A two for one book review! Along with a discussion on what not to do in a paranormal romance.
On the update side, working on a new steampunk project and trying to still work out plot issues with VH. It’s always lovely when your villain can’t get his act together to bother the protagonists.
Anyway, struggles with writing leads to reading and I ended up with a few new books. I was initially going for Marshall Ryan Maresca’s new book The Holver Alley Gang, but the first bookstore I visited didn’t have it. But I ended up seeing this: God Save The Queen by Kate Locke. A long wait a few days later had me downloading Clean Sweep by Ilona Andrews.
The last two basically became a study in opposites and are the focus of today’s review.
So real quick, here are the blurbs.
Queen Victoria rules with an immortal fist.
The undead matriarch presides over a Britain where the Aristocracy is made up of werewolves and vampires, where goblins live underground and mothers know better than to let their children out after dark. It’s a world where the nobility are infected with the Plague (side-effects include undeath), Hysteria is the popular affliction of the day, and leeches are considered a delicacy. And a world where technology lives side by side with magic. The year is 2012 and Pax Britannia still reigns.
Xandra Vardan is a member of the elite Royal Guard, and it is her duty to protect the Aristocracy. But when her sister goes missing, Xandra will set out on a path that undermines everything she believed in and uncover a conspiracy that threatens to topple the empire. And she is the key — the prize — in a very dangerous struggle.
On the outside, Dina Demille is the epitome of normal. She runs a quaint Victorian Bed and Breakfast in a small Texas town, owns a Shih Tzu named Beast, and is a perfect neighbor, whose biggest problem should be what to serve her guests for breakfast. But Dina is…different: Her broom is a deadly weapon; her Inn is magic and thinks for itself. Meant to be a lodging for otherworldly visitors, the only permanent guest is a retired Galactic aristocrat who can’t leave the grounds because she’s responsible for the deaths of millions and someone might shoot her on sight. Under the circumstances, “normal” is a bit of a stretch for Dina.
And now, something with wicked claws and deepwater teeth has begun to hunt at night…Feeling responsible for her neighbors, Dina decides to get involved. Before long, she has to juggle dealing with the annoyingly attractive, ex-military, new neighbor, Sean Evans—an alpha-strain werewolf—and the equally arresting cosmic vampire soldier, Arland, while trying to keep her inn and its guests safe. But the enemy she’s facing is unlike anything she’s ever encountered before. It’s smart, vicious, and lethal, and putting herself between this creature and her neighbors might just cost her everything.
At first glance, both of these books offer a lot I like in a story: female protag, interesting variations on the vampire/werewolf mythos, high stakes adventure. And the latter hints heavily at romance, so it’s all win-win!
Too bad the first one didn’t really deliver.
(Warning: from this point on, there are spoilers.)
In God Save the Queen, we’re introduced to Alexandra (Xandra) Vardan — a half-blood vampire — as she delves into the lair of goblins in order to find out what happened to her sister. To be fair, this is a really interesting chapter. We get a good introduction to what is supposed to be our kick-ass protag as she faces the effective bogeymen of the setting for something she wants.
Unfortunately, this is the only time she is active. Seriously. After finding out where her sister was dragged off to, she goes to confront her family and mentor about the truth (which they were all keeping from her) and then gets the bad news that her sister has apparently killed herself while in the asylum she was dragged to. Xandra goes to see the body, realizes it can’t be her sister because of her sister’s teeth, and then goes to her sister’s apartment to see if she can get more clues. Things are missing, so she goes back to the asylum where she finds her sister.
Remember how the blurb talked about looking for her missing sister and finding out unpleasant secrets? Surprise! All of it is dropped on her in the sixth chapter. The bulk of the book is then spent trying to convince her of the things she was told in this chapter. And that convincing takes the form of random people approaching her and just telling her things. Seriously. At one point she’s waiting for a date and her estranged half-sister shows up, drags her back into a back room of the club, and shows her how half-bloods are selling themselves as food for the full-blooded aristocrats.
Comparatively, Clean Sweep begins with Dina realizing that she has a problem on her hands. Something is killing the dogs in her neighborhood, and she knows it’s not a local creature. When the new neighbor — a man she’s identified as a werewolf — refuses to get involved she goes out to hunt and brings down the creature before bringing it back to her Inn.
Oh, forgot to mention. She’s an Innkeeper. They’re basically Hestia: neutral keepers of the hearth, who are pretty kickass within their Inns. She doesn’t like you? She can have the house toss you out. It’s brilliant.
Anyway, she tries to figure out what the creature is with the resources she has. Unfortunately, she’s a relatively new Innkeeper, so her resources are somewhat out of date and unhelpful. So she goes for help. Well, information. Rule one of being an Innkeeper is that your priority is keeping your Inn safe. So while another Innkeeper helps by giving her information, he can’t do more than that.
What works here is that at every step, she’s active in trying to solve the problem. She can’t find it in her books, so she goes to somebody who should know. She needs to figure out where a tracking device is? She tries to find it herself and then, again, goes for help when she can’t. Need to draw the master of the creature in? She sets off the tracking device. These are her plans and her decisions.
And by it being her decisions, we get led further and further into the world and into the complications in a natural way. Oh, werewolf guy is crazy strong? Might as well ask about him while asking about the weird creature I found. Oh, I set off a tracker and vampires show up? We can explain why it’s unusual.
Meanwhile, Xandra is being dragged here and there and being shown and told things, but there’s always an element of disbelief. Because she doesn’t believe it. She doesn’t want to believe it. And, yeah, with the background — she finds out all of this from the sister that supposedly just committed suicide as well as her mother and half-sister who disappeared over 12 years ago– it’s understandable, but the issue is that she does nothing on her own behalf to prove it or deny it. She’s led by the nose at every junction, despite there apparently being equivalent modern technology in the alternate setting.
The biggest difference between these two characters is their agency. While I don’t care for the early info dump, it would have been far more tolerable if Xandra had actively tried to reveal the truth. If she had a plan or even tried to research things. Instead she just shacked up with her new boyfriend and moped about everybody being overwhelmingly interested in her and how her world is being messed with and it sucks. (Did I mention she smacks of being a Mary Sue? Because I’m pretty sure she’s a Mary Sue.)
Dina goes out to find information. She creates plans. She makes decisions that have consequences to her, her Inn, her guests, and she has to deal with them. Given how the book was developed — the authors released it as a serialization on their website before doing a clean up edit and publishing it — there’s still a kind of ease by which she gets over her consequences, but it’s not like she avoids it entirely.
And to tie in with agency, let’s talk powers here for a bit. Both of the characters are presented as being strong. Dina is one of the youngest Innkeepers who brought an Inn back from the edge of decay and death; Xandra is talked about being one of the top students of her class and an exceptionally strong brawler.
With Dina, we have constant examples of her powers and her control over them. How her Inn works. What she can do beyond the boundaries of her home. Even what it costs her when she expends too much magic.
Xandra, well, we get a brawl against some humans (again, she’s supernatural) and then an exhibition fight against her mentor. That’s pretty much it until the end of the book. Yet we’re supposed to accept that she’s some sort of special figure by the end with amazing strength and prowess. Okay, she kicks a solid steel door off its hinges, but that’s not really a show of power and ability. Not in the paranormal genre.
And as an aside, can I note the world building here? The unfortunate thing with Xandra’s world is that the blurb presents it as being sort of steampunk-ish with Victorian England meeting modern day. But I honestly never really felt that it was steampunk or that much different than our own world. Beyond a few name and cosmetic changes, the setting didn’t do much to differentiate itself. The most technical it ever got was in the author note at the beginning to explain the AU divergence and how the vampires and werewolves are a genetic mutation.
Dina’s world, though, was impressive. Transporting to different worlds, the tech level of her house, the explanation of alien races (Yeah. The paranormal creatures we all know and love are folks who are using Earth as a rest stop effectively. It was such a neat twist.), all of it plays a pretty consistent role and keeps you rooted in the idea that we aren’t in Kansas anymore.
The final issue is with the romances.
Both of them fall in love with alpha werewolves who just want to protect them. However, Xandra initially encounters her love interest, Vex, in passing as he picks up two of his pack that Xandra defended. They share a look and then he’s gone. The next time they meet is at a restaurant where he flirts with her mildly before she more or less propositions him and they go back to her house to have sex. And then he basically sticks around after declaring that he’s been interested in her for a while.
No, seriously. That’s the extent of their interest. She talks about how hot he is, he talks about how he’s been interested in her for a while, and then they make out. (I don’t want to really say they’re having sex even though the book says they are because it’s always “and then I/he jumped him/me and then it was later”. Blah.)
Meanwhile, Dina’s relationship starts with her throwing him out of the Inn. Several times. They’re forced to work together because he forces her hand in revealing what her powers are to him, at which point she finds out that he has no idea about the wider world setting. It’s one of those rare instances where the main character is the insider to the Masquerade and has to walk an outsider through it. Definitely appreciated that. But over the course of the book, they work together. Save each other. He’s flirting hard with her and being all alpha/dom and she’s trying desperately to stay on task. They only share one kiss by the end. Their relationship grows. It’s not just suddenly there and has to be accepted; you see why they like each other and start actively rooting for them to come together by the end.
You can see in this comparison just how important it is to give your characters agency, suffer consequences, and allow their relationship options a chance to breathe and grow naturally. By doing this, you make your characters and their situations more believable and more relatable and, most importantly, more interesting. While Dina and Xandra shared some common elements, I was much more interested in Dina and her struggles, to the point that I ended up buying and reading the series over the course of two days. It took me the better part of a week to finish up Xandra’s story because I just couldn’t care about a character who, well, didn’t care.
Bottom line: Read Innkeeper Chronicles, starting with Clean Sweep. Skip God Save the Queen.