provoked Given I read historicals almost exclusively, this month’s prompt wasn’t much of a challenge so I decided to look for something – for me – a bit different. Provoked is the first in Joanna Chambers’ Enlightenment trilogy, and an M/M romance, which is a genre I’ve read only once or twice before.

Not being overly familiar with historical M/M, I had the idea that it would be quite difficult for a romance to have a convincing HEA for two men at a time in history when homosexuality was not only illegal, but punishable by death – and while I certainly have no problem with the idea of two hot guys stripping off their frock coats and getting it on, I can read erotica for that. I read romance (as opposed to erotica) most of the time because I want more than that in my reading material – I want a decent storyline, too, and – with any luck – one that doesn’t stretch my credulity to breaking point and beyond.

The book is set in Regency Scotland, at a time of much political and social unrest. The author immediately evokes a strong sense of time and place with the opening of the story in which two young men – weavers accused of treason – are publicly executed. Present in the crowd is David Lauriston, a twenty-four year-old advocate who had defended the men in court, even though their fate was a foregone conclusion.

David is a hard-working and diligent young man, but the fact that his sympathies lie with the oppressed and downtrodden are perhaps at odds with his aspirations to a profession typically practiced by the upper classes.

On his way back to Edinburgh, David meets and dines with a tall, handsome man who introduces himself as Murdo Balfour. David instantly feels a spark of interest – interest he doesn’t want to feel but is unable to dispel. Surprised to discover that the attraction he’s feeling appears to be mutual, and after carefully dancing around the subject to gauge interest, the two men act on that attraction, not expecting to see each other again – which suits David. He’s always full of self-loathing after he “lapses”, and prefers to keep his rare sexual encounters with other men as brief and impersonal as possible. But sex with Murdo was something out of David’s range of limited experience; for the first time he experienced more than just sexual gratification, and as much as he’d like to forget it and move on, he can’t stop thinking about it – and Murdo himself.

An unexpected meeting months later propels David and Murdo into the same social orbit at the same time as David is trying to help track down the English government agent responsible for betraying the weavers who were executed. Much as David wants to disbelieve it, there’s the possibility that Murdo may have been involved somehow, as it turns out that the reasons he has given for being in Edinburgh may not be entirely truthful.

Unlike Murdo, David comes from humble origins, and while he doesn’t hate himself for being homosexual or try to deny it or change it, he’s yet to find a way to live with it. As a result, he seems to wallow in self-denial, which is a continual source of conflict with Murdo, who is his opposite in practically every way. Titled, rich and comfortable with his sexuality, Murdo believes he’s perfectly entitled to take his pleasure as he wishes while following the pattern laid out for him as a member of the nobility and taking a wife and fathering children, something which David, with his clearly defined sense of honour, could never contemplate.

The burgeoning romance between the pair is both sweet and hot, although their struggle to understand each other’s point of view means they are often at odds, which adds a real dollop of realism to their personalities and their story. David is the more well-defined character of the two, a good-hearted man with a backbone of steel and very highly defined sense of honour. Murdo, at this stage, comes across as not much more than a privileged man with a strong sense of self-entitlement, but there’s the sense that, as he and David become closer, he’s starting to allow David to see the man he truly is underneath the aristocratic veneer. I’m sure that as the trilogy progresses, we’ll get to know the true Murdo Balfour.

Provoked is an enjoyable, well-written story in which the author has strongly established the central relationship and in which there are clearly some interesting plotlines laid out for future development. The immediate conflict in the story – the search for the government spy – is resolved, but the book ends with David and Murdo parting, possibly permanently. I knew going in that this is book one of a trilogy in which the story is ongoing, so I didn’t expect there to be an HEA. There is clearly much more to be said, and I’ll certainly be seeking out the other books in the trilogy. – B+

– Caz Owens
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sweetwoodbride When I first started reading romance in earnest back in high school and college, Americana historicals were huge. I sometimes feel a little nostalgic for those books, so for this month’s TBR Challenge, I picked up one of the very few Pamela Morsi historicals I’d never read – a 1999 release called The Sweetwood Bride. Set in post-Civil War Tennessee, the book starts with what appears to be a literal shotgun marriage.

We learn right off the bat why Euly Toby and Moss Collier must marry, and I suspect some readers will get turned off right away. Euly Toby is most definitely not one of the blandly inoffensive, borderline saintly heroines readers encounter in too many historical romances. Not even close. Pretty much from the word go we learn that she has lied, schemed and tricked her way into her marriage. I know some readers won’t want to go much further with that, but Pamela Morsi is a very good author, and I was curious to see what she would do to redeem this mess.

As it turns out, Euly Toby’s sharecropper father has died, leaving the family destitute. With her siblings farmed out to various neighboring families, Euly hits upon the idea of claiming someone compromised her so that said man will have to marry her, thus giving her family a place to be reunited. And that’s kind of what happens in this book. Unlike Euly, Moss Collier seems to have a deep-rooted integrity and having been forced somewhat angrily into marriage, he determines to do right by the Toby siblings. When he moves Euly up to his home, he lets her collect her younger siblings to take with her.

It’s clear from the early chapters that while Moss finds Euly attractive, he isn’t going to just sweep this whole “I lied to make you marry me” ploy of hers under the rug. Instead we see them working through initial distrust (richly deserved) and eventually finding their way to more lasting love. The whole story plays out against the day to day life of a busy household full of children, farm work, local townspeople flitting in and out. Oh, and there’s also Moss’ reclusive uncle who lives with him and doesn’t much care for having life turned upside down. Even with so much going on in the background of the story, the romance basically worked for me. The story is sweet, and even though it deals with some serious themes, there is a lighthearted feel to it that makes Euly and Moss’ world feel quite engaging.

The novel does have a few off-putting aspects to it, though. Euly’s deception is probably the big one, though I have to admit I got way more annoyed by her constantly referring to Moss as “the husband-man” way more than anything in the actual plot. In addition, the epilogue just didn’t do it for me. Instead of enjoying the happily ever after, I found myself doing the mental math and realizing that some characters seemed to have aged at a rate that didn’t match the number of years between main story and epilogue. The book has its cheesy moments, and I don’t think it’s Morsi’s best, but it does still end up being a sweet story. I’d give it a B-.

– Lynn Spencer
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burningsky My other Challenge book this month probably couldn’t be more different! One of the AAR Days of the Week Challenge prompts for Thursday is:

Read a book that has in its title the word “Thursday”, “Jupiter”, “king”, “sky” or “thunder” or any variation of these words, or a word you think might have a similar connotation

– and I went for Sherry Thomas’ YA fantasy novel, The Burning Sky. I’m not a great reader of YA, so I may be coming at this book from a slightly different angle from its target audience. Sherry Thomas is one of my favourite writers and I’d probably read the back of a cereal packet if she’d written what was on it!

The premise of the story isn’t especially original; an evil empire (Atlantis) oppresses a neighbouring realm (the Domain) and our heroes are the ones who will ultimately overthrow the dictatorial regime and liberate their homeland. What sets this book above the run-of-the-mill, is the superb characterisation and the relationship between the two protagonists, Prince Titus and Iolanthe Seabourne, a young woman described as the greatest mage of her generation.

A prophecy made by Titus’ late mother tells him that a lightning bolt in the sky will lead him to find a mage who will be able to overthrow the Bane (otherwise known as The High Commander of the Great Realm of Atlantis) and that Titus must guide and protect him at all cost, even though it will eventually lead to his own death.

Titus has been aware of this for years, and has been working in secret to perfect his magical and fighting skills. He attends school at Eton College in Victorian England (accessed via various portals between the worlds) and has invented a good friend named Archer Fairfax, with a view to hiding him at Eton while they make their preparations.

Obviously, Titus hadn’t paused to consider that the mage might be a girl.

I’m not a fan of chicks-in-pants stories in general, but I can just about accept that a sixteen year old girl might be able to run around the playing fields of Eton dressed as an adolescent boy and not be found out.

Iolanthe and Titus are very well-rounded and strongly drawn characters, and while one of my niggles with the book is that they are both a little TOO good at everything they do, in other ways they’re not perfect. Titus is handsome, charming and dedicated – but he’s also manipulative and sly, gaining Iolanthe’s trust and then using it to compel her co-operation. And while Iolanthe is brave and capable, she’s not one of those super-heroines who laughs in the face of danger and is only too ready to save the world; no, Iolanthe is confused, scared and at one point, tells Titus she’d rather be a coward and live.

Titus’ deception throws a wedge between them early on in the book, so there is time spent on developing their relationship and showing how Iolanthe gradually comes to see exactly what Titus is up against, how hard he has worked in order to do what he must, and to realise that perhaps what she wants isn’t such a big deal in the grand scheme of things. And Titus sees that he was wrong to force Iolanthe into this situation – especially as his feelings for her are becoming harder and harder to ignore. Falling in love with her will be a mistake of epic proportions if he’s going to be able to leave her – but by the time he realises that, it’s already too late.

I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about reading a romance (albeit a fairly low-key one) between two sixteen year-olds, but once I got into the story I found it rather charming and not lacking in warmth. This is Sherry Thomas, after all, and no-one writes romantic tension like she does. Titus and Iolanthe need each other – not just for their mission to defeat the Bane – and it’s clear from the tiniest look or touch how they feel, no matter how hard they try to hide or deny it.

In spite of a few minor niggles, The Burning Sky is a terrific read, and one I’d certainly recommend if you’re not averse to YA or fantasy stories, and are in the mood for some light reading. I was thoroughly captivated from the first page to the last. The protagonists are engaging and fully-rounded characters, the verbal sparring between Titus and Iolanthe is sharp and funny, the romance is sweet (but not without a little warmth) and, as one would expect of Sherry Thomas, the writing is superb.

If I were my eldest daughter’s age (15), Titus would definitely be on my list of “book boyfriends” 😉 A-

– Caz Owens