Book Reviews

Book Review: IN FARLEIGH FIELD

FarleighTitle: IN FARLEIGH FIELD
Author: Rhys Bowen
Publication Information: Lake Union Publishing, 2017
Pages: 398
Source: Kindle First selection
Genre: Adult – Historical Fiction, Mystery
Warnings: Light torture, references to war violence, light sexual content
Rating: 4 stars
Recommended For: People who think Downton Abbey could’ve used a little more espionage.

World War II comes to Farleigh Place, the ancestral home of Lord Westerham and his five daughters, when a soldier with a failed parachute falls to his death on the estate. After his uniform and possessions raise suspicions, MI5 operative and family friend Ben Cresswell is covertly tasked with determining if the man is a German spy. The assignment also offers Ben the chance to be near Lord Westerham’s middle daughter, Pamela, whom he furtively loves. But Pamela has her own secret: she has taken a job at Bletchley Park, the British code-breaking facility.

As Ben follows a trail of spies and traitors, which may include another member of Pamela’s family, he discovers that some within the realm have an appalling, history-altering agenda. Can he, with Pamela’s help, stop them before England falls?

(Summary from Goodreads)

I found IN FARLEIGH FIELD very enjoyable thanks in large part to the strong resemblance it bore to Downton Abbey, one of my favorite shows. Like Downton, it was set in a large country estate and followed the exploits of an upper class family during wartime.

The book follows multiple points of view as the Westerhams and the people in the nearby village wait for the surely inevitable German invasion. While some of the characters grated on me – Dido, the second-youngest daughter, particularly – I really enjoyed reading the chapters from Pamela, Ben, and Margot’s points of view (which was, fortunately, most of them). Phoebe, the youngest daughter, was also a delight and I would’ve loved more chapters from her point of view.

Central to the story’s plot is a mystery – who is the soldier who parachuted into the field at Farleigh, and who was he trying to contact? I figured it out pretty early on, but I cared about the characters enough that I didn’t really mind too much. I also loved the world Bowen crafted, both the upper class dinner parties and the intelligence bureaus Pamela and Ben worked for.

Verdict: Predictable mystery made up for with solid characters and setting.

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Book Reviews

Book Review: THE GUNSLINGER

43615Title: THE GUNSLINGER
Author: Stephen King
Series: The Dark Tower, #1
Genre: Adult – Fantasy/Horror/Western/Post-Apocalyptic
Publication Information: NAL, 2003 (originally published in 1982)
Rating: 3 Stars
Recommended For: People who enjoy genre bending and constant confusion.
Watch Out For: Violence, sexual content, sexual violence

In The Gunslinger (originally published in 1982), King introduces his most enigmatic hero, Roland Deschain of Gilead, the Last Gunslinger. He is a haunting, solitary figure at first, on a mysterious quest through a desolate world that eerily mirrors our own. Pursuing the man in black, an evil being who can bring the dead back to life, Roland is a good man who seems to leave nothing but death in his wake.

(Summary from Goodreads)

I’ve had several people recommend The Dark Tower series to me, so I figured that since there’s an adaptation in the works, it’s time to finally read it. While it’s not what I normally read, there were certain aspects of it that I enjoyed, and I plan to continue reading the rest of the series.

I spent a lot of time being confused about what was happening in the story – my usual response to thrillers, admittedly. This threw me off a bit. I also had a hard time because so much of it is spent in Roland’s head – there are occasional appearances from other characters, but mostly it’s all Roland.

I did enjoy how atmospheric the book was, though. King did an excellent job immersing us in Roland’s world from the start. I was actually in awe of this aspect of the book, since he constructs the setting so effortlessly. He doesn’t spend a ton of time describing it like in some of the other fantasy series I’ve read – instead it unfolds in front of us as we follow Roland on his journey through the desert without us even realizing what’s happening. The writing is really what kept me going here.

TL;DR: Here for the writing, lukewarm about everything else.

Book Reviews

Book Review: THE EYE OF THE WORLD

228665Title: THE EYE OF THE WORLD
Author: Robert Jordan
Series: The Wheel of Time, #1
Genre: Adult – Epic Fantasy
Publication Information: Tor Books, 1990
Rating: 5 Stars
Recommended For: Fantasy fans willing to make a long-term time investment.
Watch Out For: Violence – probably appropriate for mature middle schoolers.

The Wheel of Time turns and Ages come and go, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth returns again. In the Third Age, an Age of Prophecy, the World and Time themselves hang in the balance. What was, what will be, and what is, may yet fall under the Shadow.

(Summary from Goodreads)

I started reading The Wheel of Time series in high school, read the first five or six books, and stopped. Now I’m ready to give it another try, but it’s been so long, and there’s so much going on, that I decided to start back over at the beginning. As such, reading THE EYE OF THE WORLD was a nostalgic experience.

One thing I always appreciated about these books is the world building. As someone who writes high fantasy, it honestly exhausts me to think about how much work went into building a world with so many different layers – especially in the later books, when it expands. (This one, for all its questing, is relatively small-scale compared to what I’ve read of the series so far.) The world building is extremely detailed and while this does have a tendency to make the story drag sometimes, nerds like me will probably enjoy that aspect.

I have a complicated relationship with the characters, particularly the female characters. They have a lot of power in this world, which is fantastic because that’s not always the case in fantasy novels. On the other hand, they spend a very large portion of their time talking about the men around them. I wanted to see a lot more of Nynaeve and Egwene figuring out how to navigate their newfound Ayes Sedai powers than we actually did, for example.

I think this one would be good for people who are already fantasy fans, because there are a lot of names and terminology to sift through that can get confusing for people who are used to books like this – I referenced the glossary in the back multiple times throughout the book. (Glossaries: another thing that makes my nerdy heart sing.)

TL;DR: The most critical 5 Star review I’ve ever written.

Book Reviews

Book Review: LAST SONG BEFORE NIGHT

23848103Title: LAST SONG BEFORE NIGHT
Author: Ilana C. Myer
Genre: Adult – High Fantasy
Publication Information: Tor Books, 2015
Rating: 3 Stars
Recommended For: People who like the life and death nature of epic fantasy, but want something more character-driven.
Watch Out For: Violence, sexual content – probably appropriate for high schoolers

A high fantasy following a young woman’s defiance of her culture as she undertakes a dangerous quest to restore her world’s lost magic

Her name was Kimbralin Amaristoth: sister to a cruel brother, daughter of a hateful family. But that name she has forsworn, and now she is simply Lin, a musician and lyricist of uncommon ability in a land where women are forbidden to answer such callings—a fugitive who must conceal her identity or risk imprisonment and even death.

On the eve of a great festival, Lin learns that an ancient scourge has returned to the land of Eivar, a pandemic both deadly and unnatural. Its resurgence brings with it the memory of an apocalypse that transformed half a continent. Long ago, magic was everywhere, rising from artistic expression—from song, from verse, from stories. But in Eivar, where poets once wove enchantments from their words and harps, the power was lost. Forbidden experiments in blood divination unleashed the plague that is remembered as the Red Death, killing thousands before it was stopped, and Eivar’s connection to the Otherworld from which all enchantment flowed, broken.

The Red Death’s return can mean only one thing: someone is spilling innocent blood in order to master dark magic. Now poets who thought only to gain fame for their songs face a challenge much greater: galvanized by Valanir Ocune, greatest Seer of the age, Lin and several others set out to reclaim their legacy and reopen the way to the Otherworld—a quest that will test their deepest desires, imperil their lives, and decide the future.

(Summary from Goodreads)

I absolutely loved the premise for this book, which is what made me read it to begin with. In just the summary, there are mentions of many of my favorite things: music, lost magic, pestilence, women sticking it to the man. I think Myer did a great job setting up this world, and that was really the thing that kept me reading, more than anything else. I could easily read another book set in this world.

There were two places where this book fell a little flat for me. The first was what was motivating the characters to go off on this grand quest of theirs. There were many personal dramas throughout the book for the multiple POV characters we had, and those were handled well – I was able to understand the characters’ actions in that respect. But, the bigger question of trying to reopen the Otherworld – I understood why it needed to be done (to save everyone from the plague and also other things), but not why it was these characters SPECIFICALLY doing it. We never really get a clear sense of why they all decided to risk their lives to complete this task.

The other place it fell flat was in the urgency of this quest. We’re told multiple times the consequences of the characters being captured, and shown these consequences, as well, but it never really FEELS life and death. I think it’s probably because of the slower pace of the book – which worked well for the character development generally, but not for making us believe in the stakes.

TL;DR: Fantastic world building and character development, but the stakes never feel as high as we’re told they are.

Book Reviews

Book Review: RADIANT

20344702Title: RADIANT
Author: Karina Sumner-Smith
Series: Towers Trilogy, #1
Publication Information: Talos, 2014
Genre: Adult – Urban Fantasy/Post-Apocalyptic/Dystopian
Rating: 3 Stars
Recommended For: People who like their zombies and oppressive governments armed with magic.
Warnings: Drug use, brief mentions of torture.

Xhea has no magic. Born without the power that everyone else takes for granted, Xhea is an outcast—no way to earn a living, buy food, or change the life that fate has dealt her. Yet she has a unique talent: the ability to see ghosts and the tethers that bind them to the living world, which she uses to scratch out a bare existence in the ruins beneath the City’s floating Towers.

When a rich City man comes to her with a young woman’s ghost tethered to his chest, Xhea has no idea that this ghost will change everything. The ghost, Shai, is a Radiant, a rare person who generates so much power that the Towers use it to fuel their magic, heedless of the pain such use causes. Shai’s home Tower is desperate to get the ghost back and force her into a body—any body—so that it can regain its position, while the Tower’s rivals seek the ghost to use her magic for their own ends. Caught between a multitude of enemies and desperate to save Shai, Xhea thinks herself powerless—until a strange magic wakes within her. Magic dark and slow, like rising smoke, like seeping oil. A magic whose very touch brings death.

With two extremely strong female protagonists, Radiant is a story of fighting for what you believe in and finding strength that you never thought you had.

(Summary from Goodreads)

I’m a total geek for world building, so that part of RADIANT really appealed to me. I also really liked the premise – girl in a world in which magic is currency having no magic at all except for the ability to communicate with ghosts. Unfortunately, I didn’t connect very much with any of the characters.

RADIANT is set in a world where magic runs everything – it’s their power source, their form of currency, their means of transportation, everything. Most people live in towers that float above the ruins of an old, earth-bound city but those with very little magic are left to scrounge for what they can in the ruins. I loved this take on magic and how versatile it was. I also loved the idea of the political intrigue going on with the towers, something that was only hinted at for the most part in this book since the main character, Xhea, is as far as you can get from the action…until she isn’t. I also loved the combination of magical and post-apocalyptic elements.

The premise was what grabbed me initially. As I said, Xhea has no magic, unless you count her unique ability to see and communicate with ghosts, which she parlays into a career of sorts in order to survive. This is what puts her into contact with Shai, the ghost of a teenage girl who turns out to be extremely important in Tower politics. Xhea, unused to trusting anyone, has to work with Shai in order to ensure both of their survivals.

Unfortunately, I had a hard time connecting with the characters. I thought the character development for Xhea was great, and Shai had some tough choices to make in the book, but I didn’t really feel it the way I wanted to.

TL;DR: Interesting world building and premise but characters fell flat for me.

Book Reviews

Review: Mistress of Rome

MistressTitle: Mistress of Rome
Author: Kate Quinn
Series: The Empress of Rome, #1
Genre: Adult – Historical Fiction
Publication Information: Berkley Trade, 2010
Age Recommendation: Adult

Thea is a slave girl from Judaea, passionate, musical, and guarded. Purchased as a toy for the spiteful heiress Lepida Pollia, Thea will become her mistress’s rival for the love of Arius the Barbarian, Rome’s newest and most savage gladiator. His love brings Thea the first happiness of her life-that is quickly ended when a jealous Lepida tears them apart.

As Lepida goes on to wreak havoc in the life of a new husband and his family, Thea remakes herself as a polished singer for Rome’s aristocrats. Unwittingly, she attracts another admirer in the charismatic Emperor of Rome. But Domitian’s games have a darker side, and Thea finds herself fighting for both soul and sanity. Many have tried to destroy the Emperor: a vengeful gladiator, an upright senator, a tormented soldier, a Vestal Virgin. But in the end, the life of the brilliant and paranoid Domitian lies in the hands of one woman: the Emperor’s mistress.

(Summary from Goodreads)

So, having started this series with the third book (oops), it was nice to go back and read this one. While reading the books in this series in order isn’t strictly necessary since they are very much self-contained stories within the larger arc, it was nice to get some backstory behind the major players in Empress of the Seven Hills.

I loved all of the characters, except Lepida, who was generally an awful person. I guess there were reasons for this? But she was so awful, I didn’t care. I mean, I even liked Domitian more than her, and Domitian wasn’t the most sympathetic character, so there’s that. But everyone else, though, was great. Little Vix stole the show for me (which was fantastic because I loved him so much after reading the other book he’s in), and I loved how sassy the Empress was – an impressive feat after being married to Domitian for 20+ years.

I think the only problem I really had was Marcus’s motivations for wanting Domitian dead. I understood why all of the other characters wanted him dead, but his motivations were never really clear. Ultimately, though, that was a small problem in comparison with the sheer awesome that was this book, and didn’t deter me from being obsessed with this series in the slightest.

If you like a healthy blend of Ancient Rome, political intrigue, and romance, this is definitely a book for you.

Rating: 5/5 Stars

Book Reviews

Review: The Queen’s Vow

VowTitle: The Queen’s Vow: A Novel of Isabella of Castile
Author: C.W. Gortner
Genre: Adult – Historical Fiction
Publication Date: 2012
Age Recommendation: Adult

No one believed I was destined for greatness.
 
So begins Isabella’s story, in this evocative, vividly imagined novel about one of history’s most famous and controversial queens—the warrior who united a fractured country, the champion of the faith whose reign gave rise to the Inquisition, and the visionary who sent Columbus to discover a New World. Acclaimed author C. W. Gortner envisages the turbulent early years of a woman whose mythic rise to power would go on to transform a monarchy, a nation, and the world.

Young Isabella is barely a teenager when she and her brother are taken from their mother’s home to live under the watchful eye of their half-brother, King Enrique, and his sultry, conniving queen. There, Isabella is thrust into danger when she becomes an unwitting pawn in a plot to dethrone Enrique. Suspected of treason and held captive, she treads a perilous path, torn between loyalties, until at age seventeen she suddenly finds herself heiress of Castile, the largest kingdom in Spain. Plunged into a deadly conflict to secure her crown, she is determined to wed the one man she loves yet who is forbidden to her—Fernando, prince of Aragon.

As they unite their two realms under “one crown, one country, one faith,” Isabella and Fernando face an impoverished Spain beset by enemies. With the future of her throne at stake, Isabella resists the zealous demands of the inquisitor Torquemada even as she is seduced by the dreams of an enigmatic navigator named Columbus. But when the Moors of the southern domain of Granada declare war, a violent, treacherous battle against an ancient adversary erupts, one that will test all of Isabella’s resolve, her courage, and her tenacious belief in her destiny.

From the glorious palaces of Segovia to the battlefields of Granada and the intrigue-laden gardens of Seville, The Queen’s Vow sweeps us into the tumultuous forging of a nation and the complex, fascinating heart of the woman who overcame all odds to become Isabella of Castile.

(Summary from Goodreads)

Two things about The Queen’s Vow stood out to me right away: the setting and Isabella’s voice. I got the sense right away that I would see a quiet sort of strength from Isabella, which are exactly the sorts of characters I love. I also knew the setting, Castile, would be very atmospheric, and I wasn’t disappointed in this. Castile came to life, making it easy to see why Isabella would fight so fiercely for it.

Isabella was a complex character. In the first part of the book, she’s torn between doing her duty and doing what she wants – although what she wants isn’t clear initially because she probably isn’t even sure what she wants, since she’s always been told what to want. I loved watching her journey toward figuring that out. And once she did figure out what she wanted, she wasn’t afraid to fight for it, while still being concerned about her people. I found her internal conflict about instating the Inquisition and expelling the Jews to be especially compelling, and I really wish the Inquisition had been played up more since it was such a big deal. In this book, it mostly sat in the background of the main conflict of retaking Castile. I feel like the Inquisition is wrapped up pretty closely in everything else that was going on, so it would’ve been nice to see, especially more of the consequences of Isabella agreeing to it.

The other characters were pretty well-defined, also, especially Fernando, who had the whole male superiority thing going on, yet had a lot of respect for Isabella. I also loved Isabella’s relationship with her younger brother, Alfonso, although I do wish her relationship with her older brother, Enrique, could’ve been developed better, especially since she spends so much time in conflict with him. I think that could’ve added to the tension since initially Isabella tried to get along with Enrique.

One major issue I had with the book was how much time it covers. The book starts in Isabella’s early years with her struggle first to survive at Enrique’s court, then to escape it and live life on her own terms. Once that happens, though, and she becomes queen, the book completely shifts tone and focus to her struggle to unite Castile in the midst of civil war, as well as reclaim lands in Granada from the Muslims and remake Castile as a Catholic kingdom. It really felt like two entirely separate books, and I feel like it might’ve been better if it had been that way, especially since there was so much that could be added to both halves of the book.

If you’re interested in oft-vilified lady historical figures and you’re looking for a more sympathetic portrayal of them, The Queen’s Vow is a good example.

Rating: 3.5/5 Stars