Earlier this year I had the pleasure of reading Frances Hardinge’s A Face like Glass, and afterward I just knew I had to read more of her work. Because of this, I picked up the audiobook of A Skinful of Shadows, and I’m happy to say it did not disappoint. The book turned out to be one of the most wonderfully magical and imaginative Young Adult novels I’ve ever read—in other words, everything I expected from the author.
Set in the mid-17th century in the time of the English Civil War, the story stars our protagonist Makepeace who lives with her mother Margaret in the very Puritan town of Poplar. For as long as she can remember, terrible ghostly figures and other tortured spirits have haunted Makepeace’s dreams, but Margaret has remained stubbornly tightlipped about the topic, even when it is clear she knows why the dead are interested in her daughter. Instead, Margaret forces Makepeace to spend one night every few months locked up by herself in the darkness of the town’s cemetery crypt, telling the girl she must confront her fears in order to build stronger defenses against the ghosts. “One day you will thank me,” Margaret tells her daughter, but as the years pass, Makepeace grows more resentful of the cruel treatment, and the relationship with her mother was never the same again.
Then one day, during a particularly bitter argument, Margaret accidentally lets slip an important piece of information about Makepeace’s father, a subject rarely spoken of in their household. This precipitates a chain of tragic events that leads Makepeace to the discovery of where she came from, as well as the origin behind her nightmares. Never did she imagine that the truth would be so terrible though, as she suddenly realizes the forces of evil her mother had been trying to protect her from. Understanding much too late, Makepeace lets her guard down in a moment of weakness, unwittingly allowing a ghost to invade her mind—except this ghost is different from the ones she has encountered before, being the spirit of a frightened, angry bear.
One thing I’ve learned from reading Hardinge is that you can never predict how her stories will play out. When I first read an early synopsis for this book which describes Makepeace and the ghosts in her head—which includes a motley crew of outcasts, misfits, criminals and one dead bear—I had no idea what I was going to be in for. I certainly did not expect the plot to be so darkly twisted and yet so whimsically magical at the same time. The ideas in A Skinful of Shadows are astonishing in their originality and complexity, and I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to read a YA novel that isn’t clogged t0 the gills with rehashed tropes and paint-by-number characters.
On that note, I also loved the protagonist Makepeace, who exhibits uncommon bravery in the face of the unknown. All her life, she has been surrounded by lies, even from her own mother, who was admittedly just trying to protect her. Still, by withholding the truth, Margaret has only managed to make her daughter more defiant, and like most confused adolescents, Makepeace occasionally lets her temper get the better of her. Still, instead of turning me off, the protagonist’s little acts of defiance only endeared her even more to me, because it made her feel genuine and easily relatable. As a coming-of-age tale, this book really shines in showing the emotional impact of living a life caught in the middle. Makepeace has never felt like she belonged in Poplar, and later finds out that her ability to see ghosts and absorb them into herself is the result of her father’s bloodline. And yet, when she finds herself at Grizehayes, the ancestral home of her father’s family, she is quite horrified to discover what exactly her powers can be used for. Worst of all, instead of finding acceptance with others like her, she is threatened and manipulated, and the only person she ends up trusting is a half-brother named James, who shows her kindness.
And then, of course, there’s the bear. Out of all of Makepeace’s relationships, the one she has with her ghostly beast passenger was by far my favorite—and not just because it’s so strange and wonderful. Having the spirit of a wild animal in your head is as scary as it sounds, but eventually a deep rapport forms between the two of them, with Makepeace trusting the bear’s instincts and “forest wisdom” to guide her. For a companion who isn’t even human, and mainly only communicates with our protagonist through senses and emotions, bear was a surprisingly deep and heartfelt character.
This is only my second novel by Frances Hardinge, but I already feel confident in saying this is not a fluke. She is one of the most creative storytellers I’ve ever read, with a clear talent for crafting strong and evocative narratives whose depth of emotion will stun you. A Skinful of Shadows has firmly placed her on my must-read authors list, and I can’t wait to see what she’ll write next.
Audiobook Comments: Absolutely loved the audiobook. The narrator Hallie Ricardo did a great job and she has an amazing range of voices which really brought all the characters to life. Highly recommended....more
Badlands is the final volume of the Laura Elliston trilogy, bringing this magnificent emotional journey that began with Sawbones to a gripping and satisfying conclusion. Still, I confess there had been a lot of initial hand-wringing on my part over how all this would end, though I really should have known better than to be worried—Melissa Lenhardt knew what she was doing and was in control the whole time, providing closure to the series while bringing things full circle.
Needless to say, if you haven’t gotten the chance to start the trilogy yet, please keep in mind that this review may contain spoilers for the previous two novels. Last we saw Laura in Blood Oath, she and her husband William Kindle had become separated, with him being taken into custody for abandoning his post in the Army to aid and abet her. Wanted in New York for a crime she did not commit, Laura is now one of the most sought after bounties in the West and is forced to go into hiding again, with only a dubious ally named Rosemond Barclay for protection and support.
As a prostitute and a past lover of her husband, Rosemond is practically the last person Laura wants to be traveling with. However, she is also claiming to be helping Laura on behalf of Kindle, and since there is no one else our protagonist can turn to now that she is alone and penniless once more, she will have to go along with the other woman’s plans—at least for now. Not that she has much of a choice, anyway. Terrified of what might happen to Kindle, Laura is desperate to be close to him again even if it means walking right into the hands of the law, and it doesn’t help that at the time she is struggling to pull herself out of a laudanum-induced haze. For better or worse, Rosemond is the only thing holding her back—serving as both her kidnapper and voice of reason. The two women end up in Cheyenne under the guise of sisters trying to start a new life, though in truth Laura is biding her time while she awaits for further news of Kindle, and Rosemond is following her own plan that only she knows about. Laura knows better than to trust the former prostitute, but after everything the two of them have been through together, neither can she bring herself to simply walk away.
For the last two books, things for Laura have been anything but easy, and so I think readers will welcome this concluding novel which finally lets our protagonist experience some semblance of peace again, even with plenty of heartbreak still in her life. It was however a nice change of pace to see her return to practicing medicine, giving care to the needy as she once did in New York before she went on the run. Despite all the horrors she has been through, at her core Laura is still the same good person—which can be either a blessing or a curse, depending on how you view things. Often she puts aside all rational thought and concern for her own wellbeing when it comes to others (especially with matters related to Kindle), leading her to make several mistakes in the first half of Badlands which she will come to regret for the rest of the novel. Laura’s willfulness in this regard is both a source of admiration and frustration, because on the one hand her empathy is what makes me love her character, but on the other her tendency to care too much has also led to a lot of tragedy for herself and those around her.
I also thought that I would be disappointed at Kindle’s severely diminished role in this novel, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that this was not the case. It’s true that without him, there is a lot less passion and romance in this installment, but the amazing complexity between Laura and Rosemond’s interplay more than makes up for it. In spite of all her efforts to help other women, Laura has always had a rough time making female friends, mainly because she’s met so few others who share her interests and drive. While Laura and Rosemond have little in common (besides a history with the same man), the two of them manage to strike up a solid rapport if not a true friendship, due to the fact that they both are outcasts in their own way. Rosemond is also a fascinating and enigmatic character who kept me guessing at her motives the whole time, wondering if she truly cares about Laura or if she is simply manipulating her for her own ends.
The best part about Badlands, however, is Laura’s realization that she cannot keep running anymore and that enough people have been hurt because of the choices she has made. The only thing left to do is to return to the place where all this began—except this time, she won’t be alone anymore. Our protagonist has come a long way and has proven herself capable of anything she sets her mind to in an era in which women had little to no power. She has suffered loss but also found love, and I am pleased that we got to see Laura confront her past so that she can finally have the future she deserves.
These books are really something special. I’ve said this before, but I think it’s worth saying again: the author does not pull any punches, and her rendition of the Wild West is a brutally authentic one, which sometimes makes all of the injustices and violence difficult to read. However, it also makes our characters’ struggles more heart-wrenching and their eventual triumph all the more powerful and poignant. The ending was everything I wanted, featuring a touching and joyous scenario that tied everything together perfectly. Melissa Lenhardt has accomplished a superb achievement in bringing the fantastic Laura Elliston trilogy to a phenomenal close, and I can’t wait to see what future stories she will tell.
Audiobook Comments: Suehyla El-Attar has long since won me over with her narrating work, and her performance in Badlands is even better than in Blood Oath, if that is even possible. She is a talented voice actress and a real natural with accents and inflections, adding an extra layer to the story. For instance, in sections where Laura was thinking of Kindle, I could practically hear the hopelessness and despair in her reading. This was an emotional tale, and El-Attar’s narration made the experience even more unforgettable. I highly recommend this series in audio....more
From the moment I started reading Devil’s Call, I was rapt. J. Danielle Dorn masterfully draws the reader in with her incredible debut, a horror-fantasy western featuring an emotional and gritty tale of revenge.
Written in the form of a letter from the narrator to her unborn child, the novel chronicles the life of Li Lian MacPherson, also known as Lily, a mixed-race witch who hails form a long line of magically gifted women. It is the mid-1800s when most of America is still wild, unsettled country. Lily was raised by her mother and her coven of aunts and cousins in a roadhouse in St. Louis, but youthful wanderlust soon led to her Texas where she first met Matthew Callahan. Even though she was a runaway and the young soldier was tasked to bring her home, the two of them ultimately bonded and fell in love, got married, and moved out to build a new life together on the Nebraskan frontier. Soon, the couple was expecting a baby.
But that was when the horror came. On a dark winter night, three men entered their home and murdered Matthew in cold blood before riding off without a trace, leaving Lily alone and pregnant in a world that believes her to be responsible for her husband’s death. Turning her grief into rage, Lily sets out on a quest for vengeance, using her magic to follow the killers across hundreds of miles of untamed land. Devil’s Call is our protagonist’s record of this journey, written so that the daughter growing inside of her will one day know the story of her parents and understand why her mother took all the risks she did. Lily also knows there’s a good chance she will not survive to tell her tale in person, for eventually it becomes clear that the mysterious enemy she seeks may not even be natural or human.
Anyone who follows my reviews probably also knows that I have a predilection for western-flavored fantasy, and Devil’s Call is easily the best I’ve read in years. First and foremost I loved Li Lian, a unique heroine who is as fierce in her pride of her magical heritage as she is in her devotion to those she loves. She felt like a genuine character from the start, her words in this journal ringing true to the depths of her experiences and emotions. So moonstruck was I by the tale of how she and Matthew met and fell in love that when his eventual killers arrived and shot him dead right in front of her, the scene and its repercussions damn near broke my heart. Then there is her unborn child, whom Lily frequently addresses in her writing. Every confession and heartfelt piece of advice leaves no question as to her love for her baby, but as more is revealed about the three men she is chasing, it becomes clear why her quest is leaving her torn. Still, everything about her character exudes strength, independence, and a will to fight on. Lily is likeable, believable, and she drives the story in such a way that every page and every step of the way had me cheering her on.
There’s also no way I can talk about excellent characterization without giving mention to Roger Hawking. A butcher with a shady past who ends up allying with our protagonist and lending her support, Hawk became a major character in his own right when the anticipation of learning more about his backstory became nearly as strong as needing to find out how everything will end. The scenes between him and Lily feature some truly excellent dialogue, and the great banter between them while they traveled kept things entertaining, though in truth the plot hardly needed any help in that department; this was a fast-paced story that never had a dull moment.
And of course, I adored the setting. It probably goes without saying, but atmosphere has a lot to do with what makes a good western, and it’s one of the main reasons why I love the genre. I’m also very particular when it comes to what I enjoy. Generally, fantasy mashups are allowed a lot more leeway, but there are still a number of essential elements that I have come to expect—which this novel delivered marvelously, I might add. It stresses the harshness of Lily’s world, where violence and death are always lurking around the corner. And despite the raucous saloons and busy telegraph stations, what we get to see here is a lot more wilderness than civilization. Picture all this and wrap it all up in a light veil of magic, and this should give you a sense of what to expect from Devil’s Call.
All told, this book was a poignant and riveting experience that took me by surprise. Westerns are always fun, and westerns with revenge plots are even better, especially when the struggle between good and evil is portrayed in such a heart-wrenchingly personal and visceral way. Even before I had a chance to start Devil’s Call, I had a strong feeling that I was going to love it—I just didn’t expect how much. So far, it is one of the best novels I’ve read this year, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. It had everything I wanted, from a strong and compelling heroine to a mesmerizing fast-paced plot that is guaranteed to engage, captivate and leave you breathless....more
The Night Ocean is not my usual genre, I confess, but its subject matter was simply too enticing to resist. While it’s true that I’ve always been drawn to books inspired by the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, perhaps just as interesting—if not more so—are the stories about the man himself. A pioneer of weird fiction, his lasting influence on the horror genre can be seen all around us, and yet, there is also a darker side to his legacy. In life, Lovecraft held some repugnant views, and in many fandom circles his racism and bigotry are still discussed almost as much as his work today. Still, love him or hate him, there appears to be a fascination with HPL’s work and personal life which cannot be denied.
Perhaps I should back up a bit, though. While indeed The Night Ocean explores the life of Lovecraft, it does it in a most unconventional and bizarre manner (which I’ll talk more about later), weaving fiction and history into a far-reaching chronicle that also ties in the lives of many other characters. Some of these names will even be familiar to Lovecraft and Horror/SFF aficionados, but first we begin this story with the tragedy of Dr. Marina Willett and her husband Charlie.
It all started with The Erotonomicon. Said to be the erotic diary of H.P. Lovecraft but later claimed to be a hoax, almost all copies are said to be destroyed back in the 50s, but somehow Charlie manages to track one down. As a life-long speculative fiction fan and a writer by trade, Charlie wants to make his next book an investigative piece about the diary, a decision that ends up plunging him into an all-consuming obsession with Lovecraft, much to Marina’s dismay. At the heart of Charlie’s project is a particular entry written in The Erotonomicon about a summer in 1934 involving Lovecraft and his friend Robert Barlow, a gay sixteen-year-old fan with whom the author stayed for a number of weeks while on a visit to Florida. Later known as the author and anthropologist R.H. Barlow, Robert also ended up collaborating with Lovecraft on several stories including “The Night Ocean”, which this book is named for.
Determined to find out the truth about Lovecraft and Barlow’s relationship, Charlie sets out on a continent-spanning journey to find out everything he can about what really happened between the two men that summer in Florida. However, Charlie’s obsession ultimately leads him to his downfall, and after suffering depression and anxiety, he checks himself into a hospital at the urging of his wife. Not long after that, he escapes into the wilderness and disappears without a trace. The note he left made it pretty clear to everyone that Charlie had planned and carried out his suicide, but Marina finds this difficult to accept. Holding on to the belief that her husband is still alive, she retraces his steps for the last two years, going to the places he visited and talking to the people he interviewed for his book, all in the hopes that it will shed some light on where she might find Charlie.
Quite frankly, describing the story any more than this would be a downright nightmare because I would be at an absolute loss as to how to keep going. The Night Ocean is one strange book, difficult to summarize and classify since it is made up of so many perspectives and interconnecting parts. The overall concept behind the novel is certainly ambitious and ingenious, but the way the story is presented will probably make it seem unfocused. Even though the entire book is told through Marina’s eyes, I would say the first half of the book is about Charlie—but also not—while the second half is about Marina—and yet also not. Yes, I’m aware of how confusing this sounds, but really at the heart of both threads is a man named L.C. Spinks, the publisher of The Erotonomicon. Is the diary really a hoax? Or if there’s some truth to it, then which parts of it are real and which parts are completely fabricated? The Night Ocean is an intricately woven web of fact and fiction, combining Paul La Farge’s rich imagination with the results of what must have been hours upon hours of painstaking research on his part.
And how does H.P. Lovecraft play into all this, you ask? Well, last summer I read and really enjoyed a novel called I Am Providence by Nick Mamatas, and even though it and The Night Ocean could not be any more different in tone and style, I still found it impossible not to draw parallels between these two books. Perhaps it is because they are both “Lovecraftian fiction” in the atypical sense; rather than playing directly off of HPL’s large body of works and the mythos he had created, they instead took an almost meta-fiction approach, both narratives coming up with a unique way to explore the author’s life and work through the lens of fandom. After all, one can hardly provide a full picture of Lovecraft’s legacy without recognizing the activities and creations of his highly dedicated fans, a cult following which has been growing since the 40s and 50s—fanzines, conventions, internet clubs and groups, etc. The Night Ocean is a book of many layers and components, and yes, there are parts of the story which deal with the nature of the fan community, presenting both its wonderful and ugly sides.
All told, I had a shockingly good time with this book. Because of its tangled nature, I doubt it going to be for everyone, but still, I highly recommend it if the description interests you. While I found the author’s writing style somewhat quirky and disjointed, I nevertheless managed to get into the rhythm of the story quickly, becoming mesmerized by extraordinary lives of these characters. There’s a lot of pain and heartbreak within these pages, but also a surprising amount of tenderness and beauty that I had not expected to find in a book featuring Lovecraft as a key figure. And even though there’s a lot of ambiguity in the story—a fact that often vexes me—in this case, I believe it might actually add to the book’s mystique.
At once frustrating and rewarding, The Night Ocean is alternate history on a completely new and innovative level. Easily one of the more clever, intense, and haunting books I’ve read so far this year, and its ending will likely stay with me for a long, long time....more
At the Table of Wolves is the first book I’ve ever read by Kay Kenyon. It’s also the beginning of a new historical paranormal fantasy series set in the prelude to World War II, starring an extraordinary woman who uses her superpower to go undercover to spy for the British. Following the “bloom” in the aftermath of the Great War which resulted in the appearance of psychic talents in about one in a thousand people, Kim Tavistock has manifested the “spill” ability to compel others to reveal their deepest, darkest secrets to her. Not wanting to alienate her friends who might shy away from her if they ever find out, she has always kept her true nature close to her heart. After all, few people find themselves comfortable around a spill—for obvious reasons—though as an intelligence agent, Kim’s unique power would make her a formidable weapon indeed.
Upon her return to England in 1936 to visit her father after an unsuccessful journalism career in America, Kim is troubled by the political upheaval in Germany and the headway the Nazis have made on the research involving military uses for those affected by the bloom. Inspired to help the British, she decides to report to a facility to have her power tested, and is promptly recruited by her caseworker for a dangerous mission to expose a possible German spy. Eager to lend a support, Kim agrees to infiltrate the estate of an aristocratic family during a weekend where she will get meet some of England’s most prominent fascist sympathizers and even a visiting Nazi officer, the seductive and enigmatic Erich von Ritter.
It’s no secret that alternate history fiction set around the time of World War II has always been popular, but believe it or not, the theme of paranormal superpowers versus Nazis has become a growing trend in the subgenre too. Thus, the big question I asked as I sat down to read this novel was, what does it bring to the table? We have a protagonist who has no experience in espionage who unsurprisingly ends up committing a number of mistakes and falling into a bunch traps, always appearing to be outsmarted, outclassed, and outgunned at every turn. As such, the book doesn’t quite meet the typical requirements of a spy novel, and neither is it a satire, so we are presented with none of the humor despite Kim’s bumbling incompetence. Nor does At the Table of Wolves read much like a thriller, for that matter; the majority of the story has little action or suspense, not to mention the pacing was on the slower, plodding side. So, what is it that makes this one stand out? What makes it special?
In truth, I had a rough time getting a bead on this novel, which made answering these questions difficult. The story is pretty decent, light and fluffy enough to provide some entertainment, but now that I’m finished with it, I just can’t help thinking it could have been more. A good example is Kim, who would have been an admirable protagonist, except her character was constantly being undermined by her own poor decisions and inconsistencies. To her credit, she is strong-willed and brave—though I find it hard to truly admire someone who charges headlong into danger while disregarding orders and advice from more experienced agents, and then is shocked when everything blows up in her face. I was also somewhat let down by how little her spill came into play. The effects of that particular power was supposed to give Kim a strong advantage in her spying, but even in this area she underperformed and became overshadowed.
I should mentioned too that the story is told via two main POVs: Kim, as well as her father, Julian. Kenyon attempts to build tension by injecting potential friction between her two main characters, making Kim suspect that her father may be a Nazi sympathizer, when in truth he is actually working on the same side—as one of Britain’s most senior intelligence agents, no less—a development that the reader discovers very early on. For the entire novel though, we are kept in suspense for the epiphany in which estranged father and daughter will finally learn the truth, but alas, the moment never comes. While I understand this is the first of a new series, and that the priority is the resolution of the book’s main story line, still, the situation left unresolved between Kim and Julian felt to me like a glaring loose end. This robbed the conclusion of its emotional impact, which was something the book desperately needed, so hopefully the sequel will take big steps to address this.
Speaking of which, I’ve decided I may continue with the series, despite my issues with this one. For all its flaws, At the Table of Wolves is not a bad book, mainly because the entertainment value is there along with room for the premise to grow beyond what it is now. I didn’t see anything to get really excited about, but given the direction of the last couple of chapters, I have a feeling that may soon change with the next installment....more
I may not be the biggest fan of spy fiction, but out of all the Serial Box series released so far, The Witch Who Came in From the Cold was probably the one that excited me the most. To know why, you just have to take one look at that dream team of an author line-up. There are even a couple on there who are on my auto-read list. I mean, that’s a lot of talent in one place, and of course, I was also curious to see how their different styles would work together, because as you know this book is a serialized novel made up of a number of individual “episodes”, similar to a season of a TV show.
As you’ve probably gathered from the title, The Witch Who Came in From the Cold draws its inspiration from the Cold War spy novel by John le Carré. Offering a quirky mix of politics and espionage, the story also has a fair bit of magic and other paranormal elements thrown in for good measure. The scene opens in Prague, where both KGB and CIA agents conduct covert operations amidst heightened hostilities between their respective countries. Gabe Pritchard is an American agent who has been struggling with some problems as of late. Ever since returning from another assignment in Cairo, he has been experiencing some strange effects, like headaches and other distractions that seem to strike him at the worst possible times. Eventually, his actions lead him to cross paths with his Russian counterpart, a KGB operative named Tanya Morozova. While Gabe is aware that she is an agent for the other side, little does he know Tanya is actually more than she appears.
For you see, behind the tensions between the US and Russia, there lies another conflict—the struggle between two magical factions, Ice and Flame. Secretly, Tanya is a sorceress for Ice, working to prevent Flame from realizing their vision of a new world born from the ashes of the old. However, after some disturbing new developments, she is beginning to wonder just how much she can trust her own organization. Complicating matters is the fact that an ally in politics does not necessarily mean an ally in magic, and caught in between are the mundane agents who are blissfully unaware that a whole other sphere of reality lies hidden beneath their own.
After an action-packed intro in the first episode, the story does admittedly slow down somewhat, focusing instead on developing the characters’ backstories and how they came to their positions. The magical aspect is made known very early, following Tanya and her colleague Nadia as they track a target through the streets of Prague. This was our first taste of how magic operates in this world, via elementals and human hosts. It’s a fascinating system, and this section also does double duty in revealing where Tanya’s true loyalties lie. Then there’s Gabe, whose chapters alternate with Tanya’s. He is an ambitious CIA agent, and sometimes a bit rash, which often puts him at odds with his superiors throughout the course of the novel. His character is also important because initially, he is just your mundane guy who has no idea magic exists. Through his eyes, we are gradually eased into the secret war between Flame and Ice, once it is discovered that his migraines have a magical cause and he is forced to work with Tanya in order to find out more.
I have to say, I really enjoyed the authors’ take on the Cold War premise here, especially the added layer of complexity thanks to the imaginative inclusion of the magical war. That said though, due to the constant back-and-forth between the themes of espionage and magic, the pacing did sometimes feel a bit uneven to me. To be fair, I don’t read a lot of spy novels, and when I do, they’re often of the thriller-suspense variety, so subtler types of plot developments tend to be wasted on me. Not that I didn’t appreciate all intelligence gathering, underhanded backstabbing, or sowing seeds of doubt, but after a while, it was clear that I so much preferred the paranormal aspects like ley lines, magical golems, and sorcerous cults. In the end, I was not surprised to find myself gravitating more towards Tanya’s chapters, because hers often featured more magic, while Gabe’s dealt more predominantly with spycraft.
I also noticed similar themes or story ideas repeated in some episodes. Not sure if this might be a hitch in the editing process, but I suppose when you have multiple authors working on the same project, there’s going to be more potential for such issues. Of course, it’s possible too that reading the episodes week by might would have given me a completely different experience. On the whole though, I felt that the serialized format actually worked quite well in this case. Transitioning between the different episodes was practically seamless, and there was clear synergy between the authors’ writing styles. Books like these are also fast making me rethink my initial skepticism for serial novels. Though I think I will always prefer consuming my serials like my TV shows, i.e. binging full seasons all at once, I’m definitely starting to see their potential for creative storytelling as well as a more entertaining way of reading.
Bottom line, The Witch Who Came in From the Cold is another sophisticated and innovative series, perfect for readers who might be feeling up for some fantasy in their spy fiction. Despite some minor obstacles, I had a good time with this book, and it was a treat and joy to see the amazing work done on it by some of my favorite authors....more
Fun fact: The hippopotamus is widely considered to be the most dangerous mammal in Africa, responsible for more human fatalities there than any other large animal. Although they don’t look very threatening, they are extremely moody and territorial, often known to attack boats in the water or people on land with little to no provocation. Another fun fact: Back at the turn of the 20th century, U.S. Congress actually considered a bold initiative to import these animals to the bayous of Louisiana, in the hopes of creating these “hippo ranches” to solve the nationwide meat shortage as well as the growing ecological crisis caused by the invasive water hyacinth.
Obviously, this wild scheme never came to pass. But you just have to wonder, what if it had?
Happily, author Sarah Gailey was awesome enough to oblige us in River of Teeth, her alternate history novella envisioning an America that might have been if the “American Hippo Bill” had been passed…along with an added few hitches, of course—like, say, if about a hundred hippos had broken loose somewhere along the way, resulting in an out-of-control feral population making safe travel along the southern waterways nigh impossible. Taking place in the marshlands of Louisiana, the story follows a diverse group of hippo riders who come together to pull off a caper—or rather, I should say, an operation—to help the U.S. government rid the Mississippi River’s Harriet section of its feral hippo problem once and for all.
However, as the leader of the group, former hippo rancher Winslow Houndstooth has other plans. Gathering a team that consists of Regina “Archie” Archambault, a corpulent master thief; Hero Schackleby, a gender-neutral demolitions expert; Adelia Reyes, a very effective (and very pregnant) killer-for-hire; and Cal Hotchkiss, a hard-drinking, cards-cheating gambler who just so happens to be the fastest gun in the west, Houndstooth is prepared to pull a few strings in his contract in order to accomplish his true goal of revenge. Floating somewhere on the Harriet is the riverboat casino where he will find Travers, the ruthless businessman who took everything from him. Houndstooth means to see his enemy pay—that is, if only he and his allies can somehow survive the never-ending barrage of obstacles, including double-crossing backstabbers, huge explosions, and a river full of killer hippos.
Hands down, the best part of this book is its concept, which is worth the price of admission alone. It’s just so damn cool! To me, this is what speculative fiction and especially alternate history is all about: taking an idea inspired by a real event—in this case, Congressman Robert Broussard’s proposal of the hippo ranching bill in 1910 (that fell just short of being passed, alas)—and running with it, creating a wonderful new world full of potential. I simply love picking up books like these, knowing that anything is possible. Not to mention, hippos are a great subject; for one thing, they’re fascinating creatures, and two, many people underestimate just how dangerous they are, but Gailey does both these points justice by highlighting the environmental, cultural and societal impact of these animals every chance she gets in her story.
My major complaint, however, is one that I often have with novellas—River of Teeth was just too short, preventing anything from being fully developed. World building, plot elements, and characters all felt a little sparse, leaving me worked up by the end, yet still feeling strangely unfulfilled. Part of me wishes that the story had provided more background information behind the process of hippo farming, or hey, maybe even a mention from someone on what eating hippo might be like (I’ve heard that hippo steak is delicious, but don’t take my word for it). I was also disappointed in the characters. Save for maybe Archie, whose charm I found irresistible, I felt no real connection to or interest in the rest of the cast. Thing is, while I love diversity in my books, I am less enamored with “diversity for diversity’s sake”, which often leads to characters becoming defined by labels and not who they really are, leaving their personalities themselves paper thin and forgettable—especially in the case of this book, where a good number of them are killed off or taken out of the picture rather quickly in a short period of time. It’s worth keeping in mind too that we have a relatively large cast for a novella, so opportunities to get to know each of them well were already limited.
However, as you can probably tell from the positives I highlighted, River of Teeth was still a book I enjoyed. While it didn’t draw me in as much as I thought it would, at no point did I find the story slow-moving or boring, and I can also see the world and characters becoming more fleshed out as more books are added to the series. Sarah Gailey has written a fun little adventure with lots of potential, and already I am eyeing the sequel Taste of Marrow with great interest....more
What an amazing surprise this was! Though to be honest, I had no idea what to expect at first, only that from the moment I saw the book description for The Valiant, I knew I had to read it. I make it no secret that I am fascinated with anything to do with Ancient Rome, and so historical fiction set in this time period is like an instant Mogsy magnet. And secondly, FEMALE GLADIATORS.
The story follows Fallon, daughter of a Celtic king and younger sister to the late legendary warrior Sorcha who fell to the legions of Julius Caesar while fighting in defense of her homeland. Despite a druid’s prophecy predicting that she will meet the same end as her sister, Fallon remains undaunted and determined to follow in Sorcha’s footsteps, hoping to one day join her father’s fighting force. She even turns down a marriage proposal from the boy she loves, knowing she must make her mark on the world before she could make such a commitment.
However, when the big day finally comes, instead of formally accepting Fallon into his war band, her father instead surprises everyone by announcing her betrothal to her true love’s brother, a Roman sympathizer. The king cites political reasons for his decision, and also because he cannot bear the thought of losing another daughter to war, but Fallon is unappeased and furious at what she sees as a betrayal.
At this point, you might think you know how this story will play out, or that all the components are laid out on the table. Within the first handful of chapters, we are introduced to a protagonist who has spent her entire life worshiping her older sister while also growing up in her shadow, and even after Sorcha’s death, all Fallon wants is to live up to her memory. Then there are the two boys around Fallon’s own age who for years have been fostered at her father’s castle, vying for Fallon’s affections. But while Fallon fell in love with one, her father decided to marry her off to the other. “Oh, this is a scenario that feels a little familiar,” I thought. “I have a few guesses about what might happen.”
Well, I was wrong about that. There were definitely plenty of surprises, a couple of which came very early on in the book too. I’m not going to spoil what they are, but suffice to say, they altered my predictions for the story entirely. Fallon ends up being captured by slavers and shipped off to Rome, where her steel resolve catches the attention of a representative for a school for female gladiators, and the rest, as they say, is history.
While The Valiant is marketed as a YA fantasy, in fact gladiatrices did exist in ancient Roman times, though they were very, very rare. They were seen more as novelties, according to the few accounts that have survived. And more than likely, they were not viewed or treated with the same regard as their male counterparts. No evidence either has been found of the training of female gladiators, or schools dedicated to them. So in a sense, this book does fall into the historical fantasy category, in the way it attempts to imagine a picture of what life would have been like if gladiatrices had been a big part of ancient Roman culture, in and out of the arena.
By combining history and elements from her own incredible imagination, the author brings the vivid world of The Valiant to life. Details are noticeably on the lighter side when it comes to setting, but Livingston makes up for it by creating an atmosphere that feels distinctly and authentically “Ancient Roman”, allowing readers to fill in any gaps with their own knowledge or understanding of the time period. I also loved the protagonist. At times, I might have found her a tad too melodramatic, but other than that, I don’t really have any major complaints about Fallon or any of the other characters. As I mentioned before, the story is sufficiently unpredictable and I was taken by surprise by a couple plot points. I might also have bemoaned the lack of gladiatorial fights in the first half of the book, but the second half showed me why it’s important to be patient. Towards the end, the ferocious action and the intense thrills succeeded in blowing me away.
In case you couldn’t tell, I loved this book. The category for my favorite YA novel of 2017 officially has its first contender, folks. If there’s any justice in the world, this book will be huge and it will deserve all the attention it gets. The future of this series promises to be exciting both on and off the arena floor, and I can’t wait to read more of Fallon and her sisterhood of ruthless and tough gladiators.
Audiobook Comments: I was lucky enough to be offered the audiobook of The Valiant for review, and I found it to be another splendid example of a fast-paced and addictive listen. Personally, thought the narrator Fiona Hardingham did a great job voicing Fallon’s story. I love her accent and the emotions she puts into her reading, and I would not hesitate to recommend The Valiant audiobook to anyone considering this format....more
It’s hard to be a fan of alternate history fiction these days without running across your fair share of alternate World War II stories, but from the start, it was clear to me that The Berlin Project was a different breed. With a heavy focus on the historical details and science behind the building of the atom bomb, I confess this would not have been my usual kind of read at all. That said, I’m glad I read it, and as you will soon see, certain revelations eventually came to light that made me see this book—and appreciate it—in a whole new light.
Like many of its genre, The Berlin Project offers a fascinating glimpse into a crucial point in our history and asks the question, “What if?” Because of its scope and significant impact, World War II is especially rife with these scenarios, but rather than approach the theme from a conventional standpoint, author Gregory Benford instead asks, “What if the United States developed the atomic bomb a year earlier, in 1944?” As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that this is more than just a tagline for the book; a viable bomb at that time could have potentially set the US on a different path, and changed history in a lot of ways.
Through the eyes of the chemist Karl P. Cohen, a junior partner of the Manhattan Project, The Berlin Project tells the story of what might have happened had the Allies developed the first nuclear weapons in time to stop Hitler from killing millions of people. The book begins in 1938, following Karl as he returns from Paris, bringing home his new wife to meet his family. War is brewing in Europe, and the next few years sees Karl becoming more involved with the scientific community at Columbia University where he works. By the time the Manhattan Project is born, a number of famous scientists—many of whom were refugees from Europe—have already graced these pages including Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi, Harold Urey, Leo Szilard, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Edward Teller and more. With Karl’s discovery of an alternate solution for creating U-235, the uranium isotope needed to sustain a fission chain reaction, the atomic bomb known as “Little Boy” became ready by the summer of 1944, and its intended target became Nazi Germany instead of Japan.
The publisher description markets this as a thriller, but in reality, all the gripping elements may be lost among the details. Rather than fast-paced excitement, I found instead an exhaustive narrative on the history of the early years of WWII, followed by an even more intimidating and lengthy account on the development of nuclear fission. The book’s first half covered events leading up to the formation of the Manhattan Project and the development of the bomb, a section which read more like a history textbook rather than science fiction novel (and the regular inclusion of historical photos and scientific diagrams did little to dispel this feeling, fascinating as they were). I didn’t dislike this part per se, but neither was I getting any sense that The Berlin Project was supposed to be a suspenseful thriller. Clearly a lot of research was put into this novel, with compelling pieces of trivia thrown in here and there, but I have a feeling readers with little interest in the historical or scientific subjects will have a rough time of getting into this story.
Fortunately, pacing improves in the second half. Let’s just say things don’t go nearly as smoothly as the Allies had hoped, following the bomb’s deployment in Berlin. Karl leaves the safety of the laboratory for fieldwork as a spy in Europe, and we finally come face-to-face with the horrors of war, which had been a background concern up to this point, happening far away from our protagonist’s life in New York. With this development, we are truly in unknown territory, as the war escalates and events spiral out of control. And yet, even with this change in tone, I still felt that there was a muted quality to the espionage and suspenseful elements, holding the story back from being a true thriller.
I did, however, mention in my intro about experiencing a turning point while in the middle of reading this book, and that was when I discovered the author’s connection to the protagonist and many of the other characters. As Benford writes in his Afterword, nearly all the people depicted in The Berlin Project existed. He met and knew quite a few of them. Karl Cohen was his own father-in-law! Suddenly, many of book’s idiosyncrasies which I’d noticed began to make a lot more sense, from its distinct tone of authenticity to certain quirks and habits attributed to the characters which sometimes struck me as too specific or out-of-the-blue to be made up. Every document featured in the novel is also authentic, including letters and other Cohen family correspondence. I found all this information to be extremely cool, and admittedly these revelations do have a way of lending a certain je ne sais quoi to this particular alt-history.
To be sure, The Berlin Project is different kind of book among its genre, and I think how you do with it will largely depend on your interest in its topics as well as a willingness to see the plot developments through to the end. All told, your mileage on enjoyment may vary, but it’s nevertheless a fascinating novel that I’m glad I got a chance to read....more
Ambitious in scope and audacious in its execution, A Gathering of Ravens spectacularly weaves together the threads of history and mythological tradition, spiriting readers away on a journey through legend and time. A master storyteller, author Scott Oden has combined elements from Norse and Celtic lore with the richness of the early medieval landscape to create a novel that is epic in every sense; we have bloodshed and triumph, love and loss, tragedy and hope…and yes, we also have an Orc.
Grimnir is the last of his kind. The Anglo-Saxons call him orcnéas, while the Danes name him skrælingr, but most would agree that he is a monster, an evil creature birthed from the earth’s dark depths. But in truth, he is a lot more than that, as the plot expands to reveal his quest for vengeance against Bjarki Half-Dane, the oathbreaker who killed his brother. When two weary followers of Christ unknowingly take shelter in his cave one stormy night, Grimnir kidnaps the younger of them as his hostage, forcing her to be his guide to the land across the sea. Frightened and grieving for her friend now lost to her, Étaín has no choice but to do what her beastly captor says, accompanying him through the Danish wilderness to the Ash Road, a secret passageway which would lead them to England.
However, their journey does not go exactly as planned. Grimnir and Étaín arrive at their destination to find that changes have swept across the country, and the two of them are now outsiders in every possible way. Yet Grimnir remains undeterred in his desire for revenge, and in spite of herself, Étaín also begins to see more than the monster in the Orc. The two of them are now each other’s only ally, with faith and honor ultimately leading them to a shared purpose.
The strength of this book lies in the author’s skill in evoking the spirit and atmosphere of a time gone by. He perfectly captures the life and culture of the people in this era. Throughout the early sections of A Gathering of Ravens, I could practically feel the bitter chill of the Danish hinterlands, sense its sharpness deep within my bones. As the story unfolds, we also got to see the cruelty and injustices of war, the power struggles that result between different groups when their religious beliefs collide. Scott Oden’s forte is clearly his interest and enthusiasm for history; that much can be gleaned from every page of this meticulously crafted novel. However, I also simply adore the fantasy he has injected into the mix, incorporating mythological elements and ancient folklore like the Celtic fairies and even a few allusions to the legend of Beowulf. It is precisely because of this melding of magical factors that makes historical fantasy one of my favorite subgenres.
And of course, there are the Orcs. In his afterword, Oden describes his impetus behind the story’s premise, offering some excellent insight into his process of creating Grimnir. To tell the truth, it gave me an even greater appreciation for this book, knowing how the concept behind this fascinating character was conceived and executed. One thing you can be sure of is that Grimnir is most definitely not your traditional kind of hero. From the start, he was an enigma, brutal yet complex. I loathed his treatment of Étaín at first, and saw him as a villain, but gradually as their journey went on, I began to sympathize with his bloodthirsty quest. Their relationship—especially their transition to becoming eventual allies—was written very well and handled realistically. Along with Étaín, my eyes became open to the Orc’s deeper sense of honor and duty. It may not be as we understand it, but it does go a long way in making Grimnir seem more heroic and worthy of the reader’s support. Non-human protagonists are often tricky to pull off, but the author has shown that they can indeed work, somehow also making it look easy at the same time. While Oden may have set out to redeem the Orc, whether or not he achieved that is going to be up to the individual reader, though personally speaking I can honestly say that by the end of the book I was solidly won over by Grimnir and was rooting for him all the way.
So, should you read A Gathering of Ravens? Well, if you enjoy historical fantasy novels of vast and epic proportions, then yes, yes you absolutely should. Scott Oden’s delectable prose and attention to detail brought this story to life before my eyes, immersing me in a riveting world steeped in history and myth. I was also amazed at how easy it was to instantly engage with plot and feel invested in the characters. Clearly there’s a whole lot here to fall in love with, and I would not hesitate to recommend this novel to all fans of dark historical or mythical fantasy. I can’t wait to read more by the author....more
I’m always up for a good changeling story, and Alison Littlewood is an author I’ve been meaning to read for a long time. Thus when I found out about The Hidden People, I saw this book as the perfect place to start. There’s no doubt that the story is utterly atmospheric, full of the kind of beautiful, exquisite detail that slowly creeps up on you. Littlewood also writes wonderfully and has a flair for bringing a historical setting to life. And yet…I don’t know if I felt as fully engaged as I could be. This book had all the elements of a dark historical mystery or good horror tale, but lacked the pacing of one, and I think that’s where it might have missed its mark.
It is 1851 when a young Albie meets his cousin Lizzie for the first time at the Great Exhibition. It was a grand day of celebration for industry, modern technology, invention and design, but Albie only had Lizzie on his mind, and there she stayed for many, many years even though the two of them never saw each other again.
Fast forward to 1862, Albie is just sitting down to dinner with his wife Helena when his father breaks the horrible news: Lizzie, Albie’s pretty cousin that he met more than ten years ago, is dead. She was burned to death by her husband, who claimed his wife had been replaced by a changeling. Enraged and grieving, Albie takes it upon himself to visit the village where Lizzie had lived in order to pay his respects and seek justice. But upon his arrival, he is shocked and even more furious to see how deeply superstitious the people are. His cousin hasn’t even been buried yet, left in her twisted and charred state. And during the funeral, no one showed up. It appears that all the talk of magic and fairies is more than just that; the villagers actually believe that Lizzie has been fae-touched and is now anathema.
But Albie’s obsession with Lizzie means he is unable to let this injustice stand. He refuses to leave the village, even when his wife Helena comes to join him for the funeral and then tries to convince him to let it all go and return to his own life and family. After all, she reminds him, he’s only met his cousin once and that was more than a decade ago.
But apparently, Lizzie made quite an impression on Albie. The problem was, no one around him was convinced, and to be honest, neither was I. It’s unfortunate that this sets the precedent for the rest of the book, but also not surprising, considering the entire basis for Albie’s obsession rests on this one scene at the start of the book which lasts no more than seven pages. We’re told that Lizzie’s beauty, sweetness and charisma got under our protagonist’s skin and stayed with him for many years, but I never believed it. This huge disconnect made it hard for me to understand a key part of what made the main character tick, and as such it made sympathizing with him throughout the novel an uphill battle—especially when his preoccupation with Lizzie started straining his marriage.
Then there was the pacing. While I loved the dark, haunting, gothic style of The Hidden People, the story itself was very slow to build, taking away from the tensions the author was trying to convey. Littlewood’s prose is gorgeous, and she paints a detailed picture of rural village life in the mid-1800s complete with the different dialects and other cultural nuances, but the meticulous nature of her writing style also makes it difficult to stay engaged. That’s a shame because there’s really an excellent story in here, but I also can’t deny that at times I struggled with the restrained speed at which the plot unfolded.
Still, I’m happy I got to discover Alison Littlewood’s beautiful writing, and despite the book’s flaws I thought The Hidden People was worth my time. There’s a lot of good stuff in here too, a lot to counter the quibbles. If you have an interest in the time period and the subject matter, I strongly encourage you to take a look....more
I didn’t really expect much from Iron Cast. It’s one of those books where its cover caught my eye while browsing Goodreads one day, and the description sounded interesting enough that it led me to add it to my to-watch list. Afterwards though, I must admit it’d pretty much flown out of my mind— that is, until one day I read a very positive review from Kaja whose blog I follow, and her praise was enough to put this book on my radar again. When the opportunity to review the Iron Cast audiobook came along, I jumped on it, and I am very glad I did.
The story is a historical fantasy that takes place in Boston. The year is 1919 and the city’s club scene is full of life, even as the country teeters on the cusp of the Prohibition Era. In underground venues all over, hemopaths entertain patrons on stage. They are the “blood afflicted” ones, gifted—or cursed, depending on your point of view—with the ability to create illusions and affect emotions through art. Best friends Corinne and Ada are two such talented individuals, employed at Johnny Dervish’s Cast Iron Club. By night, Corinne recites beautiful poetry while Ada plays mesmerizing tunes on her violin, but by day, the two young women work their magic as con artists.
Our protagonists aren’t exactly proud of what they do, but it’s a rough world out there for hemopaths and they have to take certain measures to keep themselves and their families safe. Ada and Corinne rationalize that they are cheating and stealing only from the people who deserve it, using the funds to hide the secret of their abilities and what they do for Johnny Dervish. Hemopaths using their abilities is illegal, and those captured are taken to institutions where inhumane experiments take place on prisoners under the pretense of rehabilitating them and making them “fit” to enter society again. One day after a botched job, Ada finds herself thrown into one such place, the nightmare that is Haversham Asylum. Corinne manages to break her out, but upon returning to the Cast Iron, the two of them discover to their horror that even worse misfortunes have befallen their friends at their beloved club.
In many ways, this book reminded me of a lot of Lee Kelly’s A Criminal Magic, another novel I read this year about illegal sorcery as a form of entertainment in clandestine nightclubs, which also takes place around this historical time period. While I enjoyed that one quite a bit, I do think Iron Cast managed to handle several elements with a lot more flair and energy. First of all, the setting: Destiny Soria really captured the essence of 1919 Boston in her descriptions of the people and places, from the poor and downtrodden in the urban tenements to the glitz and glamour of the city’s elite. It’s also an era of tumultuous politics, which is subtly but unmistakably reflected in the social climate portrayed in the story. The nature and soul of the time and place is so important for me when it comes to historical fiction, and in my opinion, the author nailed it. As I listened to the audio, I could practically feel the atmosphere oozing from every word.
Second, I adored Soria’s approach to the theme of female friendship. I know that’s a term that gets thrown around a lot, especially in YA where perhaps more readers are seeking out stories that feature strong friendships as a counterbalance to the genre’s heavy emphasis on romance. I’ve been drawn to books before that claim “female friendship” only to be disappointed the moment a guy steps in and overshadows that relationship (Truthwitch is an example that immediately comes to mind) so you can understand why I went into this one with no small amount of skepticism. Thankfully, those turned out to be unfounded. Corinne and Ada are indeed the best of friends and the strength of their bond was apparent from the get go. The two of them come from very different worlds—Corinne’s parents are prominent and wealthy members of the Boston elite and her brother is running for political office, while Ada is the daughter of two hardworking but impoverished immigrants and her father has been jailed for a crime he did not commit.
It may seem like a cliché for two girls from such different walks of life to bond over their shared hemopathy, but there’s so much more to their friendship than that. Corinne and Ada provide each other comfort and support, but each character also shows time and time again that she is willing to put the other’s safety and happiness above her own. That unconditional love means that they are aware of each other’s foibles and they even joke about how they drive each other up the wall—but all it does is make that loyalty stronger.
All told, I thought this was a great novel and a rather happy surprise. The audiobook was a great way to experience the story, with Christine Marshall’s narration bringing to life all the beauty and magic of Boston in the post-WWI era. I enjoyed her accents and intonations for the various characters and the way her smooth reading kept even the slower, more understated parts of the story moving along at a smart pace. A fantastic debut and highly recommended....more
I’m a huge Michael Crichton fan, but admittedly I went into Dragon Teeth with reservations. After all, posthumously published works tend to make me a little wary, and the last two novels published after Crichton’s death have not exactly disabused me of this bias, reinforcing my belief that most “found manuscripts” are doomed to disappoint. So you can imagine my surprise when I finished this book and found that I really enjoyed it. Granted, I love paleontology and I love Westerns, but unlike Pirate Latitudes or Micro (completed by Richard Preston), both of which I felt were unpolished and sloppy in their execution, Dragon Teeth actually felt solidly put together and complete.
It all began with a not-so-friendly wager. The year is 1876 and William Johnson, a Yale student and the son of a wealthy shipping magnate is goaded into traveling west by a rival student, who bet a thousand dollars that privileged and sheltered William would not have what it takes to visit America’s wild and lawless frontier. Fueled by his pride, our protagonist impulsively signs on with a bone-finding expedition to the western territories, claiming himself to be a professional photographer, not realizing just how far in over his head he’s gotten himself. For you see, the expedition is led by renowned paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh, who is embroiled in a bitter rivalry of his own. Notoriously difficult to work with, Marsh is unscrupulous and paranoid, convinced that his arch nemesis, the equally distinguished paleontologist Edwin Drinker Cope is always on his trail, ready to swoop in and steal his research.
Unfortunately, that paranoia ultimately leads Marsh to abandon William in Wyoming, believing him to be one of Cope’s spies. In an ironic twist of fate, however, Cope himself finds our poor, confused protagonist and extends an invitation to join his own expedition, to which William has no choice but to accept. To his pleasant surprise, he winds up finding Edwin Drinker Cope to be a rather pleasant fellow, with a fearsome temper to be sure, but still nothing like the monster Marsh made him out to be. Their expedition might also be smaller and less organized, but on the whole William is much happier since he switched sides, his enthusiasm for the work increasing the more he learns. Then one day, their team stumbles upon a huge find. But in the paleontology field, the discovery of a lifetime often goes hand in hand with plenty of dangers. From the moment William decided he was going to go west, he had known he would be facing all kinds of challenges, but little did he expect just how far he would go for a pile of dusty old bones.
Unlike Crichton’s other novels about dinosaurs, Dragon Teeth is pure historical fiction, its premise based on a frenzied period of fossil research and discovery in the late 1800s known as “The Bone Wars” or the “Great Dinosaur Rush”. It’s a fascinating topic, and I was impressed to see how deftly all the seemingly mundane details were woven into such a tight, thrilling and intense page-turner. That said, this is also a story that just begs to be told. In a time when explorers, settlers, and gold seekers were heading their way west in the hopes of striking it rich, paleontologists were instead scrambling all over the rich bone beds of the western territories, searching for fossils. Both Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope were real, and so was their feud where they infamously sought to destroy each other’s’ careers and reputations, often resorting to underhanded tactics like theft, slander and outright sabotage. While William Johnson himself may be a fictional protagonist, through his bamboozled and mystified eyes, readers are given front row seats to witness the full extent of their roaring rivalry.
In the end though, the plot of Dragon Teeth comes down to a journey of personal growth. William is a stuck-up entitled jackass when we first meet him, used to power and money getting him whatever he wants. But the West changes him, stripping away his privilege and hardening his spirit. Far from home where no one knows or cares who he is, William quickly learns to pull his own weight and ultimately finds that there is more to life than empty materialism and shallow pleasures. Reading about his fraught adventures is just as enjoyable as reading about the history of the time and place, especially in the novel’s second half which sees the story evolving into something straight out of a Spaghetti Western. After a run in with a notorious outlaw, William even winds up allying with none other than Wyatt Earp.
Still, I must warn that while Dragon Teeth feels very much like a complete, articulate novel, the level of detail is nowhere near that of some of Crichton’s best works. In some ways the book reads like a highly polished draft with the finished framework in place, simply waiting for the author to put more meat on its bones but of course he never got the chance. Despite characters and descriptions being a bit sparse though, the story itself does not suffer much, nor is the overall novel less readable because of it. In fact, it’s possible some readers might even prefer this straightforward and pragmatic approach and appreciate the novel’s swift, no-nonsense pacing.
In sum, Dragon Teeth was a lot better than I thought it would be, and unlike Pirate Latitudes or Micro, I would actually recommend it. That being said, you still shouldn’t go into this expecting an epic adventure with the level of research and detail on par with the author’s more famous novels that he wrote in life, but as far as posthumously released publications go, this one was pretty damn decent....more
The Warlock and the Wolf is a historical fantasy set in mid-17th century Netherlands, in the South Holland city of The Hague. The story begins with the hanging of a woman, accused of being a witch. It was a quiet affair in the woods, but news of it soon spread to our protagonist, a young naturalist apprentice named Mina who spends much of her time in the wilderness studying the fauna and flora. One day, Mina is suddenly set upon by a strange creature—something with the body of an owl but the face of a human woman—and its talons rake and injure her. Fortunately for Mina though, she is saved from further harm thanks to the timely arrival of a talking wolf, who chases the creature back into the woods.
Wait, a talking wolf? Mina is sure that she imagined it all, or that the strange owl creature’s talons must have infected her with a disease and somehow made her hear and see things that weren’t there. Being a woman of science, she is ready to dismiss the whole thing, and certainly she’s not about to tell her mentor, the great Pieter Moll who serves as chief naturalist to Frederick Henry, Prince of Orange. Mina has hopes of succeeding Pieter one day, and it would do her no good to talk of anything related to the occult or supernatural.
Still, when Mina hears the details of the witch’s hanging from her aunt, she grows unsettled. The supposed witch’s name was Leonara, and as the story goes, the woman did have some magical power, which she was using to keep a murderer named Gregor from escaping his prison cell. And as Gregor was the man who killed Mina’s parents when she was little, the story was understandably of interest to her. Sure enough, the news comes that Gregor is now on the loose. Worse, he’s reputed to be a powerful warlock, and it may seem he still has unfinished business with Mina and her family.
With a premise like that, it’s no wonder we here at The BiblioSanctum were intrigued by this SPFBO entry. Within the first five chapters, we were introduced to a historically rich setting, a fascinating young heroine, and talking animals. I have to admit, it was this last point that really sealed the deal for me and made me decide to nominate it for our shortlist. There’s nothing I enjoy more than a quirky little hook like that to make me want to know more about what’s going on.
I also took to the main character right away. Most of all, I liked how quickly the book established a complex picture of Mina, presenting a number of conflicts which immediately made her an interesting protagonist. One of the main themes of the story is Science versus Magic, and Mina frequently finds herself in the middle, torn between her family history and her desire to be a master naturalist. She also endeared herself to me with her determination to make it in the scientific community despite the field being dominated by men. To be named her Pieter’s successor is all she has ever wanted, and she will fight her detractors to the end in order to fulfill her dreams. However, if it comes down to a battle between being true to herself versus pursuing her aspirations, what will she do then?
The story also has a “folklore” feel to it that I enjoyed, with a nice mix of fantasy and history. Mina’s newfound ability to speak with animals made for some humorous scenarios as well, and the author has a knack for writing conversations and giving each creature their individual personalities. Perhaps it is no surprise then that the character who stole the show was not even a person but an animal, the titular wolf Basa. He was the absolute greatest, and I liked him more than many of the human characters in this book.
Despite a solid beginning though, I thought the book’s momentum started flagging towards the middle and the story didn’t end as strongly as it started. Mainly, I think it was because no other characters besides Mina really stood out for me. There’s some build-up to a possible romance, but I felt disconnected to it because the love interest came across as somewhat clichéd. The villain also didn’t affect me much, as no compelling reason was really given to explain his motivations. Mina’s actions also become inconsistent towards the end, and often I found myself frustrated with her impulsiveness every time she ran headlong into danger, having learned nothing from her past mistakes.
As followers of my reviews will know, I’m also big on atmosphere when it comes to historical fiction. This was something I struggled with while reading this book, but I really think it would work better for readers familiar with the context of the setting. One thing to know is that the last execution of a witch in the Dutch Republic was probably in the early 1600s, which sort of explains the “in between” nature of belief for the people in this story as the populace moves towards an age of scientific enlightenment while some still hang on to superstitions. Admittedly, not being too well-versed in the history of the time and place left me confused and feeling untethered to the world at times, and I wanted more context to go with the historical facts and figures. The writing was also sparse in description, and I think some fleshing out of the setting would have helped in making this story feel more immersive.
My verdict: The Warlock and the Wolf captured my attention right away with its intriguing premise and complex heroine. While the momentum gained by the strong intro didn’t carry through as far as I would have liked, I still think it’s a great read, which I would recommend especially for fans of historical fiction and magical stories. There’s lots to like, and plenty of potential for more....more
So, I’ve never seen Cannibal Holocaust. Its huge cult following and legacy as a definitive film in the exploitation horror genre notwithstanding, I already know that kind of movie is not my bag, and my queasiness from viewing its Wikipedia page alone is confirmation enough of that. And yet, when I saw the description of this book I was immediately intrigued, especially by the part about the story being inspired by the true events surrounding the making of the film. If you aren’t familiar with the controversy there, when Cannibal Holocaust came out in the early 80s it achieved massive notoriety for its gruesome and violent content, but also when it came to light that there were unsavory practices on set that proved quite disturbing.
We Eat Our Own is essentially the novelized incarnation of that story. It tells of an unnamed struggling actor, only referred to as his on-screen name “Richard”, getting a call from his agent out of the blue about a once in a lifetime opportunity—an Italian art film director is in need of a new lead because his original actor quit right on the tarmac after seeing the script. This could be the big break “Richard” needs, but the catch is, he’ll need to pack up and leave right this instant. The rest of the crew are already shooting in the Amazon rainforest, and production is already behind schedule and over-budget. The plane to Bogotá leaves from the airport in six hours; just be on it.
Not long after “Richard” arrives on set though, he wonders if he’s made a mistake. The director is a nutcase, who seems to be making things up as he goes along. Many of his methods are unorthodox and unethical, especially when it comes to the treatment of animals on set as well as his attitudes towards the native extras. There is no script, not enough set materials, and hardly any safety. They’re in the middle of nowhere far from civilization, in an area made unstable by the activity of the drug cartels and M-19 guerilla fighters. The jungle itself is oppressive, the air hot and wet, the river brown and soupy and full of parasites. Despite the hours of acting classes and theater school, nothing could have prepared our main character for any of this.
For me, this book was a total surprise, but I’m still trying to decide whether it was a positive or negative one. To be perfectly honest, I’m not even sure what I expected beyond having glimpsed a description of the style as being “literary horror”, but it’s probably safe to say the book turned out even more artsy than I’d anticipated. The prose is innovative and ambitious, bordering almost on experimental. For instance, the author uses a number of unconventional literary devices including the second person narrative for “Richard’s” chapters, often emphasizing just how far out of his depth he is by starting the character’s sections with “Here’s what you don’t know…”, while of course empowering the reader because we are afforded the luxury of seeing the whole picture. As well, we bounce between points-of-view, making the narrative as a whole feel somewhat disjointed and choppy. Dialogue is also presented without the traditional quotation marks, and tends to run together.
The real kicker though, is that while I could grasp the overall gist of what the author was attempting to do, the unusual style sadly had the effect of alienating the reader, taking a lot away from the impact she was hoping to convey. The philosophy and social commentary also gets lost in all the muddled narratives and side plots, and the problem is compounded when none of the characters are all that likeable (though in all fairness, this is by design) or sympathetic enough for me to care about them. Wilson has created an incredible thing here, and it’s especially impressive for a debut novel…but still, something felt missing.
I’ve been pondering how to put my feelings into words, and in the end I think it amounts to this: We Eat Are Own is a book that will be more appreciated for its bold structure and its artistry, rather than for its story or ideas. While the original inspiration behind it is fascinating—and I think Cannibal Holocaust enthusiasts will get a kick out of it—I just never felt connected to the narrative on a level beyond, “Hey, this is a pretty neat premise for a book.” Fans of literary fiction will probably enjoy the thematic parallels to classics like Heart of Darkness and other works that explore the savagery and moral confusion deep within the human condition. Readers of more traditional horror on the other hand, though, are likely better off looking elsewhere....more
Paranormal horror and historical fiction collide in the rather unfortunately titled Dracula vs. Hitler, since anyone picking up this book would be rightly forgiven for mistaking this book for a campy, humorous mashup. After all, that was my initial thought after seeing the name and cover as well, but as it turns out, my first impression couldn’t be further from the truth.
Dracula vs. Hitler is actually a quite serious endeavor, reinforced with what appears to be plenty of research and painstaking attention to detail. For one thing, it is written in an epistolary style like the original Dracula by Bram Stoker, a nod to the classic work.
The story officially begins with the Editor’s Note, as the author Patrick Sheane Duncan (who is also known for his work as a film producer and director, on movies like Courage Under Fire and Mr. Holland’s Opus) recounts a recent trip deep down into the bowels of a cavernous Washington DC document warehouse (think the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark), where he was supposed to be conducting research for a new television series. Instead, he ends up finding more than he bargained for, when he chances across a thick packet of papers labeled “TOP SECRET”. Inside this classified folder are the documents making up most of this book, mainly a series of entries from the journal of one Jonathan Murray Harker dated between the months of April to June 1941, as well as a number of excerpts from a novel believed to be authored by Lucille Van Helsing writing under a pen name.
These two characters are of course the descendants of the original characters from the novel Dracula, the ending of which apparently didn’t play out the way Stoker had written them. In a letter written in 1890, Lucille’s father Abraham Van Helsing confesses to not having killed the creature as he had intended, instead stashing the body away in a state of suspended animation. Fifty odd years later, as the Nazis are wreaking death and fear across Europe, Van Helsing is now a resistance leader in Romania. Nazi atrocities are detailed in secret communiqués to Berlin written by Major Waltraud Reikel, a vile and sadistic officer of the SS. As the resistance forces flounder under Reikel’s tight hold in the area, Van Helsing is forced to consider drastic measures—like turning to the creature he put down half a century ago. As reluctant as he is to go through with the plan, deep down he knows that to fight a monster…you need a monster. Together with the English spy Jonathan Harker, grandson of original Jonathan and Mina Harker, Van Helsing prepares to go back and unearth the legendary Dracula.
So no, this book is not intended to be a cheesy crossover or a comedic piece so don’t let the title put you off (though on the other hand, if you were attracted to this book because you were expecting a humorous read, then you’ll be disappointed…seriously, they really could have gone with a more suitable title). Instead, what you’ll find is a cleverly thought out novel featuring deep characters which actually deals with some solemn themes. Despite having a strong element of escapism appeal, I also wouldn’t exactly call this a “light, fluffy” read either. The story definitely has its share of slow, dragging parts, especially towards the beginning and in the middle, and for a book called Dracula vs. Hitler, there’s actually disappointingly little showdown between the two title characters. Dracula doesn’t even enter the picture until about a hundred pages in, and the Fuhrer’s presence mainly comes into play near the very end.
Still, after a lengthy buildup, the reader’s patience is rewarded as the momentum picks up. The story takes off bigtime as the resistance unleashes their secret weapon in the form of a bloodsucking vampire, and I can’t even begin to describe the immense pleasure and satisfaction derived from watching the Nazis lose their shit. The fight scenes are suspenseful and literally explosive, and of course, once Hitler finally figure out what’s going on, he becomes obsessed with capturing Dracula for a chance at unlocking the secret of immortality. The author pulls off the rest of the novel marvelously, and there’s no doubt that the climax and conclusion are this book’s best parts.
There are other notable aspects that must be addressed though, and first and foremost is of course the character of Dracula himself. Here he is portrayed as a savior and protector of Romania, though not without some pushback from those familiar with his bloody role in “The Book” as well as his brutal history as Prince Vlad the Impaler. Dracula doesn’t actually get his own “voice” in this novel, and instead we have to rely mostly on Jonathan Harker and Lucy Van Helsing’s sections in order to get to know him. Nevertheless, I am impressed with Duncan’s handling of the classic character. In the story, the resistance often refers to Dracula as “the creature” or “the secret weapon”, but as the plot continues it becomes more and more clear that he is not a thing or a monster, but a man who is more human than anyone gives him credit for. The author has also managed to create a lot of interesting tension between Dracula, Jonathan and Lucy, even going as far as to throw a bizarre love triangle into this mix (and trust me, it is not dubious as it sounds).
All told, its questionable title notwithstanding, I’m actually not too worried because I’m sure Dracula vs. Hitler will find an audience—and I really hope it will find success too because this book really is quite a gem. Do not, and I repeat, do not be fooled into expecting “Freddy vs. Jason” or “King Kong vs. Godzilla” levels of camp with this one; it’s not that kind of book. Historical fantasy and paranormal fans should have a good time though, especially if you’re looking for an imaginative book with a dash of pulp and quirkiness....more
While The Conqueror’s Saga may be more of an alternate history rather than a true fantasy series, it is nevertheless based on a genuinely fascinating premise. Imagine if Vlad the Impaler, one of the most brutal figures in history, known for his cunning and penchant for cruelty and who served as the main source of inspiration for Dracula, was instead…a princess? As I wrote in my review for the first book, it’s this subversion of the archetypical YA heroine trope that initially drew me in, and I was looking forward to see how the author would continue this story.
Now I Rise is a sequel that picks up shortly after the end of the first book, following Lada’s split with Radu and Mehmed in order to return to Wallachia. Our protagonist is determined to regain control of her country, which she knows she is destined to rule. Though she is without power or allies at this point, Lada is not about to let anything stop her, gathering whatever forces she can to harry the countryside and put the pressure on her enemies.
Meanwhile, her brother Radu has been sent undercover to Constantinople by Mehmed, who has become Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. Once the object of Lada’s affections, Mehmed is now consumed by a new vision to retake the city from the Byzantines, driven by a prophecy that has foretold his rise. Radu, who harbors his own secret feelings for Mehmed, is unable to deny the Sultan anything and thus agrees to be his spy behind the walls of Constantinople.
But as Radu carries out his mission for Mehmed, he cannot help but think of his sister Lada, who is far away fighting her own war for a throne. Ever since they were children, the siblings have always depended on each other, with Radu providing Lada with his wisdom and strategic advice while she shielded them both with her strength and confidence. But Radu also can’t help his heart, which cleaves him to the Ottomans’ mission. Torn in his love between the two most important people in his life, ultimately Radu will have to decide where his true loyalties lie.
Reading this book, I was pleasantly surprised to see how unconventional the story felt compared to most other YA novels. It is in essence a retelling of the fall of Constantinople and the retaking of Wallachia—based very loosely on the true events. Thus in many ways, this novel read like a military fantasy, featuring a plot that concerned itself more with war campaigns and waging a siege. I think it would be fascinating too if you are familiar with some of the true history, watching Kiersten White combine fact with fiction to create something new and exciting.
At first, I was also apprehensive about the fact that our three main characters—Lada, Radu, and Mehmed—are mostly split up in this book, and that the main story threads rarely crossed. Thankfully though, for all that the story featured little to no real interaction between them, it didn’t turn out to be much of problem at all. The distance between the characters actually gave each of them a chance to reflect on the ties that were already in place, and I also liked how this gave them the opportunity to form new relationships and motivations.
In particular, I loved Lada’s perspective in this novel, and her struggle with her identity. While the world sees her as merely a woman, she knows in her heart she is a soldier, and woe to those who underestimate her. The ending was testament to this, and it was at once both difficult and satisfying to read. Then there was Radu, who just damn near broke my heart. I can see how many would find him exasperating and unlikeable, but somehow I can’t bring myself to hate this poor lost boy. It’s possible I may also be influenced by residual sympathies I had for him in the last book, in which he was my favorite character. The story was sensitive to the subject of his sexuality and I thought White’s writing captured his internal struggle very well.
Now I Rise is, in a nutshell, a wonderful sequel that delivered on everything it promised, including lots of character growth and even more dark thrills in the plot. The execution of this series has been very impressive so far, as are the new directions the story has taken, and I find myself looking forward to the next book in the saga.
Audiobook Comments: Fiona Hardingham is fast becoming one of my favorite audiobook narrators, and she was the main reason why I decided to switch formats and review the audio for the second book in The Conqueror’s Saga. As always, Ms. Hardingham delivers a fine performance, and I can find no major faults with her narration. If you’re considering the audiobook versions for this series, I would highly recommend it....more
Make no mistake, Lovecraft-inspired stories are a real hot thing right now and I am gobbling it all up. This year the types of Lovecraftian fiction I’ve already read have ranged from bloody gorefests to dark comedies, and there just seems to be a style for every persuasion. And if your tastes happen to run in the direction of weird fiction and pulp noir, then Reanimatrix is sure to make you very, very happy.
Unfolding through a series of diary entries and letters, this story follows the strange lives of two main characters, Robert Peaslee and Megan Halsey. It is the 1920s, and Robert was an officer in the Great War returning to his home town of Arkham to work on the police force, handling the sensitive cases that the other cops don’t want to touch. One fateful day he meets Megan, a young heiress with a troubled past, and immediately feels drawn to her. Years later, however, Robert is called to work a crime scene by the docks where a body of a woman has been discovered, and he is shocked and heartbroken to later learn that it is none other than Megan Halsey.
Before the investigation can move forward though, her body goes missing. Robert soon becomes consumed with the case of what happened to Megan, especially once he suspects that she might not really be dead. Determined to solve the case, Robert attempts to retrace Megan’s steps, going to places she visited and reading through her diary entries in the hopes of gleaning some clues, but what he finds is way more than he bargained for.
Written in a style reminiscent of the classic hardboiled detective pulp stories, Reanimatrix is a mystery narrative interspersed with tales of the occult and supernatural. This combined with the influence of Lovecraftian themes makes for an entertaining read, though admittedly I felt the pacing stumbled a little due to the book’s unique structure. Divided into multiple parts, the story alternates between Robert and Megan’s perspective and takes a while to get started, and the mystery behind Megan’s “death” does not even come into play until well into the novel. The prose is also very thick, almost like the author is channeling the works of the time, so coupled with the extended introduction I wouldn’t be surprised if some readers might find things rough going at first.
The epistolary format also feels disorganized at times, especially with the random journal entries that feel “inserted” and don’t necessarily have anything to do with the main story. In fact, afterwards I found out that some of them were actually short stories that have appeared in other anthologies. Personally, I had mixed feelings about this. In most cases, these sections added nothing to the overarching plot and I often had to fight the temptation to skim them so that we could get back on track. That said, hardcore Lovecraft fans might appreciate these little detours a lot more than I did, and to be fair, some of the chapters were genuinely interesting, especially when they delved into the gruesome, the macabre, and even the raunchy. This book definitely isn’t for the squeamish, not to mention the handful of over-the-top explicit sex scenes that are sure to raise a few eyebrows.
To be sure though, Reanimatrix is true to the pulp tradition, and as such, there’s a strong element of sensationalism at play here. For me, the pacing was a little inconsistent and the prose a bit hard on the eyes, but I loved the atmosphere and characterization of the two main leads. Robert and Megan’s twisted tale of love and un-death is guaranteed to be unlike anything you’ve ever seen before, and the nod to the scary works and worlds of H.P. Lovecraft is also a clever touch. Pete Rawlik does a fine job subverting the genre while also paying loving homage with this novel of weird science, occult horror, and monstrous trappings, and if that sounds like something you would enjoy, then you’re definitely in for a special treat....more
Last year I fell head over heels in love with Melissa Lenhardt’s Sawbones, a post-Civil War western filled with equal parts gritty adventure and passionate romance. Needless to say, I was barely able to contain my excitement when I found out there would be not one but two follow-ups to the novel, rounding out a trilogy chronicling the extraordinary journey of a woman doctor on the run from the law.
While Blood Oath picks up not long after Sawbones, it is also a new beginning of a sort for our protagonist. The woman from New York known as Dr. Catherine Bennett is dead. Now she is Laura Elliston, a fugitive wanted for a crime she did not commit. Still, despite a new name and a new life on the frontier, she could not escape her past. And following the brutal events of the previous book, Laura now finds herself with even more personal demons to confront.
Fortunately, this time she has the help and companionship of her lover William Kindle, a former captain of the US Army. Traveling in disguise, the two of them persist in trying to find safe refuge, dodging every soldier, vigilante and two-bit bandit eager to collect the bounty on their heads. Already on edge from the dangers and stresses of the journey, the couple’s relationship is further strained from the uncertainties left after Laura’s horrific kidnapping and their showdown with Kindle’s vicious brother, Cotter Black. As a doctor, Laura understands better than most how even the worst physical pain can eventually fade and be forgotten over time, but when it comes to the emotional scars, she is not so sure, fearing that the damage on both their spirits may have broken them in ways they can never be healed.
Poor Laura and Kindle. The two of them can never catch a break, even after being put through the wringer in Sawbones. I wish I could tell you everything comes together for them, but apparently, they still have a little longer to wait for their happily-ever-after. Following her characters’ nightmare ordeal with Cotter Black, Melissa Lenhardt isn’t about to let up on her protagonists, throwing them into new situations full of hardships and horrors. Blood Oath might just be slightly less intense than its predecessor, but rest assured it still has its fair share of harsh injustices and gut-churning violence. Dark as it is though, this series reminds me of why I love Westerns, perfectly capturing a sense of danger and the atmosphere of constant threat in an untamed country. This tone of raw candidness keeps me coming back, not to mention the author’s storytelling skills and no-holds-barred style.
And yet, despite the brutal realities of the era, we also have the passion as a counterpoint. Laura and Kindle had excellent chemistry in Sawbones, and it pained me to read about what happened to them at the end of that book and to see the emotional aftermath of those events here. Neither of them are the same people anymore, which made me sad—but I’m also encouraged by their efforts to talk it out and make things work. First, the story had to address Laura’s trauma from her experiences in the first book, and the effects on her relationship with Kindle have not been easy, as one would expect. Second, misunderstandings and secrets are also awakened as the two learn more about each other and their pasts. Reading about Laura and Kindle’s struggles broke my heart, but at the same time, I had been prepared for a lot of these obstacles in a second novel. Historical romances are often fraught with drama and uncertainties, and this is especially true when you’re dealing with post-war turmoil and the ruthless conditions of the Wild West. Luckily though, there are moments of hope and lightness as Laura is determined to never abandon her humanity, and she will also never stop fighting for her and Kindle’s future.
Bottom line, I love a good Western. Sawbones was amazing and its sequel Blood Oath was no slouch either, so I would highly recommend picking up this series if you are a fan of historical fiction or historical romance with a bit of grit. Like I wrote in my review for the first book, it was this juxtaposition of loveliness and gruesomeness that made the story so compelling, and considering how shockingly things ended in this one, it’s looking like the trend will be continuing into book three, Badlands. I just can’t wait.
Audiobook Comments: I might have read the first book in print, but as soon as I found out this series was getting audiobooks, I just knew I had to give them a try. Having heard narrator Suehyla El-Attar perform on other books before, the moment I saw her name attached to this project, I had a good feeling she would make a perfect Laura Elliston and indeed I was not disappointed. Her accents, tones and inflections are all spot on, and she managed to bring both Laura and Kindle to life in a way I never imagined in this absolutely brilliant and immersive experience....more
Talk about starting the New Year on the right foot. Yes, I know it’s still super-early January, but I’m going to call it now: The Bear and the Nightingale will end up being one of the biggest standouts of 2017. Katherine Arden’s glorious debut is beautiful and everything I expected—vivid, magical, and haunting. The writing is rich and evocative, and if the atmosphere doesn’t immediately sweep you off your feet, I would be very surprised.
At the center of this tale is a spirited young woman named Vasya, though the book begins before her birth. In the forests of northern Russia lives the family of an honorable lord named Pyotr whose wife tells him one night that she is pregnant. Marina Ivanova comes from magical lineage, her own mother having been known to be a powerful witch, and she tells her husband that the baby will be the same. Sadly though, Marina dies in childbirth, leaving the infant, Vasya, to be raised by the nurse and older siblings. Years pass before the pain of losing Marina becomes easier to bear, and Pyotr decides to travel to the court of Moscow to arrange a new marriage for himself.
However, Anna, the imperious and haughty woman he ends up bringing home to his family is unsuited to life in the north, where the people still revere the spirits of nature whom they believe will ward them from evil. Raised to be extremely devout, Anna immediately tries to put a stop to these practices, leading to a clash between her and her new stepdaughter Vasya, whom everyone affectionately says is more wood sprite than young lady. Like her mother predicted, Vasya has a gift which grants her a special connection with the wilderness and the spirits that dwell within. Anna’s arrival has thrown off the delicate balance, and indeed, misfortunes begin to fall upon the village and malicious creatures of the forest are starting to grow bolder. The situation becomes even more unstable as a zealous priest takes up residence in Pyotr’s household, making it his mission to “save” Vasya from herself by undermining her powers and turning the villagers against her.
I truly fell in love with The Bear and the Nightingale from the moment I picked it up. The prose is gorgeous, bringing the world to life, with the people and places described in exquisite detail. The northern winters in this book are those characterized by ten-foot high snowdrifts and near perpetual twilight, yet it amazes me how Arden can still turn such a dark, harsh and cold setting into a thing of beauty. Those who survive here are also strong, compassionate and hardworking people, and you just can’t help but be drawn to them and care about their plights. These characters grabbed and held my attention from the very first page, which featured a scene of children sitting around a hearth listening to fairy tales while the snow and ice raged on outside. Even before our protagonist could arrive on the scene, I was already half enchanted by her family.
And then Vasya came along. I loved her character, and her portrayal was one of the strongest points of the book. There’s something very earnest and down-the-earth in the way she is written—a wild but dutiful daughter, headstrong but not obnoxiously so, and brave without being foolish about it. It was a joy to read about the various relationships between Vasya and the people in her household, whatever tone they might take. Family is such a huge part of this story, and we get to see the different dynamics that come with it.
There are also plenty of allusions to folk legends and mythology. And while The Bear and the Nightingale is a book about changing times, I would say that it’s more than just another story about a clash between religion and “the old ways”. What we have instead is a combination of elements drawn from many sources, including Russian history and folklore, as well as themes from other fairy tales and literary classics. Through this process of combining and transforming, the author has created magic rooted in realism, something that feels different but also familiar. While reading this book, you might start to think you know where the story is going, but don’t be surprised if you get it wrong.
That said, this is not a “gripping read” in the traditional sense. The pacing, which is already quite unhurried, slows to a crawl in some sections, and if it weren’t for the strength of the characterizations I might have found myself struggling. For better or worse, Arden clearly likes to paint the full picture, which I gathered from the excessive insertion of random POVs and minor subplots, even in places where they don’t flow too well. As far as criticisms go though, that’s a very minor complaint on my part, especially since everything else was damn near perfect.
It probably won’t come as a surprise then, that I highly recommend this novel. I think I’ve already said everything I needed to say about this wonderful, enchanting debut by Katherine Arden, and I positively hope that many others will also get the opportunity discover the magic and joy of The Bear and the Nightingale this year....more
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
As the second volume in a historical fantasy series about Ancient Rome, The Gates of Hell can be viewed as the “next chapter” of the events following the Final War of the Roman Republic. Approximately five years have passed since Alexandria fell. Marc Antony and Cleopatra are dead. Their daughter Selene has been taken into their conqueror’s household, becoming one of Augustus Caesar’s adopted children. But for all that, she knows she is still a hostage and the longing for avenging her parents still burns inside.
The book begins with Selene taking matters into her own hands, seeking her own Shard of Heaven after finding out about the godlike abilities they can grant to the people who wield them. She manages to find and obtain one disguised as a statue in the Temple of the Vestals, bringing another of one these powerful artifacts into play. Meanwhile, her arranged marriage to Juba of Numidia, an adopted son of Julius Caesar, ultimately grew into to be a relationship based on love and respect. Together with her husband, who also possesses a Shard of Heaven, they begin to experiment and practice with their artifacts, learning how to harness their power.
At the same time in another place, a secret group of guardians are in the act of securing the Ark of the Covenant, rumored to be the most powerful Shard of all. Former legion soldier Lucius Vorenus decides to travel to Library of Alexandria to meet with the Head Librarian to discuss certain theories they’ve developed about the holy Ark. Unknowingly, he attracts the attention of a disgraced astrologer named Thrasyllus, putting all that vital information into the hands of a desperate man who knows Augustus Caesar will do anything to know the location of another Shard of Heaven.
Whether our characters are driven by love or greed, faith or revenge, all their actions culminate into a harrowing conclusion that spells a threat to come for everyone. Like the previous book, The Gates of Hell was another great read. While it does have the distinct feel of a “middle book”, it comes without the baggage normally associated with one. Pacing is dynamic and swift, and perhaps even a bit too brisk in some places when all I wanted to do was bask in the atmosphere of the setting a little while longer. Like I wrote in my review of The Shards of Heaven, the author has an extraordinary talent for evoking the time period. The people, places and events surrounding the Ancient Roman Empire have always fascinated me, but I don’t consider myself an expert and need the historical background or details in the narrative from time to time.
In that respect, I find Livingston’s writing and storytelling style to be very readable; even someone with just the bare knowledge of the subject matter can enjoy this novel, because of the perfect balance he strikes when injecting history into his fiction and vice versa. I also thought it was really interesting how almost every character was based on a real figure or an account of them in the historical record, and in many cases I only found out after reading the glossary at the end of the book. Livingston offered enough historical detail without overwhelming the reader, and to be honest, could have afforded to give more if he had wanted to.
Then there are the characters. Selene, a personal favorite (both in this book and in written history) is back with a bigger role in this sequel, carrying on her mother’s memory and legacy. She has been adopted into the family of Octavian/Augustus Caesar, but there’s no love lost there. She was also made to marry Juba, though to her surprise she grows to love him. The two of them bond over their shared experiences of having their parents and homelands conquered by Rome, but Juba still has mixed feelings towards Octavian, his brother by adoption. There are some incredibly complex emotions surrounding these characters, and with those, the reader might start to see Octavian from a whole different perspective.
My only criticism is that Selene, Juba, and Octavian might have been portrayed a little too well, with the result being that some of the supporting characters, including Thrasyllus and Vorenus, were overshadowed. Also, without giving away too much of the story, some parts were predictable in the sense that we were repeatedly told over and over how “in love” a certain couple was, which we all know is code for “something bad will happen.” As such, when the other shoe dropped, there were no surprises.
As a follow-up to Michael Livingston’s fantastic debut though, The Gates of Hell carries this series incredibly well. Everything that worked in The Shards of Heaven is back here in this sequel, including compelling history, powerful storytelling, and engaging characters. There’s some great set-up for the next novel, and I can’t wait to read 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
I was super excited to read this sequel to Walk on Earth a Stranger, and not least because the first book was one of my favorite Young Adult reads of last year. Knowing how rare it is for a series to strike gold twice though (pun intended) I wasn’t surprised to find that I didn’t find Like A River Glorious quite as earth-shattering as its predecessor, but it was still an excellent sequel and a fun YA fantasy western.
At the end of Walk on Earth a Stranger, a novel which takes place in the midst of the great California Gold Rush, protagonist Leah “Lee” Westfall and the survivors of her party had managed to reach their destination at last. They’d wasted no time in settling in and staking their claims, and thanks to Lee’s remarkable secret, she and her friends have done pretty well for themselves.
After careful consideration though, Lee decides to let her trusted circle in on how she’s been helping them find the best plots. The truth is that she has a mysterious magical ability to sense gold in the environment around her, and being in gold-rich California, her powers have been practically humming within her. However, Lee also wanted to come clean to her friends to warn them that being close to her may have its own dangers. Her uncle Hiram, who knows about her secret, is still hunting her and wants to use her gold sense to his advantage. He had already killed Lee’s parents, and now she’s afraid that she’s put everyone associated with her at risk too. Lee had good reason to be worried. Despite their best efforts to remain discreet, news of Lee and her group’s success begins to spread, and it’s just a matter of time before Hiram tracks them down. Unwilling to put her friends through more pain and grief, Lee ultimately decides to take matters into her own hands and begins to plot a plan to confront her uncle.
First, the good stuff: Readers who felt that the first book did not have enough “fantasy” in it will be a lot happier with this sequel. Lee’s gold sense plays a bigger role this time around, and has a much greater impact on the outcome of the story. Her power is also evolving, growing stronger somehow. And as to why this is happening, that’s a mystery Lee is also trying to figure out for herself.
Then there’s the romance. While it wasn’t a big part of the first book, Rae Carson did plant a seed of something between Lee and her best friend Jefferson, and those feelings finally come to fruition. The pacing of the romance remains slow-burn though, which for me is a breath of fresh air especially after having read a string of YA novels featuring instalove, or female protagonists who immediately hurl themselves at a guy the moment he shows a hint of interest. I liked how Lee kept a level head despite her growing feelings for Jeff, keeping in mind what she would be gaining and sacrificing for marriage in an era where women have little power. It may seem like a rather cold, unromantic way to think about love, but it does show that Lee is mature, independent and insightful—traits that I admire in a protagonist.
Despite the book’s strengths though, I did have some issues with the depiction of Lee and her friends, especially given the historical setting and social climate of the times. I understand that, especially in a YA novel, we need our protagonists to be the good guys to cheer for and look up to, and true to form, Lee is heroine who wants to buck the system and fight against injustices. The problem is that it’s not subtle at all, and it’s immersion-breaking when looking at this book through a historical fiction lens. When it comes to historical novels I think it’s important to look at how context shapes character motivations and attitudes, and while I can understand why a lot of Lee’s experiences would shape her opinions on land ownership, slavery, religion, women’s rights, etc., a lot of the actions of her and her settler friends do come across a bit revisionist. At some point in this novel, Lee also started to feel too much to me like a present-day teenage character transported to the 1850s, but this probably didn’t bother me as much as it would have if this had been an adult novel.
Other than that minor issue, I honestly have no complaints. Overall I really enjoyed Like A River Glorious, and like the first book this one was also blessedly free of pesky cliffhangers. I like how both installments have so far ended with all its major story conflicts resolved, while still being a part of a greater narrative. This is another chapter in Lee and Jefferson’s lives, and I loved the happy conclusion. Looking forward to where the next book will take them....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
Well, I just finished Blood for Blood and now I need a hug.
By the way, if you haven’t started this series already, you really need to pick up Wolf by Wolf and read it right away. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Otherwise I can’t promise this review won’t spoil anything for the first book, since this sequel picks up right where the cliffhanger left off and it’d be hard to talk about the rest of the story without going into context.
If you have read Wolf by Wolf though, then you already know that our protagonist has failed in her mission. Years of preparation and training are about to go down in flames. It is 1956 in an alternate history where the Third Reich and Imperial Japan rule the world. After riding more than twenty thousand kilometers in a motorcycle race from Berlin to Tokyo, Resistance fighter and skinshifter Yael finally made it to the Victor’s Ball where she can finally get close enough to assassinate her target, Adolf Hitler.
But things don’t go as planned. Around the world, millions sitting in front of their television screens may have just witnessed a teenage girl shoot and kill Hitler, but only Yael knows the truth of what really happened. And now there’s no choice but to press onward, because too many lives are at stake for the Resistance to fall.
The Wolf by Wolf series really is a special duology. The first book was an exciting and masterful piece of storytelling, introducing the alternate timeline in which the Axis powers were never defeated, as well to our protagonist Yael who is a death camp survivor. Side effects from the horrific human experimentation by the Nazi scientists left her with a mysterious ability to skinshift and take on the appearance of anyone she wants. After joining the Resistance, she was made a central part of a plot to impersonate a contestant named Adele Wolfe to enter the Axis Tour, a transcontinental motorcycle race which Yael needed to win in order for their plans to succeed. At first, I was a little skeptical of the premise, unsure how it was all going to come together, but Ryan Graudin pulled it off marvelously by packing in a whole lot of action. Better yet, she also did it without sacrificing the character development or world-building—important ingredients for a story like that to work.
That’s why I think Wolf by Wolf was still the better book. It was just so well-told and constructed, and a uniquely interesting reading experience. There was definitely something rare and exceptional about it that puts it in a special place in my heart, but that said though, Blood for Blood was no slouch either. It gave me the conclusion I wanted, and for that and so many more reasons I am glad I read it.
For one thing, I must confess I was never all that into Yael’s love interest and fellow racer Luka in the first book, but Blood for Blood redeemed him in more ways than one. While I still wasn’t all that emotionally invested in their romance (the circumstances around it were too complicated for me to find it convincing), Graudin made me see there was more to Luka by fleshing out his background and letting us see the world from his perspective. I might not have enjoyed him as a love interest, but I sure loved him as one of the main characters. It was one reason why I found the events surrounding the ending so impactful.
We also get to learn so much more about Yael in this second book. After having lived through so much pain and suffering, and with more adversity and impossible odds ahead, she does not give up. The scope of the narrative expands to include a few more POVs, exploring the dynamics between them, making this one a bigger, more meaningful and emotional book. The way I see it, Wolf by Wolf gets the edge when it comes to heart-pounding action, but Blood for Blood gets it when it comes to character and relationship development. This series is just so imaginative, riveting, and moving. The two books may form a complete whole, but I also love that they complement each other in this way. I can’t recommend them enough.
Audiobook comments: I also opted to switch formats and listen to the Blood for Blood audiobook, even though I read the first book in print. Best decision ever. I find emotional stories are often more engaging and immersive in audio, and the producers chose an excellent narrator in Christa Lewis, who delivered a touching performance. She projected an overall tone that I felt was perfect for this novel, expressing just the right amount of feeling and inflection in all the right places to make all the most significant scenes stand out....more
Ghost meets World War I in this really cool new paranormal alternate history novel by Mary Robinette Kowal. The book stars Ginger Stuyvesant, an American engaged to a British intelligence officer during a period of intense fighting in Europe. Our protagonist herself is a medium stationed in the French port city of Le Havre working for the Spirit Corps, a classified spiritualist project developed by Britain to gain an advantage over the Germans.
In the British army, each soldier goes through a top secret conditioning process to ensure that upon their deaths, their spirits will return to Le Havre so that the mediums there can take their report. It’s their final service to their country, passing on potential valuable intelligence like enemy troop movements and tactics. As a member of the Corps, Ginger’s job is to talk to the ghosts of these slain soldiers, collect their information, and pass it on through to the right people. If the Germans find out about what they’re doing here, the consequences can be devastating. However, Ginger’s fiancé Captain Benjamin Harford, being one of the key figures involved in the running of the Spirit Corps, is already suspicious that their secret may be out due to some recent strange activity. Ginger is soon made aware of a possible traitor in their midst, and while Ben is away at the front, the two of them exchange coded messages to share what they know. Together they work to uncover a spy and put a stop to the German’s attempts to target the Spirit Corps.
There’s also a major plot development that happens near the beginning of the book, and although the publisher description doesn’t mention it, it’s so obvious it’s coming that I’m not even sure it would constitute as a spoiler. Still, I’ll err on the side of caution and won’t reveal it, even if it will make writing the rest of this review more difficult. Without going into specific details, I think it is enough to say that this particular development will lead to some very poignant and emotional moments. Ginger felt very genuine to me, which of course is crucial to my enjoyment of a main character and her story.
I also enjoyed the ideas here. Often, when a book calls to me, there is a specific “hook” to the description that initially catches my attention. For Ghost Talkers, it was unquestionably the concept of a Spirits Corps of mediums working for the army. The idea that the military would find a strategic use for ghosts and isn’t really beyond the pale, and Kowal does a great job developing the ins-and-outs behind what Ginger and her fellow mediums do.
However, while world-building is fantastic on a micro-level, when it comes to relating it all back to the wider world out there and the history of the times, that’s where the seams of this novel start to show. When it comes to historical fantasy and alternate history fiction, atmosphere is always going to be more important than the details for me, and the main issue I had with the world-building here was that even though I knew I was reading a book set during WWI, the story never truly made me feel like I was there. I really liked how Kowal addresses many social issues at the time, such as the systemic sexism and racism, but while I applaud her intentions, in the process of tying her story together she also rushes through convenient resolutions which glosses over the harshness of the reality. It’s also not very clear how the Corps came to be, and the workings behind the huge network of people involved in maintaining its secrecy. For example, the story mentions a couple of famous figures like Harry Houdini or Arthur Conan Doyle who are actually accomplices for the British government, working on their behalf to cover up spiritualism and ghost-talking by actively debunking things like that in public. Without more context on the history of the Spirit Corps and how such a huge endeavor was pulled together though, all this comes across as mere name dropping and a slapdash way to try and connect readers to the historical era.
The story was also entirely too predictable, playing out like a conventional mystery—especially since it wasn’t subtle at all when it came to dropping false leads, so it was just a matter of the process of elimination to identify the traitor.
Still, the characters and their relationships shine, even if the plot and setting are weaker. And truly, I think the ultimate strength behind Ghost Talkers lies in its ideas about the Spirit Corps. Imagine having to interact with the departed souls of thousands of soldiers, many of whom died violently and unexpectedly. All ghosts and mediums know that they have a job to do, but reading about Ginger’s attempts to provide comfort and assurances to the spirits before they dissipate into the great unknown was both tragic and touching.
So if the book’s description catches your interest, I think that’s reason enough to check this one out. I wish the story had been expanded a little to create a more immersive atmosphere or to include some context and background information about the Corps, but perhaps that can be addressed with future books. This was a fast, enjoyable novel, and I’m glad I read it....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