King Edward III of England is a pretty fascinating guy – especially if, like me, you have a deep and abiding interest in the Middle Ages. This surprisingly successful king, although that’s quite a simplified interpretation, managed to overthrow the rule of his mother and her lover as a teenager, laid claim to France, which started the Hundred Years’ War, and founded the Company of the Garter, a chivalric order which still survives unlike so many of its contemporaries. He was also the father of Edward the Black Prince (a name which is too awesome not to use, even though he was not called this during his lifetime), one of the most intriguing historical figures in England for me. In this work of history, Richard Barber not only looks at Edward and his reign, but those who surrounded him, inspired him, and succeeded him.
Of course, I loved it. I’d been looking forward to this book ever since I heard about it, particularly because I was already familiar with the historian who wrote it. It was right on par with my expectations. I appreciated so much the approach that Barber took – this isn’t a biography of Edward. It’s a complete view of everything happening around Edward, putting him firmly in the context of the period. This, for me, far more than historical fiction these days, gives me a feel for the period. It’s about the battles and tournaments, the personalities that filled the court, the literature that these people read and which inspired and taught them about their world. It’s really difficult to separate Edward III and Philippa of Hainault, his queen, from the obsession that the Victorians had with the Middle Ages, but Barber does his best and pulls out as much history away from that as he can manage.
Among this is the surprising discovery of how little we actually know about the founding of the Order of the Garter, or its history in the early days. Chivalric orders sprang up in this period in a number of countries, and Barber looks at each of these and tries to find out where Edward got the idea from, who might have been in that order, and why – ultimately, drawing the conclusion that it sprang in some form from the battle of Crecy, which we learn about in as much detail as we can manage. Barber goes so far as to research the layout of the battle and the tactics that might have been used by the English to gain the spectacular victories that they did, which was really fascinating and something I hadn’t read about before. There are a lot of primary sources here and Barber doesn’t hesitate to quote directly, with often large portions of pages taken up with excerpts giving us a huge amount of insight.
In addition, the book isn’t particularly dry, although as with every bit of history I’m obsessed with, your opinion on this may vary. I’d think it would be perfectly readable and enjoyable for someone who might be looking to move on from historical fiction to something based more on primary sources and fact. I loved it, and if you are interested in tournaments, battles, and the high middle ages, this book is definitely for you.
On a cold winter day in 1910, Ursula is born. Again. And again. And again. Every time Ursula dies, she is born again, and given the chance to live her life anew. But Ursula has no way of knowing this, only a vague recollection of events that have previously happened and a dread of what she did or didn’t do in previous lives. As she lives her life over and over, experiencing the lead-up to World War II and a whole range of different outcomes to her life, we start to wonder: can Ursula change history?
I really enjoyed this book. I am a huge fan of so-called “quiet” books and though some of the events in this one are more explosive, this is at its heart a book about chances. The smallest actions of Ursula’s change the entire trajectory of her life. As we go back to that February day in 1910, we start to see the entire picture of what was happening that day, for instance; while some readers might get bored by the fact that we go through that day each and every time Ursula dies, I loved how it let Kate Atkinson build up the entire scene, through all the supporting characters, and finally leave us with something still to think about at the end of the book.
It also has the advantage of being set in a fascinating period of British history, spanning both World Wars over the course of its length. While it’s tethered to the world we know, the reincarnation aspect allows Atkinson to explore what might have happened if – and this is at the heart of the book. What happens when Ursula stands up for herself is completely different to what happens when Ursula is simply unable to do that. One of the most heartbreaking episodes in the book, when Ursula’s life turns out to be devastating, is through something that is not her fault in the slightest but completely destroys her self-worth and confidence. And, of course, she blames herself, and the guilt and blame imposed by that sole event change the course of her life. It’s also one of the most problematic, because she manages to subvert and avoid that very event next time, but as ordinary women without her sense of foreboding, we can’t hope for the same.
I also loved the World War II sections; I think many readers will agree that there’s just something about the London blitz which, horrifying as it was, is almost guaranteed fascinating reading. In Ursula’s situation there are simply so many different outcomes and the book’s structure allows Atkinson to explore each and every one. Regardless if Ursula dies or Ursula lives, anything could happen to anyone she loves. It’s not a wonderful situation, but it made for wonderful reading, and Atkinson pulls off the reincarnation trick over and over.
When I purchased this book, I read it almost immediately; I’d heard a lot of hype and I simply wanted to read it for myself. After doing so, I’m pleased that it lived up to all of that and more. I’d happily recommend – and will be recommending – this book, and I’ll certainly be going straight for the rest of the Kate Atkinson on my TBR pile.
So far I’ve managed to read 6 books in 2014, greatly aided by the fact that I was off work until the 6th (how I wish I could have another break just like that one now …). I really want to at least record a few thoughts for what I’m reading this year and draw a line under most of last year’s reads, except for a couple of review books, so here goes.
Ironskin, Tina Connolly
This is a fantastical re-telling of Jane Eyre, one of my favourite books, and while I wanted to read it, I put it off for a little while because I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about the fact that it is blatantly the same story. I’ve avoided a lot of joke re-tellings and sequels to classics because I love the originals too much to want those worlds changed. But this – this is a serious effort at creating something that pays homage to a classic but doesn’t take away from the original. I needn’t have worried. Connolly’s story can stand on its own two feet. While it’s clear that the basic story is the same, and many of the characters’ personalities match, Connolly’s magic usage, and the very real symbolism of the iron skin / iron mask Jane wears, adds something else to the story. I really liked the fantasy element and the way that the iron’s usage develops and I’m intrigued particularly to see where Connolly goes next in the sequel, now that she no longer has Charlotte Bronte’s brilliance to guide her.
Demon Angel, Meljean Brook
As I mentioned in my Long-Awaited Reads post, I’ve had this book for ages and had no real reason for *not* reading it. I didn’t love the only other book I read by Meljean Brook, so I think I was worried I wouldn’t like it. I’m pleased to say that I finally did get to it and I even liked it. A lot.
I wasn’t really that enthused by it at the beginning. The book takes us throughout centuries of history, in which the two characters get to know each other and we learn more about the background of the world, but once the story got to modern-day California everything changed. We moved into the permanent part of the story rather than the bit that felt like background. I think the book definitely suffers from first-book-in-a-series syndrome; there is almost too much world-building and not enough characters at the start. By the time the story kicks off, though, I began to actually feel for these two characters and the way they felt about each other. It’s longer than a typical paranormal romance (or any romance for that matter) but after that slightly rough start, I never felt like it was too long. Instead I felt anxious for Hugh and Lilith because I so badly wanted them to be together but wasn’t quite sure how it would happen.
I am definitely going to continue with this series.
Clean Sweep, Ilona Andrews
I think I’m destined to love literally everything by this husband-wife writing team. This little novel was no exception at all. I didn’t read Clean Sweep in free installments, as it was initially promoted on the website. I decided to wait until it was all available as an ebook, because I’m essentially impatient and didn’t mind paying the small amount for the privilege of reading convenience. I was immediately drawn to Dina the Innkeeper’s story and the bizarre way that Andrews set up the world. It’s short, so it’s easy to read quickly, and it’s a great example of the writing style these two produce. They’re also fantastic at building relationships between characters – and characterization in general I suppose – even within the confines of a short novel. Highly recommended, as usual, and I’m looking forward to further installments.
The Countess Conspiracy, Courtney Milan
Courtney Milan knows how to pull *all* the heartstrings. In this, her latest novel in the Brothers Sinister series, Violet, Countess of Cambury, is a female scientist in a nineteenth-century England without female scientists. But, rather than keep her work quiet, she enlists her long-time best friend Sebastian Malheur as scientist. He becomes her public face. But after years of living a lie, he can’t take it any more – and slowly, gradually, neither can she.
I love romances where the main characters have known each other for ages. I don’t know why, they just work really well for me. This worked really well, too. I don’t think I loved it as hard as I loved some of her earlier romances, maybe because it’s not as different as the others, but I got really wrapped up in this story and I adored Sebastian and Violet. The main characters from the other books in the series appear, too, a little bonus for those of us who have read them all. Courtney Milan will continue to be an auto-buy author for me.
I’ve read a couple of other books this year - Life after Life by Kate Atkinson and Edward III and the Triumph of England by Richard Barber – but I’d like to try and actually give them full reviews. We’ll see how that goes!
Has your 2014 started well on the reading front?
I originally bought Huntress for A More Diverse Universe before I decided not to blog in November. I also didn’t manage to read it in November. But I loved Ash and I still wanted to support the initiative, even a full month late, so I recently picked it up and found myself devouring it in just a couple of days.
Set centuries before Ash but in the same world, two girls and a prince are tasked with making a journey to the Fairy Queen, across deadly lands with no maps, to find out why the kingdom exists in a permanent state of gray. The girls are students: Kaede, the Chancellor’s daughter who rejects her life as a proper lady, political marriage and all, and Taisin, a gifted future sage whose dreams are true visions. With them go the heir to the kingdom and three guards to the first summons to the Fay in a generation.
This book opens with a vision; Taisin sees an element of the future, but she doesn’t understand it or how she will get there. As the book unfolds, the mystery of that vision unwinds, and it’s only towards the end of the book that she, and we, understand exactly what she saw and how she needs to use it to ensure that she and those she love survive.
In Huntress, women (and girls) take on all the primary roles; Kaede and Taisin are the main characters, who go to visit a Fairy Queen, while their enemy similarly turns out to be a woman. As in Ash, the love story is between women, in a world where all love is freely accepted (although it seems political marriages still need to be between men and women in order to produce children). The change is perspective is not radical, it’s just enough to subvert expectations slightly and produces a much richer book for it.
The core of the story is an adventure into unknown lands, where mysterious perils await and some of the small band may not survive. As with all such stories, this makes it easier for us to get involved in the world as we discover new elements of the universe right along with the characters. And two diverse main characters make it easier; Taisin is destined to be a nun, or so she thinks, and acts accordingly, while Kaede wants nothing more than to live an unconventional life. Yet these two very different girls bond truly, through shared experiences and deep emotion, and their journey is one that is worth following and loving.
A quick and engaging read, Huntress is definitely recommended for other fantasy readers.
I purchased this book. All external book links are affiliate links.
History is written by the victors. It’s a common phrase that nearly everyone has said or heard. Our history books and our world views are shaped by the people who won wars. Europe’s states, particularly those of western Europe, seem fixed in place. Italy, Germany, Spain; these are definite countries, aren’t they?
Well, as it turns out, and as those who study European history might know, not really. The borders, names, and actual existences of states in Europe have shifted dramatically over the course of the last 2,000 years, with many states completely and totally forgotten except by those who once lived in them. There were seven kingdoms and duchies called “Burgundy”, none of which exist now. Spain was historically fragmented into different countries in the middle ages and exists in an uneasy state now with Catalans seeking independence (and simultaneously forgetting states of their own). The united states of Italy and Germany are fairly new and the destruction of Prussia happened in the twentieth century. And Poland? Poland was completely absorbed into other countries for a time, while the Kingdom of Montenegro not only failed to exist after World War I, no one actually seemed to care. The country only gained independence again in 2006.
Unsurprisingly, I absolutely loved this book. It took me a month to read (during which time I read plenty of fiction) but I found it absolutely fascinating. The book is arranged in roughly chronological order from around the dissolution of the Roman Empire to the fall of the Soviet Union, with 15 states that have either vanished or had huge parts of their history forgotten by the popular consciousness. There’s no real connection between the choices except that they’re all in Europe. Each chapter is broken into three parts. The first part looks at what is happening in the region today, to give us context for the history which follows in the second part. The third part then looks at how well the history has been remembered (or misremembered). This structure worked really well for me; I always like having some sort of context to understand history, and I know enough about the bits and pieces around most of the “vanished” kingdoms to understand the history pretty well too. He goes into more detail with some countries than others, which according to some other reviews makes the book a bit dry, but I didn’t find that to be the case at all.
Naturally this is only a surface glance at each of the 15 “kingdoms” – which can also be empires, duchies, republics, etc. – but it’s a starting point to go out and explore more. Unfortunately a few of the places have been forgotten so thoroughly that the remaining documentation is slight or non-existent, or in another language, but Davies has copious notes at the back of the book, although I’d have loved a suggested reading list of sorts for each.
I really enjoyed the way Davies looked at how history is remembered, too. Each country is different, of course, but it’s fascinating to see how countries treat their own pasts. One of the most extensive was, unsurprisingly, at the end of the chapter on Ireland. Ireland is hardly a forgotten country, but its relationship with England and eventually the United Kingdom is very complicated. Davies ruminates at length on the future of the UK, which he doesn’t think is going to last very long.
All in all, Vanished Kingdoms was completely and totally fascinating. I only wished there were more kingdoms to read about! Very highly recommended.
All external book links are affiliate links. I purchased this book.
If someone had told me five years ago that I would read a series that was ultimately military science fiction and absolutely love it, I would have laughed at them. Well, maybe not out loud, but I wouldn’t have believed a word.
Enter these books, and my younger self is completely proven wrong.
Staff Sergeant Torin Kerr is the star of these books. She’s a tough Marine who takes her responsibility for her people very seriously, which is one of her most endearing traits. They’re her Marines, and her primary objective (aside from following orders) is always to bring them home.
But these aren’t books that are simply full of missions. Though each one is shaped around a particular mission, even in a sense the last one, they’re also very character-focused, especially on Torin. Her essential nature never changes, but she begins to understand a number of aspects of the world around her as the books go on, and she adapts to every circumstance. While she’s clearly in charge, the books also switch viewpoints to focus on the Marines. I’m not in the military, and would prefer to keep it that way, but I couldn’t have imagined a better depiction of what must happen when a trained group of people form for the exclusive purpose of fighting other people. I will admit freely that I often forgot the names of some of these Marines, because they change from book to book (with a few exceptions) but the sense of camaraderie and spirit remains the same.
This is science fiction, and as such, a lot of the books are spent in space or exploring distant worlds. As I am both unfamiliar with the military and with actual space travel, the first book took an investment of time for me to actually sink into the world. The aliens come with particularly defining characteristics that do make their species easy to remember, though, and reminders for these are sprinkled throughout the books without ever becoming overwhelming. I read them in quick succession, and I never felt that I’d read that the Krai ate anything too many times. Usually, Huff works these details into the plot well.
Speaking of plots, they’re very well done. Though each is a mission of sorts, the circumstances around them are entirely different. Each book builds on the overarching plot and takes the opportunity to make a story that spans not only one book but the whole series. While each concludes and doesn’t end on a cliffhanger, I always wanted more, and bought the last two books at once because I knew I wouldn’t want to stop reading.
And, you wouldn’t predict this going in, certainly not until the third book, but there is even some romance in these books, although it’s the subtle, heart-felt kind of romance that I think I love the best of all.
Once you’ve reached Heart of Valor, in my view, the series becomes golden, and I loved every minute of the last three books. The set-up in books 1 and 2 (combined now as the omnibus A Confederation of Valor) is 100% worth it. This is beautifully character-focused science fiction, excellent for both those who like their spaceships and those who need strong, relate-able characters in their books. Very highly recommended.
I bought all of these books.
I could sum up this review with just four words: this book was awesome.
Daughter of the Sword is about a group of swords created by master Japanese craftsman Inazuma. In the present day, only three swords are known, and Mariko Oshiro, the only female detective in the Tokyo Police Department, is about to become acquainted with one. Constantly fighting for her place in the department already, Mariko faces fierce sexism in her determination to prove herself. Instead of a case which is easily solved, she’s sent all the way across town to help an older man, Professor Yamada, in a seemingly inconsequential case. Twined in with her story are those of other sword owners, set in a variety of historic versions of Japan, as we learn more about the swords’ unique personalities and their context throughout history.
This book combined so many fantastic elements to create a beautifully cohesive whole that was simply a pleasure to read. I loved each and every story as we followed the swords throughout history. I’m not all that familiar with Japanese history, but I love the feel of these and I relished in the unfamiliar. I liked getting back to Mariko, but I also felt like each of the smaller stories was surprisingly fleshed out for a relatively short book. They added so much context and history which could have otherwise been lost in big city Tokyo – it’s a clever construction that adds layers of Japanese culture onto a modern day bustling city and police department.
Contrasted with these beautiful bits of history, the yakuza, or Japanese mafia, comes to light through the character of the villain, a man who has and is seduced by one sword but is determined to have two. I’d never even heard of the yakuza before, but having poked around on the internet, it appears to be a real thing, an institutionalized part of Japanese culture. He’s not exactly a pure villain, though; how many villains go and visit their fathers in the hospital in the course of a story?
And then there is Mariko herself, who is a wonderful main character, so determined and stubborn and ambitious. The sexism that she comes up against is so frustrating that I wanted to scream against her superiors myself. She is Japanese, but because she grew up in the United States instead of in Japan, she is determined to fight against the trend and make a name for herself, paving the way for other female detectives in Tokyo, while the establishment is firmly against her. This not only helps this American reader cheer her on, but gives those who are not Japanese an easy way in to start trying to come to grips with a culture that is mostly unfamiliar to us.
The fantasy touches in this book are very very light, mainly around the personalities of the swords and the way they influence their owners. I thought the focus on swords was fantastic, but I have a strange fascination with swords anyway, so your opinion of this may vary. But I love books that take a single element and use them to tie everything together, and in this case, all was beautifully done.
Very highly recommended! I can’t wait for the release of book 2 in December.
All external book links are affiliate links. I purchased this book.
I’ll admit that I am not the world’s pickiest reader. I adore urban fantasy and I am often very willing to overlook faults in one of these books if one of the elements in the book – the world, character development, general plot, etc – stands up to me as worth reading. I have series in the genre that I adore, like the October Daye and Kate Daniel series, and I have some that I generally keep reading because they’re amusing and quick and keep my mind busy. I never know what to expect when I start a new series, and I’d heard some great reviews of Kat Richardson’s books.
Unfortunately, I completely failed to connect with Greywalker. I just couldn’t become invested or interested in the plot. It seemed like the heroine spent the entire book just talking to people. She’d go to the office, talk to people on the phone, go investigate in the evenings, talk to more people, and so on. It’s a shame because it starts out fantastic. She actually dies for two minutes after being attacked and, when she wakes up, discovers that she can suddenly “see” a whole other dimension of the world which is called the Grey, hence the title of the book. Unfortunately her discovery of the Grey mostly leads to her spending a lot of time talking about it, and when she does experience it, it’s mostly confusing and then needs to be explained. I still don’t really feel like I have a handle on what exactly she can do there or even what it is, probably because she spends most of the book denying that she has this new ability.
There are aspects of it that I should have liked. The setting is a good one. It feels very much like the book was set in the early 90′s. All of the characters have pagers, for one thing, which just seemed odd to me, as I’m mostly too young to have experienced the actual use of pagers in every day life. The book is set in Seattle and has a very rainy, very appropriately grey vibe pervading it. Harper also seems older than a standard urban fantasy heroine, experienced in her job and to a degree set in her ways.
But as a character, she didn’t appeal to me very much. Despite the drastic beginning of the story, she didn’t change very much, and I couldn’t understand why the main love interest was actually attracted to her, especially after a few of the events in the story took place. Not that I liked him much, either; all of the characters felt peculiarly shallow and I didn’t really care what happened to them. Harper is meant to be special, but I couldn’t really figure out why she in particular was special or what purpose she actually served that another person who could see the Grey couldn’t. Maybe my brain was just working too slowly while I was reading, but the details of the story just never fleshed out and became clear.
At this point I’m not sure I want to read the rest of the series. I’ll definitely get it out of the library if I do. Has anyone else continued reading and found it worth persevering?
I purchased this book.
Princess Harueme has lived her life in the shadow of Japanese emperors. In the winter of her years, though, she needs to leave court and head to a convent, where she already knows she will die. Compelled to fill empty notebooks, Harueme begins telling the story of Kagaya-hime, a cat who has lost her family and her fudoki due to a horrible fire in the middle of her city. As the story progresses, Harueme intertwines the tale of her own life with Kagaya-hime’s, and we slowly learn about these two women and their individual struggles.
I never doubt Ana when she recommends a book and this is one I can specifically trace back to her recommendation. I could not resist the idea of this cat-turned-woman story. Even so, as with so many books, it sat on my wishlist until a friend bought it for me, and then I finally read it – and, of course, I loved it. It immediately drew me in with the tale of a tortoiseshell cat who loses her entire family and just barely survives the fire; it’s sad, but poignantly written, and it felt just pitch-perfect. The book remains just that perfectly and magnificently written.
This story of intertwined women shines so brightly and has so many things to say about life that I’m not even sure I can review it properly. It’s one of those books that illuminates things that I hadn’t necessarily thought about, but in a way that stuck me as perfect.
Perhaps some quotes can illustrate this better than I can:
What man, what lost love or deceased kinsman is worth death? The space in my life that my half-brother once filled is now an aching icy pain, like the hole left after a tooth is pulled, and I am dying in weeks or months – and yet I still fight for life, as every mouse does, until the final beak-blow. The grace in tragedy is not to succumb, but to fight on. (87-88)
It’s such a beautiful book. I loved the format with the story of the two women, I loved Kagaya-hime’s cat-like sensibilities, I loved Harueme’s thoughtful reflections on her life gone by. It’s a book to make me wish I was more articulate so I could explain better just why it appealed to me. I haven’t read The Fox Woman which is Johnson’s first book, but I wish that I had, as I’ve read that the books are connected in small ways. In a way, though, I’m glad, because it’s an excuse to read this book again.
Domei once told me that he missed war.
“How can you?” I asked, shocked.
He was drunk and more candid than usual: he slurred as he spoke. ” I have never had such good friends.”
“You are surrounded by people who love you,” I said, “and no one is dying here.” How could war be better than this? Than me?
“We are all dying,” he said. “We just forget that when nothing is trying to kill us.” (233)
Very highly recommended.
Seraphina has spent much of her life refusing friendships and hiding herself from those who might get close to her. Why? Because she is half dragon, would be considered an abomination by almost everyone she knows, and cherishes her relative freedom from prejudice and prosecution. The love between her parents was forbidden and she has already overstepped her bounds slightly by taking a job in the royal court, helping with the orchestra and giving the Princess Grisselda music lessons. The peace between dragons and humans is an uneasy one, however, particularly when dragons can take human form, indistinguishable from real humans if they fail to wear their bells. Both dragons and humans are wary, and it would take just one powerful rebel to tip the balance.
Seraphina is a book that completely surprised me. I don’t know why – I bought it because I’d seen many praising reviews of it around the blogosphere, so I knew, objectively, that I might like it. But subjectively, it didn’t actually appeal to me that much. I didn’t feel like reading a book about dragons, the cover didn’t broadcast to me that I would like it (although why I’m not sure – on a closer look it’s actually lovely), and YA is not my favorite genre. I bought it when it was on the Kindle Daily Deal, as something that I knew I should try, but had no particular plan to read it. And then I was on the train on Friday, I’d finished the last book I was reading (Widow’s Web by Jennifer Estep), which had ended on a slightly low note, and I just had no idea which book I wanted to read next. For whatever reason, Seraphina called to me then, so I opened it.
It wasn’t even love at first few pages. In fact, I found it difficult to get into, and if I wasn’t sitting on train with nothing else appealing to me much, I might have wandered over to my bookshelves and chosen something else. But I stuck with it, because I had twenty minutes to fill. And then I fell in love with it, and found myself absolutely glued to the Kindle until I finished. I loved it even more because it blind-sided me and I expected not to like it; instead I found an absolute gem. The book has a fantastic, multi-layered world, deep characters, and a plot that races along and managed to surprise me at the end.
I simply adored Seraphina. I loved that the book took prejudice head-on and showed that this tough, brave, sensitive, clever, gifted girl is someone that most of the population around her would hate if they knew her true nature. They adore her, but how easily that could change, and how worried she is despite that affection – this is a worry that is justified but this book is a perfect example of how well fantasy can teach us about our world, too. I even loved how Lucian Kiggs, another significant character in the book, shares some stigma with Seraphina because he’s a bastard, but in a totally different way. We could also talk about how much I loved the romance and how utterly perfect it was, but that really just capped off a book that was already spectacular.
This is the book I wish I’d read instead of all of those disappointing YA fantasy books I did read. Highly, highly recommended.