Omens by Kelley Armstrong

Omens by Kelley ArmstrongOmens by Kelley Armstrong
Narrator: Carine Montbertrand, Mozhan Marno
Series: Cainsville #1
Published by Penguin Audio on 8/20/13
Genres: Urban Fantasy

 

Story: B+
Narration: B+

Publisher’s Blurb:

Twenty-four-year-old Olivia Taylor Jones has the perfect life. The only daughter of a wealthy, prominent Chicago family, she has an Ivy League education, pursues volunteerism and philanthropy, and is engaged to a handsome young tech firm CEO with political ambitions.

But Olivia’s world is shattered when she learns that she’s adopted. Her real parents? Todd and Pamela Larsen, notorious serial killers serving a life sentence. When the news brings a maelstrom of unwanted publicity to her adopted family and fiancé, Olivia decides to find out the truth about the Larsens.

Olivia ends up in the small town of Cainsville, Illinois, an old and cloistered community that takes a particular interest in both Olivia and her efforts to uncover her birth parents’ past.

Aided by her mother’s former lawyer, Gabriel Walsh, Olivia focuses on the Larsens’ last crime, the one her birth mother swears will prove their innocence. But as she and Gabriel start investigating the case, Olivia finds herself drawing on abilities that have remained hidden since her childhood, gifts that make her both a valuable addition to Cainsville and deeply vulnerable to unknown enemies. Because there are darker secrets behind her new home and powers lurking in the shadows that have their own plans for her.

Quick Review:

I really enjoyed this audiobook – not in the “jump up and down when you finish it and shout about it from the rooftops” way but in that calmer “why are these characters still running around in my brain a week later? I think I better listen to it again and hey, it was just as good the second time” kind of way. There was one particular shift (to my mind) in how things developed that left me momentarily adrift but the writing is solid, the characters are interesting, the story is nicely layered, and I sense there’s a lot more to look forward to in this series. The narration was very good and the primary narrator excelled at chewing the syntax in a way that completely individualized all the characters and allowed me to immediately sink into the audio experience.

My Thoughts:

In the early minutes of the story, we find Olivia Taylor Jones at a dinner party with her fiancé. Clearly wealthy, educated, privileged and seeming to have it all, I wasn’t sure what was going to be of interest in her storyline but in no time at all I was hooked by the both the construction of her character and the way in which the events leading up to her adoption were gradually uncovered. Symptomatic of how involved I became in the story and how complete of a character Liv seemed to me: I have never in my life wanted so badly to crawl into an audiobook and chastise a group of people in defense of the protagonist as I did while listening to this one. Early on, Liv is beset by the press while at her mother’s house and I was absolutely infuriated by their behavior. Then I reminded myself they were fictional characters and felt a little silly… but they were obnoxious!

As Liv begins digging into her biological parents’ background, she ends up forming a working relationship with her mother’s ex-lawyer, Gabriel Walsh. He’s an interesting character in that I found him very likable but he’s also completely self-interested. As more of his background is revealed, that becomes understandable but the portion of character arc (or perhaps it’s just reveal) that takes place over the course of the book is tantalizing. I really enjoyed the dynamic between Liv and Gabriel. I don’t know if there will end up being romantic elements there but if so, we’re in for a very slow build-up to it. I think that’s part of why these characters are sticking around in my head: just like real people, they had a life before each other, they have separate interests when they’re together, and they have an organic push/pull relationship that could go anywhere or nowhere. It isn’t that other books I’ve read don’t have fully-formed characters, it’s just that there are often far too many parallelisms in their personalities, mythos, or experiences to make them completely realistic.

There were a lot of structural things I liked about this book: the slow reveal about Cainsville and its origins, the mechanics of how Liv ended up there, the introduction of supporting characters with enough background to make them interesting and well-integrated to the story but not distracting, the gradual peeling back of layers regarding Liv’s seemingly supernatural abilities (although that was a very low key aspect to the story and it felt more normal than paranormal overall), the plotting decision to address just one of the three murders Liv’s biological parents were accused of as the main investigation in the book, and more. The point at which I hit a wall, though, was rather abrupt.

The events that led Liv to Cainsville felt like Tetris pieces falling into place and many of the events that took place there also gave the impression of things clicking into place; even though I couldn’t see the overall design, I liked how it was shaping up. As the action started rising and we hit the climax of the core story/investigation that drove the book forward, it was like I’d been watching red and blue blocks falling neatly into place but the picture that was suddenly revealed when it was over was flowing lines painted in various yellows (this analogy would work better if there were more than three primary colors because I don’t want to imply the resolution was monochromatic) and the disconnect in how it resolved vs. how it started building was problematic for me because it didn’t feel like a plot twist, it felt like the story going off the tracks a bit. I liked both parts/concepts on their own, they just seemed like slightly different stories to me. One positive aspect to that, however, is that I still have a sense of a vast number of stories and underlying mythologies that are yet to be explored.

There are books that strike you as wildly inventive or incredibly fast-paced and exciting and it’s pretty easy for me, when I finish one of those, to point out all the showy bits that made it a great book. Then there are books that just seem layered or dense (not in a lit-fic-y way) or that leave you with an emotionally tangible sense of the characters that lingers as if they were real people and had infinite future possibilities for their lives. Omens falls into the latter category for me and I often find it difficult to rate or review books like that because my logical brain is telling me . o 0(Where are the elegant turns of phrases that merit a high rating? The wildly inventive world-building? What about that slap-in-the-face to your expectations in the last 1/8th of the book?) while the other side of my brain is mooning around about . o 0(Those reporters were so effin’ obnoxious. Don’t they know they can’t do that?! I hope Liv and Gabriel hook up; he’s adorable in an oddly semi-sociopathic way. I bet when he falls for her he’s going down hard. Do you think Peter is a [redacted]? What’s up with Liv and those creepy omens?) Sometimes that’s an artifact from listening to the audiobook version: a well narrated book puts real voices to the characters and I engage with the text on a deeper level. Sometimes there’s something in the story or character that resonates with my personal experience and adds depth to my read. In this case, I think those were factors but all-in-all it’s just a well-written book with a lot of detail woven in and I’m really looking forward to the next one.

The Narration:

This was a dual narration with Carine Montbertrand performing the majority of the story from the first person perspective of Liv and Mozhan Marno delivering short segments interspersed throughout from multiple characters’ perspectives. Both narrators delivered strong performances.

I really liked the way Ms. Montbertrand chewed over the syntax and committed all her energy to each sentence without sounding artificial or too dramatic. She does one of my favorite narrative things: leverages the timing in sentence and individual word delivery in a very natural way. She weights some words with preceding or following pauses (not obnoxiously long ones – realistic ones you would do yourself when speaking) and doesn’t deliver each word with metronomic pacing but draws some out for emphasis. As a related performance trait, she individualizes characters by giving them differing phrasing styles or cadences. When that kind of real-life conversational feel to a story is combined with strong character differentiation and backed by an emotionally invested performance, my opinion on whether the voice sounds age-appropriate or is, in and of itself, aurally pleasing becomes almost irrelevant. Although the emotional content throughout was conveyed nicely, the character of Rose has some zinger lines and I particularly enjoyed the way the humor was delivered with delightful matter-of-factness.

The short third person sections assigned to Ms. Marno contributed to the overall strong narration. She has a very pleasing timbre to her voice and her character differentiation and pacing is very good. I think I would have been equally satisfied with either narrator as the primary.

Although I was happy with both narrators, I am curious about the production decision to a) use two narrators and b) select women for both narrators. The primary narrator should obviously be a woman since it’s Olivia’s first person perspective but the alternating third person viewpoints vary between women and men and include a bit of Gabriel’s perspective which, I would think, would be better served by contrasting Liv’s portions with a male voice. In addition, there’s a section of the third person narration where Olivia speaks and the difference in voices for the same person is jarring. Of note, the alternating perspective contains the only description of Olivia’s voice (contralto) and that’s what we get. I have zero musical/vocal experience but I’m pretty sure the primary narration doesn’t give her a contralto voice. While that has nothing to do with the overall quality of the narration, it was one of those discrepancies that was oddly jarring for a moment when it came up.

A few other niggling issues were present. In particular, I was struck by was how audible the narrators’ breaths were…for both narrators. That seemed particularly odd to me and makes me wonder how much of that was an editing decision to leave natural (non-character) breaths in. I also noticed several sections with a lot of thuds – as if the microphone was being bumped – and there were some pronunciations that struck me as inaccurate such as “eschew” as “as KEW” (yes, that’s technically third in the M-W list of pronunciations but I’m making an argument against using less common pronunciations when it’s a homophone with another word), “femoral” as “FEE moral” and “sociopathy” as  “socio PATHY.”

None of the negatives listed above were particularly detracting to the performance but they were momentarily distracting. Overall, the quality of the performances make audio the way to go with this one.

Loyalty by Ingrid Thoft

Loyalty by Ingrid ThoftLoyalty by Ingrid Thoft
Narrator: Rebecca Soler
Published by Penguin Audio on 6/18/13
Genres: Mystery
Format: Audiobook
Goodreads
three-stars

Story: C+
Narration: B+

Quick Review:

A feisty PI, dysfunctional family dynamics, good narration by Rebecca Soler, and a plot that moves along nicely make this a decent, if not groundbreaking, listen.

The Plot:

Josefina “Fina” Ludlow quit law school and became an investigator in her family’s law firm. The firm focuses on personal injury claims and has made its fair share of enemies in the police department so when Fina’s brother, Rand, becomes a suspect in his wife’s disappearance, not only will Fina have to untangle a web of family secrets, she’ll have to do it while racing to beat a hostile police detective to the truth.

My Thoughts:

Loyalty is constructed of two different story-lines that eventually converge into one. The astute listener (which was not me, in this case) will quickly see at what point they are likely to intersect but the story is engaging and well-paced enough to keep both the clue-solver and the clueless listener involved.

Fina’s father and her three brothers are all lawyers in the family firm but Fina flunked out of law school. In punishment, her father set her to working her way through various jobs at the firm and she found her place (and a mentor and true father-figure) with the firm’s private investigator. She lives at her (deceased) grandmother’s condo and splits her affections between her friend (with benefits) and massage therapist, Milloy, and her friend (with benefits) and inside source at the cop shop, Christian. She maintains contacts in various professions and social strata of Boston – including among the criminal element – and utilizes them when working a case. As she leverages some of them, it becomes clear that Fina’s investigation is seriously irritating someone because they keep trying to kill her or beat her up.

I like a tough PI protagonist as much as the next reader but the combination here struck me as somewhat awkward at times. Sure, Fina was more than willing to take a swing at a bad guy but she spent a lot of time collecting bruises from being run off the road or punched in the face to discourage her investigation. Then, when she confronts some of her more questionable contacts face-to-face (where her primary threats seem to be “I have a gun” or “don’t make me come back here a second time”) she strikes fear into their hearts? I felt that was more “tell” than a pattern of “show” in terms of how tough Fina is.

Fina loves her family but her father is forceful and controlling and she struggles to balance her desire to please him with how she wants to live her life and what she thinks is right. This sets up a nice internal conflict for Fina to accompany the external conflict of the search for her missing sister-in-law, although I would have enjoyed a deeper look into the dynamics there. The steps Fina goes through to track down her sister seemed logical and grounded, in contrast to many mysteries that rely too heavily on coincidence. Boston is the setting for the story but my sense of the city as a character came strictly from the accents used in the narration rather than atmospheric descriptions in the text.

I was slightly bothered by the fact that most of the adversaries Fina encountered in her investigation were categorized as physically unattractive: possessing cleavage that probably had to be “excavated for crumbs” at the end of the day (Lt. Pitney), or fat (multiple characters) and balding (Mark), or egregiously unfashionably dressed (multiple)  in contrast to the Ludlow’s fashionable attire and Fina’s beauty, rapid metabolism, and athletic nature. It’s a simplified bad guy vs. good guy shorthand characterization that limited the dimensions of the story for me.

It took a while for the story to get going, not because it was poorly paced but because none of the characters are particularly likable so I needed a better understanding of what their motivations were and how the plot pieces were going to start to twining together before I could sink into the story. The plot winds up to a very strong climax and Fina’s internal conflict as she finally uncovers all the components of her sister-in-law’s disappearance and how her family will be affected was particularly engaging.

The Narration:

I’ve enjoyed Rebecca Soler’s performances in the past (most notable with Cinder) and this audiobook was no exception. She does an excellent job encapsulating Fina’s personality and easily transitions between characters with distinctive changes in tone, accent, and pitch. The accents were well done: typical American, Boston-specific accents used intermittently (among the characters, not within the same character), light Hispanic, and a couple of nicely done mild Southern drawls. She conveys the bored teenager with aplomb while moving into the domineering patriarch with equal skill. Her pacing was good and overall, the production was very clean.

It didn’t get a perfect grade from me because a) I’m starting to prefer slightly more natural-sounding narrative and b) the reactive nature of the dialogue between characters, while good, still felt somewhat as if each character was recorded in their entirety and then another had all their lines recorded and… you get the point. This was certainly not the case but that impression was caused by every character having very smooth and consistent pacing in their dialogue with no breaks or leveraging of pauses to really humanize and individualize the characters as well as the presence of an almost metronomic regularity in conversational “call and response.” Overall, it was still a good narration that should suit any listener.

Disclaimer: I received this book from Penguin Audio via the audiobookjukebox.com Solid Gold Reviewer program.

three-stars

Written in Red by Anne Bishop

Written in Red by Anne BishopWritten in Red by Anne Bishop
Narrator: Alexandra Harris
Series: The Others #1
Published by Penguin Audio on 3/5/13
Genres: Fantasy
Format: Audiobook
Goodreads
three-half-stars

Story: A-
Narration: C

Quick Review:

An excellent story with a new twist on werewolf/vampire origins, vibrant characters, intriguing world-building, and very good pacing make this a highly recommended read. The narration, however, was something of a challenge for me.

My Thoughts:

I enjoyed this story immensely; so much so that I ended up buying a copy of the e-book with the intent to revisit the intriguing world of the terra indigene. The prologue gives a short snippet of how humans and the Others found themselves coexisting in Thaisia and I was immediately wrapped up in thoughts of an alternate history where colonists landed on the coast of what I picture as North America (given the references to the Great Lakes and Sparkletown in the west where movies are made) and, à la the Roanoke Colony, disappeared. Subsequent settlers encountered the powerful natives who viewed them as prey but they were eventually able to bargain with them for small plots of land and access to natural resources in exchange for the goods and technology human ingenuity could produce.

The natives learned to assume a human shape and moved between that and their natural forms which were generally either an animal form or, in the case of the Sanguinati, a mist-like form that can draw blood through the skin of its prey. That was a refreshing world-building perspective for the origin of werewolves and vampires. More frightening than the Others whom the humans interact with, however, are the elemental powers that dwell in the heart of the terra indigene lands.

When Meg Corbyn stumbles into the Courtyard, shivering and under-dressed for the winter weather, the first person she encounters is Simon Wolfgard – leader of the Others in Lakeside. Simon is considered progressive among his kind. Human settlements often have a Courtyard – a large area of land off-limits to humans where the Others live and can keep an eye on their human “tenants” – but Simon has set up a shopping area where humans are permitted and interaction between the races takes place. Gruff and growly Simon reluctantly agrees to hire Meg for the job of Human Liaison and timid, on-the-run Meg thinks she’s finally found a place where she can hide from the powerful consortium who kept her enslaved in order to use her abilities as a cassandra sangue or blood prophet.

At this point, I was pretty sure I had a handle on how this story was going to be constructed and although I did slide into the story like I was pulling on a familiar and comfy sweater, I didn’t get too far into it before I realized someone had turned my monochromatic wardrobe into something brilliantly colored and patterned and I couldn’t stop reading.

Simon is confused by his urge to care for, rather than hunt, Meg. She doesn’t smell like prey so in his confusion he snaps and snarls at her at every turn. Meg is something of a tabula rasa, holding only a limited set of visual and auditory experiences that were provided to her via media by her Controller in order to give her just enough experience of the world to prophesy and, in theory, not enough to enable her to successfully escape and evade imprisonment. As a character, this made her an interesting foil for the community of Others she is surrounded by. The contrast between the predatory and powerful terra indigene and the very young-seeming and innocent Meg is a dynamic that worked to strengthen and ground the characters of the various Others that Meg is surrounded by. It was almost as if her naïveté and inexperience set her up as a negative space that ends up defining the shapes (characters) surrounding her and allowing the reader to see them more clearly and in more detail.

The point of contrast that I was less satisfied with was the ingenue/femme fatale dichotomy of Meg vs. Asia Crane. Asia has been hanging around the Courtyard and trying to pique Simon’s interest. Her real goal is to star in her own TV show and in order to achieve that, she’s taken on the job of infiltrating the Courtyard to learn more about the Others on behalf of a shadowy figure in Sparkletown she calls the “Bigwig.” Her manipulative, jaded, sleep-with-someone-to-get-what-she-wants personality was such a contrast to the innocence of Meg that it made her seem overdone as a character and villain.

All of that doesn’t mean Meg is a weak or unfinished character. She may be unworldly and somewhat fearful but she does stand up to Simon when it’s important and her struggle with her itching need to prophesy when she senses danger might be near is affecting. Given how very young and stressed she seemed, I was actually slightly uncomfortable being an observer to her process of cutting herself to bring on a vision and the pleasure/pain combination this engendered in a cassandra sangue.

Providing a completely human perspective on life in Thaisia among the Others is Lieutenant “Monty” Montgomery. Monty has been transferred from the big city of Toland to podunk Lakeside in disgrace. His new captain makes him the intermediary between the police and the Others. Through his eyes we learn how the Others handle trespassers (hint: they eat them), how humans generally view the Others, and exactly how much control the terra indigene can exert on the human settlements if the whim strikes them. Monty is a well-developed and interesting character but really, my main comment about him at the moment (if you’ve read the book) is a question: why on earth is his daughter’s name Lizzy Borden?

There were a double handful of supporting characters and every one of them was an integral part of the story. As they wove their way in and out of the story, I never begrudged them page-time in favor of more Meg or Simon. Meg ends up baby-sitting Simon’s nephew, Sam, who was traumatized when his mother was killed by humans when she and Sam were out for a run. Meg and Sam are simply adorable together. The scenes where some combination of Simon, Meg, Sam, or Nathan (another Wolfgard member) engaged in playtime or Meg was introducing them to the delights of dog snacks and dog beds were very amusing. The nosy and acquisitive nature of the members of the Crowgard clan who keep an eye on Meg was another humorous aspect of the book that nicely rounded out the story.

Great characters, interesting world-building, a nice blend of humor and tension, and a well-paced and satisfyingly dramatic ending with a wrap-up that left me looking forward to finding out what’s next in the world of the Others make this a recommended read in text form.

The Narration:

As a performer, Alexandra Harris has a very pleasing voice. In addition to that, she created a voice for Meg that was nicely youthful and she did a very good job vocally reflecting the character’s lack of worldliness . Her voice for Sam was also well done and she’s one of the better narrators I’ve listened to in terms of delivering a believable child’s voice. She then deftly ages her voice for the character of Erebus in such a way as to immediately convey both his position as the oldest of the Sanguinati and his unimaginable power.

On the whole, though, I had a very difficult time engaging with the narration of this audiobook. My initial thought was that I was being read to rather than being so drawn into the story that I lost awareness of the narrator but I kept rejecting that thought. After all, there was very good voice differentiation and the narrative section was performed differently than dialogue (both critical factors in preventing a “you’re reading not narrating” impression) so why should I feel like I was being read to? As the book progressed though, I returned again and again to that initial analysis and here’s what it boiled down to for me: the combination of very deliberate enunciation, single-speed pacing, and a tendency toward artificial inflection intended to mimic emotion rather than express something actually felt prevented me from enjoying the audio.

Deliberate enunciation: being able to understand the narrator is critical but rather than leveraging the performance marker of chewing the syntax to highlight the author’s intent, the way in which the story was deliberately and precisely spoken was reminiscent of how a reader might slow down and speak very clearly and with simplified dramatization when reading to a child. That had a secondary effect of making me feel like this book was distinctly young adult or even middle grade…which it isn’t at all. (Not to mention the YA audiobooks I’ve listened to have all had the same presentation as “adult” books.)

Single speed pacing: the unwavering consistency in pacing made the humor that’s sprinkled throughout the book fall flat because there was nothing to lift it out of the surrounding lines. On the other end of the spectrum, even the occasional use of the word “fuck” by a character – something that usually stands out because of its placement as an emphatic pejorative – was rolled into the sentence as if it was just any random noun or adverb. As events were progressing (theoretically) at a fast and furious pace as they reached the climax of the book, the narrative pacing didn’t appropriately reflect that forward motion and it also made transitions between scenes invisible, leaving me momentarily confused when we switched days/characters/locations.

Artificial inflections: the performance marker of Emphasis (to paraphrase producer Paul Ruben who defined the performance markers I keep in mind when reviewing) asks the listener ‘is the emphasis in the delivery emerging from an immediate discovery of the events taking place and so is organic (natural) or is the emphasis modulated (forced) in order to “juice” the narration?’ I doubt the narrator is consciously trying to punch the narration up but the delivery doesn’t strike me as organic. It holds a more intentional tone that might be better suited to voiceover delivery. Character voices had much more vibrancy and a somewhat more organic flow (as, of course, they should) but I still felt a dissonance with natural speech patterns and completely realistic expression of emotions.

While the author’s text is the heart of the story, a strong narration of the audiobook version can do amazing things in terms of enhancing the reader’s experience with a book. Unfortunately, the narration detracted from the text for me and made it a lesser experience that I might have wished.

 

Disclaimer: I received this audiobook without cost from Peguin Audio via the Solid Gold Reviewer program at Audiobookjukebox.com
 
three-half-stars

Fair Game by Patricia Briggs

Fair Game by Patricia BriggsFair Game by Patricia Briggs
Narrator: Holter Graham
Series: Alpha & Omega #3
Published by Penguin Audio on 3/6/12
Genres: Fantasy, Romance

Story: B+
Narration: A-

Quick Review:

Go. Now. Listen or Read. Start at the beginning of the series if you haven’t already. Let me just cut to the chase: I love this series, that’s all there is to it.

The Plot:

Charles Cornick has been his father’s enforcer for longer than he can remember. When you’re a werewolf, that can add up to a lot of years. With the werewolf community officially ‘outed’ to the world at large it has become critical to keep the North American packs under tight reign and being the instrument of that control is beginning to wear on Charles. Anna knows that her husband is in trouble but she can’t make his father listen to her. When the FBI approaches the werewolves requesting their help investigating a series of murders in Boston where some of the victims were werewolves, Charles’ father Bran decides to send Anna. Where Anna goes, Charles goes and this may be an opportunity for him to restore a little balance in his life and catch the bad guy instead of being the bad guy.

Just after they arrive in Boston, the daughter of a powerful fae becomes the newest victim of the serial killer and it’s a race against time to find her before she’s killed. Competing government agencies, some of which are more interested in learning more about the werewolves via Charles and Anna than in catching the killer, all have players in the game. The victim’s father, Charles, Anna, an FBI duo, and the head of the local pack will have to battle black witchcraft, fae magic, and the worst impulses of humanity before their time in Boston is over. The book culminates in an event that will have consequences that should reverberate throughout the next book in this series as well as the next in Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series.

My Thoughts:

The hunt for the serial killer is a strong storyline with external conflict that drives much of the book but just as engaging (or more so for me) are the dynamics between Charles and Anna as well as the construction of the pack dynamics. Anna and Charles are such a great couple and the combination of romance, humor, tension and action that surrounds them makes for a great story. I enjoy how they defy the expected pairing of an Alpha male and either a helpless female or a bad-ass chick who needs a compatriot in ass-kicking. Both characters have their unique vulnerabilities and areas of conflict but it’s as a couple that they find peace in their lives. Anna has come a long way since her unwilling transition to werewolf in an abusive and dysfunctional pack and it’s…well…charming to watch her interact with the FBI and assorted government people in a confident manner. Charles is battling the emotional toll of his enforcement work and it endangers the peace he has found with Anna. Anna wants nothing more than to save Charles as he once did her but there’s a struggle between her desire to do so and Charles’ need to protect her from his ghosts.

Added to the mix is Charles’ “brother wolf” who takes the stage a lot during this book as Charles’ human half steps aside to deal with the emotional pressure of his ghosts. Briggs’ writing is tight and the prose is concise but the construction of the world, the pack, and the personalities that populate both is rich and real to the listener. The werewolves are a fascinating combination of human and animal and the contrast between the romantic story line and relationship challenges Anna and Charles undergo with the capability for violence both posses and the cool practicality of “brother wolf” makes for complex characters I can’t see myself tiring of any time soon.

The Narration:

Holter Graham turns in an excellent performance with this audiobook. He gives the author’s words the commitment they deserve and despite his very deliberate delivery of the narrative, he holds the listener in the moment as the story unfolds. Dialogue is natural and reactive and the characters are clearly differentiated and consistently maintained throughout the audiobook. My one complaint is around production as there were a larger than normal number of what I assume were proofing retakes because the voice tone in those snippets didn’t mesh with the surrounding sections, pulling me momentarily out of the story. I do have to say, Mr. Graham tops my list of male narrators who deliver convincing female voices without any type of drag queen sound. I really enjoyed the narration.

Heart of Steel by Meljean Brook

Heart of Steel by Meljean BrookHeart of Steel by Meljean Brook
Narrator: Faye Adele
Series: Iron Seas #2
Published by Penguin Audio on 11/1/11
Genres: Fantasy, Romance, Steampunk

Book: B+
Narration: B

I’ve spent entirely too long trying to write a review of this book and I’m finding it oddly difficult so I’m going to try a more general / flow of consciousness / conversational review style. The best I can give you in terms of a standard review (if there is such a thing) is to tell you that this is a fun audiobook set in an incredibly detailed and fascinating world and I liked it. It’s the story of Yasmeen and Archimedes and how he pursues her while trying not to give her a reason to kill him before he can convince her to fall in love with him. Along with the romantic pursuit there are zombies, treasure, rebellion, airships, assassination attempts, bar fights, fabulous mechanical constructs, and a lot of flirting. The narration was good with lots of accent work and characters were clearly differentiated from each other.

Intellectually, I’d like to take this book home and make babies with it. Emotionally, I wasn’t really able to connect with it. Usually I can identify why but I’m at a loss with this one and that connection is a part of what I take into consideration when rating a book. Oh, I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy it, just that I finished it with the feeling that something was missing from my listening experience. I’ve read all of Meljean Brook’s novels and while I can’t claim any one of them is in my list of favorite books, I can say that she writes my favorite female protagonists. I rarely find an author who can create such unique characters who differ so much (with the exception of each heroine having or finding an inner strength) book-to-book and have realistic reactions and emotions. Yasmeen is no exception. In point of fact, there’s a bit of a role reversal in this book. Archimedes is a confident, smart, adrenaline-seeking treasure hunter so he’s clearly a good candidate for a Steampunk Romance hero. He’s got more than a bit of an Indiana Jones aspect to him and when we last saw him (in book one of the Iron Seas series, The Iron Duke) he was thrown overboard from Yasmeen’s airship Lady Corsair and tossed into a canal in zombie infested Venice because he tried to commandeer her vessel at gunpoint. Yasmeen, though, is one tough-as-nails heroine. She’s extremely practical and is more than willing to do whatever it takes to maintain control of her airship crew, from hanging people overboard naked if they pose a threat to that control to killing them outright. She drinks, smokes, brawls, and is faster and stronger than Archimedes. This poses a bit of a problem for him because although the adrenaline rush he gets from the danger she presents to him is addictive, he also has to figure out how to prove to her that he doesn’t want to take over, he just wants a chance to let his fascination with her turn into love (so he can see what that emotion feels like) and watch her back while he’s at it. Yasmeen is perfectly content to let him break his heart against hers. In essence, we’ve got a beta hero and an alpha heroine but I almost hate to use those categorizations because it doesn’t necessarily reflect the complexity of the characters.

So, obviously Archimedes survived being tossed overboard but the Leonardo da Vinci sketch of a flying machine that he discovered took off with Yasmeen and Lady Corsair. That sketch was intended to allow him to pay off a costly debt so he tracks down Yasmeen, drugs her, and retrieves the sketch but soon after he leaves her airship with it, disaster strikes and Yasmeen is left without a ship to captain while Archimedes has the sketch stolen. The two of them join forces to get the sketch back and when a rebel from Archimedes’ past offers an opportunity for them to gain access to the city where the sketch has been taken, they agree to help with a treasure hunt intended to fund the rebellion.

One of the things I really love about this book is that these are adult characters who act like it. They are very self-aware and interact with each other in a realistic manner, acknowledging how their past has shaped them, not agonizing over it, and compensating for that as they learn how to work together. Archimedes likes Yasmeen just the way she is and Yasmeen is perfectly fine with being a strong woman with a blood-thirsty streak. Watching Archimedes lay siege to Yasmeen’s distrust by a slow campaign of openly admitting his intentions while refusing to consummate their attraction was very enjoyable. The internal angst is all about Yasmeen deciding whether a man even exists who won’t make her appear weak in front of an airship crew, let alone whether Archimedes is that man. There is plenty of external conflict between our protagonists and zombies, between Yasmeen and the captain of the Ceres (the airship they are taking on the treasure hunt), and as Yasmeen and Archimedes follow the trail of those responsible for their troubles. The world building in this book (and definitely combined with that in The Iron Duke) is nothing short of phenomenal. There’s a nice leavening of humor as well and between that, the romance, and the action, this book pretty much has it all.

Faye Adele delivered a strong performance in this audiobook. If you’ve ever listened to a book narrated by Emily Shaffer/Suzanna Duff and enjoyed the performance then I think Faye Adele’s narration will be right up your alley as they have a very similar sound in both tone and male character voice style. It took me about an hour and a half to become accustomed to the brief pauses in some sentences but I stopped noticing them and settled in to the story. I did find it odd, however possible in real-life it is, to have a male protagonist with a higher-pitched voice than the female. I loved Yasmeen’s voice but I kept hearing more Russian than Turkish in her accent (she was raised in Constantinople, albeit an alternate history version of it) but since I had to dig up some Turkish accent samples on the Internet to even justify making that comment, my ear may just need tuning. Ms. Adele’s other accents seemed perfect to me and I was impressed by her ability to smoothly navigate the multitude of them. Her delivery of much the narrative portion was done in almost a confidential tone, as if she was in the chair next to you and leaned over to make a quiet comment, which wasn’t ideal for me but still kept my interest. Overall she is a narrator I would listen to again.

A good story and narration make this a worthwhile listen.