Book Log #75: Scoundrel, by Zoe Archer

Scoundrel (The Blades of the Rose, #2)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Scoundrel, Book 2 of Zoe Archer’s Blades of the Rose series, came across my radar with a bang thanks to the Smart Bitches Trashy Books ladies and their current montly book club. As I mentioned in my review of Book 1, Warrior, I was very happy to see a cover with a hero who’s not only fully dressed, but who also seemed to come right out of a mold I find most swoonable indeed: the Indiana Jones archetype, ready for adventure.

Even more so that with Book 1, Scoundrel delivered this in spades. I enjoyed Scoundrel quite a bit more, in no small part due to the hero. Bennett Day of the Blades of the Rose is an unhesitant rake, cheerfully cutting a swath through the dozens of women willing to go at it with him in the sheets in between his far more serious missions for his compatriots, and sometimes both at once. Little does he know he’s about to meet up with London Harcourt, the daughter of an Heir of Albion–and whose husband Bennett in fact once killed. London has no idea whatsoever of the nefarious activities of her father and spouse, and suffice to say, her worldview is blown wide open when she finds out that her father has hauled her off to Greece to make use of her gift with ancient languages. Harcourt’s bent on tracking down the same Source Bennett’s pursuing, and Bennett and his fellow Blades have no choice but to abduct London, clue her in, and hope like hell that she’ll defect to their team and help them.

A couple of things kicked Scoundrel up another notch over Book 1 for me. One is the secondary romance playing out between the witch Athena and the boat captain Kallas, which was in some ways almost more fun than the primary romance of London and Bennett–but only almost, because I had great fun with them too. I very much liked that London had refreshingly little angst about Bennett’s womanizing ways, which led beautifully into Bennett flooring himself with his obligatory Realization of True Love(TM). The big revelation of said True Love in particular was quite charming; look for the “monkeys in hats” lines, here.

I also have to give Archer props for actually making me not skim past a sex scene, for once. If an author is going to actually make me read a sex scene, she needs to have either a masterful command of the language and make me swoon on the sheer power of words alone. Or, she needs to say something interesting about the involved characters, and give me something more to go on than just the physical depiction. Archer does the latter in a goddess-play scene that I’ll freely admit was, indeed, rather hot for the delightful things it said about London as a character and as a woman.

Meanwhile, in the main plot, we’ve got ourselves a chase through Greece through lovingly described islands and waters. The Heirs are still fairly flat as villains–I still never really get a sense of any of the Heirs as actual people rather than bad guys spouting “For the Glory of Britain!” Here, though, London’s father is actually genuinely creepy in the final big showdown between them. The Heirs’ dark mage, as well, is legitimately creepy in a scene involving torture.

All in all not something to take too seriously, but a highly engaging read nonetheless, in no small part because of the charm of London and Bennett. Four stars.

Book Log #74: Warrior, by Zoe Archer

Warrior (The Blades of the Rose, #1)

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I came into Zoe Archer’s Blades of the Rose series courtesy of the fine ladies at Smart Bitches Trashy Books, when they chose the second book of the series as a book club read. Pretty much right out of the gate I wanted these books, and I’m not ashamed to admit that a big part of that was because of the covers on Books 1 and 2. First and foremost, I want to thank whoever did the cover art! Gabriel on the cover of Book 1, I’m not ashamed to say, totally slew me for looking like he stole Indiana Jones’ outfit, and even aside from that appealing to my fangirl sensibilities, I just found it such a refreshing change from a lot of the shirtless, overmuscled guys on the covers of romance and paranormal romance these days.

Happily, the book itself also proved to be quite enjoyable. Warrior, as the opening book of a series, has the task of setting up the world for us, and it does a nice strong job of doing so by giving us our hero, Gabriel, drawn into saving a man’s life in a brutal attack. The man he tries to rescue dies, but not before begging Gabriel to take a message–and a mysterious compass–clear around the world to Mongolia.

Gabriel, you see, has stumbled into the ongoing conflict between two factions at war over magical Sources, artifacts all over the globe which are so named for being the repositories of great power. The Heirs of Albion are bent on securing these Sources for the greater glory of the British Empire, so that Britain might take over the world. Pitted against them are the Blades of the Rose, sworn to avoid using any magic save that which is theirs by gift or by right, and to keep all Sources safe in the hands of their rightful people.

And the man Gabriel has to take the dire message to? He is of course a Blade, living in Mongolia with his daughter Thalia, who is naturally afire with the ambition to follow in her father’s footsteps. Neither want to embroil Gabriel in their affairs, but Gabriel won’t be put off easily. He has after all come all the way from England at the behest of a dying man. Also, Thalia is awfully, awfully hot.

It’s a nifty worldbuilding concept, and Archer has great fun with it, setting up an engaging blend of period adventure and supernatural activity that hearkens indeed back to the aforementioned Indiana Jones as well as the Mummy movies with Brendan Fraser. As these are in fact paranormal romance novels, you do have the obligatory blazing chemistry between the lead characters and more than one sex scene in which they indulge it–but for once, my tastes in such things are actually pretty in line with what a romance novel has to offer with that. Archer’s very good at giving her female leads strong sexual agency, and the sense of equality between her heroines and heros is awesome both within and outside of romantic contexts.

In this particular story, as she’s been brought up in Mongolia, Thalia is very much afraid that a man from her native Britain will expect her to behave like a proper British lady–and she’s delighted to discover that Gabriel, as a commoner and a foot soldier, is just as happy that she’s anything but. The two of them must set out to find and protect the Source the Heirs are targeting, and along the way, have themselves quite the adventuresome ride. There’s a bit too much obvious pointing at characters who are destined to have their own installments as the series progresses, and a bit too much simplistic motivation on the part of the bad guys. But all in all this was fun and it made me quite interested in continuing with the series. Three stars.

Book Log #73: Lord of the Silent, by Elizabeth Peters

Lord of the Silent (An Amelia Peabody Mystery, #13)

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

After the mighty awesomeness that was He Shall Thunder in the Sky, any book Elizabeth Peters might write would have its work cut out for it. Thunder is so clear a culmination of the Ramses/Nefret love story that in many ways it serves as an admirable stopping point for the series. It would be somewhat unfair to Lord of the Silent and its immediately following book, Children of the Storm, to call them afterthoughts. But Silent definitely takes the Emerson saga into a new phase, one that loses something of the charm of many of the previous books while at the same time still having charm of its own to offer.

Like many of the later Amelia Peabody books, this one brings back characters we’ve seen before. This time around we got Margaret Minton, last seen in Book Five, Deeds of the Disturber, annoying the devil out of Kevin O’Connell. She is of course much older at this point, though in some ways not particularly more mature–because her entire plot arc involves her reacting to a surprise encounter with none other than Sethos himself. This being a series with a long tradition of pairing off side characters along with the main action, it’ll probably surprise no new readers to this series that at least on the part of Miss Minton, the encounter proved quite romantic. Nor will anyone who read Thunder be surprised that this book, in playing out Sethos’ reaction to the woman chasing him, continues the whole concept of reforming the erstwhile Master Criminal. It’s inevitable, really, given what Margaret’s previous appearance in the series had established about her resemblance to Amelia–and, of course, Sethos’ own attachment to same. It’s a nice touch on Peters’ part. (Though at the same time, I must admit to being vaguely disappointed, since he’s one of the liveliest characters in the entire cast, and the idea of reforming him is almost ridiculous. As Sethos himself snarkily observes!)

Meanwhile, fans of Ramses may find it almost disappointing that now that he’s won Nefret, the resolution of that romantic tension fundamentally changes the position of those two characters in the overall framework of the series. There’s good stuff here with the British government being desperate to pull Ramses back into intelligence work, and Ramses adamantly refusing with his family’s staunch support. Nor can I really speak against the value of exploring how the newly married younger Emersons’ relationship develops, given that similar exploration between Amelia and Emerson has of course defined the heart of this entire series. But Ramses is not his father, no matter how kindly the advice of his parents in marital matters might be meant, and so some readers may find that the passages where Ramses and Nefret explore their new married state drag a bit in comparison to the rest of the book.

There’s some fun here as well exploring the character of young Sennia, and the introduction of Jumana and her brother Jamil expands the cast a bit, providing good contrast between a young woman who wants to prove herself and her reprobate, lazy brother. And there’s still enough substance to Peters’ writing here that unlike later novels in the series, this one’s still a pretty solid read. Three stars.

Book Log #72: He Shall Thunder in the Sky, by Elizabeth Peters

He Shall Thunder in the Sky (An Amelia Peabody Mystery, #12)

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Now we are TALKING.

He Shall Thunder in the Sky is perhaps my absolute favorite of the entire Amelia Peabody series–and as I’ve indicated in my reviews of several of the earlier books, it’s got some very strong contenders for my affections. It won’t have nearly as much meaning if you don’t read the series through from the beginning, but for readers who do, there is a great deal of reward to be had. There’s not only the culmination of the love story of Ramses and Nefret, there’s also the culmination of Ramses as a mature character and the equal of his parents, and a Big Reveal about the background of Sethos, the Master Criminal.

The book’s not a hundred percent perfect; I’ve got logistical quibbles with the Sethos part of the arc, for example. Odious cousin Percy, while credibly showing his true odious colors, is nonetheless not nearly as effective a villain as he should have been. Plus, I have a few “wait, what?” moments in regards to how Thunder ties back in with events in The Falcon at the Portal–specifically in revealing certain activities of Ramses’ and Nefret’s. I can’t say too much about that part since I don’t want to get into spoiler territory, but suffice to say that the details in question seemed a touch too melodramatic for even the Amelia Peabodies, which are at their height gems of melodrama! Ditto for the Big Reveal about Sethos.

But. I wave aside what quibbles I have with the story on the grounds of the sheer awesomeness that is Ramses in this book. He’s making a big noisy name for himself in Cairo as an avowed pacifist, refusing to participate in the ongoing bloody conflicts of World War I, and it’s getting him blackballed by everyone in Cairo society. It’s all a front, of course–because if you’ve been following the series up to this point, you know that Ramses has a stellar talent for disguise. So does the British government by this point in the series, and they’re making use of Ramses by having him do intelligence work. David’s in on it too, as the two friends put their lives on the line infiltrating a local cell of Egyptian nationalists so that Ramses can impersonate their leader. Not even his own parents know what’s going on, and once they realize the danger their son is putting himself in, they must do everything in their power to assist him. And to keep Nefret from finding out.

This being an Amelia Peabody, there is of course the obligatory preternaturally intelligent cat. This time around it’s Seshat, who’s a rival for her ancestress Bastet in how devoted she is to Ramses; he in turn is finally willing to acknowledge the potential awesomeness of other cats in the world. And of course we have the point of view shifting back and forth between Amelia and Ramses, which (aside from one weird choice of scene order at an early critical juncture) is wonderful stuff. Amelia’s relationship with her adult son is much different than her relationship with him as a boy, and one tender scene in particular they have is particularly aww-inducing.

Action scenes with Ramses here are among Peters’ most tense in any of her work, particularly at the end of the story. And, melodrama aside, the big climactic rescue scene in Thunder stands out for me as one of the most memorable of any of her books.

All in all, five stars.

Book Log #71: The Falcon at the Portal, by Elizabeth Peters

The Falcon at the Portal (Amelia Peabody Series #11)

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The first time I read through The Falcon at the Portal, book #11 of the Amelia Peabodies, I pretty much wanted to smack Nefret upside the head for what she pulls partway through the book. I am sorry to say that my impression on my recent re-read of her actions in this story have not much improved. Now that I am a writer myself and I’ve had a lot of time to get a lot more reading in besides, I better appreciate that a character I otherwise admire can do something deeply stupid. That said? What Nefret does in this book is still deeply stupid.

But let me back up. This is the third book involved in the overall four-book arc of the love story of Ramses and Nefret, a mini-arc in the overall stretch of the series. (I don’t count Guardian of the Horizon and A River in the Sky in this arc since they were inserted later, and don’t bring anything new to this particular storyline that the original four books don’t already establish.) We’ve jumped ahead a few more years since the events of The Ape Who Guards the Balance, and we start things off with a threat to the shiny new marriage of David and Lia: somebody is selling forgeries to antiquities dealers, and throwing around strong hints that they are David’s own creations. Very, very aware that David has not fallen back into the habits of his youth, Ramses and Nefret are determined to investigate even as the family prepares for their next season in Egypt.

Meanwhile, Ramses’ odious cousin Percy is making a massive nuisance of himself. He’s written a book based on what he claims are his own recent adventures in Egypt now that he’s joined the service–only problem is, he’s taking all kinds of dramatic liberties with the tale of how Ramses actually rescued him from being held hostage. Most of the family is suitably aghast at Percy’s distinctly purple prose, but only Ramses knows the truth of the hostage incident, and he isn’t telling. Not even Percy realizes what happened, and once he finds out, this sets off what’s actually a quite delicious little bit of revenge until Nefret wigs right out about it.

Feh. Aside from the Nefret bits this is a decent enough story, and for continuity’s sake one does want to read it, if nothing else to provide suitable context for the awesomeness that is to follow in He Shall Thunder in the Sky. My advice though is to read that one as soon as possible after this one. For this one, three stars.

Book Log #70: A River in the Sky, by Elizabeth Peters

A River in the Sky (Amelia Peabody Series #19)

The most recent of the long-running Amelia Peabody series, A River in the Sky, is also unfortunately thus far the weakest for me in the series to date. Like Guardian of the Horizon, it’s one of the “lost journals” of the Emerson saga, going back and filling in gaps of time between previously written books. In this particular case, this one falls after Guardian of the Horizon and before The Falcon at the Portal. Unlike Guardian of the Horizon, however, it doesn’t really have much substance to it. Amelia, Emerson, and the rest of the main cast seem like cursory versions of themselves, and Peters’ writing here has the same issue that I’ve noticed in other recent books (the last few of this series, as well as Book Six of the Vicky Bliss books): to wit, her historical vivacity and spark just are not there.

I really wanted to like this one, too. It does have going for it the fact that it’s set in Palestine, which is a first for a series that beforehand spent the majority of its time in Egypt, with periodic stories in England. There are also several good dramatic scenes where Ramses and David are on the run from the Bad Guys Du Jour, and the obligatory set of colorful side characters. But by and large the Emersons as a group are in reactionary mode rather than really being active all throughout this plot, and there isn’t even much of an archaeological subplot going on to provide interest in the meantime, either.

Overall, I’m sad to react to this one mostly with ‘meh’. I’m enough of an Amelia fan at this point that I’ll keep reading the series for the sake of being a completist, but for everybody else, this one is definitely skippable. Two stars.

Book Log #69: Guardian of the Horizon, by Elizabeth Peters

Guardian of the Horizon (An Amelia Peabody Mystery, #16)

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

By publishing order, Guardian of the Horizon is book #16 of the Amelia Peabody series. Chronologically, however, it is book #11, falling in time not too long after The Ape Who Guards the Balance. It’s one of two (as of the writing of this review) books that fill in the gap of time between Balance and the book after it, The Falcon at the Portal. And, if you’re a fan of Book #6, The Last Camel Died at Noon, it’s vital to note that this is also a direct followup to that book as it revisits the lost oasis city where the Emersons first discovered and rescued Nefret Forth.

The young prince Merasen comes to England to bring the Emersons the news that Tarek, the ruler they helped put into power ten years before, is gravely ill and needs their help. Naturally Amelia, Emerson, Ramses, and Nefret agree that they must go–and are in equal agreement that David must not, for he has only just finally won the betrothal of Walter and Evelyn’s child Lia and they all believe it would be cruel to part him from her. And for all that they’d just as soon leave Nefret behind as well, Ramses and his parents must grudgingly admit that Nefret’s medical skill makes her essential on the journey.

That journey proves just as perilous as the one the Emersons undertook before. This time around the story has a darker overtone, as assault and murder and betrayal dog them all the way to the Lost Oasis. Nor does it help matters that a treasure hunter and a young woman who seems rather forcibly in his care cross their paths, for Ramses finds himself uncomfortably drawn to the girl.

And that’s where this book falls over somewhat for me. We’ve just spent two books, Seeing a Large Cat and The Ape Who Guards the Balance, establishing that Ramses has been carrying a growing devotion to Nefret and has pretty much ever since he set eyes on her as a lad. In this very Lost Oasis, for that matter. I won’t go into details here for fear of spoilers for those who haven’t read this book; instead I’ll simply say that the strength of Ramses’ reaction to her is totally out of left field to me as a reader. The ending scene that tries to smooth things over and remind you who Ramses is really destined for doesn’t help, either.

I should also mention that Nefret herself spends regretfully little time doing anything useful in this plot. She becomes a MacGuffin here rather than a fully participating character, and behaves generally out of character as well.

It’s a shame, really, because aside from these two factors the book’s still fairly solid. The Emersons walk right into a trap of political intrigue that follows nicely out of the original adventure in this setting, and at least when Ramses and Nefret aren’t being out of character, there’s decent tension to be had. On my second read through I did appreciate those parts of the story more, which let me add another star to my original rating. Still, though, this is one of the weaker installments of the series. Three stars.

Book Log #68: The Ape Who Guards the Balance, by Elizabeth Peters

The Ape Who Guards the Balance (An Amelia Peabody Mystery, #10)

The tenth Amelia Peabody novel, The Ape Who Guards the Balance, opens with one of my very favorite scenes in the entire series: Amelia barging out to participate in a suffragette rally in London, ready, willing, and even eager to get herself arrested for the cause of women’s rights. Never mind how she winds up having an inadvertant run-in with Sethos who’s planning to rob the very residence she and her fellow suffragettes are targeting for their protest; no, what really sells this whole sequence for me is the note-perfect reactions Emerson and Ramses and their butler Gargery have to the entire situation, up to and including Ramses coming along to lend his support, and Emerson and Gargery asserting their disbelief that any constable in the city is worthy of the task of arresting Amelia P. Emerson.

Really, it’s an excellent start to a very strong novel in the series overall. It’s not entirely perfect, mind you. There are stretches where even a diehard fan like me finds it a bit hard going. Stick with it though–and for the love of Amon-Ra, if you’re new to the series, do not start with this one. The death of a character much beloved of the Emersons takes place in this installment, and you really need to have been following the series from the beginning to really appreciate its impact on the family. Especially upon Amelia, since this incident affects her personally all throughout the subsequent books.

Ramses starts coming into his own for me as a fully adult character with this book, too. He’s had plenty of time to be a full-fledged character, sure, but only as of this book does he really start feeling like a grownup to me. And by ‘grownup’, I mean, ‘swoonable hero’. It helps a lot that as of here, Peters has a better handle on how she wants to present the “Manuscript H” sections of the story. This in turn gives Ramses a much more consistent voice, and goes a long way to establishing him as a romantic hero to rival his father. Four stars.

Book Log #67: Seeing a Large Cat, by Elizabeth Peters

Seeing a Large Cat

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The ninth book of the Amelia Peabody series, Seeing a Large Cat, is a significant turning point in the overall saga of the Emerson family. It’s the first of the internal quartet of books that follows the arc of the love story between Ramses and Nefret, and it’s also the first where Elizabeth Peters starts including the points of view of both Ramses and Nefret in the narrative. Up until this point she’d already been using the schtick of a hypothetical “Editor” who’s organizing the overall collection of the personal papers of Amelia and her family; with Seeing a Large Cat, this gets a bit more obvious treatment as all the sections from Ramses’ POV are from a hypothetical “Manuscript H”, while Nefret’s letters are from “Letter Collection C”. This worked nicely for me as a conceit, overall.

As for the story itself, it jumps ahead a few years from the previous book, The Hippopotamus Pool. Ramses, David, and Nefret are now firmly into their late teens, and the relationship between the three is solidly in place. If you’ve followed the series up until this point this may be a bit jarring, as the barest beginnings of Ramses and David’s deep friendship are in the previous book, and there’s not much on-camera mileage establishing the affection between Ramses and Nefret either, or Nefret and David. But that said, it’s not too difficult a point to get around, nor is it essential to the current story. You basically need to know going in that yeah, the three young people have become quite close in the intervening years; that much is essential, as it’s the relations between these three characters that drive much of the events not only in the aforementioned quartet, but really through much of the rest of the series in general.

With Ramses joining his mother as a viewpoint character, the flavor of the books does take on more dimension, and I really like that. While Amelia continues in her florid first-person style, all of Ramses’ sections are from a more impersonal third-person style, and do a good job of conveying that as a writer, Ramses has a significantly different way with a word than his mother. Also, speaking as a fan of just about everything Elizabeth Peters ever wrote, this is pretty much the only time I can think of ever that she’s written significant chunks of a storyline from a male point of view, and that’s a nice change of pace for her.

Of course, it helps that Ramses is an entirely swoonworthy character. As of this particular book it’s played a little thick, since he’s in a strange transitory age where I don’t quite buy that he can quite pull off everything he does. (Which is quite irrational, given that he’s pulled off this kind of thing pretty much since Book 3, and I oddly buy some of it better when he’s a kid than I do when he’s a teenager. Later on when he’s got more experience and maturity, I buy it better as well.)

You may be asking, but what about the plot? There’s some nice callback here to the events of Book 4, since a couple of the characters from there, Donald and Enid, make another appearance. This is simultaneously fun and frustrating, since Donald’s part in this plot sets him up to be spectacularly gullible. (Enough that you wonder whether the man suffered sunstroke in Egypt in the time since Book 4, or something.) But that’s the B plot; the A plot involves a Colonel Bellingham and his spoiled daughter, and a body found in a mysterious tomb that turns out to be none other than the mummified corpse of Bellingham’s dead wife. How precisely the wife came to be in such a state is the mystery the Emersons must solve this time around, and it’s an engaging story indeed.

One more thing that added colorful character detail to this one for me was the changeover in the Emerson cats. The family cats are a long-running worldbuilding detail all over the series, and here, the death of the first, Bastet (a.k.a. “the cat Bastet”), and the attempt of her offspring Sekhmet to win over Ramses is worth several “aww” moments all over the story. ‘Cause yeah, really, this story IS all about Ramses. Even for the cats. Four stars.

Book Log #66: The Hippopotamus Pool, by Elizabeth Peters

The Hippopotamus Pool (An Amelia Peabody Mystery, #8)

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Truth be told, it’d been so long since I’d read The Hippopotamus Pool, book 8 of the Amelia Peabodies, that I’d totally forgotten what it was about–and in particular, that it introduced the critical character of David Todros, grandson of Abdullah, the Emerson family’s reis. After recently re-reading it, I didn’t came away with much more than that either.

Which is not to say that things don’t happen in The Hippopotamus Pool, because they do. There is quite the upheaval in the underworld of Cairo following a Certain Event at the end of the previous book, and the Emersons must deal with two different antagonists. As with the previous story, there’s a tie-in with how the adventure at hand seems to tie in with the translation work on Egyptian myths Amelia’s doing; this time around, though, that particular plot device didn’t work for me as well as it did in Book 7.

On the whole, too, the plot just didn’t work for me as well. Even after recently re-reading it, I’m having a hard time thinking of things that stand out aside from the introduction of one other important character: Bertha, who is quite important in the next couple of books. So just to get the context on her as well as the introduction of David, you might make sure to include this book in a comprehensive read of the entire series. But if you’re looking for the high points, you could skip this one without too much trouble. Three stars.