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Princess Alethea's Magical Elixir
  Book Reviews by Alethea Kontis
July 2010

Title: Shades of Milk and Honey
Author: Mary Robinette Kowal
EAN: 9780765325563

Author C. C. Finlay and I were Tweeting the other day about Jane Austen -- he had just read Pride & Prejudice for the first time and was essentially wondering how he'd lived his whole life thus far without it. Like any Austenite worth her salt, I then advised him to seek out the A&E miniseries of P&P. I can't tell you how many six-hour blocks I've lost, enraptured by that show. Like Chinese take-out and ice cream, Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth are my comfort food. Even just talking about the miniseries makes me itch to see it again. Only. . . I wasn't itching to see it again, because I happened to be right in the middle of reading Mary Robinette Kowal's Shades of Milk and Honey.

In the last umpteen years, there have been umpteen-hundred spin-offs based on Austen's works (and no, I'm not counting that zombie mess, but you may, if you like) -- in the series by Elizabeth Aston, Lizzie and Darcy even have a daughter named Alethea, which you can imagine tickles me to no end. I have tried to read many of these spin-offs and continuations, but they have all left me wanting. They have all the elements down, but the feel is just not there. No matter how exact the recipe, they just haven't managed to get it like Grandma Austen used to make. Mary Kowal, however, is the Iron Chef among them.

Cliché as it might sound, if Jane Austen had sat down to pen a fantasy, this is the book she would have written. The tone, the cadence, the sweep, every bow and curtsey of the language is woven into Shades of Milk and Honey. There's just something about a world of manners, where society is forced to conform to certain rules, like a game, and even the slightest bending of said rules by certain characters is gasp-worthy and/or hilarious. I wished Shades could have lasted far longer than the two days it took to finish it.

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Our story starts with Jane -- for there must always be a Jane -- who will never be as beautiful as her younger sister Melody -- for there must always be a sister. Instead, Jane possesses a mastery over the womanly talents, which of course includes the mastery of glamour. In Kowal's England, glamour is woven into music, art, interior decoration -- even self-image -- to enhance the outcome. It's what the sophisticated set uses as a diversion to entertain themselves at parties. And it's why stoic, mysterious Mr. Vincent has been invited into the neighbourhood, as the glamourist-in-residence for Lady FitzCameron.

There is, of course, a subtle intrigue and the unraveling of the mystery behind Mr. Vincent, but none of this taxes the reader, who is left to lazily sun herself beside a crystal blue pool while she picks strawberries, attends balls, sips tea, and watches the plot slowly unravel at its leisure. Kowal's mastery is the art of the Austenite nuance. Beyond that, I can't tell you how much I thoroughly enjoyed Shades of Milk and Honey from beginning to end. When I reached the last page I just wanted to start it all over again. It left me craving nothing but a cup of Constant Comment . . . and the sequel.

Title: Steamed
Author: Katie MacAlister
EAN: 9780451229311

I fell for it, I did: hook, line, and sinker. It's been so long since walking into a bookstore hasn't been work, I was beginning to wonder if I'd lost that magic, that urge that takes you over when you see a certain cover or a certain author or some mystic convergence of them both. "Come on, Alethea," you say. "It's like riding a bike," you say. But the last time I did that was ten years ago, back when my daredevil ignorance sent me over Devil's Ridge and broke every bone in my body (except those three little ones in the ear). I was scared at first. I didn't know what I was looking for -- something to sweep away my troubles and lose me in wonderment.

Steamed, by Katie MacAlister, was not that book.

Now don't get me wrong -- I got exactly what I signed up for. I liked the cover, as much as covers have lately tried to pull away from the cartoonish illustrations. I liked the woman's ridiculous amount of red hair, the star on her shoulder and key on her corset, the goggles she held in the hand unadorned by fingerless gloves and charm bracelet. I liked that it had the words "A Steampunk Romance" under the title. I liked that the title didn't even attenpt to be imaginative or clever. I even liked that Katie MacAlister -- best known for her humorous paranormal romance -- sold out quicker than a garage band trying to land a major label. I opened to the first page and read, "Good morning, Jack. Is that a molecular detector in you pocket, or are you just happy to see me?"

When this book spoke to me, it didn't tell me it was going to change my life. It didn't tell me I was in for a night of unstoppable reading. It told me exactly what it was going to be: frivolous and silly. Ridiculous as John McClane jumping off an overpass onto the wing of a jet. But sometimes we just don't need substance. We just want fun. This book was all of that.

While I don't mind romance novels written in third person that switch from viewpoint to viewpoint (though it does hinder the smoothness of my reading), or even switching from first person to third person (à la Christine Rimmer's entertaining The Man Behind the Mask), Katie switches from first person to first person in her various chapters, and I found myself constantly confused as to whether I was in Jack's head or Captain Octavia's. Not that it mattered much . . . I just skimmed on to the next page and figured it out.

The characters are over-the-top silly, the plot has more holes in it than the ozone layer, and the maguffin is simply a means to an end. But I read it to the end. Katie does pepper the manuscript with witty dialogue and amusing antics . . . but I have to admit I found myself laughing at the story as much as I was laughing with it.

If you're one of the folks who would like to have the 162 minutes back that you spent watching Avatar, this book is probably not for you. If you've already Fandangoed your ticket to Shrek 4 and need something to read while standing in line for your bathtub of popcorn, you may as well give this a shot. In the meantime, I'm going to go polish my helmet.

Title: Mistwood
Author: Leah Cypess
EAN: 9780061956997

I really liked the premise of this book -- I would call it a lighter version of Robin McKinley's Deerskin. Our main character is the Shifter, a creature of fog and wind who takes human form when the king of the land braves the Mistwood and calls upon her (usually a "her") to protect him and his throne. The Shifter has been around for countless centuries, a mythical creature steeped in lore and legends as strange and complicated as the girl herself. Each incarnation of the Shifter retains very few memories of her previous incarnations, but she is haunted by familiar places and faces and etiquette she's encountered before.

Mistwood was a lovely and quick fantasy read. If I had any issue with the book at all it was that it started with the typical "main character with amnesia" twist and carries it on for almost a third of the book before any shred of information is revealed to the Shifter (and therein to the reader). By then, of course, the reader has formulated his or her own hypothesis about the Shifter's origins and the state of the kingdom, and we're wondering why she hasn't come to the same conclusions.

Perhaps the reason she doesn't is that she is too busy trying to solve the mystery of who is trying to assassinate the king and why, as well as the mystery of her own origins: who is she and where did she come from? And why is it that she can't completely shift while inside the castle? Who can she trust, and who is safe?

The answer to those questions is: no one. The layers upon layers of intrigue and "who betrayed whom" gets confusing, but I highly respect an author whose characters are not safe from harm. There is nothing fun when nothing is in jeopardy (ie: Iron Man 2), and the reader has fewer emotional ties to the character. The book will also make you wonder about the things that trigger your own memories . . . how long do you think you would wander the foggy in-between world before the life you knew came back to you?

Read more by Alethea Kontis

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