Emotionally-Complex Romance Summer

I completed my vaccination at the end of June and looked forward to a summer of COVID dwindling down. Sadly, my hopes were dashed. While other people were trying their best to make Hot-Girl Summer and No-Mask Summer and whatever else the world wanted from their summer happen regardless of the Delta variant, I mostly stayed at home and did a lot of comfort reading. Meaning I reached for many books with romance at the core, because I wanted happy endings resulting from people making good choices for themselves. But as with everything I read, I have high standards. I demand great prose, great characters with interesting and complicated motivations and emotional landscapes, solid plotting, and interesting themes. It’s hard to find books that do it all and deliver the happy ending.

I did find several books that met my criteria and were romance-centered or romance-adjacent. I didn’t keep up with posting reviews for the past several months, so please enjoy this round-up of my Emotionally-Complex Romance Summer reading:

I finally started The Sharing Knife series by Lois McMaster Bujold. I love Bujold, and these were really solid books. I haven’t felt the urge to pick up the rest of the series yet, but when I need more fantasy romance comfort reading, I’ll return to Fawn and Dag’s adventures.

Beguilement by Lois McMaster Bujold
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Loved the Western flavor, the subtle magic, the adventure-turned-domestic-drama. This is a true fantasy romance, emphasis on the romance. Looking forward to reading more, and following the characters from the mundane world where they’ve solved Fawn’s difficulties into Dag’s magical world, where more drama and more magic awaits.

Legacy by Lois McMaster Bujold
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Serious Tamora Pierce vibes. Difficult to read about Dag’s family turning on him and being racist toward Fawn. Satisfying to read about people solving problems and making decisions to break with old habits that don’t serve anymore and set out on an adventure. I like romance stories that intersect with a character realizing they need to make a significant personal change, because their family, professional, or personal life doesn’t serve anymore. The Sharing Knife series is turning out to be a coming-of-all-ages story where Dag and Fawn, who are at very different points in their lives, make choices about how the rest of their lives are going to be, by choosing each other and embracing the consequences of that choice.

As promised in my review of “St. Valentine , St. Abigail, St. Brigid,” I went on a C.L. Polk binge and read all four of her novels in three weeks. I was riveted and delighted from start to finish!

The Kingston Cycle

Witchmark by C.L. Polk
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Snappy and inventive use of the Edwardian period for a secondary-world gaslamp fantasy. World-building and themes went hand-in-hand, as we explored the impact of modern warfare on soldiers, emergent technology and the adjacent social ills it creates or brings to light, how poorly society treats veterans, slavery, systemic social injustice and inequity, the right to self-determination, and how difficult it is to separate from a toxic family. Utterly refreshing to read an emotional male character who gets a romantic happy ending, instead of the big-bad-magical-powers/chosen one narrative.

Stormsong by C.L. Polk
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
More political intrigue! More magic! More romance! A true pleasure to get more of this world and these characters. Love how hard Grace works to fix her own perspective and the world around her, using her power and privilege for good. The thing I love most about her character is also the most frustrating: her unapologetic intelligence is balanced by a destructive naivety. It makes the character very real, but gets her in trouble again and again.

Soulstar by C.L. Polk
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This book packs a punch. Polk finally takes us from the powerful upper echelons of society down to the working class clans and families struggling within the systemic abuses of power our more privileged protagonists from Witchmark and Stormsong have been trying to escape and dismantle. Robin’s political, social, and personal journeys to repair what’s broken in her country, her community, and her long-paused marriage was extremely satisfying to read. She worked for it; it was hard; nevertheless, Robin persisted.

And Polk’s standalone latest novel:

The Midnight Bargain by C.L. Polk
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Bridgerton, with magical scandal instead of sex scandal. Blatantly and unapologetically feminist (no subtext here!). Thank you to C.L. Polk for including different takes on feminist thinking, including multiple women from different levels of societal privilege and representation, and a man in the process of becoming a feminist. Compulsively readable and delightful, with moments of dreadful tension leading to a very satisfying happy ending. Escapist fantasy on many levels.

I don’t usually go for contemporary romance, but I was enjoying pushing my romance comfort button so much, I picked this up on a recommendation from a friend. Really glad I did. Turned out to be one of the best reads of my summer:

Beach Read by Emily Henry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Made me laugh out loud (the book club purse wine!) and then gave me all the feels (emotionally devastated characters crossing paths as they sort out the wreckage of their lives!). I will have all of this, please. Henry effectively blends the rom-com and serious-drama modes, all while blatantly critiquing the publishing industry’s treatment of not just romance but most fiction written by women. I am happy to say I do not regret lifting my ban on reading stories about writers for this book.

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Mr. Impossible (Dreamer Trilogy, #2) by Maggie Stiefvater

Mister Impossible by Maggie Stiefvater

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Stiefvater delivers, as always. I love the ways these characters are growing, growing apart, changing, getting in their own ways, lying to themselves, trying on identities, and trying their best to look out for each other, as misguided as their efforts are. You can have more than one coming of age in your life, and I’m excited to see Stiefvater explore that idea through these characters and this story.

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The Lighthouse Witches by C.J. Cooke

The Lighthouse Witches by C.J. Cooke

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Thanks to NetGalley for the advanced copy in exchange for a review.

I didn’t like this one. Too many ideas thrown in the story blender, not enough of any one of them to create something great. Too much changeling panic. Too much purple prose and telling, not showing. Not enough atmosphere. Definitely not enough witches. Too many clueless women running around reacting to bad things happening to them instead of having agency and making real decisions, and this largely seemed to be so that they could each slowly find out a piece of the puzzle so the reader didn’t get information too quickly. Most of the critical information came from a man’s diary instead of the women actually being smart and figuring things out. The jacket copy sounded so promising. What a disappointment.

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Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The more I think about this book, the more I love it. Came for the ghosts, gods, and family drama, was very excited for the surprise GANGSTERS. All the elements (characters, plot, surprises) are very well balanced. The story moves at a good clip that feels urgent without tossing all the character and family development aside to be a straight thriller.

I enjoyed this so much, I struggled to write a review because I couldn’t identify any single thing that made this book stand out. All of it was so good, and all of it worked so well together.

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