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Book Review: Dark Witch (Cousins O’Dwyer #1) by Nora Roberts

Screen Shot 2014-04-30 at 10.16.42 PMDark Witch by Nora Roberts (Cousins O’Dwyer Trilogy #1)

4/5 stars

Nora Roberts has written over 200 books.  I have read at least 100 of those.  I suspect that if I were to sit down with a list and start checking off titles, it’s closer to 150 or more.  One of my closest friends, Brandy, introduced me to Roberts in 1996 with the Dream Trilogy (still a favorite today, if a bit dated).  I immediately devoured as much of her back catalog as I could get my hands on, and read every new release and out of stock re-release for the next 10 or so years.

I’m still a huge fan of her “in death” series written as JD Robb, and read those the day/week they are released.  However, over the past five to eight years, I’ve hit a wall with Roberts.  Her work is still solid…it’s just that as a fan of her work for almost (gulp) two decades it’s also predictable.

While I’m not gasping in shock over a plot twist, Roberts does still pull off an enjoyable read.

While Roberts typically opens a paranormal with a glimpse into the mythology she’s weaving, Dark Witch breaks that with an extended view (2 chapters) into the origins of the Dark Witch and why we’re now dealing with a trio rather than a single descendant of Sorcha.  Part of this is because she’s setting up a fairly  complex backstory between Sorcha (and her descendents) and Cabhan (and his), but it also makes for a nice change of pace.

We then flip forward to modern day Ireland, where Iona-our token American-has arrived in Ireland.  One of the unique twists on this series is that while Iona is new to her powers, she’s known the family legends her entire life.  There is no shocking reveal.  More refreshing is that the entire town knows–there’s no need for subterfuge amongst the magick working characters and the non magickal characters (to use Robert’s preferred spelling).  Because there isn’t, it’s also not a major plot point either way and therefore is easily dispensed with.

Iona is welcomed into the family by her cousins Branna and Connor.  She secures a job at a local stable headed by her assigned love interest Boyle.  The stable is owned by Branna’s (obvious) former lover Fin.  Connor’s (obvious) eventual love interest Meara also works there.

While the who’s going to end up with who is obvious, I enjoyed the path of seeing how Iona and Boyle would end up together, what would push them apart and so forth. I get the feeling that Roberts might well have pushed the resolution of the couple back into the second book, but couldn’t because of genre conventions and that the next book won’t be telling the Iona/Boyle story.  Without going into spoilers, I will say that the wrap of the I/B relationship was rushed and bit dissatisfying.

There is no hint at the Connor/Meara relationship in this book, but without reading it, I can tell you that in book 2 there will be a reveal that at least one of them has pined for the other and the other will be shocked by it.  I will be less interested in this relationship than the other two.  This is a pattern of her trilogies and I know what I’m in for.

Most interesting by far, and why she’s also saving it for book 3 (note, I haven’t actually read the flap copy or anything relating to the other two books, I just know the Roberts pattern) is the Branna/Fin relationship.  They are the former lovers who have broken it off.  That reason is that just as I/C/B are Sorcha’s descendents, Fin is Cabhan’s descendent–something he didn’t find out until after they were a couple.  He has chosen to align himself with the O’Dwyer cousins, but he and Branna are not buddies, and they’re not over one another.  His choice to align with the good side rather than the bad feels like a new (or newer) plot point for her, and one I appreciated.

The pacing of the book is fairly solid.  I didn’t get distracted by other books in my reading queue.  However, I didn’t feel the need to stay up half the night to finish it, either.  Apart from the rushed ending with regards to the I/B romantic relationship, I was happy with the backstory we’ve gotten in this books, the growing friendship/familial relationships that grew in this books and where the plot will go over the next two books.  I’m not running out to read book #2 before I read anything else, and there’s no rush–book #3 isn’t out until Nov 2014–but I’ll buy it and keep it on my kindle as my next “palate cleanser” book.

If you’re an established Roberts fan, you’ll find it fairly standard Roberts paranormal fare.  Worth noting–as with anytime Roberts feels compelled to write “spells” you will sigh at the often bad rhymes.  It’s not her strong point.

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The bigger question is what does this book/trilogy have to offer someone new to the genre/new to Roberts?

Do you like paranormals?  Do you enjoy witches and magick being thrown about not just in a fantasy/historical setting but in modern day Ireland?  If not, move along.

The reasons that I like Roberts as a Romance novelist are that she writes good characters.  She doesn’t write one dimensional stock characters (although read enough work and you do see patterns).  Her women are complex, and they are active participants in the story and in their love life.  Iona goes over Boyle, rather than wait for him to come a knocking and notice her.  Obviously this is a romance book, but the relationship between I/B is A plot rather than the entirety of the plot.  The paranormal side isn’t just filler–it’s a genuinely interesting story on its own.

Roberts takes the time to research to the point where she can write convincing jewel thieves (Honest Illusions among others), cattle ranchers (Montana Sky), homicide police officers (In Death series of 30+ books and others) or a horse riding instructor (as in this book).  I appreciate that Roberts doesn’t phone it in.

The sex scenes are okay.  I’m not the best barometer because as an erotica author, I tend to read (and write) far more explicit scenes.  That said, they’re not boring or trite either.

I don’t know that this is the first Roberts book I’d hand a new reader of hers, but that’s about personal bias rather than the quality of this book versus another. For the record, my favorites include the Dream Trilogy, The McKade Brothers, The Quinn Brothers, The MacGregor Family, and the In Death series.  Individual title recommendations are Honest Illusions and Sweet Revenge (incidentally both feature jewel thieves).

Book Review–Magic’s Pawn by Mercedes Lackey

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Magic’s Pawn   by Mercedes Lackey

Rating 5/5 stars

It is damn near impossible for me to have any objectivity about this trilogy in general, and about Magic’s Pawn specifically.  There are books you will read during the course of your lifetime that so fundamentally alter who you are as a person that they become far more than a story to you.  Magic’s Pawn was one of these books.

Somewhere around 1990/91 I’d given up reading kid’s books.  YA wasn’t really a genre at that point–there were a few shelves at the bookstore devoted to things like Sweet Valley High, Christopher Pike, and Lurlene McDaniels novels–so I transitioned to the adult section.  My local bookstore (anyone else remember Waldenbooks?) had a fairly small Sci-fi/Fantasy section, and every week I would be there pouring over books, trying to decide how to best spend my allowance (and/or baby-sitting money).  There were few enough employees that after a while we were on a first name basis.  One employee, Bryan, was a fellow sci-fi/fantasy nerd and I took his recommendations fairly seriously.

In 1995/1996 (when I was 17 and a senior in high school) Bryan turned me onto Mercedes Lackey with her book The Black Gryphon.  After reading it, I wanted to read more Lackey–but her catalog was so big that I was overwhelmed by which book to read next.  Bryan offered me Magic’s Pawn.

Growing up in the part of Massachusetts where the line between suburban sleeper community meets rural countryside in the late 80’s and early 90’s, I’d never met anyone who was gay.  Ellen hadn’t come out yet, and Will & Grace was years away from airing.  I understood that being gay wasn’t socially acceptable–the tone people took, the slurs, and the messages I’d picked up from from pop culture and the people in my life had taught that to me.  I was guilty of saying things like “Who cares who you sleep with, but why do I have to see two men kiss in front of me?”–as if I ever had, or even knew what I really saying–I was parroting what I was taught.

Vanyel was the first gay person I ever met.  Magic’s Pawn took me on his journey, and in doing so changed who I was.  After that book I would never say something like “why should two men kiss in front of me,” instead feeling infuriated that someone would dare question their love as less valid than mine.  When I moved to Boston for college, my mind and heart were ready to meet and ally physical (as opposed to fictional) LGBTQA individuals.  And when I went though my own realization and outing as bisexual myself a few years later, I found myself visiting with Vanyel all over again.

Mercedes Lackey is an infuriating author.  She can write books like Magic’s Pawn, and then she can write just some of the worst Mary Sue filled, ignore your own cannon, why can’t I forget you ever wrote this in the first place dreck like Exile’s Honor and Exile’s Valor.  These days I tend to avoid her new work as I’ve been disappointed far more often than I’ve enjoyed it.  That said, her back catalog, particularly some of the Valdemar books remain some of my favorite books almost 20 years later.  Someday I will give you my full rant about which books are good, which are okay, and which flat out need to be burned.

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Picture Credit-Drunkfu on DeviantArt

Vanyel has only one thing he’s ever dreamed of being–a Bard.  Unfortunately he’s also the heir to his father’s estate, so music isn’t a career that’s in the cards for him.  He’s too small and fine boned to sword fight like his larger bulkier brothers and cousins, but his swordsmaster feels that the fast feint and dash method that would match his build is “cheating.”  Jervis promptly breaks his arm in punishment for “cheating.”

Apart from his older sister Lissa-who is sent away within the first chapter to become a guardswoman (there’s one girl in every generation who bucks tradition–and you always know who because they inherited the “Ashekevron nose)-he’s left without close friend or ally.

When he’s sent to Haven-the capital city of Valdemar-he’s told that he can’t even take his horse.  Insult after insult is given–he’s taken to the city between two of his father’s guards like a common criminal.  He’s so hurt that he decides

It was so simple–just don’t give a damn.  Don’t care what they do to you and they do nothing.

But like every emotionally abused child who has ever thought that before or after Vanyel, all it does is serve to isolate him further.

Left in his aunt’s care, he has no clue what to make of his unexpected freedom, his lessons with the bards, or Tylendel (one of his aunt’s students.)  His lessons, though, only serve to crush his one remaining hope–that he would be taken into Bardic Collegium and be made a Bard.  He’s a beautiful musician, but he doesn’t have the bardic gift and he doesn’t compose–and he’d need one of the two for them to remove him from the position of his father’s heir.  Vanyel is left without hope for the future.

Vanyel’s drawn to Tylendel, but has no words to describe what it is he’s feeling or why until a girl at court mocks ‘Lendel’s sexual preferences.  It is a lightning bolt to Vanyel, who hadn’t even realized that such pairings were even possible.  Watching them come together is powerful, as is the scene from the next morning when they sit down with his aunt to talk about what will happen now that he and Tylendel are a couple…

“The first problem and the one that’s going to tie in to all the others, Vanyel, is your father.”  She paused, and Vanyel bit his lip.  “I’m sure your realize that if he finds out about this, he is going to react badly.”

Vanyel coughed, and bowed his head, hiding his face for a moment.  When he looked back up, we was wearing a weary, ironic half-smile; a smile that had as much pain in it as humor.  It was, by far and away, the most open expression Savil had ever seen him wear.

“‘Badly’ is something of an understatement, Aunt,” he replied rubbing his temple with one finger.  “He’ll–gods, I can’t predict what he’ll do, but he’ll be in a rage, that’s for certain.”

“He’ll pull you home, Van.” Tylendel said in a completely flat voice.  “And he can do it; you’re not of age, you aren’t Chosen, and you’re aren’t in Bardic.”

“And I can’t protect you,” Savil sighed, wishing that she could.  “I can stall him off for a while, seeing as he officially turned guardianship of you over to me, but it won’t last more than a couple of months.  Then–well, I’ll give you my educated guess as to what Withen will do.  I think he’ll put you under house arrest long enough for everyone to forget about you, then find himself a compliant priest and ship you off to a temple.  Probably one far away, with very strict rules about outside contact.  There are, I’m sorry to say, several sects who hold that the shay’a’chern are tainted.  They’d be only to happy to ‘purify’ you for Withen and Withen’s gold.  And under the laws of the kingdom, none of us could save you from them.”

Looking back, it’s pretty revolutionary that this scene was written in the late 80’s when homosexuality was a huge cultural taboo and AIDS was a death sentence.  The Reagan administration was delaying research into HIV/AIDS because it was seen as a “gay disease.”  It was written long before conversion therapy was debunked as dangerous and damaging.  Lackey’s sex scenes are all off-page, but she was writing relationships like Tylendel and Vanyel (and even a potential all female triad relationship years earlier) long before we were having cultural discussions about LGBTQA representations in media and critiquing lack of representation.

While the spectre of Vanyel’s father looms over the relationship and has them playing a double game, the real danger to the relationship is from ‘Lendel.  More to the point, Tylendel’s obsession with a family feud his family has going with the Leshara family.  Lendel’s twin brother is the lord of their holding, and Lendel wants to take his side.  Heralds must be neutral, and Lendel is anything but.  When his brother is murdered, Tylendel’s control snaps, and he uses Vanyel to seek revenge.

—and that’s just the first half of the book.

Screen Shot 2014-03-15 at 5.10.08 PMMercedes Lackey signs autographs at CONvergence (source wikipedia)

The book isn’t just noteworthy because it was before its time on LGBT characters.  These are complex characters.  Vanyel is hurting and emotionally damaged, but he can also be a jerk.  He’s dependent on Tylendel and he never really stops to wonder if ‘Lendel’s plans are a good idea.  He is self-centered and arrogant.  He’s also starving for love, sweet, and deeply caring.  Tylendel is obsessive, but doesn’t mean to use Vanyel in the way that he does.  Savil is aware of Tylendel’s obsession but doesn’t take it seriously enough.  Characters are imperfect and they screw up.

Her characters go on emotional journeys–they grow and they change and those moments are often painful.  The first time I read the book, it had me sobbing.  Rereading it over the past few days, even though I knew what was coming and what will happen in the next two books in the series, I was still blinking back tears.

If you like fantasy, I really can’t recommend Magic’s Pawn highly enough.