The Last Song by Eva Wiseman

The Last Song by Eva Wiseman(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)

Spain had been one of the world’s most tolerant societies for eight hundred years, but that way of life was wiped out by the Inquisition. Isabel’s family feels safe from the terrors, torture, and burnings. After all, her father is a respected physician in the court of Ferdinand and Isabella. Isabel was raised as a Catholic and doesn’t know that her family’s Jewish roots may be a death sentence. When her father is arrested by Torquemada, the Grand Inquisitor, she makes a desperate plan to save his life – and her own.

Once again, master storyteller Eva Wiseman brings history to life in this riveting and tragic novel.

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

I honestly couldn’t have been more disappointed in this novel; it’s pretty hard to make a story set in the Spanish Inquisition boring but Eva Wiseman certainly managed to.  The main problem was that the writing style of this book is awful.  It’s essentially this: Isabel did [x].  She didn’t know how she felt about it.  Then she reacted to [y].  She felt sad about it.

Are you snoring yet?  That’s basically how the entire book goes.  We are told something happens, then told how Isabel feels about it without actually seeing what happens or seeing anything resembling emotions from our main character.  It’s like she’s carved from wood!  Not only that, there are so many inconsistencies in her character because she goes from “Ugh, Jews” to “sure I’ll go dress as a boy, sneak out of my house and go to a Torah study session with this boy I just met a couple of days ago”.  We’re told she warred about the decision but it really didn’t feel like it at all.  Just like when we’re told she’s worried about her father in Torquemada’s custody but you don’t really get the feeling that she is.

This is a middle grade novel so obviously some things are left out or simplified, but with this excruciatingly boring kind of writing style it was also impossible to empathize with any of the characters.  They’re basically just stereotypes that you find in a thousand other middle grade novels.  Isabel is the poor little rich girl who’s betrothed to a man she hates, her mother is the melodramatic sickly type, her father has always been the supportive and encouraging one who then admonishes her for thinking independently, etc.  Even Yonah, a character who could have been quite interesting, was boring because Eva Wiseman never really went into the hows and whys of his character.  He just exists to guide Isabel to Judaism and be the love interest, not to have anything resembling a personality.

My final problem with this book is that it was so predictable.  A poor little rich girl gets betrothed to a man she hates, something comes along that makes that betrothal impossible and she gets to marry the man of her dreams, usually a person of much lower rank and/or wealth.  Pretty much the whole book was summarized in the blurb above, so there were no real surprises in either the characters or the plot.  The Last Song wasn’t even particularly poignant at the end, when the Jews and ‘Moors’ are expelled from Spain on pain of death.  It should have been a touching, sad moment but it wasn’t.  This book just totally lacked emotion.

What can I say?  If you like being told a story but not actually having to think about it for yourself and discover things about the characters, I suppose this book is for you.  If you like three dimensional characters or unpredictable plots, I can’t even recommend it.  I just don’t see where there’s anyone who would like this novel, aside from pre-teens and early teens who have never read about the Spanish Inquisition.

I give this book 1/5 stars.

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Edwin: High King of Britain by Edoardo Albert

Edwin; High King of Britain by Edoardo Albert(Cover picture courtesy of A Well-Watered Garden.)

Debut historical fiction series vividly recreating the rise of the Christian kings of Northumbria, England

In 604 AD, Edwin, the deposed king of Northumbria, seeks refuge at the court of King Raedwald of East Anglia. But Raedwald is urged to kill his guest by Aethelfrith, Edwin’s usurper. As Edwin walks by the shore, alone and at bay, he is confronted by a mysterious figure–the missionary Paulinus– who prophesies that he will become High King of Britain. It is a turning point.

Through battles and astute political alliances Edwin rises to power, in the process marrying the Kentish princess Aethelburh. As part of the marriage contract the princess is allowed to retain her Christian faith. But, in these times, to be a king is not a recipe for a long life.

This turbulent and tormented period in British history sees the conversion of the Anglo-Saxon settlers who have forced their way on to British shores over previous centuries, arriving first to pillage, then to farm and trade–and to come to terms with the faith of the Celtic tribes they have driven out.

The dramatic story of Northumbria’s Christian kings helped give birth to England as a nation, English as a language, and the adoption of Christianity as the faith of the English.

[Full disclosure: I received a free paperback copy in conjunction with the blog tour in exchange for an honest review.]

I was actually pleasantly surprised with Edwin.  The first page left me a little bit skeptical because of the strange setting and all of the strange names, but by the time we get to the mysterious stranger on the beach that helps Edwin I was hooked.  Edoardo Albert has a very interesting writing style: he describes things quite well for the modern reader and yet he keeps an air of authenticity about his writing.  He really does stay true to the period in the words and actions of his characters but at the same time he doesn’t leave his readers confused either.  I’m very new to the period being discussed and yet I came out of the book not feeling confused at all.

Edwin is not your typical hero in modern tales.  He’s dark and broody and occasionally prone to wartime atrocities.  At the same time, he’s a good man in that he cares for his children tenderly and is always there for his friends (especially the ones that were with him in exile).  Essentially, he’s a man of contradictions because his actions hardly make him a hero but neither do they make him a villain.  Edoardo Albert does this balancing act extremely well and you’re left with the feeling that even though you may not exactly sympathize with him, you do understand him.

For historical fiction of this magnitude and scope, Edwin is surprisingly fast-paced.  We are swept along through Edwin’s victories that lead him to declare himself High King of Britain and eventually through his conversion to Christianity.  Hardly anything seems to go his way at first, but through sheer force of will Edwin eventually succeeds.  Whether he actually can hold onto his power is another story, what with all of the back-stabbing rivals who aren’t happy with his self-proclaimed authority over the whole island.  The ending was sad, but not entirely unexpected considering the fact that kings in the early years were far from long-lived.

Like I said, I was pretty skeptical about Edwin: High King of Britain but by the end of the book I have to say that I’m a fan.  I honestly can’t wait for the rest of The Northumbrian Thrones!

I give this book 5/5 stars.

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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.

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*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.

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*Not yet available.

The Runaway Highlander by R. L. Syme

The Runaway Highlander by R. L. Syme(Cover picture courtesy of Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours.)

Anne de Cheyne has a choice. She can play the dutiful daughter and allow her mother to sell her to a greasy English sheriff, or she can take control of her own life and find her own match. After a frightening run-in with her promised husband reveals a dark secret, she makes a desperate choice. Flight.

Aedan Donne needs easy money and no-questions-asked. When Milene de Cheyne offers him enough to pay all debts, requests complete silence, and pays half up front, just for a simple recovery, he can’t believe his luck… until he meets his mark. Anne’s beauty and passion ignite something Aedan can’t ignore, even as she leaves him in the dust. Suddenly, he finds himself wanting to capture the runaway Highland lady for himself.

[Full disclosure: I received a free paper copy of this book in conjunction with the blog tour in exchange for an honest review.]

This is actually the second book in the Highland Renegades series, but they can be read as stand-alone novels, luckily for me.

As I’ve said in the past, I know very little about Scottish history.  Still, R. L. Syme managed to suck me into the period and really gave me the feeling that I was there along with the characters.  The dark, unstable atmosphere of the time particularly rang true and you could feel this sense of doom throughout the whole novel.  Scotland is highly unstable and in the middle of it, the main character Anne is being sold off to the highest bidder so her mother can prove her loyalty to the English overlords.

Anne is a decent enough character but I won’t say that she’s one of the most memorable heroines I’ve ever encountered.  She’s feisty, determined and brave but at the same time I just had trouble connecting with her.  It’s not that there wasn’t enough background information about her, but I had a hard time connecting with her emotions.  I didn’t feel what she was feeling, whether she was sad, angry, happy or in love.  But maybe that’s just me.  Aedan I could connect with a little more but like Anne he’s not the most memorable character I’ve ever read about.

However, the plot was fast-paced and quite exciting.  You can’t call The Runaway Highlander anything but a page-turner simply because of R. L. Syme’s talent with suspense.  There are twists and turns everywhere and just when you think you know what’s going to happen everything changes.  It definitely keeps the reader on the edge of their proverbial seat.

This was an essentially good novel.  It will never be one of my favourites but it was good enough that I’d recommend it to romance lovers as well as Scottish history fans.

I give this book 3.5/5 stars.

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The Sekhmet Bed by L. M. Ironside

The Sekhmet Bed by L. M. Ironside(Cover picture courtesy of L. M. Ironside’s website.)

Is Ahmose’s divine gift a blessing or a curse?

The second daughter of the Pharaoh, Ahmose has always dreamed of a quiet life as a priestess, serving Egypt’s gods, ministering to the people of the Two Lands. But when the Pharaoh dies without an heir, she is given instead as Great Royal Wife to the new king – a soldier of common birth. For Ahmose is god-chosen, gifted with the ability to read dreams, and it is her connection to the gods which ensures the new Pharaoh his right to rule.

Ahmose’s elder sister Mutnofret has been raised to expect the privileged station of Great Royal Wife; her rage at being displaced cannot be soothed. As Ahmose fights the currents of Egypt’s politics and Mutnofret’s vengeful anger, her youth and inexperience carry her beyond her depth and into the realm of sacrilege.

To right her wrongs and save Egypt from the gods’ wrath, Ahmose must face her most visceral fear: bearing an heir. But the gods of Egypt are exacting, and even her sacrifice may not be enough to restore the Two Lands to safety.

The Sekhmet Bed is the first volume of L. M. Ironside’s series The She-King, a family saga of the Thutmosides, one of ancient Egypt’s most fascinating royal families.

The Sekhmet Bed was actually recommended to me by an editor from another publishing house that I consider a friend.  It was free on Amazon for that day so I decided to give it a try, considering that her previous recommendations had worked out very well for me.  Thankfully, this one was no different.

It seems more and more people are writing about Hatshepsut these days (hallelujah!) but I’ve never, ever seen anyone write about her mother, Ahmose.  And you know what?  Ahmose deserves a little recognition too because while she obviously couldn’t match her daughter in some of her achievements she was a strong woman in her own way.  Ironside filled in some gaps in the historical record with her own imaginings but it’s not out of the realm of possibility that things didn’t actually happen in a similar fashion.

Ahmose is just a girl when she’s married off to Thutmose, a common general who is chosen as the next Pharaoh because of the lack of male heirs in the family.  This makes both of their positions extremely precarious and it’s up to Ahmose to smooth things over in the political sphere.  She’s very obviously young and naive when she’s first married but I love how she really comes into her own as she grows older.  Ahmose doesn’t have an easy time of it in life but she reacts realistically to a rather bad situation and eventually finds a little bit of happiness.

I wouldn’t say the plot is fast-paced by most standards, but it was very interesting.  There’s not as much political intrigue as I would have liked but that’s more of a personal preference than anything else.  The religious aspect of the novel was fascinating, though, and I love that Ironside went into such detail about Egyptian religion.  It’s quite strange to the modern reader but she manages to explain such things to the reader in a way that makes it easy to understand for people new to ancient Egyptian history as well as fanatics like myself.

Basically, this is just an awesome self-published novel.  There were barely any errors and none of them were particularly memorable (just some missed quotation marks and such).  Really, this is just a good story with an amazing female lead and great historical accuracy.  Where there are changes, they’re completely justified so I can’t even complain about that.  The Sekhmet Bed is just a great book and I can’t wait to read more of Ironside’s work.

I give this book 5/5 stars.

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*The Kindle edition is currently free on Amazon, so go grab it now!

Curses and Smoke by Vicky Alvear Shecter

Curses and Smoke by Vicky Alvear Shecter(Cover picture courtesy of Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours.)

When your world blows apart, what will you hold onto?

TAG is a medical slave, doomed to spend his life healing his master’s injured gladiators. But his warrior’s heart yearns to fight in the gladiator ring himself and earn enough money to win his freedom.

LUCIA is the daughter of Tag’s owner, doomed by her father’s greed to marry a much older Roman man. But she loves studying the natural world around her home in Pompeii, and lately she’s been noticing some odd occurrences in the landscape: small lakes disappearing; a sulfurous smell in the air. . . .

When the two childhood friends reconnect, each with their own longings, they fall passionately in love. But as they plot their escape from the city, a patrician fighter reveals his own plans for them — to Lucia’s father, who imprisons Tag as punishment. Then an earthquake shakes Pompeii, in the first sign of the chaos to come. Will they be able to find each other again before the volcano destroys their whole world?

[Full disclosure: I received a free paperback from the publisher in exchange for an honest review during the book tour.]

One of the things that struck me about Vicky Alvear Shecter’s first book, Cleopatra’s Moon was the historical accuracy.  She is an excellent writer when it comes to putting little historical details into her writing to give it that authentic feel.  In this novel she’s even better because there are detailed descriptions of the medical practices, gladiator training and even the current political climate.  That’s not really something you expect from a book aimed at the younger YA demographic (13 to about 15) so I was quite impressed.

Her characters were good, but I didn’t take a particular shine to either of the leads.  Lucia is quite naive, as would be expected from her upbringing, but she never really gets any better either.  She still doesn’t know when to speak and when to keep her mouth shut, which is pretty frustrating for me.  Still, she’s a well developed character and you really get the feeling that she is the product of her upbringing.  Tag (short for Tages) is far more interesting with his medical knowledge and his desire to become a gladiator to buy his freedom.  That could be because I’m a sucker for the underdog in stories but whatever.  In the end, all of the characters Vicky Alvear Shecter writes about are well-developed and have believable motivations demonstrated through their actions.

The plot was quite well done in terms of pacing.  There’s this slow build-up to the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius and you can see how all of the signs of an eruption were there before from animals acting crazy to wells drying up.  Of course no one knew what was going on at the time so it was quite suspenseful for Lucia to slowly discover all of the signs before reaching her ultimate, terrifying conclusion.  The only thing I didn’t like about the plot was how it ended.  It was a little too melodramatic and the magical curse element seemed to come practically out of nowhere.  Looking back, I really think this book would have been better without the random curse that shows up about halfway into the book.  It just seems random and tries to add to the overall tension but really doesn’t.

In general, I think Curses and Smoke is a pretty good novel.  I don’t think it’s as good as Cleopatra’s Moon but I’d recommend it to young readers 13 to 15.

I give this book 3.5/5 stars.

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