter ses préjugés monogames à une société beaucoup plus permissive que lui. Je vous laisse découvrir vous-mêmes à quoi ressemble une société « baisounours », si ça vous intéresse.

En tout cas, puisque les baisounours ne favorisent pas la violence, ils règlent leurs conflits (et interviennent dans ceux des autres) par la manipulation, la ruse, le subterfuge et le stratagème, autrement dit : la politique. Un art injustement décrié, souvent considéré comme un mal à part entière. Or, trancher les problèmes à l’épée bâtarde, c’est bien beau tant que l’auteur est du côté du « gentil », mais soyons sérieux une seconde : les prophéties qui transforment un personnage en héros, en sauveur du monde, les pouvoirs divins accordés par des puissances bienveillantes pour que la justice triomphe, ça n’existe pas. Sauf dans les clichés de la mauvaise fantasy. A un certain niveau, nous en sommes conscients : il vaut bien mieux discuter, négocier et trouver un moyen de vivre ensemble entre gens civilisés que de se pourrir la gueule. Alors pourquoi ne pas mettre un peu de bon sens dans la fantasy, pour une fois ?

Cela dit, même (surtout ?) chez les baisounours, la politique, c’est du robuste. Pacifique, ça ne veut pas dire inoffensif, et les Edrulains maîtrisent l’art d’obtenir des résultats sans hématomes. Je vous laisse apprécier. De plus, les Edrulains sont dans l’ensemble des gens corrects, mais ils ont leur part de connards, inévitablement, et c’est justement de l’un d’eux que viendront les pires problèmes. « Face aux Démons », ça veut dire qu’il faut tourner le dos à ses alliés aussi ; et la politique c’est aussi vicieux qu’une épée tournée dans les tripes.

Alors qu’est-ce que c’est que ce livre ? Juste des manipulations politiques entre pacifistes ? Bon, en fait, non. Ces pacifistes savent aussi livrer bataille quand c’est nécessaire (si vis pacem…), et il y a des fois où négocier n’est pas une option. Donc vous aurez droit à quelques batailles épiques quand mêmes, et des sauvetages héroïques, et des morts. Et des dragons. On reste en fantasy.

Mais une fantasy différente, audacieuse, mature. Une fantasy lumineuse et positive. Essayez, lisez « Face aux Démons ». Il est bien.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch : Royalty statements update – Spread the Word

On Thursday 05/05, Kristine Kathryn Rusch posted her weekly Business Rusch article on her blog. Soon after, her main site was hacked and disabled. She then moved the article to a secondary web site, which also crashed down soon thereafter.

So The Passive Voice blog hosted this post and, soon after, relayed Mrs Rusch’s approval for everyone to spread the blog post that got hacked far and wide.

I have long admired and benefited from Mrs Rusch’s wisdom and insight, and I enjoy her fiction as well. I thought this particular post of great interest. I might translate it into french later, time permitting. In the meanwhile, here’s to my english-speaking readers.

Welcome to one of my other websites. This one is for my mystery persona Paladin, from my Spade/Paladin short stories. She has a website in the stories, and I thought it would be cool to have the website online. It’s currently the least active of my sites, so I figured it was perfect for what I needed today.

Someone hacked my website. Ye Olde Website Guru and I are repairing the damage but it will take some time. The hacker timed the hack to coincide with the posting of my Business Rusch column. Since the hack happened 12 hours after I originally posted the column, I’m assuming that the hacker doesn’t like what I wrote, and is trying to shut me down. Aaaaah. Poor hacker. Can’t argue on logic, merits, or with words, so must use brute force to make his/her/its point. Poor thing.

Since someone didn’t want you to see this post, I figure I’d better get it up ASAP. Obviously there’s something here someone objects to–which makes it a bit more valuable than usual.

Here’s the post, which I am reloading from my word file, so that I don’t embed any malicious code here. I’m even leaving off the atrocious artwork (which we’re redesigning) just to make sure nothing got corrupted from there.

The post directs you to a few links from my website. Obviously, those are inactive at the moment. Sorry about that. I hope you get something out of this post.

I’m also shutting off comments here, just to prevent another short-term hack. Also, I don’t want to transfer them over. If you have comments, send them via e-mail and when the site comes back up, I’ll post them. Mark them “comment” in the header of the e-mail. Thanks!

The Business Rusch: Royalty Statement Update 2012

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Over a year ago, I wrote a blog post about the fact that my e-book royalties from a couple of my traditional publishers looked wrong. Significantly wrong. After I posted that blog, dozens of writers contacted me with similar information. More disturbingly, some of these writers had evidence that their paper book royalties were also significantly wrong.

Writers contacted their writers’ organizations. Agents got the news. Everyone in the industry, it seemed, read those blogs, and many of the writers/agents/organizations vowed to do something. And some of them did.

I hoped to do an update within a few weeks after the initial post. I thought my update would come no later than summer of 2011.

I had no idea the update would take a year, and what I can tell you is—

Bupkis. Nada. Nothing. Zip. Zilch.

That doesn’t mean that nothing happened. I personally spoke to the heads of two different writers’ organizations who promised to look into this. I spoke to half a dozen attorneys active in the publishing field who were, as I mentioned in those posts, unsurprised. I spoke to a lot of agents, via e-mail and in person, and I spoke to even more writers.

The writers have kept me informed. It seems, from the information I’m still getting, that nothing has changed. The publishers that last year used a formula to calculate e-book royalties (rather than report actual sales) still use the formula to calculate e-book royalties this year.

I just got one such royalty statement in April from one of those companies and my e-book sales from them for six months were a laughable ten per novel. My worst selling e-books, with awful covers, have sold more than that. Significantly more.

To this day, writers continue to notify their writers’ organizations, and if those organizations are doing anything, no one has bothered to tell me. Not that they have to. I’m only a member of one writers’ organizations, and I know for fact that one is doing nothing.

But the heads of the organizations I spoke to haven’t kept me apprised. I see nothing in the industry news about writers’ organizations approaching/auditing/dealing with the problems with royalty statements. Sometimes these things take place behind the scenes, and I understand that. So, if your organization is taking action, please do let me know so that I can update the folks here.

The attorneys I spoke to are handling cases, but most of those cases are individual cases. An attorney represents a single writer with a complaint about royalties. Several of those cases got settled out of court. Others are still pending or are “in review.” I keep hearing noises about class actions, but so far, I haven’t seen any of them, nor has anyone notified me.

The agents disappointed me the most. Dean personally called an agent friend of ours whose agency handles two of the biggest stars in the writing firmament. That agent (having previously read my blog) promised the agency was aware of the problem and was “handling it.”

Two weeks later, I got an e-mail from a writer with that agency asking me if I knew about the new e-book addendum to all of her contracts that the agency had sent out. The agency had sent the addendum with a “sign immediately” letter. I hadn’t heard any of this. I asked to see the letter and the addendum.

This writer was disturbed that the addendum was generic. It had arrived on her desk—get this—without her name or the name of the book typed in. She was supposed to fill out the contract number, the book’s title, her name, and all that pertinent information.

I had her send me her original contracts, which she did. The addendum destroyed her excellent e-book rights in that contract, substituting better terms for the publisher. Said publisher handled both of that agency’s bright writing stars.

So I contacted other friends with that agency. They had all received the addendum. Most had just signed the addendum without comparing it to the original contract, trusting their agent who was (after all) supposed to protect them.

Wrong-o. The agency, it turned out, had made a deal with the publisher. The publisher would correct the royalties for the big names if agency sent out the addendum to every contract it had negotiated with that contract. The publisher and the agency both knew that not all writers would sign the addendum, but the publisher (and probably the agency) also knew that a good percentage of the writers would sign without reading it.

In other words, the publisher took the money it was originally paying to small fish and paid it to the big fish—with the small fish’s permission.

Yes, I’m furious about this, but not at the publisher. I’m mad at the authors who signed, but mostly, I’m mad at the agency that made this deal. This agency had a chance to make a good decision for all of its clients. Instead, it opted to make a good deal for only its big names.

Do I know for a fact that this is what happened? Yeah, I do. Can I prove it? No. Which is why I won’t tell you the name of the agency, nor the name of the bestsellers involved. (Who, I’m sure, have no idea what was done in their names.)

On a business level what the agency did makes sense. The agency pocketed millions in future commissions without costing itself a dime on the other side, since most of the writers who signed the addendum probably hadn’t earned out their advances, and probably never would.

On an ethical level it pisses me off. You’ll note that my language about agents has gotten harsher over the past year, and this single incident had something to do with it. Other incidents later added fuel to the fire, but they’re not relevant here. I’ll deal with them in a future post.

Yes, there are good agents in the world. Some work for unethical agencies. Some work for themselves. I still work with an agent who is also a lawyer, and is probably more ethical than I am.

But there are yahoos in the agenting business who make the slimy used car salesmen from 1970s films look like action heroes. But, as I said, that’s a future post.

I have a lot of information from writers, most of which is in private correspondence, none of which I can share, that leads me to believe that this particular agency isn’t the only one that used my blog on royalty statements to benefit their bestsellers and hurt their midlist writers. But again, I can’t prove it.

So I’m sad to report that nothing has changed from last year on the royalty statement front.

Except…

The reason I was so excited about the Department of Justice lawsuit against the five publishers wasn’t because of the anti-trust issues (which do exist on a variety of levels in publishing, in my opinion), but because the DOJ accountants will dig, and dig, and dig into the records of these traditional publishers, particularly one company named in the suit that’s got truly egregious business practices.

Those practices will change, if only because the DOJ’s forensic accountants will request information that the current accounting systems in most publishing houses do not track. The accounting system in all five of these houses will get overhauled, and brought into the 21st century, and that will benefit writers. It will be an accidental benefit, but it will occur.

The audits alone will unearth a lot of problems. I know that some writers were skeptical that the auditors would look for problems in the royalty statements, but all that shows is a lack of understanding of how forensic accounting works. In the weeks since the DOJ suit, I’ve contacted several accountants, including two forensic accountants, and they all agree that every pebble, every grain of sand, will be inspected because the best way to hide funds in an accounting audit is to move them to a part of the accounting system not being audited.

So when an organization like the DOJ audits, they get a blanket warrant to look at all of the accounting, not just the files in question. Yes, that’s a massive task. Yes, it will take years. But the change is gonna come.

From the outside.

Those of you in Europe might be seeing some of that change as well, since similar lawsuits are going on in Europe.

I do know that several writers from European countries, New Zealand, and Australia have written to me about similar problems in their royalty statements. The unifying factor in those statements is the companies involved. Again, you’d recognize the names because they’ve been in the news lately…dealing with lawsuits.

Ironically for me, those two blog posts benefitted me greatly. I had been struggling to get my rights back from one publisher (who is the biggest problem publisher), and the week I posted the blog, I got contacted by my former editor there, who told me that my rights would come back to me ASAP. Because, the former editor told me (as a friend), things had changed since Thursday (the day I post my blog), and I would get everything I needed.

In other words, let’s get the troublemaker out of the house now. Fine with me.

Later, I discovered some problems with a former agency. I pointed out the problems in a letter, and those problems got solved immediately. I have several friends who’ve been dealing with similar things from that agency, and they can’t even get a return e-mail. I know that the quick response I got is because of this blog.

I also know that many writers used the blog posts from last year to negotiate more accountability from their publishers for future royalties. That’s a real plus. Whether or not it happens is another matter because I noted something else in this round of royalty statements.

Actually, that’s not fair. My agent caught it first. I need to give credit where credit is due, and since so many folks believe I bash agents, let me say again that my current agent is quite good, quite sharp, and quite ethical.

My agent noticed that the royalty statements from one of my publishers were basket accounted on the statement itself. Which is odd, considering there is no clause in any of the contracts I have with that company that allows for basket accounting.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with basket accounting, this is what it means:

A writer signs a contract with Publisher A for three books. The contract is a three-book contract. One contract, three books. Got that?

Okay, a contract with a basket-accounting clause allows the publisher to put all three books in the same accounting “basket” as if the books are one entity. So let’s say that book one does poorly, book two does better, and book three blows out of the water.

If book three earns royalties, those royalties go toward paying off the advances on books one and two.

Like this:

Advance for book one: $10,000

Advance for book two: $10,000

Advance for book three: $10,000

Book one only earned back $5,000 toward its advance. Book two only earned $6,000 toward its advance.

Book three earned $12,000—paying off its advance, with a $2,000 profit.

In a standard contract without basket accounting, the writer would have received the $2,000 as a royalty payment.

But with basket accounting, the writer receives nothing. That accounting looks like this:

Advance on contract 1: $30,000

Earnings on contract 1: $23,000

Amount still owed before the advance earns out: $7,000

Instead of getting $2,000, the writer looks at the contract and realizes she still has $7,000 before earning out.

Without basket accounting, she would have to earn $5,000 to earn out Book 1, and $4,000 to earn out Book 2, but Book 3 would be paying her cold hard cash.

Got the difference?

Now, let’s go back to my royalty statement. It covered three books. All three books had three different one-book contracts, signed years apart. You can’t have basket accounting without a basket (or more than one book), but I checked to see if sneaky lawyers had inserted a clause that I missed which allowed the publisher to basket account any books with that publisher that the publisher chose.

Nope.

I got a royalty statement with all of my advances basket accounted because…well, because. The royalty statement doesn’t follow the contract(s) at all.

Accounting error? No. These books had be added separately. Accounting program error (meaning once my name was added, did the program automatically basket account)? Maybe.

But I’ve suspected for nearly three years now that this company (not one of the big traditional publishers, but a smaller [still large] company) has been having serious financial problems. The company has played all kinds of games with my checks, with payments, with fulfilling promises that cost money.

This is just another one of those problems.

My agent caught it because he reads royalty statements. He mentioned it when he forwarded the statements. I would have caught it as well because I read royalty statements. Every single one. And I compare them to the previous statement. And often, I compare them to the contract.

Is this “error” a function of the modern publishing environment? No, not like e-book royalties, which we’ll get back to in a moment. I’m sure publishers have played this kind of trick since time immemorial. Royalty statements are fascinating for what they don’t say rather than for what they say.

For example, on this particular (messed up) royalty statement, e-books are listed as one item, without any identification. The e-books should be listed separately (according to ISBN) because Amazon has its own edition, as does Apple, as does B&N. Just like publishers must track the hardcover, trade paper, and mass market editions under different ISBNs, they should track e-books the same way.

The publisher that made the “error” with my books had no identifying number, and only one line for e-books. Does that mean that this figure included all e-books, from the Amazon edition to the B&N edition to the Apple edition? Or is this publisher, which has trouble getting its books on various sites (go figure), is only tracking Amazon? From the numbers, it would seem so. Because the numbers are somewhat lower than books in the same series that I have on Amazon, but nowhere near the numbers of the books in the same series if you add in Apple and B&N.

I can’t track this because the royalty statement has given me no way to track it. I would have to run an audit on the company. I’m not sure I want to do that because it would take my time, and I’m moving forward.

That’s the dilemma for writers. Do we take on our publishers individually? Because—for the most part—our agents aren’t doing it. The big agencies, the ones who actually have the clout and the numbers to defend their clients, are doing what they can for their big clients and leaving the rest in the dust.

Writers’ organizations seem to be silent on this. And honestly, it’s tough for an organization to take on a massive audit. It’s tough financially and it’s tough politically. I know one writer who headed a writer’s organization a few decades ago. She spearheaded an audit of major publishers, and it cost her her writing career. Not many heads of organizations have the stomach for that.

As for intellectual property attorneys (or any attorney for that matter), very few handle class actions. Most handle cases individually for individual clients. I know of several writers who’ve gone to attorneys and have gotten settlements from publishers. The problem here is that these settlements only benefit one writer, who often must sign a confidentiality agreement so he can’t even talk about what benefit he got from that agreement.

One company that I know of has revamped its royalty statements. They appear to be clearer. The original novel that I have with that company isn’t selling real well as an e-book, and that makes complete sense since the e-book costs damn near $20. (Ridiculous.) The other books that I have with that company, collaborations and tie-ins, seem to be accurately reported, although I have no way to know. I do appreciate that this company has now separated out every single e-book venue into its own category (B&N, Amazon, Apple) via ISBN, and I can actually see the sales breakdown.

So that’s a positive (I think). Some of the smaller companies have accurate statements as well—or at least, statements that match or improve upon the sales figures I’m seeing on indie projects.

This is all a long answer to a very simple question: What’s happened on the royalty statement front in the past year?

A lot less than I had hoped.

So here’s what you traditionally published writers can do. Track your royalty statements. Compare them to your contracts. Make sure the companies are reporting what they should be reporting.

If you’re combining indie and traditional, like I am, make sure the numbers are in the same ballpark. Make sure your traditional Amazon numbers are around the same numbers you get for your indie titles. If they aren’t, look at one thing first: Price. I expect sales to be much lower on that ridiculous $20 e-book. If your e-books through your traditional publisher are $15 or more, then sales will be down. If the e-books from your traditional publisher are priced around $10 or less, then they should be somewhat close in sales to your indie titles. (Or, if traditional publishers are doing the promotion they claim to do, the sales should be better.)

What to do if they’re not close at all? I have no idea. I still think there’s a benefit to contacting your writers’ organizations. Maybe if the organization keeps getting reports of badly done royalty statements, someone will take action.

If you want to hire an attorney or an auditor, remember doing that will cost both time and money. If you’re a bestseller, you might want to consider it. If you’re a midlist writer, it’s probably not worth the time and effort you’ll put in.

But do yourself a favor. Read those royalty statements. If you think they’re bad, then don’t sign a new contract with that publisher. Go somewhere else with your next book.

I wish I could give you better advice. I wish the big agencies actually tried to use their clout for good instead of their own personal profits. I wish the writers’ organizations had done something.

As usual, it’s up to individual writers.

Don’t let anyone screw you. You might not be able to fight the bad accounting on past books, but make sure you don’t allow it to happen on future books.

That means that you negotiate good contracts, you make sure your royalty statements match those contracts, and you don’t sign with a company that puts out royalty statements that don’t reflect your book deal.

I’m quite happy that I walked away from the publisher I mentioned above years ago. I did so because I didn’t like the treatment I got from the financial and production side. The editor was—as editors often are—great. Everything else at the company sucked.

The royalty statement was just confirmation of a good decision for me.

I hope you make good decisions going forward.

Remember: read your royalty statements.

Good luck.

Again and last of a second set of three, I’m reviewing a gift book from the excellent Asia Morela. Thanks again to her for showing me books I wouldn’t have noticed on my own, and which entertained me and, sometimes, made me open up and wonder. Especially this one.

To begin with, A Knight in Shining Armor is undoubtedly dated (1989, to be accurate). But in picturing evolution of mentalities and two very different historical settings (and I count 1989 as a non-contemporary setting, as it is depicted in AKISA), it becomes somewhat universal in its datedness.

Huh? Where’s the romance novel review? Why’s he spouting philosophical stuff? Okay, sorry, it is a romance novel too. Or is it, really? There is love, it gets physical, there’s also time travel and reincarnation and the meaning of life. I’ll just start spoiling and stop beating around the bush.

It’s the story of a 16th-century aristocrat (Nicholas) in need of rescue from venomous intrigues, who somehows travels through time to 1989 (fully equipped with sword, armor and attitude) to meet a modern woman (Dougless) in need of karmic guidance and self-esteem. They meet, fall in love, investigate Nicholas’ demise through historical breakthroughs, have sex… Which is apparently the trigger for Nicholas to come home. Then it becomes Dougless’s turn to travel into the 16th century and finish the investigation and save Nicholas, trying to educate the Elizabethans to child care and modern medicine in the process.

The end is odd. Nicholas and Dougless have sex again, something she refused as long as possible because it would separate them again, and shazam! She’s back in the 20th century. And she just happens to meet a man who isn’t quite Nicholas, but one of his descendents, and with whom she has the same instant chemistry as she had with her knight in shining armor. In the meanwhile, many protagonists in 1989 have been healed by Dougless’s actions towards their past selves in the 16th. Odd, yet satisfying.

I liked the relationship between Dougless and Nicholas, I had no difficulty at all believing in their interaction. The whole if-we-have-sex-we’ll-be-separated-again deal made no sense, but it fell nicely under the suspension of disbelief. Mostly, both characters brought something to each other, each had needs and wants and they completed each other in a beautiful way. At the beginning, Dougless has been ensnared in a destructive and abusive relationship with an asshole who dangled a promise of marriage in front of her and always asked for more (and took her money), and she’s just been jilted, at that. And as she cries in devastation, the title’s Knight appears.

The strong point of the book, really, is culture clash and it is extremely well played. The moment Nicholas Stafford arrives, it is plain to see that he’s not been raised in this era. He has all the arrogance and straightforwardness of an aristocrat used to getting what he wants, and he shows them too. His reaction of amazement to cars and showers and clothes you’d expect. His way of dealing with problems, of ordering people around, of adapting quickly and well while never forgetting who he is, are what really makes him authentic. It helps that he’s portrayed as an intelligent, reasonable, open-minded man with opinions he can, and does, defend. When Dougless tries to explain gender equality to him, he’s quick to point out how poorly that concept has worked for her and how theory is far from usage. I also loved his very dynamic and energetic nature.

Dougless has little in the way of dynamism, confidence, pluck. She’s the Yin to his Yang. She’s been crushed all her life by the shadow of her too-successful family, of which she’s the fool and the idiot. She’s been played by many men. But she has empathy, smarts, and she reckons with her own feeling and grows as she follows Nicholas.

When in 1989 England, Jude Deveraux’s historical insight isn’t fully apparent. But when Dougless goes back in time, it becomes striking. Her depiction of the Elizabethan era’s just stunning, down to details and attitudes. And it’s non-judgmental: ever did I feel Deveraux tried to make a forceful point of either period.

Actually, I think it was this generous, open-minded view of the world that I liked the most. I said AKISA was universal in its datedness. Certainly, Dougless’s 1989 is now history and fairly far from 2012 in values and general setting – almost as far as it is from the 16th century, I think. So we get to visit two times periods which are now lost to time. It is remarkable that Deveraux managed to capture 1989 in such a way. And that’s what makes AKISA universal: that it has such clear insight upon both periods it plays on.

But really, I’m forgetting to mention the most important thing. It was a fun read. Seeing a 16th century aristocrat carve his way through modern England was fun. And then came a bit of mystery and even thriller: what intrigues had Nicholas Stafford fallen to, exactly, and how to prevent them? Good storytelling, not exactly a page-turner, but definitely entertaining.

Having had a good time with AKISA, however, I’d say what I really preferred with this book was its depth and insight. Not often do I get this impression, and I did.

A Romance Novel Review : Lover Enshrined, by J. R. Ward

Yet another gift from Asia Morela, my supplier of yummy romance at the moment. Heartfelt thanks to her. Here’s my two cents on : Lover Enshrined, by J. R. Ward.

Lover Enshrined

Lover Enshrined

Well, I started off on the wrong foot. It begins with a glossary. Come on, you never, never do that. A glossary at the end is bad enough, like you’ve got to be a scholar in an imaginary world’s cultures and history to enjoy a bit of fiction… right (okay, Tolkien is a special case, and maybe Martin as well). This kind of thing’s a real deterrent to me, usually. And in this case, it gave me the impression of a thoroughly ridiculous setting. I mean, it has words like “ahvenge” or “leadhyre” and it’s about a contemporary pseudo-feudal hidden vampire society (and I outgrowned Vampire the Mascarade a long time ago). Wow. That’s such a bad opening, it’s actually kind of daring.

Anyway, since Asia Morela sent it, I tried.

Enter an ominous threat, and an addict vampire wreck who has sworn to get a bunch of she-vampires (from a kind of other dimension where they live sheltered, spiritual lives) pregnant because he’s the “strength of the race” and he’ll father the next generation of the Black Dagger Brotherhood (a vampire self-protection militia). He also has had a very shitty life with serious issues, especially with his brother. And his name is Phury. Other names include: Rehvenge, Xhex, Zsadist, Lash, Wrath… At this point, I’m beyond WTF; I’m like, okay, sure, whatever. Sheer daring, and no mistake.

Back on track: so Phury’s stuck with Cormia, the first he’s supposed to inseminate, only he didn’t. He committed himself and now he’s dragging his feet (and he’s a virgin… kind of bold to get a harem first time around. Kind of nonsensical, actually). He’s also a Black Dagger Brother, only he’s high most of the time, so he gets fired rather early in the book from that “job”, and goes back to wasting himself. Meanwhile, Cormia, who was a recluse until she arrived in this world, discovers a whole lot of things with wide eyes and endearing innocence. Meanwhile meanwhile, a plot to destroy vampires reaches near-fruition and…

Forget it, I can’t sum it up. It’s just too complex and full of heavy stuff too. Addiction, self-destructive behaviour, rape and its aftermath, unrequited love, troubled pregnancy, all-around tragedy, this is dark. But… It’s very well done. I balked a little at first, but the pace picks up almost from the start, and doesn’t let go. It’s packed with action, too, and the thriller elements work extremely well (and, as a bonus, mostly prevent wangst: good going).

The main story, the romance between Phury and Cormia, completely convinced me. But it only gets good near the end: Phury drags his feet a lot until then, which is completely appropriate as he’s a junkie and a total wreck. It’s not easy for him to stop screwing around. This is realistic, and feels right, but it makes the romance extremely frustrating. At least until he stands up and does something awesome, and makes all the whining and wasting meaningful. This moment made everything worthwhile. Also a few other good things happen at the end and show joy after tragedy, healing after a lot of hurt. Powerful feel-good scenes. Not that everything is right ever after, but there is hope, no matter what.

Cormia starts out as a very passive character, as she’s been trained in monastic seclusion to serve, obey rules and restrain herself. Then she’s left to herself and neglected for six months and began thinking, playing, creating, and she lets curiosity run free. She opens up to others, discovers our world (like TV and ice cream). She discovers her sexual power over Phury. She’s an essential part of his healing, too. I found her cute and rather convincing, if a bit overdone at times. But mostly, she’s endearing.

The romance runs thoughout the whole books but mostly happens at the end. The bulk of Lover Enshrined was about a world of vampires with a bunch of problems, some external (they’re targeted for annihilation, after all), some internal. And the cast of characters was really the stuff that makes reading such a blast. The whole John/Qhuinn/Blayne/Lash arc was brilliant. Also, the Black Dagger Brotherhood in action rocks.

So I’m very much impressed with this book. It’s got a world, a dense, convincing world in shades of gray, which has very enjoyable stories. It’s got a pace that never lets up. It’s got a great style too.

L’empathie du lecteur

Je sortais d’une longue journée et j’étais assez fatigué. Rien d’extraordinaire, assez pour être soulagé qu’elle soit finie. J’entrai dans un restaurant chinois à 18h50, les serveurs n’étaient pas encore en mode serveur. L’un d’entre eux prit ma commande, mais pendant la première demi-heure, tandis que j’étais leur seul client, j’entendis des cris et des rires sonores dans une langue étrangère. Un comportement légèrement incorrect de la part de professionnels, mais ça ne me dérangeait pas. J’avais sorti ma liseuse Kobo touch à peine assis, et je lisais – inattentif à tout le reste. C’est ce que je fais quand je mange seul au restaurant.

Les entrées à la vapeur arrivèrent, et je fermai ma liseuse pour manger. Sans vraiment me presser e les mangeant (et c’était bon), je ne perdis pas une seconde pour la rouvrir dès que j’eus fini. Je repris le fil de l’histoire comme si je n’avais jamais arrêté, et en attendant le plat principal, je continuai.

Le plat principal servi, je refermai le Kobo. Et puis je fis une chose que je ne fais presque jamais, parce que c’est impoli, parce que je n’aime pas que mes doigts traînent à la fois près de la nourriture et près d’appareils électroniques en même temps. Je recommençai à lire en mangeant.

Quand j’eus, à nouveau, fini de manger, le restaurant était toujours vide mais le personnel avait passé la seconde et la troisième sans que je ne m’en rende compte. Davantage de clients arrivèrent bientôt. J’acceptai le saké digestif (oui, c’est une boisson japonaise servie dans un restaurant chinois, non que je m’en plaigne) et dis que je resterais un peu plus longtemps.

Après cela, je ne fus plus qu’à peine conscient de tout ce qui m’entourait. Je sais qu’il y avait des assiettes aux parfums appétissants qui passaient près de moi, des formules de politesse et des discussions détendues, une lumière chaude et la chaleur du radiateur à côté de ma chaise. Je ne me souviens que d’impressions générales, et j’en oublierai tous les détails ; je n’étais pas là. Mais je me souviendrai, clairement, peut-être dans des années, de l’histoire dans laquelle je me trouvais.

Je regardais ma montre de temps en temps, je voyais le temps passer. Les nombres sur l’écran ne rendaient pas cela réel. Je finissais un dernier chapitre, tournais la page, regardais le nombre de pages du prochain chapitre – oh, à peine vingt – et lisais les premiers mots presque par accident… Et puis je lisais le chapitre entier. Et le suivant. Et le suivant.

Je suis à peu près sûr, tout comme je ne remarquais plus ce qui m’entourait, que ce qui m’entourait ne me remarquait plus non plus. Personne ne retira la coupe de saké vide. Personne ne me dit qu’on avait besoin de ma table. Je crois que j’avais disparu, sinon physiquement, du moins du champ de vision de la société. Peut-être que dans les esprits des autres, je m’étais fondu dans les meubles ou quelque chose de ce genre.

Quand je le levai enfin pour payer la note et partir, j’avais lu, uniquement lu, pendant plus d’une heure. Ce qui n’est pas si long, mais le temps n’avait rien pesé du tout.

En sortant, j’avais l’intention de lire en marchant les deux cent mètres qui me séparaient de chez moi, et dans les escaliers, mais il pleuvait.

En marchant je musardais, étonné par ce qui venait de se passer. Je lisais beaucoup enfant, et j’ai déjà connu des transes de lecture profondes. Ce n’est rien de neuf mais quand même, cela reste une sensation puissante pour moi. Ce que je viens de raconter n’est pas si extraordinaire en soi ; je suis sûr que beaucoup, beaucoup de lecteurs connaissent ce genre de transe tous les jours et n’écriraient pas un article là-dessus. Pourtant, cela me faisait réfléchir.

Enfant, j’avais beaucoup moins de préoccupations. Mon esprit était libre d’errer ; à présent je traîne mes soucis jusqu’au lit jusqu’à ce que le sommeil m’en soulage. Je fais face à la réalité, aux responsabilités, parfois à l’échec (mais qui en décide sinon moi ?), aux regrets. Pourtant je n’ai pas perdu la moindre parcelle de ma capacité à me perdre dans une bonne histoire. C’est rassurant.

Il y a longtemps, à l’école, j’ai appris le mot « catharsis ». Je connaissais sa définition, je pouvais la réciter, même le placer dans une dissertation. Mais je ne le comprenais pas. J’ai enfin pigé.

C’est de la fiction. Ce n’est pas reel. Pourtant cela m’affecte tellement, et m’aspire et fait disparaître le reste. Je la porte en moi-même quand je ne la lis pas, et elle ressurgit aussitôt que je reprends le livre. Elle me secoue comme les montagnes russes, elle dirige mes émotions pour quelques instants. Puis je tourne la dernière page, et à nouveau ce n’est plus que de la fiction, encore une histoire qui rejoint les milliers que j’en ai déjà lus.

Parfois un livre me laisse une impression durable, pendant des jours, même des semaines. Mais à la fin, elle s’estompe dans ma mémoire. Tout ce que j’ai ressenti avec le livre, même si c’était très puissant, le flux de la vie finit par l’emporter. Qu’est-ce qu’il reste d’autre ? Un livre sur mes étagères, qui ramasse la poussière ? Tous les livres sur toutes les étagères n’ont pas été lus, et on ne voit pas la différence. Il n’y a rien de tangible. Tout se passe dans l’esprit.

L’esprit.

On dit que quand un vieil homme meurt, c’est une bibliothèque qui brûle. Ou qu’il n’y a pas plus grande richesse que le savoir, pas plus grande pauvreté que l’ignorance.

Il contient la culture et les connaissances et l’empathie et les expériences vécues et les histoires et les émotions et les amis et la famille et les souvenirs et les sensations et les abstractions. Il est si vaste et si complexe qu’il ne peut même pas se regarder lui-même en totalité.

Et le truc incroyable, c’est que l’esprit peut encore s’oublier lui-même et se perdre dans un bon livre. Il s’étendra, si l’histoire est bonne, il s’étirera pour l’imaginer et la vivre et ne s’en portera pas plus mal. En fait, il vous en remerciera et vous en demandera davantage.

Il y a des limites à ce que l’on peut demander à son corps. Mais l’esprit… Eh bien il y a peut-être des limites, mais la fiction peut faire des choses surprenantes pour les repousser. Les joies et les peines, les pays étrangers ou les périodes historiques ou des mondes imaginaires, les valeurs familières ou exotiques, les religions, les orientations sexuelles, les passe-temps, nommez-en un, il n’y a pas grand-chose que les histoires ne permettent pas de partager avec le lecteur ouvert. Je le sais, parce qu’elles m’ont fait voyager.

La fiction n’est pas toujours profonde et chargée de sens, elle peut aussi permettre de s’échapper de la réalité. Certaines histoires n’ont pas d’autre ambition que de faire oublier leurs soucis aux lecteurs un instant. Même ainsi, je dirais que c’est une bénédiction. Parmi tous les moyens de s’échapper de la réalité, la lecture est probablement le plus sûr et celui qui fait de loin le moins de dégâts.

Mais par-dessus tout, je crois que lire procure une satisfaction. Pas forcément la même chose que le plaisir, bien que lire puisse être agréable (et l’est souvent). Cela peut aussi être absorbant et presque insupportable (j’ai lu des livres qui m’ont remué les tripes) et, malgré tout, satisfaisant après une expérience intense, épuisante, mais sans danger.

La catharsis.

Au fait, les livres que je lisais dans ce restaurant chinois étaient Kushiel’s Dart (Kushiel), de Jacqueline Carey, et Nothing but Trouble (pas de traduction française) de Rachel Gibson.

Reader’s Empathy

It had been a long day and I was pretty worn out. Nothing out of the ordinary, enough to feel relieved when it ended. I went to a Chinese restaurant at 18h50, the waiters were not in waiter mood yet. One of them took my orders, but for the first half hour, as I was their only client, I heard shouts and loud laughter in a foreign language. A slightly rude behavior from professionnals, yet I didn’t mind. I had drawn my Kobo touch e-reader almost as soon as I got seated, and I was reading-oblivious to everything else. I usually do, when I go to a restaurant alone.

The dim sum arrived, and I closed my reader as I ate. Not quite rushing through the (tasty) food, I wasted not a second in opening it again as soon as I had finished eating. I picked up the story as though I had never left it, and while waiting for the main course, I went on and on.

Main course was served and I closed the Kobo again. Then I did one thing that I almost never do, because it’s improper, because I don’t like my fingers to be near food and high tech at the same time. I resumed reading while eating.

When I finished eating again, the restaurant was still empty but the staff had shifted into second and third gear without me noticing. More patrons came shortly after. I accepted the parting sake cup (yes, that’s a Chinese restaurant serving a Japanese brew, not that I complain), and said I’d remain a little longer.

After that I was only dimly aware of my surroundings. I know there were fragrant, appetizing plates carried near me, polite greetings and relaxed chatter, warm lights and more warmth from the radiator next to my chair. I can only recall general impressions, and I’ll forget every detail of it; I wasn’t there. But I will recall, vividly, perhaps years from now, the story I was in.

I looked at my watch every now and then, noticed time passed. The digits on the watch didn’t make it real. I finished a final chapter, turned the page, looked at the number of pages in the next chapter – oh, a mere twenty – and read the first words almost by accident… And read the whole chapter. And the next. And the next.

I’m fairly sure, just as I had stopped noticing the background, the background no longer noticed me either. No one took the empty sake cup away. No one told me my table was needed. I think I had disappeared, if not physically, at least from society’s perception. Perhaps in other’s minds, I’d melded with the furniture or something like that.

When I finally got up and paid the tab and left, I had been reading, just reading, for more than an hour. Which is not so long, except that time had had no weigh at all.

When I came out, I had a plan to read for the two hundred meters that I had to walk to get home, and then up the stairs, but it was raining.

As I strolled I wondered, kinda amazed at what just happened. I used to read a lot as a child, and I’ve been in deep reading trances before. It’s not new but still, it remains powerful stuff to me. What I’ve just narrated isn’t so amazing in itself; I’m pretty sure many, many readers experience that kind of trance every day and wouldn’t write an article about it. Still, I got into a wondering mood.

I had far less concerns as a child. My mind was free to wander ; nowadays I often take my worries to bed until sleeps relieves me. I face reality, responsibilities, sometimes failure (who’s to name it but myself?), regrets. Yet I haven’t lost a bit of my ability to lose myself in a good story. That’s comforting.

Long ago, in school, I learned the word “catharsis”. I knew its definition, I could quote it, even use it in a school essay. Didn’t understand it though. I finally got it.

It’s fiction. It’s not real. Yet it affects me so much, and draws me in and makes the world fade. I bear it with me even when I’m not reading, and it springs forward again the moment I pick up the book. It drags me low and high, it rules my emotions for a while. Then I turn the last page, and it’s fiction again, yet another story joining the thousands I’ve read by now.

Sometimes a book will leave me a lasting impression, days, even weeks. But in the end, it fades into memory. Everything I’ve experienced through the book, no matter how potent at the time, the flow of life eventually washes away. What else is left? A book on my shelves, to gather dust? Not all books on shelves were read, and you can’t tell which were. There’s nothing tangible to it. It’s all in the mind.

The mind.

They say that when an old man dies, a library burns. Or that there is no wealth like knowledge, no poverty like ignorance.

It’s about culture and knowledge and empathy and experiences and stories and emotions and friends and family and memories and sensations and abstractions. It’s so vast, so complex, it cannot even look at itself in full.

And the crazy thing is that you can still make the mind forget itself and get lost in a good book. It will extend, if the story is good, it will stretch itself to imagine it and live it and be none the worse for it. In fact, it will love it and ask for more.

There’s a limit to what you can ask of your body. But the mind… Well maybe there are limits, but fiction can do awesome things to cross them. Joys and sorrows, different countries or time periods or just imaginary worlds, familiar or unfamiliar values, religions, sexual orientations, hobbies, you name it, there are few things that stories can’t share with the willing reader. I know, ‘cause I’ve been places.

It isn’t always deep and meaningful, it can be about escapism of course. Some stories you read just to forget your concerns for a moment. Even then I’d call it a blessing. As means of escaping reality go, reading’s probably the safest and the least damaging by far.

But mostly, I think reading provides satisfaction. Not the same as fun, though reading can be fun and often is. It can also be compelling and almost unbearable (I read books that made my skin crawl and my guts churn) and still satisfying after an intense, exhausting, safe experience.

Catharsis.

By the way, the books I was reading at that Chinese restaurant were Kushiel’s Dart, by Jacqueline Carey, then Nothing but Trouble, by Rachel Gibson, and they’re both excellent.

A Romance Novel Review : The Girl with the Golden Gun, by Ann Major

A few weeks ago, Asia Morela sent me Ann Major’s The Girl with the Golden Gun (along with two other romance novels, which I’ll review soon). Many thanks to her. Here’s my review.

The Girl With The Golden Gun

The Girl With The Golden Gun

I expected good things because, well, it has modern cowboys! I love the theme and I immediately fell in the Texan background. Shanghai Knight’s the dispossessed son of a drunk, violent looser, while Mia Kemble is the daughter of the very same local aristocrat who dispossessed the Knights. He’s fifteen years older than her, yet Mia chases after him until that night: manly showdown, rebellious daughter and tyrannical fathers, oh my. Suffice to say that, in a dramatic flash-back, Shanghai storms away, resolves to prove himself in rodeos, and leaves a broken-hearted Mia behind. Fast forward fifteen years: Mia’s in trouble and needs him, and they’ve never forgotten each other.

Well, “Mia’s in trouble” is an understatement. After a plane crash, Mexican drug lord Octavio Morales rescued her and proceeded to seduce her, all suave and gallant gentleman. He’s supposedly a hardened criminl (I’ll get back to this later), but he has a social inferiority complex and apparently needs to prove something – a lot actually, and seducing a beautiful white high-class chick is apparently just the thing to do it.

The beginning is promising indeed. And it installs the story in a very vivid Western setting. I liked this part all the way. What didn’t work for me was the other part, in the Mexican drug lord’s estate where he keeps his beautiful American lady. She has shown no interest in him, but he never forced her, because of his own issues. Okay. Why not. Then this drug lord, Tavio Morales, is described as a ruthless bastard, rejected from a wealthy family and driven by jealousy and anger, but I had trouble taking him seriously as a ruthless bastard. Scenes from his point of view try to drive the point home :

He did not enjoy killing, but it was part of doing business. Too late, he’d learned what a vicious, deadly game he was in. When he killed, he made more enemies, and he’d had to become tougher to survive. His best men, like Chito, were those he could trust the least because they wanted to take over. The rules of his business were as simple as those the desert animals lived by. Win- or lose. Live- or die. Kill- or be killed. When you lived like that long enough, it changed you.

At the start of the book, he’s been playing generous host to Mia Kemble for fifteen months without an inappropriate gesture, and his men (thugs in a rape culture, and that is made quite clear) are growing restless. But Morales is rather useless: he spends a lot of time in angst, shows poor leadership skills and poor control over his temper, is betrayed several times over like an idiot… Not a fool in love: an idiot, in my view.

Mia Kemble is rescued, with due heroics (and I won’t go into details, but I liked this part), and resumes her complicated relationship with Shanghai. And it is complicated. She chased after him when she was a kid, he left her several times. He’s still not over his family grudge. He’s vaguely jealous of the drug lord who held her hostage and did who knows what to her. During the escape, they make tentative steps towards each other. Good, convincing, appropriate scenes.

When they get back home, I found my interest rekindled. Since the Kembles thought she died a year ago, there’s a lot on her plate at home. She missed her father’s burial, her family is worried sick as you’d expect, and the media accuse her of consorting with Morales. And a manipulating bastard of a federal agent wants to use her as bait to catch Morales… So for a while, Shanghai fades a bit into the background. All of that felt right. I think it was my favorite part.

But of course, as things were finally looking up, Morales has to come back and make a fool of himself yet again. He’s a DRUG LORD, for crying out loud! When did he ever act like one?

Having said all of that, I enjoyed TGWTGG a lot. If I hadn’t I wouldn’t be pining over the one character I didn’t like. It had great pace, a very convincing setting, nice secondary characters (especially the Kemble family, and the reporter). I liked the romance itself: the trust issues, the years of distance and yearning, the careful steps forward and backwards. But I appreciated the setting even more. All in all, a good read.

Blog en pause, pour cause de NaNoWriMo

En Novembre, les ours et les marmottes hibernent. Les écrivains se plongent dans une profonde léthargie romancière. Cette année, allez : je le fais.

Le National Novel Writing Month – Mois National d’Ecriture d’un Roman.

May the Muse be with us.

A Romance Novel Review : Force of Nature, by Suzanne Brockmann

When I discovered Asia M’s blog, her articulate, clever articles on romance novels as a genre (and often an overlooked genre), I already knew that romance novels were a top seller and held a large place on every library’s shelves. I realized that I knew very little of this vast, wide genre and Asia M made it sound quite interesting indeed and, well, fun. So I mentioned my interest to her and she offered to send me three books to get me started.

Now for my second entry in this trilogy of romance novels guest reviews.


After fantasy Regency England (in Mary Balogh’s Slightly Scandalous), I’ve discovered a very different setting and tone in Suzanne Brockmann’s Force of Nature. With such a title, I expected some ecological and/or supernatural elements ; neither is present. Turns out Force of Nature is a romance novel built upon a thriller plot.

In short, I loved it and I’m very impressed. I can find a few flaws in this book – then again, I’ll admit finding flaws comes all too easily to me – but overall, well, it’s brilliant.

Four characters, two couples. Ric Alvarado, a Latino ex-cop P. I., with Annie Dugan, his childhood friend, assistant and secret crush ; Jules Cassidy, top FBI agent with a promising carreer and openly gay, with Robin Chadwick, rising actor, closet gay and alcoholic. Neither of these characters feels idealized or fantasied. And while the gay couple seems a bit larger-than-life (Jules is given as a future head of FBI and Robin as very near a superstar), they all belong firmly in modern, patriotic, Internet-fed, dynamic North America, all of them with realistic problems and backgrounds.

Now this is important, because Suzanne Brockmann sure made her homework. Gay relationships in the sunlight or in the closet, racism, alcoholism, crime, she’s got several serious, powerful themes lined up. Not to mention a FBI investigation into a suave deadly mob boss’s operation and his appaling son’s brutal activities, that gets a bit gritty at times ; not snuff-movie horrific, but still, enough to make this feel right. Also there’s supposedly an Al-Qaeda terrorist to apprehend, but this one’s just a McGuffin, honestly ; hardly needed at all. Perhaps a nod to ambient patriotism in the USA ? Anyways.

And it’s all very well played out. The investigation unfolds, complete with twists and turns and plans shot to hell and on-the-spot cleverness and suspense. And at the same time, both couples get acquainted further, and their dynamics espouse the flow of event in a beautiful way. All I can say is, I wish I could spin a tale like this.

Here I’ve gotta say I was more interested by the Jules/Robin couple overall, because the obstacles between Ric and Annie are far less powerful and sometimes seem contrived (like the embarrassment that only a murderous, manipulative ex-porn star can bring up – did I forget to mention there’s a murderous ex-porn star ?), or simple misunderstangings, or their tempers getting in the way. And mortal peril too, at some point. But mortal peril is good, sweeps the lies away, lets the heart override the brain’s control on the tongue.

Now Jules and Robin, that’s another story. The open gay and the closet gay with no margin of error ; further compounded by alcoholism for the latter, an unrequited affair for the former, and carreer concerns on both sides… All rocks and bumps, their way.

And it all feels right. Quite a wonder, to tackle so many themes at once and do them justice.

Now for a bit of criticism. Well, at times, I got the impression Brockmann went pedagogic on her reader ; especially around homosexuality and alcoholism. Like everyone, I don’t like being lectured, even though it is well done and mostly subtle. That said, it’s a very minor problem, if at all. Maybe someone else wouldn’t notice. And I actually learned a thing or two about alcohol withdrawal.

I just begun Asia’s last gift, Faking It, by Jennifer Crusie, and suddenly I noticed what Force of Nature lacked : humour. It’s a bit dry in the humour department (although there is the occasional touch : for instance, a certain mariage proposal under unusual circumstances). That said, it’s extremely good, and it thrilled me thoroughly.

A Romance Novel Review : Slightly Scandalous, by Mary Balogh

When I discovered Asia M’s blog, her articulate, clever articles on romance novels as a genre (and often an overlooked genre), I already knew that romance novels were a top seller and held a large place on every library’s shelves. I realized that I knew very little of this vast, wide genre and Asia M made it sound quite interesting indeed and, well, fun. So I mentioned my interest to her and she offered to send me books to get me started.

I read Slightly Scandalous first of the three books she sent. So here goes : my opinion. Many thanks again to Asia M who not only sent me the book, but also hosted this review on her own blog.

Slightly Scandalous (Mary Balogh)

Slightly Scandalous was my first taste of romance novels, Jane Austen excepted, and Jane Austen is quite universal. Mary Balogh does write in genre. So there I go, in a nutshell : I read a romance novel, I enjoyed it and I’ll read more.

It’s not an unmitigated feeling, though. From the start, several basic elements didn’t quite agree with me. First the very choice of protagonists as gentry in Regency England ; this much I could quite accept. But then these two socially elevated characters would discard propriety and social graces for sheer amusement’s sake and throw a public argument for no other reason than fear of boredom… Riiight. I balked at that a little.

It turns out neither is quite as shallow as they appeared at first, but that too is a bit overdone, with the homecoming of roguish marquess Hallmere showing him as nothing less than an unassuming saint. What with (SPOILER) his proximity and easy way with commoners, his acceptance of his special cousin, his support of a raped woman on his own dishonor, the love of those who knew him as a child going so far as to damn themselves for him… (SPOILER) It’s not incoherent in any way, but a bit heavy on the perfection of this gentleman… Though by the time I reached that part, I didn’t mind too much.

I should also mention a very great amount of clichés. I think I saw the fake betrothal somewhere else ; also the homecoming that displays unexpected goodness in the gentleman (I think that one was featured in Pride and Prejudice, for instance) ; and the general structure, where an initial misunderstanding is compounded by graver, more serious matters for the protagonists to attend, which make them reveal more of themselves and accept more of each other (and possibly themselves), until threats are resolved about right when the protagonists are ready for an HEA commitment, reminds me of Austen again. It does look like a very well-practiced, tried-and-true narrative structure. Not a bad thing, but from my first romance novel I expected more surprises.

A great many words felt a bit overused, like “her knees turned to jelly”, “heavy-lidded” during sex, a lot of “tittering”, a lot of attention to the physical perfection of both Joshua and Freyja… And finally, some plot devices felt a bit contrived, starting with the very first meeting between Joshua and Freyja.

But as the plot thickens, Mary Balogh relies less and less on unbelievable coincidences and more on solid ground. And though it all seems a bit easy at times, and Joshua and Freyja – especially the former – are far too perfect and well-endowed (in every respect) in far too lenient a setting to be believable (and I know enough of Regency England to know that for a fact), it is par for the course and doesn’t get in the way of enjoyment.

The point is, there are a few villains, a great many dull people, another great many kind people, and the passionate, heart-in-the-right-place heroes who will eventually prevail. Actually, Mary Balogh doesn’t even try to worry us with external threats. The real question is how love appears and grows and is finally accepted on both sides. And unlike the villains, who find themselves satisfactorily thwarted in a manner the author herself describes as “anticlimactic”, the matter of love is serious.

Well, there’s my novelty. Seeing love overrun deadly danger (in the presence of a pending murder accusation) and the hint of mystery (around said murder) and take precedence in the story, yeah, well duh. It is called a romance novel, right ? And it works too. Even though I could see all the strings being pulled at me (like I wrote above, clichés, coincidences, but I’m done with criticism now), I felt a powerful and sound story. So many things are a little too easy, but love is not. Yet it happens, as it seems it should.

A final note on sex scenes. They felt right. That simple. They fitted right in and made sense and were written in just the right angle to serve the story. I have read erotic texts, and these scenes, honestly, are not. Not in my opinion. They are part of the story, part of the romance, and they add a lot of believability to it. They belong.