VIII by H. M. Castor

“VIII is the story of Hal: a young, handsome, gifted warrior, who believes he has been chosen to lead his people. But he is plagued by the ghosts of his family’s violent past and once he rises to power, he turns to murder and rapacious cruelty. He is Henry VIII.”

I have an odd fascination with British history, and especially with the Tudor era.  So much was changing in the world at that time that much of the historical record reads like the most fantastical novel you could ever hope to pick up.  Unfortunately, there are a lot of gaps in our knowledge where documentation is slim or nonexistent.  One of those periods is the childhood of King Henry VIII.  Never meant for the throne, he was forced into the role of ruler due to the death of his older brother Arthur.

I’ve read many novels about this time period, most notably ones by Philippa Gregory and Alison Weir.  Most of what I’ve read has also focused on the women, so outside of the non-fiction that I’ve also read, I didn’t ever get a feel for what we do know about Henry’s early years.  Castor attempts to imagine some of those details, extrapolating from what we do know, and also tries to account for how a shining paragon of English royalty turned into the tyrant that we all know and love to hate.

The author’s success at this endeavor is mixed, to say the least.  Castor set herself a hard task: show Henry as a bright, intelligent child and get us to care about him despite what we know he will do, and then show his descent without losing the characterization that she already set up.  In this, she succeeds.  Henry as a boy is shaped by those around him and by the circumstances in which he finds himself.  Castor takes an interesting tack in painting Henry VII as a cruel and domineering father, and although there’s no evidence of this historically, it does play pretty well into Henry’s character makeup.

The author also excels at giving readers a sense of the world as it existed in the late 1400s to mid-1500s.  The author has obviously done a ton of research, and even state in an author’s note that just about everything she described in the novel was found in the inventory of Henry’s possessions at his time of death.  Knowing that lends a strong air of historical reality to the narrative.

What I didn’t think worked all that well was the pacing.  Henry’s life before his father’s death takes up just a few pages shy of half the book.  Another 120 pages cover from his coronation to his divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon.  His tempestuous marriage to Anne Boleyn lasts for around 50 pages.  The final 52 pages cover his last four wives and his death.  By the end, the author is omitting major chunks of time, and wives three through six are hardly mentioned.

The greater missed opportunity here lies in what the author said was her goal: to not only explore Henry’s younger years, but to show his progression from favored youth to cruel dictator.  And if you know anything about history, you know that it’s not just his treatment of his wives in which he shows his colors.  Castor missed some golden opportunities to delve into his general callousness.  The executions of Bishop Fisher and Thomas More only get a brief mention, and yet they shook the world when they happened.  The Pilgrimage of Grace, the Northern rebellion in which Henry promised to pardon the participants and then executed the leaders, isn’t even mentioned specifically—just a few words about the north being filled with rebellion that needs to be constantly put down.  Henry’s cruelty cut across all aspects of life, and confining it to his treatment of his wives is, in my opinion, too narrow.

I could have done without the supernatural element, because it wasn’t handled very well.  From a young age, Henry sees visions of a boy with straw-colored hair who is often crying with pain and obviously suffering.  Henry continues to see this specter throughout his life, usually right before some of his most traumatic losses.  Its first appearance is in the Tower of London, where young Henry has just found out about the “Princes in the Tower”, the young princes who were imprisoned there and vanished, presumably murdered.  The story sort of leads you to believe that the apparition is one of the princes, but that doesn’t turn out to be the case.  Since the author said that she wanted to show how Henry was haunted by the demons of his family’s past, the way things play out didn’t make sense to me.

There was a lot to like in this novel, especially the attention to historical detail.  I did, however, feel that the author could have tightened her pacing and really explored Henry’s character.  He’s a deliciously cruel, terribly controlling man, and his actions form a tale that could give a sensitive reader nightmares.  I went through this book in a single day, but I kept having the nagging feeling that it could have reached even higher.  VIII might be a good introduction to Henry’s character, but the meat of his reign is ignored.

This review was originally posted on September 3, 2013.

This book was a personal purchase.

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The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger

“October 1991. It was “the perfect storm”–a tempest that may happen only once in a century–a nor’easter created by so rare a combination of factors that it could not possibly have been worse. Creating waves ten stories high and winds of 120 miles an hour, the storm whipped the sea to inconceivable levels few people on Earth have ever witnessed. Few, except the six-man crew of the Andrea Gail, a commercial fishing boat tragically headed towards its hellish center.”

Have you ever gone into a book with a certain set of expectations, only to find that you built the book up to be something that it wasn’t?  That’s how I feel about The Perfect Storm.  The title is even a good representation of those feelings: disparate chunks of story being thrown together into a maelstrom that causes chaos where they meet.  It’s not that this isn’t a compelling tale, but I think Junger mis-stepped when he chose to focus on the fishing vessel Andrea Gail.  Maybe that’s the fault of the marketing folks who wrote the back cover copy, or those who sent out descriptions of the book to stores and libraries.  That’s what I went into this narrative believing that I’d find–a recounting of the last moments of the doomed vessel.  Instead, I got something quite different.

The book starts out zeroed in on the crew of the Andrea Gail as they readied to head out fishing despite storm warnings.  Through interviews with those close to the men, Junger can give readers an accurate portrait of the day the boat set sail.  The problem arises once the boat leaves dock.  The Andrea Gail crew only had a few communications with others once they left for the fishing grounds, and no contact with anyone from around 7pm or so on the night of their disappearance.  This forces the author to talk about what might have happened as the storms intensified, what they may have done as they found themselves in the teeth of the gale, what the boat might have gone through as it was destroyed.  But there is zero evidence for any of what he says.  Granted, he never tries to portray his scenarios as the gospel truth, but the mere fact that so little is known makes the choice to focus on them a little odd.  My thought is that the choice was made based on the fact that the Andrea Gail seems to have been the only boat to end up in the “perfect storm”, the area where three powerful storms met.  There is one moment in the book where Junger does seem to state something as fact with no supporting evidence, however: he says that around midnight is when the catastrophic event occurred (whatever it was) to bring the boat down, but at no point after that does he offer a shred of proof for that statement.  If I missed something in my reading, I’d be more than happy for a correction on that.

The second half of the book mostly follows other boats and their crews in different parts of the storm-ravaged sea.  These people are mentioned in the earlier chapters as well, but Junger abandons the Andrea Gail to tell the stories of other people who actually survived the storm.  This is where I thought the narrative got more compelling, because there are actual eyewitness accounts of the power and destructive nature of the storm.  Knowing that you’re following along as people fight for their lives is a much more nail-biting tale to read than one which relies on “maybe” and “could have” so much.  Part of the draw of this section also is the fact that one of the rescue helicopters sent out to help evacuate sailors from their doomed boats turned out to need rescuing too.  This section of the book definitely has more tension; you already know the Andrea Gail is lost with all hands, but you don’t know the fates of the people on the other boats.

So, if the Andrea Gail is one storm, and the other boats are the second one, what about the third?  That is comprised of all of the background material that Junger weaves into the narrative.  Some of what he showcases is information that is a great help in getting a sense of what happened over those few days, things like describing how such storms are formed and what makes them collide so disastrously.  I feel that the explanation of the fishing industry on the East Coast is helpful too, as he helps readers understand why the sailors went out in spite of storm warnings.  Some of the info, though, just isn’t needed.  There may be those who find the descriptions of every bit of gear on a swordfishing boat to be interesting, but there’s so much more included than is actually needed for clarity.

I think that this book’s main problem boils down to one of pacing.  I can see myself getting much more invested in the book as a whole if Junger had balanced all the various pieces more.  Relegating the Andrea Gail to the first half of the book and then having almost nothing about them in the second half gives rise to false expectations of what the book will be about.  Personally, I would love to see a re-editing of this book that spreads out the Andrea Gail‘s story through more of the book, interweaves the weather information at the same pace as the gathering storm, and then lets the events play out in the last third or so of the book.  What Junger has here is a mesmerizing tale of survival in one of the most hellish situations imaginable, and the fact that I found it to be somewhat choppy makes me feel like this book could have been so much more than it is.

I will still recommend it, though.  Just be aware that all of the hype about this book will give you an incorrect idea of what it covers, so please go into this knowing that there’s so much more to it than you  might expect.  Despite my misgivings about the pacing, the story is well-written and is most definitely going to draw you in to the life and death struggles of the men and women who faced one of the century’s greatest storms.

This book was a personal purchase.

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Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers

“Seventeen-year-old Ismae escapes from the brutality of an arranged marriage into the sanctuary of the convent of St. Mortain, where the sisters still serve the gods of old. Here she learns that the god of Death Himself has blessed her with dangerous gifts—and a violent destiny. If she chooses to stay at the convent, she will be trained as an assassin and serve as a handmaiden to Death. To claim her new life, she must destroy the lives of others.

Ismae’s most important assignment takes her straight into the high court of Brittany—where she finds herself woefully under prepared—not only for the deadly games of intrigue and treason, but for the impossible choices she must make. For how can she deliver Death’s vengeance upon a target who, against her will, has stolen her heart?”

I was surprised to find that this novel is classified as young adult.  I think it ended up being based on Ismae’s age, but much of the subject matter is much more advanced than I normally see in a teen novel.  It features assassination, physical abuse, marriage for political gain, and more court intrigue than you can shake a stick at.  I’m honestly not sure if most teenagers will get drawn into this book due to its slower pace and the lesser amount of sheer action.

The one thing that I felt the novel didn’t do all that well was the assassination aspect—and that’s unfortunate, because the entire premise revolves around Ismae’s status as a budding assassin.  Ismae doesn’t get traditional assignments, per se; instead, she has general instructions and looks for signs from the god of death to guide her further.  This means that she goes through most of the novel staring at people to see if they are marked for death.  Only rarely does she see anything that gives her the freedom to act, and if she had been given more of that earlier in the book, the changes to her beliefs at the novel’s end would have worked a little better.

That’s not to say that this is a bad novel.  I enjoyed it quite a lot.  I initially had some trouble getting involved in the plot and getting into the rhythm of the story, but once I did, I found the political maneuvering to be well thought out and solidly plotted.  As the novel progresses, and as events get more complex, I found the book difficult to put down.

One of this book’s strengths is in the minor characters.  Two of the warriors that Ismae is acquainted with don’t get much page time, but LaFevers packs a lot of characterization into what space they do get.  By the end of the story, readers will care about these men, as well as about the princess and others who spend less time on stage than Ismae.  This provides some much needed variation in what could have been a one-person show, but with all the politics and backstabbing, a breadth of personalities helps hold the story together.

While I’m not sure that this novel is really young adult material, it does have a lot going for it.  Older teens and adults will enjoy the rich and intricate plotting, as well as the diverse cast of characters.  Grave Mercy, first in the His Fair Assassin series, packs a lot of punch into a satisfying package.

This review was originally posted on April 4, 2012.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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The Hammer and the Blade by Paul S. Kemp

“Egil and Nix, adventurers and swords for hire, are pulled into the dark schemes of a decadent family with a diabolical secret. A fast paced adventure redolent with the best of classic sword and sorcery tales.”

Initially, I had a hard time getting into this book.  I wasn’t sure at first if it was because I had outgrown the genre or if it was something in the writing.  I did finally pin down that while the story has an interesting premise, the novel is slow to start.  Readers get introduced to all of the book’s major players with some fairly lengthy chapters, which was okay, but the characters themselves aren’t as fleshed out as those in most of the books that I read nowadays.

My biggest issue was with Egil.  He’s got some interesting details woven into his character, but the author didn’t explore him too deeply.  I did like the scenes where he gets to fight, because as a warrior priest, that’s more what I expected from him.  There are more details about Nix and his origins, which gives him more depth than his partner.  The interaction between the two was fairly well done, but I do think it needed to be explored a bit more to really have impact.

As the novel progressed, I found that I’d gotten drawn into it much more than I thought I would be.  The initial chapters that are a bit tedious to wade through do turn out to do an excellent job at setting up the later action.  I especially liked the tomb robbing later in the book, with all kind of booby traps triggering as they progress.  It was kind of like watching an Indiana Jones movie, except in a medieval setting.

I also found myself very involved in the plight of the two sisters who are facing some very nasty things if our heroes can’t rescue them.  Their nightmares, manifested as psychic sendings to other characters, gradually get more and more chilling as the story goes on.  By the novel’s final battle, I was really engrossed in reading on and seeing if someone could get them out of their predicament.  And I must say, the resolution is one that gave me cackling glee, because it’s so fitting.

Although it does take a little while to find its stride, The Hammer and the Blade gains strength as it goes on and finishes with some wonderful action and battle scenes.  I hope to find out more about Egil and Nix in a future volume, because I think they have the potential to be a great fantasy duo.

This review was originally posted on October 25, 2012.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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Touchstone by Melanie Rawn

“Cayden Silversun is part Elven, part Fae, part human Wizard—and all rebel. His aristocratic mother would have him follow his father to the Royal Court, to make a high society living off the scraps of kings. But Cade lives and breathes for the theater, and he’s good—very, very good. With his company, he’ll enter the highest reaches of society and power, as an honored artist—or die trying. Cade combines the talents of Merlin, Shakespeare, and John Lennon: a wholly charming character in a remarkably original fantasy world created by a mistress of the art.”

With this novel, I did something that I don’t normally do: I looked at other people’s reviews of it before I read it.  I wasn’t sure if I was going to read it or not, and so I was looking for some guidance as to whether or not to go to the effort of picking it up.  When I got sent a copy from the publisher, I immediately decided that I wanted to read it, despite the fact that the reviews that I saw were decidedly mixed.

I can see where the division comes from.  Rawn has made some choices in her writing that are a little puzzling.  For one, the author makes it very clear in the afterward that a lot of her inspiration for this novel came from reading a book about words that are no longer in use, and she decided that it would be fun to write a novel and use them.  I don’t really think that framing an entire book around outdated language is the best way to go, and it does lead to some awkwardness as readers are left wondering what some conversations are about.

Also, although the book is in third person and nominally starts out following Cayden, it suddenly switches midway through and focuses on Mieka, one of the other performers.  Near the end of the book, it switches back.  Even though the troupe has four players, only these two get point of view page time.  They are the major characters, but the switch was odd, to say the least.  Luckily, these two are very well developed, and through their eyes, the others gain a good amount of depth as well.

This novel isn’t the action-packed fantasy adventure that most are used to reading.  There is a definite understated tone to the plot.  The book follows Cayden and his players through a full year of touring and honing their skills.  It doesn’t seem like much to hang a plot on.  What you need to understand, though, is that this novel hinges on suspense.

When I say “suspense”, I don’t mean creeping through haunted houses or stalking killers.  A major element of the story is Cayden’s erratic ability to have dreams that foretell the future.  From the book’s earliest moments, readers see Cayden’s prophecy that their group will fail and they will all fall to ruin.  The twist here is that readers are also told that Cayden has successfully changed his future based on dreams before.  What sucked me into the story was watching to see whether or not this terrible future will be avoided.

Once the novel really gets going, it finds its stride, strange terminology notwithstanding.  It goes along in its low-key way, slowly building tension as the group moves towards a future that may or may not be a positive one for them.  At this point, the time spent developing the characters pays off, as readers come to care what happens to them.  By the book’s halfway point, I was thoroughly enjoying the story and got very invested in finding out what happens next.

While not without its problems, Touchstone will appeal to those who like their fantasy a little quieter, or a little less obsessed with swords and sweeping epics.  This novel has a tighter focus and a slower pace, which won’t appeal to everyone but will find its own audience easily enough, given the chance.  I look forward to the sequel, because sometimes, I like a bit of quiet too.

This review was originally posted on May 30, 2012.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

The possibilites are endless. Just be careful what you wish for….)

1916: The Western Front. Private Percy Blakeney wakes up. He is lying on fresh spring grass. He can hear birdsong, and the wind in the leaves. Where has the mud, blood and blasted landscape of no-man’s-land gone? For that matter, where has Percy gone?

2015: Madison, Wisconsin. Police officer Monica Jansson is exploring the burned-out home of a reclusive–some said mad, others allege dangerous–scientist who seems to have vanished. Sifting through the wreckage, Jansson finds a curious gadget: a box containing some rudimentary wiring, a three-way switch, and…a potato. It is the prototype of an invention that will change the way humankind views the world forever.”

Baxter and Pratchett have certainly come up with an interesting concept.  They explore the various ways in which our world could be different from the way that it actually is.  Clusters of worlds exhibit ice ages, or droughts, or massive forestation.  It reminds me of Pratchett’s statement that every bell curve has its far ends—along with the more “common” variations, there are worlds where things have gone awry and strange conditions rule.  Many of these places are described in vivid detail.

The authors also address the issues that would arise if humanity suddenly had endless space and resources.  What would happen if poverty vanished—along with the poor?  What would life be like in a world that had lower technology than ours, but had access to such luxuries?  And what would happen to those unlucky few who could not leave our world for greener pastures?

However, I think the authors were too enamored of their creation.  While there is indeed a plot in this novel, it progress extremely slowly.  It’s hard to even work out what the plot is until very close to the book’s conclusion.  Most of the pages are taken up with the main character, Joshua, and the AI intelligence Lobsang exploring the length of the Long Earth and talking about what they find.  There are hints of something wrong in the deep places of the worlds, but the reveal comes almost at the story’s end.

For me, what kept the novel moving was the secondary characters that the authors introduce.  While they have little or no impact on the plot, they provide a human viewpoint on the infinite earths.  If they story had stuck with Joshua and Lobsang, there would have been little depth to the novel and only rambling conversations between the two to move the plot.  I especially liked Monica Jansson, the Madison police officer who closely follows the Long Earth phenomenon and those who seem involved with it the most.  She’s not in the novel much, but she strikes me as a solid, down to earth character that I’d like to see more from.

In the end, this book has a great deal of description, a thin plot, and a sudden ending that seemed to come from nowhere.  While I often found enjoyment in reading this novel, there are many ways in which it could have been improved.  I expect a sequel is in the works, and I have enough interest in the tale to pick up the next one, when and if it is published.  The Long Earth has much to recommend it with interesting concepts and intriguing ideas, but I would have liked to have seen more forward momentum in the story.

This review was originally posted on July 30, 2012.

This book was borrowed from the Yolo County Public Library Davis branch.

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Magic for Nothing by Seanan McGuire

“As the youngest of the three Price children, Antimony is used to people not expecting much from her. She’s been happy playing roller derby and hanging out with her cousins, leaving the globe-trotting to her older siblings while she stays at home and tries to decide what she wants to do with her life. She always knew that one day, things would have to change. She didn’t think they’d change so fast.

Annie’s expectations keep getting shattered. She didn’t expect Verity to declare war on the Covenant of St. George on live television. She didn’t expect the Covenant to take her sister’s threat seriously. And she definitely didn’t expect to be packed off to London to infiltrate the Covenant from the inside…but as the only Price in her generation without a strong resemblance to the rest of the family, she’s the perfect choice to play spy. They need to know what’s coming. Their lives may depend on it.

But Annie has some secrets of her own, like the fact that she’s started setting things on fire when she touches them, and has no idea how to control it. Now she’s headed halfway around the world, into the den of the enemy, where blowing her cover could get her killed. She’s pretty sure things can’t get much worse.

Antimony Price is about to learn just how wrong it’s possible for one cryptozoologist to be.”

This is my least favorite of the Incryptid books so far.  Now, that’s not saying anything too bad, because I did still like this book and enjoy it.  It is not, however, one that I found completely un-put-downable.  My standards have gotten pretty high when I see that Seanan McGuire has authored a book, so maybe I’m being too picky, but again, I expect a lot from one of her books.

One of the things I like the most about McGuire’s prose is her ability to create memorable characters.  In this series, the main characters have consistently been not only well-fleshed out in their own right, but they’ve also been meticulously fitted to the family they come from.  Let me give you an example: Verity, star of the first book, is encountered mostly on her own in New York, but her status as a member of the Price family is solid.  She may not live with them—or even near them—but she’s in close enough communication with them and references them enough that you get the sense of a cohesive group.  The same goes for Alex, who takes the stage in book three.  His love of herpetology fits with the main plot but also hearkens back to his family’s love of (and protection of) cryptids.

Antimony just didn’t live up to that standard, in my opinion.  Being in an “undercover” role, she has almost no communication with her family beyond a couple of contacts with one of the family’s ghosts.  Her memories are mostly focused on her time spent with the Campbell family carnival, during which time she was away from the rest of the Price clan.  Maybe this wouldn’t have stood out to me so much if this story had been written earlier in the series, but after five previous novels with strong family connections, I felt that the lack was noticeable.

I also had a bit of an issue with Antimony’s self-identifying as a “derby girl”—she’s into roller derby in a big way.  Although we do see a short scene of her at a derby practice at the start of the story, her actual participation in a derby never comes up again.  We see her doing all kinds of acrobatics, but no skating.  This is in stark contrast to Verity’s ballroom dancing, which is always significantly present, or Alex’s love of all things reptilian.  Again, in many ways this departure from previous form is dictated by the plot, but it wasn’t something I was as fond of.

Beyond that, as an entry into this series, I liked it well enough.  The pacing is good, the setting is unique, and the rest of the cast gets just enough fleshing out to work well with the main character.  We get to encounter a few more kinds of cryptids and have some encounters with the Covenant of St. George up close and personal.  And as usual, the Aeslin mice are adorable.

The Price family tale gets more and more complicated as the novels unfold, and I’m eager to see where things go in the next book, Tricks for Free.  Honestly, your mileage may vary on the character issues that I grumbled about, but I doubt you’ll take issue with the plot or storytelling.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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The Private Lives of the Tudors by Tracy Borman

the-private-lives-of-the-tudorsEngland’s Tudor monarchs—Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I—are perhaps the most celebrated and fascinating of all royal families in history. Their love affairs, their political triumphs, and their overturning of the religious order are the subject of countless works of popular scholarship. But for all we know about Henry’s quest for male heirs, or Elizabeth’s purported virginity, the private lives of the Tudors remain largely beyond our grasp.

“In The Private Lives of the Tudors, Tracy Borman delves deep behind the public face of the monarchs, showing us what their lives were like beyond the stage of court. Drawing on the accounts of those closest to them, Borman examines Tudor life in fine detail. What did the monarchs eat? What clothes did they wear, and how were they designed, bought, and cared for? How did they practice their faith? And in earthlier moments, who did they love, and how did they give birth to the all-important heirs?

Delving into their education, upbringing, sexual lives, and into the kitchens, bathrooms, schoolrooms, and bedrooms of court, Borman charts out the course of the entire Tudor dynasty, surfacing new and fascinating insights into these celebrated figures.”

As far as I’m concerned, being fascinated with historical figures is no different from our modern fascination with celebrities.  People want to know every detail of the lives of movie stars, music icons, and political figures–and as you may know, Henry VIII was considered to be the rock star of the 1500s.  The difference is that knowing what happened behind closed doors of people like the famous king is more difficult for many reasons.

One of those reasons is that such a public figure would guard his private time carefully.  Another reason is that our only sources for the knowledge we want is written documents from the time period, many of which have been lost.  Yet another reason is the fact that some of those written sources may not be trustworthy.

Nevertheless, there is a wealth of knowledge out there if you know where to look for it.  Borman is able to go into exhausting detail about such things as clothing, meals, worship, and social status.  Clothing is especially prominent here, either because Borman finds it the most compelling aspect of Tudor private life, or because clothing really was that important.  I suspect it’s a little of both, since the impression I got from reading this was that clothing could give a lot of information about an individual.

For me, though, this book started slowly.  I think the author was having trouble deciding if this book was supposed to be a straightforward history or a true behind-the-scenes look at Tudor life.  This leads to the first third or so of the book being some broad strokes of historical fact interspersed with smaller nuggets of information on clothes, food, and other such subjects.  As it progresses, Borman seems to find a better balance between history and personal facts, but the history still feels a bit slapdash.  Granted, the story of the Tudor reign, and the story of Henry VIII in particular, are immensely complex, but perhaps the transitions between parts of this tale could have been smoother.

Nevertheless, I found this book to be enjoyable and to provide many tidbits of info that I wasn’t previously aware of.  I wouldn’t recommend this to someone who wasn’t already familiar with the historical facts, but for someone with that knowledge who wishes to go deeper, this book will satisfy a lot of curiosity.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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The Family Plot by Cherie Priest

the-family-plot“Chuck Dutton built Music City Salvage with patience and expertise, stripping historic properties and reselling their bones. Inventory is running low, so he’s thrilled when Augusta Withrow appears in his office offering salvage rights to her entire property. This could be a gold mine, so he assigns his daughter Dahlia to personally oversee the project.

The crew finds a handful of surprises right away. Firstly, the place is in unexpectedly good shape. And then there’s the cemetery, about thirty fallen and overgrown graves dating to the early 1900s, Augusta insists that the cemetery is just a fake, a Halloween prank, so the city gives the go-ahead, the bulldozer revs up, and it turns up human remains. Augusta says she doesn’t know whose body it is or how many others might be present and refuses to answer any more questions. Then she stops answering the phone.

But Dahlia’s concerns about the corpse and Augusta’s disappearance are overshadowed when she begins to realize that she and her crew are not alone, and they’re not welcome at the Withrow estate. They have no idea how much danger they’re in, but they’re starting to get an idea. On the crew’s third night in the house, a storm shuts down the only road to the property. The power goes out. Cell signals are iffy. There’s nowhere to go and no one Dahlia can call for help, even if anyone would believe that she and her crew are being stalked by a murderous phantom. Something at the Withrow mansion is angry and lost, and this is its last chance to raise hell before the house is gone forever. And it seems to be seeking permanent company.”

I’m glad that Priest has returned to the Southern Gothic horror genre, which is where she started many years ago.  While I liked her steampunk novels, her skill at evoking a creepy atmosphere is, I think, best served in the culture-heavy, moss-draped landscape of the South.  It lets her stretch her descriptive muscles while fitting her story into a place that already carries the tinge of the supernatural.  And a haunted house story suits this setting wonderfully as well–houses back East are older, and were often inhabited by several generations of the same family, thus increasing the chance of the kind of tragedies that are believed to produce hauntings.

The author capitalizes on this belief, but she does so in an interesting way.  The hapless victims who are in the house are antique hunters, tasked with finding and stripping anything of value from the house before it’s destroyed.  This gives them the perfect excuse to be going to every room in the house and poking into things that normally wouldn’t be disturbed.  For me, this meant that Priest avoided having her readers yelling at the book because the characters are being stupid, because these characters have an actual reason to be where they are.  Money is a great motivator to ignore weird things going bump in the night.

I have a little issue with the pacing of the novel.  It moves very slowly for the majority of the book and then speeds up dramatically at the end.  I’m also not sure how I feel about the last page of the book.  On the one hand, it seems like a fairly classic horror ending, but on the other hand, I’m not sure it fits with the way that the rest of the novel plays out.  When I read that page, I actually went back and re-read it because I was wondering if I’d missed something.  Granted, I don’t read much spooky stuff, so this may be just my own reading biases working against me.

Overall, this was an enjoyable book.  It avoids anything truly grotesque or frightening and opts instead for a more subtle, slow-burn kind of creepiness.  I might even go back and re-read it, just to see if my impressions of the novel are the same on a second read-through.  For those looking for a few shivers without too many screams, this is a good book for you.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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To Kill a Kettle Witch by Barb Hendee

to-kill-a-kettle-witch“Powerful prince Malcolm is facing ruin in the wake of a curse that has destroyed his harvest. He blames the band nomadic Móndyalítko who summer in the meadow below his castle—and he is determined to root out the people who caused the blight by any means necessary.

When Céline and Amelie Fawe, descended from the Móndyalítko, learn that their mother’s people are under suspicion of sabotage and treason, they set out to use their magical gifts to save their estranged relatives and learn about their own origins.

Now it’s up to the sisters—along with their motley escort, including a prince’s lieutenant, a shape-shifter, and an old woman with a murky past—to discover the source of the curse to restore life to the ravaged land and protect the innocent from unfair vengeance.”

One of the fantasy sub-genres that I quite enjoy is a good mystery embedded in a fantastical setting.  My first experience with this was Tamara Siler Jones’s awesome book Ghosts in the Snow, and I’m always on the lookout for another that captured my attention like that one did.  In Hendee’s Mist-Torn Witches series, I found what I was looking for, and To Kill a Kettle Witch is just as satisfying as the others.

One of the things that I like about this book was the dynamics among the characters.  Celine and Amelie have their usual interactions, but there are some tensions with other players that get resolved in this book.  I also really enjoyed how the author wrote Prince Malcolm’s character.  She keeps you questioning what his motivations are, and indeed, whether or not he’s acting of his own volition.

The reveal of who was the caster of the curse was well-done.  I had some suspicions about the identity of the perpetrator, and I was mostly on target, although Hendee does a good job of keeping the issue muddled until well into the novel.  This book isn’t as much of a “forensic science in fantasy” as the others have been, but it still has enough physical searching for clues to offset the sisters’ use of their psychic gifts.

While this isn’t one of the books that I’ll rave and Muppet-flail about, it’s certainly entertaining and contains enough cool characters and action to satisfy when you’re looking for a quick, engrossing read.  And let’s face it: sometimes, that’s exactly what you’re in the mood for.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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