Review: Daughter of Sand and Stone by Libbie Hawker


Zenobia, the proud daughter of a Syrian sheikh, refuses to marry against her will. She won’t submit to a lifetime of subservience. When her father dies, she sets out on her own, pursuing the power she believes to be her birthright, dreaming of the Roman Empire’s downfall and her ascendance to the throne.

Defying her family, Zenobia arranges her own marriage to the most influential man in the city of Palmyra. But their union is anything but peaceful—his other wife begrudges the marriage and the birth of Zenobia’s son, and Zenobia finds herself ever more drawn to her guardsman, Zabdas. As war breaks out, she’s faced with terrible choices.

From the decadent halls of Rome to the golden sands of Egypt, Zenobia fights for power, for love, and for her son. But will her hubris draw the wrath of the gods? Will she learn a “woman’s place,” or can she finally stake her claim as Empress of the East?

The answer to both questions turns out to be no. This book was odd in that I guess I expected it to focus more on Zenobia’s actual rebellion from Rome than it did. Most of the book is centered around WHY Zenobia chose to rise to power and how and then just sort of glances over her actual rebellion. What’s left is a book more about a woman with a whole lot of ambition than about a “warrior queen”. That’s not to say the book is bad, just not where I anticipated it would head. The truth is Zenobia is so shrouded in myth at this point just about any writer could interject a story about her into the historical canon and it wouldn’t be much more far fetched than stories that already circulate about her. She’s captured attention along the same lines as Cleopatra and Boudicca as a woman who defied Rome and got pretty far doing so (and actually lived as opposed to the other two), but just like them sometimes the historical record is mighty sketchy about accurate biographies.

So take this book as what it is, more a romance than action, and more a study of a woman who while likable is also possibly too proud and ambitious for her own good. She’s not heartless and you understand why she commands such respect, but she’s also willing to gamble to accomplish what she feels is her destiny. And just like many rulers her gamble ultimately fails as she comes up against what is probably one of the few competent Roman emperors from this era.

4 out of 5


Review: Bohemian Gospel by Dana Chamblee Carpenter


Thirteenth-century Bohemia is a dangerous place for a girl, especially one as odd as Mouse, born with unnatural senses and an uncanny intellect. Some call her a witch. Others call her an angel. Even Mouse doesn’t know who—or what—she is. But she means to find out.

When young King Ottakar shows up at the Abbey wounded by a traitor’s arrow, Mouse breaks church law to save him and then agrees to accompany him back to Prague as his personal healer. Caught in the undertow of court politics at the castle, Ottakar and Mouse find themselves drawn to each other as they work to uncover the threat against him and to unravel the mystery of her past. But when Mouse’s unusual gifts give rise to a violence and strength that surprise everyone—especially herself—she is forced to ask herself: Will she be prepared for the future that awaits her?

I ended up liking this book a lot more than I thought I would and even though the ending was a bit rushed, I am curious about what happens in the sequel. Mouse is a vibrant character who is ostracized by no fault of her own. Her powers and parentage leave her at a loss with how to deal with the world and the demons that haunt her are incredibly dangerous. The fantasy element of the story never felt forced and it was almost an element of horror rather than fantasy in that Mouse was always in danger and is never able to free herself from monsters that follow her powers.

The romantic element is understandable as Mouse pines for Ottaker, but her heritage and his duties as king keep them apart. The main question of who Mouse’s parents actually were remains hinted at throughout the entire book. I made a guess myself, but it wasn’t completely clear until the end. I wasn’t sure if I’d be sold on this whole concept as a book, but it turned out being very interesting and a good plot.

4 out of 5

Review: Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear


Set in the late 19th century—when the city we now call Seattle Underground was the whole town (and still on the surface), when airships plied the trade routes, would-be gold miners were heading to the gold fields of Alaska, and steam-powered mechanicals stalked the waterfront, Karen is a young woman on her own, is making the best of her orphaned state by working in Madame Damnable’s high-quality bordello. Through Karen’s eyes we get to know the other girls in the house—a resourceful group—and the poor and the powerful of the town. Trouble erupts one night when a badly injured girl arrives at their door, begging sanctuary, followed by the man who holds her indenture, and who has a machine that can take over anyone’s mind and control their actions. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the next night brings a body dumped in their rubbish heap—a streetwalker who has been brutally murdered.

To start out with, you have to hand it to a book for being this incredibly diverse. Not only is the main character queer, other main characters include a trans woman, African American bounty hunter (a real person, btw), Native Americans, Indian women, and a variety of sex workers treated with respect by the author. And it is a rip snorting steampunk adventure. Karen, whose last name is actually “Memery” so the title is a bit of a misnomer, is intelligent and honest and very aware of her situation as a prostitute. I appreciated the fact that nothing about the women’s profession was glamorized, nor was it really judged either. There was no details about their work, but you understood what was happening.

My only complaint would be that the love interest was a bit flat as a character. I bought into Karen and all the other characters, but not her so much. The rest of the story was a high octane adventure that didn’t overwhelm with steampunk details and used a good bit of actual history to base itself.

4 out of 5

Review: The Sisters of Versailles by Sally Christie


Set against the lavish backdrop of the French Court in the early years of the 18th century, The Sisters of Versailles is the extraordinary tale of the five Nesle sisters: Louise, Pauline, Diane, Hortense, and Marie-Anne, four of whom became mistresses to King Louis XV. Their scandalous story is stranger than fiction but true in every shocking, amusing, and heartbreaking detail.

Court intriguers are beginning to sense that young King Louis XV, after seven years of marriage, is tiring of his Polish wife. The race is on to find a mistress for the royal bed as various factions put their best foot – and women – forward. The King’s scheming ministers push Louise, the eldest of the aristocratic Nesle sisters, into the arms of the King. Over the following decade, the four sisters:sweet, naive Louise; ambitious Pauline; complacent Diane, and cunning Marie Anne, will conspire, betray, suffer, and triumph in a desperate fight for both love and power.

Not a whole lot is ever commented on the Nesle sisters, my understanding is because there isn’t a whole lot of information about them (as opposed to Louis’s more famous mistress Madame du Pompadour). This romp pits the sisters against each other and highlights the complicated relationships between aristocratic families. No one marries for love and everyone sort of tolerates everyone else on a good day, but most importantly no one can be disgraced even though everyone is doing highly immoral things. Losing face is somehow different though. Louise is the oldest sister, a bit dim but kind and loving. Pauline is aggressive, angry and jealous yet also the most politically astute of the girls. Diane is jolly and not terribly cunning. Marie Anne is beautiful and bored and has a cruel streak. Louis XV is a weak, rather unlikable man who moves from a prude to a truly debauched ruler. It’s the women you’re concerned with.

I enjoyed the story itself and the relationship (always strained) between the sisters. My biggest complaint is that sometimes the characters were a bit uneven, particularly Marie Anne. On the one hand you’re told that she liked to torture small animals as a child and get hints of her truly cruel streak, on the other her affair with Louis is couched more in terms of survival than her actually trying to viciously displace Louise. It felt curious whether I should go with the foreshadowing that she was cruel or the actual events as they are laid out.

4 out of 5

Review: Deception on Sable Hill by Shelley Gray


It’s mid-September of 1893 and Eloisa Carstairs is the reigning beauty of Gilded Age Chicago society. To outsiders she appears to have it all. But Eloisa is living with a dark secret. Several months ago, she endured a horrible assault at the hands of Douglass Sloane, heir to one of Chicago’s wealthiest families. Fearing the loss of her reputation, Eloisa confided in only one friend. That is, until she meets Detective Sean Ryan at a high-society ball.

Sean is on the outskirts of the wealthy Chicago lifestyle. Born into a poor Irish family, becoming a policeman was his best opportunity to ensure his future security. Despite society’s restrictions, he is enamored with Eloisa Carstairs. Sean seethes inside at what he knows happened to her, and he will do anything to keep her safe-even if he can never earn her affections.

I have read all three books in this series and liked the other two quite well. Unfortunately for this one it’s the weakest of the group. More’s the pity because separately Eloisa and Sean are likable characters and I probably would have liked them a lot more together if most of their time wasn’t spent pining over how wrong they were for each other socially and Sean fretting over ever leaving Eloisa alone or unsafe. And that’s the biggest issue with the book I had, all of the male characters spent 90% of their time lecturing the women about how they should never be alone anywhere at any time and treating them like children. There is a faint effort made to impress that the women are independent or the men realize they are being over bearing, but it’s so brief it doesn’t undo the rest of the impression of the male characters. For a passive character Eloisa is very likable and I wish more of the book had focused on her efforts to get involved with charity work and deal with her social circle.

The book was a fast read and I didn’t dislike it per se, but I found myself wishing the story would go a different way than it did and focus on some different aspects of the events in the plot.

3 out of 5


Review: The French Executioner by C. C. Humphreys


It is 1536 and the expert swordsman Jean Rombaud has been brought over from France by Henry VIII to behead his wife, Anne Boleyn. But on the eve of her execution Rombaud swears a vow to the ill-fated queen: to bury her six-fingered hand, symbol of her rumoured witchery, at a sacred crossroads.

Yet in a Europe ravaged by religious war, the hand of this infamous Protestant icon is so powerful a relic that many will kill for it… From a battle between slave galleys to a Black Mass in a dungeon, through the hallucinations of St Anthony’s Fire to the fortress of an apocalyptic Messiah, Jean seeks to honour his vow.

I very much enjoyed this book. This is one of those books that is nonstop action with a rag tag team of misfits going against all odds and as such had a tendency to become a bit wild with all the coincidences and crazy events that the characters seemed to stumble into repeatedly (a slave galley AND St. Anthony’s fire AND Anne Boleyn’s ghost AND an Apocalyptic messiah AND a Black Mass…well you get the idea). But the over the top action makes for an exciting read and I ended up reading the book very quickly accordingly. If you just sit back and don’t think “wow these characters sure have witnessed like every salacious and exciting thing this time period had to offer” it’s a fun ride. This book is more adventure tale than staid historical fiction. And that’s not to say the author hasn’t done their homework. The events they’ve added are historically accurate and interesting in their own right. One of the better historical adventure novels I’ve read.

4 out of 5

Review: The Brethren by Robert Merle


The Périgord of sixteenth-century France is a wild region on the edge of the reaches of royal authority-its steep, forested valleys roamed by bands of brigands and gypsies, its communities divided by conflict between Catholics and converts to the new Protestant faith, the Huguenots.

To this beautiful but dangerous country come two veterans of the French king’s wars, Jean de Siorac and Jean de Sauveterre, The Brethren-as fiercely loyal to the crown as they are to their Huguenot religion. They make their home in the formidable chateau of Mespech, and the community they found prospers, but they are far from secure-religious civil war looms on the horizon, famine and plague stalk the land, and The Brethren must use all their wits to protect those they love from the chaos that threatens to sweep them away.

The Brethren is an interesting type of book. I understand the series is very popular in France with it just now being translated into English (I believe the author died several years ago). The book follows the early life of Pierre de Siorac, second legitimate son of one of the “brethren”, two brothers in arms who made their fortune during various wars. Jean de Siorac marries a woman unfortunately Catholic, a major source of trouble between herself and her Huguenot husband. The book is odd in that there is no real plot. It simply moves from one episode to another in the life of young Pierre. He sagely notes the religious turmoil and violence of the time around him, but his main concern is his own family trials and tribulations. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the book. It was very readable, but there was no movement of plot that really impelled me to finish it quickly. I will probably read more of the series, but it is definitely a family saga more than a rollicking adventure.

4 out of 5

Review: Spindle by Shonna Slayton


Briar Rose knows her life will never be a fairy tale. She’s raising her siblings on her own, her wages at the spinning mill have been cut, and the boy she thought she had a future with has eyes for someone else. Most days it feels like her best friend, Henry Prince, is the only one in her corner…though with his endless flirty jokes, how can she ever take him seriously?

When a mysterious peddler offers her a “magic” spindle that could make her more money, sneaking it into the mill seems worth the risk. But then one by one, her fellow spinner girls come down with the mysterious sleeping sickness…and Briar’s not immune.

If Briar wants to save the girls—and herself—she’ll have to start believing in fairy tales…and in the power of a prince’s kiss.

A fairy tale retelling set in the Industrial era, the author hits her facts well describing the time period and how factory life was for young women working in them. Blending a good deal of magic as well in the story this is a version of Sleeping Beauty that doesn’t really play out as an actual retelling, but more of a spin off OF the fairy tale. Briar isn’t really Sleeping Beauty, but her situation is tied up in the original story.

This isn’t perhaps the page turner of an adventure, but it is a good romance with a lot of good historical details and serious treatment of the time period. I enjoyed the book and it was a fast read.

4 out of 5

Review: Frostblood by Elly Blake


Seventeen-year-old Ruby is a Fireblood who has concealed her powers of heat and flame from the cruel Frostblood ruling class her entire life. But when her mother is killed trying to protect her, and rebel Frostbloods demand her help to overthrow their bloodthirsty king, she agrees to come out of hiding, desperate to have her revenge.

Despite her unpredictable abilities, Ruby trains with the rebels and the infuriating—yet irresistible—Arcus, who seems to think of her as nothing more than a weapon. But before they can take action, Ruby is captured and forced to compete in the king’s tournaments that pit Fireblood prisoners against Frostblood champions. Now she has only one chance to destroy the maniacal ruler who has taken everything from her—and from the icy young man she has come to love.

I always go into a book really wanting to like it and I’m fond of books that have cliched characteristics (good wins in the end, the couple gets together, etc). This book I sort of on the one hand liked the author’s writing, but on the other the plotting and characters felt uneven to me. Ruby is a harsh, emotionally volatile human and Arcus is generally devoid of visible emotions, yet somehow without much explanation they fall passionately in love. I guess I should buy into that romance like most other cliched ones, but something about it all felt a bit off. Maybe it was Arcus having a distinct lack of emotion that made it feel weird. Maybe it was not understanding why the two would be attracted to each other.

The second issue is Ruby magically becoming a winner in the gladiatorial ring only through the deus ex machina of being possessed by the evil embodiment of a god. I was actually more intrigued by the side character of the shifty, militant noblewoman who seemed to have her own reasons for manipulating the situation. Hopefully there is more of her plot in the next novel in the series. It just felt like Ruby speedily accomplishes her mission and abruptly ends in a showdown with the king. I don’t know. I wanted to like the book, but I’m left with just hoping the series will get better as it goes.

3 out of 5

Review: The Reader by Traci Chee


Sefia lives her life on the run. After her father is viciously murdered, she flees to the forest with her aunt Nin, the only person left she can trust. They survive in the wilderness together, hunting and stealing what they need, forever looking over their shoulders for new threats. But when Nin is kidnapped, Sefia is suddenly on her own, with no way to know who’s taken Nin or where she is. Her only clue is a strange rectangular object that once belonged to her father left behind, something she comes to realize is a book.

Though reading is unheard of in Sefia’s world, she slowly learns, unearthing the book’s closely guarded secrets, which may be the key to Nin’s disappearance and discovering what really happened the day her father was killed. With no time to lose, and the unexpected help of swashbuckling pirates and an enigmatic stranger, Sefia sets out on a dangerous journey to rescue her aunt, using the book as her guide. In the end, she discovers what the book had been trying to tell her all along: Nothing is as it seems, and the end of her story is only the beginning.

Having heard nothing about this book I didn’t really have any expectations going in, but it ended up being one of the best YA I’ve read this year. Not only is it diverse, but the YA take on the high fantasy tone works perfectly. The structure of the novel is also unique as the conceit is that books are magic and Sefia has a book that has EVERYONE’S story in it. Because of that, reading the actual book is an adventure because you have to question, what book are YOU reading? This is billed as the start of a series and I’m very interested in where it goes.

5 out of 5