Paladin’s Strength, by T. Kingfisher

I enjoyed Paladin’s Strength. I knew what I was getting into this time. It’s still fantasy and romance with a few other genre bits tossed in. It’s still good, I still like all the genres in play here—or at least don’t dislike any of them enough to turn me off enjoying the rest of them.

Specifically, romance is kind of hit or miss for me. It’s not my popcorn genre. I don’t feel sucked into it or compelled or fed by it in the same way that I do with other genres, I don’t delight in it the same way. But when it’s well done, and especially when it doesn’t exist on its own, I’m down.

And it turns out that Ursula Vernon (pen name: T. Kingfisher) is good at her job. She’s good at writing characters that I enjoy. She knows the beats for a romance, and she’s happy to improvise around them with other interesting genre material. I don’t think I want to read more of her romances right now—I could use a palate cleanser, a break—but I like the world she’s established enough to want more of that, and if that requires reading romance I guess I’m down.

I just wish the romance were more queer.

Queer romance isn’t a necessity for me, but it does feel like a big boon. I’m not sure precisely what about it appeals most to me. Maybe it’s just the way in which queer romance seems more likely to diverge from classic gendered expectations of romantic relationships and interactions? Maybe I’d be down with het romance if it hewed less closely to conventional gender roles for its development.

Unfortunately, that queerness is not very present in this story. For all that Vernon does an excellent job making her characters feel like people, the central romance still feels fairly conventional to me (though I should note that Vernon continues to do fun things with healthier and more interesting relationships than I usually see in romances). There are certainly queer folks around, and there are queer characters baked into the background of the world in such a way that they are both unignorable and totally normal. That’s good. A big plus. But I’ve been hoping that this series would diverge further from conventions, and it hasn’t yet.

Apparently, from the blurb I’ve read, the next book in the series will have queer romantic leads. It should come out next year, Paladin’s Hope, and I’m looking forward to it. It’s about two characters I’ve liked in smaller roles in these first two books, so I’m very ready for it. Hopefully that romance feels less conventional too.

Despite my complaints, I think I’m learning. I’m certainly getting a better handle on how a genre + romance combo works. The romance is broadcast early on, usually through a meet-cute or some sufficiently distinctive interaction to anchor the pair’s dynamic for the reader, and then there’s a tremendous pile of will-they-won’t-they and yearning lustful thoughts before some kind of more satisfying release (ahem) close to the denouement, often just before the climax (AHEM) comes to a head (god, everything is sexual, this is like high school).

Obviously, there’s some room for variation, and for stylings around the edges. Novik and Vernon (and Bujold) don’t structure their romances exactly the same way… but they’re close enough to each other, for the most part.

I don’t plan on writing much in the romance genre per se, but it’s nice to know the structure and conventions to be able to play around with it on the sides of other stories.

Anyway, yes, much like with the previous book, Paladin’s Grace, if you like romance and don’t mind fantasy, mystery, and intrigue—or if you like fantasy, mystery, and intrigue and don’t mind romance—you’ll probably enjoy this book. This book might not be for you if any of those things is unpalatable for you. But if you’re not sure, or you’ve only read bad examples of those genres previously, give these books a try. Vernon is good at her craft.

Three Ordinary Girls, by Tim Brady

Reading Three Ordinary Girls was an odd experience for me. I both enjoyed and actively disliked this book. Complaints first.

When a nonfiction book cites Wikipedia, I cringe. It conjures memories of my teachers telling me that Wikipedia wasn’t an acceptable source for my papers (despite being better on average than most encyclopedias, which my teachers did accept as source material). Maybe I’m stuck in the past’s paper-writing habits, but surely Tim Brady can hunt down whatever sources the Wiki editor used, and reference those instead? I think what bothered me most was that nearly all of the referenced sources in this book boil down to just a few pieces, referenced over and over again. I couldn’t help but wonder whether I should have read those books instead. I would have liked more depth and breadth of source material.

Now, that may be empty quibbling: those few referenced pieces are the extant primary and secondary sources, in most cases sourced directly from the people involved. They include interview material from the “ordinary girls” in question. But… I would expect someone writing a nonfiction book to at least cite original sources for the material cribbed from Wikipedia. Maybe I’d feel differently if the book read less like someone had simply punched up a previously existing secondary source and slathered it with in-the-moment details cribbed from a primary. Or maybe this is just Tim Brady’s style (I haven’t read any of his other books). Either way, I don’t like it. Maybe you won’t mind.

All that said…

Three Ordinary Girls is gripping. The lives of these young Dutch women during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, and the actions they take as members of the resistance, are exciting and frightening. Their story is painful and dramatic and evocative. It’s bloody. It’s scary. It’s a potent reminder of the banality of human cruelty, and of the messy and complicated ways in which people act when their world is tossed upside down. It’s another example of how occupation, revolution, collaboration, and resistance are overlapping and confusing and violent, with few places of certainty or security. And it’s a testament to the bravery and convictions of the three young women whose stories this book tells.

To its credit, Three Ordinary Girls doesn’t try to reassure the reader with a sanitized, polished, or clear cut glamorous war story. That may be what I admire most about it. There are many admirable stories about how people stood up and did the right thing to oppose the Nazis. But those often ignore the painful truths of how that resistance was hard, and confusing, and traumatizing, and sometimes resulted in bloody mistakes, internal conflict, and power struggles. I appreciate the way in which this book captures all of that.

For those reasons, I’d probably recommend this even if it were less well written and researched. Well, maybe not less well researched… I do prefer my historical nonfiction to remain nonfiction. But yeah, it’s good as long as you’re ready, willing, and able to stomach the awfulness.

But… there’s a lot of awfulness. Be ready to be distressed. The Nazi occupation of the Netherlands was violent, cruel, and bad in just about every way you can imagine the Nazis being. The only redeeming quality to it was that they (the Nazis) didn’t engage in quite as much wholesale murder as they did in Eastern Europe. Scant comfort.

If you don’t already know enough about teenagers in the Dutch resistance during World War Two, and want to know more, check this out. If you aren’t up for reading about brutality and murder in uncertain times, you should probably look for something else.

Paladin’s Grace, by T. Kingfisher

Paladin’s Grace went by quickly. I was hooked early, and pulled right on through. The many good things I’d heard about Ursula Vernon’s work feel like they apply here too.

Side note: T. Kingfisher and Ursula Vernon are the same person, T. Kingfisher is the pen name used for a whole suite of Ursula Vernon’s projects. I’ve meant to read Ursula Vernon’s work, especially Digger, for a while now. When I learned about her pen name, I signed up for these books right away. Easier to get them as ebooks from the library than to find a good, physical omnibus of the comic.

I was a little surprised, however. I hadn’t realized this would be romance. I think I might have enjoyed Paladin’s Grace more if I’d known beforehand that it was. But I did enjoy it, and it’s my own fault for not reading any of the book’s theming data—besides which, the fact that the story is romance is pretty abundantly obvious when, soon after the cishet meet-awkward, the narration is overtaken by constant thoughts about the other party.

My genre-revelation wasn’t a problem. I already knew that I enjoyed some fantasy romance (thanks Naomi Novik & Lois McMaster Bujold). If you actively dislike romance (in this case, lots of wistful thoughts and mostly-unfulfilled lusting), you may not like this book. If you can tolerate romance, this book has a bunch of other good stuff in it too, things that usually don’t end up in romance stories. After all, as Ursula Vernon acknowledges in her author’s note, most romance doesn’t accompany grisly fantasy murder mystery, dead gods, and legal drama. The perfume and frequent discussion of scents is perhaps the most normal detail. The fact that one of the leads is a perfumer may be a little less normal, as are her frequent attempts to mentally reconstruct nearly every smell she comes across, no matter how foul.

Anyway.

I absolutely recommend this book if you want solid fantasy fun. If you hate romance, that’s more complicated. If, like some of my friends, you only find romance palatable when it’s queer… I’m sorry, this book will not satisfy you.

But if you’re as intrigued as I was by a story about a paladin whose god has died, have at it. I had a good time.