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Fantasy Romance Review: ‘The Conspiracy’ by Erica Dakin

This is the second in the ‘Theft and Sorcery’ series. I really enjoyed the first book, ‘The Ritual’, and this one is even better. It’s not serious or grimdark or heavy or profound, but it is a whole lot of fun. It wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea, let’s get that straight right from the start; there’s a fair amount of graphic sex, although nothing kinky or disturbing to my eyes, and there’s swearing of a similarly earthy nature, so anyone who’s bothered by that should steer clear.

Although this book is essentially a stand-alone, it is directly connected to the first book, but set some sixty years later. The two main characters in ‘The Ritual’, Rin and Zash, turn up again here in a minor role. Being half-elves themselves, a sixty year gap makes them still young and active, not pensioners. The main leads, Sita, the first person point of view, and Kai, both half-elves, are new characters here. Last time, Rin was the thief and Zash a sorcerer, but this time both Kai and Sita are thieves, and Kai is also a sorcerer, a nice twist. The two meet while both are trying to burgle the royal palace, the joke being that Sita actually lives there, but she is being trained on the queen’s instructions in various nefarious pursuits, as well as forms of combat.

This is a romance, first and foremost, but that doesn’t mean that the fantasy element is perfunctory. The world-building has ramped up somewhat from the first book, where it felt decidedly sketchy. This time, the author fleshes out the political element, and a conspiracy by the various high magistrates (kind of like dukes, ruling a domain of their own) to assassinate the queen. Sita is part of a group sent off with the heir to the throne, Tio; his role is to make a royal tour of the kingdom and cosy up to the magistrates, and hers is to uncover evidence of the conspiracy. As they travel through the countryside, there is some interesting detail of the economic strengths of each one. It isn’t very complicated – the coast has fish, the mountains have mines, the warm south has vineyards – but it serves to make the world feel more fleshed out and realistic.

The other aspect that I found interesting is the three races – elf, human and half-elf. In the previous book, elves ran everything, humans filled the equivalent of the middle classes and half-elves were mostly slaves. The end of the story saw a change, with the incoming queen giving all the half-elves citizenship. In this book, we find (unsurprisingly) that not everyone is happy with that situation (hence the assassination plot), and that things are a lot more complicated than they seem. Since elves have low fertility, humans breed like the proverbial rabbits (contraception seems to be unheard of) and half-elves are infertile, there’s a lot of potential for sexual exploitation. Male elves in this world are horny devils, and have a thing for human women, hence the numbers of half-elves. This book explores some of the uneasy relationships between the races.

The plot rattles along beautifully. There’s plenty of action, some truly dramatic moments and a scary twist at the end – one of those phew-we’re-all-safe-oh-no! moments. And yes, of course there’s a happy ever after at the end (this is a romance, after all), but there were quite a few heart-stopping, page-turning, gotta-keep-reading incidents along the way. The magic is nothing unusual – muttered incantations, hand-waviness, almost anything goes, although the user gets tired so there is a price to pay. I liked some of Kai’s illusions, though; the coloured light thingies sounded lovely. So as a fantasy, this holds up very well.

What about the romance side of things? Short answer – terrific. The relationship between Sita and Kai is perfectly believable, the obstacles (an essential component of any romance) were realistic, even the instant attraction is nicely done. I have to say that Kai is one of the most charming heroes I’ve ever encountered, with none of the smug arrogance that so often characterises the male lead these days. There were moments when Sita was pushing him away and I was muttering: look, if you don’t want him, dear, send him my way. You just don’t find blokes as nice as that too often. I had slight issues with him turning out so well after the sort of experiences he’d had, but let’s not quibble over that. The sex was well written without being over the top, and there were some moments of pure romance that were perfectly lovely (sigh…). One other aspect that struck me – even though our athletic heroes spent a lot of time screwing each other silly, and the early encounters were given in great detail, the author was restrained enough to skip much of the graphic description for the later episodes, so it never became overly repetitive.

I do have some issues with the morality question. In the first book, the main characters were thieves almost by necessity, since the alternative was slavery. Here, Kai is a thief from choice, and although he attempts to justify that (he only steals one or two items from those rich enough to afford it), it’s still fairly questionable. More seriously, there is a point when our heroes decide to kill a number of guards in order to free a lot of slaves. The author doesn’t avoid the issue, showing the characters’ unease with the decision, but it still made me uncomfortable. The guards were, after all, just paid employees following their boss’s orders, not the enemy in a war, and it seemed extreme to kill them. I would have liked it better if a more subtle way could have been found to free them. But it’s a minor point.

This was a hugely enjoyable read that had me grinning from ear to ear at times, and was also an exciting page turner. It’s not deep, and the characters fall neatly into the good or evil columns (no shades of grey here, moral ambiguities aside), but it’s a lot of fun, and both the romance and fantasy elements work very well. Recommended for anyone who enjoys their fantasy entertaining and fast-paced, with a hefty dollop of sex thrown in. A good four stars.

[Edited to remove spoiler – oops!]

Fantasy Romance Review: ‘The Ritual’ by Erica Dakin

Pauline’s Review:

Two twin half-elf sisters, one a thief, one a sorceress, meet two twin half-elf brothers, one a thief, one a sorcerer… what are the odds? And there’s this instant attraction… Well, we can see where this is going, can’t we? Still, there are enough original twists here to give this a fresh spin. Elves are the rulers in this world, with humans as the underdogs, but the bottom of the heap are the half-elves, where those with magical ability are scooped up and trained and the rest are slaves or (at best) low ranking servants. They can’t set up in business or own property… which makes it tricky to live independent lives, except by thievery.

This was my first foray into fantasy romance, which in this case is romance with pointy ears. There is a plot, of sorts, involving stealing four items, one for each of the four elements – earth, air, fire and water – for someone or other, but really it doesn’t matter. It’s all just an excuse for smouldering glances over the campfire, sizzling accidental touches while hiding from dragons in caves, and a lot of heavy breathing. The first kiss is a quarter of the way into the book, and before the halfway point we’re into improbably athletic sex of the panting, thrusting, never-been-so-amazing variety. Elvish porn, if you like. And you know what? It’s a helluva lot of fun.

This isn’t a masterpiece of epoch-making literature, but then it has no pretensions to be anything other than entertainment. As fantasy, the world-building is sketchy, the plot isn’t terribly original and the magic is fairly conventional. There’s a lack of realistic detail in the background – the world has a few scattered towns and a lot of emptiness, and the characters simply amble through the scenery, always managing to find enough food and shelter. There appear to be no great threats out in the wilderness, apart from the beasties they themselves seek out as part of their quest. There always seems to be time for a quick roll in the hay. Or a slow one, for that matter. Followed by much, much more of the same. The setting isn’t the important factor, though. The characters have a lot of charm and the ‘romance’ is more plausibly done than some I’ve read, seeming quite natural for the circumstances. Even the obstacles keeping them apart seem reasonably believable. The author has a nicely unobtrusive writing style, and I didn’t spot any typos at all. I did wonder a bit about the morality of all that light-hearted stealing, but it didn’t seem like they had many other options so I’ll go along with it.

A minor grumble. I like a map with my fantasy, and there’s a very nice one here. So what’s the grumble? The map is at the BACK of the book, with no indication it’s there. Probably OK with a printed version, but in an ebook – please put the map at the front! Or a table of contents.

This is a fun book. It follows the conventions of romance, so yes, there’s that instant attraction thing, and there’s a lot of barely suppressed passion right from the start. The fantasy elements play second fiddle here and anyone looking for standard save-the-world fantasy should move right along, although the characters at least have credible motivations. The ending is just a tad too slick for my taste, but there are some good action moments along the way. The events at the monastery were exciting enough to keep me flipping through the pages, breathless to find out how it turns out. And how do our heroes celebrate afterwards? The usual way, that’s how. I have to confess that the constant humping gets a little bit repetitive after a while, and frankly if the male interest had been a vampire I wouldn’t have got through ten pages. But if you have a thing for hot elves (or half-elves, in this case) with a smattering of dragons thrown in, this is an entertaining read. I rarely give romancey type stuff more than three stars, but you know, I really enjoyed this, it’s better written than average and I have a soft spot for dragons (and sexy half-elves, apparently), so four stars it is.

Anachronist’s review:

Synopsis:

It is a first person narration of Chiarin or Rin, a half-elf girl living in a world where cross-breeds are discriminated, shunned and persecuted for what they are. She has a twin sister, Shaniel or Shani who is a sorceress. Magic is a rare gift but also a dangerous one, because coveted by elven aristocracy; once you get into their service they’ll never set you free. That’s why both girls have to hide and lead a hand-to-mouth existence.

One night Rin, a professional cutpurse, is robbed by another half-elf, a very handsome man called Zashter who has…an identical twin brother, Mior, and Mior happens to be…another sorcerer. Rin first avenges herself by causing the arrest of those two but soon her sister and her conscience make her regret that move so she decides to break into the prison and set Zash and Mior free.

After carrying out her ambitious plan, all of a sudden, she offers to accompany those two complete strangers whenever they are going. Zash reluctantly agrees because he has a very dangerous and important mission to fulfill – obtaining or stealing four powerful artifacts, one for every element, as required by his shadowy boss. He is a master thief, though; with the support of his brother’s magic he can manage without anybody’s help. Being also very handsome, he can have a new lover in every town he visits. What does he really need both sisters for?

My impressions:

It is the first part of a paranormal romance series and I am not going to criticize it for that – it would be as stupid as complaining that lemons are yellow and sour. If you don’t feel like reading about pointy-eared hotties making out on every possible occasion don’t even look at the book, as simple as that. Still I am going to carp a bit because in my humble opinion it could have been a lot better.

I liked the idea – half-elves who live in a hostile world where they have only two possible career choices: either become slaves or criminals, sometimes both, but never independent adults with a normal life. Our characters chose what they chose and never looked back. Fine. Just why they had to be two pairs of identical twins with identical skills is beyond me. A bit of variety is always a nice thing but unfortunately variety is not this novel’s forte.

Then you have the world building which is so sketchy that almost borders a catastrophe. Rin more often than not focuses on her romantic feelings, rarely sparing some time for the surroundings or politics or anything at all. The easy way Zash agrees to take both sisters under his protection and provide some tutelage is fishy from the very start; however dear Rin remains in the dark for most of the novel, never even daring to confront her lover or ask him the simplest and most natural questions. She is so busy, kissing, stealing, dreaming and kissing again. It would be such a nice change to have an interesting, clever heroine who actually knows how to make use of those two gifts in practice, especially when confronted with a handsome stranger.

I don’t want to be overly cruel and dwell too long on obvious plot flaws: like the fact that a certain monastery, full of stupid, kinky monks and some browbeaten sex slaves, contains a well which water heals every disease and can bring you back to life; seriously, the author wants me to believe nobody has ever considered taking it over and enjoying an everlasting and extremely profitable trade, not to mention an instantaneous and full recovery? Really, nobody was interested enough to gather an army of professional soldiers and punish those hideous monks for their depravity, keeping in mind that the reward might be worth more than a kingdom plus you would get those delicious women to play with? Nobody? How very improbable…

Let me finish my musings in a positive way – I appreciate the fact that the book ended the way it did, without any of those ugly cliffhangers. Funnily enough it made me curious about the second part – curious enough to buy it when it is available and the mood strikes again.

Final verdict:

Good idea, not really great execution. Don’t think too much while reading this book – the effects might be disastrous. However if you want something steamy and lowbrow easy to read, with elves, half-elves, magic and thieves, this novel might fit the bill. Two and half stars.

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