This month, my recommendation is historical romance (and occasional contemporary romance) author Elizabeth Hoyt. I mentioned her Maiden Lane series on last week’s Feminist Romantic podcast, and if you have any interest in historical romance, you should definitely read that series. Her other books are good, too, but Maiden Lane is her magnum opus (so far, anyway!).
One of the things Hoyt does better than almost any author I’ve ever read is crafting real, vulnerable heroes and heroines. She takes what should be completely unlikable heroes and makes readers fall in love with them along with her heroines. I didn’t think it was possible for one particular character later in the series to be redeemed, and she somehow pulled it off–in spades.
The first book in the Maiden Lane series is Wicked Intentions, and I absolutely recommend starting there and reading the series in order. Sometimes with romance series it’s possible to start on book four or ten, but with this one, you’d miss something if you pick up midway through. Hoyt layers characters throughout the earlier books in the series who later become main characters in their own stories, and although Hoyt gives the essential details of backstory in each book, there are nuances and layers that are best peeled away and revealed by reading in order.
But if the thought of twelve books and a few novellas is daunting, she also has two shorter series: the Princes Trilogy (three books and a novella) and the Legend of the Four soldiers (four books). They are also great reads, starting with The Raven Prince and To Taste Temptation respectively.
Hoyt also has a few contemporary romance books written under the name Julia Harper. I’ve only read Hot, but it was rollicking good fun and I’m looking forward to reading the other two books, For the Love of Pete and Once and Always once I finish the new (and sadly, last) book in the Maiden Lane series, Duke of Desire.
Have you read the Maiden Lane series? Tell me your favorite character in the comments. And if you haven’t read Hoyt yet, happy reading!
Most of the time, I make my recommendations with few, if any, reservations. This one comes with a few caveats.
Outlander (book series and television show) has its faults. The series as a whole relies heavily on rape as a source of conflict and character motivation, and I don’t blame anyone for wanting to take a pass on the series for that reason alone. There are also some problematic stereotypes, abuse that is treated as normal and justified, and the later books in the series have started to ramble about a bit and become more episodic than exhibiting a strong plot-thrust and arc. So it’s not a perfect series by any means.
But with that said, Diana Gabaldon’s writing is engrossing and the characters are fantastic. I’m a particular fan of the audiobooks narrated by Davina Porter. She brings what could be meandering and dry prose to full, rich life. She handles the accents with aplomb, only really “whiffing” on the American accents (particularly Brianna/Boston). Her interpretation of Jamie and Claire’s voices is still what I think of first, even though Sam Heughan and Caitriona Balfe are fantastic. The Starz adaptation is good in general, although they’ve made some adaptive choices that I find questionable. If you really want to read what I think about that, I’ve written quite a bit on the subject over at outlanderspoilers.com.
In general, what I love about the Outlander series is the characters. Gabaldon does an excellent job of getting us deeply into a character’s point of view, and making them achingly vulnerable. Although I fell in love with Jamie and Claire just like everyone else in the first book, my favorite characters now are Roger MacKenzie and Lord John Grey. I highly recommend reading the “side” stories involving Grey’s adventures in the 1750s and 1760s as well as the main series books.
If you aren’t sure, start by watching the first three or four episodes of the Outlander television show (or the whole first season). If you love it, go read the whole book series before you come back to finish watching the show. I recommend the show first in this case because the first book has a very slow start, but the show moves a little faster, so you’ll know when you get to the book that it does get better. I find that both are better enjoyed together—there are aspects of the show that “fix” some of the problems of the book (although not as many as I would like!), and the books allow time for more character development, quiet moments, and details.
Are you already a fan of Outlander? What do you think about it? Let me know in the comments or come visit my blog and strike up a conversation!
Tessa Dare has a new book and it is AMAZING.
Her last book, Do You Want to Start a Scandal, blew my mind, and I honestly didn’t think she could top it. I’ve read it four times since it came out and each time I find something new to love and adore. But this one is really something.
One of the things that Dare does very well is combine sometimes gut-wrenching vulnerabilities in her characters with humor and slapstick. She’s brilliant at manipulating reader emotions, taking you from laughter to arousal to tears–sometimes in the same scene! If you love having your heartstrings plucked by a master, you’ll get your money’s worth.
In The Duchess Deal, Dare tackles two scarred protagonists. The hero has external scars (caused by a misfiring cannon at Waterloo) that have caused him to internalize his pain. The heroine has internal scars that sometimes dictate her actions, even when she doesn’t want them to. But in each other, they just might find someone who loves them, scars and all.
So where to start with Tessa Dare?
You could just jump in with Duchess Deal. It’s the first book in a new series, and I highly recommend it. But if you’re like me, you like to binge-read book series. And she has several already finished and waiting for you!
My favorites of her series are the two that she combines in Scandal–the Spindle Cove series and the Castles Ever After series. Both are fantastic in general, but my favorites (other than Scandal) are: A Week to Be Wicked (Spindle Cove) and When a Scot Ties the Knot (Castles).
Those are later entries in each series, however, so if you’re like me and have to start at the beginning, start with A Night to Surrender (Spindle Cove) and Romancing the Duke (Castles). All of the books in both series are funny, sexy, and heart-wrenching.
Her earlier series, the Stud Club and Wanton Dairymaid trilogies, are also fun reads. You really can’t go wrong with Tessa Dare!
(all covers sourced from tessadare.com)
All of my recommendations are for authors that I love to read and respect as writers, but this month I’m also recommending an author who is a friend. I met J.L. Gribble through the Seton Hill University WPF program. She graduated before I arrived so we didn’t go through the MFA program together, but she always came to the yearly alumni workshop, In Your Write Mind (see my report on this year’s workshop here) and so I’d seen her around. Until about a year ago, I knew more “of” her than actually knowing her, but last year we joined a group of authors who mutually support and promote each other. That led to reading each other’s books, and that in turn led to us becoming fans as well as friends.
J.L.’s books (to date) are all set in the same world: an alternate Earth where the existence of vampires, were-creatures, and elves caused massive changes to history, such as: the Roman Empire is still a thing, and the Romans and Britannia are at each other’s necks most of the time. Also, the Qin empire (China) and Britannia got into a huge war two hundred years prior to the start of the series, nearly wiping out the world with nuclear weapons and creating a vast Wasteland in North America. They were stopped by the elves, who cast a magical spell on the world suppressing technology.
The first book in the series, Steel Victory, acts as a sort of primer to the world. We’re introduced to our two main series protagonists, a vampire named Victory and her adopted human daughter Toria. They live in a neutral city called Limani that sits between the British colonies to the north and the Roman colonies to the south on the East Coast of what in our world is the US. Limani was founded by the Greeks before they were subsumed by the Romans, and it has held on to its tenuous neutral status for a long time. But that status is threatened by encroaching forces from without and prejudice and fear from within.
In the second book, Steel Magic, Toria and her partner Kane (partner here is a magical term–they’re a bonded mage pair, and were raised as brother and sister) go off on their first mercenary contract. In the course of fulfilling their contract, Kane falls in love and their group ends up uncovering secrets about the world’s magic that cause them to have to make some very difficult decisions.
The third book, Steel Blood, takes place concurrently with Steel Magic and follows Victory’s adventures while Toria and Kane are off investigating magic. Steel Blood officially releases next week, but I was lucky enough to snag an advance copy of the paperback at IYWM. The story starts when Victory and her daywalker Mikelos head to a Qin province during a trade negotiation with Britannia, and is complicated by a headstrong Qin princess who wants to escape her rigidly proscribed life and a reckless British Earl who wants to prove his worth. Their solution: get married, despite objections on all sides. And of course Victory finds herself right in the middle, since she’s assigned as the princess’s bodyguard.
I can recommend all three books without a moment’s hesitation. They are tightly plotted and written, with a great mix of action, mystery, family relationships, and romance. The characters are diverse, the women are strong (and not just because they kick ass with swords), and the worldbuilding is exquisite. Having beta-read the fourth book (which won’t be out until next year), I can also guarantee that the series continues to get better with each installment.
The Steel Empires series is not to be missed!
Whenever anyone asks “who is your favorite author?” it’s pretty much impossible to answer. My favorite depends on a lot of things, like what book I just finished and whether or not I’m tired of bros in epic fantasy at the moment or not. So I decided to just pick an author that I consistently adore and make that person my go-to answer.
That author is Martha Wells. I have been in love with her work since the mid-nineties when I first discovered The Element of Fire at my local library.
The Element of Fire (the original cover is pictured on the left–she has since gotten the rights back and republished it with a different cover) was the first adult fantasy book I read that took place in a non-medieval-inspired era. Something about the very first scene in the book, when magic collides with flintlock pistols and rapiers, has stuck with me my entire life. This book and the other titles in the Ile-Rien series are at least partially responsible for my MFA thesis being set in a secondary world that is approximately at the same technological stage as the Fay of Skye books (late Victorian).
The later Ile-Rien books take place in exactly that turn-of-the century-esque time period, with Death of the Necromancer having a very 1890s feel (including a Sherlock Holmes/Dr. Watson team, although they are *not* the main characters). The Fall of Ile-Rien trilogy is set in more of a 1910’s era, with the grown daughter of the main characters from Death. I may or may not be planning to do the same thing at the end of the Fay of Skye series…
One of the great things about Martha Wells is her versatility as a writer. She writes both fantasy and science fiction, including a recent “Hard SF” turn with the Murderbot Diaries, a novella series published by Tor.com. The cover for All Systems Red is off to the left there, and it’s a great story. It follows a cyborg security officer that has hacked its “governor module” and is now aware–and spends all of its free time watching TV shows, particularly soap operas. I stayed up way too late one night to finish this in one sitting.
Wells also has tie-in books to SF properties such as Stargate and Star Wars. Her Princess Leia book, Razor’s Edge, is my absolute definitive Leia in print, even though it’s now classed as a “Legends” title.
Her Books of the Raksura fall somewhere between SF and fantasy. They are amazing and depict a culture very different from ours, which skews the books more alien/SF, but they also include elements that are borderline magical. Still, hard-to-classify genre mashups are my bread-and-butter, so I don’t mind in the slightest.
Hard-to-classify aspects aside, the Raksura books are great adventure stories, and they do a fantastic job of transporting the reader to a far-off world that is nothing like our own.
Another great thing about Martha Wells is that she can do stand-alone novels just as well as books in a series. Her Wheel of the Infinite is my go-to title when I’m trying to bring people over to the fantasy dark side. It’s a one-shot with gods and goddesses, a middle-aged heroine, romance, danger, river pirates, a possessed puppet, actors, and an ancient civilization based roughly on the cultures of southeast Asia. It’s an amazing book that packs quite a lot into a single title. The best part is the main character, Maskelle. I love her attitude and her view of the world. She has made mistakes and become jaded and ostracized from her community, but they are going to need her–and she has to learn and grow to find her way back to them–if their world is going to survive.
This is the artwork for the original cover, inspired by mandalas, an important aspect of the plot:
If you’re looking for a place to start with Martha Wells and you like fantasy, Wheel of the Infinite is where I would recommend you go.
If SF is more your thing, try Murderbot or the first book in the Raksura series, The Cloud Roads.
Also, if you are headed to World Fantasy in Texas this year, she’s going to be the guest of honor! I unfortunately could not afford to travel that far this year, so I will not be attending, but if you see her, say hi from me!
Do you have a favorite author? Or a “consistently excellent” author that you always love? Let me know in the comments!
This month, my recommendation is author Jennifer Ashley. I recommend her pretty much across the board, including under her pseudonyms: Allyson James (paranormal) and Ashley Gardner (mystery). But far and away my favorite is the Mackenzie/McBride series. I’ve re-read the first book, The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie, at least five times. It is a masterful book, and the rest of the series is fantastic, too.
The audiobooks for the series are also good, although Angela Dawe tends to have a default female British voice, even for the women who are supposed to be Scottish (like Ainsley and Eleanor of books 3 and 4).
I will also admit that these books are part of the reason my series is set in the late Victorian Era. This is the first historical romance series I ever read that wasn’t Regency, early Victorian, or earlier (Georgian/Medieval). I was very much taken with the idea of using the later period, when so much had changed socially and technologically, and when women were gaining a voice. You always run the risk in historicals of making the heroines weak, sheltered, and passive because “that’s how it would have been.” While I call bullshit on that assumption just in general, it’s nice to write in an era when women were running businesses, wearing trousers openly (well, bloomers), and gaining financial independence and the right of divorce (if not suffrage for a few years yet).
And of course I also decided to give my characters Scottish roots, although she’s not the only reason for that (my own heritage plays a role in that choice, as well as other series I like, such as Outlander and Susan King’s books).
So, if you’re looking for strong women, an interesting historical time period, and very sexy Scotsmen, look no further than Jennifer Ashley!
I am starting a new “thing” on the blog this month. Once a month, I will recommend a particularly good book or series. I don’t want to do reviews, because I would prefer to be positive about my fellow authors as much as possible. When I reference negative things, like my pet peeves, I try not to mention specific authors or books except for really huge authors (like Janet Evanovich) who are not going to care much what I think. Although sometimes they should–I would really like Stephanie to finally pick someone!!
So this series is all about being positive. That is not to say that the things I recommend are without flaws–just that I won’t talk about them here except as possible triggers, if relevant. But I also believe that it’s OK to love flawed things–after all, none of us are perfect; if you love someone, you already love a flawed thing–so I don’t hesitate to recommend these books.
First up is the Charm of Magpies series by K.J. Charles. This world is similar to The Fay of Skye in that it’s set in Victorian England with acknowledged magic. But beyond that, everything changes. This is a much darker world, and magic power is not easily obtained. Charles deals in the darker side of society and magic, giving her series a touch of supernatural horror as well as fantasy and romance.
And there is definitely romance. The relationship between Stephen and Crane is magnificent. Everything about them is raw and real, and conflicts are completely character-driven and natural. I haven’t yet started the spin-offs as they are unavailable at the moment (they were published through Samhain and have not yet been re-released), but I am very much looking forward to getting them onto my Kindle the moment they reappear. I’d already read Charles’ Society of Gentlemen series prior to these, and I wish I’d read these first as I would have been able to get them all at the time!
If you’re a fan of magic, sex, well-developed characters, fraught relationships, dark deeds, questionable morality, and fully-fleshed out worlds, give the Charm of Magpies series a try, starting with The Magpie Lord.