Review – The Beautiful Ashes by Jeaniene Frost

I was planning to have this post up first thing this morning, but an evil migraine intervened. And then once I could see again, I got kind of caught up in a book that I just had to finish, no matter how much it hurt to read. Anyway. My buddy Kim (from Reflections of a Book Addict) got me to read Jeaniene Frost’s Night Prince series (VLAD. ‘Nuff said.), and I surprised the holy hell out of myself by liking it. A lot. So when I was given a chance to read the first book in Frost’s new series, I jumped on it with hand-clapping glee. I guess this post is part of a blog tour (maybe?), so there’s a tour-wide giveaway of some sort. I wasn’t really paying attention to the details… I’m just here to talk about the book.

In a world of shadows, anything is possible. Except escaping your fate.

Ever since she was a child, Ivy has been gripped by visions of strange realms just beyond her own. But when her sister goes missing, Ivy discovers the truth is far worse—her hallucinations are real, and her sister is trapped in a parallel realm. And the one person who believes her is the dangerously attractive guy who’s bound by an ancient legacy to betray her.

Adrian might have turned his back on those who raised him, but that doesn’t mean he can change his fate…no matter how strong a pull he feels toward Ivy. Together they search for the powerful relic that can save her sister, but Adrian knows what Ivy doesn’t: that every step brings Ivy closer to the truth about her own destiny, and a war that could doom the world. Sooner or later, it will be Ivy on one side and Adrian on the other. And nothing but ashes in between…

I don’t foray much into paranormal/urban fantasy stuff, so you’ll have to take my thoughts with a giant bucket of salt. The thing is, I tend to set a fairly low bar for PNR/UF stuff, not because I think the genre unworthy but because I read it so infrequently that I haven’t yet learned how to set adequately high expectations of it. So this is what I expect from the PNR/UF books that I end up reading: 1. that they have words; 2. that they have fast-moving plots to distract me from all the elements that require me to suspend disbelief. The Beautiful Ashes had both those things, a dash of humor, a swoony, somewhat misunderstood quasi-antihero, and a morally ambiguous underlying theme. In other words, I liked it. A lot.

In many ways, The Beautiful Ashes reminds me of the New Adult lovechild of C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. The demon realms that our intrepid protagonists explore bear some resemblance to the grey town of Lewis’s allegory (though Frost’s version is quite a bit more horrifying); these realms are hackneyed imitations of human life, attempting the grandeur of some of humanity’s more inspired architecture but missing all the light, warmth, and inspiration. I’m a sucker for architecture as character or world development (one of the reasons I love Jane Austen), and I enjoyed that touch. As in American Gods, the characters in this story travel around the continental U.S. (and Mexico) searching for thin spaces (in this case thin spaces of the demonic variety), and, as in AG, the fictional vortexes and portals to demon worlds exist in our world and are completely believable as vortexes and portals. These places include the Oregon desert (I live one state south of Oregon, and I had no idea that state had any areas that aren’t green and perpetually rainy), a B&B somewhere in New England, a section of boardwalk somewhere on the east coast, etc. I hold out hope that in future books in the series the characters will visit the world’s largest thermometer, the Winchester house, and that giant ball of twine.

I don’t mean to imply that The Beautiful Ashes is a knock-off of American Gods. It’s not, mainly because it has a much more positive outlook and because its protagonist is a young woman whose goodness you never really question (rather than a gritty, down-on-his-luck, cuckolded, convict widower who also happens to be the son of Odin). If AG is a trickster mythology celebrating goodness alongside moral relativity and refusing to take a stance on which is preferable, The Beautiful Ashes is a good vs. evil mythology that dabbles in relativity but eventually concludes that things happen for a reason, that there is a divine scheme, that this scheme might suck occasionally, but that it is still important for “good” to keep its eye on the end game.

Much of the conflict in the book derives from the growing bond between Ivy, a genetically predestined savior-type, and Adrian, a genetically predestined betrayer-type. They feel drawn to each other; they learn to admire the other; but they know (Adrian more than Ivy) that there can be no true trust between them. Ivy and Adrian are united by their hatred of demons and their distrust of angels, but that unity is tenuous. I had a few issues with their relationship. For starters, Ivy is about 20 years old, and Adrian is well over 100. In nearly every conceivable way, Ivy is disadvantaged: she’s younger, both in actual years and in exposure to the whole angels vs. demons thing; she has almost no experience with relationships; she has almost no experience of physical relationships; she is naive; and — of course — Adrian, his demon-fighting cohorts, and the angelic host keep her at a disadvantage by feeding her the truth bit by bit, essentially manipulating her with incomplete information. That’s… annoying. (I also wondered if the conflict between Ivy and Adrian, their conflicting destinies, would be as compelling if it were not mentioned so often… and I thought their special bond looked an awful lot like celestial instalust from here.)

Oh, and I just have to tack this bit on here… I wasn’t real keen on the ending. Don’t get me wrong: I was all about Ivy breaking off on her own, sullying her goodness a little bit with some badassery, and journeying into some moral gray area, but… once a character embarks on that path, she doesn’t get to stand on a soapbox of self-righteousness. She hops off that soapbox pretty quick, but I was annoyed that she ever hopped on it.

Bottom line: I liked The Beautiful Ashes and I want more of it, but the romance in this first installment was the weakest element (and I love me some romance…). I hold out hope that the story’s continuation includes more character development, less insane chemistry, and a more even playing field for the protagonists. (I also hope that bit about Adrian being more than 100 years older than Ivy doesn’t come up again. It’s seriously creepy.)

The Beautiful Ashes was released on August 26, 2014 as a paperback and e-book by Harlequin. For more information about the book, click on the cover image above to visit its page on Goodreads. You can find out more about Jeaniene Frost on her website, Twitter, or Facebook.

*FTC Disclosure – I received an ARC from Rock Star PR and Harlequin for review consideration.*

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What I’ve been reading lately – books with wounded military heroes

I’ve been doing these “what I’ve been reading lately” posts lately because (1) I’m lazy and can’t seem to write more than one post in a given 10-day period; (2) I read waaaaayyyyyy too much, and if I tried to write about every book, you’d be like — Whoa. Stop it with all the posts about these books I’m never going to read. Just stop it, Kelly; and (3) I tend to get into reading moods, and sometimes it’s more interesting to discuss the themes that occur across multiple books. So, in June and July, I read a bunch of books that had military heroes, and I just realized (because I’m slow on the uptake sometimes), that all those heroes were wounded in combat. In some cases, the hero’s military status is a huge part of the book (i.e. it really does fall in the military romance subgenre), and in other cases the hero retired or was medically discharged, and his service is just part of his back story (and identity).

One theme that unites the books that I’ll be discussing in this post is that a large portion of each story focuses on the wounded hero’s search for identity and vocation in light of his injury. All three books are new releases, and (it seems to me) it’s yet another indication of how the romance genre responds to modern culture and current events and remains relevant. In the U.S., at least, war is everywhere. Do you know anyone who hasn’t been touched by it in some way? Do you know anyone who doesn’t mourn a classmate or friend, who hasn’t seen a loved one change and struggle after too many too-long deployments? Do you know anyone who isn’t heartsick to think of the welcome we offer the veterans who are lucky enough to return: poor health care, few career options, and the continuing stigma of mental health issues? I don’t. So it doesn’t surprise me that (more than) 3 new romance novels deal with this subject. (To be clear: I picked these three books to write about, but I could have expanded this post to talk about six books that I read in June/July that feature a wounded military hero, and I’m not really a reader of military romance novels. I’m guessing there are a lot more books out now that deal with the wounded hero trope.)

He’s in for the fight of his life . . .

Army captain Trent Davila loved his wife, Laura, and their two beautiful children. But when he almost lost his life in combat, something inside him died. He couldn’t explain the emptiness he felt or bridge the growing distance between him and his family—so he deployed again. And again. And again . . . until his marriage reached its breaking point. Now, with everything on the line, Trent has one last chance to prove to his wife that he can be the man she needs . . . if she’ll have him

. . . to win back his only love.

Laura is blindsided when Trent returns home. Time and again, he chose his men over his family, and she’s just beginning to put the pieces of her shattered heart back together. But when Trent faces a court martial on false charges, only Laura can save him. What begins as an act of kindness to protect his career inflames a desire she thought long buried—and a love that won’t be denied. But can she trust that this time he’s back to stay?

Back to You is definitely a military romance novel — and I’ll be honest and admit that I haven’t read very many of those — but its story stays fairly focused on Trent, Laura, and their chance for reconciliation. I love reconciliation stories (mostly because I hate instalust), and this one was right up my alley. I loved quite a few things about this book.

  1. This book has fantastic primary characters who are very nicely fleshed out.
  2. The emotional narrative of Trent and Laura’s story is so well wrought. There is a weight to their encounters early in the book, and that weight lightens with each new bit of trust forged (and earned). I particularly enjoyed how Laura’s anger is supported and validated by the narrative, yet her forgiveness is allowed to grow naturally.
  3. The interactions between Trent and the kids — who are pretty much strangers to him — are beautifully done. My favorite of these interactions involved Trent getting super-duper overwhelmed by his kids’ madness and then feeling like a failure for not being emotionally prepared for it. I just might love Jessica Scott forever for having Laura reassure Trent by telling him about the time that she absolutely lost her shit with the children. Parenting isn’t easy, and sometimes it’s downright horrifying. I loved that this book showed how messy parenting can be and gave Laura the chance to act with compassion, to share the story of her own failures, and to validate — for every parent — that those failures are not the whole story, that it’s the successes, added up, that tell the real story of a childhood and a family. That was neat.
  4. The women soldiers in this book are soldiers.

And, of course, there were a few things that I didn’t like so much. The secondary characters (two couples who are friends of Laura and Trent) were distracting, possibly because I read Back to You as a stand-alone and was not invested in the secondary characters from having read their books. Another character seemed to be introduced in the narrative only so readers could feel sympathy for Trent later on (and so Trent could learn to confide in Laura), and that was unfortunate. There’s a lot of military jargon that I just didn’t get. “Down stream” seems to mean a lot of things, but I could not identify them from the context. Finally, I wanted a little more closure from the ending. I’m not much for epilogues, but — since so much of the story dealt with Trent’s adjustment to a new normal and his search for identity in the wake of his injuries and experiences — I wanted a clearer idea of where he and Laura ended up.

But the bottom line is that I enjoyed the book and am very glad that I read it.

Fighting for his country gave Jake Taylor’s life shape and meaning. Now as an injured war hero he struggles to find purpose, until he runs into the gorgeous woman he dated briefly—and disastrously—before being deployed eight years ago. Turns out Jake doesn’t just need to figure out how to be a civilian . . . he also needs to learn how to be a dad.

Eighteen, pregnant, and totally lost, Mira Shipley couldn’t track down the soldier who fathered her child, so she put college on hold and focused on making a good life for her son. Now she’s determined to be something more than Sam’s mom, her parents’ daughter, or Jake’s girl—as hot as she finds her old flame’s take-charge attitude in and out of bed. Soon Mira and Jake realize that their passion didn’t disappear when Sam was conceived—and that instead of running away, sometimes it’s better to hold on tight.

Yep, it’s a secret baby book. It’s one of my favorite tropes because it is so rarely done well (and yet so often done… I mean, I’m just going to make up some titles, here, but I bet some of them exist as actual books: The Rancher’s Secret Baby; His Baby, Her Secret; Triplets for the SEAL; The Firefighter’s Surprise Family. Yeah… I just looked those titles up… they totally exist.). Anyway. I’ve read a few of Serena Bell’s stories before, so I was really stoked to hear that she’d written a secret baby story. And do you know what? I loved it. Some of my favorite things:

  1. Mira. She’s gutsy, principled, intelligent, and she recognizes the value of finding and maintaining an identity separate from “mom” and “daughter” and “girlfriend.” An equal amount of narrative time was spent on Mira’s journey of self-discovery as on Jake’s, and I loved how interesting her journey was. Mira gets the best dialogue in the book, lines of acerbic wit and frank humor. Finally, Mira’s sexuality and self-confidence are so refreshing.
  2. Computer science gets a shout-out, and it’s not the typical nerd locked in a room writing code about how to get chicks variety. Instead, Mira discovers in computer science a language she can relate to, a framework through which she can develop and express her other interests (in this book, shoes.). Since that’s what computer science actually is but is so rarely shown to be, I was thrilled. (And I’m not a computer scientist…. just a CS enthusiast, I guess.)
  3. I found all the interactions between Sam and Mira and Sam and Jake to be heartwarming, at times poignant, and often very amusing.
  4. Jake’s angst. I am actually a sucker for a wounded hero story (so, you know, grain of salt and all that), but Bell’s handling of Jake’s internalization of his injury and his resulting identity crisis was powerful and felt authentic. So, too, was his journey towards healing, self-acceptance, and love. Jake’s angst about sex was really interesting (because usually romance novel heroes exhibit unassailable sexual confidence) and endearing.

And, of course, there were some things I didn’t like so much. While Jake and Mira have a past relationship that helps to explain some of the strength of their physical attraction for one another, it *almost* bordered on the insane chemistry of instalust. Maybe it’s just me, but it pissed me off that Jake, after he had his Aha! (Aha! I’ve been an asshole. OOPS.) moment, waited three weeks to make things up to Mira, because it was so important that he get himself sorted. It further annoyed me that he orchestrated this big production to surprise her. Nope. Love doesn’t need everything to be just so, and love doesn’t leave someone in suspense just for the sake of one’s pride. (As for the big production… those just annoy me in general.)

But the bottom line is that Hold on Tight is still one of the best secret baby stories I’ve ever read.

After surviving the Napoleonic Wars, Sir Benedict Harper is struggling to move on, his body and spirit in need of a healing touch. Never does Ben imagine that hope will come in the form of a beautiful woman who has seen her own share of suffering. After the lingering death of her husband, Samantha McKay is at the mercy of her oppressive in-laws—until she plots an escape to distant Wales to claim a house she has inherited. Being a gentleman, Ben insists that he escort her on the fateful journey.
 
Ben wants Samantha as much as she wants him, but he is cautious. What can a wounded soul offer any woman? Samantha is ready to go where fate takes her, to leave behind polite society and even propriety in her desire for this handsome, honorable soldier. But dare she offer her bruised heart as well as her body? The answers to both their questions may be found in an unlikely place: in each other’s arms.

Some of my favorite wounded hero romance novels are historical romances. (My favorite, in case you’re wondering, is England’s Perfect Hero by Suzanne Enoch.) I was poised to love this book — it’s about a widow who intends to go her own way, eschewing propriety, even, and a wounded hero — but, sadly, The Escape isn’t on my list of favorites.  It was still an enjoyable read…eventually.

It’s just that the beginning is so awkward. Part of that awkwardness may be attributed to the book’s position as the third in a series of six Survivor’s Club novels about the romantic antics of five wounded veterans and one lady quasi-spy. (I haven’t read the first two books in the series.) The Escape opens with all six Survivors gathered at the estate where they all convalesced some years before. That opening chapter reads like a strange prologue that sets up the stories of all the Survivors but otherwise does not pertain to this story. And the introduction of all those characters who don’t feature in this story is kind of awkward… so much name dropping, so little happening.

The story actually begins in chapter 2 (so it’s not a long, strange prologue), but the awkwardness continues in some truly odd lines of dialogue. Consider this line, delivered by Ben’s sister:

“…But — you jumped a hedge, Ben? Where is my hartshorn? Ah, I have just remembered — I do not possess any, not being the vaporish short, though you could easily make a convert of me.”

Who talks like that? The infodumping dialogue got to be distracting, and it was really a shame, because I liked Ben, Samantha, and their respective stories. Honestly, the only reason I continued reading the book after the fourth or fifth chapter was that it has amusing animal antics (a dog named Tramp). At about the halfway point, though, I started to enjoy myself, because the book shifted locales and became much more focused on the heroine’s story. (And either the writing got less awkward or I simply got used to it.) By the end, I was happy I’d read the book. I guess that’s the bottom line.

As in Back to You and Hold on Tight, the injured hero in The Escape must find a new identity (or, more accurately, uncover the identity that is enmeshed with his military vocation and apply it to a new vocation). The first half of the book (the half I didn’t like so much) spends a lot of time discussing Ben’s listlessness, and while some time is spent on introducing and developing Samantha, it’s accurate to say that Ben is the star of the narrative. But once Ben and Samantha arrive in Wales, Samantha becomes an active participant in the story — the second half of the story is about her just as much as it is about Ben. Overall, I would have liked the book much better if there were not an abrupt turning point where Samantha ceased to be a figure in Ben’s landscape and became her own individual, worthy of having her own story. (To be clear: Ben’s story was not diminished in the second half of the book: he still struggles to find himself, to work towards a healthy identity.)

By the way… this is the first Mary Balogh book I’ve ever read. I hear that her back list contains some amazing books… What should I read?

What do you think about the wounded hero trope? (Or about bananas… I just want to have a conversation, and I don’t care what it’s about.)

If you’re interested in any of these books, click on the cover images to visit their pages on Goodreads. Back to You was released on January 7 (e-book) and July 29 (paperback) by Forever. Hold on Tight was released on June 17 as an e-book by Loveswept. The Escape was released on July 1 as an e-book and paperback by Dell. For more information about the authors, check out their websites: Jessica Scott, Serena Bell, and Mary Balogh.

*FTC Disclosure – I received e-galleys via NetGalley from Forever (Back to You) and Dell (The Escape) for review consideration. I purchased my copy of Hold on Tight.*