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Book Reviews: The Thorns of Charbon Institute Series, by Kate Messick

Kate Messick contacted me about reading/reviewing her The Thorns of Charbon Institute Series (Self Studies, Group Studies, and Class Studies). I agreed to read book one and, if I liked it, continue to the other books. I ended up reading all three. I did take notes for individual reviews, but I think I’d rather write one for the series as a whole instead.

Thorns of Charbon Institute Series covers

I knew nothing but the touch of my master until the Magical Authorities killed him and set my world on fire.

Now, I’m a prisoner at an institute stressing students beyond their limits.

I’m a sorceress who can’t access her magic and wanted by wickedly handsome mages who all have their own agenda.

I spent my life following directions. Now I can make my own decisions, I don’t know the right ones. Why is saying ‘no’ so hard?

With the administration judging every action I take and weighing them on their uneven scales of morality, I must come to terms with my darkness to survive and, if I’m lucky, even gain my freedom.

my review

On the whole I enjoyed this series. I binged all 3 books in about 4 days. I liked the heroine and all her men. Each managed to have a distinct personality, which isn’t always the case when authors write such a large grouping. (Beryl was my favorite. How could he not be?) And the writing is smooth and easy to read. (Though there are a few editing mishaps and they increase as the series progresses—more in book 2 than 1, and 3 than 2. But nothing too disruptive. I noticed them, but kept right on reading.)

self studies photoAll in all I have more good things to say than bad. But I do have a few complaints, most of which are subtle and therefore not brief to explain. None of them were deal-breakers for me though (or I wouldn’t have read the whole series).

My biggest is how very focused on Aphrodite’s sex the book is. Now, I don’t mean the number of sex scenes or anything like that. I just mean the way she is largely reduced to her sexuality over and over and over again. The thing for me is that this is what has happened to women for so much of history. History has painted us as mindless slaves to our urges (and this has been used to both villainize and victimize us).

Messick definitely falls into this tradition. Both in making Aphrodite almost mindless with lust for a large part of the series and (for me more notable) making every man (both those she wants and far too many others) pant for her. There is a long standing history of sexual abuse, starting in childhood, attempted rapes (plural), threats of sexual violence, groping, leering, more than one attempted kidnapping with rape as one of the intended outcomes, etc. Then there were the other people calling her a slut and such. Just too much of the story revolved around Aphrodite as something to have sex with, rather than Aphrodite a person for my comfort. Not only for any sort of high brow reason, but also just because I got bored of it. I was especially sick of Ram and Alrick by the end. (Though I’ll also acknowledge that overcoming some of this was one of Aphrodite’s points of growth.)

group studies photoNone of this was helped by the way sex scenes were almost exclusively focused on what the men were doing TO Aphrodite. Sometimes what they were telling each-other to do TO Aphrodite. She often didn’t feel like an ACTIVE participant. By the end, when we had all five men involved at once, she might as well have been a blow-up doll for all she seemed involved as anything other than something for the men to move, manipulate, affect, dump into, etc. Unfortunately, I don’t encounter this infrequently. It’s fairly common, actually. And while I noticed it, Messick wasn’t any worse than some of those other author’s who write sex scenes this way.

Similarly, Aphrodite is told over and over again like calls to like, power calls to power. For a lot of the early part of the series there is a definite sense that most of her men love her for what she is not who she is. They have explosive sex and the men ‘fall in love’ but there is no sense of knowing or liking one another. They have sex once and ate hooked. Which, again, reduces Aphrodite to a sexual object, not a person.

And almost all of those rather long paragraphs can be reduced to the book is full of the patriarchal view of sexuality and male gaze of the female sex. That’s my biggest complaint.

My biggest compliment is just how *chef’s kiss* wonderfully Messick shows Aphrodite’s personal growth. The way she learns to recognize and come to terms with all of the ways Damon victimized and controlled her, the ability to hold contradictory and confusing feelings about a victimizer, growing a backbone, and started to stand on her own. Honestly, this is well done over the course of the series.

I also liked the way not all of Aphrodite’s men fell in love with her and were instantly on board for the whole peaceful harem situation. There were personality clashes, cliques, likes and dislikes among them. Some were open to pairings others weren’t, some were open to activities others weren’t, some were open to trying new things others weren’t, some liked each-other more than others. It made for a more interesting group.

class studies photoI did think that by the end of the 3rd book a lot of the plotting felt same-same. I mean the broader plot of book 2 and 3 were almost exactly the same, even utilizing some of the same bad guys. Then there was a 3 year gap and a happily-ever-after epilogue that felt random. Other than the harem (that’s the term they use in the book) having formed, there was nothing to distinguish the end of book 3 as the end of the series any more than the end of book 2. Messick could have written 6 more books before coming to the same epilogue point. It felt arbitrary.

All in all, however, any other complaints I have are minor (occasional clunky dialogue or clichéd speech pattern for a side character, for example, or the lack of non-cliché, fleshed out female characters outside of Aphrodite) and basically not worth mentioning. I’d certainly read another Messick book…or series

Other Reviews:

Self Studies by KATE MESSICK (Book Review #1245)


Book Review: Wicked Savage Wolves, by Daniela Romero

I accepted a copy of Daniela RomeroWicked Savage Wolves as part of its blog tour, hosted by Rockstar Book Tours. The book has also been featured over on Sadie’s Spotlight a couple times. You can find author details and the schedule for this particular tour here.

Wicked Savage Wolves 1-3

Three full-length books in one from USA Today Bestselling Author Daniela Romero

The wolves of Hellbound High are more beast than man. They’re savage, sinful, and everything a girl with a good head on her shoulders is told to avoid.

But, to Isabella, Jo, and Meiying, they’re so much more than they seem.
They’re the boys with the power to break their hearts but put them back together again.
If they decide to.
They’re the ones who make them suffer, make them bleed, but can also make their hearts soar to new heights.

The heir, the bad boy, the brother’s best friend.
They’re three grave decisions Isabella, Jo, and Meiying are on the verge of making.
And faced with the consequences of their decision, they’ll realize that a chance at love means risking it all.
Their health, their happiness, and most important, their hearts.

And in the end, will it be worth it?

***This is a dark, paranormal bully romance. Proceed with caution. You won’t
find a magical school filled with your future besties. At Hellbound High, life
is dangerous, cutthroat, and only the strong survive. Wicked Savage Wolves
includes 3 stories, each featuring a different M/F couple. ***

my review

I have so much to say, some general and some specific. I’ll start with the fact that these books were originally written as contemporary romance and later re-written with the addition of paranormal elements for PNR readers. I don’t know how I feel about this—no, that’s not true. That’s like someone asking if you like a food they’ve offered you and you say it’s “interesting,” instead of that you don’t like it.

I don’t like seeing books written into various versions. When I read a book, I want to read The Book, not a version of the book. I don’t want to be left wondering if I’d have liked another version better or worse than the one I read. It creates an uncertainty that I do not desire. I feel the same way about abridged books or authors that publish PG and spicy versions of the same book. THIS IS 100% A ME THING. But I’m putting it here because where else would I get to say it? I’d have been happier not to have known, honestly.

Next, well, we just have to talk about the realities of Bully Romances. Like Dub-Con, or a lot of Dark Mafia or Mars Needs Women books (where women are basically just kidnapped) it’s problematic as hell. You have to accept that the plot-line will likely be along the lines of “He’s attracted to her, so he hurts her. Somewhere along the way there’s a precipitating event and he doesn’t like the consequences of his own actions and is forced to grow as a person in order to earn her forgiveness.” But the whole thing is gendered as hell and almost unavoidably predicated on her being hurt and then being the bigger, forgiving person.

But like Dub-con and such, a reader has to be willing to accept that, yes, this would be reprehensible in real life. But within the safe confines of fiction (especially romantic fiction that guarantees a happy ending) it is possible to set the realities of toxic behavior aside and explore the play of power and control, as well as any other element an author chooses to incorporate. And there is a place for this in the romance genre.

Now, about the individual books…

Wicked Wolves and Tangled Truths photoWicked Wolves & Tangled Truths:

At the broadest level I enjoyed this a lot. I liked Isa as a character. One would have a hard time saying they liked Rafe, but he was a sexy alpha a-hole lead. And I didn’t feel like the shift from bully to romantic partner was too rushed. There was enough growth between them for it not to feel too artificial. Plus, I very much appreciate that there wasn’t just a blooming lust to love relationship. Isa formed strong platonic relationships too. (Though it might have been nice to see a few females in there.) I also really liked that both characters were Latinx and the importance familiar, cultural food is given in the story.

I did have trouble with their ages. They’re supposed to be 17-year-old high school students. But they all seemed to have easy access to alcohol (even being served by adults at times), are covered in tattoos, and have some fairly explicit (and practiced), on-page sex. So, they felt older than they should have for me. This wasn’t a big deal, but it did pull me out of the story a bit. Similarly, I found myself frequently pausing to notice how similar this paranormal world and the language used to describe it is to some other series I’ve read—Ilona Andrews‘ stuff especially.

More importantly for me, if I never ever have to read another book where all the women not in the heroine’s immediate circle (of which there is one, who is the heroine of a future book in the series) are represented and treated as slutty trash (little more than sentient fleshlights) I will be a far happier reader. There are some seriously gross messages about the value (or lack of value) of sexually available women built into it. Add in the aspect of gleefully hurting each other over the attention of the men who callously treat them as disposable commodities and I start to want to burn things to the ground (especially when this is written by female authors).

I acknowledge that in the context of exploring power dynamics there is unavoidably an aspect of resource guarding involved in this trope. But I feel like too often it’s used more as an easy, pitting women against women in the way we’ve all been subtly taught to never trust (or value) each other than in any sort of thoughtful exploration or subversion of the patriarchy’s favorite trick. (It’s the whole, ‘divided they fall,’ right?)  So, can this cliche just go die a quiet, grisly death somewhere where I never ever have to see it again? Please!

This isn’t so much a critique of this book or series, since this is such a common element of contemporaneously written romances, as it is a general plea to the universe. But I do feel that this particular trope was especially heavy here and I, I don’t think, used subversively in any manner.

Despite these latter complaints, I found this well written and worth reading. I look forward to reading the rest of the series.

Savage Wolves and Dangerous Deals photoSavage Wolves & Dangerous Deals:

This second review will be short than the first, simply by virtue of “ditto.” A lot of what was true in book one is true in book two as well, and I don’t see any reason to repeat it all. Jordy is a different sort of alpha a-hole than Rafe was and my complaints on the treatment of women are reduced by at least a third. Rafe, after all, has found his forever mate—his one woman worthy of being treated with respect—and Jordy is chasing his. But much of the rest is still true.

Despite all that, I think this is a stronger book. I was pleasantly surprised when, early on, it took an unexpected turn into something significantly more interesting that the blurb let on. (I won’t spoil it though.) Jo and Jordy are characters with a lot on their individual plates, each with their own additional baggage. The writing is clean and easy to read. I enjoyed the cultural characteristics coloring the narrative, and I like how the plot wrapped up.

I did find that explicit, on page sex involving a 16-year-old is my personal ick limit. I suppose everyone reading the book won’t be old enough to be the characters’ mother. But I found that, for me personally, though I don’t mind knowing teens have sex (of course they do), I felt all sorts of skeevy reading a hot sex scene from a 16-year-old’s point of view. Nope. I’m not saying it shouldn’t have been written, just that it hit my personal perv limit.

All in all, I liked this more than I expected and look forward to book three.

Cruel Wolves and Devious Deceptions photoCruel Wolves & Devious Deceptions:

Meh, this was my least favorite of the three stories. Both because I didn’t really feel Des and Meiying’s hot and cold, antagonistic relationship and because it’s the only book to end on a cliff-hanger. It felt half finished. Plus, there’s the whole fact that Des had been lusting after her (and more) since she was like 14. The world establishes that shifters are more tactile than humans and start experimenting earlier, but it was still squinky as hell for me.

But I did think the writing was good, the dialogue especially. I’d be interested in finishing the series and reading more of Romero/Annett’s writing.

Other Reviews:

WICKED SAVAGE WOLVES by Daniela Romero Tour and Giveaway