Sword of Shadows

47863903Sword of Shadows  by Jeri Westerson (WEBSITE, FACEBOOK)

Her Grace’s rating:  4 out of 5 stars

Genre: historical fiction

I read it as an: ARC

Source: Netgalley 

Length: 224 pp

Published by: Severn House (20 April 2020)

We are nearing the end of the adventures of Crispin Guest, disgraced lord and knight, self-created Tracker of London. In this tale, Crispin and his apprentice Jack Tucker are hired by Cornish treasure hunter Carantok Teague to assist him in finding a long lost sword. It turns out to be none other than Excalibur that Teague seeks. Crispin is, of course, skeptical, but takes the job as he needs money, as always. Teague leads them to Tintagel, the fabled birthplace of King Arthur, to seek the sword. While there, two men in the castle guard are murdered, and Crispin is sidetracked from the search for the sword to investigate the deaths. Along the way, he encounters Kat Pyke, his one-time lover, as well as a host of young women jilted by one of the murdered men, and a hidden village in the forest full of Druids. Exactly what Crispin needs to have an interesting time.

Anyone who knows me at all knows I have a particular soft spot for Arthurian legend. Mixing that in with one of my favorite historical fiction series is like human catnip to me. The murder investigation element of the story takes a fairly normal course, and certainly not all is as it first appears. The Arthurian element was fun because who hasn’t thought about that sword in the stone or of where its final resting place might really be? I did feel that the Athurian sections were not as well fleshed out as the rest, but that just adds to the mystery a bit. And the surprise at the end with the old caretaker was a delight. 

Jack is grown now and Crispin is letting him take the lead on a variety of tasks that he wouldn’t have before. I’ve said it before and will say it again here that it is good to see Jack grow from a mischievous young boy to an honorable, dependable man. If she wanted to, Westerson could easily continue her medieval noir novels with Jack as the protagonist and new Tracker, with Crispin making cameo appearances. I think she has no such plans, but it is still fun to consider, as well as the final story in the series. I know how *I* hope Crispin’s tale ends, but we shall have to wait and see what Ms Westerson thinks about it! 

Strongly recommended! 

The Land Beyond the Sea

31568110The Land Beyond the Sea by Sharon Kay Penman (WEBSITE, FACEBOOK)

Her Grace’s rating:  5 out of 5 stars

Genre: historical fiction

I read it as an: ARC

Source: Edelweiss+

Length: 688 pp

Published by: Putnam (3 March 2020)

Many people are at least a little familiar with the Crusades, Richard the Lionheart, and Saladin. Far fewer, I would wager, know about the life of Balian of Ibelin, a Frankish lord born in the Levant. Penman tells his story in The Land Beyond the Sea. The timespan of the novel is actually fairly short, beginning when Balian is a young man. Penman takes readers on a journey among the Poulain, the people born in the Levant and descended from the Crusaders who remained in the region after the First Crusade; she shows us the complex and surprisingly collaborative interactions between the Poulain, the migrant Crusaders, and the Saracens, which influence the local politics to an extraordinary degree; and she demonstrates, above all else, that history is not always what we’ve learned from school. 

Balian’s story here starts with his relationship with King Baldwin, known to history as The Leper King. The two had a relationship built on respect and Balian rose high at the court in Jerusalem as a result of Baldwin’s favor. Balian also had a good relationship with Saladin himself, as well as his brother, Al-Adil, one of Saladin’s most trusted advisors. These relationships came into play at the height of Balian’s influence, when he convinced Saladin to accept Jerusalem’s peaceful surrender after a prolonged siege that would have left thousands of civilians dead or sold into slavery. 

The labyrinthine politics of the court are described in detail and were an interesting change of pace, for me anyway, from the court politics I’m more used to reading about. I understand the politics of periods like the Wars of the Roses, the Tudors, or the Plantagenets, but I had never read anything set in the medieval Levant. Penman does a thorough and highly accurate job of showing these twisting intrigues. It was a bit surprising to me to learn how much the European and Saracen societies mingled and cooperated with one another. I think I had this vague notion that the two societies were mostly segregated from each other because of the religious wars between them. I think my favorite thing was learning just how closely tied the societies were and how much they had in common. Though, really, that shouldn’t surprise me at all, since rationally I knew the region was something of a melting pot; I just hadn’t really thought much about it. 

Related to that, I was fascinated by the way they treated each other. For example, once Saladin accepted Jerusalem’s surrender, he allowed the people to put forth a ransom rather than have them all shipped off to the slave markets in Cairo. Of the roughly 15,000 people who were too poor to help raise a ransom and would have been sent into slavery, he released 7000 of them, then granted his brother, Balian, and Patriarch Eraclius gifts of 1000 slaves each, which they immediately manumitted. The way the Saracen guards/escorts treated the group who was able to leave Jerusalem was also wonderful to read. They took good care to protect them, even though they were defeated enemies; however, Saladin had ordered them to treat them well, and so they did. In Penman’s extensive Author’s Note, she indicated, rightly, that she would have been hard pressed to believe that if it had been described so only in Saracen chronicles, but the description came from several Christian chronicles. 

Also, Penman has a great talent for taking her characters, whether fictional or historical, and making readers care about them. I was so sad when William of Tyre died; I felt awful for and was sad when Baldwin died, because he was so brave in facing his illness; I was furious when Guy de Lusignan did, well, all the stupid things he did; I loved and was grateful to Anselm for his unflinching service to Baldwin. So many other examples. Even though these people, the ones who were real anyway, died nearly 1000 years ago, Penman breathes life into them, brings them springing forth with their wonderfully messy, complex, endearing, irritating humanness. 

All in all, while I have come to expect nothing short of amazing writing and research from Sharon Kay Penman’s books, it is nevertheless a delight to dive into a new book of hers and discover that her reputation as a precise and vivid storyteller remains intact and well-deserved. 

Favorite part/ lines (potential spoilers!):

  • “You can get Amalric to pay his ransom.” Others might have found that answer cold, uncaring. Agnes did not. Her mother was simply recognizing the reality confronting them, as women had been compelled to do down through the ages. 
  • William suddenly found himself on the verge of tears, almost as if he knew he’d just been given a precious gift, a memory of the young king at a perfect moment in his life, one that held no shadows or dread, only bright promise. 
  • “This is the first course, honey dates stuffed with almonds. I am sure you’ll like them if you give them a try.” Balian leaned over and put a date on the other man’s plate. The knight let it lie there untouched. He was gazing at it as if it were offal, not a delicacy sure to please the most demanding palates, and Balian began to entertain a fantasy in which he held Gerard down and force-fed him every date in Outremer. 
  • He gestured toward the arrow with a grimace, saying it was only a flesh wound. [Was this a deliberate reference to Monty Python and the Holy Grail?? If so, well played, Ms Penman, well played.]
  • Almost as if sensing how dark his thoughts had become, Cairo padded across the chamber and nudged Baldwin’s hand with a cold nose. He’d noticed years ago that the dog never touched his right hand, the one without feeling; it was always the left, crippled but still capable of sensations. How did Cairo know? [Another thing I love about Penman’s writing is how she always portrays the dogs as noble and loving. Dogs are so much better than we are. We do not deserve dogs.]
  • [Balian playing with his children upon arriving home from battle] Once his father had boosted him up onto his shoulders, he whooped with delight, and for reasons he was too young to understand, that moment imprinted itself upon his memory. Long after he was grown, with sons of his own, he would recall very little of their flight from Nablus. But he would vividly remember the afternoon that his father came home and made him fly.
  • He wondered if the other man had acted impulsively, moved by the misery of the enslaved Franks. Or had he always intended to make this request, confident that his brother would welcome an opportunity to display mercy again? … Balian smiled, realizing he’d never have the answer to that question. He could answer another question, though, one that he’d pondered since their first meeting in Salah al-Din’s tent at Marj al-Safar. They shared neither the same faith nor the same blood. But al-Malik al-Adil Saif al-Din Abu Bakr Ahmad bin Ayyub was his friend. 

 

 

 

Enigma Tales (Deep Space Nine)

Enigma Tales DS9Enigma Tales (Deep Space Nine) by Una McCormack (TWITTER)

Her Grace’s rating:  4 out of 5 stars

Genre: sci-fi

I read it as a: mass market paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 350 pp

Published by: Pocket Books (27 June 2017)

Fan favorite Elim Garak is now castellan of the Cardassian Union. Part of his plan is to open enquiries into Cardassia’s war crimes against the Bajoran people, which may well turn the military against him and is making for some very awkward and tense situations. Enter Katherine Pulaski, who can, and does, make already tense matters into an interstellar incident. She is on Cardassia to accept an award on behalf of her and the team of doctors who solved the crisis of the Andorians’ fertility. The team had included Julian Bashir, who now lives on Cardassia under Garak’s supervision, trapped in his own mind from his previous encounters with Section 31. At the same time, a new head of academics at the University of the Union is to be appointed and the frontrunner is Natima Lang, a darling of the public eye and one of the rare genuinely innocent Cardassians. However, a document uncovered by a researcher may expose that Lang is hiding some of the worst crimes of all.

So, Una McCormak now ranks right up there for me with authors like Peter David for favorite Trek authors. I’m not always a fan of DS9 but McCormack’s books are always really fun and the writing is at an actual adult level. I loved seeing more of the inner life of Garak. He was my favorite recurring character in DS9, as I think he was for many people, so it was great to see lots of him and get inside his head a bit. Really, I think I am not out of line to suggest that ONLY Una McCormack be allowed to write Garak. 

I never liked Pulaski – I was too much a P/C shipper to welcome her onto the show – but in this book, she was a lot of fun. Salty and utterly unrepentant, Pulaski had plenty of moments to shine here, both in diplomatic situations (oh hai, let’s make a diplomatic incident!) to quick thinking and bravery when kidnapped (if she hadn’t been a fraction of a second too slow, she would have totally kicked that guy’s ass), to helping rescue someone else (she WILL hunt you down and find you). She was really a fun element to the story, and for me, it was a very pleasant surprise.

I loved the somewhat more minor but vital plot with Natima Lang. I loved seeing how she stuck to her guns and fought for what she wanted, even going toe to toe with Garak, even though it made her shake to do so. I think his plans for her are putting her talents to much better use than her previous ideas. I hope to see more of Lang and Garak in future books. 

Beyond just the delight of getting to know Garak and Pulaski better, the overarching theme was how societies can recover from the ills of their past and set to rights the wrongs they had done previously. The message rang through strong and clear that no one is above the law, not castellans, not presidents, no one. All the quotes scattered throughout about how literature reflects a society and can lead the way to the cure is really spot on. They reflected the Cardassian Union here, but of course reflect the problems plaguing modern society as well. I thought all those quotes were perfectly timed.

Highly recommended!

Favorite part/ lines (potential spoilers!):

    • There is nothing quite to compare with arriving on a new world. … Questions form in the mind: What will I see that is new? Will I learn something? Will I be surprised? Will my visit here change me in some small but significant way? 
    • “Popular culture,” said Garak portentously, “can tell us a great deal about a society.”
    • Monstrous behavior speaks for itself.
    • “They’re [genre fiction stories] more interesting than that,” Lang said. “They offer a microcosm for society and, I think, the means to diagnose its ills – and, perhaps, the method to bring about its cure.” “I think you see more deeply than the average reader,” said Parmak. “But I have come to believe that this is what literature always does – reflects back some part of the reader. You see a means to reform society.”
    • “A free and open society,” he said. “It’s the ideal toward which we aim, isn’t it? Even if we don’t always manage it.” “Hey, mister,” said Pulaski. “I think we do pretty damn well.” She looked around the room. “And you know what? I think these folks are doing pretty damn well too.” Parmak raised his glass and clinked it against Pulaski’s. “I’ll drink to that,” he said. Land and Alden raised their glasses. “To the ideal,” said Lang. “Elusive, and perhaps ultimately unattainable. But always worth the effort.”
    • T’Rena tasted the tea. “Not unpleasant.” “Mostly harmless,” said Garak. She looked up at him calmly. “I beg your pardon?” “It’s a quotation from a human classic,” said Garak. Rather a flippant one. He tried to get a grip on himself. 
    • Don’t assume cleverness when a cock-up is the more likely explanation.
    • Newscasts, broadsheets, channel upon channel – there is too much. It keeps a lot of people very busy. Still, I foresee some difficulties ahead. The proliferation of material means that people might start to become selective about what they consume and, if my instincts are correct, they are likely to read only that which confirms what they already know. This means they will never have their ideas tested. I worry that as a result, people will form tight groups around those who confirm their biases, mistrusting those whom they encounter who think differently. 
    • She found that she completely admired [the Cardassians]. They had guts, grit, and determination. To come through this hell, to keep on digging deeper into themselves to find the place where hope lived and to keep drawing from that well, to keep on trying and building and healing. That, she thought, was worthy of her respect.
    • [H]e thinks that “on balance you add greatly to the gaiety of life.”

 

  • Do no harm was a good rule to live by, but Do good with everything you have? That was a great deal better…

 

  • “I admire them [humans] for how far they’ve come. But in one respect they fail. They continue to be convinced of their superiority. But not us.” Garak shook his head. “We will never – I hope – tell ourselves such lies again. And perhaps that is what we have to offer.” 
  • Sometimes, Garak thought, one did not need a confessor. One simply needed to sit and examine one’s conscience alone.

 

 

History Rhymes: The Function and Importance of Historical Fantasy*

Within every issue of Historical Novels Review one section of reviews is labeled “Historical Fantasy,” where readers find books like Guy Gavriel Kay’s that introduce magical or supernatural elements into their historical framework. Tolkien is perhaps the most famous writer to have brought the realms of myth and magic into solidly historical contexts. Certainly, one result of this blending of history and fantasy is greater entertainment — escape, if you will. On this subject, Tolkien, in his essay “On Fairy Stories” wrote:

I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which ‘Escape’ is now so often used: a tone for which the uses of the word outside literary criticism give no warrant at all. (Tolkien, 1947)

Most of us enjoy escaping through fiction and agree with Tolkien’s embrace of it as a virtue of reading. But, along with providing marvelous exits out of the everyday world, historical fantasy also appeals to so many readers because it is a particularly rich and effective medium to explore current social issues.

More than one study shows that the genres of science fiction and fantasy promote deeper empathy in readers who are introduced to the genre at a young age. One study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology quantifiably demonstrates how reading books like Harry Potter increases tolerance and reduces prejudice (Vezzali, et al., 2015). Vezzali explains that the fantasy genres are “especially effective in assuaging negative attitudes [toward social issues] because the genre typically doesn’t feature actual populations and thus avoids potential defensiveness and sensitivities around political correctness” (quoted in Stetka, 2014). Writing fantasy grants authors the creative room to explore sensitive or controversial contemporary issues without triggering readers’ preset ideas and biases. Combine fantasy with the distancing effect overall of any historically set fiction and readers find a potent mix for examining controversy without building mental barriers.

Exploring this mind-opening aspect of historical fantasy with several writers of the genre seemed particularly worthwhile amidst our current social debates. I therefore approached Guy Gavriel Kay, Judith Starkston, Juliet Marillier, Marie Brennan and Roshani Chokshi to get their views on writing historical fantasy that addresses current social issues.  The resulting conversations offer an insider’s view of these authors’ approaches regarding emotional engagement with social issues.

When asked how writing historical fantasy allows him to bring current social issues to his readers’ awareness, author Guy Gavriel Kay (A Brightness Long Ago, Berkley Books 2019) explained, 

I have argued for the universalizing effect of deploying the fantastic. Stories and themes from history cannot be read as specific only to a given time and place. Beyond this, I find it important to explore both the “strangeness” of the past and the ways in which people and lives can offer a startling familiarity at times. Among other things, this can erode an a-historical sense that what we are living through is new. Usually it isn’t.  As has been said, history may not repeat, but it rhymes.

Through historical fantasy, authors highlight issues that continue to concern modern society as well as help readers learn more about a topic. However, as author Judith Starkston (Priestess of Ishana, Bronze Age Books 2018) noted, “Combining history and fantasy has to be done with care.” She explained that being able to lift readers out of the regular world is liberating for both author and reader. Starkston believes when readers experience a book that draws them into its own world, they tend to leave behind the locked, preconceived notions of how things are and how they ought to be. Incorporating fantastical elements into historical events or people lets us 

accept unusual solutions as entirely normal. When I talk about the historic queen who is the model for my main character, people are incredulous that a woman held such power and influence across the ancient Near Eastern world. We harbor a false notion of history as gradually progressive. Things are supposedly better now and worse in the past, but that isn’t accurate.

Starkston added that the best way to accomplish this blend of magic with historical accuracy is to adopt “fantastical elements that arise from the beliefs and practices of the period. That the Hittites practiced so many rites we would call magical made this especially easy for me—I had only to extend their scope.” Fidelity to history even within the magical creates believable historical fantasy. Incorporating elements of reality that lend themselves well to the use of magic helps to carry readers over the threshold of disbelief and encourages new patterns of thought, precisely the area in which historical fantasy excels.

Juliet Marillier (The Harp of Kings, Ace 2019) also takes a similar approach in her own writing. She stated that her writing has three main purposes: “to teach, to heal and to entertain … Real life challenges (tyranny, cruelty, conflict, flood, famine) might become the dragon, the monster, the fearful place in the dark wood.” Using real life examples of illness or emotional damage brings such topics front and center while at the same time fostering empathy and an awareness of their causes. The capacity to heal in particular has found a vibrant ally in Marillier. Many of her books deal with themes touching on violence, repression, PTSD, or other issues that Marillier draws from historical fact as well as current events. She highlighted the vital role literature plays: 

Storytelling is a powerful tool for helping the troubled (and for helping others understand and support them.). Many other issues relevant to contemporary society find a place in my books – notably, women dealing with domestic violence or other forms of repression. The voice of those characters, whose stories come from long ago and are touched by the uncanny, still seem to ring true for today’s reader. 

Seeing in works of historical fantasy topics that are relevant to contemporary society strikes a chord with readers who may be struggling to make sense of the world and the current events. Ultimately, it can help bring about hope and healing.

Marie Brennan (Turning Darkness into Light, Tor Books 2019) and Roshani Chokshi (The Gilded Wolves, Wednesday Books 2019) both discussed the importance of historical fantasy mirroring reality at least tangentially in order to create a believable and relevant world. Brennan stated that historical fantasy “has the advantage of being able to come at a topic from a slantwise angle. It lets us show how various problems have played out in the past—which encourages the reader to think about how things have and haven’t changed, or what alternatives might look like.” Holding up a mirror of our world through the lens of historical fantasy does, indeed, allow authors to look at our own world, society, or beliefs in new ways. By doing so, Brennan goes on to say, showing a world “in the context of a society that’s not the one we currently live in, it can slip its points in under the radar, instead of having to come at them directly.” Chokshi’s position also meshes with Brennan’s in that she finds that historical fantasy “allows me to take an issue and breathe life into it by tangling it up with a character’s emotional stakes and placing it beneath a lens of magic. A story is nothing if it evokes no feeling. I want to make my readers feel even as they’re thinking, and hopefully that inspires my audience to research an issue further.” Inspiring feelings and igniting curiosity in a topic seems to be a unifying goal for these authors, even if they know their role is not to solve the questions their works may pose. Rather, they seek to “make it a present question in the minds of my readers,” as Chokshi explains. This is an important point because authors have the platform to effect change and influence society. Consider the changes that were inspired by novels such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Jungle, or Beloved. What we read has a definite impact on what we think, and authors have the power to influence societies. 

Other influential authors, including Zen Cho (The True Queen, Ace 2019), Mary Robinette Kowal (The Fated Sky, Tor 2018), and Nalo Hopkinson (The Salt Roads, Open Road Media Sci-Fi & Fantasy 2015), impact the way readers think by incorporating an abundance of diversity in their novels. Their novels have a focus on the strength of women, the second-class role of women and people of color, sexism, and narratives of freedom, highlighted beautifully by fantasy/speculative elements. On her website, Cho states that she writes in the genres she does because “It’s as good a form for understanding the world as any other” (Cho, 2019). Kowal, in a blog post, makes an excellent point: homogeneity in historical literature is a choice, for the fact is that Europe and the UK had a “wide range of classes and abilities/disabilities. … People of color were throughout the UK and Europe and had been basically since people started to travel, which means always” (Robinette, 2012). Hopkinson draws on the deep traditions and narratives of the people brought as slaves to what is now Haiti, exploring various themes of freedom, linked by elements which bind women across the world: blood, sweat, tears, birth fluids, and sex. On her website, Hopkinson states that certain genres “…allow us to step outside our known reality and examine that reality from a different perspective. They do so by creating imaginary worlds as lenses through which we can view our world” (Hopkinson, 2019). 

Historical fantasy holds a striking place in literature through its universalizing effect to allow readers to internalize new views on social issues and to understand the ways in which history “rhymes.”
References

Hopkinson, Nalo. “FAQ.” Nalo Hopkinson, Author, 2019.

Kowal, Mary Robinette. “Don’t blame the homogeneity of your novel on historical accuracy. That’s your choice, as an author.” Mary Robinette Kowal, 2012.

Kowal, Mary Robinette. “About the Lady Astronaut series.” Mary Robinette Kowal, 2019.

Stetka, Bret. “Why Everyone Should Read Harry Potter.” Scientific American, 9 Sept 2014. 

Tolkien, JRR. “On Fairy Stories.” In Essays Presented to Charles Williams, compiled by CW Lewis, Oxford University Press, 1947.

Vezzali, Loris, et al. “The Greatest Magic of Harry Potter: Reducing Prejudice.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 45, 2015, pp. 105-121.

*Originally published in Historical Novels Review, issue 90, Nov 2019.

The Way to the Stars (Star Trek Discovery)

The Way to the Stars (Star Trek Discovery)The Way to the Stars (Star Trek Discovery) by Una McCormack (Twitter)

Her Grace’s rating:  4 out of 5 stars

Genre: sci-fi

I read it as a: paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 276 pp

Published by: Gallery Books (8 Jan 2019)

Sylvia Tilly is the youngest Starfleet cadet to be accepted into the Command Track program. As she prepares to start her first day in the training program aboard the USS Discovery, she has hidden reservations about her qualifications and ability to do well. This leads to a night of her telling her history to Michael Burnham, starting from her teen years being bullied by a domineering mother and missing her father while he is on a deep space mission. 

McCormack nailed Tilly’s voice in this novel. We see how Tilly has grown into her role on the show, although she still has a long way to go. But this novel shows readers a glimpse into her life before Starfleet, some of the reasons why she is so unsure of herself despite being one of the most promising officers in the fleet. 

Lorca is still my favorite character, but Tilly comes in a close second. I love getting to see her history. Her mother is awful. I think we all know someone like her in some way, and they’re just as awful in person as Tilly’s mom is on the page. Her dad is a good guy but he’s absent when she needs him the most, which is irritating to see just because I know how sensitive Tilly is and it made me feel bad for her. 

Personal growth and evolution from a child to a young adult is always painful, and Tilly really fucked up a few times but she learned from her mistakes and used them to become a better person. She’s a diamond in the rough with the best possible future ahead of her. As Stamets said, Tilly is incandescent. I can’t wait to read more books focusing on her.

The Ghost Brigades (Old Man’s War #2)

17201685The Ghost Brigades (Old Man’s War #2) by John Scalzi (website, Twitter)

Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Genre: sci-fi

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: William Dufris

Source: my own collection

Length: 10:25:00

Published by: Macmillan Audio (11 March 2008)

The second in the Old Man’s War series, The Ghost Brigades focuses on the section of troops within the Colonial Defense Forces that are bred purely for fighting. Jared Dirac is something of an exception. He is a hybrid of the superhuman CDF soldiers and Charles Boutin, a notorious turncoat. The idea had been to transplant Boutin’s memories into a CDF clone of himself, but that failed and so Jared was given to the Ghost Brigades. Eventually, Jared’s ability to access Boutin’s memories works and he and his fellow soldiers go to hunt down the real Boutin before an alien alliance can devastate all of humanity. 

I think this is my least favorite Scalzi novel so far. It isn’t badly written or boring, but I felt it was a little long on discussion and a little short on action until near the end. To be fair, it would be hard, I think, to improve upon the titular novel in the series, Old Man’s War, which was one of the best sci-fi books I’ve read in years. Ghost Brigades wasn’t a sequel so much as a standalone novel set in the same world as OMW. I like standalone books and get weary of series that go on forever. 

Overall, this was fun and well worth the time to listen to it, but my favorite Scalzi is still Redshirts. 🙂 

Sorcery in Alpara

47870793._sy475_Sorcery in Alpara by Judith Starkston (website, Twitter, Facebook)

Her Grace’s rating:  5 out of 5 stars

Genre: historical fantasy

I read it as an: ARC

Source: digital ARC from the author

Length: 439 pp

Published by: Bronze Age Books (14 Oct 2019)

This second novel in Starkston’s Tesha series picks up right where the first story, Priestess of Ishana, left off. Tesha and Hattu are newly married and traveling to Alpara, his capitol city. Tesha is to be crowned as Hattu’s queen and rule beside him. Instead, as they travel through hostile lands, a dark force attacks Hattu and his army. Tesha frees the army through the use of her skills as a priestess of Ishana, but at a steep price. Tesha is drained of her strength and power, unable to move or speak. As she gradually recovers, under the care of her sister Daniti, it becomes clear to Tesha that Hattu has been overcome by the same dark force. Tesha must struggle against betrayals that take everything she holds dear from her, save Hattu and her new kingdom, without sacrificing herself in the process. 

Second novels in a trilogy often struggle with a sluggish plot in some odd sort of literary ‘middle child syndrome.’ Sorcery in Alpara definitely does not suffer from this problem. From the start, it is full of action and magic, love and despair. Readers get several gut-punches as Tesha fights to save those she loves, even while being unjustly accused of a crime she didn’t commit. 

A major subplot of the novel involves Tesha’s older sister, Daniti, who was taken captive by a faction of Hattu’s enemies. Daniti uses all her considerable skills to delay her captors from carrying out their plans. Helping her is Marak, Hattu’s second-in-command, who had allowed himself to be taken hostage to protect Daniti. Their whole story, while not quite as fraught as Tesha and Hattu’s, is intriguing and highlights some of the facets of being disabled in the ancient world. Daniti’s blindness doesn’t hinder her ability to be a formidable ally to Tesha and fierce enemy to Paskans and others who would overthrow her brother-in-law. 

Hattu’s people, the Hitolians, are based on the ancient Hittites. Starkston does a masterful job weaving in elements of their culture and religious practices throughout her writing. The religious rituals the Hittites practiced lend themselves extraordinarily well to creating the magic spells Tesha and other priestesses use in this series. Using historically accurate details to turn them to one’s own purpose in a story really helps create a richer reading experience. Starkston has this practice well in hand and she uses her impeccable research on the Hittite culture to modify and implement magic rites within the world she has built around Tesha, who is herself based on a real life Hittite queen, Puduhepa. 

In short, this is an excellent addition to the Tesha series. I can’t wait to buy a hard copy for my own library. Strongly recommended to anyone who loves historical fantasy, or who has an appreciation for well researched books with a seriously fun plot. 

PLEASE NOTE: If you go to the author’s website, you can preorder a copy of this book for $2.99 on kindle. When you preorder Sorcery in Alpara, you get a free short story which continues the narrative of Anna, a prequel story to the Tesha series. The first short story installment comes when you sign up for Judith’s newsletter. I’ve received both and the short story and the newsletter are entirely worth your time. 

The Android’s Dream

12097367._sx318_The Android’s Dream by John Scalzi (website, Twitter, FB, email)

Her Grace’s rating:  3.5 out of 5 stars

Genre: sci-fi

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Wil Wheaton

Source: my own collection/Audible

Length: 10:34:00 time

Published by: Audible Frontiers (7 Dec 2010)

When one human diplomat kills his alien (Nidu) diplomatic counterpart – by farting him to death – Earth and its more advanced neighboring alien civilizations find themselves on the brink of war. The Nidu government tells Earth that all will be made well again if Earth will supply them with a special variety of sheep the Nidu use exclusively in their inauguration ceremonies. The sheep is called Android’s Dream and it has electric blue wool. The problem is that all such sheep were systematically destroyed by a Nidu rival. Only one woman in the galaxy, Robin Baker, has some of the Android’s Dream DNA in her genetic complex, thanks to her sheep/human hybrid biological mother she never knew about. Now, former soldier Harry Creek is tasked with the job of keeping Robin safe and alive, out of enemy Nidu hands as well as those of human agents working to prevent the Nidu coronation at all costs. Helping Creek is an AI he built based on a friend from his days as a soldier, Brian. Also, there’s a bit about the Church of the Evolved Lamb, which its founders cheerfully admit was based on a scam but adherents to the faith are determined to make their prophecies come true anyway. 

This was a fun, funny romp through sci-fi, though I admit it is not my favorite Scalzi novel I’ve read. But still, there were a lot of parts that made me laugh out loud and tons of action to keep things interesting. The first chapter is pure adolescent hilarity. 

Every time anything about the Church of the Evolved Lamb came up, I cracked up. I could unpack a whole lot of thoughts about what commentary Scalzi might have been making about the religions of the world, but I think I’ll let the name of the church speak for itself. I loved this so much.

I thought maybe the early-middle parts dragged on a little bit, but the action picked up again with the kidnapping attempt and gun fight at the Arlington Mall, and again later during the battle on board the cruise liner. That’s just straight up good fun, that is. 

 

Beautiful

45367879._sx318_Beautiful* by Juliet Marillier(website, Facebook)

Her Grace’s rating:  3.5 out of 5 stars

Genre: fantasy

I read it as an: audiobook, which is the only way it’s available currently

Narrator: Gemma Dawson

Source: my own collection

Length: 07:18:00

Published by: Audible Originals (5/30/19)

In this audio-only story, Marillier takes the fairy tale ‘East of the Sun, West of the Moon’ and delves into the story of the troll princess who is shunned by the handsome prince who turns into a bear. Hulde is a princess, hidden away from the world by her mother, who becomes more abusive as the years pass. Hulde is given human servants to tend to her needs, and for one month every three years, Hulde has a friend, Rune, who comes to visit her. Her mother doesn’t allow mirrors in the Glass Mountain, where they live. Hulde has no real idea she is that different from the humans, and she has been raised to believe that she will marry a beautiful prince on her 16th birthday. When she learns that the prince in question had been cursed by her own mother, Hulde helps his fairy tale come true and then goes on a quest of her own to learn about the outside world, her own people, and how to be brave. 

I really liked that Marillier focused on a character who is generally overlooked in the fairy tale. Hulde would never have been the protagonist in a traditional tale, so giving her the spotlight is a good twist for the continuation of ‘East of the Sun, West of the Moon’. I do think people will get more out of this story if they already have an understanding of ‘East of the Sun, West of the Moon’ but certainly it isn’t necessary. Knowing the fairy tale just gives it more depth. 

I think it’s a great message that Hulde is shooting for bravery rather than beauty. Despite the title of the book (which I think may be more tongue in cheek than anything?), the focus is not on the way heroine are traditionally beautiful and married to the handsomest prince ever. Hulde learns how to be brave and to appreciate her strength during the course of her quest, including the fact that trust in others is a part of being brave. She also learns that a beautiful person does not always mean they are a good person or are somehow more worthy of love and attention than others. 

The emphasis on storytelling woven throughout this story is delightful. It’s almost meta in the references to storytelling and the bards or memorykeepers who deal with stories. Marillier does this a bit in her other works as well, but it just struck me more strongly in this one. A story about a girl who loves stories and uses them to guide her quest in the presence of a troll-bard who tells her stories to help her keep going. Love it!

 This story felt a little younger than Marillier’s usual work, but it was still a thoroughly enjoyable tale. Perhaps it’s because it is only available as an audiobook/ Audible Original that it wasn’t quite as nuanced as her usual style. In any case, it was pleasing to this long-time fan, and would make a great intro to her for younger listeners. While not a children’s story, I would have no hesitation at all letting my young daughter listen to this. 

*Amazon affiliate link.

GIVEAWAY! Shadows in the Mist

Shadows in the Mist

Shadows in the Mist* by Jeri Westerson (website, Facebook)

Genre: urban fantasy

Length: 296 pp

Published by: May 14, 2019

From the publisher’s blurb: Small town tea shop proprietor Kylie Strange already has a lot on her plate. The last thing she needs is more trouble to spring up from the mystical Booke of the Hidden. Keeping one step ahead of a scheming demon, supernatural assassins, and Baphomet—an angry god hellbent on stealing the Booke—it’s all more than enough for one person to handle. And that’s without mentioning her competing affections for the handsome and human Sheriff Ed and the demon Erasmus Dark. But soon enough, Kylie and her coven hear whispers of new disturbances in Moody Bog. Strange creatures have been stalking the townsfolk through the fog and rumors of violent encounters confirm their deadly intent. Worst of all, the Booke of the Hidden is not to blame, and no one is sure who is. Kylie and her coven of wiccans need to prioritize. Which is worse? The mysterious and lethal figures in the mist, or Baphomet, who—if he gets his way—will unleash Hell on Earth onto oblivious little Moody Bog.

Let’s have a giveaway!

You know you want to get this one. Shadows in the Mist is the third book in the Booke of the Hidden paranormal series by Jeri Westerson. A fantastically fun read filled with strong, salty women, sexy demons, and a witchy tea shop, protagonist Kylie Strange returns with her motley group of friends to save the tiny Maine town of Moody Bog once again.

Honestly, if you have not read this series yet, what are you waiting for? Get thee to Moody Bog at once! Or, you know, enter the giveaway and maybe get the book for free. May the odds be ever in your favor!

Giveaway Rules:

  1. Simply leave a comment on this blog page no later than July 31, 2019.
  2. I will run all participants through random.org to select the winner.
  3. I will notify the winner via a winner’s post by August 1, 2019.
  4. Only US or Canadian addresses.

Let’s play!