Stranger
by Zoë Archer, historical/fantasy (2010)
Zebra, $6.99, ISBN 978-1-4201-0682-4


Stranger is the standalone fourth and last book in Zoë Archer's series The Blades Of The Rose. Of the four books, I personally feel that this one has the potential to be the most interesting story. After all, Catallus Graves is a Black Englishman who carries himself as a cultured gentleman with a refined taste in clothes. He is also a scholar and an inventor, having come from a clan of ex-slaves who dedicated themselves to creating useful weapons and more for the Blades of the Rose. Unfortunately, perhaps my expectations are too high, as Stranger is ultimately a disappointing read.

This one is set in England, with half of the story taking place in the realm of the fae folks, as Catallus Graves and our heroine Gemma Murphy race against time to stop a resurrected King Arthur from being misled by the Heirs of Albion into wrecking havoc all across England and using the Primal Source to aid the Heirs in enslaving all humans and fae folks. Stay tuned for the final showdown between the Heirs and the Blades, including those folks we have met in the previous three books.

A big part of my disappointment stems from the author's handling of Gemma. I love a capable heroine as much as any, and Gemma definitely qualifies as one. The thing is, Gemma is perfect. Nothing fazes her. This is fine, but when she also pulls out from her rear end special abilities from having magic to having the knowledge to help Catallus solve various problems when it is convenient to do so, Gemma comes off as a problem-solving Mary Sue unceremoniously plonked into the story.

Adding to the spotlight of the Sue Constellation on her is the fact that she, a 19th-century heroine, not only doesn't have any problems snogging a Black man but she also is offended and even furious on behalf of Catallus for the prejudices he faces from her people. And yet, nothing in her upbringing or background shows me how she manages to become such a benevolent person. Gemma is just who she is - a consolidation of beauty, knowledge, awesomeness, and democracy in every shade of United Colors of Benetton imaginable - and a rather unbelievable one at that.

Gemma's Mary Sue tendencies can be very distracting as she keeps solving puzzles and doing awesome things in a manner that has me scratching my head and wondering how she does all those things. The other heroes or heroines in previous books have either special abilities or display natural growth of abilities that show me how they manage to become awesome. Gemma is just awesome right out of the starting gate.

Catallus doesn't completely avoid the Sue hammer as well, but at least he has a background that somewhat plausibly explains his awesome intelligence and his ability to pull from his pockets tools that will extricate him from a sticky situation. Still, even for the love child between Batman and MacGyver, he does some things here that cross the line into cartoon territory and have me chuckling.

The plot is fine, but the confrontation between the Heirs and the Blades could have been longer and more dramatic, I feel, since it's the final showdown between those two, after all. Still, I have no genuine issues with the plot or the pacing. I do wish the author has toned down the constant beating me in the head about how much the couples from the previous books are in love. I've read those books, I don't need to be told again and again how those couple sneak off to have sex at every opportunity or how they look deeply into each other's eyes and call each other terms of endearment even in the freaking heat of battle. Now that is ridiculous. But not as unbelievable as the astounding awesomeness of Catallus and especially Gemma, of course, which is my biggest issue with this story.

Stranger is a decent read on its own, if I can overlook the two Mary Sue characters in the lead, but it pales in comparison to the previous books in this series. All in all, it is a disappointing conclusion to a fantastic series.

Rating: 76


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