Caesar’s Daughter: Julia’s Song by Alex Johnston

Caesar's Daughter Julia's Song by Alex Johnston(Cover picture courtesy of History and Other Thoughts.)

After serving Julius Caesar on assignments in Gaul and Alexandria, Marcus Mettius is finally back home in Rome. His work with Caesar had been lucrative, but dangerous. So you can imagine his trepidation when the Roman soldier Quintus shows up at the tavern where Marcus is drinking with yet another letter from Caesar.

You’ve got to admit, Caesar certainly had balls, asking Marcus for his help yet again. On his last two assignments, Marcus was arrested by a mad Egyptian Pharaoh, almost burnt at the stake, and nearly lynched by an angry mob.

But this time is different (you can almost hear the Fates chuckling with glee at THAT line!) All Caesar wants Marcus to do this time is to take a gift to his daughter, Julia, and have a little chat with her while he is there. Certainly no harm can come from that, right?

Well, the next thing you know, Marcus is all tangled up with the leading figures of late Republican Rome – Pompey, Cicero, the deposed King of Egypt, and, of course, the infamous Publius Clodius Pulcher, aedile and former Tribune of the Plebs.

Once again, Marcus’ life hangs in the balance, in ways he could scarcely have imagined. But he shouldn’t be surprised. After all, he’s Caesar’s Agent Man. And odds are he won’t live to see tomorrow. Join Marcus and his friends in the thrilling sequel to Caesar’s Emissary!

I previously read and reviewed the first book in Alex Johnston’s short story series about Marcus Mettius, Caesar’s Ambassador.  Well, I absolutely loved his funny take on Roman history through the eyes of a bit player.  I mean, how can you not love Marcus Mettius, the consummate salesman?

The book starts off with us hearing about the most feared slave since Spartacus: Vinus, Marcus’ wine slave who writes critical reviews of wine throughout Italy that can make or break a vineyard.  He’s not that important in the scheme of things but it certainly sets the tone as Marcus decides Vinus really doesn’t understand how the whole master-slave relationship works out because Vinus tends to dictate to him and not the other way around.  This isn’t just meaningless joking, though.  It serves to tell us a lot about the aftermath of Spartacus’ rebellion and how the First Triumvirate are faring currently (despite the rogue Clodius terrorizing all of Rome).

One thing about Alex Johnston’s writing that I really appreciate is his obvious deep love and respect for Roman history.  You can really tell that he loves it but at the same time is able to create some rather irreverent versions of famous historical characters like Cicero and Pompey Magnus.  He uses modern dialogue and slang to convey the idea that while obviously not accurate, Romans had their own sort of slang and ways of speaking rather than the usual dry dialogue I find in historical fiction.  They had crude language (Latin is a beautiful language to swear in), the younger generation’s version of rap, etc.  He really captures that sort of turning point in Roman culture as the Republic is failing and although some events are changed a little for the story Caesar’s Daughter it’s actually very historically accurate.

Add on top of all this awesomeness the fact that Alex Johnston is a truly hilarious writer.  I was in stitches, literally laughing out loud half of the time.  There are some jokes where you have to know Roman history to truly appreciate but the majority of them are hilarious non-insider jokes.  You really can’t get a better take on history that’s funny, historically accurate and yet not historically accurate at all.  The only thing I can really criticize is the overuse of capitals when characters are exclaiming things excitedly.  They lose their effect after a while.

Although I’m kind of in a mixed up order for the series right now I’m really looking forward to reading the second short story Caesar’s Emissary some day.  I’d recommend giving Alex Johnston’s short stories a try for pretty much everyone, even if you’re not a big Roman history buff.

I give this short story 4.5/5 stars.

Amazon     Barnes and Noble*     Goodreads

*Not available.

Queen of Someday by Sherry D. Ficklin

Queen of Someday by Sherry D. Ficklin(Cover picture courtesy of Cindy’s Love of Books.)

Before she can become the greatest empress in history, fifteen-year-old Sophia will have to survive her social-climbing mother’s quest to put her on the throne of Russia at any cost. Imperial Court holds dangers like nothing Sophia has ever faced before. In the heart of St. Petersburg, surviving means navigating the political, romantic, and religious demands of the bitter Empress Elizabeth and her handsome, but sadistic nephew, Peter. Determined to save her impoverished family and herself Sophia vows to do whatever is necessary to thrive in her new surroundings. But an attempt on her life and an unexpected attraction threatens to derail her plans. Alone in a new and dangerous world, learning who to trust and who to charm may mean the difference between becoming queen and being sent home in shame to marry her lecherous uncle. With traitors and murderers lurking around every corner, her very life hangs in the balance. Betrothed to one man but falling in love with another, Sophia will need to decide how much she s willing to sacrifice in order to become the empress she is destined to be. In a battle for the soul of a nation, will love or destiny reign supreme?

[Full disclosure: I requested and received a free ebook through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

Let me make two things very, very clear right off the bat:

1.  Yes, this novel is about Catherine the Great of Russia.

2.  No, this is not historically accurate and nor was it meant to be.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way I think a bit of an explanation is in order.  This is about Catherine the Great’s younger years before she became empress of all Russia.  It’s about her struggles acclimatizing to the Russian court and trying to win the love of Peter, the future emperor.  As Sherry Ficklin mentions in the dedication as well as the historical note, while she really does stay true to the spirit of the times this was not meant to be historically accurate.  And that’s okay because it really does capture the zeitgeist in Russia at the time and paints a fascinating picture of how Catherine the Great became, well, ‘the Great’.

The thing that I really appreciated about Queen of Someday was not only Ficklin’s honesty about accuracy and such but also her characters.  Catherine’s husband Peter is a hotly debated ruler in Russian history and I like how the portrayal of him in the book makes sense if you look at his later life before Catherine’s coup.  He’s jealous and toys with women and men alike, reveling in his power over not only their emotions but their very lives.  Catherine is at first the naive young Sophie trying to find a little bit of happiness in a marriage that’s all but being forced upon her.  As she grows into her role as future empress and learns what real love is like, she’s faced with some horrific decisions that I wouldn’t wish on anybody.  Sherry Ficklin certainly knows how to present such a quick change from naive young girl to cynical empress very well.

The plot is far from fast-paced by most people’s reckonings but it is fascinating.  There are real events in Russian history going on throughout the story and Ficklin stayed true to most of the broader strokes of Catherine’s early years.  It’s mostly a character-driven story and that’s something that I also appreciated about Queen of Someday.  This is only the first installment in the Stolen Empire series and I really can’t wait for the rest of Catherine’s story.  It’s just a shame that this book doesn’t actually release until October for the general public!  Thank goodness for pre-ordering is all I can say because I really do have to recommend it to people who love a good read.

I give this book 5/5 stars.

Amazon     Barnes and Noble*     Goodreads

*Not yet available.

Hyacinth by Abigail Owen

Hyacinth by Abigail Owen(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)

Book #2 of the Svatura Series

Selene sacrificed everything when she took her brother’s place as ruler of the Vyusher, including her secret love for her one-time adversary Griffin Aubrey. When nightmares that are just a little too real start, Selene fears she’s turned into a cold-blooded killer…the monster that Griffin thinks she is.

Griffin and Ellie Aubrey are finally safe for the first time in over a hundred years. But when an unknown menace drives Selene to leave her family and ask for help, Griffin must decide. Can he move past his hatred of everything she is? Or will the bond that could bring them both the greatest joy now be the source of their deepest despair?

The threat of the danger stalking Selene in her dreams might be too much even for this powerful group. And Griffin doesn’t want to easily forgive the woman he blames for killing his family…

[Full disclosure: I was provided a free ebook copy of this a couple of months during the blog tour in exchange for an honest review.]

Ellie, the main character of the previous novel only barely features in this one.  Although I really did like her, that was fine by me as I got to see way more of Griffin and a whole bunch of Selene.  Both of them are fascinating characters in their own right but I’ll talk about Selene first.

She was enslaved by her brother for 150 years, which is long even for a Svatura.  More accurately, she had to do what he told her because of his mind control but unlike the rest of the Vyusher tribe she was fully aware of all of the horrible things Gideon had her do.  That really just makes it more awful when you think about it.  So now Gideon is dead and Selene is having a hard time accepting her role as Queen.  Not only that, now she has to cope with the crushing amount of guilt from 150 years of hunting other Svatura.

What I find interesting with the way she copes is that she really doesn’t magically get over everything on her own; for that, she needs more than a little bit of help from the original Svatura group of the first book.  One has the power to help heal emotions but even with Ellie’s help in amplifying it Selene will never be totally healed.  This is way more realistic than having her completely healed in time for the final showdown.  At the same time, even though I wanted to smack Griffin for being indecisive, I do believe it was far more realistic than him loving Selene despite all of their history together.  By the end of the novel you’re really in doubt as to whether these two are sure they love each other but I promise you that the ending is a satisfying one.

Just like with the previous book, the plot of Hyacinth is more character-driven than plot-driven.  The characters cause many of the events that happen in the end of the novel but this book is far from slow-paced.  Abigail Owen managed to balance character development with plot development and I really appreciated that balance.  It makes for a much more enjoyable, interesting read.  There weren’t really any truly enormous surprise twists for the plot but I did enjoy Hyacinth all the same.

Abigail Owen is fast becoming one of my favourite authors, as you can probably tell by this review.  I can’t wait to read the third book in the Svatura series!  In the meantime, I’d highly recommend it to pretty much all readers who like a little fantasy in their everyday life.  You really can’t go wrong with the Svatura series.

I give this book 5/5 stars.

Amazon     Barnes and Noble     Goodreads

Serenade by Emily Kiebel

Serenade by Emily Kiebel(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)

Suddenly the voice she prized is now dangerously seductive…

Lorelei Clark’s only concern was her future as a classically trained soprano, that is, until the day her father was tragically killed. Shattered by his death, she hesitantly accepts an invitation from a mysterious aunt to visit her lavish oceanside home in Cape Cod. She quickly discovers that her aunt and the two women who live with her are harboring a frightening secret they are sirens, terrifying mythical creatures responsible for singing doomed sailors to their deaths. Even more astounding, Lorelei is one of them. In this new world where water comes alive at her touch and an ancient power pulses beneath the tide, the most important rule Lorelei must learn is that a siren never interferes with fate. When she breaks this rule by rescuing a handsome sailor who should have died at sea, the sirens vow she must finish the job or face grave consequences. Finding herself inexplicably attracted to him, she must fight to keep him safe from the others, even if it means risking her own life, and her heart, in the process.

[Full disclosure: I requested and received a free ebook copy through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.]

I’ve actually read quite a few books about sirens now since they seemed to be trending in YA for a while, but the thing that attracted me to Serenade especially was that the main character was a classically trained soprano.  I love opera and I decided to see if Emily Kiebel’s take on sirens was different from that of the other books in her niche.  Thankfully, it was.

The world-building in Serenade is actually much better than in most siren books.  In this version, sirens don’t lure people to their deaths, they just soothe them as they die because it’s the will of Fate.  They don’t really control their power but at the same time they can’t escape it because the sea will always call to them.  Of course this makes for some interesting moral dilemmas like “What if I don’t want to help people die for the rest of my life?” or “What if someone isn’t ready to die?”.  It’s that last question that gets Lorelei in some serious trouble, but it presents an interesting answer to the question of whether or not sirens really have free will.

Not only was the world-building pretty good, I liked Lorelei as a main character.  She absolutely loves singing and is willing to defy her own mother to pursue a career in opera.  When her father dies in an accident right before her eyes, you really do feel for Lorelei even though you’ve pretty much just met her.  It’s a rare author that can make you truly connect with a character so quickly, but Emily Kiebel managed to do it.  My only problem character-wise was the secondary characters.  None of them really stood out for me; they were more average in terms of being fleshed out and I didn’t really connect with any of them, even our handsome sailor that Lorelei rescues and falls in love with.

As for the plot, it takes a while for Lorelei to get her bearings as a siren so it’s not exactly fast-paced in the beginning and middle of the book.  There is a lot of tension, though, as she wrestles with many moral dilemmas surrounding her siren calling.  But the action really doesn’t get going until she saves someone who is supposed to die.  Then pretty much everything goes to the dogs in her family and Lorelei is faced with killing a man who isn’t ready to die or risking exile and knowing he’ll be killed anyway.  It’s really not a good situation and I like the little turn of events at the end.  Still, I think Serenade could have been a little faster paced without sacrificing the character development.

This book doesn’t release until July 15th, but I definitely urge you to pre-order it.  It’s one of the best books in the siren sub-genre of YA that I’ve read lately and I have to say that Emily Kiebel really knows her opera (although that’s just a bonus when paired with the world-building and main character).

I give this book 4/5 stars.

Amazon     Barnes and Noble*     Goodreads

*Not yet available for pre-order.

Second Daughter by Susan Kaye Quinn

Second Daughter by Susan Kaye Quinn(Cover picture courtesy of Susan Kaye Quinn’s site.)

The sequel to the steampunk fantasy romance Third Daughter (The Dharian Affairs #1) is here!

Assassins, skyships, and royal intrigue…

With plans for a second skyship exposed, Third Daughter Aniri fears her sister, Seledri, will be caught in a war between the three Queendoms. Seledri is the Second Daughter of Dharia, which means she had no choice in her arranged marriage to the First Son of Samir—a country with whom they may soon be at war. As Aniri fights to free her sister from a husband and a country she does not love, she questions her own rushed betrothal to Prince Malik, the noble barbarian who controls the skyship—and whether a love pledged in the heat of adventure can survive the looming threat of war.

Second Daughter is the second book in The Dharian Affairs trilogy (Third Daughter, Second Daughter, First Daughter). This steampunk-goes-to-Bollywood (Bollypunk!) romance takes place in an east-Indian-flavored alternate world filled with skyships, assassins, royal romance and intrigue.

[Full disclosure: After seeing my 5 star review of Third Daughter, Susan Kaye Quinn provided me with a free ebook of her second book in exchange for an honest review.]

As you guys know, I really don’t read much steampunk.  It’s never really appealed to me as a genre but I’ve picked up the odd one here and there.  I almost didn’t request Third Daughter on NetGalley several months ago, but I’m so glad I did.  I was even happier when Susan Kaye Quinn contacted me about reviewing the sequel.  I mean, after that doozy of a cliffhanger, how could I resist?

I definitely wasn’t disappointed with this second installment in the Dharian Affairs.  It has just the right amount of romance, intrigue and action to make it an enjoyable sequel.  What I really liked about Second Daughter was that not everything is as it seems: the people you think are villains are a little more ambiguous later on.  I don’t want to reveal too many spoilers, but I will tell you that all of the plot twists and turns will keep you on the edge of your seat.

I like how Aniri has matured a little bit after her adventures in Jungali.  She’s clearly in love with Ash but at the same time she’s getting cold feet about the impending wedding since she’s only known the guy for a couple of weeks.  These doubts make the whole thing a little more realistic and allow Aniri to decide what she really wants out of life.  Add to that the fact her sister is pregnant in a country that is on the verge of a civil war between the two princes and you’ve got the perfect recipe for some adventure.  She meets her old lover Devesh and things quickly turn complicated but I promise you that this is not your typical love triangle.  It’s pretty far from that, trust me.

As I mentioned earlier, the plot was insane.  It wasn’t action movie fast but it was so interesting I couldn’t put my ereader down.  After learning about the second skyship at the end of the first book, I knew things were going to be exciting.  What I didn’t know was just how exciting this book would be!  There’s so much intrigue George R. R. Martin would be proud.  When I say things aren’t always what they seem in this book, I really do mean it.

If you haven’t yet checked out Third Daughter, you really should.  Even if you’re not a huge steampunk fan, it’s worth giving it a try because the Dharian Affairs trilogy is just amazing.  And if you’ve read the first book, getting Second Daughter is a no-brainer.  It’s just that good.

I give this book 5/5 stars.

Amazon     Barnes and Noble     Goodreads