Lightning Reviews: Magic & Contemporary Romance

The Mask of Mirrors

author: M.A. Carrick

The Mask of Mirrors is a long and complicated book and I read it during a time of a lot of stress and very few brain cells. It is very high praise indeed when I say that it kept my attention and had me reading along to see what will happen next, while also pausing to linger on the amazing world-building details. This is a fantasy novel, the first in a trilogy, that begins as a con-artist story and transitions into a political and magical epic.

Ren and her sister Tess grew up on the streets of Nadežra before they fled and assumed new lives elsewhere. As adults, they return, with Ren disguised as Renata, an upperclass woman, and Tess as her servant. Ren is determined to become part of a noble house. This involves a long con using a false identity. As Ren spends more time with the family she hopes to ingratiate herself with, she finds herself becoming emotionally attached to them, which makes it increasingly more difficult to sustain her ruse.

Meanwhile she has to embark on various economic and political ploys to secure social status, which brings her into a close and confusing relationship with Vargo, a semi-respectable businessman with a criminal past of his own. Other compelling characters are Grey, a conflicted police officer, and The Rook, a secretive, hooded, caped figure of legend and reality who swoops around like Zorro defending the poor and aggravating the rich.

This book is slow-paced until the last third of the book when a lot of violent and magical things happen at one time. I actually liked the slower-paced parts of the book because I enjoyed the attention to detail, especially fashion, which you can read more about here. I liked the slow character building, especially since there are so many characters and point-of-view switches often. At first there does not seem to be any magic in the book, but it gradually becomes part of the narrative until things literally and figuratively explode in the latter third of the story.

Substantial TW/CW apply here: the book contains graphic child abuse and allusions to rape. It also contains graphic, bloody violence between and adults, both magically and mundanely delivered.

The story explores issues of feminism, class, crime, and colonization. It does not have much romance and no happy courtships transpire, alas – many sad things occur during the book. And, as the first book in the Rook and Rose trilogy, it ends on a cliffhanger.

I thoroughly enjoyed the escapades of clever Ren and the fascinating supporting characters, and the many twists and turns that the story takes. Readers who like political scheming, fashion as a weapon and a tool, secrets, and swashbuckling will enjoy this, and as a special treat for Tarot fans the characters have their own form of cartomancy which is described in detail in the book. I recommend this to fans of epic trilogies with a lot of intrigue.

Carrie S

Science Fiction/Fantasy

Mr. Right Across the Street

author: Kathryn Freeman

Mr Right Across the Street is a very sweet, very hot, slow-burn romance. Mia Abbott is building a new life in Manchester, where she has moved after her last relationship ended in the kind of unpleasantries that lead to changing cities and phone numbers. For the first time in her life, she is living alone and far from her family, and she is enjoying the opportunity to rediscover herself as an independent woman. She is also enjoying the fact that the flat across the street is occupied by a really hot guy who works out in front of his window at 10am every morning.

Luke Doyle is that hot guy. He has his own issues and secrets, and he doesn’t do relationships – but he certainly does do one-night stands and friends with benefits. Lots of them. He’s reasonably ethical about it, but he is also rather wilfully obtuse about the fact that some of his lovers are hoping for more. Naturally, he falls for Mia the first time she walks into his bar. But Mia isn’t interested in dating a player – not even one who invites her out on ‘not-dates’ by writing her notes and putting them in his window where she will see them.

Mia and Luke’s growing friendship was genuinely lovely, and I adored the communication-by-window-sign take on the epistolary novel. I especially loved Luke’s patience with Mia’s wariness of him – he’s frank about his attraction to her, but he is very careful not to push, and when she refuses to give him her number and explains why, he just shrugs and says he’ll have to invest in larger paper then. His respect for her boundaries was super hot, honestly.
I also liked the friendships Mia built with the people she met in Manchester, from her grumpy elderly neighbour, Stan, to the women she meets at the bar (at least one of whom is an ex of Luke’s). And the sense of place was fantastic – Luke’s ‘sights of Manchester’ were really fun and a bit different.

There were a couple of things I didn’t like so much, though. Mia is distrustful of men, and doesn’t want a relationship… so her attraction to Luke is a problem for her. She deals with it by leaping to the worst possible conclusions about him at every opportunity. Granted, he gives her plenty of ammunition – he has a lot of exes, and they do keep on turning up in his bar, on his phone, and in his flat. But it did mean that we had this repeated cycle of Luke and Mia having fun together and drawing closer, Mia almost deciding that maybe she could have romantic feelings for Luke, one of Luke’s exes making an appearance, and Mia running for the hills. Again, and again, and again. While this was understandable, it also got pretty exasperating to read.

There is also a fairly major plot twist about 60% of the way through the book, which seems to take the relationship back to square one. The plot twist itself was well done, but it did rely a lot on some stereotypes about jealous exes that made me uncomfortable. And speaking of uncomfortable stereotypes, I also didn’t love the way Stan was portrayed, which felt a bit fat-shamey to me.

Despite that, this really was a ridiculously cute story, and I had fun reading it. There were some deliciously funny moments (Luke’s name for his penis had me giggling hysterically for about ten minutes, because I am very immature and also can’t resist a clever pun), and I loved the friendship and chemistry between Luke and Mia. I’m giving this a B minus.

Catherine Heloise

Contemporary Romance, Romance
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