Sawbones was a book that caught my eye the moment I saw it, because HELLO! Western setting? An independent, determined woman doctor as its protagonist? Only problem was, its genre was straight-up historical fiction without even the ittiest bittiest hint of a speculative element, and I was already being crushed under the weight of review books that I’ve committed myself to on behalf of my Sci-fi & Fantasy book blog. Reluctantly, I decided to give Sawbones a pass at the time, and probably wouldn’t have thought about it again if it weren’t for a strong recommendation I received weeks later, from someone whose bookish opinions I highly respect. Now I’m on the other side of reading it to say how utterly thankful and glad I am to have given this one a try after all, because it was damn brilliant and I absolutely loved it!
The book’s blurb likens the story to “Outlander meets post-Civil War unrest” which is a comparison I find both very appropriate and also a little misleading. Like I said, Sawbones is completely devoid of any magic or sci-fi, time traveling or otherwise, but that said, I believe it would indeed appeal to fans of Diana Gabaldon’s series who might be looking for a similar blend of romance and adventure set in a very harsh time and place, whose brutal realities we are not spared from at all. It is especially hard for our protagonist Dr. Catherine Bennett, a New York woman practicing medicine in the 1870s in spite of those who regard her profession as scandalous and highly unseemly for someone of her sex.
That is why when Catherine is falsely accused of murder, she finds little support in her societal circles and is forced to go on the run with a $500 bounty on her head. And for anyone looking to start a new life or to disappear, the answer lies west. With her loyal maid Maureen in tow, Catherine escapes to Texas and joins the Warren wagon train under the new identity of Dr. Laura Elliston. Even though female doctors are rare enough to draw attention, Catherine—now Laura—loves her work too much to give it up, and hopes to start fresh with her own practice out in the uncharted territories of Colorado where no one will know her face.
But of course, things don’t go as planned. Those who already know what became of the Warren wagon train can probably guess, but if not, I’m not going to spoil the details of the plot’s early bombshell. I think up until this point, I was still expecting a whole different kind of book, but afterwards it finally hit me what I was really in for. Suffice to say, if you’re like me and picked this one up thinking it would be your typical lighthearted historical romance, you’re going to be in for a huge surprise. To tell the truth, the first 20% of the novel didn’t impress me overly much, but when things took a graphically violent, traumatic, and heart-wrenching turn for our protagonist, that was the moment I realized the kind of story author Melissa Lenhardt has set out to tell, and she’s not pulling any punches. This book had my full attention after that.
The first thing you should know about Sawbones is the merciless, no holds barred portrayal of life on the frontier. Lenhardt confesses to taking a few minor liberties with history in order to make the story work, but a lot of the people, places and events in this book were real. Much research and effort was clearly put in to bring the setting and historical era to life in all its harshness. Racism was rampant. Women had very little say about anything, even when it came to their own business. Settlers in this part of the country were frequently raided by native tribes and white bandits alike. People were raped, killed, mutilated, abducted and abused in the worst of ways. The injured often did not survive, succumbing to infection, bad weather, poor nutrition, or any number of factors that could doom you. This book does not gloss over any of those gory, gut-twisting details.
The second thing you should know is that the characters are amazing. Told from Laura’s point of view, readers are accorded a real treat going deep into the mind of an unconventional protagonist who has followed her heart and given up so much to keep pursuing a dream. Her personal growth as a character follows a riveting arc made even more complex by the subtler themes, which come full circle by the end of the book when Laura is forced to acknowledge that life is not so clear-cut in the isolated wilderness of the west. As a doctor, her principle tenet is to save lives and do no harm, but when push comes to shove, she is also capable of making the difficult choices. Even in her stubbornness, she is likeable and relatable, and I wanted to see her succeed.
There’s also a fantastic love story, featuring a forbidden romance that is at once passionate and convincing. From the moment Laura saves the life of Captain William Kindle, they set off an undeniable chemistry. I enjoyed their sweet interactions and the well-written dialogue between them, making it easy to get on board with their blossoming relationship. Kindle himself is a dedicated and honorable soldier, good to his men and kind to Laura, so I’m glad that the romantic interest in this novel ended up being someone worthy of our protagonist’s devotion and respect.
It was this mix of loveliness with the book’s vicious, ruthless side that made Sawbones so compelling. I must emphasize again that this one is not for the faint of heart, but if you have a strong stomach for some of the more unpleasant things I described in this review, you might find plenty to like in this splendid hidden gem of a historical novel. The story is pretty much self-contained, even if the ending felt just a tad abrupt, but I was ecstatic to find out that there will be a follow-up called Blood Oath coming out later this year. You can be sure I’ll be devouring it as soon as I can get my hands on it....more
Julia Verne St. John’s fantasy steampunk alternate history novel The Transference Engine became one of my most anticipated releases of 2016 when The BiblioSanctum hosted the cover reveal for it earlier this year. The first time I glimpsed that beautiful cover was also the first time I’d heard of this book, and both the protagonist and the world sounded fascinating to me. A mystery involving necromancy, set in an alternate 1830s London that’s run on magic and machines? No way I wasn’t going to love this. In spite of my excitement though, by the time I was through the first few chapters, I realized I was probably going to have to adjust my expectations.
These first few dozen pages or so introduced us to Madame Magdala, the proprietress of the Book View Café, a magical library where patrons can sit and read while enjoying a cup of coffee and freshly baked pastries. However, the café’s centerpiece is a magical book sorting contraption designed by Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage, a literal search engine that can find any book you ask for in the library’s collection. Magdala and Lovelace—the woman who will one day become the world’s first computer programmer—go way back, from the time Magdala was first hired by Ada’s mother to be a governess and protector for her daughter.
That’s because Ada’s father is also the notorious Lord Byron, the famous poet and depraved necromancer. Even after his death, Lady Byron feared that her husband’s followers would try to resurrect him in a new body using a soul-transferal machine called the Transference Engine. While the original machine was destroyed ten years ago, there’s no telling how far the necromancers will go to complete their task. Now, with reports of young men and women disappearing all around London (and several of the missing being employees of the Book View Café), Magdala is concerned that someone might be attempting to repair the Transference Engine by collecting enough innocent souls to bring back the one of Lord Byron.
In truth, I actually liked this novel. If I was a little disappointed, it’s only insofar because I thought I was going to love it. My main issue with the book was how slowly it started. For a 300-page novel, I typically expect things to be moving long by page 50, but this story didn’t pick up in earnest until more than halfway through, which is quite a lot to ask of your readers. I was feeling much more generous with The Transference Engine and kept reading because I genuinely was taken in by the world, but I think others might not be so patient. Not that the plot didn’t interest me, but I would have liked this a lot more if the major developments were presented sooner.
The number of confusing flashbacks was also another factor that played into the pacing issue. Part of the problem is that this book almost reads like a sequel, with the heroine constantly referring to events in the past like I should be aware of them already. This feeling of “sequel-ness” was so strong, I did some research after finishing The Transference Engine to see what I could find. It turned out, I was right—sort of. The character of Madame Magdala was actually first introduced in a collection of short stories called Steampunk Voyages, published by the author in 2013 under her name Irene Radford. Many of the past adventures Magdala mentions in The Transference Engine are apparently from this anthology, including her experiences involving her past clients, Mary Godwin and Percy Shelley (the latter was a necromancer too). Knowing all this, I understood the reason I felt so lost and confused was because I was effectively starting this story from behind.
That said, I really liked some of the characters and world-building elements. I actually wish these aspects could have been developed more, but the truth is this book was probably too short to fit all the ideas the author wanted. The narrative also spends way too much time on things I didn’t find as interesting, such as Magdala’s constant congratulating of herself for taking in orphans and other street children (almost like she has to remind us all every few minutes what a kind, magnanimous soul she is). In actuality, what I really wanted to know was more about the amazing technology in this world, like her little tiny clockwork hummingbird, or her awesome book finding machine. I’d also hoped that Ada Lovelace would feature more prominently in this book; I think she’s an incredible historical figure and it was such a shame that she didn’t play a bigger role in the story.
Once this book got going though, it really moved. All the set up in the first half of the novel paid off in the second, and I breezed through the story’s climax and conclusion. I don’t know if I can wholeheartedly recommend this since the beginning was so confusing and somewhat dull, but at least the ending was satisfying, even if it did wrap up a little too quickly and neatly. The pacing issues really hurt this novel, robbing this mystery story of its full potential, but there’s also plenty to like here if you’re a fan of the steampunk genre and enjoy reading about cool world-building ideas. If there’s a sequel, I can see pacing improving since the foundation has already been established, and I would be very curious to continue the story....more
Prince Vlad III of Wallachia, known in his day as Dracula, also later received the sobriquet of Vlad the Impaler for his cunning cruelty and fondness for brutally punishing his enemies. But what if Prince Vlad had been Princess Ladislav…a girl? What choices would she have made? How would others have regarded her? How would the world have been different? These questions and more are explored in Kiersten White’s young adult alternate history novel, whose premise to actively subvert the archetypical princess trope immediately drew me in.
Indeed, Lada is not your average princess. Imagine spending your childhood and your formative teenage years as a political hostage far from home, your fate in the hands of your cold-hearted father who gave you up as a promise to remain loyal to the Ottoman empire. After that, Lada knew she could count no one but herself. For the longest time, there were only two constants in her life: her love for Wallachia, the country she vows she will one day return to, as well as her love for her younger brother Radu who, along with Lada, was also handed over to Sultan Murad to ensure their father’s obedience. Radu may not be a fighter, but he’s also the only family Lada cares about now, after her father has proven weak in her eyes.
Keeping her hatred for the Ottomans burning in her heart, Lada nonetheless goes through the motions, learning the culture, philosophy, and religion of her captors—though she fights her tutors every step of the way and refuses to forget her roots. She also learns the art of combat from elite Janissaries, who allow her to train with them after she impresses them with her ferocity and determination.
Against her judgment though, Lada ends up caring for another. Almost from the moment she and her brother meet Prince Mehmed, the young son and heir of Murad, the three of them have become virtually inseparable. As the children age, Mehmed becomes more than just a friend to both Lada and Radu. Lada, however, has never forgotten her promise to Wallachia, and even though she is still the same fierce princess, there’s also no denying that her years in the Ottoman court have changed her in other ways.
As promised, Lada is a brutal and violent princess, even as a child (perhaps a preview of the adult she will one day become). Initially, I was a little disappointed that we had to spend so much of the book focused on her early life, but then the story evolved into a very interesting coming-of-age tale. When she still lived in Wallachia, Lada worshipped her father, wanting nothing more than to make him proud. Sadly, Vlad II didn’t really have much respect for girls, and later on Lada realizes to her anger and disappointment just how little he cared about his family. Her character remained unbowed after her arrival at the Ottoman courts, however, and she certainly didn’t take too kindly to being a political prisoner either, breaking a tutor’s nose when the man dared to offend her. I really enjoyed Lada’s character, because for all her recklessness and impotent raging, she’s definitely someone who can take care of herself.
Despite Lada being the main protagonist though, all my heart and sympathies actually ended up going to Radu, who became my favorite character. While Lada’s life was heartbreaking, Radu’s story utterly destroyed me. For all this book is centered on the brutal princess, I could probably go on forever about the gentle prince. Radu may be timid and weak, but he shows his strengths in other ways, opting for deep thinking and subterfuge in situations where his big sister would probably go in guns blazing. Unlike Lada, Radu actually manages to thrive in the Ottoman court, embracing all its ways. However, the most gut-wrenching part is when he falls in love with Mehmed, even knowing that his feelings will never be reciprocated. As if that’s not enough, he then has to watch the object of his affections fall for his sister. Poor Radu. I’ve never wanted so badly to reach into a book and give a character a hug. This book also portrayed the topic of sexuality wonderfully, capturing Radu’s internal struggle with much compassion and humanity.
It’s the relationships that make this novel. The description touts a love triangle, but as you can see, it’s like nothing you’d expect. There are so many complicated emotions between the two siblings, with love and loyalty sometimes giving in to resentment and jealousy. Lada and Radu are polar opposites of each other, with one having a fiery personality while the other is more soft and sweet-tempered. One also despises the Ottomans with all her heart, while the other has all but adopted their prison as his home. The one thing they do have in common is their love for Mehmed, but that relationship is also the cause of so much explosive friction in this book.
It probably comes as no surprise that I really enjoyed this. And I Darken is a character-oriented novel, the kind I love, where the bonds between people form the very essence of the story. The complex relationship between Lada, Radu, and Mehmed was so all-consuming that it made overlooking some of the book’s weaknesses a little easier. There were some minor annoyances, like mildly purple prose or some plot pacing issues, but I think one of my key regrets is that this story wasn’t as dark as the blurb teased. While Lada is modeled after the real Vlad the Impaler, who is known for his sadism and cruelty, the author probably pulled some punches on Lada’s ruthlessness in order to make the character more likeable (not to mention the book more age appropriate, but even by YA standards this is pretty tame…and so is Lada). To be fair, I know this is the story of her early life, but somehow I think I’ll still find it hard to reconcile the person she is now to the bloodthirsty ruler she’ll no doubt become if the rest of the series seeks to continue to echo Vlad’s reputation.
I’m looking forward to finding out how it’ll all play out, though. The scene is now set for the next book of The Conquerors Saga and I’m fantastically excited to see what will happen next in Lada’s journey....more
Diving into a debut novel is always a bit of a gamble, but it can also prove exciting and extremely rewarding—especially when a book ends up surprising me or blowing away all my expectations. These are the moments I live for and this is exactly what I felt with Mark Tompkin’s The Last Days of Magic, a breathtaking historical fantasy saga about mysticism and mythology through the ages.
I am absolutely in love with this novel and its premise, which posits that magic is real but merely forgotten, suppressed and denied. Today we dismiss the tales of the Sidhe as nothing but folklore and legend, but just a few centuries ago humans co-existed with all kinds of supernatural creatures, and in no other place was that bond stronger than in Ireland, the last bastion of magic against the encroaching powers of the Vatican Church. Much of island’s strength comes from the protection of its patron deity the Morrígna, a goddess whose three aspects come together to rule over the Celts and the Sidhe. One of Her aspects resides in the Otherworld as a source of power, while the other two—known as Aisling and Anya—are always reborn in the mortal realm as identical twin girls.
The book begins with the introduction to the last incarnations of the twins Aisling and Anya in the autumn of 1387. But just days before their ascendance ritual to become one with the Goddess, disaster strikes. Without the assurance of the Morrígna on their side, fears begin to rise and alliances start to break down, leading to a weakened Ireland and a fractured Middle Kingdom, which is the home of the Sidhe. Taking advantage of this instability, the Vatican prepares to rid the world of its last remnants of magic by using the forces of King Richard II of England to invade. Thus the story is as much about Aisling and Anya as it is about their protectors, and about Jordan, a mercenary turned Vatican commander who arrives on the shores of Ireland to find that the magic is not all as it seems.
When I’m promised epic historical fantasy, this is exactly the kind of book I’m looking for, pushing the boundaries of multiple genres by blending medieval history, Irish legends, and even Biblical elements. Other religions were mostly stamped out during the Christianization of Europe in the Middle Ages, which serves as the backdrop for The Last Days of Magic. But while this by itself has been a theme in many works of fiction about why real magic has passed from this world, what I find interesting here is foundation for the origins of all supernatural creatures. In this book, magical beings like the Fae (which are typically associated with paganism, earth spirits, and nature worship) also have their roots in Christianity, so that the Sidhe (faeries like the Skeaghshee, gnomes, pixies, fire sprites, leprechauns, dryads, etc.) along with the Elioud (banshees, imps, sirens, goblins, giants, etc.) are all branches of the Nephilim, offspring of humans and fallen angels. Tompkin’s portrayal of the trinity goddess Morrígna as Anann, Aisling and Anya to bring all Irish Fae and humans together adds even more layers to the land’s mysterious and ancient magical customs.
At first, all of this can be a little confusing, and the author’s somewhat pedagogical style also has a tendency to be distracting. He inserts a lot of historical detail, though this isn’t really a criticism since most of the time I find the information helpful and educational. Of more concern is probably the non-linear storytelling. While each chapter is labeled chronologically, within most of these sections are multiple time skips and flashbacks, and it took me several chapters to grow used to this rhythm. Once I got it down though, the story really took off.
Soon enough, this book had me completely captivated. In light of my observations about the writing, I was actually a little surprised at how quickly I took to the characters. I wouldn’t have thought Tompkin’s seemingly didactic style would translate all that well to deep and engaging characterization, but in truth his storytelling is remarkably expressive. There are a lot of players in this book, some fictional and some not, but they are all shaped very convincingly by the story’s events. This is especially true of Aisling, who had her entire worldview ripped away from her on the day she lost everything she loved. Her tale is a tragic one, but after a while Jordan also emerges as a more prominent figure. His role to seek knowledge goes a long way in transforming the narrative by giving it a more hopeful tone. I also enjoyed seeing how everything that happened in this story was placed in a historical context, including all the magically-infused scenarios—a testament to the amount of research that must have gone into the writing of this novel.
All that’s left to say is bravo! The Last Days of Magic is everything I want in a historical fantasy, offering a tale that sparks the imagination and explores the multilayered relationship between truth and myth. Mark Tompkins has created an incredible world filled with vivid characters, capturing the complex nature of faith, love, and conflicting loyalties. A stunning, evocative debut....more
This has been an amazing year for YA fiction, and to be honest my bar has been raised so high I’m surprised anything can still blow me away at this late stage in 2015. Still, I knew I had a good feeling about Ryan Graudin’s Wolf by Wolf, an alternate history novel set in a world where the Axis powers rule the world. Enter the Resistance’s only hope, a teenage girl who needs to win a motorcycle race from Berlin to Tokyo in order to assassinate Hitler.
At the risk of sounding frivolous in light of the novel’s dark themes, I still remember the first time I heard about this book. For a few astonished minutes, I sat and stared at the publisher’s description thinking, Are you kidding me? This sounds like the most awesome premise ever.
It is 1956, eleven years after Yael first escaped from the Nazi death camp where she was subjected to horrific human experimentation. Side effects from those experiments left her with an uncanny ability to skinshift—with just one thought, she can take on the appearance of someone else. This has made her central to the Resistance’s plans. Yael’s mission: to win the Axis Tour, the annual intercontinental motorcycle race, by impersonating Adele Wolfe, the only female to have ever entered. As last year’s winner, Adele was granted an audience with the highly reclusive Adolf Hitler at the Victor’s Ball. But this year when she wins and dances with Hitler again, it will be Yael behind Adele’s face instead, ready with a blade to sink between his ribs.
That’s if everything goes as planned, of course. Yael has spent the last year training, learning how to race motorcycles, and studying all the footage and files on Adele Wolfe that the Resistance can get their hands on. But then the unexpected happens. Felix Wolfe, Adele’s twin brother, joins the race last minute, putting the whole plan at risk. Then there’s Luka, another past victor who is determined to win his second Axis Tour. Apparently, Luka and Adele had a romantic history, but it was in none of the files Yael studied and she knows nothing about the relationship. The race is hard enough with the cutthroat competition and more than twenty thousand kilometers of harsh road to the finish line, but now Yael will have to carry out her deception in the presence of the two people who knew Adele best. The odds are long, but Yael has to win—the world is depending on her success so that the Resistance can launch the next phase of their operation.
As intrigued as I was by the story, at first I had my doubts that Ryan Graudin could pull it off, since a good book is more than just a great premise. However, I needn’t have worried. The blurb pitches Wolf by Wolf as Code Name Verity meets Inglourious Basterds, but I’d say throw in a little bit of Survivor and The Amazing Race too. We get the gist of the plot in the first fifty pages, but the rest of the book—the race itself—is the masterpiece, checkpoint after checkpoint of dangerous adventure and exciting alliances and rivalries. I’m so impressed with how much action is packed into what could have been pages of tedium over the course of this long journey, but the story turned out to be as twisty as the road to Tokyo, full of unexpected surprises and memorable experiences.
This book would have been a quick read had real life not gotten so busy lately, and believe you me I had a difficult time putting it down when all I wanted to do was to curl up with it for a few undisturbed hours, learning all of Yael’s secrets. She’s such a complex character, having survived so much horror. Flashbacks from her past are woven into the narrative of the race, revealing how she and her mother were sent to the concentration camp, how Yael eventually escaped, and how she ended up with the Resistance. We learn how Yael was shaped by the important people in her life. After all the years and all the identities, Yael has forgotten her real face, but she will never forget her loved ones and how their lives made a difference in hers.
Also, while we don’t get to see much of the real Adele Wolfe, the girl Yael is tasked to impersonate is an intriguing question mark in her own way. There are many gaps in Yael’s knowledge about the other girl, a fact made painfully obvious whenever Felix or Luka bring up past events that she has no knowledge of. We’re piecing things together along with Yael, trying to pick out clues from snatches of conversation. Wolf by Wolf is full of action, but it’s also one giant intriguing puzzle, and I loved how the adventurous and suspenseful elements came together.
I was really surprised to discover halfway through reading Wolf by Wolf that there will be a sequel (which clued me in to a not-so-tidy ending) but after finishing the book you can bet I’ll be reading the next one too. Ryan Graudin created something phenomenally unique and amazing here; so many things could have worked out poorly but the end result turned out to be almost flawless. I can’t wait to see what other surprises the author has in store....more
Lovecraft Country was not what I expected, but it was a good kind of different. I’ve never read Matt Ruff before and only know of him by his reputation of being a cult novelist, and perhaps I thought I was going to be in for a pulpy horror read, considering the title and the cover. It turned out to be all that, plus a lot more substance.
Told in a series of interconnected short stories that form an overall bigger narrative, much of this book takes place in the 1950s following the lives of several members of a black family who find themselves entangled with a cabal of sorcerers in “Lovecraft Country”—a term that has more to do with the rampant racism in that part of the US at the time, rather than the Lovecraftian horror subgenre.
The novel begins with the title story. After serving his country, Atticus Turner returns home to Florida to find that his father Montrose has gone missing, prompting a road trip to Chicago to find out what happened. Soon, his journey brings him to New England with his uncle George and a childhood friend named Letitia. Together, they discover that Montrose has been captured and held prisoner by the Order of the Ancient Dawn, a secret society led by the enigmatic sorcerer named Samuel Braithwhite. Trapped at the estate, Atticus and his family are ultimately rescued by Braithwhite’s son, Caleb.
It turns out, however, that Caleb may have his own agenda. Through the rest of the stories in book, we’re introduced to the other characters in Atticus’ extended family and circle of friends. Each section of the novel is a tale of a supernatural encounter with the Order of the Ancient Dawn or Caleb Braithwhite, who has remained in the shadows, hounding their every step.
There are definitely plenty of Lovecraftian themes in this book, which is what initially led me to pick this up. But while the hallmarks of cosmic horror and paranormal elements abound, that’s not what really disturbed me. The thing you should know about Lovecraft Country is that it takes place in an era where racial segregation and Jim Crow laws are still very much alive, and Ruff’s depictions of the terrible ways African Americans were treated back then are as stomach-churning as you would expect. If the characters react pragmatically in the face of the supernatural horrors and cosmic creatures in this book, well, maybe that’s because the dangers they have to deal with in the real world are a lot worse in many ways. Violence and abuse fueled by racism, ignorance and hate is something that hangs over them every single moment of their lives, coming from monsters that are all too human.
To be sure though, there are also strange events and unseen monsters lurking at every turn, and I thought Lovecraft Country was an intriguing, creative blend of pulp horror with social commentary. The speculative elements made this one a fun read, but the story also made me reflect upon the deeper themes the like identity and history, how both have a hand in shaping a society and the people who live in it. It’s a very “connected” novel, and I don’t simply mean the way it’s structured so that the book reads more like a collection of related short stories with multiple character arcs instead of just the one traditional plotline, because all the themes and ideas in the individual sections come together in the end to form a cohesive whole as well.
Speaking of the structure though, I wasn’t expecting the short story format when I picked this up, and I admit I was initially thrown off by the frequent transitions. Even though this book is not your typical collection, it still has a few of the same issues, mainly that some stories are better than others. Not all of them captured my attention the same way and I fell into a lull with one or two, but that’s probably the only criticism I have for this book. As with most anthologies and collection-type books, not all the stories will have the same quality or appeal to me the same way.
Audiobook comments: Finally, I want to mention that I listened to the audio edition of Lovecraft Country. It is narrated by Kevin Kenerly, who did a great job bringing the all the different characters to life. Though, it feels kind of like a missed opportunity that they didn’t get an additional reader or two on board, since multi-narrator productions are pretty common these days for anthology/short story collection audiobooks that feature stories with way more than just one central character. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed Kenerly’s excellent performance. If I had to do it all over again though, I might have opted for the print version, or even read/listened to the print/audio versions in tandem, because some of the stories in here definitely required more time to digest. Audiobooks are not exactly well suited to frequent pauses mid-chapter to reflect, but I still very much enjoyed my experience in this format....more
While I enjoy time travel books as much as the next reader, I still recall my doubts when I was first pitched this book: What if I don’t know that much about World War I? How much history do I need to know in order to follow the plot? Will I still be able to enjoy this story?
Looking back at those questions now, I have to laugh. Really, I needn’t have worried about a thing. Even though history is at the center of this plot and WWI is the inciting incident that sparks the fuse, Time and Time Again turned out to be about so much more. With shades of Stephen King’s 11/22/63, this novel is a suspenseful and heartfelt adventure through time and alternate realities. In truth, it focuses more on the repercussions of changing history and what it means for the main character—as well as for the whole world and the generations after him.
In a not too distant future from now, Hugh Stanton is an ex-soldier and a washed up celebrity who has lost everything. The army wants nothing to do with him, and his once popular survival webcast had to be shut down after ratings fell. His wife and children are dead, killed in a hit-and-run accident in which they never found the culprits. With nothing left to lose, he agrees to take on an insane mission from a group of Cambridge scholars who call themselves the Order of Chronos.
If you had one chance to change history and make the world right, when and where would you go and what would you do? This was the question posed to Stanton by his old history professor Sally McClusky, the Master of Trinity College herself. For all of them, the answer was simple—June 28, 1914 in Sarajevo, to prevent the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand thus removing the catalyst for World War I.
The reasoning behind their choice is both surprising and not surprising, but you’ll have to read this book for yourself to find out why. Suffice to say though, it made for a good premise. It’s no wonder that there are all sorts of “What If?” speculations surrounding this date, considering the string of extraordinary coincidences that led directly to the Archduke’s death (if you haven’t heard the story about the sandwich that changed the world, definitely look that one up!) If just one thing had changed that day, could the Great War have been averted? And how might the world look like afterwards?
And here, Ben Elton had my full attention. As I said before, I enjoy stories about time travel, and my favorite books are always those that make me see things in a whole new light. Time and Time Again definitely deserves a place in this category. I love time travel theories that pull together history and science fiction, and Elton achieves this in style, postulating that Sir Isaac Newton had found a way to travel back in time and even tied this event to the great mathematician’s nervous breakdown during the period of 1692-1693. However, the best thing about this book is all the twists and turns, especially when it comes to a couple of big revelations near the end. Obviously I can’t go into them in any detail, but what I can say is that with so many poignant and unforgettable moments, Time and Time Again is one truly special book.
Ben Elton also knows how to keep a reader’s attention. I went into this book thinking it would be similar to a historical drama, but I was surprised to find an exciting mix of mystery, suspense, and even some romance and light humor. This isn’t a story that relies on a single element or one aspect of its premise to make its point, and again, this was what made me think of King’s 11/22/63. If you enjoy multi-faceted time travel stories, Time and Time Again is worth checking out—even if you aren’t particularly well-versed in the history of World War I. I myself have never been too interested in the topic, yet I found myself unable to resist the author’s vivid descriptions of early 20th century Europe, and it was doubly interesting to experience this world through the eyes of a character as fascinating as Hugh Stanton.
But above all, I loved how this book made me think. Going back to the original question Sally McClusky posed to Hugh Stanton: If you could make one change in history to make the world better, what would it be? Perhaps our protagonist should have answered the question with another one: Would you even want to? Not that the idea itself isn’t tempting, but who makes history anyway? Can a single person really make a difference, or are we all just like particles in Brownian motion, creating history with each and every random collision? Maybe it’s naïve to believe we can change the future by altering the past, deciding who lives and who dies. Maybe it is hubris and lack of understanding that ultimately causes Stanton to make all his mistakes, leading him to his own little quandary.
In case it’s not obvious by now, I had a great time with this book. This is the first time I’ve ever read Ben Elton, and I’m very impressed with his extensive knowledge of the time period as well as the brilliant way he structured and paced this story. I thought I’d seen it all when it comes to time travel plots, and never have I been so glad to be proven wrong. Time and Time Again swept me up in its richness and intrigue, taking me to places I never expected. I know this one is going to stay with me for a long time. Definitely one of the most captivating time travel novels I’ve ever read....more
This spring, Masks and Shadows rocketed its way up to my most highly anticipated list. With its themes of palace intrigue, passionate romance, secret conspiracies and dark magic, the book sounded right up my alley and I am pleased to say that Stephanie Burgis’ first adult historical fantasy did not disappoint.
The story takes place in 1779, transporting readers to the extravagant court of Nikolaus I, Prince Esterházy of Hungary. Charlotte is a widowed young baroness, invited to stay at the palace during her mourning period by her sister Sophie, the prince’s mistress. The entire place is also abuzz with the arrival of Europe’s foremost castrato singer Carlo Morelli, here to enjoy the operas and grand musical productions that have made the Eszterháza so famous. Other visitors and guests that have come from afar include a Prussian spy and a notorious alchemist, setting the stage for the main event.
However, tragedy strikes as the prince’s opera troupe loses two of its most important performers. Franz Pichler, another actor, is punished in connection to his colleagues’ disappearance, while Anna, a young maid in Charlotte’s employ is suddenly vaulted to stardom when she is chosen to replace one of the missing singers. A sinister plot is hatching in the hands of a shadowy group at the palace, and as both Charlotte and Carlo are drawn into their mysterious web, the two of them are in turn drawn to each other even though they know deep down that a future together is forbidden. Still, if the threat to the royal family is not stopped, there might not even be a future for anyone at the Eszterháza.
Even though Masks and Shadows features a large cast of characters, it was surprisingly easy to follow along with the story. In fact, the book was a very fast read, thanks to its great plot and smooth pacing. And despite being a historical fiction novel, never once did I feel that the narrative was bogged down by extraneous historical detail. The story’s main focus was on the characters and their relationships, which worked really well for me.
Two of the more prominent players were Charlotte and Carlo, whose interactions provide the basis for the main romantic arc in this novel. Their romance is a deliciously slow-burning one that doesn’t feel like it overshadows the rest of the story, which I found really refreshing. The two of them are also unconventional protagonists, one being a noble woman who has just lost her husband and the other being a common born castrato singer. Despite his incredible talent and fame, few people at court see Carlo past the fact he is a castrated man and his lower status as a performer. Meanwhile, Charlotte is prevented from following her heart by her selfish flake of a little sister, to whom she still feels loyal even though the younger woman treats her like crap. I despised Sophie, and wished that Charlotte had shown more backbone in the face of her sister’s disparaging, but this also underscored how Charlotte’s personality was shaped and why her actions later on in the book are so significant.
Like I said, the romance is just one thread in a story which also features a mystery plot as well as a coming-of-age tale. The speculative element comes in the form of an alchemist’s dark magic and ability to summon entities from another realm, and gradually it is revealed how this plays into the larger picture. Anna the 16-year-old former-maid-turned-opera-singer also has a strong presence throughout the novel, making me think Masks and Shadows might be as much about her as it is about Charlotte. I was impressed at how flawlessly everything came together and resolved the story without leaving any loose ends.
You also don’t have to be a history buff to enjoy the story; I knew next to nothing about this period or the historical figures, but I had a great time with the book all the same. And actually, it was fascinating to learn more about the setting afterwards to find out how much of real history Burgis had incorporated into her story, like how 1779 was indeed a watershed year for famous composer Joseph Haydn, whose principle patron at the time was Nicolaus I, or the fact that the Eszterháza main opera house did burn down that very same year (though the book has a much more interesting explanation for that fire!) There must have been a lot of research devoted to this novel.
On the whole, I was really pleased by the balance. It feels like there’s something for everyone in this enchanting novel, whether you’re a fantasy reader, an enthusiast of European history, or even a music lover. Masks and Shadows is a captivating read with genuine wide appeal, which I’m sure will garner Stephanie Burgis many new fans....more
Winterwood and I were love at first sight, and all you have to do is take a gander at the book’s myriad subjects to see why: Magic. History. Fantasy. Romance. Fae. Ghosts. Shapeshifters. PIRATES. It’s like an irresistible smorgasbord of all my favorite themes and fantasy elements all in one place, and a strong, compelling female protagonist was the cherry on top.
Set in Britain in the time of King George III, Winterwood tells the tale of Rossalinde Tremayne, a young woman gifted with magical abilities. Seven years ago, she eloped with privateer captain Will Tremayne along with the Heart of Oak, the ship meant as her dowry, and Ross’s mother hasn’t forgiven her since. Now Will has been dead these past three years, and Ross has taken on the mantle of the Heart’s commander, adopting her late husband’s identity and disguising herself by wearing men’s clothing.
The book begins with Ross returning home to visit her ailing mother on her deathbed. In doing so, she learns more about her family than she ever bargained for, including the fact that she has a half-brother named David, who was fathered by the household’s rowankind bondservant. Ross also inherits a beautiful winterwood box, an object of great magical power that she is told only she can open, but the repercussions of that may be far-reaching and dire. Add to that, a shadowy enemy is on the hunt for Ross as well, and he would do anything to stop her from unlocking the box’s mysteries. With the crew of the Heart and the help of her newfound brother and a dashing wolf shapeshifter named Corwen, Ross sets off on a swashbuckling chase across the high seas to seeks answers and uncover the truth about her family’s secrets.
In news that I’m sure will surprise no one, I absolutely adore stories about women characters disguised as men, and even better when the book is a maritime fantasy and the protagonist is a capable heroine who captains her own ship. I love how Rossalinde is a strong and intelligent woman, but that she also listens to her heart. She gave everything up to marry the man of her dreams, and even though she and Will only had four short years together, she doesn’t regret her decision one bit. Interestingly, while Will’s death occurs before the book even begins, we still get to meet him in Winterwood in the form of his ghost. Back when her grief was still a raw and open wound, Ross unwittingly summoned him and now his spirit is a constant presence in her life. Will’s ghost and Ross share some humorous moments, but for the most part his appearances are a reminder of tragedy; he is a symbol of her past at a time when she should really be looking to the future. Being torn between two paths is devastating for a woman like Ross who is so in tune to her emotions, which is why I felt for her.
In addition to offering a well-crafted main protagonist, Winterwood also offers an altogether tantalizing blend of fantasy and historical fiction. Jacey Bedford’s prose is elegant and evocative of the setting, which is an alternate version of early 19th century Britain steeped in magic. The world feels familiar yet new, plus we get the added benefit of being on the ocean for a substantial part of this book, deeply immersed in the life of privateering during this time period. The battles at sea against pirates and French ships alike are thrilling and dramatic, where victory may come at a high cost but the rewards are well worth it. The dialogue is also superbly done, especially when it comes to the crew of the Heart and their nautical jargon and rough accents.
In terms of magic, this book is practically full to brimming with it. Perhaps the foremost fantastical element comes in the form of the rowankind, a docile and subjugated race of people exploited for their labor. Britain’s entire economy is dependent on these unpaid servants, and yet their history and origins are mostly unknown, lost to time. However, there are rumors that connect them to the Fae, who also have a large role to play in this story. Moreover, the realm of the Fae is completely separate from the domain of The Green Lady, who rules over the natural world. While the inner workings of the various kinds of magic go largely unexplained, it is clear that there are many sources of it, and their powers mingle and react in very interesting ways.
Also, when a book’s tagline reads “A tale of magic, piracy, adventure and love”, you’d be correct to expect a heavy dose of romance. Love is something Ross is just starting to allow herself to explore again after losing Will, and Corwen proves to be a good match for her, with lots of chemistry and sexual tension between the privateer and the wolf shapeshifter (just don’t call her a pirate, or him a werewolf—them’s fightin’ words!) But to my surprise, there’s more to this book than just romantic love. Familial love is an important part of this story too, with Ross accepting her half-brother David, becoming overprotective when he is threatened or treated poorly because of his rowankind heritage. I was impressed with the emotional level and complexity of the relationships in this book, as well as its unique perspective on social prejudice.
The best thing about Winterwood is its many fascinating components, which Jacey Bedford weaves into one amazing story of magic and adventure. Rollicking action is expertly balanced with passionate romance in this novel which will leave you salivating for more, and I loved every moment! I’m already looking forward to the next installment and dreaming about a return to this exciting, magical world....more
The year is 1926. In our real world, America would have been in the throes of the “Prohibition era”, a time in the twenties to early-thirties marked by a nationwide ban on the sale, production and importation of alcohol. But in the world of A Criminal Magic, it is sorcery and its related activities and products that are ruled illegal by the passing of the 18th Amendment.
However, the attempt to clamp down on the “evils” of magic only resulted in creating new types of crime—and lots more of it. Activity in the criminal underworld has exploded, with smugglers transporting magical contraband into the country from overseas. Gang bosses have also set up secret dens in the cities where customers can indulge in clandestine magic shows while guzzling the “shine”, an ensorcelled beverage with euphoric but highly addictive effects. In the middle of this are two young people who come from very different beginnings, but both end up walking the path that leads them to working for the notorious Washington D.C. criminal organization known as the Shaw Gang.
Speaking of which, their story brings to mind that old adage about the road to hell being paved with good intentions. Both Joan Kendrick and Alex Danfrey are on this journey for similar reasons, hoping to atone for past sins—except the former is in it to do right by her family, while the latter is seeking redemption and revenge. To keep her cousin and little sister fed and sheltered, Joan agrees to work as an entertainer in the Shaws’ finest club, the Red Den. Alex’s history on the other hand is much more complicated, being the son of a businessman who was convicted for racketeering for the mob. A trainee in the Federal Prohibition Unit, Alex was well on his way to becoming just another apathetic and dirty cop when he is suddenly offered the opportunity to turn his life around by acting as a mole to infiltrate the Shaws.
A Criminal Magic offers genuine entertainment. The atmosphere, the suspense and the gorgeous magic is all there, and for the most part it was a smashing hit with me. I am always crazy for alternate history because it is such a thrill seeing what authors can do with the time period, and I just love having new experiences in general. In that sense, this book was everything I wanted and definitely took me on a wild ride. So many of the ideas here electrified me, from the sorcerer’s shine to magical teamwork! It’s an ambitious novel to be sure, but while a thousand and one things could have gone wrong, Kelly pulled it all together beautifully. It was an absolute joy to read her elegant prose and storytelling.
Was the book perfect? No, though I have to say it was damned nearly so. I was most disappointed that the Roaring Twenties didn’t come through as fully as it could have, falling just short of being convincing or immersive. Aside from the occasional mention of men in fedoras and awkward insertions of “dame” in the dialogue, this novel could have taken place anywhere and anytime else. I was able to also foresee most of the story because of its rather shallow plot involving the same old power struggles and betrayals, a timeworn scenario considering how predictably it features in every other gangster movie ever made. If mob films happen to be your thing, you might find portions of the novel overly simplistic and not particularly original (like Alex’s recruitment before graduation and his subsequent stint in prison to increase his credibility, for example, which was plot point a straight out of The Departed.)
Character development also felt a little thin for supporting characters, though Joan and Alex were written very well. Still, they were hard to embrace wholeheartedly because I found both to be so naïve and, in Joan’s case, so self-absorbed. It’s interesting how my feelings for them at the end of the book were a complete turnaround from how I felt about them at the beginning. I loathed Alex with every fiber of my being when he was first introduced, but by the final chapters he had become a favorite. Meanwhile, my opinion of Joan started high but fell with every wrong move and weak excuse she made. Their romance didn’t feel right to me either, almost like forces outside the fourth wall were pushing them into the relationship instead of letting it occur naturally.
Of course, these are all minor issues. None of them are even close to deal breaking, and the book’s magic and stunning climax and conclusion also made up for a lot of them.
A Criminal Magic is an example of great storytelling, with an extraordinarily unique vision. While it didn’t quite meet all my expectations, it’s still a solid novel that I would recommend to others without hesitation. My first book by Lee Kelly was a great experience, and now it’s got me eyeing my copy of her debut City of Savages with hungry curiosity!...more
Any time Guy Gavriel Kay releases a new novel is a cause for celebration. Even with the understanding of how much work and time must go into each and every one of them, the waiting never gets easier! Known for his talent for recreating famous historical periods using fantasy, Kay’s books are all gorgeously written and painstakingly researched works of art, often infused with powerful messages and themes. I’d been looking forward to Children of Earth and Sky ever since it was announced and was beyond excited to finally get my hands on it.
Like many of his stories that feature fictional analogs of real places in history, this novel is said to be inspired by the conflicts and intrigues of Renaissance Europe. It is apparently set in the same “universe” as Lions of Al-Rassan, if I recall the names of the religions and the world’s twin moons correctly, though readers who know their history will probably recognize elements from the fifteenth to sixteenth century eras right away. For instance, the Ottoman Empire has been reimagined as the Osmanli Empire, and the most Serene Republic of Venice or la Serenissima Repubblica di Venezia has become the Republic of Seressa. Using this vibrant setting as a backdrop, Kay chronicles the lives of a disparate group of characters whose fates are all interwoven and connected like the threads of a tapestry.
There are about half a dozen key players in this epic drama. First, there’s Danica Gradek, a young woman from Senjan who joins a group of raiders to harry Seressa ships that trade with the Ashar. The Asharites destroyed her village when she was a child, killing most of her family and stealing away her younger brother. However, unbeknownst to her at the beginning of this novel, Danica’s brother was actually taken to be trained as a djanni, an elite soldier for the Osmanli Empire. Formerly known as Neven Gradek, he is now Damaz, brought up in the Asharite ways and ready to be deployed on his first mission with the army. There’s also Pero Villani, an impoverished painter who manages to score a huge commission to paint the portrait of the Grand Khalif of Asharias—but in truth his real purpose there is to spy for Seressa’s Council of Twelve. Pero is also not the only spy the Council has procured; another is Leonora Valeri, a noblewoman cast out by her family for becoming pregnant by a man from a lesser house. After her father had her lover killed and the baby taken away, Leonora agrees to be a spy in order to escape her family’s clutches and leave her old life behind. Passage has been arranged for her and Pero on a ship captained by the brave Drago Ostaja and owned by the family of Marin Djivo. As the son of a prominent merchant from Dubrava, Marin is no stranger to the dangers on the high seas, but his life is forever changed when his ship is boarded by a band of pirates. Among them is the Senjan archer Danica, and thus, our web of characters is complete.
A prevalent theme in many of Kay’s books is how history and people—their actions, their decisions, their fates—are all related. A single individual can shape the life of another a world away, based on how the ripples caused by events both large and small will flow through time. Children of Earth and Sky illustrates these patterns by following its characters “in the moment”, but the narrative will also frequently take a step back to look at the full picture. The author did something very similar in his last book, River of Stars, in which he explored a person’s life from multiple angles, going backwards and forwards in time to show how even the smallest gesture can have significant repercussions throughout history and affect multiple generations to come. If you’re not familiar with his work, brace yourself for a lot of point-of-view changes, present-to-past tense switching, and skips all over the timeline.
This makes it pretty much impossible to rush through any book by Guy Gavriel Kay. I’ve said this before, but his work is meant to be savored slowly, though sometimes that is by necessity and not by choice. Personally, it took me three days just to read the first one hundred pages, but only three more to finish the rest of this novel. I find that’s usually par for the course when it comes to Kay’s books, since the incredible amount of detail in his world-building often requires a rather long adjustment period. Still, there were a few issues that made Children of Earth and Sky a little more difficult to get into. First are the many distracting instances of info-dumping, which I admit I was surprised to find, since Kay is usually a lot more discreet when it comes to filling in the political or historical background. Second, there were some pacing problems playing havoc with the flow, especially when it came to character POV imbalance. It bothered me how some characters would feature prominently for a while and then just disappear for a long time, until all of a sudden they would come back, pushing aside others to fade into the background, and then the cycle will begin again. Because of the format, at times you also had to read about the same event two or three times as multiple characters would describe it from their perspectives.
As I’m fond of saying, some authors are simply incapable of writing a bad book, just that some of them may be better than others. Guy Gavriel Kay is one of these authors, and it’s not that I disliked Children of Earth and Sky, but I also don’t think it was his best. Still, despite the rough start, I ended up really enjoying this book. Plus, it’s hard to be disappointed, given the beautiful way the author writes. If there’s a lack of poetry or subtlety in this compared to some of his other works, then he more than makes up for it with the heightened tensions in this fantastical world of war and intrigue....more
I really want to bring attention to this one. In a word, Abomination was AWESOME. It feels like I’ve been waiting for a book like this my whole life, a historical fantasy mixed with horror that puts the “dark” in Dark Ages.
The only catch? The first part of this novel, made up of the first eight chapters, is its major weakness. I don’t want this to put anyone off though, because it really is not bad. However, when compared to the rest of the book, this section had the feel of a very long drawn-out prologue; the pacing here is a bit choppy, its tone blunt and cut-and-dried, the writing style straightforward and almost pedagogical in its delivery – not unlike a textbook. That’s because the first eight chapters are foremost concerned with establishing background information and historical details. They didn’t quite mesh with the part that came after. To me, Chapter Nine felt more like the real start of the story, kicking off the main narrative which takes place approximately fifteen years after the events of the first section. Here we finally get to the meat of it, when things truly begin to take off.
The entire tone of the novel also changes. We get a lot more character-focused, with the plot centered on two key protagonists. Wulfric is a former knight, fallen far from grace, who now wanders the English countryside dressed in rags and chains. Once the greatest soldier and former confidante of King Alfred the Great, Wulfric now lives in the shadows. Fifteen years ago, he fought to rid his kingdom of a plague of monstrous beasts known as abominations, and for his troubles he was cursed with a fate worse than death.
Then there’s Indra, a fierce young warrior, determined to prove herself worthy as a knight of the Order, an elite group of monster hunters. She is ten months into her initiation trial, which she must pass to become a full-fledged paladin. To do so, she’ll have to hunt down and kill an abomination within a year. Indra means to succeed, if nothing else just to defy her arrogant and controlling father, who was against this whole idea from the start. She’ll return home with the head of an abomination, or not at all.
The difference between the first third of the novel and its later two-thirds is incredible. I was not impressed with the beginning of the story, but after this turning point, I quickly changed my mind. I loved the characters. Wulfric is great, once I got to know him – which I felt we didn’t get the chance to do in the first section. He didn’t become fully realized for me until I got to meet him again in this second life of his, no longer a knight but a lowly beggar keeping away from civilization, fearing that innocents will die as a result of his terrible curse. His painful and blood-soaked past is awful and tragic, and if there’s one thing the intro did well, it was to make readers understand why Wulfric ended up the way he did. I also really liked Indra, which wasn’t too surprising; after all, it’s rare for me to read a spec fic novel and not to be drawn to a female protag, especially one this amazingly skilled with swords. Give me a woman with a sharp blade, any day.
The writing style also improved. Gary Whitta utilizes a third person omniscient point-of-view all through the novel and the effect is much like watching events play out like a movie. Of course, Whitta is also best known for his accomplishments in the film industry as a screenwriter (he did the post-apocalyptic thriller The Book of Eli and his writing credits also include Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Star Wars Rebels, and The Walking Dead game from Telltale) so that was consistent with my expectations. I also really enjoyed the main story of Abomination, a bloody and gruesome tale of monsters. I meant what I said about waiting for a book like this to come along; I rarely get to see such a cool mix of history and horror, serious but also entertaining, and absolutely not shy about the graphic violence and grotesque descriptions of the abominations.
So if you end up picking up this one and find the writing not to your tastes, please do give it a chance to prove itself. Things really change and pick up after the first section. It was definitely necessary to get the history and background provided by the first eight chapters, but I think somehow weaving all that information subtly and evenly into the rest of the story would have made it a stronger novel. That also would have made a major plot reveal later on much less predictable. Still, aside the awkwardness of the first hundred pages or so, this book is scarily close to perfect. All things considered, I still really enjoyed Abomination and think it’s a damn good book. Worth checking out if you’re a fan of horror – especially if monster movies or stories are your thing!...more
When it comes to Young Adult fiction, David Hair hasn’t just broken the mold. He’s completely shattered it. His book The Pyre is a substantially revised edition of his 2010 novel Pyre of Queens, inspired heavily by Indian folklore and mythology, even incorporating a reimagined version of the epic Ramayana. The entire novel takes place in India, following the lives (and past lives) of a trio of Indian high school students.
Two story lines occur in tandem over the course of this novel. One takes place in 769 AD in the royal court of Ravindra-Raj, the mad king of Rajasthan. His people live in the shadow of his tyranny, and anyone suspected of sedition or rebellion is quickly tortured and killed. Fearing that Ravindra will come for him next, Madan Shastri, Captain of the Guard, redoubles his efforts to show his loyalty even though his king’s cruel commands sicken him. The court poet Aram Dhoop is a bookish man who is unhappy with the way things are, but lacks the fighting skills or courage to do anything about it – that is, until Ravindra suddenly dies under mysterious circumstances and Aram learns that the king’s wives are to be burned to death on the pyre along with their husband’s body. Aram had fallen in love with the newest of the wives, a young woman named Darya, and in a moment of daring, the poet rescues her from the flames and whisks her off away from the palace. As the guard captain, Shastri is ordered by Ravindra’s son and heir to go after them. Reluctant as he is, Shastri has no choice but to obey.
However, all was not as it seemed. Ravindra’s death and the burning of his wives was actually a part of the mad king’s schemes all along. His plan to rise again as Ravana, the demon-king of the Ramayana was thwarted by Darya’s escape, and now he’ll make them all regret it – for a long, long, LONG time.
Fast forward to a high school in the city of Jodhpur, Rajasthan, in the year 2010. Nerdy Vikram, athletic Amanjit and beautiful Deepika are three students whose lives are changed forever when a strange phenomenon is triggered the first time they all find themselves together in one place. Soon, they’re working together to solve the mystery of how the three of them are linked, and the answers they seek may be hidden in the past.
Before reading The Pyre, the only other works I’ve read by David Hair were his Moontide Quartet books, pure epic fantasy albeit with some influences from real life locations, cultures and religions. This book, however, is impressively solid mix of Hair’s understanding and respect for Hinduism, the rich mythology and history of India, as well as the realities of modern life in that country today. The amount of research and care that went into this book to make it as accurate as possible must have been astounding.
Also, for a book that’s being classified by many as Young Adult, it is actually quite mature. Even though the three main protagonists are teenagers, adults will have no trouble enjoying this. David Hair doesn’t pull punches or talk down to his audience, even when it comes to the portrayal of difficult or sensitive themes in both the historical and modern-day timelines. Reflective readers will also find plenty in this book to discuss or think about.
The book is not without its flaws, though in the overall scope of things, they can be considered pretty minor. I thought the story was a little slow to take off, and generally I found the storyline with the three teens in the present to be more interesting and engaging than the storyline with Aram, Shastri, and Darya in the past, though that may be a very personal preference. Even with the very obvious love triangle thrown in, I simply found life Hair’s description of Vikram, Amanjit, and Deepika’s day-to-day lives in modern-day India much more fascinating and unique. After all, how often do I get the chance to read something like that? Whereas, the past storyline didn’t feel that different from reading historical fantasy.
All in all, if you enjoy books that are creative retellings of myths and would like to broaden your horizons beyond stories inspired by the western tradition, you definitely need to put this one on your list. The Pyre is a great opportunity to experience a story featuring diverse locations and characters, not to mention a wonderful read all around....more
Reign of Iron was a great end to a great trilogy. But it still felt like it was missing something.
If you’ve read the last book, you probably know what I’m talking about. After the shocking events that took place at the end of Clash of Iron, I was curious to see how the characters will pick up the pieces and carry on. Hopefully towards a triumphant ending, but with Angus Watson you just never know. As he has already shown us with the previous two books, anything can happen in this series. All we can do is brace ourselves and hold on tight.
This third book wastes no time at all, picking up right where we left off. Quite some time passes in the intro, however, as the tribes of Britain finally wake up to the reality of the invading Roman forces of General Caesar on their doorstep, ready to claim the land for themselves. They rally around Lowa, the warrior queen of Maidun.
But Lowa herself has quite a lot of her mind. Her campaign and her own morale was dealt a serious blow at the end of book two. Over the next year, a lot of significant events take place. Lowa gives birth to her son, the child awakening feelings in her she never knew existed. Sadly, she also loses touch with Spring, the young druid distancing herself to deal with her private grief. All the while, Caesar’s troops are amassing, and the Roman general now has druids and magic of his own. Things look pretty bad for Lowa, but she will do whatever it takes to save her people. For the future and freedom of Britain, every warrior is determined to fight to their last breath.
Thematically, Reign of Iron probably feels closer to Clash of Iron than it does to the first book, Age of Iron. The Romans aren’t just a threat now; they are real. They’ve even unleashed the war elephants, for Jupiter’s sake! We’re in the midst of war, the fighting is in full swing, and the book is as brutal and bloody as ever. The caveat I brought up in my reviews of the first two books also applies here: if you’re squeamish about violence, cruelty, torture, death and all that unpleasantness and pain, it’s best to avoid this series or approach it with discretion. Watson’s Iron Age is a cruel and dark world.
Also, once again the emphasis has shifted on the characters. For me, Age of Iron was Dug’s story. Clash of Iron was more like Lowa’s. Reign of Iron is a novel that focuses on everyone, but I also can’t help but feel that Spring finally got her own book. She really got to shine in this one, and I loved her escapades across enemy lines.
That said, we see a lot of growth in all the characters. The feelings left behind from the last book are still there, which can’t be helped, but the characters’ spirit and resolve at least helped lift me out of that gaping chasm of sorrow. Both Spring and Lowa have their own ways to bolster Britain’s armies, which kept things interesting and sometimes humorous. Motherhood has also changed Lowa, and the mixed feelings she has for her baby becomes a new factor in her war planning.
Not everyone is such a joy to read about, though. Over on the Roman side, you have Ragnall the former druid and *cough* traitor *cough* who can’t seem to peel his lips off Julius Caesar’s backside long enough to see what really is going on in the world around him. We also have the druid Felix, whose flashback chapters don’t change my opinions on him that he is an insane and evil child-murdering sadist. The fact that he’s after Spring makes him even more hated. And Caesar is…well, Caesar is just Caesar. The man had many eccentricities, and let’s just say Angus Watson made sure to capture them all here.
So yep, it’s definitely the women who win big in this book.
Now that the series is over, I just have to say how impressed I am with the way the author tied everything together. Very little is known about life in Iron Age Britain and Mr. Watson made it clear from the start he was going to have a bit of fun with filling in the history, but he would be doing so by drawing from the huge amount of research he did for these books. But even though the premise is rooted in history, he never failed to place characters and story first. And the result is a huge success.
Finally, this is also the first time I reviewed the audio version of a book in this series, and I’m happy to report that listening was just as enjoyable as reading. English actor and narrator Sean Barrett is perfect! I love his accent and his inflections. Also, funny sometimes how we as audiobook listeners immediately associate a narrator’s voice to a character’s. Barrett’s voice is exactly how I would have imagine Dug to sound like, making me wish now to experience Iron Age again from the beginning, but in audio this time around. They really couldn’t have chosen a better actor to read this series.
All in all, I can’t recommend this trilogy enough. I had my doubts this book could deliver, after the second book and what was one of the most shocking endings I’ve ever read. That’s not something a series can easily bounce back from, and in truth I doubt it’s even possible to fully recover. And yet, Reign of Iron pressed on and finished off marvelously. I wait on pins and needles, arrows and swords to see what Angus Watson might do next. Here’s hoping he’ll keep writing great stories....more
Just as fun and entertaining as the first book! Going back to earlier this summer, here were some of the words I used in my review of The Shadow Revolution, book one of Clay and Susan Griffith’s new Crown & Key trilogy: feisty, ass-kicking, fast-paced, pulpish and adventurous, the perfect beach read. Now I’m pleased to report its sequel proved just as satisfying, especially since we know what we’re getting into and are more acquainted with our main characters.
The Undying Legion is the second installment of the trilogy, but instead of hitting the “middle book slump” this book really takes off and hits the ground running. Simon Archer, Kate Anstruther, and Malcom MacFarlane are back on the hunt for monsters and other things that go bump in the night, and true to form, we kick off this story with a grisly discovery. While on one of his nighttime patrols, Malcolm comes across the mutilated body of a woman in a London church. Based on evidence at the scene – signs of black magic, cryptic words carved in stone, mysterious Egyptian hieroglyphics carved into the victim’s exposed heart – Malcolm, Simon and Kate determine this to be a ritual murder.
However, this just turns out to be the first of many more gruesome ritualized killings around the city. We follow our heroes as they join forces with a quirky gadgeteer and a young werewolf to solve these mysteries, creating an unlikely alliance to battle demons, Egyptian mummies, necromancers and hordes of zombies. Let’s just say The Undying Legion sure lives up to its title.
I ended up enjoying this book even more than its predecessor, mainly due to the improvements in a couple of areas I felt were lacking in The Shadow Revolution. While I love the fast-paced action and page-turning enthusiasm of “popcorn” reads such as this, let’s face it, these kinds of stories don’t often leave much room for fully-fleshed character development or robust world-building. This was the key weakness of the first book. Still, I understood the reason for the trade-off, and had hoped to see the authors go beyond the surface-level details in this sequel to expand upon the characters and the world.
This was the real test for me, and happily, The Undying Legion passed with flying colors. It’s often expected of a sequel to build upon its preceding volumes, and this one carried that responsibility well, giving us a more intimate look into the lives of Simon, Kate and Malcolm, as well as rendering their world into a fully realized setting. I felt like I was given a lot more reasons to care about the characters, especially as their relationships strengthened and grew more complex. Likewise, I could appreciate the clever and snappy dialogue from before, but knowing the history behind all the relationships now, many of the interactions started taking on a deeper significance. Supporting characters aren’t left out either, and I was very happy that Penny Carter the adorable inventress as well as Charlotte the child werewolf both got bigger roles.
The pacing in this book was also far less chaotic, allowing more opportunities to develop the story and explore its overall arc. The Undying Legion presents a new adventure, but rest assured, the questions raised in the first book about Kate and Simon’s connection and the mysterious key won’t be forgotten. Throughout it all, the plot maintained its rigorous momentum, so effectively that even now it’s a wonder to me how this book managed to accomplish all that it did in a little over 300 pages.
Final verdict? I once said this series is like the equivalent of an explosive summer action blockbuster if movies like that existed back in the Victorian era, and I stand by that. The Undying Legion doesn’t add much to the first book in terms of its light, pulpy tones and monster-hunting themes, but it’s still a deeper experience for all that because of how much more we’re invested at this point. I’m looking forward to check out what I believe will be Kate, Simon and Malcolm’s biggest adventure yet in the series conclusion, The Conquering Dark....more
So many comparisons have already been made to describe Sorcerer to the Crown, and I’m going to chime in too with “This feels like epic fantasy for fans of Gail Carriger.” Zen Cho has created a world here that’s reminiscent of Austen meets Tolkien, yet at the same time it’s so wonderfully adaptable that pigeonholing this book into any one category makes it feel a bit remiss.
A Regency setting is what you will get though, even if the nature of the style and story is up for debate. “Fantasy of manners” is also a subgenre that frequently crops up in discussions of novels like this, with a focus on a rigid set of expectations within a hierarchical societal structure. One of the protagonists in Sorcerer to the Crown is Zacharias Wythe, the first black sorcerer in Britain who also holds the highest office in his profession, a fact that makes him the target of much opposition and bigotry from many of his so-called “socially-refined” peers who feel that a freed slave should not have risen so far above his station.
Institutional racism and oppression is a real menace in this story, even overshadowing the threats of war from France, the dwindling magical resources of England, and the political entanglements involving the matter of witches and belligerent visiting diplomats. In spite of all that’s going on, Zacharias’ greatest enemies end up being his own neighbors and fellows. Already plagued with ugly rumors surrounding the death of his predecessor and adoptive guardian, now it seems someone has decided to go even further by attempting to murder Zacharias. Just when he thinks life couldn’t get complicated enough, along also comes Prunella Gentleman, a mixed-race young woman of considerable thaumaturgical power, and Zacharias takes it upon himself to mentor her in a society where women using magic is considered anathema.
The fleeting mention of Prunella in the book’s blurb actually belies the huge role that she plays. While I adored Zacharias, to me it was Prunella who stole the show as the star of the novel with the sheer force of her personality. In every proper situation she somehow still manages to find a way to throw expectations back into the scandalized faces of those who naively thought they could use tradition to keep her in line. It was also very entertaining to see how often she bends etiquette to her advantage, wielding it as a weapon rather than letting it restrict her (as evidenced by a particularly hilarious scene where she proposes the use of gossip and rumor as a way to actually deflect potential damage to her reputation). I loved her for her frankness and her thoroughly unbreakable spirit, and because she is strong, ruthless, and determined – in other words, the opposite of everything the small-minded folks in this book say about women magicians.
I was also surprised at how light-hearted this novel was, some of its weightier themes notwithstanding. I definitely don’t claim to be an expert in Regency fiction or books of this type, but it’s my understanding that a particular style of humor is frequently employed and that it could be quite tricky to pull off. For what it’s worth, I thought the author nailed it. There’s some genuine wit in here, subtle but also infused with that certain Austenesque charm. That said, I wouldn’t exactly call Sorcerer to the Crown an easy read, especially if you’re not use to the style, which I’m personally wasn’t. I confess to having a difficult time at the beginning of the novel while adjusting to the writing, which I thought it was a little hard on the eyes and it made reading slow. But eventually I did get into it, as you can see; once I reached a point where I could enjoy myself and start appreciating its cleverness and nuances, this novel was a pure joy.
Zen Cho crafts her setting with much love and care, evoking the Regency era and all its punctilious social arrangements but also manages to seamlessly weave in romance, adventure and political intrigue – and I haven’t even gotten the chance to mention the magic and all the fantastical creatures yet. Dandy socialites, posh boarding school matrons and quarreling politicians share this wonderfully unique world with fairies, dragons and magicians. It is a truly delightful alternate history where magic is an integral part of life.
You really can’t ask for more. Sorcerer to the Crown is a deftly written novel that thoroughly explores important issues, adding further depth to a story already rich with memorable characters and a pleasantly entertaining plot. Zen Cho is a new fantasy novelist who is immediately going on my list of authors to watch, and I’m looking forward to her next book in this series....more
From the very start, I had a feeling that Walk on Earth a Stranger would be just the book for me. I have a huge weakness for fantasy western settings and themes exploring wild frontiers, so a story set in Gold Rush-era America about a young woman trying to make her way to California sounded exactly like something I would enjoy.
Ahem. Then came several of my Goodreads friends’ reviews comparing it to The Oregon Trail.
Okay, hold up a second. The Oregon Trail? THE OREGON TRAIL?!! I loved that game growing up. I’m not ashamed to admit that I still dig it up to play every few years, just to relive the nostalgia. If this book lives up to even just a fraction of those descriptions, it was going to be awesome.
But the best has yet to come. Not long after I started this book, I was delighted to discover that In Walk on Earth a Stranger, the protagonist is a girl named Leah Westfall who has to take on the guise of a boy, becoming Lee McCauley in order to strike it out on her own cross-country.
Why, yes, the girl-disguised-as-boy trope happens to be one of my favorites, actually.
Perhaps my love for this book was a forgone conclusion, perhaps not. Regardless, I don’t hand out full marks lightly, especially when it comes to Young Adult fiction. Folks know I’m super picky about my YA. As I was reading, I was looking for other things to fall into place, because nothing frustrates me more than a great idea undermined by shoddy execution. This being my first book by Rae Carson, her writing and storytelling was also a big question mark to me so I had no idea what to expect.
As you can see though, I ended up enjoying every moment! I was also very impressed with Carson’s writing, so much so that I want to rush to add her other books to my TBR, post-haste.
Still, I’m not sure that I would enjoy anything as much as I did Walk on Earth a Stranger. True, this book features several themes I like, but it also deviates from a lot of YA conventions, which is probably another reason why I took to it so completely.
First of all, if you like a lot of magic in your fantasy, you’re not going to find much of it here. The only fantasy element in this book is Lee’s special power, her ability to sense gold around her. A most handy talent for someone with plans to head out west during the Gold Rush hoping to make their fortune, but it doesn’t come into play throughout much of the story, which mostly involves a lot of traveling. And traveling. And more traveling.
Which brings me to my second caveat. If you’re seeking action and excitement, a fast-paced plot to get your blood pumping in your veins, Walk on Earth a Stranger is not really that kind of story. It is a tale of survival, with as much focus on the emotional journey as the physical one. Let’s go back to The Oregon Trail comparison. You remember all the horrible things that could befall your company, right? You had everything from buffalo stampedes to little Mary has the measles. The point is, not every danger or threat is immediate; some, in truth, are pretty boring and routine. Doesn’t mean they still can’t kill you though, if you don’t have help. Thus, while brute force and personal determination might help get you to California, so too does the power of cooperation and forging lasting friendships. No, this book isn’t exactly a page-turner, but what you do get is your character development and meaningful relationships in spades. The people you meet in this book will become your family. Whenever good things happened to the characters, I couldn’t help but feel giddy with joy. And when they experienced tragedy, my heart ached along with theirs.
Third caveat: If you need a love story, you can forget it. While the slightest hint of lovey-dovey feelings are ever present between Lee and her best friend Jefferson, the romance is so slow-burning that it is virtually non-existent. Wait, you mean, there’s no unnecessary romantic drama to get in the way of the story? Perfect! Lee does end up feeling jealous towards another girl in their wagon train, but eventually the two of them actually become friends. I can’t tell you how refreshing that is, especially these days when it feels like every four out of five YA novels I read that has a female character who’s not the main protagonist, they inevitably become bitter enemies. It’s nice to see a potential rival end up an ally for a change.
Another nice thing about this book is that it can be read as a self-contained story. Of course, Rae Carson leaves plenty of breadcrumbs along this journey to pick up for the later books, but she’s not leaving us with any burning questions or an infuriating cliffhanger. Honestly, I don’t need any of those to want to read the sequel; a chance to spend more time with the wonderful characters I met in this book is already incentive enough for me. This is YA fiction done right, in my opinion, with a charming approach to history and just a light brush of fantasy. I loved it, and I want more like this....more
“Magic vs. Machines” seems to be a recurring theme in my YA lately, and Shanna Swendson’s alternate history steampunk fantasy novel Rebel Mechanics is my latest venture. In it, we go back to 1888 New York City in the American colonies still under British rule. The revolutionary war never happened because the Britain have magic on their side, but the desire for independence cannot be extinguished. Instead, a new faction of rebels calling themselves the Rebel Mechanics have emerged, determined to invent machines to prove that science and technology can not only match the might of magic, they can also replace it. If the colonies are no longer dependent on the British and their Magisters, America can win her freedom.
Sixteen-year-old Verity Newton arrives in the city in the early days of the rebellion, seeking a position as a governess. Overwhelmed by the new sights and sounds, she is unexpectedly befriended by a group of young men and women from the Rebel Mechanics who notices her plight and helps her out. Verity ends up being hired by the brilliant but absent-minded Magister Lord Henry who tasks her to look after his nieces and nephew. Recognizing an opportunity to aid her Rebel Mechanics friends, Verity agrees to become a spy, gathering intelligence from Lord Henry’s household as well as the various Magister events she would be invited to. However, that was before she discovers that her employer might actually be more sympathetic to the rebels than anyone thought.
The beginning of this novel showed real promise. I loved the writing style, the time period, as well as the idea that a showdown between Magisters and Mechanics is being set up as the catalyst for this alternate world’s version of the American Revolution. But as the story progressed, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was missing for me, something vital. Eventually, I realized what it was: I could not connect at all with any of the characters in this book.
Let’s start with Verity – an independent, ambitious and determined young woman. So far so good. Throw a dreamy green-eyed boy in her path, however, and that whole persona promptly shatters. She goes from being an interesting character to an exasperating one in the span of two seconds it takes for her to fall head over heels in lust with a Rebel Mechanic named Alec. After this, it’s “I wonder if Alec feels the same way about me?” or “Oh I do hope Alec will be at this party!” Alec this and Alec that. Verity becomes blinded to everything around her, even though as the reader, all kinds of alarm bells were ringing in my head warning me that our poor besotted protagonist might be walking into various traps. Verity is oblivious of course, because her brain stopped working as soon as Alec stepped into the picture.
It was also hard to sympathize with the Rebel Mechanics, which didn’t help. Regardless of their cause, I lost whatever respect I had for them the moment they put the lives of children at risk to forward their agenda. The scene was somewhat glossed over, but it didn’t lessen my disbelief or revulsion at the selfishness of these characters. Even Lord Henry, who was by far my favorite character in this novel, goes gallivanting off on his clandestine nightly adventures without much thought to the future of his young niece and nephew, though admittedly his situation is a lot different. But with all the deceit and trickery and dishonesty flying around, I was feeling just done with everyone in this book. Perhaps all the subterfuge was supposed to make the book more suspenseful, but it completely backfired on me.
Still, despite the issues I had with this book, it had its moments. Rebel Mechanics had a great premise and the writing was great, creating a rich atmosphere. I felt the spirit of independence in this story, and interestingly, I read most of it over the 4th of July weekend so it added to the vibe. If I hadn’t felt so aggravated by the vast majority of characters in this novel, I might be writing a completely different review, but there was still the awkward romance which ruined much of the enjoyment. For now I have doubts that I will continue with the series....more
I first became aware of The Shards of Heaven earlier this year and knew right then and there I had to read it. Two major reasons for that, really. First is the mention of Cleopatra’s daughter in the book’s description. Despite always being overshadowed by her famous mother, Cleopatra Selene II happens to be one of my favorite historical figures, and I never pass up a chance to read historical fiction in which she appears. The second reason is a more general one, which is my interest in this particular time period featuring the Final War of the Roman Republic, in which Antony fought a civil war against Octavian to fill the power vacuum left behind by the death of Julius Caesar.
I do so love stories set in this time period, because for starters there’s certainly more than enough history to go around, and often the facts are as captivating and irresistible as fiction. Even better is when a historical novel is laced with strong threads of fantasy as with the case of The Shards of Heaven. Author Michael Livingston writes in the preface that one world’s history is another’s fantasy, a sentiment I agree with wholeheartedly. After all, historical fantasy has always appealed to me, and a major part of that enjoyment comes from seeing the ways a writer can blend real historical elements with the fantastical.
This is done wonderfully in The Shards of Heaven, a book which takes us back to the final years of the Roman Republic. The great Julius Caesar has just been assassinated on the senate floor, leaving the future of Rome in doubt. On the one hand we have Octavian, Caesar’s nephew and adopted son, who claims to be his rightful heir. On the other we have Caesarion, the only known biological son of Julius Caesar, backed by his mother the Egyptian pharaoh Cleopatra and her lover and ally Marc Antony, former Triumvir of Rome.
As the civil war rages on, Prince Juba of Numidia, another adopted son of Caesar, steps into the ring seeking revenge for his father who was defeated by Julius Caesar’s forces in the battle of Thapsus. Through his journeys and research, Juba has learned of the Shards of Heaven, artifacts said to have the ability to grant godlike powers to the mortals who wield them. However, he is not the only one with a vested interest in these Shards. Octavian means to use one of these artifacts, the Trident of Poseidon, to his advantage in the war, and meanwhile in Alexandria, there are hidden factions and unexpected guardians determined to protect the Shards and keep them out of enemy hands.
What I loved most about this book is the faithful homage paid to the fascinating historical figures and ancient locales, though it’s certainly not the point of this story. The characters are amazingly written, coming across very genuine and fully well-rounded, which I would suggest is the true point. The majority of the people in this book were real, and Livingston has taken what we know of them and breathed new life into their characters. Of course I adored Selene, which admittedly could be my own bias showing, but you can also argue that I’ve set a high bar for this book and it exceeded all my expectations. The way Selene was written made me care about her a great deal, and it was not just her either; Caesarion, Vorenus, Juba, Didymus and others with POV chapters were all enjoyable characters with real depth. When compared to the major powerhouses like Octavian, Antony, or Cleopatra, history may remember the protagonists of this book as “bit players”, but in this story they were the ones who knew all the secrets and held the power to change the world.
I’m also impressed with the way the writing evoked the time period without over-complicating the language or burying the narrative in needless detail. Livingston lays out all the complex political alliances so that the reader has a good grasp of what’s going on without feeling overwhelmed. My only concern is that you do need to know the basics of the civil war conflict, or at least have a general knowledge of the history behind it, to fully understand the background of the novel and some of the characters’ motivations. Fortunately, the mystery of the Shards is the central focus of the story rather than the specific details of the war, and the back of the book also has a helpful glossary of characters to catch readers up.
The Shards of Heaven is a dazzling introduction to a new historical fantasy series. Livingston clearly knows his Ancient Rome, and he also has a real talent for plotting and writing compelling characters, as evidenced by the effortless way he navigates the genre. He even finds ways to throw in some unexpected curve balls, paying respect to real history while injecting an imaginative and magical twist. I highly recommend this book for both its entertainment value and for its depiction of historical events. I can hardly wait for the sequel!...more
“You ain’t gonna like what I have to tell you, but I’m gonna tell you anyway. See, my name is Karen Memery, like memory only spelt with an e, and I’m one of the girls what works in the Hôtel Mon Cherie on Amity Street. Hôtel has a little hat over the o like that. It’s French, so Beatrice tells me.”
A lot of times, it’s the books that initially fly under my radar which end up impressing me the most. This was the case with Karen Memory, whose description didn’t actually appeal to me at first. After all, as much as I love steampunk, I’ve read so much of the genre that admittedly I’ve gotten a lot pickier in recent years. It’s going to take more than just airships and clockwork gadgetry to entice me these days.
The moment I read the first paragraph though, I knew I was going to be in for a treat. It’s not even just the “Old West” feel of the setting (which I’m a sucker for and gets me every time) that caught my attention, but the distinct and down-to-earth voice of the narrator which immediately tugged at something in my heart. Right away, I knew I wanted to learn more about her. I wanted to get to know her and hear her story.
Our protagonist Karen Memery turns out to a young “seamstress” (a euphemism those around her parts use for prostitute) working for Madame Damnable at one of Rapid City’s more upscale establishments. It’s late 19th century and the Pacific Northwest is at the height of another gold rush; like any frontier town that’s sprouted up around the mining industry, life is rough and the folks even rougher. Working girls like Karen at the Hôtel Mon Cherie know that the best way to survive is to stick together and look after one another, but not everyone is so fortunate to have an employer like Madame Damnable or friends to watch their back.
The calm is shattered one night when two young women arrive at the Mon Cherie seeking help and protection. This is how Karen first meets and falls in love with Priya, a prostitute who managed to escape the horrific conditions of a rival brothel, but not without its mean and nasty proprietor Peter Bantle in hot pursuit. Thwarted, Bantle vows to make Madame Damnable and her girls’ lives a living hell, and with what appears to be mind-control device in his possession, he might be more dangerous than anyone believed. When the flogged and bloody corpses of women start appearing around town, one begins to wonder if all of this is connected somehow. A new lawman rides into town with his Comanche partner on the tail of a vicious serial killer, and together with Karen and the friends, this ragtag but resourceful crew is determined to get to the bottom of this conspiracy.
At times, Karen Memory did feel very much like my perfect book. It is imaginative steampunk that feels fresh and full of life, served up as a rich blend of mystery, suspense, action and romance. The end result is difficult to describe, but delightfully easy to enjoy. As I said before, I have a weakness for westerns and stories that take place during the expansion into the western frontier, so I was charmed at once by Rapid City, resplendently brought to life by Elizabeth Bear’s evocative and vivid descriptions. Despite a healthy dose of fantastical steampunk, we never lose sight of the distinctive characteristics or nuances of this particular era.
Karen herself is an amazing one-of-a-kind character, telling her story with a candidness that I found very charming. The narrative style won’t be for everyone, riddled with its colloquialisms and informal jargon, but it worked surprisingly well for me. It made Karen feel so real — I could practically hear her voice and imagine her mannerisms in my head. I’ll say this — whoever is narrating the audiobook will have her work cut out for her, as it’ll be hard to top what’s already written on paper. Usually prose littered with slang and grammatical errors, whether they’re intentional or not, would drive me nuts (especially my personal pet peeve, “would of” instead of “would’ve”, which Karen repeatedly commits). That I was able to overlook them in this case says a lot.
No doubt the book would not have been the same without Karen’s unique voice, but the other ladies at the Hôtel Mon Cherie surely deserve a mention too. This entire cast of brave and capable kickass women will rock your world and fill you with admiration. After Karen, I’m especially taken with the character of Madame, inspired by the real Mother Damnable, Mary Ann Conklin who ran Seattle’s first hotel and high-class brothel. For a certainty, this novel features no shortage of spirited women will go to great lengths for those they love and what they believe in, and will not back down without a fight.
Karen Memory is a book about a lot of things – solving a mystery, hunting a merciless killer, saving the city from evil, and all the spectacular drama that comes along with such activities. But at its heart, the book is also about forging friendships, growing up, and chasing one’s dreams. Behind the rollicking adventure is also a softer, more introspective side to the story that will surely resonate with a lot of readers.
Final verdict? I would definitely recommend this. It’s actually my first book by Elizabeth Bear, but regardless of whether you’re a long-time fan of the author or relatively new to her work like me, you really can’t go wrong with this one. Check it out....more
Yeah, if I could leave my impressively eloquent analysis of this book at just that, I would. But no. This review is going to have details (or at least as much as I can give), dammit, and I’m going to do my best to articulate my thoughts while trying to hold myself together lest I fall to pieces.
Honestly though, I’m at a complete loss as to how to review Clash of Iron. Has this every happened to you? You’re just reading a book as normal, all the while taking down mental notes on what you’re going to say about it, when all of a sudden the ending comes at you so hard that the shock and awe of it just drives every single thought out of your head?
This is me right now. I am dumbfounded. Stupefied. I still can’t believe that ending really happened.
But let’s back up a bit to talk about what the book is about. In a word, Clash of Iron is about war. Lots and lots of war. It is the second novel in Angus Watson’s Iron Age trilogy and sequel to his brilliant, epic debut Age of Iron which was one of my top reads of last year. At the end of that book, our heroes Dug and Lowa managed to capture Maidun castle and free it from the brutal grip of its tyrant king Zadar. Lowa has usurped him and taken over his reign as Queen of Maidun, but unfortunately it seems, just in time to meet a massive invading Roman army coming from Gaul! The British Isles are thrown into disarray as its disparate tribes go to battle against each other instead of forming a united front against Julius Caesar, the Roman’s military genius who has his sights set on their homeland.
First I feel the need to warn that like its predecessor, Clash of Iron is as brutal and bloody as ever. As expected, there are many violent battles, lots of split skulls and tons of dismembered limbs flying about. There are also more intimate, disturbing scenes of torture and in general characters doing very unpleasant and painful things to other characters. Watson paints a dark, cruel world in The Iron Age where it doesn’t matter who or what you are; men, women, children, animals can all expect to meet a terrible and gruesome end in this series, so be aware if you’re squeamish about such things to approach these books with discretion.
This sequel, however, does head in a new direction when it comes to other aspects. The story here feels altogether different, with more focus on war. When all the sides aren’t engaging in it, they’re preparing for it, in this new martial climate of Britain. With the threat of the Roman Empire and Caesar bearing down on the Britons, there are whole new challenges to face. In many ways, Clash of Iron is Lowa’s story while I saw Age of Iron as being more Dug’s. As queen of Maidun, she’s now the head of an army of thousands and makes all the important decisions that will decide the fate of her people. As a new ruler, she also faces many new obstacles, such as adversity from all sides – even her own. Meanwhile, Dug takes more of a backseat in this book, retiring to a small farm. Still, all the while, his feelings for Lowa are alive and well and so are hers for him, so their awkwardness around each other provides no small amount of hilarity.
Other old favorites return, though describing Ragnal as a “favorite” is a bit of a stretch, that little double crossing fair-weather weasel. Spring’s presence also diminishes somewhat, though her actual role gets a huge boost. Big things are going to happen, and I have a feeling Spring is going to be at the center of them. Chamanca, the literally bloodthirsty warrior woman who scared the living bejeezus out of me in the first book is also back, though this time I had a lot of fun following her character and actually found myself rooting for her. Then there’s new player on the field, Julius Caesar himself, a man who needs no introduction. Angus Watson’s portrayal of the general had me alternating between feeling horror at his atrocities to laughing my ass off at his quirks.
And of course, we come to the ending. Oh, that ending. There’s nothing I can say about it that won’t be a massive spoiler, so I’ll just state that as shocking and unexpected as it was, I really shouldn’t have been surprised. But I was. You just never think an author would go there. But he does.
Any way you look at it, Clash of Iron will have you feeling exultant. You’ve just read an awesome book. Regardless of anything else, this wildly entertaining read will make you pine for the next one. Bring on Reign of Iron!...more
If summer blockbuster action movies existed back in the Victorian era, they would look a lot like The Shadow Revolution. This book doesn’t mess around. It makes its goals very clear right from the beginning, and that is to stuff as much fun and excitement as it can into its three hundred or so pages.
Clay Griffith and Susan Griffith take readers on a wild ride through Victorian London in this feisty, ass-kicking adventure about magic and alchemy and werewolves and mad science. Spell-casting scribe Simon Archer and his mentor Nick Barker have an unfortunate run-in with a lycanthrope one night, and the hunt for it leads them to discover something bigger and so much more disturbing stirring within the city’s shadows. Meanwhile, the brilliant alchemist Kate Anstruther’s younger sister Imogen is snatched by a werewolf, prompting Kate to join forces with Simon, Nick, and a Scottish monster hunter named Malcolm in order to stage a daring rescue.
Being a fan of the authors, I was really excited when I first heard about this book. I saw the kind of magic the Griffiths worked with historical fiction, fantasy and adventure in their Vampire Empire series, and it looks like they’ve dialed things up even higher here for Crown & Key. This first installment wastes no time throwing readers into the thick of things, going straight for pure fast-paced and unadulterated fun. Sometimes it felt like the story only took breaks long enough to push things along, and then we’re plunging right back into the action again. As you’d expect, this makes for quite a page-turner.
Of course, this also makes the book a bit weaker in other areas, most notably in the character development and world building departments. That’s not to say these aspects are completely lacking, just that we get the minimum to satisfy the story and to care about our protagonists. In spite of this, I still found the characters fascinating and memorable, and a great air of intrigue permeates the setting. Simon Archer captured my attention with his roguish charm, and I loved Kate’s cleverness and stalwart determination. The story even leaves plenty of room for characters to grow and relationships to develop. Already I’m looking forward to finding out what secrets Nick might be hiding from Simon, or whether or not Kate and Imogen will ever be the same again, or how Malcolm will fit into the equation in future books.
So maybe it’s not a terribly deep or sophisticated experience, but so what? It’s not really meant to be. Entertainment value is what this novel is all about, complete with snappy dialogue, tons of throwaway violence and a sweet little romantic subplot. It’s fun as hell. The book and its two sequels following right on its heels will make the perfect 2015 summer beach reads for lovers of steampunk gaslamp fantasy and urban paranormal mysteries, count on it. The story might not stay with you for very long, it’s true, but you’ll definitely want to pick up the next book straight away and get right back into the world.
All told, The Shadow Revolution is an exciting introduction to a series that knows exactly what it wants to be, and it’s scarily good at what it does. If you’re willing to go with that, then you’ll probably enjoy this one as much as I did. I’m already excited to dive into book two, The Undying Legion. Highly recommended if you’re in the mood for something fast, pulpish and wicked cool to brighten up your day....more
It’s Great Britain versus the United States in this paranormal historical novel about the search for immortality. After the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, his widow Mary Todd Lincoln is determined to never let anyone experience her grief again, forming the impetus behind the Eterna Project, a secret group of scientists and researchers tasked to find a cure for death.
Across the ocean, Queen Victoria creates special division in charge of investigating all matters of the supernatural and paranormal, codenaming it “Omega”. Hungry for everlasting power and expansion, the queen appoints Harold Spire of the Metropolitan Police to head up Omega, charging him to find the ruined Eterna laboratory in New York, where she is convinced someone has survived with a sample of the immortality compound. Meanwhile, American Clara Templeton is also searching for Eterna. Grieving for her lover who worked on the secret project and died in the catastrophe that destroyed the laboratory, she will do her best not to let the any of the research fall into British hands.
The book is an interesting blend of genres with a unique premise, though it may take quite a bit of investment to get into the meat of the story. It’s up to the reader to get caught up, since we’re essentially dropped into the wake of the destruction of the Eterna laboratory and deaths of all the scientists and researchers. But perhaps most bewildering of all is the prologue which introduces readers to the character of Clara as a young girl, being confided in by Mary Todd Lincoln after the assassination of the president. Thus we learn that Clara possesses special abilities, ones that allow her to commune with the dead, but that she also a mystic of sorts who recalls all the memories of her past lives.
Even after finishing this novel, I’m still unclear as to the significance of Clara’s abilities in the bigger scheme of things. They don’t benefit her in any clear way, and certainly not on the Eterna project as she isn’t even directly connected with the work. They don’t even come in handy when it comes to communicating with her dead lover, since she blocks everything out. As far as I can tell, her psychic talents are there to make her stand out and be more interesting than she really is. The truth is, Clara is aloof, uninspiring and devoid of much personality, and unfortunately her powers actually don’t do much to improve things. In fact, I think they make an even bigger mess of her character. Whether her abilities will come into play later on in the series, only time will tell.
On the British side, we have Harold Spire and Omega. I found Spire to be a much more developed character than Clara, and more sympathetic due to his tragic past and the unusual relationship he has with his father. There are also more interesting characters in Omega; secret agents and spies and circus performers, oh my. My only criticism is that, while assigned the job of tracking down Eterna, the plot ends up spending more time focusing on Spire as he investigates another seemingly unconnected case. This robs the story of a lot of the suspense, especially if you were anticipating a tension-filled “arms race” type competition between the British and Americans from the novel’s description, with the two nations scrabbling to be the first to find the secret to immortality. This is not that kind of book, which was somewhat disappointing, though I ultimately didn’t mind the new direction.
The Eterna Files ended up being an enjoyable read, if at times disorganized and convoluted. In the jumble of themes and ideas and plot points, I can glean the overall picture and take a good guess where author Leanna Renee Hieber is taking the story, even though the narrative stumbles in the pacing and is slow in pulling it all together. Once everything resolves, however, it’s a lot more compelling....more
I was never a really good student of history. But my family background being Chinese, I’ve always been taught to embrace my heritage. I grew up listening and adoring the history and legendary tales of Ancient China told to me by my parents and grandparents, who have learned these things themselves when they were children. My great uncle was also fond of watching old Wuxia operas and historical dramas, and he used to record these and leave the tapes at our house for the curious and unsuspecting adolescent me to find. They were…interesting.
It might seem like I’m zipping off on a tangent here, but really, I’m trying my best to explain why I loved this book so much. I read The Grace of Kings with a strange mixture of emotions I’ve never experienced before while reading anything else in my life. It was part giddiness at the familiarity of the topic; the fall of the Qin Dynasty and the subsequent rise of the Han Dynasty being such an important and tumultuous period in China’s classical age, it was instantly recognizable that this interregnum was what Ken Liu was basing his story on. I was like, “Oh, I think I know the story or legend that inspired this scene/character/event, etc.” pretty much every few chapters.
I was also very moved, and I struggle to find the words to explain this. In essence, seeing what the author has done here – taking these snippets of legends and tales from history that I’ve grown up with and incorporating into this novel, forming this wondrous piece of literature – at times it was too much to take. Many of the side stories in The Grace of Kings had the feel and atmosphere of the old anecdotes my elders shared with me when I was younger. At times I got so sentimental that I was nearly moved to tears. It’s also a beautiful book. Anyway, personal aside over. I don’t usually get sappy in my reviews, but I just don’t know how else to describe how much reading this novel affected me. I saw Ken Liu take a historical narrative that I know and love, and transform it into this gorgeous work of art.
While The Grace of Kings is a combination of East Asian sources with Western elements, that’s only just the beginning. It’s also a blend of storytelling traditions from various other cultures and historical eras along with elements from epic fantasy, mythology, and even a bit of steampunk action with airships and war kites and airborne duels thrown in. The novel’s themes speak to the human condition, exploring the corrupting force of absolute power and the chaos that inevitably follows great change, but the original and poignant execution by Liu gives it all a fresh and new perspective.
Indeed, the novel is different from a lot of today’s mainstream fantasy. Expressive modes of storytelling aside, a lot of the nuances can also be attributed to the writing style. It took a long time for me to read The Grace of Kings, for as fervently as I would have liked to devour this book, it just can’t be rushed. In this sense, Liu’s writing reminds me a lot of Guy Gavriel Kay, another author of historical fantasy whose work I greatly admire and respect. Like Kay again, Liu’s evocative prose feels almost like poetry, meant to be savored. In between the major perspectives like those of Kuni Garu and Mata Zyndu, Liu also inserts mini-narratives from those around the main characters. A pantheon of gods stand witness to a group of people whose lives have been touched by the two leaders, and by the events surrounding the uprising against the emperor. War is never insignificant or simple; its effects are felt far and wide by everyone, from all walks of life. Each person has a tale to tell.
This collection of narratives therefore makes the widespread conflict feel more realistic, though one downside is that it puts a distance between the reader and the events of the story, making some of scenes featuring significant developments like major victories and defeats feel muted and less impactful. On the other hand, being able to follow a vast network of characters also greatly opens up the world.
That said, the up-close-and-personal relationships are important to the story too. Mata Zyndu appears to be based on the warlord Xiang Yu while Kuni Garu is loosely modeled after Liu Bang, both prominent historical figures during the insurgency in the late Qin Dynasty. Both characters have similar goals during the revolution to overthrow a brutal reign (a friend of mine has playfully compared this to Game of Thrones, calling it “Ned Stark and Robert Baratheon: The Early Years”), but then later on they come to blows. The story immediately picked up for me after the two of them meet, and it just took off from there.
Ken Liu deftly chronicles the relationship between Kuni and Mata, contrasting them and emphasizing their ideological differences from the beginning, despite their easy friendship. Things don’t slow down even after the overthrow of Erishi, Emperor Mapidéré’s weak heir. Honorable, ruthless Mata is often at odds with the fun-loving and merciful Kuni, and the conflict finally boils over in the mayhem that follows. After all, there are many ways to wage a war, with honor and guile being two sides of the same coin. Just when you think things are winding down, the true excitement begins. My favorite character doesn’t even make her first appearance until around the three-quarters mark: Gin Mazoti, who was an orphan born to a prostitute and survived a rough childhood on the streets to become the greatest military strategist the world has ever seen. Gin stormed onto the page amidst the chaos, and I fell in love with her character immediately. I could probably write a whole page about how awesome she is, but there are certain things best left to surprise.
The greatest stories are those that stir both the heart and mind, and The Grace of Kings is one of those rare novels that accomplishes this feat magnificently. Ken Liu gives readers a lot more than just a story about epic battles, friendship and betrayal, compassion and cruelty; he also inspires. After reading this book I wanted to dig deeper into the historical period that the story was based on, to give myself more context to the tales and legends I’ve always heard about. Highly recommended for epic fantasy fans looking to venture beyond traditional boundaries, and for all readers who love being immersed in incredible breathtaking worlds....more
Age of Iron ended up surprising me in many delightful ways, but what I didn’t expect at all was how addicting it was. It simply grabbed me by the throat and wouldn’t let go. It’s dark, brutal, violent and gritty, and yet I was completely immersed in its harsh, war-torn world.
We begin the story with an introduction to Dug Sealskinner, a mercenary on his way to join up with King Zadar’s grand army at Maidun Castle, hoping for a way to earn some steady coin. But then he is waylaid at Barton, a town that gets attacked and annihilated by the very same people Dug had wished to join. In the aftermath, he meets up with a strange young girl named Spring, and together they encounter Lowa Flynn, formerly one of Zadar’s favored fighters who now finds herself on the run and seeking revenge on the king for her murdered band of warrior women.
King Zadar is a tyrant like no other with his twisted sense of how the world should be. His betrayal of Lowa and failure to capture her has earned him a dangerous enemy, but his killing and pillaging across the country has also made him the target of a young druid named Ragnall, who too seeks to make his way to Maidun to rescue his kidnapped fiancée. Ragnall and his mentor Drustan end up joining with our trio, and together the five make up a rather motley party of unlikely adventurers, all with a common foe.
Very little is known about life in Iron Age Britain; that the book began with this fact and a “this is what really happened” kind of statement in its foreword made me wonder what I’ll be in for. Large swaths of the book filled with history lessons, perhaps? But no, while we do indeed get a torrent of rich, scintillating details about the world, all of it no doubt painstakingly researched and cross checked and checked again by the author, none of it felt blatant or overtly shoved down my throat.
In fact, Watson placed storytelling and characters first, which is what I think made the book’s pacing so successful. He gave backstories to even the more minor characters, in a way that didn’t bog down the story but instead enhanced it, as every detail seems purposely placed to provide insight into the people and life at the time. The plot is also constantly driving forward, and there aren’t many places where it loses steam. History clearly has a role in this book, but the ultimate goal here is epic adventure, and we certainly don’t sacrifice storytelling or momentum.
It also wouldn’t feel complete without a bit of magic, which brings us to the druids. I admit I was very much drawn to the mention of them in the book’s description, as I’ve always been interested in the subject. And the druids of Age of Iron are fascinating indeed. There are all kinds of druids – healers, soothsayers, magicians, some who are benevolent and others who are bloodthirsty and depraved. This latter sort of druid seems to get the most attention, in the form of Felix, the druid who serves King Zadar. As cruel and wicked Zadar is, Felix makes him look like a snuffling choir boy. Some of the druid’s deeds are hard to read about, described in all its gruesome, gory details, and Watson doesn’t spare his readers one bit in this area.
I guess here’s where I should mention that no one is safe in this book – men, women, children and animals are all subjected to some horrific, violent fates, and it can get quite graphic – disturbingly so. If you’re squeamish or turned off about that kind of stuff, here’s a caveat: you might want to stay far away.
And yet, Age of Iron isn’t all doom and gloom, and blood and guts. There is humor, and there are inherently good people in this book. However, none of them are so black-and-white as that either. Characters like Dug, Lowa, Spring, and Ragnall serve as good counterpoints to the depravity and viciousness of people like Zadar and Felix, but our so-called heroes aren’t without their weaknesses. They may endear themselves to you, make you laugh or make you root for them, but be prepared to despise them sometimes too, because in the end they are also flawed people and simply trying to survive a world trying to do them in. I was all the more impressed by the well-roundedness of these characters, and whether you love them or hate them, I thought they were all very developed and well written.
Needless to say, I can’t wait for the next book. Age of Iron is one hell of a novel. The polish and skill in the writing makes it hard to believe it’s his fictional debut, but you can bet Angus Watson’s got my full attention. I’ll definitely be watching for his future works as well as the progress of this series with great interest....more
The Secrets of Life and Death was an interesting novel, a mix of dark noir fantasy mystery and historical fiction, using the true story behind the notorious figure of Countess Elisabeth Bathory as a basis. I actually learned quite a bit from this book, as I was previously unfamiliar with Bathory before reading this. Between the years of 1585 and 1610, she and four other collaborators were accused of torturing and murdering hundreds of girls, earning her the label of most prolific female serial killer in history.
The book is told through various narratives in two different timelines, the first one set in modern day England where Professor Guichard is called in to consult on a series of occult symbols drawn on the dead body of a teenage girl. His own investigations into the case lead him to Jackdaw Hammond, a mysterious woman harboring a big secret of her own. For you see, Jack is actually dead, living on borrowed time made possible by powerful magic.
Insight into such magic could be gleaned in the second timeline through the writings of Edward Kelley, the assistant of John Dee. The narrative begins in 1585, as Kelley and Dee are summoned by the King of Poland to save the life of his gravely ill niece, Elisabeth Bathory. As events unfold, the two men learn there may be something more sinister behind the nature of the countess’s sickness, but the type of sorcery required to cure her may be even worse.
I enjoyed the premise behind this book, and felt the author utilized a very creative way to tell a story, with the two storylines playing out at the same time being the best and most notable aspect. However, as intriguing as I find this format, it’s not without its drawbacks. Any author who engages in this back-and-forth style of storytelling commits themselves to a fine balancing act, with the goal of making both threads entertaining and engaging to the reader. This novel falters a bit here, starting out with both the modern and historical narratives going strong, but gradually the account of Kelley and Dee’s exploits in Poland began to drag for me. There just wasn’t enough going on there to carry the momentum past the middle.
In contrast, I found Guichard and Jack’s story much more interesting, no doubt due to my fondness for mysteries and investigative cases. The modern day story also appealed to me more because of Sadie, a young girl who was “rescued” by Jack, but why or how that was achieved was not revealed for a long time, and the circumstances behind the enigma was what held my attention.
At the same time, I think more time could have been spent on beefing up the present day storyline, and I would have been perfectly okay with the decision. There was a lot more information I would have liked to know about “borrowed timers”, not to mention Guichard and Jack’s relationship felt rushed and could have used more development. More details into Jack’s past wouldn’t have hurt either, as well as her history with Maggie, the old woman who had saved Jack the same way Jack had saved Sadie. Jack’s motivation to try to save other borrowed timers like herself remained unclear to me. I find it hard to understand why she would step in and alter the fate of others, as it were, when she had been through the same process herself and knows fully well how painful and lonely it can be. Unlike Maggie, Jack didn’t have a personal stake it in, and being aware of the weighty consequences of saving a “borrowed timer”, you’d think knowing all the facts, the wiser decision would be to leave things well alone.
All told, The Secrets of Life and Death was a good book, with only some minor issues. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to history buffs with an interest in the crimes of Elisabeth Bathory, or if you have a penchant for dark historical fiction in general with a splash of the modern....more
Michael Moorcock’s The Whispering Swarm is certainly a strange book and not what I expected at all. My first venture into this renowned author’s work notwithstanding, even I could tell this was quite a departure from his older work, involving no small amount of literary experimentation – and not least because of the novel’s semi-autobiographical nature in which Moorcock chronicles the shift of his craft from sci-fi fantasy pulp fiction towards a “new wave” and more modernist tradition.
The first book of a new trilogy, Moorcock’s latest novel presents to readers a semi-factual, semi-fictitious version of the author’s younger self growing up in post-World War II London. We follow Michael Moorcock as he navigates the world of science fiction and fantasy publishing, starting out as editor of his Tarzan Adventures fanzine at the age of 17 and eventually moving on to bigger and more prominent roles in the industry – including his controversial position as the editor of British science fiction magazine New Worlds during the 60s and 70s.
While the character talks about much of his writing, the narrative is also laced with a heavy dose of fantastical elements. Between sections detailing Michael’s personal and professional life, the book slips in and out of reality to feature an alternate world called Alsacia, a hidden sanctuary and home to both historical and legendary figures like Prince Rupert of the Rhine or Dumas’ musketeers. It’s a place where death does not exist and time flows differently, where heroes from different centuries can share a pint and rub elbows down at the tavern and no one will bat an eye. The first time young Michael accidentally stumbles into Alsacia, he meets the beautiful Mol Midnight, literally the girl of his dreams who later on becomes his muse for a number books and stories. And so begins his long relationship with this mystical place and the denizens within. Thus Michael finds himself torn between two worlds, the real London where his career and family reside, and Alsacia where he can indulge in wild romances and adventures. Before long, he can hardly ignore the whispers of what he calls the Swarm, always calling him, tempting him back into the sanctuary where he can find solace from the pressures of the world.
As someone previously unfamiliar with Moorcock’s work, I found myself intrigued by the premise of the book. Unfortunately, I was also frequently frustrated with the seemingly disorganized and irregular pacing of what at times barely passes for a plot. As previously mentioned, a huge chunk of the novel is written in a semi-autobiographical style, where readers are swept along on lengthy descriptions of young Michael’s professional and social life, which include his experimentations with sex, drugs and music. I wasn’t so fond of the explanatory narrative and found myself less interested in the nitty-gritty details of his editing and writing, but when it came to the character’s internal insights into the evolution of his style, I was perhaps more enthusiastic.
As a character, Michael’s motivations were hard to grasp. He’s an unsettled and indecisive narrator, not to mention frequently unreliable which made it more difficult to find him sympathetic. He would alternate between being selfless and self-pitying, especially where the needs of his young family are concerned. The times he steps through the veil into Alsacia are the highlights, however. Regrettably I found these to be too few and far between especially in the first half, or else I might have had an easier time getting into the book; instead, I had to push myself through most of the beginning.
On the other hand, I didn’t expect to enjoy the blurring of reality and fantasy as much as I did; there was always that uncertainty lingering in the background, mixing in that element of the unknown which made the situation more compelling as Michael became more entrenched in the business of Alsacia. This novel is definitely the first of its kind that I have read, and even knowing that most of Michael’s personal details had to be completely fabricated, the questions it made me ask were the sort that were entirely different and unique.
I have a feeling this is a very special trilogy in the making, but the ultimate payoff may require too much investment for some readers, including myself. Michael’s exploits with the various adventurers from Alsacia were exciting towards the end, but I wish more of the book had been dedicated to that aspect of the story. There are some great ideas in here, if somewhat radical and on the experimental side, but my experience was mainly dampened by the slow pacing of the plot as well as a lack of direction for most of it. An interesting novel overall, and in the end I’m not sorry I read it. The style is not exactly to my tastes, but it’s broadened my horizons....more
A Dan Simmons book is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re gonna get. And like a box of chocolates, you know they’re all good but some are going to be better than others. Simmons is a versatile author who seems to write a bit of everything, and I’ve come to the conclusion that for me personally, his Historical Fiction is kind of like those sticky little peanut nougats – that is, they’re not my favorite. I’d much rather prefer those with the milk chocolate filled with caramel or raspberry cream, which in the context of this yummy little example would be probably Simmons’ Horror or Science Fiction.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of Dan Simmons. His book The Terror is one of my favorite novels of all time, and I’ll never look at time travel the same way again thanks to his Hyperion, which completely blew my mind. But then there are his books like Drood or 2013’s The Abominable that just didn’t resonate with me at all. Now that I’m finished reading it, I think my reaction to The Fifth Heart falls somewhere in between.
The book is described as a historical novel about the American author Henry James. Up until the events of the introduction, James has been leading a miserable life. His writing career is stagnating, and with fiftieth birthday is coming up, he feels like he’s got little to show for it. Things are so bad that he’s decided to commit suicide by traveling to Paris and throwing himself into the Seine.
But all that changed when he serendipitously meets a man named Sherlock Holmes, a brilliant London-based detective who sets the two of them on a literary puzzle to solve the mystery of Clover Adams’ death. But wait a minute now, I hear you asking, isn’t Sherlock Holmes a fictional character? Well, yes, and that’s actually where it starts to get interesting. Simmons is up to his old tricks again, because he can never seem to write a straight-up historical or fantasy or . That, and he seems to have a penchant for going a bit metafiction on us in recent years. Sure, you can look at this book as a historical mystery, with a bit of thriller and suspense thrown in, but really, when you boil it all down? The Fifth Heart is a Sherlock Holmes story. Dan Simmons style.
What does that mean? First of all, you’ll be exposed to a whole cast of historical figures including Mark Twain, Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Adams (the historian who is the descendant of two American presidents and husband of Clover Adams, the woman whose death is at the center of this mystery). Then there are the fictional characters like Irene Adler, Professor Moriarty and a couple others from the Holmes tradition, and even one delightful little mention of Christie’s Hercule Poirot! Then there’s the humor. When fictional and historical worlds collide, you get some pretty bizarre situations. Henry James is essentially Holmes’ new sidekick in this story, becoming intrigued by the detective’s belief that he is a fictional character. He picks up the Sherlock Holmes books, and essentially begins making fun of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s writing by poking fun at everything in stories that don’t make sense. That’s before James descends into his own existential crisis, wondering if he himself is also a product of someone else’s imagination playing out his part in a fictional story. Which, in this case, he actually is! Didn’t I tell you things get meta?
See, all that stuff was great. The Fifth Heart works well as a mix of all the elements I just discussed, and I love that Simmons is always trying new things and writing very unique and creative stories. But there were also a lot of issues here that I just couldn’t ignore. When it comes down to it, I couldn’t fully embrace The Fifth Heart for the very same reasons I couldn’t get into the last book by Simmons that I read, which was The Abominable. The reason is that both books were just WAY too bogged down by what I felt were unnecessary info dumps, which Simmons goes into with exhaustive detail.
Simmons strikes me as an author who never scrimps on research, which is great. Unless he specifies to the contrary, I can always count on the facts I read in his books to be pretty accurate. What’s not so great is when all that research ends up in the book, descriptions going on sometimes for pages at a time. I get that sometimes you can come across a fascinating piece of information while researching and become very eager to share what you discovered with others. But really, a lot of the information such as historical or biographical details could have been pared way down. It’s just like in The Abominable, when I really could have done without the few dozen or so paragraphs on the many wonderful kinds of ice axes and 12-point crampons.
I would probably recommend The Fifth Heart only to the most loyal of Dan Simmons fans, or Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts. I can’t deny the concept was fun, but it could have been a better book if the lengthy expositions didn’t wreak so much havoc on the pacing. That said, I’ll still probably pick up the next Simmons book. He has such skill and imagination; I know not all of his books will be my cup of tea, but I can always count on him writing brilliant stories with brilliant ideas....more