Into the Dreaming Imaginative Fiction from Author, Editor, and Writing Coach Christine Amsden

Category Archives: Book Reviews

If I’m reading it, I’ll write about it here — scifi, fantasy, romance, mystery, non-fiction, or whatever my book club makes me read.

The Quest for the Three Magic Words

Put simply, the quest for the three magic words is an irksome phenomenon I’ve witnessed in novels with a strong romantic component, characterized by the stubborn refusal to say the words, “I love you.”

In a broad sense, the goal of any HEA romance is for the characters to fall in love, and often the realization of this love is the climax of the story. The dramatic tension in such a story (or subplot) is the constant interplay between that which brings them together and that which keeps them apart. When these forces are in perfect balance, when we desperately want the couple to find true love and happiness but desperately believe in the obstacles preventing such a union, there can be a moment of true emotional pain.

On the other hand, when he loves her, she loves him, they are both acting on this love, showing one another this love, and the only thing holding the HEA at bay is that one or both is afraid of saying three little words, then you have the quest. What is keeping them apart? Maybe he is afraid of commitment or doesn’t believe in love. Maybe she’s been burned before or doesn’t believe in love. (I get a lot of the whole not believing in love thing, especially in the male’s perspective.) Whatever the reason, they would be blissfully happy together if only one or both would pry open those lips and say a few words. Nothing else really needs resolution – there’s no anger, mingled feelings of hatred or jealousy, or even guilt over betraying a deceased love with this new love. (Though I should say that in all of these situations, when the angst goes on for too long, I’m still liable to brand it a quest.) There’s just a refusal to say the words and possibly a fear of commitment (which becomes all the more ridiculous in regency romance novels in which the couple is already married).

As far as dramatic tension goes, this quest quite simply puts me to sleep. In fact, in a straight-up romance with no subplot, I’ll usually stop reading as soon as the story devolves to this quest. Why? Because I know how it’s going to end. Sooner or later, they’re going to say the words and live happily ever after. It’s just not that interesting to find out how he or she finally comes to realize what is already so incredibly obvious. She’s afraid to risk her heart? What? It’s already gone!

I’ll tolerate the quest if another parallel plot such as a mystery or suspense is holding my interest, but even then it often earns an eye roll. This is because of the other issue I have with the quest for the three magic words: In my mind, it is more important by far to actively love someone than it is to say you love someone. Call me quirky if you like, but I guess I’ve taken the old writing advice, “show, don’t tell,” to be more than a useful trick for bringing a story to life. It works in real life relationships – show me you’re my friend, don’t just tell me. Show me you’re an expert, don’t just tell me. Show me you love me, don’t just tell me. Yes, you can say the words too, but in the grand scheme of things it simply is not that important. And that is the key characteristic of the quest for the three magic words – they’ve already reached their HEA. I know it. I feel it. They’ve shown it. They just haven’t said so.

I suppose the point of the quest is to show a person coming to a turning point in his or her life in which they finally realize the truth about themselves, a truth previously blocked by a host of preconceived notions (eg the hero doesn’t believe in love). And since the quest for the three magic words is such a popular part of the romance genre, I imagine that it must work for a great many readers, perhaps readers who have had a different experience with life and love than I have, but for my part, you can feel free to imagine me rolling my eyes anytime you see these words in a review: I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a quest for the three magic words.

Book Review: Echo 8

Echo 8 by Sharon Lynn FisherThis was a quick, easy read — I finished it in one sitting.

Echo 8 is a blend of science fiction and romance that manages to treat both genres with respect. In other words, it works as both a science fiction novel and as a romance novel. The scifi is exciting and plausible enough to suspend disbelief for, and the romance is engaging without taking over the story.

I particularly enjoyed the worldbuilding element — the idea that a disaster caused some people from one dimension to transfer into another closely related dimension where they live as energy parasites — needing to feed in order to survive. The world continued to develop throughout the book in intriguing ways.

The characters were fairly well done, although limited time was spent on developing them. I usually don’t like love triangles, but this one managed to work for me, in part because it was always obvious which one Tess would choose.

My one complaint about this book is hard to describe … it’s a sense that there could have been more. The book was fast-paced, yes, but at times I would almost say rushed. I would have liked to see a more gradual progression of the major plots, more time spent on character development, and more time spent on the resolution (which came about too easily for my taste).

I do recommend this book to readers who love both scifi and romance.

Book Review: Wanted: Undead or Alive (Love at Stake #12)

Wanted: Undead or Alive (Love at Stake, #12)

When I saw that this would be the story of Phineas and Brynley, I have to admit I wasn’t excited. Phineas, though quite a characters, has always struck me as very immature. And Brynley is prickly.

BUT … I actually liked it. There was better characterization in this story than I’ve seen in many of the prequels, and these two managed to set themselves apart. Turns out, Phineas has grown up in the 5 years since he was turned into a vampire and wants to be taken more seriously. And Brynley has extremely good reasons for being so prickly.

We dove further into the shifter world in this volume, with Brynley, the daughter of a pack alpha, having to deal with the fact that apparently alpha werewolves are complete a@@($)*@. This was a different view of shifters than I’ve previously run into. I’m still not sure what I think of it.

At any rate, after a few wobbly books, this series is back on track. 🙂

Book Review: Mother of Storms

Mother of StormsImmense. That’s the best word I can think of to describe this story.

At first glance, it’s the story of an apocalypse — a nuclear attack accidentally releases enough methane into the air to cause catastrophic global warming and resulting hurricanes.

But it doesn’t take much of a peek beneath the surface to see that this story is a classic scifi lover’s utopia. Who are we? Where are we going? What is the nature of humanity? I got all this and more as I slowly grew to realize that the apocalypse in this story is more of a motivating factor than a real theme and that what was happening to Louie and Carla was far, far more interesting.

Going back to the “immense” comment — this story was told in a true omniscient viewpoint, and though this is not usually my preference, I have to say that it was a good choice for a novel set on such a global scale. I even enjoyed some of the tales that would never be told — viewpoints that were washed away to see.

Then of course, there’s what happened to Louie and Carla. I don’t want to say too much for the sake of spoilers, but writing about their experiences is an unenviable task for any mere mortal.

I do have the usual concern that this book will be dated. It’s set in 2028 (from a 1995 copyright date) and as with many of my favorite classic authors, he predicted a great deal of advancement that has not and certainly will not come to pass in the next 13 years. Not to mention political realities that seem far-fetched (and honestly would have seemed far-fetched in 1995). I often think scifi needs to cast its dates further afield, if for now other reason so that your work won’t be dated in your own lifetime. And if it does become dated in 2195, well, it still stands as a testament to what we thought of the future way back when. In the case of Assimov, Heinlein, and other greats whose predictions have come and gone, I think it does stand as a testament to their own times. I’m concerned that this might be less the case here, especially since there has been so much technological advancement since 1995, just in wildly different ways than predicted. I don’t know. Perhaps I should wait until 2028 to make this call — if I’m still around doing reviews then, someone remind me and I’ll update this one. 🙂

My biggest concern with this story was XV, a technology that allows people to broadcast their thoughts. It takes over journalism the way we know it as people want to experience the news rather than simply see it. Setting aside that our understanding of the human brain is so limited, making this unlikely in the near future, let’s assume it happens. I’m just not sure that people will really want to stay plugged in to someone else’s thoughts and perceptions all the time. You could argue that people don’t often think for themselves all the time and really like others to do their thinking for them, but the word “effectively” needs to go in there somewhere — because people like to think they’re unique and thinking for themselves.

Of course, that’s just the sort of debatable “criticism” that makes this a thought-provoking read. Scifi should do that, if it’s any good — get you thinking and maybe disagreeing.

If you’re a scifi fan, I really recommend this!

Book Review: Sexiest Vampire Alive (Love at Stake, #11)

Sexiest Vampire Alive (Love at Stake, #11)Gregory is a 100% bottle-fed vampire. That is to say, he’s never bitten a mortal; he has survived entirely on synthetic blood. So he seems like the perfect person to go talk to the president, who has recently learned of the existence of vampires, to try to persuade him that he is no threat. Gregory is successful largely due to Abigail, the president’s eldest daughter, who needs help saving her mother’s life.

The gloves came off in regards to “love at first sight” in this book. The two were making love almost as soon as they were alone together and saying “I love you” by the midpoint of the book! And this despite the fact that Abigail is a brilliant scientist who got a PhD in her early 20s ….

…turn brain off. Must turn brain off!

That’s better. 🙂

Actually, the series has been spiraling downhill (IMHO) for a few books, but I thought it started to get back on track here. We’ve got a new enemy, new characters, and it was nice to see a vampire who wasn’t centuries old fall in love. Gregory can still give his mortal mother grandchildren before she dies. 🙂

Book Review: Eat Prey Love (Love at Stake #9)

Eat Prey Love (Love at Stake, #9)This corny vampire series continues in book 9, when Shana’s sister Caitlyn comes for her nephew’s birthday party and gets thrust into a world she never imagined. She instantly falls in love with Carlos, a jaguar shape-shifter trying to save his species from extinction. But in order to do that, he must marry and have children with a jaguar shifter like himself.

It was nice to get a break from the vamps in this volume. This story took us into China, where we meet a new enemy who will hopefully keep this series from stagnating. 🙂

I have to admit, though, that the romance in this book didn’t work for me. Granted, this series is never going to step away from the “love at first sight” style, and that’s fine. It’s not my favorite setup but I can accept it. The trouble is the sameness of the characters and the way the romances keep working out. For Caitlyn, in particular, I didn’t entirely buy into her forcefulness — not when she was supposed to be afraid she was unworthy of love. It just seemed like a contradiction to me.

The Vampire and the Virgin (Love at Stake, #8)

The Vampire and the Virgin (Love at Stake, #8)Book 8 in the Love at Stake series gives us another male vampire and female mortal with a gift — this time she’s an empath and human lie detector. Apparently she’s a virgin because no man has ever been completely honest to her. So of course she decides to get together with a vampire who she can’t read at all. Really?!?

Okay, I had trouble suspending disbelief on this one. Partly it was because I feel like the series is stagnating. I can’t tell Robby apart from any of the other vampires in previous volumes, nor Olivia from the other women. And honestly, if I were a human lie detector and empath, I don’t think I’d fall for a guy in less than a week if I couldn’t read him. (I mean, maybe over time this would turn out to be a relief or something, although even then … I don’t know. I guess I believe in honest men. I married one, after all. Seriously, the man couldn’t lie to save his life!)

I’m kind of hoping we get into more shifters soon. Or that something else happens to move the main plot along. We did meet a couple of fun new characters who might be interesting going forward.

Book Review: Forbidden Nights with a Vampire (Love at Stake, #7)

Forbidden Nights with a Vampire (Love at Stake, #7)Vanda has an anger problem. A big anger problem. It has to do with some past trauma that she’s not letting anyone know about. But when Phil, one of the day guards, agrees to be her anger management sponsor, she might have met her match.

It was nice to see a female vampire in the starring role for a change. And I was interested in Phil, the werewolf, since I’ve always had more of thing for werewolves than vampires. I have to admit, though, that it was nice (in the previous books) to know that (thanks to Roman’s genius) the male vampires and female mortals could have children together. It would have been nice for Roman to find an answer for the undead women as well. Seems kind of sexist, doesn’t it?

But I digress. 🙂

I liked Vanda, for all her hurt and attitude. I’m not sure how much I bought into her relationship with Phil. To tell you the truth, I’m not sure what they had in common. But okay, don’t take these books too seriously right?

Book Review: Secret Life of a Vampire (Love at Stake, #6)

Secret Life of a Vampire (Love at Stake, #6)The undead son of Cassinova has quite a reputation to live up to!

Jack meets Lara when he throws a bachelor party for Ian and things get a bit out of control. Lara, a police officer, is called to the disturbance. It shouldn’t have been a big deal. All Jack had to do was erase her memory. It worked fine on her partner. And the paramedics. And hotel security …

But Lara won’t forget, and she can’t get Jack out of her mind. When a student goes missing from a local university and her roommate shows signs of memory loss, Lara hopes Jack isn’t at fault — and that he can help her find answers.

I have to admit that while the silliness of guessing what Jack was (alien, bionic man, lizard man, etc.) kept me entertained, I’m getting a bit weary of the fact that a man is a vampire is the main romantic conflict. It might work better if the women’s responses were significantly different from one another.

I’d also like to see some movement of the overarching plot. Time to kill the big bad guy and find a bigger badder guy. 🙂

But the charm of this series does continue.

Book Review: The Undead Next Door (Love at Stake, #4)

The Undead Next Door (Love at Stake, #4)Jean Luc, famous French fashion designer and vampire, has to go into hiding because people are starting to wonder why he hasn’t aged in 70 years! He decides to his out in Texas, where he meets Heather, schoolteacher, single mom, and aspiring designer. Although she’d prefer to design clothes for real women.

Aside: Has anyone ever noticed that the concept of designing clothes for women bigger around than my thumb is very popular in books, but never seems to penetrate the actual fashion industry? Just saying…

Anyway, Heather is in danger when Jean Luc’s ancient enemy decides she’s his woman. Unfortunately, he’s killed several of Jean Luc’s women in the past, and Jean Luc is determined to save this one.

We also learn in this book that vampires aren’t the only supernatural creatures in this author’s world. There are werewolves too. I like werewolves. 🙂