Soothsayer

SoothsayerSoothsayer by Kathryn Amurra (Website)

Genre: historical romance

Setting: Roman city of Lugdunum (modern day Lyon, France)

I read it as a(n): ARC

Source: Helen Hollick at Discovering Diamonds 

Length: 212 pp

Published by: Kathryn Amurra/ independently published (10 May 2020)

Her Grace’s rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Set in the Roman Empire, Soothsayer is the story of Aurelia, a beloved daughter of a minor nobleman. She is determined only to marry a man she loves and her doting father agrees, allowing her to turn down several potential suitors. His death, which takes place before the book begins and thus is no spoiler, places her in an unstable situation, not just on her own behalf as an unwed young woman, but because of her brother, Angelus. Angelus is what we would consider developmentally disabled, possibly autistic, and Aurelia is desperate to prevent him being inevitably killed during the mandatory military service required of men when they turn 16. The best way to do this is for Aurelia to marry the regional governor, an old friend of her father’s, who can give Angelus a dispensation from military duty.

Sent to bring Aurelia and her unpleasant aunt to the governor’s estate is Cassius, a career military man and captain of the governor’s soldiers. He was told by a soothsayer as a child that his life would be short, so Cassius has spent his whole life to date avoiding close attachments. He figures it would be better for others not to get attached to him only to have him die young. Of course, making a plan is the best way to make the gods laugh, so Cassius finds himself in charge of Aurelia after a series of small disasters separates them from the rest of Aurelia’s retinue and sets them alone on the road to the governor’s estate. 

This novel was a delightful surprise. I chose to read it mostly because I hadn’t read anything set in the Roman Empire in a long time and I felt the urge to, despite the obvious romance elements it contains (I’m NOT a reader of romance). What I found was not the usual predictable romance but rather a very well researched story about ancient Rome that just happened to have a little romance in it. Murra set this story solidly in a historical framework and adhered to the facts we know. 

Aurelia was a complex and well-crafted character. She did not come across as shallow or frivolous, which she could easily have done considering her young age of 19. She was a mature woman by the standards of the time and she was portrayed as such on the page, a fact I highly appreciated. She was the mistress of her own household once her father died, and she took her duties seriously. Her care for her brother would probably have been a pretty rare thing for the time, when no developmental delay was really understood. Many people, including Aurelia, thought Angelus’s defects were a result of his mother’s sins. When he got into some trouble with Cassius’s soldiers, it was evident that they probably would have killed him if Aurelia and Cassius both hadn’t intervened. With that kind of society, Aurelia learns that she has to make sacrifices to save her brother from a horrible life and quick, probably brutal, death. 

The title Soothsayer is interesting considering that the soothsayer in question had a very tiny on-page presence. But the notion of fate and one’s future is prevalent throughout. Aurelia thinks it is her fate to be unhappy but she is willing to make that sacrifice on Angelus’s behalf. Cassius thinks he is fated to die young. The choices each of them makes are informed almost entirely by their interpretation of the soothsayer’s predictions. The cool thing about fate, other than how it doesn’t exist, is that you can interpret a prediction in just about any fucking way you please. Which, in this case, provides a pleasing denouement to the story 

The only thing I didn’t like was that I felt there needed to be a little more description. Murra discussed the clothes the characters wore in that she called them a palla, tunic, or toga, but there wasn’t a lot of describing what those actually looked like. Same with the buildings. Wealthy Roman houses had an atrium with some kind of catchment for collecting water, gardens, various rooms. None of these were really described. It would help bring the story even more to life if these details had more prominence. But their lack did not take away from the story very much, so maybe other readers won’t care. 

Overall, I would definitely recommend this book and would gladly read others by the same author.

The Forgotten Kingdom

The Forgotten KingdomThe Forgotten Kingdom by Signe Pike (Website, Twitter, Insta)

Genre: historical fantasy*

Setting: 6th century Scotland

I read it as a(n): audiobook

Narrator: Toni Frutin, Gary Furlong, and Siobhan Waring

Source: my own collection

Length: 14:07:00

Published by: Simon and Schuster Audio (15 Sept 2020)

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The Forgotten Kingdom is the second instalment in Signe Pike’s Lost Queen trilogy. It picks up immediately after the events of the first book. Languoreth is imprisoned and awaiting news of a battle that holds the fates of her brother, eldest son, and husband. The land is divided and her brother, Lailoken, is battling against her husband, Rhydderch. At the same time, Languoreth’s youngest daughter, Angharad, is traveling with Lailoken to become a Wisdom Keeper. IN the chaos of battle, they become separated and Lailoken is drawn into the political and military intrigues while his young niece is lost in the wilderness and left on her own. The survivors of the battle are similarly thrown to the elements, left to fend for themselves in the Caledonian forest. 

This summary does no justice to the depth of this novel. While I liked the first book in the trilogy a bit better, this was a necessary examination of the politics and alliances Languoreth and her kin had to make to survive against the tide of the new Christian religion. Readers are introduced to Artur, who will, I’m sure, become King Arthur later. Angharad, surviving with a relative she discovered among the Pictish folk, may, I suspect, become the Lady of the Lake. I’m very curious to see if I am right, and how this will all play out.

Dumbarton Castle and Fortingal are the modern names for real places in the book. Pike set her story among these locations based on her extensive research. Clyde Rock and the kingdom of Strathclyde, as well as Languoreth’s birthplace of Cadzow, were historical sites, long since lost to history. But, as I have said in other reviews, placing a fantasy in a historical context is the best. It gives us hope that the figures and stories we love so well might not be stories at all, but are part of an actual history that has been lost or overwritten. 

Pike’s term “the forgotten kingdom” regrets to the Picts, the Scots of Dalriada, and other Brythonic peoples. Much of what we know about these people comes from Roman records, which must be taken with a large grain of salt. The Britons of the early medieval period passed knowledge primarily through oral tradition and so their histories were recorded by others. Few relics of their cultures survive. Sometimes, the best we can hope for are post holes from a building; the buildings themselves were mostly made from wood, or wattle and daub, and rotted away. Pike did a terrific job with the use of historical placenames and customs of various groups of people and of bringing the characters to life.

The politics and battles in this book were complex and dramatic. In a way, I wish this period of history was better recorded so we could know more for certain about it. But the very fact that it is not well recorded leaves rich ground for authors to craft stories around the few facts we do have. 

I highly recommend this book (though it is not really a standalone, so you’ll want to read The Lost Queen first, if you haven’t already). The only thing I don’t like is that the third book isn’t coming out until late 2023, per Pike’s website. That is so long! 

*The author’s note made an excellent argument that historical fiction is often miscategorized as historical fantasy, especially if there are references to old or other deities than those found in the Christian tradition. A character will do a chant, prayer, or spell and something happens as a result of it, so they think, and so the story is labeled fantasy. And yet, when Christian characters do the exact same things, the story is labeled historical fiction, as though the religions and beliefs of pre-Christian cultures are somehow less worthy of being considered real. Pike makes a great point with that argument. What we now consider to be mythology was once the official religion of state for the Roman Empire. It would be interesting to see what people in a thousand years will think of Christianity, Islam, or Judaism. Short of having actual magic or dragons or other similar elements of pure fantasy, I will be calling all books like Pike’s historical fiction. She made a convert out of me. Every pun intended.

Of Kings and Griffins

Of Kings and Griffins

Of Kings and Griffins by Judith Starkston (Website, Twitter, Insta)

Genre: historical fantasy

Setting: Hitolia, the fantasy version of Anatolia, the ancient Hittite lands

I read it as a(n): ARC

Source: Helen Hollick at Discovering Diamonds 

Length: 482 pp

Published by: Bronze Age Books (13 Oct 2020)

Her Grace’s rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

In this third instalment of Starkston’s delightful Tesha series based on ancient Hittite culture, Of Kings and Griffins picks up a few months after the events of her second book, Sorcery in Alpara. Tesha, our protagonist, is now Queen of Alpara and has given her husband, Hattu, a baby daughter, Arinnel. Hattu’s brother, the Great King, has died, leaving as heir his untested teenaged son, Urhi, who plots against Hattu’s aid. At the same time, Tesha’s blind sister, Daniti, is called by the griffin king, Bothar, to help him overcome a deadly danger in a way she is uniquely suited for.

This novel opens around a year after the events of Sorcery in Alpara. Tesha and Hattu are at the funeral of his brother, the Great King Muwatti, and Tesha, seeing that Hattu’s young nephew, Urhi, will be a problem for them, uses her magic to influence him to bend to Hattu’s will. Except Tesha, still being very young, wasn’t so subtle and got caught, thus undermining any authority Hattu might have had over Urhi. At odds with each other and his nephew, Hattu and Tesha return to Alpara to regroup. 

At the same time, Hattu’s best friend and military commander, Marik, is dealing with a mysterious illness that is striking down his troops. The court physician believes the illness to be caused by a curse from a powerful sorcerer, and that the ultimate goal is to kill Marik or Daniti next. To stop the magickal illness from killing all his troops, Marik goes on a dangerous spying mission to learn what he can and, with luck, kill the sorcerer responsible for the curse.

There are many layers to this novel, all delicately entwined and teased out over the course of the narrative. The politics involved are interesting and often very subtle. I liked the interplay between Tesha and both Urhi and the Egaryan ambassador, Ahmose. Seeing how Tesha learned to work with and, in some cases, manipulate, these men was fun to read. She has grown as a priestess, a queen, and a woman since we first met her and she’s becoming a very well rounded character. 

I always liked Daniti, so it was great to see her have such a prominent role in this novel. She has begun to manifest magic as well, not as strong as Tesha’s, but she is able to communicate telepathically a little bit over distances. She uses this skill to talk to her niece Arinnel. This ability, as well as her blindness, makes her valuable to the griffin king Bolthar, who brings her to the hidden realm of the griffins to help protect his young cubs. Daniti is certainly kinder than I would be. Bolthar needs her help and yet he is arrogant and disdainful of her practically every step of the way. It would be really hard to want to help someone who treats you like that, but Daniti has a loving heart and throws herself into the project despite Bolthar’s attitude. 

I also liked that Marak played a large role here, even more so than Hattu. Marak was all over the place in this story, from undercover spy searching for a sorcerer to leading military campaigns. It seemed like everywhere you turned, there was Marik, in the best way possible. 

I remain utterly delighted with this series. I read a LOT of fantasy, both pure fantasy and historical fantasy. A series that is based on historical context is almost always going to appeal to me greatly, like Stephen Lawhead’s Robin Hood King Raven series, or Signe Pike’s The Lost Queen Arthurian series. To have a historical fantasy series that is based on ancient Hittite culture is entirely unique. Starkston’s knowledge of the Hittites and the political events of the time period is deep. She supports her characters’ decisions and drives the plot based on her thorough research and understanding of the culture. I have read all three books that are now in the series and can honestly say they are just getting better and better. Also, these books could probably all be read as standalone stories, though you are missing out if you don’t read all of them. Including the author’s notes! Learning the real historical events and people that the Tesha series is based on adds so much depth and meaning to the story. 

Very enthusiastically recommended! 

Favorite part/ lines (potential spoilers!):

  • When searching through old scrolls and clay tablets for a binding spell, Tesha discovers a whole room of forgotten, ancient tablets. She says the old ones are the best kind. I loved this! Tesha would totally be a book nerd! 

Age of Druids

Age of Druids by Christy Nicholas (Website, Twitter)

Genre: historical fantasy

Setting: Ireland and Faerie

I read it as a(n): ARC

Source: Helen Hollick at Discovering Diamonds 

Length: 284 pp

Published by: Tirgearr Publishing (14 Oct 2020)

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Age of Druids is the ninth and final book in Christy Nicholas’s Druid’s Brooch series. In this instalment, readers are taken to early Christian Ireland, roughly 5th century, where Cliodhna struggles to come to terms with the new religion that is invading and pushing out her beloved old religion. She is accustomed to welcoming the day with the sun, feeling the spirit and energy of living things, and communicating a bit with the Fae who live in the woods near her roundhouse. To her dismay, not only do the new religion have no place for the things she loves, but her two eldest children, nearly grown themselves, are drawn to this religion and are changing because of it. On top of that, Cliodhna’s husband has been missing for months, adding a layer of suspicion through which the zealous abbot, Padraic, views her.

To try to hold on to her way of life, Cliodhna begins lessons with Adhna, a man of the Fae. He teaches her how to draw upon earth energy to revitalize plants and animals as well as to protect herself. Cliodhna soon finds herself drawn into Adhna’s world more deeply than she ever imagined possible. She will be forced to make a choice between the mortal world, full of strange new ideas and shifting loyalties, and the Fae world, utterly foreign and frightening. 

It was interesting to see how the various threads from the other books in this series were entwined throughout this novel. We learn how the brooch was created at last and how and why it was gifted to Cliodhna’s family line to begin with. Learning how her family became connected to the Faerie realm was satisfying after so many books preceding it that hinted but never confirmed. 

I have read many of Nicholas’s books and, while I greatly enjoyed this one, it was probably my least favorite of the Druid’s Brooch series. There were a few places, in particular scenes set in the Faerie realm, that I felt I had read before. I spent a lot of time backtracking my old reviews and copies of the other books to see where I had read it before. I couldn’t find any duplicated scenes, so I am clearly wrong. But there was a lot that read in a very familiar way which I hadn’t gotten from any of her other books. Maybe it was just a function of having read the other ones and Nicholas’s writing style has become familiar. That is not in itself a bad thing.

The descriptions were all top notch, both in the mortal realm and in Faerie. I liked the diversity of characters and how they changed over time. The Christian monks in general, and the Abbott in particular, were described in a pretty negative way since they were seen primarily from Cliodhna’s point of view. This negativity was explained in a later part of the plot, but devout readers, which I am decidedly not, may be a little put off by it. The villagers had a few bright spots in terms of character development as well. Ita in particular was an interesting figure and I wish there had been more scenes with her. She added a nice counterpoint to Cliodhna, who was all feisty; Ita was a good balance for her. 

The ending felt a little abrupt, but it makes sense because now the timeline starts to move forward, rather than backward. Readers could tackle the series in the reverse order of publication if they really wanted to and get a sweeping epic fantasy. Which, of course, it is anyway. I really loved the way the entire series moved backward through time to get to the genesis of the brooch that was central to the lives of the characters. I thought that was a really fun way to approach it.

One small quibble I had was the title. There really weren’t any Druids in the book. They were mentioned in passing. Druids are awesome, so I wish there had been more, or a Druid who played a main role. Cliodhna was not a Druid so she couldn’t have been the one the title implies.

Overall, this novel nicely done and provided a satisfactory summation to the entire series. Definitely recommended for fans of historical fantasy and Irish culture.

Isabella of Angouleme: The Tangled Queen 1

27396420._sy475_Isabella of Angouleme: The Tangled Queen 1 by Erica Laine (Website, Twitter, Facebook)

Genre: historical fiction

Setting: 13th century England

I read it as a(n): kindle book

Source: my own collection

Length: 124 pp

Published by: Brook Cottage Books (28 Oct 2015)

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Not many things, fictional or otherwise, are written about Isabelle of Angoulême, so when I came across this trilogy while researching the wives of King John, I was pleased. This first installment covers Isabelle’s life from just prior to her marriage to John, while she was still betrothed to Hugh le Brun de Lusignan, to John’s death in 1216. 

Almost nothing is known about Isabelle’s early life, but Raine filled in some blanks admirably with educated guesses at how a girl of her status would have been raised. There were tons of historically accurate details about daily life in medieval Europe, which made for an immersive reading experience. For instance, Laine often used quotes from various medieval manuscripts, chronicles, or people. They were not always given to the people who actually said the words, but it didn’t make a negative impact on any given scene, and I doubt anyone who hasn’t been up to their eyeballs in medieval research would even know it. But I got a kick out of reading things like “To some it was ugly news, to others, lovely,” which is from the History of William Marshal, and knowing where they were from, who said it, and the context. Raine clearly did her research even while taking some creative liberties.

Similarly, there are several different schools of thought regarding Isabelle and John’s relationship, why he married Isabelle, the reasons for his loss of the continental Angevin lands, and the personalities of each. Raine took some of these various theories and used them to spin a plausible story about this royal couple. It will be interesting to see how the rest of Isabelle’s life plays out in the remaining two books, and how she herself will grow and change. In this book, Isabelle was portrayed as very much a spoiled, somewhat vapid brat, a girl who was raised to be ambitious but who could be distracted with shiny baubles and jewels. 

Overall, a quick and interesting read about a woman many readers would never know about. Recommended.

The Silken Rose

The Silken RoseThe Silken Rose by Carol McGrath (Website, TwitterFacebook)

Genre: historical fiction

Setting: 1300s England

I read it as a: digital copy

Source: Helen Hollick at Discovering Diamonds 

Length: 355 pp

Published by: Accent Press Ltd. (23 July 2020)

Her Grace’s rating: 3-4 out of 5 stars*

This novel, the first of a planned trilogy, focuses on Eleanor of Provence, the wife of Henry III, beginning with her journey to England to marry a man who was more than 15 years her senior. In this book, she is called Ailenor. The narrative brings readers along as Ailenor learns first how to be a wife and queen and then a mother. It gives us a varying perspectives, from Ailenor to Eleanor (sister of Henry III, wife of Simon de Montfort) and a fictional embroideress, Rosalind, and covering a variety of the events that plagued Henry III’s reign. The trilogy plans to take a look at the women who have been termed “She-Wolves” for various reasons. This first installment takes care of Eleanor of Provence and her reign as Queen Consort.

First, the good. There were many, many enjoyable things about this book. I loved how much detail there was. In every scene, McGrath evoked imagery, scents, sounds of daily life in medieval London. I especially loved the details with herb and flower gardens. I can practically smell the lavender and rosemary. Similarly, the descriptions of the street scenes in London were pretty evocative as well. 

I also really appreciated other small details, such as the use of relics, in particular the Virgin’s girdle, as charms for a safe childbirth experience. The churching ceremony after giving birth was not given a lot of detail, but it was mentioned a few times throughout the novel and it added extra depth. Also, a queen’s role as intercessor was mentioned several times. I’m fascinated by the queens’ intercessory role throughout time and how it changed, helped, or hindered politics. Little things like this make readers like me happy. I know not everyone cares about historical accuracy when they read a book for pleasure (*horror!*), but I am always deeply appreciative of authors who are accurate anyway. The readers like me will be happy and the readers who don’t care will still read the book and enjoy it regardless. 

A few quibbles. The writing here was clear and easy, flowing smoothly from one perspective to another. The main POV character was, of course, Ailenor, but Rosalind and Nell also got a good deal of time. I was glad, though, that the chapter headings indicated when a change of perspective happened because I didn’t find there was always a lot of variance in the voices between the three women. Ailenor, Nell, and Rosalind often sounded similar and could be hard to tell apart if it were not for chapter headings.

By the same token, I felt that Rosalind was the only one who really had any character development. Ailenor, by contrast, sounded like a fully mature woman even on her journey to meet her husband-to-be when she was only 12 years old. Rosalind, on the other hand, started as a young and shy embroideress but grew into a confident and respected woman, wife, and mother. I did wish a little more of her story had been given to us. She was probably my favorite character in the book. It felt a little incomplete because there were some fairly substantial jumps in the events of her life. However, since she was NOT the primary focus of the novel, it is understandable why the author decided not to make her a larger figure. 

The novel ended with the promised betrothal of Edward to Eleanor of Castile in roughly 1254. This was about ten years before the start of the Second Barons’ War. I was a little disappointed that the novel didn’t cover that time period since I think a lot of interesting content could have been written about Ailenor during that time period. She was considered one of the She-Wolves, and the Barons’ War and Simon de Montfort’s role was a major element within Henry’s reign. It would have been particularly interesting to see Rosalind’s role in that. Even though she is fictional, sometimes those are the best characters through which to explore an historical event or person. Again, I understand why it wasn’t included. It would have been a tome otherwise! 

Overall, I enjoyed this novel. It was a fast, easy read and gives an interesting glimpse into a fascinating period of England’s history. 

*N.B.: I am unclear if the copy I received to review was supposed to be a finished copy or if it was an edited digital galley. The book was already published (in the UK, at least) when I got the file to review, but it was a PDF which is usually how I get galleys. I mention this because if it was a finished copy, then there were numerous places throughout where the text was positively jumbled up and sentences were a mash-up of words. For example: “I think it safer and the apartments there of the City. Without destruction remained have been redecorated.” And “He could not change his mind, had he so wished. as they fell resounding from the ancient A squire always followed his knight.” These are just two of several such examples that were scattered throughout the text. If I got an unedited galley, then never mind, these errors would be corrected upon editing. If it is supposed to be a finished copy, then that is not good and would certainly cause me to greatly reduce my rating of the book. 

The Testament of Mary

The Testament of Mary

 

The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin (Website)

Genre: literary/historical fiction

Setting: 1st century Ephesus

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Meryl Streep

Source: my own collection

Length: 03:07:00

Published by: Simon and Schuster Audio (10 Sept 2013)

Her Grace’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars

A first person narrative of some of the events of the alleged life of Jesus, told from his mother Mary’s point of view. The premise is that she is now an old woman waiting to die, and so is writing down her recollections in a factual manner. She is not amused by her son’s choice of friends, who she says are mostly men who can’t even look a woman in the eye. Nor is she impressed with the people who believe her son is the son of God. She definitely has no time for that. She has no interest in collaborating with the authors of the Gospels, who are her keepers as well. She doesn’t think they are ‘holy disciples’ or that her son’s death was ‘worth it.’

I dig this Mary. This Mary has absolutely zero fucks left to give, and she’s not shy about telling you so. She points out the many times she was dismissed or treated badly by her son or others. She is not the gentle, meek, retiring woman portrayed over the centuries in so much art and literature. This Mary has Things to Say™ and she is not happy about the way events played out, nor with the players involved. Here, she is a grieving, bitter old woman, and I don’t blame her. If someone killed my child in any way, let alone in a horrifically brutal way, I’d be bitter and pissed off about it, too. And would likely have a whole lot more to say about it than she did here. Or else I’d be dead because I would attack the people and get it over so they’d kill me. 

I am as atheist as they come and find this a refreshing and realistic portrayal of Mary, totally divorced from centuries of veneration that has been heaped on her. Not that I believe she existed any more than Jesus did. But if she did, I can see her ending up like this. This Mary obviously loves her son but she doesn’t spare him any criticism, either. She doesn’t think he is divine or that he is the son of God. She thinks he didn’t treat her all that well once he was grown. She didn’t like his friends and thought they were a bunch of misfits. She felt that her son’s preaching was dangerous, bizarre, and delusional. She will not tell her keepers stories about her son that weren’t true just so they could fit them in with the narrative they created about him. She simply refuses to play. I loved her, and I felt horrible for her.

Meryl Streep, of course, did an exceptional job narrating this story. She imbues her voice with age, fatigue, bitterness, grief, everything you might expect to find in a woman who has lived far longer than she really wants to, burdened as she is with sorrow and anger. 

I loved this book (novella, really) and recommend it highly. However, if a reader is really religious and isn’t inclined to view Mary or her son in any way other than how they are represented in the Wholly Babble, then it might be better to skip this one. It is NOT an irreverent or heretical book, but it pulls no punches and undermines the whole point of Christianity. Which is why I loved it, naturally. 

The Distant Hours

The Distant HoursThe Distant Hours by Kate Morton (Website, Insta)

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Genre: historical fiction/ mystery

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Caroline Lee

Source: my own collection

Length: 22:31:00

Published by: Bolinda Publishing (26 Oct 2010)

Edie Burchill never really understood her mother. But the arrival of a letter, lost for 50 years and addressed to Edie’s mother from Milderhurst Castle, sets Edie on a mission to discover the mysteries of her mother’s past. Mystery mixed with a bit of the Gothic and the romantic, the plot takes Edie back to Milderhurst Castle, her mother’s home during the evacuation of London’s children during the Blitz. There, she meets the sisters Blythe, twins Persephone ‘Percy’ Blythe and Seraphina ‘Saphy’ Blythe, and their younger sister Juniper. Edie digs deep to discover why her mother is so reluctant to talk about her time at Milderhurst, why the abandonment of Juniper’s fiance in 1941 sent her mad, and what the twin sisters are really hiding. 

This was a solid Gothic mystery, though not one of my favorites. It seems like it has all the requisite components of a very good Gothic mystery, but something was just lacking. I think there was often too much telling and not showing, what must have been pages of no dialogue (listening to it on audio makes it a little hard to tell), and then the denouement was kind of flat and not really a surprise. 

I didn’t really like Edie very much. Not that she was a bad character or anything, she was just rather boring. Maybe this was intentional on Morton’s part because the sisters Blythe were certainly NOT boring. Maybe Morton did that so she could highlight the eccentricity of the sisters. Whatever it was, I did very much enjoy the sisters. The writing style itself was also nice. I like the florid style of Gothic literature, and while this wasn’t exactly florid or fully Gothic, I liked the atmosphere Morton created all the same. 

This was my first read from Morton and, while I didn’t care for some aspects of it, I liked her writing and am happy to give her other books a go. 

Bright Blade (Byrhtnoth Chronicles #3)

Bright Blade coverBright Blade by Christine Hancock 

Her Grace’s rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Genre: historical fiction

I read it as an: ARC

Source: Helen Hollick at Discovering Diamonds 

Length: 398 pp

Published by: Madder Press (8 Oct 2019)

Thegn Byrhtnoth owes allegiance to his lord, Ealdorman Athelstan, and his king Eadred. He is, however, less than thrilled to be ordered to participate in Ealdred’s attempt to retake the Northumbrian kingdom from the self-styled King of York. In the war, Eadred pits his army not only against the political North, but its people as well, giving his soldiers free reign to plunder, pillage, and rape indiscriminately. Byrhtnoth has issues with this, partly because it goes against his personal sense of honor. When Eadred assigns him to repair ships in Devon to bring to the war effort, Byrhtnoth finds himself in the middle of a battle to revenge himself upon a man who harmed his wife (in a previous book) and a quest to find his long-lost father. 

This novel is the third in the Byrhtnoth Chronicles series. While it was very readable and told a fast-paced story, I don’t think it is really good as a standalone. There are references to events from the prior two books that attempt to fill in the gaps, but it wasn’t really adequate for readers who haven’t read the whole series. Additionally, there were a few anachronisms, such as the term ‘girlfriend,’ which didn’t come into use until the 20th century. These are relatively minor quibbles, though, as the plot and action were engaging and the characters are generally intriguing enough to make readers want to learn more about them and what happens in their lives. 

The historical detail in this novel was precise and layered. I enjoyed reading about the Anglo-Saxon culture and the ways in which their political system worked. Some references to other very well-known texts, such as Beowulf, added depth to the story. Additionally, the details of the treatment of one specific wound (which I won’t detail further to avoid spoilers!) aligns with archaeological evidence from the Wharram Percy site, to the northeast of York. It always thrills me to read historical fiction that blends in actual practices and is based on evidence from the historical record. 

I didn’t see a lot of character development in this novel, but much of it may have occurred in the previous books. The story and writing were compelling enough that I plan to backtrack and read the first two installments in the series. The writing itself and structure of the book draw readers in and encourage them to keep reading, as the chapters are quite short. 

Overall, a very pleasing read about one of the most famous Anglo-Saxon lords. I look forward to reading the rest of the series, and the fourth book, anticipated later in 2020.

The North Water

The North Water coverThe North Water by Ian McGuire

Her Grace’s rating:  out of 5 stars

Genre: historical fiction

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: John Keating

Source: library

Length: 09:40:00

Published by: Macmillan Audio (9 May 2016)

In the 19th century, whaling ships often set out to the Arctic to bring back whale blubber and the furs of polar bears and seals. Henry Drax is a harpooner aboard the Volunteer, and Patrick Sumner is shipping out as the ship’s medic. Drax is a sick twist and Sumner is a disgraced army surgeon. When Sumner discovers that a cabin boy is being violently raped, and then later discovers the child murdered in the hold, it sets the two men on a collision course during this cursed voyage.

OK, so I know this was longlisted for the Booker in 2016. Neat. And yes, it absolutely had some beautiful writing, particularly when describing the scenery. But holy shit, y’all. This novel was chock full of unrelenting, vicious, gory violence. I am not a squeamish reader by any means, but the abuse and murder of children and cavalier slaughtering of animals, complete with many fully descriptive scenes, is more than I could handle this time. 

I KNOW the depictions of violence and casual disregard for animal life was historically accurate, but Jesus fucking Christ. I think the author was getting off on it or something. For example, the scene where the whalers killed a mother polar bear and captured her cub was horrific. Or this gem: 

Jones nods, takes a fresh blubber spade from the malemauk boat, waits for one of the sharks to come close enough, and then stabs at it, opening up a foot-long gash in its side. A loose-knit garland of entrails, pink, red, and purple, slurps immediately from the wound. The injured shark thrashes for a moment, then bends backwards and starts urgently gobbling its own insides.

And the joyful clubbing of baby seals. Or the near-orgasmic descriptions of whales blowing gobs of blood out their blowholes before they die, to the thrill of the men watching. And the multitude of excrement, both human and animal, or the vulgarity of the language (and believe me, I love a good fucking swear word). Is this really necessary? Again, I know this is the way it was back then, but there are ways to write that and still not be so enthralled with the violence. The gore and violence literally detracted and distracted from the plot. 

I read this as an audiobook and found myself gradually increasing the reading speed just to get it over with. The narrator did a fabulous job of it, though. Five stars to his performance. 

I once read the term ‘dicklit,’ and if ever there was a book to describe that, it is this one. Waiting to see how many men gather to explain why I’m wrong.