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HEY YOU GUYS YOU HAVE TO READ THESE!

Ok, I'm a little excited. :) Zoe Archer's Blades of the Rose series is a paranormal, steampunky fantasy romance quartet. There are four books, which I read totally out of order (3, 4, 2, 1), and even though they have flaws I love them to death.

The Blades of the Rose are a secret society that is fighting against colonialism and oppression! The villains are the KKK-like Heirs of Albion, evil magicians who want to appropriate all of the world's magic for themselves so that white supremacy, I mean, the British empire, will rule the whole world!

And that's just the setup.
I think they are awesome. They suffer somewhat from "what these people need is a honky," especially the first book, but I think she mitigated most of it (with one exception, it came off to me as "we're stopping our countrymen," and there non-English Blades, if mostly off-screen), and some of it seems kind of required by the genre (i.e. all of the heroines and two of the heroes are white). Another caveat -- I skim sex scenes in most books now, not just Archer's, so I can't speak to them.

BTW, if you read Kindle format, this bundle for $10 is the best deal. I have the paperbacks, so I can't tell how well the books were formatted, though.

Warrior: The first book, but I read it last. Thalia is an Englishwoman living in Mongolia; Gabriel Huntley is an English ex-soldier who travels from England to deliver a message from a man he tried to save from being murdered in an alleyway. It seems that the Heirs have found a clue to the location of the magical Source in Mongolia (used by Genghis Khan to conquer Asia) that Thalia's father is supposed to help protect. However, since her father has a broken leg, Thalia takes on the task, and Huntley follows her to help. They find the Source first, and in the most annoying instance of Fail in the book, plan to steal it to save it. Um, yeah. But when the Mongolian nomads who guard the Source discover what it is, they agree to let them carry it off to the Chinese temple Khan stole it from, so it didn't get too bad.

Thalia is in many ways the most Romance-conventional heroine in the series: spunky tomboy type who's well-adapted to the Mongolian steppes but not to English society. She's not quite TSTL (too stupid to live), but does have a tendency to try to do things herself that she really needs help for; fortunately for my patience, there really wasn't anyone to help except this guy who tracked them down from England to deliver a message from their murdered friend, so her distrust was reasonable. Gabriel is, well, look at the cover! He's Indiana Jones, except without all the colonialism. He joins the Blades in the end because he loves Thalia, likes adventure, and really dislikes bullies. This book was the most "what these people need is a honky," where Gabriel and Thalia out-Mongol the Mongolians, but I didn't think the rest had nearly as much of a problem.

Scoundrel: The second book, which I read third. London Harcourt is the daughter of the leader of the Heirs, but knows nothing about their work. She's a widow who studies languages, especially ancient Greek. Despite the fact that the Heirs despise women and don't let them share in their work, her father brings her to Greece to help him (without actually telling her what she's doing). There she meets Bennett Day, a Blade trying to protect that Source.

This one is very interesting for a variety of reasons. Bennett is a guy who sleeps around a lot, so he's sort of like the Romance rake, except he actually likes women! He and London have a number of discussions of One True Love-ism (in which London is looking for the sort of romantic love you can have between two people, or three if you are really broadminded, lol) and Bennett explains (in not so many words) that he's poly and loves a lot of women. Because this is a romance, they do end up with a monogamous pair-bond; but I don't think the book presented that as the Only Way. The secondary couple don't marry, and the woman is more powerful than the man in that pair.

London repudiates her father, his works, her family, and her entire history entirely too quickly for me to think reasonable; but if you're going to have wish-fulfillment fantasies (and this is a romance), I find white ally fantasies much preferable to many! And she's seriously risking being murdered by her father or his colleagues, so it's a real change with consequences. (Also, there was a hilarious conversation between her and her father where he pulls out classic Derailing for Dummies arguments. I LOLed) This time, the Source gets hidden better, in its own land, no stealing required.

Rebel: The third book, which I read first. Nathan Lesperance, the first Native attorney in Vancouver, travels to the far North to collect the effects of one of his firm's clients. There, he meets Astrid Bramfield, who was a Blade with her husband until he was killed trying to protect the Primal Source in Africa. The Heirs got the Primal Source and Astrid ran off to the wilds of Canada to be alone with her grief for several years.

Nathan is kidnapped by Heirs and escapes, but doesn't remember how; he finds Astrid. The Heirs were in the area to find Sources, so Nathan and Astrid go off to protect those Sources. They are joined by other Blades who were tracking down Astrid, as she's needed back. Nathan turns out to be a member of a magic tribe of Natives who protect the Sources. (I'm not sure what to think about that, but Archer is pretty frank about how sucky forcing Native children into white-run schools to be reeducated was, and the tribe has a good deal of agency.) The tribe tells Nathan and Astrid how to find the Sources; they find them and keep the Heirs from getting them, with the tribe's help; and then the Sources are put into the river to find their own new home.

All three of these first books have the following pattern:
  1. Blades and Heirs are both trying to find a Source
  2. Blades are faster, so the Heirs follow them
  3. There is a pitched battle at the Source
  4. The Blades win and the Source is re-hidden
It kind of begs the question of whether there would be such a problem if the Blades would stop leading the Heirs to the Sources. Ahem. But the books make as much sense as Indiana Jones ever did.

Stranger: Fourth book, the second I read.

There's something you have to understand about romance series, if you aren't already familiar with the genre. The way most of them work nowadays, you've got a series of couples, and the last hero is the best hero. The awesomest hero. Beverley's Rothgar, etc.

The hero of Stranger is the leader of the Blades of the Rose. He is also black and the descendant of slaves. He is also a genius inventor and a little shy with women. He is a dinocorn. The heroine is a plucky white American journalist who met him and the duo in Rebel in Canada and follows them back to England to get her story. There is an embarrassed conversation where he points out her family wouldn't approve, and she is forced to agree.

Catullus Graves is one of the most believable geek heroes in any romance I have read. I usually avoid geek heroes because they tend to rely on embarrassing stereotypes. Not him!

Gemma Johnson is a plucky girl reporter with some privacy-invasion tendencies that the book doesn't call her on, but she's smart and has agency and her incessant curiosity is a good match for Catullus' incessant inventing. She's a redhead with lots of freckles, so no going on and on about her creamy skin. I liked her when reading her, but don't remember much. That may in part be because of the plot.

The plot is... the plot is cracked. The Heirs have finally got the Primal Source working, and somehow summoned King Arthur (really) to help them conquer the world, and incidentally destroy a number of villages and suburbs. Catullus and Gemma go to fairyland (really) to find Merlin to help them talk Arthur down (really). After many adventures (and hot sex) in fairyland, they return to the real world. The book ends with everyone recovering the Sources the Heirs stole and returning them to their homes.

***

I loved these books. They're average-good as romance books go, except for the whole overarching anti-oppression theme which is just so amazing. Most romances have a hard time with this -- everyone is tepidly good, but anything too strident or activist gets put in its place. Most of the books are in exotic locations, but except for parts of the first book, I didn't get much feeling of White People Acting on a Backdrop of Exotic Natives. The women all have wonderful agency, and the men are all wonderfully respectful of them. It's kind of interesting to consider what Archer did or did not do re: getting these published -- she pushes a lot of envelopes, but holds back on others, and I can't but think it's deliberate. All the heroines are white English (or American), for example. I don't recall any creepy gender dynamics (for example, the super-possessiveness some heroes get in romances), and the sex was evenly balanced -- no powerplay that I recall (though I skimmed a lot), either the explicitly kinky kind or the "hero is manly and dominant" kind.

I recommend these, especially if you're tired of how colonialist the Romance genre has always been.
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pocketgarden

May 2012

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