Thursday, June 16, 2011

Book Review: Goldenseal by Gill McKnight

Goldenseal (Garoul Book 1)
by Gill McKnight
Goldenseal by Gill McKnight is a fairly standard, but quite interesting, fantasy romance. It follows the reutrn of Amy, a botanic artist, to the valley of Little Dip and the clan that she more or less grew up with. Her aunt, Connie - her mentor and adopted parent, was the partner of the matriarch of the Garoul clan, Marie. Sadly Connie has had some kind of breakdown, and the family needs someone to finish some illustrations for their Almanac. And from the moment she arrives in the hunting season, her childhood friend and teenage love is dogging her steps and trying to control her, and keep her safe - in the valley she supposedly grew up in.

Of course, it turns out to be not so safe, Leone never stops being controlling until its almost too late, and Connie didn't really have a breakdown.

It follows the same formula of werewolves keeping their secret, and the hapless human romantic interest in their midst (an image of a wolf on the cover and the surname 'Garou', as in loup garou, meant that I was seeing werewolves from the moment Leone and her kin appeared). But it turns out that some of the secrets Amy discovers, really were news to her hosts.

And it followed a fairly standard romance formula - old heartbreak, still burning flames of passion, falling into bed a couple of times, in between fights and making ups, and the ante steadily going up. Leone is clearly unreasonable, madly in love, overbearing and obsessed - and not as in control as she claims. It's inevitable that they end up together anyway (it's implied that they mate for life) but Amy gets to call her on her behaviour and her lies a few times (and while her lies are mostly due to her having the whole werewolf thing going on, they aren't entirely).

The themes are an odd mixture, actually - it was romance-werewolf-fantasy, liberally mixed with more peaceful scholarship and botany, followed with occasional dollops of fairly descriptive sex. Leone and Amy aren't jumping into bed every other page, but they sure are thinking about it - and when they do, it's intense. And amazing, of course (explained away by them having been lovers before - at least there was an explanation other than 'obviously we are soulmates'.)

The love affair side of it wasn't brilliant - I spent the whole book waiting for Amy to kick Leone to the curb already. Which she did, but then Leone kept coming back, and it was pretty obvious that Amy didn't really want to resist. Did I mention overbearing already? Well, while a lot of Leone's behaviour can be handwaved by her Secret Werewolfness, the rest of the clan aren't that bad, and it trod very heavily into abusive territory at times. Luckily, Amy secretly did love her back, so it was all alright in the end.

Someone clearly knows their stuff when it comes to botanic illustration - Amy's profession, and the reason she was called back to the valley. There's a great deal of detail about that in the beginning, a little too much for light fantasy but interesting to read if you have a practical interest in art. Otherwise it's mostly jargon. 

There's a fairly strong mix of pagan, with books and charms (mostly Leone's love charms), turning up throughout the book. It's implied that they actually work, because, come one, they're being used by werewolves. But otherwise they're mostly added flavour - and another reason for Amy to be annoyed by Leone.

For most of the book, I had decided that the publication Amy had been called in to help finish was just a pretext to call her back (and it was pretty obvious that Connie was certainly not off in a retreat having a breakdown), but it turned out to be quite important. Not to the plot, although the secret code hidden in its pages hastened Amy's discoveries and distrust, but to the entire way of life of the werewolves. In fact, it was actually pretty practical - which is worth mentioning, because this isn't explained until the end, and I was all prepared to write scathingly about meaningless codes that manage to be translated to the perfect bit of random text to almost mean something and is a labour of centuries. It never did explain the meaning of the Goldenseal flower, this year's chosen flower to contain code. It was quite distracting though, as it was apparently gosh-darned important enough to kill for, but then got shoved aside until the wrap up.

Goldenseal (Garoul Book 1)There's a dissonance in reading books like this, where the hapless, or suspicious protagonist gradually uncovers secrets and pieces together the truth. Up until the actual realisation - magic is real, these people are werewolves - everything has to be read in innocence of that. You have to force yourself to remember that silver tipped bullets are odd, but could probably be explained, despite it being screamingly obvious that they must be for a werewolf. It's managed a bit better in this book, with Amy being pretty smart and having several things going on at once to distract her, but it's always a little jarring. These sorts of stories usually work better on a second read through, when you can relax and know which fantastical explanation is in the works and how long it will take the protagonist to figure things out. And despite the whole 'she grew up in Little Dip, why doesn't she know any of this?' Amy actually only seems to have spent her holidays there, running with pre-pubescent werewolves who hadn't changed yet.

It wasn't trite, and it covered most of the usual plot holes - although the revelations came thick and fast at the end, and while entertaining, weren't always necessary. With a few exceptions - the 'true' werewolves are called Wolven, and they aren't all that wolf like - the valley could sit quite at ease within the worlds of most of the other urban-fantasy werewolf books out there. A quick skim of the other titles to her name show that McKnight specialises in this genre of slightly erotic fantasy romance, so she'd be a good name to look for.
There's a sequel - Ambereye - which follows another member of the clan, and her unexpected love life, and by the reviews, it's a lot better than Goldenseal.
Gill McKnight was an Alice B Lavender certificate recipient in 2009 and received an Alice B Award in 2012.

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