Captive Prince by S.U. Pacat

This has popped up in various feeds with plenty of praises so I decided to give the audio version a chance. Unfortunately, I found the story to be boring and overidealized – to the point where it took me two weeks just to get through the audible version. Perhaps it is the no-nonsense approach of the narrator or that nothing much really happens in the story. Whichever the case, I was scratching my head at the end trying to figure out why this is praised so highly.

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Story: Prince Damen is betrayed by his brother and sold into slavery to the country’s enemy. There, he comes under the influence of power broker and bored dilettante prince Laurent. Humiliated and beaten often for his insolence and unwillingness to back down, Damen despises everything about the Veretian court that is now his home and especially the vapid and cruel Laurent. But when Damen foils an assassination plot, a temporary truce and new measure of respect is earned between both men.

First, the big issue I had with the story is that everything is telegraphed – from the ‘mysteries’ to the obviousness of Laurent playing a part in order to survive. Damen is written to be blunt and stright forward to contrast Laurent’s scheming and manipulating. The problem here is that Damen comes off as bone dead stupid – and determined to make Laurent the cause of all evils. It gets old fast since everything is so clearly telegraphed; we can only wonder just how stupid Damen is that he doesn’t see the obvious.

Laurent will likely change in future novels as Damen comes to know that he isn’t a bored dilettante and instead has taken on a role in order to survive the cruel political machinations of court. Sure, having Damen hate Laurent in the beginning allows for their relationship to grow – but it feels kind of pointless if I dislike both main characters already in the beginning.

Rape and slavery are trigger words and those sensitive to the subject will not find enjoyment here. But the sex isn’t used as a deus ex machina so much as a matter of fact of life in this fantasy world that has been created. So none of it really bothered me to the point where I felt it was gratuitous or glamorized.

Because I had such a hard time getting through this novel, I will not be continuing the series further. I’m sure the characters develop a great relationship later but I’m just not interested enough now to want to invest more time.

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Sword of Destiny by Andrej Sapkowski

Of course, I came to these books having greatly enjoyed the Witcher games: particularly Witcher 3. I knew that the game designers stayed close to the original book themes but that they are not canon. The author steadfastly refused to have anything to do with the games, unfortunately. So the question is: if you enjoyed the games, are the books worth it? And the answer is an easy yes – these books fill in so much about the characters that seemed to be only side quest accessories but instead Geralt had met them before. As well, several Gwent cards feature characters that were introduced in the books (e.g., this book has the golden dragon Villentretenmerth.

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There are two short story collection books (this is one of them) and then an ongoing series. The stories in this book include the story of how Geralt met Villentretenmerth, how he met and fell for Yennefer, how he uncovered a plot featuring the Doppler Dudu (who shows up in Witcher 3), a plot featuring mermaids and a duke who wants a bride (a riff on The Little Mermaid), and Sword of Destiny – which sets up the storyline for the series (focusing on the child of Destiny, Ciri).

Sapkowski enjoys taking fairy tales and creating a more ‘realistic’ storyline around them. In previous books we saw Beauty and the Beast subverted and here we have a rather imaginative take on the Little Mermaid. Those who have played the game can imagine how the story will unfold: with the trademark lack of morality and clear endings. I do enjoy that vagueness since it means you are given a lot to think about afterwards.

I found the stories in both of the ‘collection’ books to be interesting and worth the read. As well, a lot more focus is on Geralt in these books than in the series. In fact, in the series the POV is rarely Geralt, which may frustrate some.

I listened to the Audible book and it was obvious the narrator took great care with the voices and acting. Admittedly, at times the accents were very hard to understand and I had to stop doing anything else in order to listen carefully (which took me out of the story). But other than that, it felt like a lot of love went into the narration.

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Milton’s Dreams Book One by Mael, Fejard, Ricard

So here’s the thing: Steinbeck, in The Grapes of Wrath, took the abject poverty and hopelessness of Depression Era farmers and created a story with heart. People wanted to do right even though the world was conspiring to tear them down. But that isn’t he case with Milton’s Dreams: there are no redeeming characters, no careful musings about life and American dreams. Instead, we’re given ugliness and more ugliness – from the people to the artwork. And sadly, all I could think was that the French author/artist really are disgusted by Americans and decided to take an American classic like Grapes of Wrath and murder it completely.

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Story: Youth Billy accidentally watches a neighbor kill a relative over a property squabble. To ensure the boy’s silence, his hand is crushed by a sledge hammer by that neighbor. Years later, the Depression hits, crops are failing, and Billy’s large family is suffering. His father is bullied into selling all his property and they decide to caravan with others out West (very similar to The Grapes of Wrath storyline). When the neighbor ends up missing, Billy suspects his simple older brother, Milton, of having murdered him after Milton dreamed of doing so. Billy then later plants the seed to brutally murder another person – and when she ends up dead as well, Billy decides to hold it over his brother Milton’s head – thereby controlling him further. Suddenly, all the bitterness and viciousness from living in poverty and having a multilated hand (and wanting to kill everyone) is given an outlet in the form of simple sweet older brother Milton.

As noted, there is not beating heart here – it’s all people being nasty and terrible to others and brutal deaths. From the mother forced to sleep with a land owner for scraps, to an ineffectual husk of a father easily bullied to giving up everything, to a drifter from Canada (itinerant farm worker) who hates on everyone in the story. There really isn’t a lot of reason to read this graphic novel because it is so unrelentingly dreary. Add in artwork that servers to make the characters even uglier (as if Munch’s The Scream was done in cartoon line drawing style) and yeah, we get the point: Americans are ugly, selfish, greedy, and amoral.

I am not sure why anyone thought we needed an ugly retelling of The Grapes of Wrath but here we have it. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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How to Bake by Nick Malgieri

How to Bake lives up to its name: the recipes start simple in each chapter and then you build upon techniques and skills as you progress. Everything is laid out simply and without all the superfluous graphic design that can get in the way of easy-to-follow directions. That said, it is rather bland – no pictures or design 39984135.jpgwork, just straight text.

 

The book breaks down as follows: Quick Breads, Scones & Muffins/Breads and Rolls/Savory Pastries/Pies/Tarts/Cookies and Small Pastries/Cakes/Puff Pastry and Cream Puff Pastry/Sweet Yeast-Risen Breads and Pastries/Sources of Supply/Metric Equivalents/Bibliography. As you can see, it is mostly breads and pastries. There are many savory (meat) items included in the breads, though.

The introduction is mostly about how to use the book rather than cooking techniques; there are handling directions, some tools/pans discussions, and a list of the essential ingredients for most of the recipes.

Each recipe has a bold font title, spaced ingredient list, tools needs (nice addition!), a short introduction, numbered and short steps, then variations. I especially appreciate the short numbered steps since that makes it as easy as possible to follow the directions. I have a hard time with the cookbooks that use chunky paragraphs for directions – they look great but it is at the expense of utility.

In all, a nice way to get some baking techniques under your belt and to feel more comfortable with cooking. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Empress Charlotte by Nury Bonhomme

Empress Charlotte is an enjoyable historical graphic novel detailing life in the 1860s for European royalty. Our protagonist is a sheltered princess, daughter of Leopold the 1 of Belgium. The story follows her as she deals with her husband’s shortcomings and travails within the political arena of not only Europe but the world.

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Story: Charlotte is drawn to one of her suitors: Maximillian, second son in the powerful Hapsburg dynasty. His direct and forthright manner appeals to her and soon a marriage is confirmed. But Maximillian lives in the shadow of his illustrious emperor brother – a brother who controls his fate completely. Without an heir and at the whim of Franz Joseph 1, Max and Charlotte are flung around the world – first to Venice as an Archduke position is granted and then eventually they will make their way to Mexico.

The story of Charlotte and Max is quite tragic but it is also a fascinating chapter in history; after all, it would be Max’s brother who was instrumental in the domino effect that led to World War 1. But this novelization, which ends at the couple’s move to Mexico, is all seen through Charlotte’s eyes. She has a husband with faults – the ‘diluted’ end of the Hapsburgs, as he is called. And so she has to learn to maneuver the political landscape in order to make up for her husband.

The artwork reminds me of the clean work of 1940s – similar to Bazooka comics but with a serious subject matter. It’s clean and bright but somewhat old fashioned.

In all, I love to read historical graphic novels. The author stays true to the facts but also creates characters and situations in order to flesh out the story. Charlotte may or may not have been as canny as presented; but it is a rewarding read all the same. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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Ooku 14 by Fumi Yoshinaga

This continues to be one of the best manga out there in terms of nuance, writing, artwork, and subject. For those who haven’t picked this up, the manga is an alternate history of Japan in which the rulers were women rather than men (due to the male population being decimated by a disease targeting them). So while the names are familiar (especially to those who know Japanese history), the stories are quite unique and distinct. With 14 volumes, we are given a sweeping history including the arrival of the Dutch and then the American ‘black ships’. At this time, the disease has a cure and men are starting to become numerous – are the days of the female rulership over?

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Story: Emperor Iesada grew up with a father who both systematically removed her husbands and then planted himself in their place. Bitter and jaded, she leads a lonely and sexless life until her father finally dies and frees her of his ‘attentions.’ She has hesitated to take consorts but finds herself saddled with a young man who was clearly chosen to use his good nature and looks to spy for his family while also influencing her. But to her surprise, She finds herself liking and respecting her new consort, even knowing his role is to increase his family’s power and presence at the imperial court.

This is one of the more gentle stories in the series. It follows Tanneatsu – a kind and intelligent young man who finds himself at the mercy of his family’s ambitions. Although he had no desire to go to the capitol, he makes the best of it while there. His growing relationship with the damaged Iesada is nicely written and a joy to read.

In between the workings of the inner chambers, Ieasada is also dealing with the question of what to do with the Americans – allow them beyond the harbor or straight out declare war on them. Her country is divided and the male population, as it continues to grow, is beginning to assert authority again and question the matriarchy.

As always, there is so much going on here and the read fascinating. The illustration work is excellent and I’ve enjoyed all the subtleties in character emotions and thoughts. There is a good reason this was Eisener nominated – it’s one of the best stories out there right now in manga form. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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DragonShadow by Elle Katherine White

While I found the first book in the series to be just ‘ok’, I felt Dragonshadow brought the series into its own, and without the limiting constraints of Austen really improved. It’s not am amazing series but it is solidly written and very accessible to those who never liked fantasy or sci fi. Author White greatly expands on her world and brings in new creatures and lore while also further developing the leads. It makes for a pleasant read and proof that stories don’t have to stop after the ‘happily ever after’ ending.

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Story: Aliza and Alistair are enjoying a well-deserved honeymoon when duty calls the Daireds once again. A plea from a Northern kingdom brings a story of something evil causing deaths to the humans and the non humans. To reach the North, Aliza and Alistair will have to brave the Wilds and the predatory non-humans that live there. As well, Aliza will have to convince Alistair that, although she is not a dragon rider, her determination and will can make up for any lacks.

The first part of the book is the journey: Aliza finding a way to convince her husband that she should be with him, learning to ride Alistair’s dragon, Akarra, and then arriving at the lake and castle. Once there, there are several mysteries to solve: disappearance of a serving girl, death of several non humans, and something very evil that is sensed to be following Aliza and Alistair.

The book has plenty of action scenes as well as some nice interactions between the main characters. The Northern “Scottish”-like setting is well used and the lore there interesting (selkies, centaurs, etc.). The course of Aliza and Alistair unraveling the mysteries and finding the clues was very satisfying.

In all, I enjoyed this book much better than the first. I look forward to the next in the series. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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