Dark Stars

Dark Stars by CS Quinn

Genre: historical mystery

I read it as a(n): audiobook

Narrator: Steve West

Length: 12:23:00

Her Grace’s rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Set a few weeks after the events of Fire Catcher, this third installation in The Thief Taker series centers around a killer who is leaving mutilated corpses to wash up around the port town of Deptford. The bodies are all marked with astrological signs that indicate a catastrophe will soon descend upon England. Charlie Tuesday teams up with Lily Bosworth to find the person responsible for the murders. In the process, he discovers that he is connected to the killer in ways beyond their shared astrological fate.

OK. So I didn’t care much for this book. I felt that the characters were surprisingly one-dimensional, especially considering that it was the 3rd book in the series. The good guys were very good, the bad guys were very bad. There were a couple others who were a little more shades of grey, but they were secondary characters that didn’t really add anything super important to the plot.

Speaking of adding to the plot – I’m sorry, but everything involving the court was basically irrelevant. What information we did learn from court could easily have been included elsewhere instead, like a rumor or intercepted letter. The side plot with the king’s mistresses and court politics was just kind of boring and didn’t, in my opinion, add anything vital to the overall story. I do not care at all about his primary mistress, Lady Castlemaine, nor the innocent young girl he fixates on later. The entire book could have been written without them in it at all, and if the rest of the court intrigue stuff had to be included, then probably 75% of it could be cut and still have retained what relevance was necessary. 

SPOILERS BELOW!

Read More »
Advertisement

Oswald the Thief

Oswald the Thief by Jeri Westerson
Genre: historical mystery
I read it as a(n): paperback
Length: 270 pp
Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Oswald is a half English, half Welsh charming bastard thieving tinker who gets trapped by a corrupt noble into doing a burglary. He only has to break into The Tower and steal the Crown Jewels. So that shouldn’t be too hard, right?

This was a really fun mediaeval caper. Westerson, as always, did a great job with the research of early 14th century London. She has the map of the Tower in the front of the book along with a brief list of terms, both of which are helpful for readers who may be new to her stories. The sights, sounds, smells (ugh), and social rules of mediaeval London shine through in every page.

Similarly, the characters are well crafted and complex. An honest thief? A corrupt noble? A man with the mind of a child but the skill to pick any lock in front of him? Check, check, and check. All the characters in this book are thoughtfully detailed and never one dimensional.

One thing I really like about this book – and actually about all of Westerson’s historical fiction – is that her characters are not all just nobles, royals, or church people. They’re mainly just regular people, the Pastons instead of the Plantagenets. They’re actually people most readers can identify with in ways we cannot with those of higher rank.

I think it’s a fucking tragedy that Westerson couldn’t get a traditional publisher to pick this book up. It was intended to be the first in a new series and I really hope we will get to read more about Oswald and his adventures in the future. It was a lot of fun and it should get more attention than it has.

I highly recommend this, as I do all of Westerson’s books. They’re well researched, the writing is fast paced, and they’re all witty and funny.

Dissolution

Dissolution by CJ Sansom

Genre: historical fiction

I read it as a(n): audiobook

Narrator: Steven Crossley

Length: 14:33:00

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

The first of the Matthew Shardlake mysteries, Dissolution, features Master Shardlake being sent off to an abbey where one of the King’s commissioners had been murdered. Shardlake is a lawyer and clerk for Thomas Cromwell and is tasked with bringing the commissioner’s murderer to justice. When he arrives at the abbey, he finds it to be a seething morass of corruption, deceit, and forbidden faith. And of course the body count goes up and up the longer he’s there.

This was a good read overall. The setting was well described and the historical details were nicely researched. Sansom created a scene that easily came alive through his use of descriptive language. I am glad I don’t live in the Renaissance. The smell alone would kill me, if I somehow managed not to get burnt as a witch. 

The plot was complex and twisty without being overly complicated or unbelievable. I figured out the mystery, or one of them anyway, fairly early on but probably that’s just because I read a lot of mysteries. I was entertained throughout and the secondary plot/ mystery was one I didn’t guess before all was revealed. 

Would certainly read more in this series.

The Deadliest Sin

the deadliest sinThe Deadliest Sin by Jeri Westerson (Website | Twitter | IG)

Genre: medieval mystery

Setting: 14th century London

I read it as a(n): hardback

Source: my own collection 

Length: 321 pp

Her Grace’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars

In this 15th (and final) novel in the Crispin Guest medieval noir series, Crispin and his apprentice Jack Tucker are hired to help the prioress of a convent discover who is behind a series of grisly murders of her nuns. They each appear to be related to the Seven Deadly Sins, begging the question of what the victims really had to hide. At the same time, Henry Bolingbroke, the exiled son of John of Gaunt, has returned to England with an army at his back. Crispin once again finds himself in a position where he has to decide whether to support the crowned king or to commit treason again, possibly paying for it with his life this time. 

For the past 15ish years, readers have followed along on adventures with Crispin Guest, former knight and lord of the realm, disenfranchised for treason when he threw in his lot with the supporters of John of Gaunt over King Richard II. He’s gone from being angry and bitter to content and even happy and loving his role as the indulgent head of a very rowdy house full of Jack’s children. He has learned that he is quite able to make a decent life for himself through his tracking skills, and has earned the appreciation of many Londoners by helping them. Certainly, he has done more good for the citizens than the sheriffs ever did, which makes him smug. So it has been fun to watch his progression over the years. 

Same with Jack. He went from being a 10 year old mongrel street urchin who seemed to be on a glide path to the gallows for thievery to a competent apprentice tracker, loving husband, and fun loving father. His character arc was almost as big as Crispin’s and it has been a joy to see how he’s grown over the years. 

Yes, these characters feel real to me. 

The mystery in this novel was a fun and twisty one, full of murder and theft and nuns! With! Secrets! It would have been a great read on its own, but I was so focused on all the stuff with Henry Bolingbroke and Richard II that the mystery sort of fell to the wayside with me on this one. Not because it wasn’t good or anything. I just wanted to know how it would all end! After the mystery was solved, I found myself covering up any part of the page I hadn’t read yet so that I wouldn’t accidentally read too far ahead and spoil myself. I think that is a mark of a terrific story. 

I could tell you how it ended. I could tell you what I thought about it. But then maybe you wouldn’t go out and read these books for yourself, and that would truly be a loss for you. I realllllly think you should read them all. You won’t be sorry you did and then, when you get to this book, you will be on tenterhooks to see what new awful thing Westerson might do to poor Crispin! And then you can mourn the last book in the series. And then you can go out and be excited to read the other books Westerson already has, and look forward to the new Tudor series she’s got in the works!

The Witch’s Daughter

the witch's daughterThe Witch’s Daughter by Paula Brackston (Website | Twitter)

Genre: magical realism

Setting: Batchcombe, Wessex

I read it as a(n): paperback

Source: my own collection 

Length: 403 pp

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Bess Hawksmith is a young woman when the Great Plague of 1666 swept through her small village of Batchcombe. Naturally, the bereaved townsfolk need a scapegoat to blame for the losses they suffered. Bess’s mother, Anne, is a healer, so bingo! She must be a witch! The townsfolk round her up, along with another old woman who is a midwife, and hang them. The thing is, Anne really was a witch, and so is Bess. Bess flees and spends the next several centuries (she’s effectively immortal) running both from the memory of the horrific persecution as well as from the warlock who made a deal with the devil to give Bess her supernatural powers. Living a solitary life, Bess eventually finds a kindred spirit in young Tegan, a lonely teen who is drawn to Bess and her energy. But in taking Tegan under her wing, Bess inadvertently puts her in danger from Gideon, the man who has been hunting her throughout the years.

This one was, for me, SUPER slow to start. I almost quit. But then it picked up around chapter 4 or 5 and it was a very fast read from there out. I enjoyed this story a lot, though I don’t think it really had anything too unique about it. It was fairly predictable at the end, but the journey getting to the end was worth the read. I have a particular fondness for the Victorian Era, so I enjoyed that section the most. The bit from World War I was awful (an awful experience, not an awful read or awful writing). I don’t know much about that war, nor about the Battle of Passchendaele specifically, but it was an interesting, if sad and gory, part of the book. 

Overall, I think the characters were fairly well developed, but I’m not sure how much growth they really showed. Bess did mature and became a wise woman, but once she reached her maturity, she kind of stalled out. Gideon was consistently wicked but he was not a Bad Boy kind of character to me. I usually like those. Gideon was more like a cancerous presence to be cut out of a life rather than one who held any real attraction. Tegan was just a regular teen and didn’t really show anything other than that. Which is fine. They all worked for the story.

I think readers who enjoy Sarah Addison Allen or Alice Hoffman will enjoy this book. SAA and AH have more complex characters and richer storytelling, but I do think PB will get there eventually as well.

The London Monster

The London MonsterThe London Monster by Donna Scott (Website, Twitter, IG)

Genre: historical mystery

Setting: Late Georgian London

I read it as a(n): ARC

Source: Helen Hollick at Discovering Diamonds

Length: 322 pp

Published by: Atlantic Publishing

Her Grace’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars

In Late Georgian London, a man dubbed as “The London Monster” was attacking women, assaulting first their ears and sensibilities with terribly vulgar come-ons and, when those inevitably failed to win the lady’s affection, he stabbed at her with a dagger. Most of the women only had their dresses torn, though a few were cut on their hips and fortunately, none of them died. It is unlikely that the correct man was ever arrested, though one man did serve time in Newgate as the Monster. Author Donna Scott takes this historical figure out for a ride in her new novel, The London Monster.

Sophie Carlisle, daughter of a minor noble, wants nothing more than to become a journalist. Unfortunately, not only is that a profession forbidden to women, she is also betrothed to Cuthbert “Bertie” Needham, her childhood friend. To attempt to get her articles written and published, Sophie goes around London dressed as a boy, researching and following leads. In the course of her journalistic adventures, Sophie meets and befriends Maeve, an Irish prostitute. Tom Hayes, meanwhile, is the son of a filthy rich merchant with aspirations to a seat in the House of Commons. Tom is haunted by his mother’s murder, which happened before his own eyes when he was ten. To atone for his past helplessness, Tom now is a pugilist and vigilante, determined to catch the Monster before he can hurt any more women. Their paths intersect in so many ways, some entirely unexpected. 

First of all, I loved this book. I actually read it in one sitting, which hasn’t happened with a book in a long time for me. I found the writing to be highly descriptive and engaging, the characters complex, and tone perfectly balanced to reflect a variety of tensions. Sophie is a charming and irrepressible figure. Tom appears to be one of those mythical creatures – a man who is handsome, intelligent, AND genuinely kind all rolled into one. Maeve is salty and pragmatic yet still retains a deep sense of hope despite life having taught her not to bother. Each one of these characters are flawed in some way, but it serves to highlight the strengths of their personalities rather than their weaknesses. 

Speaking of weaknesses. Bertie. Bertie, Bertie, Bertie. He had great potential as a man but he’s just so gross and frankly kind of pathetic. I don’t think readers are really supposed to like him, and certainly I did not. If he had even a little more self-awareness and consideration for others, he might have been a totally sympathetic character. As it was, he came off as more of a self-centered whiner who tried to make Sophie love him even while thinking about how marrying her would solve his family’s debt crisis. Not sure you can truly love a person if you want them for their money, no matter how hard he tries. And perhaps he really did love her, but it always seemed tinged with a variety of desperation. Super not attractive. 

As with any book, I’m not sure if the author wrote about certain themes intentionally or if I am imposing my own interpretation upon the story. However, I picked up some strong themes of consent and safety throughout this book. There was obviously no consent at all in the Monster’s attacks on his victims; they all roundly rejected him and he forced violence upon them anyway. Maeve occupies a liminal space of consent – she is a prostitute so her consent is implied through her vocation, but she hates it and is ashamed, so her consent is grudging at best. To me, I think that equates to NOT giving consent. Sophie wants to help catch the Monster in part because of a frightening experience she had at a party several years earlier when a gentleman she flirted with tried to rape her. At one point, she also tells Tom that she wants the Monster to be caught and imprisoned because she wants him and all men to know that they can’t make women feel they can’t be kind or polite without risking assault. Oh hi, modern women’s continuing issue! Women today STILL can’t be friendly to so many men without them thinking we are flirting and they are entitled to get some. 

Linked to that is a strong sense of shame. Sophie feels ashamed of the incident at the party, despite the fact that it was in no way her fault. No matter what a woman says or does, whether she’s flirting or not, at some point a man makes the decision to assault or rape a woman. It is entirely on him. Yet even today, where there is not nearly the stigma surrounding rape that there once was, many women still are too scared or ashamed to report their assaults. Those who do are often not believed, contributing further reasons for women not to bother. If it’s still like that now, I can only imagine how much worse it would have been in the 1780s. And, as explained in the Author’s Note, while there were more than 50 reported cases of women being attacked by the Monster, the true figure is actually unknown – some women almost certainly never reported their attacks, and others falsely reported an attack. Also like today’s society, some people will say anything to get a little attention, to get their 15 minutes of fame. Shame is carried out further in Maeve’s character. She is a prostitute and she does what she does to survive and to provide money to her young daughter, in the care of another family. But she doesn’t want to be a prostitute and, despite some very frank language about sex from her and other sex workers in the book, Maeve is deeply ashamed of what she does and dreams of a day when she might save enough money to pay off her debts to her madame and leave to do other work instead. 

I also felt there was a strong theme of Otherness and acceptance. Sophie at one point thought about how she would never have tolerated a prostitute near her and would never have thought she would even speak with one. Then she met Maeve and got to know her. The two became true friends, despite the huge gap in their social class, and Sophie found she would go to great lengths to help her friend. See what happens when we get to know people? They turn out to be people with their own feelings and hopes and fears, just like the rest of us! Getting to know people is one of the greatest killers of prejudice and bigotry there is, and the friendship between Sophie and Maeve provided a great example of that. I wish it happened more in real life.

Overall, I devoured this book and can’t wait to read more by Donna Scott. Highly recommended!

Once Upon a River

Once Upon a RiverOnce Upon a River by Diane Setterfield (Website, Twitter)

Genre: magical realism/ historical fantasy

Setting: mid-late 1800s

I read it as a(n): hardback

Source: my own collection / BOTM Club

Length: 464 pp

Published by: Atria Books (pub date)

Her Grace’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Once Upon a River is the tale of a young girl who drowned, and then didn’t. There is an inn that is known for its storytelling, which is where the drowned girl and her rescuer end up. Her story spreads from there and she becomes three different girls who have all gone missing. The lives of a photographer, a healer, a farmer, and a pub owner all become entwined because of their connections, real or otherwise, to the drowned girl.

I honestly don’t want to write an in-depth review of this book. I fucking LOVED it and don’t want to have to think too closely about it. It was a fairy tale wrapped in a mystery set in a historical fiction. I never wanted it to end, and when it did, I wanted to forget all about it so I could read it again for the first time. The writing was gorgeous – truly evocative of fairy tales – and the characters were well defined and complex, every one of them. The setting was ephemeral and had very much an otherworldly feel to it, which was perfect for the story. I had too many favorite lines and scenes, so I only put a couple below. Otherwise, I’d just be copying down the entire book. I can’t describe it, just go read it for yourself. You will not be sorry you did!

 

Favorite part/ lines (spoilers!):

  • ‘The Swan was a very ancient inn, perhaps the most ancient of them all. It had been constructed in three parts: one was old, one was very old, and one was older still’ (3). 
  • ‘She could lift barrels without help and had legs so sturdy, she never felt the need to sit down. It was rumored she even slept on her feet, but she had given birth to thirteen children, so clearly she must have lain down sometimes’ (5). 
  • The discussion about the word one ought to use to describe a person rowing very quickly up a river. Can’t be haring because hares don’t go in row boats. Can’t be ottering because that sounds worse than haring. It was a very serious discussion.
  • ‘There was a general hubbub of conversation between the windows as the story was discussed, its missing pieces identified, attempts made to fill them in…Fred began to feel left out of his own tale, sensed it slipping from his grasp and altering in ways he hadn’t anticipated; now it had slipped the leash and was anybody’s’ (46)
  • ‘They sat on the bank. It was better to tell such stories close to the river than in a drawing room. Words accumulate indoors, trapped by walls and ceilings. The weight of what has been said can lie heavily on what might yet be said and suffocate it. By the river the air carries the story on a journey: one sentence drifts away and makes room for the next’ (361).
  • ‘While the water lay unperturbed and indifferent all around, the women at the Swan were engaged on the human pursuits of dying and being born. On one side of the wall Helena struggled to deliver her baby into life. On the other side, Joe struggled to depart it. The little Margots got on with everything that needed to be done so that life could be begun and so that it could be ended’ (417).
  • ‘There must be more to stories than you think’ (431).
  • ‘And though eventually there came a day when the man himself was forgotten, his stories lived on’ (457). 
  • ‘How many photographs could a man take in a lifetime? A hundred thousand? About that. A hundred thousand slivers of life, ten or fifteen seconds long, captured by light on glass’ (458).
  • ‘And now, dear reader, the story is over. It is time for you to cross the bridge once more and return to the world you came from. This river, which is and is not the Thames, must continue flowing without you. You have haunted here long enough, and besides, you surely must have rivers of your own to attend to?’ (460).

Chariot of the Soul

Chariot of the SoulChariot of the Soul by Linda Proud (Website, Twitter)

Genre: historical fiction

Setting: ancient Rome and Britain

I read it as a(n): digital galley

Source: Helen Hollick at Discovering Diamonds 

Length: 498 pp

Published by: Godstow Press (23 Oct 2018)

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Togidubnos (AKA Delfos or Delphinius) is the youngest son of the Briton king Verica, sent to Rome as a royal hostage as part of a trade agreement between Verica and Rome. Educated in that great city for 10 years by Seneca himself, Togidubnos is then sent back to Britain to help convince his people that their wisest course of action is to fall in line and submit to the might of the Roman Empire. When he arrives, he finds his two worlds – Roman and Stoic, Briton and Druid – at odds, both in the politics of the world and within himself.

Chariot of the Soul focuses on the eventual takeover of Britain by the Roman Empire under Claudius. The author sets the stage nicely. It is obvious that she did some **excellent** research and she shows it with thorough but not pedantic history given as current events in Togidubnos’s young life. The Britons are still rather tribal, and alliances between the various tribes are often unpredictable and ever-changing. Caligula sent an invasion force during his short, disastrous reign, but it failed, the biggest impact being that some British tribes continued trading with Roman territories afterwards. Claudius was smarter about it, using Togidubnos’s knowledge of his home country to try to win the Britons over through more peaceable means. To some extent, this worked as the regions in southern Britain were generally more peaceful under Roman rule than other regions. By the end of the novel, readers have a good understanding of the shifting politics of the period. We are also introduced to Boudicca, that spectacular woman who united the tribes and very nearly kicked the Romans out on their collective asses. Presumably, that part will come in the sequel, as Chariot of the Soul is only the first of a series. 

The characters in Proud’s novel were all deep and well-crafted. Seeing the ways in which Togidubnos grew and changed over time was…not really fun since a lot of bad things happened to him. But satisfying, I suppose, to see how he grew in Stoicism, learned how best to use his knowledge of both Rome and Britain to help as many people as he could, and how he reconnected with the people of his birthplace. His mission was really an impossible one – go back to Britain and convince these very different and almost neurotically independent tribes to submit peacefully to Rome. It is no wonder that he became conflicted in a variety of ways. Togidubnos was a real king, by the way, of the Atrebates tribe. There’s not a lot known about him, but it was enough to give Proud a few good ideas! His British slave, Mandred, was probably my favorite character. I have a soft spot for sarcastic folk anyway, and he was probably the one person who truly kept Togidubnos on a proper path. 

I think my favorite element of character development focused on Claudius himself. He did not have a very large role in this novel, nor was it necessary since the story isn’t about him. But I loved how Proud made him seem a fool prior to becoming emperor, but he always had flashes of the real man underneath, hidden and waiting to be released. She really highlighted the ways in which other people underestimated him. I never really subscribed to the view that Claudius was mentally challenged because I just don’t see how he could have reigned for nearly 14 years if that were the case. I suppose he could have been a puppet but it seems easier and more in line with so much of Roman succession if his handler were just to kill him and take over. I recently read that possible reasons for Claudius’s tremor, slurred speech, and other physical ailments could have been polio, cerebral palsy, or even Tourette’s syndrome. Whatever the reason, I think he was a more successful emperor than many who came before him, and certainly more so than some who came after. 

Another excellent element of this novel was the focus on horses. Yes, I was a horse-crazy little girl. I am probably still a horse-crazy middle-aged woman. But no, that isn’t why I love this part. In a lot of other novels I’ve read set in pre-Roman or Roman Britain, horses were present but treated mainly as tools. Here, they were priceless, with herds going back through generations of painstaking breeding. The warriors loved their horses and when bad things happened to them, they were as grief-stricken as they were when a beloved comrade died. I liked seeing this side of ancient British culture explored more. The author actually has a nice little segment about this on her website.

Proud also did a good job with her handling of the druids. I loved the mystical feel to many of these characters, but it wasn’t so mystical as to be unbelievable. I do wish there had been more here, more detail or rituals. But Proud did very well with the extremely limited sources there are about the druids. 

Honestly, I think the only thing I didn’t care for was the title of the book, and that may not even have been up to the author. It does come from a discussion Togidubnos has with a druid, but we don’t get that until near the end of the book. Initially, the title made me think of some melodramatic bodice ripper with a very buxomy lass spilling out of her dress all over a half-naked Fabio. LOL. It has nothing to do with any of that, thank god, and is a complex and very well researched novel.

Overall, this was an excellent read and I am looking forward to reading the sequel.

Spiteful Bones (Crispin Guest #14)

Spiteful BonesSpiteful Bones by Jeri Westerson (Website, Twitter, Insta)

Genre: historical fiction/ medieval noir

Setting: 14th century London

I read it as a(n): hardback

Source: my own collection 

Length: 178 pp

Published by: Severn House (1 Sept 2020)

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

In this 14th instalment of Westerson’s Crispin Guest medieval noir series, some fun characters from the past feature in this story. Nigellus Cobmartin has inherited his father’s house upon the death of his older brother. He and his lover, the delightful John Rykener (under the guise of Eleanor) are in the process of restoring it, the house having fallen into disrepair. The workers discover a gruesome scene – a skeletonized body tied up within the walls of the manor house. It is determined that the body belonged to a former servant who the Cobmartin household thought stole a relic and then took off with the wife of another servant. At the same time, Nigellus and John are victims of extortion, under threat of their lifestyle being exposed if they fail to pay the unknown villain. But nothing is as it appears at first glance, and so Crispin and his apprentice, Jack Tucker, find themselves on the hunt for an extortionist who may also be a murderer. 

The character development over the course of this series has been excellent. Crispin is now in his forties and is beginning to feel the effects of a hard and active life, though he rails against it. Jack is taking on more of the lead role in the sleuthing duo and is the image of a young and vital man. There were a few times that he saved Crispin’s neck, literally and figuratively, and while it was lovely to see, I also miss little boy Jack even as I revel in the upstanding man he has become.

Crispin himself has long since accepted that he is no longer nobility and has made a family for himself with Jack, Jack’s wife Isabel, and their growing brood of children. He seems content enough with his lot and takes pleasure in the simple joys in life in ways he was unable to do before. One of his greatest joys is in his son, Christopher, who he is unable to acknowledge. His friends, too, are his joy, and he throws himself into investigating who would murder a friend’s servant, driven to protect those he loves. 

As always, Westerson creates vivid scenery in her settings. It is easy to picture the sights (and, unfortunately, the smells!) of the Shambles and other places in medieval London. The strength of her descriptive writing is exceptional and that, along with complex character development, have made Westerson one of my favorite authors. She creates characters readers genuinely care about and then develops them into rich and multidimensional people, even secondary characters. Take, for example, Nigellus Cobmartin and John Rykener. Nigellus is a fictional character, but Rykener was a real man who dressed as a woman and was a whore and a skilled embroideress. Their relationship, while it may seem implausible to us given the time period they were from, could well have happened. Rykener was listed as having a husband in one of the documents Westerson referenced, though the man was not named. Why not let the husband be Nigellus? There have always been LGBT people, even if they had been vilified, shunned, or even killed at various points in history. A lack of understanding does not mean they didn’t exist, and there is plenty of documentation to prove it. I think it is really important to discuss social issues in all their many elements, but literature is an ideal medium in which to do so. Readers get to know both Rykener and Nigellus over the course of a few books, and can see them as people rather than ideas, mere figures on a page, or solely by their sexual identity. Having other characters like Crispin sometimes struggle with how they see Rykener helps create depth but also gives a nuanced examination of our own society. A long-winded way to say that I love their relationship, the characters themselves, and how Westerson approached it.

I was sad while I was reading this story because I had thought it was the final entry in the Crispin Guest series. But I was wrong! There is one final adventure to share with Crispin, Jack, and friends, The Deadliest Sin, which Westerson’s website says will be released in 2022. 

In the meantime, I highly recommend this book, as well as the rest of the series, to anyone who loves a good, complex, brooding protagonist and a delightful cast of secondary characters.

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.