Mallory Lass reviews the Alpennia Series by Heather Rose Jones

The Alpennia Series never stopped surprising me and often put a smile on my face or pulled a laugh from my lips. The theme of “found family” runs through this series and gave me so many warm and fuzzy feelings. I’ve also wanted to give at least one or two of the characters in each book a good shake. I will talk about each book in turn but I wanted to tell you why you should read all three (a fourth is forthcoming). You certainly can read them as stand alone novels, but Heather rewards those who read the series with little threads (both plot points and characters) dropped early on, woven without resolution, and then picked up in later books when you least expect it. The richness of the world of Alpennia, the city of Rotenek, and the characters that inhabit this fictional European place are skillfully built line by line, and by the end you can almost feel the Rotenek river breeze against your face. I am not religious at all, but I found the magical protections, steeped in ancient church rituals, gripping.

These novels are set in the early 19th century and straddle multiple genres with ease. They are historical fiction with a touch of fantasy and a generous sprinkling of romance (not much sex on the page, but the intimacy shown is breathtaking). All three books in this series have a high level of intrigue and mystery at the center of the plot. The characters confront issues of class, gender, race and sexuality. Even though I’m not a big consumer of modern gossip/celebrity news, the societal happenings in Rotenek drew me in and kept me hungry for more, book after book.

Each chapter is written from a different character’s perspective, and by the third book, the cast has grown, and there are six diverse perspectives creating a brilliant tapestry that should be enjoyed with leisure.

Minor spoilers were unavoidable as I discuss later books in the series, but its more the “what” than the “how”, which is the exciting part, so I don’t think it will ruin anything.

Daughter of Mystery

Margerit Sovitre is the goddaughter of Baron Saveze, but aside from providing her a governess, she has little contact with him. She lives with her aunt and uncle in the country and dreams of nothing more than getting to attend university and be a scholar. She has reached a marriageable age and is expected to be presented at society balls in hopes of attracting a suitable husband. Finding a husband is the last thing on her mind.

Barbara is the masculine of center, chivalrous, caring, breeches-wearing character of my dreams. Indeed, she is my favorite of this series. She is an orphaned child, sold into Baron Saveze’s household, and trained up into his armin. A female armin is certainly unique, but the Baron is a bit of an eccentric and he ensures Barbara is trained by the best, so her position is never questioned openly. Being the Baron’s armin shaped her into an incredibly intelligent, strong, loyal woman. She is a keen observer. Known only as Barbara, her identity and past has always been just out of reach for her and the Baron is unwilling to give her the answers she seeks.

Though protecting her charge and anticipating danger is Barbara’s job as an armin, she is frequently called on to leverage those talents to protect those closest to her and she does it with a deftness I find disarming and sexy. Margerit is whip smart, but a bit naive. She has a talent for mysteries that hasn’t been understood or acknowledged. Her determination to control her own destiny and become a scholar is certainly swoon-worthy. The Baron’s death puts these two formidable women in the same orbit, but will his means meet a happy ending, or will it backfire in an unexpected way when his nephew makes a play for the fortune? There is no clear path to freedom, but Barbara and Margerit are destined to walk it together, despite the very real danger lurking in the shadows. Barbara seeks the freedom of knowing who she is, and Margerit the freedom to chart her own course as a scholar, both things neither are in a position to expect. Discovering the mystery of Barbara’s lineage and the expanse of Margerit’s power is a fulfilling journey. Watching their shared love of scholarship grow into friendship with the potential to blossom into something more is one of many delights of this first volume. This story took a while to settle into my bones, but I kept thinking about Barbara and what was next for her and Margerit. Ultimately I wanted more and am grateful this is a series.

The Mystic Marriage (My favorite of the three)

The Mystic Marrage by Heather Rose Jones coverVicomtesse “Jeanne” de Cherdillac is a widower socialite who plays puppet master and matchmaker for Rotenek’s upper crust. She uses her status as both a French Countess and a widower to shroud her numerous flings with various younger female artists, dancers, and singers–and long ago, one notable armin. She is an original cougar, and whoa is she sultry. Her love of women is a bit of an open secret, and as long as her engagements are exclusive to the artist sector of society, her skills in social engineering are in enough demand for people to overlook who she might share her bed with.

Antuniet Chazillen flees Rotenek at the end of the first novel, after her brother’s bid for her uncle Baron Saveze’s fortune meets a perilous end, and the noble Chazillen name is in ruins. She vows to use her skills and passion as a alchemist to benefit Alpennia and restore her family name. She appears in Daughter of Mystery as a bit standoffish and maybe even a little conceited, but also she read queer for me. We share a bit of that “I will be so successful you wont care when you find out I’m queer” vibe. She puts Margerit on the path to discover the expanse of her powers, and I found her intriguing. We get to see her truly vulnerable in this book and she shines. Slowly, through pure desperation she begins forming friendships and alliances again. She seeks out Jeanne early on in hopes that she can find her a female patron for her Alchemy. Jeanne becomes the only person Antuniet feels she can rely on. Jeanne finds herself drawn in by Antuniet’s uniqueness and when she realizes she is in love with her it comes as a great surprise. Antuniet is artfully portrayed as someone who we would now define as demisexual. When Jeanne asks if she would consider a male patron Antuniet replies, “‘I have neither the aptitude nor the inclination to please a man in exchange for his support.’ She left the implications hanging between them.” The tension between Jeanne’s free spirited ways and Antuniet’s reserved nature is deliciously drawn out and negotiated. The dance between them is a courtship for the ages. To work within the constraints of the language and understanding of sexuality in the early 19th century, Heather enlists some endearing metaphors to create a shared understanding of what burns between them. There is more than a little angst here, and it’s all worth it.

In exile, Antuniet discovers a lost alchemist text and hatches a plan to bestow a gift of enhanced gems on Princess Annek to strengthen her court, something valuable enough to restore her name. Unsavory parties are after that same text and maybe her and her work as well. In an effort to outrun those chasing her, she ends up back in Rotenek, a demoted noble with little more than determination to guide her forward. Her motto repeated throughout is “no way out but forward” and she embodies that at every turn and setback. She shares a milder version of Margerit’s power, but her passion lies in the science of alchemy. Will Jeanne be just the person to mend Antuniet’s relationship with Margerit and Barbara and help restore her place in society? Or, will they become the scandal of the city? Can Antuniet really pull off her great vision or will the shadows of the past make themselves known? There are many problems to work through and that kept me on the edge of my seat. I was nervous it would wrap too quickly or unbelievably, but I should have known I was in good hands. That said, as soon as I was done with this one I started the third book!

Mother of Souls

Serafina Talarico, born in Ethiopia and raised in Rome, first makes her appearance at the end of The Mystic Marriage. The wife and assistant of a Vatican archivist, who comes across Margerit’s mysteries and travels to Alpennia seeking out her tutelage for she shares some of the same powers. Her husband travels frequently in search of rare materials keeping him away for sometimes years at a time. Their marriage is more a formality than a reality, but it affords her an allowance which brings her to Alpennia. Serafina is a foreigner to Alpennia in both tongue and body. While the earlier books deal with gender, class, and sexuality issues, Serafina is the catalyst for issues of race to push to the forefront. We see her exoticized and fetishized, even by those close to her. Malice doesn’t color all of the interactions, but Heather does a beautiful job of portraying the pain of otherness. Serafina’s deepest desire is to fit in, a desire Jeanne calls an unfortunate thing to want. That wanting however, leads her to Luzie.

Luzie Valorin is an aspiring composer as well as music teacher and owner of a boarding house by necessity. She is a lonely widow and mother to two boys who attend a boarding school far away. When Serafina takes lodging at Luzie’s house, Luzie’s compositions hold a power she never imagined. Margerit recognizes the power but is skeptical of what role music might play in theological mysteries. Luzie can’t see the power she has so she is skeptical of them both, but finds herself swept up in Margerit’s circle. Jeanne having launched an aspiring violinist in the previous book is poised to launch Luzie as the first female composer of Operas in Rotenek.

While Serafina has had female lovers in the past, and knows the common thread among Margerit and most of Jeanne’s inner circle, Luzie has not been so initiated. In the early days of Serafina’s lodging they forge a connection, in part because of Luzie’s music and Serafina’s ability to see its magic, but also because they both find themselves alone and increasingly lonely. Everyone will need to come together to fight against the mystical attack being waged against Alpennia. One Margerit has been unknowingly on the trail of since her earliest mystical discoveries. Will the bond shared over music composition transport Luzie and Sarafina into something more, just as shared studies did for Barbara and Mergerit? Will they be able to protect Alpennia from outside forces or will it be another misdirection?

If you are looking for a story to spin out like a spool of yarn and then wrap you up into a knitted scarf, get started on this series. The turns of phrase and quiet moments are where Heather’s immense writing talent soars. We are lucky to be the voyeurs of these amazing women loving women of Alpennia and beyond.

Supporting characters of note:

René LeFevre, the well respected business manager of the Baron, and eventually of Barbara and Margerit, is in a romantic relationship with his male assistant, Iannipirt. He is one of Barbara’s oldest friends and serves as a confidant, accomplice, and much more to both Barbara and Margerit. He stole my heart from the beginning.

Tavit, an armin that arrives on the scene in the later half of The Mystic Marriage expresses thoughts in a few different conversations that we would likely classify as gender dysphoria today. Early 19th Century Trans rep, how rad is that?

Bonus: Check out the free short story, “Three Nights at the Opera”, a prequel to Daughter of Mystery, though I think it is more enjoyable if read afterward.

Mallory Lass reviews Lily and the Crown by Roslyn Sinclair

I couldn’t find a way to write this review without spoilers, so you may want to proceed with caution if that’s a deal breaker. Also, this book wasn’t my jam. Despite featuring one of my favorite tropes (age-gap), being a space opera, and lots of people singing its praises, I couldn’t get into it. Lily and the Crown developed from a Devil Wears Prada AU fanfiction, so that was also part of the intrigue for me.

Lady Ariana “Ari” Geiker is a 20 year old botany prodigy who has turned her quarters into a botanical garden. She is the daughter of Lord Geiker, stationmaster on Nahtal which affords her certain excesses and freedoms. When we first meet her, she is presented as a workaholic with reclusive tendencies. To her surprise, her father sends her a woman slave (captured in a recent pirate raid), who he hopes will keep her company and make sure she eats regularly. Ari can’t bear the thought of having a slave, so she forces the woman to choose a name. “Assistant” is settled on. Assistant is a captured and interrogated pirate slave in her 50’s. Or is she? I think the reader is meant to be in on the fact that she isn’t who she claims to be. She is actually Mír, the ruthless marauding pirate leader.

The setup of this story irked me from the beginning and here is why:

First:

The whole story is premised on the fact that this universe has slaves. The only way Assistant finds her way into Ari’s life is through this ruse of her being a pirate slave turned spoil of war. The fact that there are slaves with no real explanation of why that is a part of this space society bothered me. No one is nice to them except Ari. We didn’t get an explanation as to why there are slaves until 2/3rds through the book, and it wasn’t satisfying:

“Slaves were ordinary people. They came from everywhere—children whose parents sold them out of poverty, people captured during war or raids, people who had gone too deeply into debt and had only themselves left to sell for repayment.“

If slaves were ordinary people, and thus anyone was at risk of becoming a slave, you would think they would be shown more humanity. It just didn’t jive, and I think another plot device could have been used to set this story up. If slavery is going to be worked into the backdrop of a universe, I expect some larger social commentary than “slavery is bad and we should try to abolish it” (which is Ari’s, and ultimately Mír’s position). It’s not enough.

Second:

The reader knows Assistant is not who she says she is, so the entire book is a lead up for that revelation to finally, finally, come to Ari. I just didn’t find the lead up all that engaging. In fact, the last 5th of the book–when that reckoning finally happens–is the best part, and I think if it would have come much earlier, I would have been more engrossed. I am certainly more interested in what happened between the end of the book and the epilogue than I was with what happened between their first meeting and the reveal.

Now, about why it took so long. Sinclair spends a lot of time really hammering home that Ari is just missing the boat. Ari repeatedly brings up that the people around her think she is weird. I was trying to figure out if her social miscues were because she was on the autism spectrum, but in the end, I think she was just sheltered. Her mom died early in her life, and her dad was too occupied with his role as military strategist and consumed with his grief over his wife’s death to raise Ari with any semblance of a normal upbringing. This makes her socially awkward, sheltered and extremely naive.

So while we are waiting for the reveal, Assistant sets out to seduce Ari. I think in part because she is intrigued by her oddities, her enthusiasm for plants, and her obvious intelligence. But I also think coming from the life she did, leader of a massive rebellion, she was bored. As was I. Seduction quickly turned to sex, but I didn’t like how Ari losing her virginity transpired. Assistant pounced on her in the middle of the night after telling her a violent bedtime story that clearly unsettled Ari. Ari’s body certainly responds to Assistant, and she comes willingly. I still feel a little icky about her emotional/mental state before and after. The power dynamic for me is out of whack. Assistant holds all the cards in their intimate relationship, never letting Ari pleasure her. After their first time, they are consumed with each other. Assistant, with taking Ari as often and in every space in their quarters she can, and Ari, with the first person she has ever truly felt cared for her, and who she feels she is caring for in turn by keeping her out of the traditional slave life. She even comes to the conclusion Assistant feels obligated to have sex with her because of her role.

The bulk of the sex between Ari and Assistant was missing all the wonderful negotiation that usually comes with age-gap relationships. It isn’t until the reveal that Ari gets on nearly equal footing with Mír, and then they really shine together. Ari exploring Mír’s body for the first time was a wonderfully written scene. I just wish it came earlier and served as the start of the second half of the book. Ultimately, we discover Ari sets Mír off balance, and that scares the crap out of her. It’s also an exploitable weakness in war.

Despite the deception, once Ari reconciles Assistant and Mír as one in the same in her mind, she still needs something Mír may not be able to give: her love.

Will these two find a way to put their complicated and tangled pasts behind them and find a way to move forward? Will Mír succeed in taking over the Empire? Will Ari stand by her side or go back to her plants? Can they find a middle ground?

Sinclair’s writing is good, and despite not jiving with this story, I would pick up something else she’s written.

Mallory Lass reviews Rescue Her Heart by KC Luck

Rescue Her Heart is a fun debut novel featuring a mysterious disappearance of both father and fuel, space girlfriends and pirate battles. I would call it science fiction light, so if you are interested in a lot of word building, this might not be for you. However, if you are a fan of adventure romance and can go along with some space travel and blaster battles, you will enjoy this whirlwind romance.

This novel is told in round robin style, ping ponging every chapter between the two main characters points of view:

Captain Nat Reynolds is an expert and experienced Space Ranger Pilot. She has been in the Rangers since she turned 18. Now she is 28 and recovering from a brutal battle where she lost a fellow Ranger. Her recovery is by way of a cushy space patrol assignment. Well, it was supposed to be a cushy assignment. That is until a seemingly run of the mill fuel theft incident down on planet Prospo threatens to upend her life.

In 18 short years, Catherine Porter has lived a hard life. Her mother died when she was young, and her drunk of a father has been missing for nearly a month. She has been evicted from her home and has minimal credits to her name. How will she survive?

Nat is in desperate need of a morale boost, which comes by way of a risky rescue of Catherine following the crash of her ancient space craft she purchased in a last stitch effort to find her father. Now that the galaxy has brought them together, will they be able to find Catherine’s father? Catherine’s father’s disappearance isn’t the only mystery these two need to solve. Their discovery mission brings fierce queer space pirate Sal into their orbit and she is definitely hiding something. Nat and Catherine have instant chemistry, even if Catherine doesn’t know what that feeling overtaking her is just yet.

The age-gap between the two is not an overshadowing part of the story, but it is definitely a factor in their relationship and how it progresses. Catherine has survived a hard family life, but she has hardly lived. Nat has survived a solitary life in the Rangers, but hasn’t really loved. They both have a lot to learn from each other. For Catherine, there is nothing like being swept away by a real life hero to start her on the road to discovering her sexuality. For Nat, protecting people is what she does, but its different when it is someone she is undeniably attracted to.

Another thing that really warmed me to this story is the friendship between Nat and Dee. Dee is a dispatcher for the Space Rangers, and in their communications together you can tell there is a lot of history and a lot of love for one another. Dee shows up throughout the story, as well as some of Nat’s other queer friends who we get to meet in a Sapphic space bar. Space pirate Sal is the shining secondary character but Dee and Vic and the others bring their own sparkle to this story. A significant number of my friends are queer, so seeing queer friendships reflected is really great.

Through their many adventures, Catherine and Nat are constantly tested. Watching their relationship develop and kept me interested. Pick this one up and find out how all these mysteries resolve themselves and whether Nat and Catherine can make their relationship work beyond their mission.

By day Mallory is extremely passionate about higher education fundraising and by night she is a hype girl for all things Sacramento, CA and all things queerkru (especially fandom rarepairs). Her favorite trope is age-gap. She wishes she could read all the things and eat more ice cream, alas hermione refuses to lend out her time-turner. Give her a follow on twitter @datalover916 or over on tumblr.