Paranormal Romance Book Review: Painted Girl

As anyone who has read my submission guidelines knows, I’m all right with chick-lit and humorous women’s fiction, but romance isn’t generally my thing. That said, when a Native American focused Romance novel featuring modern indigenous folks as the primary cast landed in my inbox, I just couldn’t resist. That’s how I ended up reading Painted Girl, the first book in the Spirit Key series by R.A. Winter.

The book opens with Sara, a young Kiowa woman, getting into a car accident that takes the lives of both of her parents. The PTSD from this event haunts the rest of the book, and her reaction to this traumatic event is well realized and realistic. Shortly afterward we’re introduced to our second Point of View character, Grandfather, the Kiowa Elder who takes custody of Sara and teaches her the traditional ways.

Sara develops strong feelings for John Redhorse, the third protagonist in our story (though his point of view chapters come far later), who recently cut his hair for mourning the loss of his father. Throughout the story, we see both of them struggle with their lust and love for one another, John pressuring Sara into forsaking the traditional ways as he has and Sara resisting him because part of her wants to remain true to her culture.

The two of them go out to the woods alone after checking on the horses and decide to go fishing by hand to bring in some food for dinner. It’s clear at this point that Sara and Grandfather aren’t in the best financial position, and the fishing and farming we see in these opening chapters, along with John’s occasional hunting are helping to sustain them. Sara’s arms sink into the river clay and she has a vision of becoming one with the Earth, her mother’s song from when she was young filling her ears.

Her vision breaks when the song causes a panic attack and flashback to the day of the accident. As the story progresses and we discover that the Spirits are real and ancestors really can communicate with indigenous people, this turns out to be Sara’s major block to accepting help from the spirits and ancestors in her craft.

The pacing of this story is very slow, though I enjoyed the vignette style of many of the chapters and the immersion in the culture that the novel provided. Being from a Salish (not plains) culture myself, I enjoyed seeing a modern look at the struggles modern tribal folks face as they try to marry their modern lives with traditional values. The ending was a little disappointing, in part because of romance genre expectations, and in part because the main conflict of the novel really wasn’t resolved. It took the wind out of a story that I really enjoyed.

Winter’s writing style is simple and plain. There are some beautiful lines and interesting visual images sprinkled throughout, but for the most part the story is composed of simple sentences and repeated similar sentence styles. If it weren’t for the sexual themes, I’d say it would work as a middle-grade reading novel given the vocabulary used.

Despite all of the book’s faults, after a while I was drawn in by the hypnotic rhythm of the story and the intriguing cultural details. I wonder if the story fits better as literary or women’s fiction than romance, given the way the story ends and the hints about where the next books may be going.

3.5/5, not terrible but in need of an editor and a bit of study in the realm of story structure. That said, it fills in gaps in representation in a genre that rarely pays attention to indigenous people, and for that reason I recommend picking it up.

YA Fantasy Book Review: Horrid

L.C. Ireland’s YA Fantasy novel Horrid is the first in the Seven Sisters of Silverleaf series. It features the story of the middle sister, Delta, as she desperately tries to break the curse on her family without losing her soul.

The book opens with a bit of exposition. Delta Silverleaf details the disappearance of her brother, Elias, just as a war springs up between their country, Sydna, and the neighboring country of Horr. She also discusses the Horrid Witch, a magical practitioner who sold her soul for access to the dark arts and curses the Silverleaf family over “something” Elias stole from her. We watch her eldest two sisters disappear and by Chapter 2, it’s clear Delta is next.

Which drives her to seek the witch out and bargain her soul away. The witch demands she go to an allied noble house with a magical dagger to slay someone there, without specifying who. When Delta demands to know, she’s told “the dagger knows its target.” There are some interesting descriptive cinematics here, when the witch swallows Delta’s soul and acquires her youth and the beautiful color of her eyes.

The synopsis on this one really hooked me, and part of me wishes that the final product was as good as the premise promised. It’s such a short read I can’t get too much deeper into the plot without spoilers, but like many of the reviewers on Amazon and Goodreads, I found myself wanting more depth and setting and insight into both world and characters, and this particular book is wanting in those departments. Which is a shame, because what’s there is really interesting and more original than I expected.

The protagonist is a bit surface level. Despite being in first person, we don’t get as much of her character as I would’ve liked. About half the book is spent in flashback setting up the circumstances of the witch’s assasination attempt, and there is an interesting romantic subplot hinted at, but we barely get to spend much time on each section of the book before we’re off to the races again. The weight of Delta’s choice is repeatedly emphasized, but just as the tension really builds in the middle of the book, Ireland baits and switches and the tone shifts.

Her writing style is clean and crisp, perfect for a young adult or middle grade novel. I didn’t find any typos and the novel is beautifully formatted. Clearly there was a great deal of world building done, but not as much as I would like made it onto the page. I did find myself pulled along toward the end, and I can’t quite find many pacing problems apart from the massive flashback toward the middle. I think my big criticism is that we spent so much time with these other characters, it never really felt like Delta’s story. After about halfway through the camera zooms out and other characters gain prominence, and I felt like a lot of the pressure and urgency from the beginning becomes far less impactful.

3.5/5, it’s serviceable and has a lot of potential, I’d likely read another book written by the author. I just wish the premise had filled its potential in the way it clearly could’ve.

Epic Fantasy Book Review: In the Claws of the Indigen

I’d be lying if I didn’t say I’ve been chomping at the bit to get at this one. In the Claws of the Indigen is the second novel in Steve Rodgers’ Spellgiver series. You can check out my review of book one here. Warning: spoilers ahead if you haven’t read book one. I’m only covering the first quarter of book two, so if you’ve read book one, read on.

When we left Larin and the rest of our merry band of heroes, his lover from the first book Onie had been hauled off by the Morphasti worshipers in his home city. The book opens with Larin righteously pissed off at the head servant of Emja, Korrin, for having allowed that to happen.

This book is interesting because it gives some point of view scenes to characters we haven’t spent time with before. Larin and Kemeharek are back (and Kemeharek’s chapters are consistently inhuman and fascinating), but so is Queen Relena, who is mounting a resistance at the palace while our heroes search for the cure for the king’s sleeping sickness.

The heroes journey in this piece has three main foci. The first is Larin training for his inevitable showdown with the evil wizard Emderian in a desperate attempt to learn how to control his power. The second is Larin’s attempt to overcome the influence of Haraf, who throughout the book is trying to drive his servant into the pits of madness alongside him. I would argue the journey to find the king’s cure is tertiary to the other two, as though the outward plot pushes us there and the stakes are never low enough to lose sight of the pressure, the inner journey is really the core of this book.

Similarly, Kemeharek’s subplot centers around his struggles with the newfound knowledge that is God is not all it seems. Through his uneasy friendship with Theralle, who we met in the last book, his struggles to liberate his people from Eldegod tyranny are suitably inhuman and yet deeply moving and fascinating. The way Rodgers portrays indigen psychology is just phenomenal.

The greatest strengths in this book, apart from the character growth we see in our protagonists, lie in the imaginative world he’s crafted in the Swamp when they get to it. Some truly original imagery and (spoilers) fascinating magical system and reasoning behind the conflict between gods, demons, and the Eldegod. The discoveries related to this really kept me riveted and engaged with the world.

I have a few nitpicky gripes about the early parts of the book, namely Laniette’s propensity to scream Aiieeee constantly in the first few chapters, the somewhat stiff dialogue in the castle scenes, and Akul’s strange love affair with two different women that seems to start and stop with the plot and not as naturally as I’d like, but these are, as I said, minor nitpicks.

Overall the writing is strong, the world is fascinating, the characters intriguing and realistic for the world, and I ended up binge reading until the end. Heck, even the cover art is beautiful! Rodgers made a fangirl out of me, and I’m sure anyone who dives into this wonderful fantasy series will wind up the same. I can’t wait to see how he ties everything up in book 3 next year, and I noticed there are hints of side stories in the same world coming out later this year.

4.5/5 because of the nitpicks, still a must-read.

LGBTQ YA Book Review: The Symptoms of Being Human

Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin is another of my Writer’s Book Club books, and I’m quite grateful I read it. It’s what I’d describe as a literary YA novel dealing primarily with the internal struggle of protagonist Riley Cavanaugh, nonbinary child of a congressman from Park Hills, California.

At the opening of the story, Riley isn’t doing too hot. They (there isn’t a preferred pronoun in the book, so they seems the best pronoun to use for the review due to familiarity and widespread adoption) have just transferred to a new school and have chosen to adopt a gender-neutral persona in an attempt to deflect constant questions about gender. Right when they walk into school, they’re immediately called “it” and attacked by a group of girls led by Sierra, one of the main antagonists in the book.

When they settle into their first period class, they meet a big Samoan dude nicknamed Solo and hit it off over geeky references. Just as they get comfortable in this new friendship, however, they’re left alone and stranded in their third period and eventually at lunch, where the football team humiliates them by demanding to know if they are a “fag” or a “dyke.”

Back at home, Riley avoids talking to their family about their experiences and instead turns to the blog they had started at the beginning of the first chapter. Under the pseudonym Alix, they spill their feelings out onto Tumblr expy Bloglr, believing it’s more like a journal than a blog post due to their lack of followers. They didn’t expect their blog to pick up followers and attract attention, and they certainly didn’t expect the later attention of love interest Bec.

Much like the last book I reviewed, A Land of Iron, the relationships between the protagonist and those around them form the beating heart of this book. Riley feels like a real teenager, and the way they dodge language about their biological sex and instead explore the pure psychological experience of being genderqueer/gender fluid is expertly done. I’ve heard there’s a film adaptation in the works and I doubt film can go half as far to openly experience the wonder and horror of gender dysphoria and a quest to find one’s place in the world at such a young age.

Unlike many narratives surrounding LGBTQ youth, this story gifts its protagonist with supportive (if misguided) parents, a decent level of privilege (one of the few physical details we get about Riley is that they are white) and wealth, and a support network of hard won friends. It does explore the other side through a subplot involving a follower of Riley’s blog who gets beaten within an inch of her life after coming out as trans to her parents, but for the most part the focus is on Riley and their journey to self acceptance and attempts to help others in their position accept their gender fluidity.

The writing style is smooth, clear, and consistent. It really feels like a teenager talking to me as I read, and I found myself sucked into Riley’s experiences as I read along.

5/5, well executed work that deserves its success. I’m glad the author decided to help fill a much needed niche in the LGBTQ+ sphere of fiction.

LGBTQ Western Book Review: A Land of Iron

 

As anyone who has ever read my Submission Guidelines knows, apart from Weird Westerns, the Western Genre just isn’t my thing. Usually. But when a short Western novel starring a transgender protagonist set in the late 1800’s landed in my inbox, I just had to check it out.

I’m glad I did.

A Land of Iron by Alex Washoe is an epic family drama starring a twin brother and sister, Rebecca and Lucas Westbrooke. Lucas being the aforementioned transgendered character. Their relationship forms the backbone of the drama, even after the murder that sends the plot moving perpetually forward.

But let me back up a bit. The book opens with Rebecca attempting to train a young mustang colt she named Rayo and getting knocked flying in the process. The town banker (and friend of her deceased father) shows up to ask her if she needs a new foreman. They just keep quitting because of threats to their families, and has a half-Mexican half-white woman, Rebecca just can’t command the respect of the ranch hands. She decides she’s going to take over anyway because she doesn’t want to just marry Ned Finch, the rancher next door and new head of the second powerful family in the town triad.

Then we meet Lucas. Born Lucy Westbrooke, he fled his town of birth after his father did something terrible to him to try and force an identity that was never his. We find him playing cards with his dear friend, Watson, a writer who came to the town to find out about the rivalry and land seizure from the early settlers perpetuated by the Westbrookes, Finches, and Bannermans one generation ago. Turns out, things may not have been the way Lucas’s father told the stories.

The next day, Rebecca discovers Lucas has returned and goes to the saloon where he’s staying to confront him. During their argument, they discover a body stabbed with their dead father’s knife. Poor Watson.

I can’t say too much more without spoilers, but I will say the relationships between the characters really are the beating heart of this work. Lucas and Rebecca learning to accept one another, as well as their own identities as a trans man in a newly blooming relationship and a half-breed (book’s words, not mine) woman now in charge of a massive ranch, as well as the way their father’s past haunts the background of both the town and the characters’ minds, create an engaging conflict that props up the expected gunfights and plot twists.

The writing is crisp and clean, with a few sentence fragments sprinkled in as a stylistic choice and few if any typos. It’s the first in a series, with a promise for a sequel later this year. It’s rare for me to pick up a book in this genre that I can stand to read, let alone finish, but I found I really cared about the characters by the end.

For that alone this one gets a 5/5. If you’re into Westerns or even just historical fiction, it belongs in your Kindle Library.