on Aug. 30, 2014 :
Considering how disappointing Herb-Witch turned out to be, I was a little worried about reading this. I ended up liking it a lot more, but it hurts to think how much better Herb-Wife and the duology as a whole could have been, had McCoy had an excellent editor. I'm not talking about typos – although I noticed a few (mostly, missing words), there really weren't that many. My problem is with the story, which would have been much better if it had been tightened up.
Herb-Wife continues right where Herb-Witch left off. Kessa is at Iathor's house, recovering from being attacked and almost raped. Her shop has been burned down. She knows that Iasen was probably the one who ordered the attack and that he had probably done it out of a hatred for her barbarian blood and a desire to continue to be Iathor's heir. She knows there is nothing she can do to him directly, but marrying Iathor and giving him a son would provide her with some form of revenge. Because she's an immune, there's a good chance she won't survive childbirth, but there's comfort in knowing that her child would be well taken care of.
Plot-wise, the whole book is basically just about Kessa's goals and Iathor's efforts to find out what's really going on. Kessa begins to fall for Iathor but figures he'd hate her if he knew the truth about why she agreed to marry him. Iathor knows Kessa is hiding things and is determined to keep her safe and make their marriage a happy one, despite society's prejudices against half-barbarians and his own brother's hatred of Kessa.
I really think Herb-Witch and Herb-Wife would have been better as a single book. There just wasn't enough story, and I felt like McCoy loved her characters so much that she couldn't bring herself to do the kind of ruthless editing that would have been necessary to tighten everything up. I appreciated the slow-developing affection between Iathor and Kessa and came to understand Kessa much better in this book, but the story's pacing was, overall, pretty terrible. Did we really need to see Iathor and Kessa's entire trip to Cym? And did we need to hear so much about Kessa's bleeding? It seemed like she spent half the book either menstruating (from the effects of Purgatorie) or bleeding from her and Iathor's cringe-worthy wedding night.
Even so, McCoy is really, really good at writing compelling characters and interesting worlds, and those things were what kept me reading, even when nothing much new seemed to be happening. Iathor was my favorite character in the book, and it wasn't long before I developed a literary crush on him. He carried his power as Lord Alchemist well. I loved how he tried to balance his strong sense of duty and his growing feelings for Kessa.
Kessa was more subdued this time around, due both to her feelings of guilt about the things she was hiding from Iathor and her belief that she would soon die in childbirth. I appreciated that she no longer tried to bite Iathor's head off at every opportunity, even as the reason for the shift in her behavior hurt. I hated that it took her so long (almost the whole book!) to truly trust Iathor, and I desperately wanted her to have a greater sense of her own self-worth.
I spent half of Herb-Witch trying to get a handle on the characters and the world, so it was a relief that this was no longer an issue for me in Herb-Wife. I was fascinated by Kessa and Iathor's world, even as some aspects repelled me. For example, the reliance of dry tea and men's tea (contraceptives) on maiden's blood bugged me. In this world, the menstrual blood of a maiden (very strict definition of maiden – no kissing, no sex, no sexual behavior of any kind) was somehow different from other blood. I had so many questions about that. The glossary mentioned that it doesn't just have to be menstrual blood, but I still wondered, why maidens? What about virginal men? And why would kissing interfere with the blood's properties?
The dramsmen were another thing that both fascinated and repelled me. Herb-Witch just talked about them, whereas Herb-Wife actually showed the dramsman's draught in action. Nobles like Iathor were very conscious of their responsibilities towards their dramsmen, but it was still hard to imagine anyone who had a choice about it willingly agreeing to take the draught.
Because it badly needed to be tightened up, I hesitate to recommend this duology, but I became so attached to the characters and this world that I plan to read the related works that McCoy has written.
A combined cast list and glossary is included at the end of the book.
(reviewed 32 days after purchase)
on Feb. 10, 2013 :
I really enjoyed both this book and the previous one, Herb-Witch. The relationship between Iathor and Kessa is complex and feels true to life (to me, at least).
(reviewed 22 days after purchase)
on Sep. 6, 2012 :
As I recently discussed earlier, Elizabeth McCoy is a damn good author. Herb-Witch (the first book of the series) ends with you being hurtled over a figurative cliff (as opposed to just hanging there). I hate cliffhangers. No really, I hate them, they annoy me and they must die. I hate the wait. I hate the wondering. Hate, hate, hate. And yeah, if you’re curious Jim Butcher drove me freaking nuts with his latest Dresden Files books. Other than my deep abiding hatred and loathing of cliffhangers I liked the first book and I sure as hell liked the second one. Herb-Wife picks up where Herb-Witch left off, again, I won’t spoil it but the title should give away at least some of it. Kessa, Iathor, and that unpredictable bastard Iason are back. The second book quite succinctly sums up just about everything I could want summed up but I’m still left with questions and even a few doubts (but that’s the case with nearly every bit of fiction out there).
As a sometimes writer myself I know one thing: endings are hard. You cannot possibly tie up every string, thread, and spool of plot there is. And if you tried, you’d go mad. Still you can tie up the big ones and even a few of the small ones, and in the end that’s the best you can do. McCoy nails it pretty close to the mark, making sure most of the plots are tied with a ribbon and a bell. Also there is a refreshing lack of plot-holes (on either proverbial ceiling or floor). The dialogue remains witty and the attention to details remains high. The book in general was a real page-turner and I must admit I finished it in less than three days of before-bed reading.
Again, the vagueness of geography threw me off a bit; places and names were mentioned but with only the barest of descriptions. There was also one instance of “Why is that character here” but it was justified enough later on that and I was suitably mollified. I was rather disappointed by the book length, I felt the author could have gone on a bit more and I found myself at the end far too quickly. Both books of the Lord Alchemist’s Duology are worth acquiring if you have a love of low-magic fantasy worlds or alchemy in general.
(reviewed 4 days after purchase)
on March 24, 2012 :
This is a darker, more sensual book than the first book, Herb-Witch, so be forewarned! That said, it delivers excellently on all the promises of the first book. It isn't much of a spoiler to observe that the marriage between Iathor and Kessa does come into being, and it is not going to be your typical fairy-tale happily-ever-after marriage... In fact, Iathor's confusions are just beginning.
There is prejudice against the 'barbarians', of which Kessa is a half-breed; there is hatred from a source Iathor would not have expected but Kessa knows too well; there is Kessa's own upbringing casting pebbles beneath her steps as they explore the murky waters of what it means to be married to one another, Lord Alchemist and herb-witch just one foot out of the gutters. These combine to keep the tension high, and me reading pages late into the night.
Elizabeth McCoy's world-building shines again as she explores more consequences of a world where alchemy is the mainstay technology and its practitioners are groping through its dark mysteries. We see more about how immunity to mind-affecting potions can be a dual-edged sword, and how loyalty-creating potions can shape their civilization. Alchemy is never treated as a deus ex machina; it is a source of problems and tools that, used wisely, can help solve these problems... But wisdom must come from its users, so we are naturally introduced to malevolent users as well as benevolent.
While this book forms a complete duology with the previous book, I do hope that there will be more Lord Alchemist and Kessa stories coming soon!
(reviewed 26 days after purchase)
on March 10, 2012 :
Happy endings aren't always happy for everyone, or even endings, and this sequel proves the point nicely. While Iathor and Kessa may be betrothed, they aren't married yet, and even then that doesn't necessarily make a _happy_ marriage, let alone heirs.
A number of the events in this book reference the previous one, or revisit philosophical and ethical problems inherent in the series. This is all to the good, as it makes the story feel more plausible, more something that could happen in a living, growing system, rather than just a single short story. The characters and the ongoing plot developments leave the reader wanting more in this series, and in this universe.
(reviewed 15 days after purchase)