Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
Occasionally I link to other reviews when I think they make a salient point that complements or contrasts nicely with mine. In this case I’m going to link to Khanh’s review of this book, because it is simply one of the best reviews ever. I laughed out loud reading this, and I liked it better than the book. That is my review of the review.
On to reviewing The Kiss of Deception, Mary E. Pearson’s attempt at … I’m not sure. Fantasy romance? Intrigue? One reason Khanh’s review tickled me so much is that its form is quite accurate. This book is basically a Shakespeare comedy wrapped up in modern English and set in a fantasy world. That is the only way to excuse the utterly shameful number of coincidental meetings, disguises and mistaken identities, and unbelievable plot twists. I was waiting for someone to talk about taking an ass to Padua or something.
Now, here’s the thing: tongue-in-cheekness aside, none of the above automatically makes this a bad book. It’s all about flair, and execution, and style. If this book had been more self-aware and winked occasionally at the reader, as if to say, “Yes, this is ridiculous, and that’s the whole point” then I might be down with it. Although there are a few moments of introspection (more on that in a bit) when it comes to Lia’s character, by and large this book tries to play to the darker side too much for its light plotting. Lia has a big destiny! There’s an assassin hunting her! War looms! People close to Lia die! The book announces each of these developments with thundering fanfare, as if we’re supposed to be bowled over. Except I’m not, because not for a moment do I care about these people or their cookie-cutter kingdoms.
Lia is a princess-gone-rogue because, for some strange reason, she would rather not be horse-traded in marriage to a prince of another kingdom. The nerve, right? She and her maid flee to the maid’s old stomping ground, pretty much causing a major diplomatic incident in the process. But it’s cool because her dad and everyone except her brothers were always mean to her, so screw them, right? Lia and Pauline try to keep a low profile, even going so far as to leave false trails for anyone trying to find them, and then they take up disguises as bar maids. Despite having no training whatsoever, Lia masters this very quickly—almost as quickly as not one but two people independently searching for Lia find her. That was fast! Oh, and these two people—an assassin and a prince—both end up rooming together at the inn where Lia is working. Do you see what I mean now about coincidences?
But what, it gets better: these three characters end up in a love triangle.
I wanted to throw the book across the room at this point, but I was reading it between innings at a baseball game, and the announcer explicitly tells us not to throw stuff on the field.
Before you go #NotAllLoveTriangles on me: this is a cliché for a reason. It’s even more of a cliché in YA, and in YA with a female protagonist. Let’s not forget that one of these characters is supposed to kill her and another was supposed to marry her but didn’t because she ran away. (Why did the “barbarous” Venda send a teenaged assassin off to kill Lia anyway? Why not send a grizzled veteran who isn’t going to fall for her? Or a straight woman? Or an ace assassin? Hmm? That was a dumb move.)
Stories work best not just with antagonists but with third parties who cross the protagonist for more mundane reasons. The entire plot of this book hinges on (a) the very people who are supposed to kill Lia not killing her despite having every opportunity and (b) everyone helping Lia in some way or another. Although the antagonists don’t exactly roll out a red carpet to help Lia, they indulge her to a ridiculous degree. More painfully, all the minor characters fall into step with Lia. Pauline? Faithful and loyal to the end. Berdi? She’ll blab your secrets around to everyone she thinks is trustworthy, but hey—isn’t that how all innkeepers roll? Gwyneth? Secretly a former spy but now totally not going to betray Lia, even though she thinks Lia is being selfish and should think more of the good of the kingdom.
Aside from the disguised prince and assassin, there is zero guile in these characters. No one is out for what’s theirs. No one has any depth beyond their role in furthering the plot. How much cooler would it have been if Pauline and Lia actually had a falling out over Lia’s lie about Mikael? Or if Gwyneth betrayed Lia because she just doesn’t like her that much? Or if, you know, either of the two people who found Lia less than a week after searching for her did something about it instead of creepily hanging around her like groupies? I’m not saying any of this has to happen, but something needs to.
And it’s a shame, because this lack of stakes undermines what might otherwise be touching moments of characterization. There’s a scene where Pauline finally screws her courage to the sticking place and tries to tell Berdi and Gwyneth that she’s pregnant. But they’ve already figured it out, and all the women hug Pauline and touch her belly and reassure her that it’s all going to be OK. This should be touching, heartwarming even, and nice example of women supporting each other. Nevertheless, it just feels so hollow, because I don’t believe that any of these characters have motivations or desires beyond their one-dimensional role in the plot. So they’re really just puppets, and that robs the scene of its pathos.
The story picks up the pace after Lia realizes she has been a massively selfish brat and decides to do something about it. Whatever its flaws, I don’t agree with anyone who suggests Lia herself lacks self-awareness: she might be naive to start, but she does change. She realizes her position gives her responsibilities that she cannot shirk simply because she’s unhappy with an arranged marriage. Watching her begin to develop a sense of interest in participating in the affairs of the wider world might be one of the few redeeming aspects of the book.
Alas, the utterly underwhelming setting and worldbuilding does not step in to support this character growth. Pearson’s world feels like a more shallow type of Eddingsverse: a bunch of fantasy-name kingdoms, some vague mythology, a prophecy, etc. Morrighan’s gods don’t have names—they’re just “the God of Compassion”. Could we get any more generic? Similarly, Lia meets up with a Bedouin/Traveller-inspired group of nomads whose matriarch gets to babble vague phrases about how the Ancients were too urban and didn’t respect nature or whatnot. Again, these creates a veneer of diversity beneath which lies … nothing of interest. I don’t see the cultures here, the beliefs or values. We’re not even in Planet of Hats (TVTropes) territory here.
There is, somewhere deep inside The Kiss of Deception (ugh, I shudder even at the title now), a seed of a good story yearning to get free. Should more princesses run away from arranged marriages? Hell yes! Subvert ALL THE TROPES! Unfortunately, this attempt at subversion is far from successful, to wit: love triangle, barely compelling protagonist, super-uncompelling antagonists, banal and vanilla setting, and no real stakes to the plot. While it might be possible to overlook or two of these things, all of them combined made for a unsatisfactory read.
I didn’t start this review with the intention of going 1-star, by the way. I was going to 2-star this book and call it a day, because I guess I still have some shred of niceness left in me (I’m working on it). But I don’t want to give you the impression you might like this book. That’s 486 pages of your life that you won’t get back, and reader, I cannot do that to you.
I’ll conclude with a few recommendations if my review has resulted in an empty slot on your to-read list that needs filling.
If you want fantasy with a “strong female character” and political intrigue … Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy series will deliver that. Warning: definitely not YA, very hot-and-steamy with S&M components.
If you want a reworking of the Snow White fairytale set in the Wild West with commentary on race … then try the novella Six-Gun Snow White, by Catherynne Valente.
Finally, if you want a story about a woman losing her identity in a fantasy world and then falling in love and rebelling against everything, you’re missing out if you don’t read The Tombs of Atuan, by Ursula K. Le Guin. Largely overshadowed by the equally-awesome The Wizard of Earthsea, this book is so good it hurts.