The Pages of the Mind by Jeffe Kennedy

This RITA® Reader Challenge 2017 review was written by PamG. This story was nominated for the RITA® in the Paranormal Romance category.

The summary:

An Orphan’s Throne

Magic has broken free over the Twelve Kingdoms. The population is beset by shapeshifters and portents, landscapes that migrate, uncanny allies who are not quite human…and enemies eager to take advantage of the chaos.

Dafne Mailloux is no adventurer–she’s a librarian. But the High Queen trusts Dafne’s ability with languages, her way of winnowing the useful facts from a dusty scroll, and even more important, the subtlety and guile that three decades under the thumb of a tyrant taught her.

Dafne never thought to need those skills again. But she accepts her duty. Until her journey drops her into the arms of a barbarian king. He speaks no tongue she knows but that of power, yet he recognizes his captive as a valuable pawn. Dafne must submit to a wedding of alliance, becoming a prisoner-queen in a court she does not understand. If she is to save herself and her country, she will have to learn to read the heart of a wild stranger. And there are more secrets written there than even Dafne could suspect…

Here is PamG’s review:

I’m a sucker for word nerd characters in my reading. Devotees of books, language, writing, libraries—bring ‘em on. And when a novel is as well written as The Pages of the Mind, it’s time to bring on the squee as well. Hence my whole-hearted enjoyment of The Pages of the Mind comes as no surprise, nor does my affection for the character of Dafne.

Dafne is librarian, scribe, historian, and advisor to Ursula, the recently crowned queen of the Twelve Kingdoms. In the years of conflict leading to Ursula’s ascent to the throne, Dafne has raised the art of self-effacement to virtual invisibility. She is more than resigned but less than happy with her lot in life, feeling herself valued yet still an outsider in her own home. Still, the last thing she ever expected or wanted was to leave home behind, board the Hakyrling, and embark on an information gathering mission for her queen. Neither did she ever expect to be left behind in a strange island kingdom while her companions sailed away to complete what she had believed to be her task. Unfortunately, extreme culture shock, scorched feet, lack of a common language, and the demands of King Nakoa KauPo tangle her in an indecipherable diplomatic situation.

From his first appearance King Nakoa KauPo is both extremely significant and dauntingly other to Dafne. There is a Kiss; there is smoldering attraction; there the major obstacle of serial miscommunications. There is also the unfamiliar magic of Nahanau’s archipelago to be parsed. Though the setting and people of Nahanau, resemble a mash up of Pacific island cultures encompassing both tropical climate and volcanic geology, the island country seems an appropriate vehicle for the sense of strangeness that Dafne feels. Fortunately, Dafne possesses a gift for languages and excellent instincts as well as wisdom in the ways of research. It is also clear that Nakoa is perceptive, intelligent, and determined to communicate with his new. . . lady friend. Though Dafne narrates her adventures with insight and dry humor, Nakoa’s powerful personality and his appeal shine brightly throughout the narrative. It is fascinating how the inability and the effort to communicate allows the reader to follow all the nuances of their developing relationship even when related from the first person perspective. In Nakoa’s case, actions do speak louder than words.

Though I kinda loved Pages, there are several potential obstacles between the reader and full enjoyment of this novel. In all fairness I think it’s necessary to mention them, before launching a little dignified squee.

First of all, Pages is a follow-up to a previous trilogy, The Twelve Kingdoms, and the start of a new trilogy, The Uncharted Realms. I haven’t yet read the earlier series and I had no major problems understanding Pages. Although Dafne’s account makes many references to earlier events, there is neither an info-dump nor any sense of being at a loss within this unfamiliar world. The number of proper names was a mite confusing, but overall the novel is satisfying and complete and doesn’t require reading the earlier books. However, having read Pages, you may want to read The Twelve Kingdoms really, really badly. I certainly do.

The second possible issue is the use of that first person point of view. Many readers seem to feel that this perspective limits their understanding of other characters in the novel. I personally love first person as long as the characters are well developed by the author. Good character development has never required readers to be silent auditors of multiple internal monologues; rather, it requires mastery of the telling detail to make characters become people you really know and care about. And that skill can be demonstrated from any point of view. Kennedy is very, very good at this. She reveals much through Dafne’s sharp observational skills, her clever humor, and her occasional naiveté, and even more through the fine-tuned use of dialogue between characters—even the mostly non-discursive communication between the Nahanauns and their visitors.

The third potential problem is perhaps the most serious. At the core of the conflict between Dafne and Nakoa is a misunderstanding that may easily be considered a consent issue. Without going into detail (because major spoilers), Dafne’s remaining on the island and her relationship with Nakoa is due at least in part to coercion. There is never any question of rape, but Dafne’s choices are truncated by the requirements of diplomacy, her burnt feet, and the language barrier. Dafne indicates that she has a pretty fair understanding of her possible role in Nakoa’s life before her friends depart, so in some sense, she does reclaim her choice. Still consent is a troubling element in this story, but I think a necessary one.

When I first read this book, I enjoyed the fantasy and adventure elements, loved the characters, and the slow burn of the romance. I might have given it a B or B+, had someone asked me to grade it. However, reading Pages a second time for this review kicked it up to kind of A-mazing. There is so much more to this than Dafne’s word-nerdery and a little improv sign language. The entire novel is built on the importance of language and communication, with words as the essential building blocks. How many times are we frustrated by romance couples who generate their own conflicts because they do not use their words? In Pages, the hero and heroine literally have no words. So much of the action is built around Dafne’s and Nakoa’s attempts to communicate with one another. Nor is the full burden of understanding dumped on the in-comer heroine’s shoulders. Without reading Nakoa’s mind, we see by his actions the heroic effort to “see to understand.” These people are grown-ups, and when they do consummate their relationship, it is an act that goes far beyond simple lust. Oh, yes, and emotional maturity aside, it’s pretty damn hot.

Once I became caught up with this idea, I began to see it as an over-arching theme layered through the story at many levels. Dafne’s conversations with her queen in the earlier chapters deal with the difficulties of interacting with even the people one cares most about. Ursula’s somewhat awkward inquiry into Dafne’s personal needs and wants is an oddly touching portrayal of the antisocial reaching out to the antisocial. Dafne’s response is terse and practical.

“I never met anyone I liked enough to marry.” Or even spend time with. It had always been easy to decline the rare offers. To stay safe and quiet instead. “Like you, I’ve been busy with other things.” My morning for saying the wrong thing, no doubt due to missing sleep. “That is, until you—“

“Met Harlan? An extraordinary development, true. And, as you witnessed, not something that was easy for me to adjust to. It still isn’t, to be honest.” She hesitated over something. “It wasn’t all being busy for me. I hope there isn’t. . .” She trailed off, uncomfortable, and I shared her embarrassment. Both of us so private and protected, in our different ways. She, as always, possessed more courage than I and forged on. “This is more Harlan’s area of expertise than mine, but he seems to think I should be the one to talk to you. I have an idea of what it’s like to take refuge in being busy, focusing on the goal and telling myself that I didn’t need, well, human connection.” She huffed out a breath and shook her head. “Harlan would laugh at me for avoiding using the word ‘love.’ But that’s part of it. It takes courage to let another person in, to let them love you. More to open up enough to allow for the possibility of loving in return.”

Dafne is part of a tightly knit circle of women including Ursula and the friends who accompany her on her journey, but she is clueless about her own importance to the women who have her back, even though she herself is fiercely loyal, especially to her queen. In fact, the conflict between her loyalty to Ursula and her love for Nakoa ends up being a greater obstacle between Dafne and Nakoa than earlier misunderstandings. As Dafne’s loyalties become more divided, she herself refers to her growing inability to find the right words to say what she needs to Nakoa.

But, as they had been doing lately, words evaded me, fading before they formed, leaving my mind as empty as a blank page.

Later, as she tries to work things out with Nakoa, she tells us:

. . . the silence stretched on, no longer peaceful, but full of all the words we both hesitated to speak.

Words can be learned, but communication requires honesty and courage to speak the words. The misunderstanding that launches their relationship is balanced by the difficulty of saying what must be said to resolve their differences and the bravery required to say those necessary words. In short, consent requires words. And the relationship requires explicit consent from both parties. I think the story resolves this very well. To me, creating a successful relationship on the page is all about balance. Nakoa and Dafne are not the same, but in some essential way, they balance each other beautifully.

Maybe none of this qualifies as squee, but I definitely felt pretty squee-ish as I finished this book. Jeffe Kennedy has landed on my must buy list, and I look forward to reading both The Twelve Kingdoms and The Uncharted RealmsThe Pages of the Mind is a definite and enthusiastic A.

This book is available from:
The Pages of the Mind by Jeffe Kennedy

May 31, 2016

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