This was such a beautiful book. I came into it expecting a romance and a family struggling with alcoholism but “Riding the Storm” by Franci McMahon had so much more depth than your standard genre expectations. It was a love story in more ways than one – love for racing, horses, family, the land, the ties that bind.
This is the story of Kate Duncan, the daughter of a horse trainer who’s also a drunk and behind the scenes, possibly involved in shady race fixing, and her slow-burn romance with the ranch’s jockey, a Blackfeet Nation who’s also a two-spirit, akin to a genderfluid person in a woman’s body. I picked this up because of the sapphic vibes and I want to see more nonbinary representation in romance and that part did not disappoint.
I expected the usual stereotypical portrayal of alcoholism, too, but that was sensitively handled, showing Kate’s evolution from denial and making excuses for her father to standing up to him and showing empathy and compassion throughout.
Where the book really shone was in its vivid descriptions of ranch and racing life. Felt like I was right there in the barn torn between difficult choices.
I enjoyed The Year of The Witching on audio book, which I listened to after finding out about Alexis Henderson’s newest release, but I liked House of Hunger even better, although it had its issues.
I liked the main character, Marion Shaw, and found her plight of abusive brother and abusive workplace to seek a better life compelling, if derivative. Scrappy Marion doing whatever it takes to survive intrigued me. The universe Henderson created as a backdrop was also interesting, the democratic South with lots of poverty and income inequality versus the aristocratic North with its royal houses and debauchery. Marion answers an advertisement in the paper for a bloodmaid, which the south views as nothing more than whores but in the North are held with a creepy reverence. Marion, used to servanthood, views the role as a highly paid servant and jumps at the chance to leave Prane behind. I thought she should have questioned a lot of things more at the beginning; for a seasoned street thief she seems entirely too trusting and naive.
It turns out the source of the power of the North is blood in this fresh take on vampirism, where Northerners are human but not quite human with a hunger for blood. Marion is thrust into the world of bored Northerners with their lavish sex parties and becomes besotted with the Countess she is contracted to, the mysterious Lisavet with an odd blood disorder.
I felt the middle of the book really dragged, and Marion went from curiosity to obsession in too much of a lightswitch. It got bogged down in petty noble games and female infighting between the bloodmaids. Had the standard problem of the saggy middle where the author seems to have just lost the train of ideas. But the ending really picked up. I’ve read enough books classified as gothic horror that just weren’t scary, or the horrors in the book were just horrible things and there was no sense of dread or suspense. By the time the pace picks up, the dark twist on the romance between Lisavet and Marion and the whole bloodmaid operation is properly scary.
I also was confused about what properties blood had that made it so special to Northerners. It felt like more of a fetish to me than anything that had truly special powers. The blood didn’t seem to give them any power or have any magical properties. The reason for taking the blood was never properly explained other than some random folk tale legend that didn’t really make much sense.
Other than that I enjoyed this book, despite its predictability and familiar tropes. If you love sapphic gothic you’ll be entertained.