Nat reviews Thorn by Anna Burke

Thorn cover

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My recent infatuation with the Compass Rose series should have been all the warning I needed not to start an Anna Burke book just before bedtime. This dark, Grimm style and very gay retelling of “Beauty and the Beast” kept me reading well past midnight to get just “one more page!” Thorn, with its complex characters and their histories, goes so much further than just subbing in perpetually hungry wolves and a large ice bear for talking candles and singing teapots.

Burke does a great job with world building, and it doesn’t take long to get a sense of where you and our young protagonist, Rowan, have just been dropped. A very cold, very isolated place that one wouldn’t necessarily choose to live. Rowan’s father, a failed merchant turned aspiring fur trader, has had no choice but to flee the city with his three daughters and start a new life to escape his debts. While he’s not a villain by any means, he treats his children as commodities, and is preoccupied with returning to some status in society.

When we first meet Rowan, we see how different she is from her sisters. As the eldest, there’s a lot of pressure on her to take care of the family. It’s here we also find out that she’s betrothed to the neighbor’s son (let’s call him baby Gaston) and would very much prefer not to be. On top of it all, she absolutely hates living in this godforsaken, frozen little village. It doesn’t take long for us to get an idea that Rowan doesn’t love her homelife. 

The Huntress, our cruel and mysterious “beast”, is something of a legend and a myth for those living in the nearby village. But she and the curse that keeps her confined to the mountain are very real. Winter isn’t just coming, it’s there all the time within the boundaries of her land. Our beast has been condemned to a life of solitude, and the cold and loneliness in the story are very much intertwined. 

When a hunting party crosses the threshold of her lands and kills two of the Huntress’ wolf companions, Rowan’s father, one of the unfortunate trespassers, is spared by the Huntress only to commit the more serious crime of stealing a white rose. The Huntress doesn’t delay in retrieving her stolen property. Rose for a rose, thorn for a thorn. 

I enjoyed the vivid descriptions Burke offers, and I haven’t been that creeped out by a flower since watching The Ruins. We see a lot of interesting imagery with the rose throughout the book, and some particularly unnerving scenes where the flower winds its way from one person and into another. Burke also does a great job getting to the heart of the characters’ relationships in a relatively short period of time. We see Rowan fighting to resist a growing attraction to her captor, and a reluctance to admit that this new life is as free as she’s ever been. We also catch glimpses of the Huntress’s past, and how this literal ice queen came to be cursed and live in an enchanted castle with her pack of four legged Hounds. 

One of my favorite parts of this book, which made me laugh out loud, is an indulgent scene requiring the need for skin to skin contact for warmth — despite a perfectly serviceable hot spring in the basement of the castle. Thanks to Anna Burke for that fan service. 

As usual, Burke’s prose is strong, and it particularly shines in this book. You will feel the cold in your bones. You will smell the musty old castle and its musky animal inhabitants, and taste the venison stew. The main characters are well developed, and we get to see both of their perspectives throughout the book. The big romance tropes here are age gap, ice queen and enemies to lovers. There is of course an iconic library scene, and an “it doesn’t matter now, just let them come” scene right before the curse is broken. While the general promise of happily ever after is fulfilled by our star crossed lovers staying together, we also feel the angst and pain of other consequences. And with that, Burke leaves us with a bit of her book’s winter chill.

Elinor reviews It’s Complicated by A.J. Adaire

itscomplicated

When It’s Complicated opens, Tori is a lonely lesbian in her mid-thirties, living on the Jersey Shore and spending all her time at the medical facility where she works as a night pharmacist and where her partner, Liz, receives care. Liz has been in a coma for three years following an accident. Doctors know that Liz will almost certainly never regain consciousness, and that even if she does she may need extensive care for the rest of her days. The life Tori and Liz shared for almost a decade is a thing of the past, and it’s made worse because Liz and Tori never legally formalized their relationship, so Liz’s homophobic parents make all her medical decisions. It was Liz’s parents who decided to keep Liz on life support even after it became obvious that she’d never wake up, something Liz would not have wanted. Liz’s parents also moved her from Philadelphia—where Liz and Tori lived, worked, and had friends—to a medical care facility in New Jersey. Tori left her job, her support network, and even her dog to be closer to Liz. Since the move, Tori spends six to eight hours every day talking and reading to Liz and visits during her work breaks too. Tori’s only friend is M.J., Liz’s nurse.

The bright spot in Tori’s dreary is situation is an attractive female runner who jogs near the boardwalk. Tori makes a point of visiting the boardwalk during the woman’s daily run, but feels terribly guilty for her attraction, which she thinks is disloyal to Liz. When Tori and the runner, Bev, meet-cute in the grocery store and discover that they’re neighbors, the friendship takes root instantly. Even more conveniently, Bev is single, gay, just about Tori’s age, also works nights, and is new in town and eager to make a friend. Bev has a tragic back-story of her own, and has been too insecure to go on a date in years. Her interest in Tori makes her want to change that, except, as Tori explains early on, it’s complicated. Tori considers herself to be in a monogamous relationship with Liz until one of them dies, and Liz is still technically alive.

All of that happens within the first few chapters. What follows is an intense friendship between Tori and Bev, and a lot of lesbian processing with friends, family, a therapist, and each other. Bev and Tori have fun and there’s a subplot about match making for their straight friends, but the meat of the book is two people trying to figure out the boundaries of their relationship. If more than a hundred pages of dissecting feelings about feelings makes your skin crawl, avoid this one.

But if you are in the mood for a novella rich in lesbian processing, It’s Complicated is a decent read. It’s inelegantly written at times and Adaire has a tendency to tell rather than show, but it’s a sweet enough story. I had fun reading this book, though I couldn’t quite believe the premise. I found Tori’s guilt about having a crush and the number of hours she devotes to Liz over the top given the number of years since the accident, Liz’s prognosis, and the excellent professional care Liz receives. Tori even worries she is being emotionally unfaithful to Liz by becoming good friends with attractive Bev, a fear that people in the book treat very seriously but I found hard to swallow.

There were a few other things in this book I found baffling. Liz’s parents’ unrelenting anti-gay sentiments came with no explanation. They were cartoonish homophobes with nothing much else to them. I don’t like flat villains, and I couldn’t figure out why they weren’t fleshed out as characters. Another head scratcher is that Tori never talks or even thinks about the life she and Liz had dreamed of having together. Tori and Liz were only in their thirties at the time of the accident and considered themselves committed for life, so you’d think they shared some vision of what that might look like. Tori misses Liz, but she never mourns any plans or hopes they had for the future. Liz was quite closeted for reasons I didn’t find believable in a modern, East Coast city. Taken together, these things reminded me of “tragic lesbian” stories from earlier decades, not from the book’s 2012 setting.

That being said and despite the sad subject matter, I found it a relaxing read when I suspended my disbelief. The biggest problem I had was that the ending felt rushed. Without giving anything away, a huge surprise appears after what seems like the climax of the book, and isn’t given the time to be realistic resolved. Most of the book unfolds at a slow and steady pace, but the last thirty pages are stuffed with information. It’s a jarring shift, and made the extremely tidy ending feel unearned. It’s unfortunate, because I would have liked the ending fine if it hadn’t happened so quickly. If you like angst and heaps of processing, I recommend it for lesbian romance fans, with a warning that the ending falls short.