This Week, I Read… (2022 #7)

#16 – 99 Percent Mine, by Sally Thorne

  • Rating: 1/5 stars

Because I really enjoyed The Hating Game and Thorne’s other novels were sitting right there on Hoopla while I had borrows available, I went ahead and binged, grabbing them both and reading this one next.

Sadly, this is a massive disappointment. The quality simply isn’t there–underdeveloped characters, skimpy plot, nonsensical relationships, disjointed narrative that doesn’t always make clear who is speaking or how one action bridges to the next. (Seriously, there are some really confusing and amateur mistakes in here that I can’t believe made it past an editor.)

I’m here for the childhood-friend trope, but I was never clear on what the conflict of them being in a relationship was supposed to be, because there were too many to choose from, and they didn’t all mesh well. Tom and Darcy can’t be together because: a) she’s an impulsive commitment-phobe who travels at the drop of a hat; b) her twin brother has basically forbidden it because he doesn’t want the additional complication, and/or he thinks Darcy is a loser who doesn’t deserve Tom; c) she spends a good chunk of the story believing he’s in a committed relationship with someone else, but he’s not and doesn’t tell her for longer than was probably a good idea; d) she’s put him on a weird pedestal in her mind and created an image of him as the perfect man and protector, but that’s not real and he can’t live up to it; e) Darcy is also Tom’s boss, in the sense that it’s her shared inherited house that he’s in charge of renovating, but also kind of his employee, in that she insists on working on the reno with him, and that muddies the waters considerably.

That’s five things. Pick one. Or maybe two. And then make those work, instead of simply piling on more complications like layers of paint.

I also don’t understand the relationship between Darcy and her twin. Jamie spends most of the story as a menacing off-page presence who is mad at Darcy and but still best friends with Tom, despite also being his boss on the renovation. Darcy is jealous and doesn’t feel like she’s ever been allowed to be as close to Tom as she wanted to be (hence the title, because Tom started off as “one percent mine.”) I really thought for most of the book that the twins did not have a good relationship, and that Tom had been suffering all this time as the bone these two were fighting like dogs over; but then at the end, after a single explosive fight, all’s forgiven and everybody’s cool again. The “get Tom back” phase at the end is a rushed-through explanation of how the twins have been working on bettering themselves and their relationship, and it just rings so false.

Tom is bland. He’s nice, and he’s muscular (Thorne really seems to like heroes with Big Muscles, but I only have two data points for this so far,) and the only real thing we find out about him is that he’s determined to make his business succeed while also being terrified it’s going to fail. Which is all fine, that’s a solid basis for a character, but it never goes farther than that, because if you couldn’t tell from my dissection of the relationship conflicts and my confusion about the twins, this story is leaning heavily on being about Darcy and Darcy’s problems, so there just isn’t room to elaborate on Tom’s inner life.

Darcy and Tom ultimately don’t feel like a good couple to me. I wasn’t expecting their banter to be as pointed and witty as anything from The Hating Game, because this is a different story with a different premise, but I was expecting a similar level of overall quality (or at least something approaching it, not every sophomore release is going to be as good as a stellar first novel.) This doesn’t even feel like it was written by the same author.

#17 – Second First Impressions, by Sally Thorne

  • Rating: 3/5 stars

Much, much better than 99 Percent Mine, but not as good as The Hating Game.

After how bad 99 was, I wouldn’t have bothered to read this if I hadn’t already checked it out from the library, and even then I promised myself I was allowed to DNF if it looked like it was going to be another train wreck. But it wasn’t, and I finished it.

It did have many of the same issues with the style of the writing as 99 did, notably moments of disjointed narrative where I had to read the same sentence or paragraph multiple times in order to parse its meaning, because A didn’t clearly flow to B, or a dialogue tag was missing, or some other easily fixable editorial issue. They weren’t as prevalent, so this didn’t feel like such a rush job, but there were still enough to bother me.

As for the actual story, it’s weird, and it’s weird in a way that feels like I personally should like it, while also displaying a sort of hyper-specificity about quirkiness. Every single character in this novel is Quirky (TM), so that even while their individual personalities could hardly be more different, they are all also kind of the same. It’s hard to explain–it’s less about the characters themselves than how the author treats them, like they’re all baked from the same recipe that says “three good personality traits, one flaw, and at least two Weird Things that others can’t help but notice.”

Yes, even “normal” people in real life are usually “weird” to someone else in some aspect of their life (odd hobbies or mannerisms, unusual upbringing, etc.) But all that Quirkiness isn’t usually on display at the same time, to everyone, in public.

I genuinely liked Teddy, because he’s a classic Cinnamon Roll (or Teddy Bear, if you prefer, but that was so obvious I groaned at his name.) He’s blithely charming and pretty and sweet-spirited. His One Flaw is that he’s a shiftless mooch, and that’s a big flaw, and a believable one. Early on I despaired that he would mature enough to be a reasonable romantic partner for anyone (let alone Ruthie) but he managed it.

Ruthie…oh, Ruthie. I just didn’t really understand you. Nothing about your backstory made me feel like you would turn out to be the person you are at the start of the story. Who isn’t a bad person, but a bland one. And not bland in the way that allows me the reader to easily self-insert and pretend I’m the heroine Teddy is blatantly trying to win over–no, you’re just bland and timid and boring. Sorry. I wish you hadn’t been.

As a supporting character, Melanie gets points for being snappy and weird while simultaneously doing her best to be a good friend even with her odd judgmental streak. I’m not sure I would want to be friends with her, but she was a fun character.

It’s the Parloni ladies that really have me conflicted, because on the one hand, I figured out their secret long before the reveal and it’s just so cute and sweet. On the other hand, they are the most outrageously inappropriate and Beyond Quirky old ladies who do really questionable things throughout the story that made it difficult to like them in the moment, no matter that I liked their overall arc.

I finally got around to giving this author a try and exhausted her current catalog in a week, but nothing even came close to her first novel, so in the future, I’m going to give whatever else comes along a pass.

#18 – Sweep in Peace, by Ilona Andrews

  • Rating: 3/5 stars

Better, and darker, than the first novel, but still not great.

Part of the charm of a world set up like this is that there’s freedom to introduce literally any sort of alien being the author pleases, which is how we get my favorite new character, Orro the oversized hedgehog chef. Much like Caldenia before, he’s a breath of welcome hilarity in the middle of the huge stakes this story sets up.

Some of the other “new” characters actually aren’t new at all–good thing I read The Edge series before this, though it was long enough ago that it took me maybe a few pages too long to recognize the names. I’m torn here between being glad that the younger generation of Edgers have gotten more development, disappointment overall in what that development is (George, you are such an asshole now,) and a mild annoyance that this series even asked me to remember these characters from another property that I haven’t read more than once, and not for a while. Like, at this point I think in sheer number of books Ilona Andrews is probably my most-read author (if it’s not Stephen King, which I suppose it still could be, darn you GR for taking that feature away) so in one sense I’m a super-fan, but in another, I’m not, because I haven’t read any of her books more than once, SINCE THERE ARE SO MANY. I wouldn’t call these obscure characters, but if I hadn’t read their series at all, or I hadn’t read it even semi-recently, then their presence in the story would be full of weird holes.

I think I like Sean better now that he’s a little more world-wise (or should it be universe-wise in this case?) and a little less cocky, but I didn’t love that the war zone he spent time in ran on an artificially fast timeline, in a clear attempt to allow him extra time to “catch up” to Dina in terms of his understanding of the worlds beyond Earth, to give them more equal footing for their romance. It was so obvious that that’s the only reason it was truly necessary for Nexus to run faster than everywhere else.

On the other hand, the fact that Sean needed that extra development at all means he’s clearly endgame for Dina and we got to downgrade Arland to flirty side-man. Which isn’t to say I don’t like Arland, I do, but I don’t like love triangles, so I’m glad that’s basically over.

It’s a better novel than its predecessor, and it’s better enough that I’m going to keep going with the series.

#19 – One Fell Sweep, by Ilona Andrews

  • Rating: 3/5 stars

I liked this about the same as the one before it, which is to say, better than the series opener but still not nearly as good as most other IA books in other series.

While I like how this book makes it even clearer that Arland is no longer a romantic prospect for Dina, utterly abolishing the love triangle established in the first book, the main plot is darker even than the second book, and the stakes have yet again been raised, to the point where I question how the series can keep escalating threats while still having Dina and her inn Gertrude Hunt be capable of handling them. This one is such a doozy.

The B-plot of Maud and Helen is actually excellent and I have basically no complaints. Great new characters.

Even if I wasn’t the biggest fan of the main plot, I do like how it ended, and how the romance progressed. I think what I might be struggling with in this series is how minor the romance arc is. Yes, in Kate Daniels it took a while to get going, but once it was established the payoff was huge. In The Edge, the series was comprised of individual romance novels telling a cohesive story together. Hidden Legacy might be the best marriage of worldbuilding and romance I’ve seen in the genre as a whole. So this? This just feels lackluster by comparison. I thought I’d be getting more romance, and it’s just so tame.

#20 – Sweep of the Blade, by Ilona Andrews

  • Rating: 4/5 stars

The best of the series so far, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence I like it better because there’s more cohesive world-building as we dive deeper into vampire culture, and more romance, since this is functionally a spin-off where we have one book to get Maud and Arland together, rather than stretching it out over the course of a series.

I like Maud better than Dina as a protagonist, because she’s got more going on than the constant refrain of “make the inn happy, but also someday maybe find my parents,” which is certainly a reasonable goal but not a very exciting one because nothing ever happens to further it, it’s always just hanging over her head as a mystery. Maud, on the other hand, has a half-vampire daughter to raise and decisions to make about how best to do that, which give her much more immediate goals to pursue.

And also puts Arland in her way as a romantic hero. I’ve always liked him; in fact early on, when it still seemed he was one choice in a love triangle, I actually liked him better than Sean, who fortunately has grown on me since. But Arland shines here in his element as a leader of his people, as a skilled combatant, and as a stellar candidate for a step-dad. His budding relationship with Maud is tense and uncertain at first, and when she tosses barbs at him, he gives as good as he gets.

This wraps up their part in the larger story pretty neatly, and I doubt we’ll see more of them, but I’m glad we got this at all–I see a lot of other reviewers weren’t happy at the series going off on apparent tangent, but I think this was the best bit yet.

#21 – Sweep with Me, by Ilona Andrews

  • Rating: 2/5 stars

A return to Earth and the inn and Dina coincides with a drop in how much I like it, but we’re back down to the level of the first book, not its follow-ups. This was thin, and I was never able to engage much with either the Space Chicken plot (though I did very much like the illustration of one of them, and I did find them funny as occasional comic relief) or the “main” plot involving the Drifan. Either I missed something, or something that would have made the arc of her plot clearer needed to be included, because I just didn’t ever get what was going on there. Sure, she’s human, she misses Earth, I’m fine with her personality as a character, but why does she have to meet her uncle again and what are the stakes here? The motives behind the action didn’t track for me, and without that, the climax wasn’t particularly satisfying.

This is so short, as well, and romance in the main series plot is so incidental, that I didn’t even feel much at Sean becoming an Innkeeper and living and working with Dina. I should be happier for them, but there just wasn’t much meat to any of this, so I had nothing to sink my teeth into.

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