Even more so than contemporary YA novels, I am extremely picky when it comes to reading romance novels. Among the many reasons why that’s so, one is that it’s hard for me to find romance novels that aren’t all about the sex and where an actual romantic connection isn’t a mere afterthought. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but those types of stories aren’t what I’m looking for. However, I’d heard a lot of good things about Marjorie M. Liu’s Dirke and Steele series, so I thought I’d give it a try.
Dela, a master sword-smith with some psychic affinity to metal, is enjoying a trip to China when she buys an ancient riddle box from a mysterious shopkeeper. The riddle box, as it turns out, holds an immortal shape shifter named Hari. Two thousand years ago, an evil Magi imprisoned him in the riddle box to be used and abused by whoever had possession of riddle box. When Dela accidentally summons him in her hotel room, he immediately takes her to be yet another master who has summoned him to be her slave, but as Dela continues to treat him like an actual human being, he begins to trust and slowly maybe even love her, as does she in return. Their budding romance takes place amidst ongoing attempts on Dela’s life and the reappearance of the magi who trapped Hari after two millennia, whose motives no one fully understands.
I was pleasantly surprised by how entertaining a story this was. There are two separate threads going on simultaneously, the action and the romance, and neither of the two overshadows the other. Instead, they work in tandem to create a satisfying whole, and Dela and Hari’s relationship plays an integral part to the resolution of the plot. The world the story takes place in is almost identical to ours, except for some covert magic. Multiple people have their own psychic powers or shape shifting abilities, the former of which is mostly alluded to while the latter is related to the central conflict. Certain paranormal elements weren’t as fleshed out as they could be, but they still felt like an intrinsic part of the world and not just forced in for the plot’s sake.
As for the leading pair, I particularly liked Dela. She manages to present as both a goody-goody and a cold-hearted bitch, but really she’s a person who was raised to do the right thing with regards towards people, but her psychic abilities with metal and her sword forging, in particular, cause her to remain aloof. After all, she feels inexplicably drawn to make beautifully crafted swords whose ability to kill people is inherent in their beauty. That can’t be normal, right? I also liked her because she was efficient and always did what she had to do, no matter how messy or costly the consequences were.
Hari tended to play second fiddle to Dela for me, but his viewpoint was still enjoyable to read. I liked how he was a mix between the standard alpha and beta hero in romance books. He’s big, ridiculously strong, and charges himself to protect Dela, but he’s also a big sweetheart who hates killing and despises himself for murdering so many people over the centuries on the order of his masters. He’s (literally) a big kitty cat, and almost as endearing.
For me, the best part about the romance was that while both Dela and Hari were sexually attracted to each other, a fact that neither of the two spent any time denying, the author didn’t show the need to remind the reader on every single page “OMG LUST RAWR”. The two touch each other and cuddle on multiple occasions, but many of those times it’s to provide comfort or support. I may be ace, but I know that touch between people who love each other can express multiple different feelings, not just lust. Their relationship was definitely touchy-feely, but their touching each other was not made to be sexual all the time. I loved this. Furthermore, Dela and Hari developed a close relationship, both physically and emotionally, but the author never implied that it was lust or sex that was the determining factor. Instead their relationship was built on – get ready for it – mutual trust, understanding, and love! I know, rite?
Still, there were moments when I thought their romance was getting too mushy, and I felt certain assurances of love and devotion were repeated once too often than necessary. It stopped short of overwhelming me with mushiness, but everyone’s tolerance level is different. Also, the set-up of the plot was somewhat lazy, as Dela never says why she’s in China in the first place. I’m assuming she was just taking a vacation, and since she has a lot of money, it’s not too implausible of an assumption, but that lack of detail makes the set-up of the story look shaky, something that could have been easily avoided.
Added to that, some suspension of disbelief is needed with regards to the speed at which the romance develops, considering the entire book occurs over a span of approximately a week. Usually, I would find it ridiculous as well, but it didn’t bother me as much this time, possibly because there was no shilly-shallying, each knew they were into the other, and they always had excellent communication (another good thing to build a relationship on!)
On the whole, this was an enjoyable book to read and the writing was pretty darn good. I tend not to read in long stretches (I usually read in spurts), but in this case, the book gripped me and wouldn’t let me go. There were some rough spots, but it’s a solid book, and I can see later books in this series getting even better, considering this is the first book the author ever published. I’m excited – I like finding romance novels I actually like.
Disclosure – library