Book Review: Agent of the Crown by Melissa McShane

Agent of the Crown (The Crown of Tremontane #3)Agent of the Crown by Melissa McShane
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

The Crown of Tremontane is one of my favorite series, and like it’s predecessors Agent of the Crown does not disappoint.

Agent of the Crown takes us back to Tremontane and the North family this time in the form of Telaine North Hunter, the daughter of Elspeth North and Owen Hunter, who we saw very briefly as a bouncing baby at the end of Rider of the Crown. Telaine is all grown up now and living a double life as the fashion forward belle of every ball she’s ever attended and as one of her Uncle Jeffery’s spies. This is a really fun set up which drives the character arc of the story as Telaine has to decide whether she’s the Princess, the spy or something in between, and in the long run who does she WANT to be. This arc is deftly combined with a political plot which draws her out of her glittering life and firmly puts Telaine somewhere uncomfortable and that’s a great place for a character to be.

As usual the supporting cast is fantastic from Ben the Blacksmith (who I have a huge crush on) to the return of (view spoiler) in all her snarky glory. While there are a lot of townsfolk which we meet, they are distinct enough that I never just lost the personalities in a sea of names and was as tied up in their successes and failures as I was in Telaine’s bigger job. The villains are suitably terrifying and I felt like I understood the various motives in a way that gelled together nicely.

It was also great to get glimpses of characters we know and love including Imogen, Jeffry and Alison.

It’s interesting to see how far the author has come by this book. While I love the whole series the writing here is stronger and tighter and you can see the growth of the author as well as the world and the people in it.

When you get to the short story at the end… All I can say is have tissues on hand. In the best possible way. I’ve read it three times and it gets me right in the feels…every…time.

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From the Author’s Mouth: Melissa McShane

From the Author’s Mouth is a new feature for the blog interviewing authors, especially ones with up and coming releases. Our first victi…erm…guest is Melissa McShane author of the Crown of Tremontane Series, who is releasing a new book into the wild on Thursday, February 25, 2016. Happy Book Birthday Agent of the Crown.

agent of the crown

From the mouth of the author:

  1. Where did the idea for Agent of the Crown come from?

It’s been almost twenty years since I came up with the kernel of the story that became this book, so I really can’t remember. I think I just had the idea for a princess who was also a spy, who was thrust into an espionage role she wasn’t trained for, and the story grew up around that.

  1. What is the strangest, most bizarre bit of research you had to do for Agent of the Crown?

I don’t know how bizarre it was, but at one point I wanted proof that switching mounts on a long, harrowing ride was not only possible, but common enough to justify Telaine doing it. And I came across an Icelandic tradition of riding with a free herd of remounts that still happens today. They offer tours and everything. One of the best things about writing is learning little facts like that.

  1. Are you secretly a super spy and we just don’t know it?

If I were, I’d hardly reveal that, would I? Now, where did those lock picks go?

  1. What is your Achilles heel when it comes to getting distracted from writing?

Research. I get caught up in looking up just one more thing…

  1. When you’re settled in to get things done is there a particular food that you just have to have on hand?

My writing is fueled by Coke and chocolate.

  1. What does it take to write a really good villain?  Do you ever wonder if that really came out of YOUR head?

I think the best villains are the ones whose evil is personal. Morgan threatening Telaine is frightening to me because he believes his attentions are rooted in love. I rarely scare myself except when I feel I should be more worried about the things I come up with.

  1. Which of your characters was the hardest to write for?

Aunt Weaver/Zara North. I wrote this book before the other Tremontane novels, and her character developed very differently in Servant of the Crown, requiring me to change some of her behavior and attitudes. Keeping her consistent was the hardest part of writing this book.

  1. We all have darling lines or paragraphs in our stories. What is your favorite murdered darling from any of your books?

I paraphrased one of my favorite lines from Babylon 5 about the kind of conversation that can only end with a gunshot, but was convinced that the person doing the speaking wouldn’t be familiar enough with guns to use that as a metaphor. I’m still sad about it.

  1. What is your worst writing habit, the thing you keep telling yourself you’re going to change and you do it anyway?

Stopping to revise—major revision—while I’m in the process of writing a book. Knowing that I’ve changed my mind about something, or that something I wrote is wrong, eats at me until I just have to stop and fix it. I know it slows me down, but I can’t help myself.

  1. If you were going to interview another author, whose brain would you want to pick?

Tim Powers. I’m in awe of his ability to blend fact, history, and fiction and make it all seem true.

From the mouth of Telaine (Heroine of Agent of the Crown):

1. Your father is a Ruskalder warrior, right? Did this heritage ever cause you trouble growing up?

I think people always remembered Owen Hunter as the King’s best friend and most loyal supporter rather than as a Ruskalder warrior. Also, he died when I was young, and people generally weren’t horrible enough to taunt me about who he’d been. There were a few of my peers who thought I was a good target for their hatred of the Ruskalder, and I got in some fights when I first came to live at the palace, but that faded over time. Even I forget I’m half Ruskalder sometimes.

2. What’s the best part of living in the palace? Being a Princess can’t be all bad, right?

The food is great, and it’s always there when you want it. And the palace is enormous. There are all sorts of interesting places you can get lost in.

3. It must be fun to be a Deviser. Have you ever encountered something you just couldn’t fix and created something entirely new?

Not entirely something I couldn’t fix, but there was this woman who wanted a sword cane, but didn’t like how they have cases that pop off. I ended up building her an umbrella with a blade concealed in the shaft. She was rather obsessed with hidden blades. But it gave me an idea for putting a magical source in the handle of an umbrella that connected to the ribs and made them heat up for cold days. You never know where inspiration will come from.

4. Is there a happily ever after on your horizon, or is true love only for those sappy romance books?

I’ve never really thought about it. I’d have to find someone I could tell my secret to, and that seems unlikely. Besides, most of the men I meet are more in love with the Princess, my alter ego, than me. I don’t mind. It’s sort of funny.

5. If I wanted to be an Agent of the Crown where would I start?

Most agents are recruited out of school, but if the Crown doesn’t single you out, the best way is to join the army and specialize in some discipline that makes you stand out. If you know who the spymaster is, you can petition him or her directly, but that doesn’t happen very often because the spymaster is very secretive. And no, I won’t tell you who it is. I fell into espionage when I complained about how boring high society was and Uncle Jeffrey gave me an assignment to keep me occupied. I doubt he thought I’d stick with it. I sort of surprised myself, frankly.

Thank you to Melissa and Telaine!

If you’ve never read any of the Tremontane books the series in order is:

Servant of the Crown

Rider of the Crown

Exile of the Crown (novella)

Agent of the Crown

Peanut butter in my chocolate

Last year I released a book, if you’ve been visiting this website for more than a post or two you’ve prolly heard me squee over it, and I was fortunate enough to get a mention of Desert Rains on Book View Cafe by Sherwood Smith. Being part of her round up was thrilling, but in the comments I found some interesting and disturbing ideas.

Desert Rains is unapologetically a genre mash up. It brings in elements of the classic Western and elements of Science Fiction and wraps both of those around a romance. This wasn’t something I really planned to do, but when I came up with the outline all of these pieces were already in place. I tend to compare it to the television show Firefly but with more kissing and a smaller cast. It was fun to write and went very quickly, but as it has made its way out into the world I’ve found it to be much more divisive than I ever thought it would be, and this is reflected in those Book View comments.

Some people really love the cross over of genres, and the way those things come together. Others get down right irritable at the thought of a Western with Science Fiction elements or Fantasy contaminated with Romance. And often these opinions are formed without even reading the book! So it always reminds me of the commercials about how a peanut butter cup was created and that some people are purists and want chocolate alone and others are willing to try mixing it up.

I don’t mind either position, but one thing I did mind was the assumption that, as the author, I didn’t know what I was doing or had chosen to mix genres only so that I could expand the keywords or categories the book shows up in. I found this a boggling position, particularly as the commenter had only read the first three pages of the book. I don’t mind that the commenter was a genre purist (even though it’s always ironic to be tagged as not being geek enough) but I do mind the ‘just to sell’ aspect of the comment.

Very rarely do authors sit down and go, what can I add to this story in order to make choosing keywords even harder and sales to a traditional publishing house nearly impossible? Because those are the kinds of things that crossing genre does. The JOY of self publishing is that there is finally a place for these stories on the margins, but they still don’t fit into the standard boxes and if all the author is interested in is sales, they should either conform to the boxes or go so far outside of them that they can capture a niche no one else does.

The other interesting challenge all of this brings up is the struggles any author goes through to get the ratio of genre elements right for their particular book. In my case I did all the SF research to figure out why the planets functioned the way they did, water cycles and planet travel times, etc, etc. It was all interesting and fun, but when I really got going on crafting the story it became obvious that it wasn’t a story ABOUT those SF elements. It was a story about the people who lived in those elements and to them much of the ‘gee wiz’ that I’d studied up on was just part of every day life and not something they were going to spend a lot of time on. So I decided to stick with the character story and let the SF elements be what they were.  For me it was the right choice for the book and the tone it sets for the series, but I’ve had complaints about not enough romance, not enough SF, and not enough Western… You just can’t make everyone happy all the time.

Fortunately, I still like a little peanut butter in my chocolate.

PSA: Con Crud

Sneeze_in_white_hankie

Last weekend I went to Life the Universe and Everything in Provo, Utah. This is a fantastic science fiction and fantasy symposium which has been going on for the last 34 years. I attended way back in the day when I was going to college and even participated in the planning and gophering for a few years. Then I went off and got caught up in post college life and didn’t make it back until recently. I’m glad to say that it’s an even better symposium these days, really maturing from its inception. We had fantastic guests of honor and some really good writing classes which definitely gave me food for thought. However…I’m going to talk about those in another post. This one is reserved for something else which I received from LTUE…Con Crud.

Con Crud is the combination of diseases which happens when you bring a lot of people together and there’s a lot of handshaking and elbow rubbing and lots of people go home sick. Watching Facebook I’ve seen that a good part of our convention guests got nailed too and it’s a nasty variety. Sooo…we’re talking Con Crud today. Con Crud is one of those things which is impossible to completely avoid, but there are a lot of things that you, as a convention attendee can do to help keep yourself and others healthy.

1: If you’re sick stay home. I know this one is hard, particularly when you’ve paid good money to pre register and this may be your once a lifetime to see people, but it’s not fair to all the other attendees or the guests when you come in and make them patient zero. Then not only do the guests get sick, but everyone else who encounters them through the day. If you’re at the tail end of a cold or such and choose to come anyway then take it on yourself to wear a germ mask (available at just about any store with a health and first aid section) and don’t shake hands. If you want to see a fantastic representation of how fast mucus can spread and how it can be prevented with just a few precautions head on over to Discovery and look up the Mythbusters episode about the common cold. They show a party twice, with a host infected with a mucus stand in. When the host puts effort into keeping his liquids to himself he does a good job, but when he’s casual about it…everyone goes home covered.

Along these lines it should go without saying to cough into your elbow and wash your hands frequently. If they can teach it to first graders we can remember it as adults!

2: Wear gloves. Especially when you can make them work with your con going attire this is an awesome way to keep yourself and others healthy. This idea came up via Gail Carriger. She was a guest on Writing Excuses and talked about Surviving a Con. Go listen. The whole podcast is really helpful if you’re planning on hitting the con circuit as either an attendee or a presenter. I love this idea and think I’ll be investing in more gloves for my con going adventures.

3: Carry wet ones or hand cleaning gel, preferably both. The gel is good for a quick rinse, but the actual wet naps or other clothes are even better as they also remove stuff from your skin and can be thrown away.

4: Hydrate properly. Many convention locations have a tendency to be really dry, and due to rushing between classes and not wanting to have to stand in line for the bathroom all the time, people tend not to drink enough water. Soda doesn’t count as much as we love our caffeine. When you’re dehydrated and then come into contact with germs it’s harder for the body to fight off infection. And along those lines…

5: Go to bed. It’s easy at conventions to want to do EVERYTHING. All the things all the time, and while that is fun it can also lead to getting very little rest and being very run down. This is another contributing factor to getting sick. Even a nap during the day between a couple of classes is going to help to keep you well rested and you’ll enjoy everything a lot more.

6: Instead of shaking hands, fist bump, bump elbows, salute, bow, kneel, air kisses or come up with another way to say hello which is amusing but presses less flesh.

If we all work together to cover these steps it won’t entirely stop Con Crud, we’re just bringing too many germs from too many places together to keep them from partying. However, these steps will help increase the odds of a healthy con and week after, and everyone else will thank you too.

Next time…things I learned at LTUE.

Out of the Dark (Five #1) by Holli Anderson

Out of the Dark (Five, #1)Out of the Dark by Holli Anderson

I really wish this book had been able to decide what it wanted to be. It’s really three separate, but related storylines, none of which are fully developed because they’re all sharing space in a fairly short book.

I found myself reading in stops and starts because there would be something interesting going on, and then it would get too slow and devolve into a lot of skimming along the top of the story without really giving us any detail or depth and I’d get bored. Then something else would pop up and I’d start again and then it’d slow again. And it’s a real shame because there are some good ideas here, but it just doesn’t know what it wants to be.

In flavor this is a Harry Dresden light with magical teenagers. The author introduces all kinds of supernatural critters with a kind of reckless abandon and while we hear a lot of names, the readers don’t know much about what makes one creature different from another or how these teenagers manage to learn enough to fight them from experimentation and a little white book.

The ending isn’t particularly satisfying. The book hits one major climax, then kind of restarts with an extra 20 pages or so that it really there to introduce the next book and tie off a few ends way too quickly. I would really have loved to see this book with those last pages removed and more time given to the development of the characters and the pacing of the first part of the book.

Would I read the next one, which is one of the defining questions in this situation at the start of a new series? Maybe. If it was the right price and hit me on the right day, but I’m not rushing off to buy it. So a solid mid range, but I really wanted more.

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Off to LTUE

I suppose there’s really not much ‘off to’ given that LTUE (Life the Universe and Everything fantasy symposium) is only about a 45 minute drive away and I’m coming home every night, but it sounds more fun to be off to a conference.

This should be an interesting experience as the last time I went to LTUE was about 20 years ago. At that time the conference was help on the Brigham Young University campus and fairly grudgingly at that. It was made up of mostly students with a few “weird old people” and was a three day geek-a-thon with panels, author signings, role playing games and singing weird music into the wee hours when campus cops came around and kicked us out. These days it’s apparently become more academic and draws well over 1000 people to the Provo Marriott Convention Center. It’s a far cry from our tiny rooms in the Wilkinson Center where the sound never worked quite right, and finding a bottle of anything caffeinated was nearly impossible.

I’m looking forward to the whole thing, even if this time around I am one of the weird old people. Geek never dies…and this time I’m bringing my own Dr. Pepper.

Book Review: The Highly Capable

The Highly Capable (The Ruby Dawson Saga Book 1)The Highly Capable by Jayme Beddingfield

I received this ebook in exchange for an honest review.

I was excited to receive this book as it had a lot of aspects which, on the surface, would be a good fit for me. However, the further I got into the book the more obvious it became that it was a total mismatch.

The Highly Capable is a redemptive story with very strong X-men undertones. (IE: Our heroine is a red-headed telekinetic who is developing telepathic and empathetic powers as well and she eventually meets a guy named Charlie who runs a comic book store and is an option for a way out of her current life.). We are introduced to Ruby, an 18 year old telekinetic who is running with a gang of similarly powered individuals who go from using their powers to pick pocket the tourists to robbing homes and then businesses and then taking on drug gangs and other such things. Their leader, Madison, has some kind of manifest destiny in mind for them, not that she’ll tell anyone what that is and spends much of her time threatening to kill one member or another. However, the stuff with Madison is kind of background while much of the immediate plot circles around Ruby’s changing powers, her relationships with three men and her slowly growing desire to get out of the life she’s in the middle of.

So why did I stop reading? I like paranormal books. I like redemption arcs. I don’t even mind the heavy X-men influence. But the biggest problem? I had no one to root for. I didn’t like or empathize with a single character, Ruby included and especially. She’s wishy washy and often stupid. She blames her indecision on bad self control and begs people to take her away from her life, even when she says on the next breath that she’s perfectly capable of taking care of herself…except that she’s not and she doesn’t. Things happen TO Ruby, she doesn’t do anything proactive to change it. She kills without mercy or remorse except for the occasions where she doesn’t, which is only when it’s plot pivotal and when it starts to physically and emotionally hurt her because she’s experiencing what she’s putting others through, which feels like a very heavy handed way to try to push her towards choosing a better life.

The other characters aren’t better.

For me, in order to enjoy a story of redemption I have to believe the character wants it and I have to have someone to cheer for who I want redeemed. Unfortunately this book didn’t do it for me.

POV Information: This is in first person present tense.

Content warning: Sex, drugs, drinking, language, violence… Most of it isn’t explicit, but it’s all there.

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