27 Mar 2016

The Traitor's Heir- Anna Thayer

Knight of Elderan #1 
19th May 2001, Lion Fiction 
545 Pages 
For over five hundred years the River Realm has lain in the charge of the Master, and the Master’s glory has kept the land strong against its enemies. As Cadet Eamon Goodman swears to serve the Master – his highest ambition – a dark voice penetrates his mind, and offers him unsettling power
Then Eamon meets the true King. Despite having made a binding oath to the Master, his heart longs to be a King’s man. Whom will Eamon betray?
The Traitor’s Heir is the first volume in the epic fantasy trilogy, The Knight of Eldaran. Anna Thayer masterfully weaves a world of intrigue, passion and divided loyalties, which will grip the reader from the first page to the last.

I think I have something of a love/hate relationship with Epic Fantasy. On the one hand, I'm a huge Lewis fan- and a lover of the Tolkien movies- but I'm also a Medieval enthusiast who has never read the Lord of the Rings, and its accomanying volumes. Some might call that disgraceful.

For a while I didn't really like fantasy except Lewis, unless it was Historical Fantasy (like historical fiction but not set in a real time or place), or human centred fantasy. I still don't always go in for dragons, goblins, and the such. I wasn't even intersted in this when I first saw, it, but then I saw recommendations from a friendly acquaintance, and that the author is an expert on Tolkien and Lewis, I decided to try it.

As another review has stated- The Traitor's Heir is human-centred fantasy. There are no mythical creatures. It is centred around a fairly ordinary chap- Eamon Goodman, an orphaned young man whose only dream since chidhood was to become an officer in the Gauntlet- and elite military Unit supposed to protect the River Realm and serve its ruler known as The Master.
Eamon is just that- very ordinary, and very human. In the first chapter he makes a mistake and botches a military assignment which jeapordizes his future. The next thing we see, he is in his garden, weeping, despondent at his failure. He's no fantasy superhero, and that is something I found rather endearing and relatable.

To cut a long story short, Eamon's wish is fulfilled with help from some of his oldest friends, and finally he takes his oath on his inauguration to the Gauntlet. From then on events take a darker turn when Eamon starts having troubling dreams, and unsettling things begin to happen. A strange power seems to exude from the mark of Master, which all the Gauntlet bear on their hands, a power which at times takes control of him, and drives him do things he does not wish. He also began to he hears a dark voice- the voice of the master- goading and cajoling him, constantly reminding him of his allegiance.

Then Eamon is devastated when his friend and neighbour and his daughter, Aeryn, are arrested, accused of being 'snakes'- enemies of the Master and of the realm- and worse, claiming loyalty to the King- the King who was deposed and killed 500 years before.
To prove himself, Eamon is chosen to join a troop of men to take Aeryn as a prisoner to a far distant part of the realm. Eamon thinks he has found his place, and is starting to earn the respect and love of his men, when his ship is attacked, and many of his comrades slaughtered. Saved only by the intercession of Aeyrn, Eamon is bought before Hughan, a man he knew from childhood and long though to be dead- a man who is called the King, and claims to be the last of the line once deposed.

The King has a startling revelation which explains Eamon's dreams, and offers him and choice- to swear to serve him as his true Master, to undo the wrongs of the pas. Eamon swears willingly, though both know he must return the capital, and serve the King in the midst of the enemies' territory.
From then on, Eamon struggles with his two oaths, his true allegiance, and the legacy of his bloodline. There is great darkness, cruelty and evil at the heart of the River Realm- but Eamon loves his men, strives to be a good leader- and craves to please his superiors and excel in his work. Part of his heart is still for the Master- although he believes and knows that the King is the true and rightful Lord.

Its true the book is a bit of a task at nearly 550 pages, it does lag in places, and the setting is a little unclear. Its got the Medieval type elements typical of the genre with swords, knights etc- but many other details, especially relating to army, seemed rather more modern. The characterisation was perhaps not all it should have been (but I don't think the Master's Hands- the Highest of his officers were meant to be well-rounded, complicated human beings).
Yet persistence paid off. I personally think that Eamon's struggle, central to the story, was was best and strongest aspect of it. He is torn, tempted, fails and is often in two minds. Part of him wants to please his superiors and just get on in the world- but another part is appaled by all that his 'duty' involves, and yearns for a higher calling under the service of the King.
By the end, Eamon wants to be free from both his oath the King and the Master, and just wants to live a peaceful life.

In a way, his experiences are reminiscent of the struggles that Christians face in thier own lives- and his frailty and helplessness are something we can identify with. Even his bad choices. One such choice involves falling for, and engaging in a sexual relationship with a noblewoman, Alessia Turnholt.
Other readers have flagged this up as an objectionable aspect which caused them to give the novel a lower rating. Its true that some scenes are bordering on a little bit descriptive- but I didn't feel they went as too far, and certainly weren't graphic. By the end, one could even understand what was happening- that both he and Alessia were being used and abused by the Master and his men- and that Eamon should have listened to the warnings of his friends.

Objection has also been raised to the langauge. The 'B' word is used quite a few times, not usually in context, as well as 'wh---' and 'damn'. Personally, this was not something I had a huge issue with. I'm afraid the 'B' word is something British people are inclined to come out with-and the author is British. I think very few of us are controlled enough to say, 'Oh my goodness, you're such a jerk!' all the time. Its just not realistic.
I understand that this might be a off-putting to a lot of Christian Fiction readers, so they might find the book is not for them.

However, I found it a satisfying and, in the end, compulsive read. Eamon fell, yet in the end, found his strength. There was also a wonderful note of hope, through the character of the young soldier Eamon took under his wing, Matatiah. A character who appears to be one of the weakest of the ranks, picked on by the others, but emerges as a wonderful example of unyeilding loyalty, courage, faith and endurance, it spite of his terrible suffering.

Don't know how long I'll be able to put off reading the next installment 'The King's Hand' to continue with Eamon's story (and hopefully more of Matatiah too). Recommended for lovers of more realistic fantasy, with deeper characters and themes.

18 Mar 2016

A Daring Sacrifice- Jody Hedlund

Published: March 1st, Zondervan, 256 Pages
 Print, Ebook and Audio

In a reverse twist on the Robin Hood story, a young medieval maiden stands up for the rights of the mistreated, stealing from the rich to give to the poor.

All the while, she fights against her cruel uncle who has taken over the land that is rightfully hers.

Forced to live in the woods and hide with the poor people she's grown to love, she works to save and protect them, but she never anticipates falling in love with the wealthy knight who represents all she's come to despise.

 My Rating: ⭐⭐

I had concerns about this book before even picking it up but I decided to give it a chance. In a way, I think my response reflects what I thought of the last one. It had the grain of a good story and content- but sadly this was surrounded by a hard shell of silliness. There were some important messages about redemptive love and overcoming selfishness and bitterness. The thing was even enjoyable in places, but once again there were too many negatives.

The heroine Julianna seemed rather too goody-goody, and her irrational prejudice against the nobility did nothing to endear her to me (her Uncle deposed her father, therefore all nobles are evil and corrupt oppressors). Her pontificating on the matter just proved grating and annoying. It was almost a relief that she eventually stopped doing it, and realized that her view was unreasonable by the end. I think she could have taken a more sensible course of action a lot more quickly, but I guess without her unwise choices there wouldn’t be a story.
Sir Colin was altogether more interesting, and a little more fun. The Romance could have been, and even tried to be sweet- but came across as cheesy, mushy, and some have said, shallow. Obviously, Julianna and Colin were to use the age old trope 'meant to be together'. Cue the kissing and then the angst about why they 'obviously' couldn't be.

On a more negative note, the characters speech was riddled with modern terms and Americanisms. Those who know me will realise that this is a particular niggle of mine in fiction. It was jarring, and did not fit in with the setting at all to have 14th century characters talking like modern Americans- saying things like 'pulling a stunt', 'spunky' or talking about going to the 'creek' to get water- what British people of the time (and today) would call a stream or brook.
Nor did the detail about the outlaws communicating with the call of a Bluejay help matters. The bird is indigenous to North America, so a Medieval European would not have known what one sounded like. Even Julianna's outlaw nickname 'The Cloaked Bandit' sounded like it could have come out of some spaghetti Western. Its like no attempt was made to make the characters langauge authentic for the time, and little care was taken over the finer details by an author whose lack of familiarity with the setting sadly showed through.

This was not the only way in which historical accuracy or credibility was lacking, however. Towards the end the whole thing resembled a collection of silly myths involving torture and horrible punishments. Yup, like in the last book there seems to be an unhealthy obsession with torture-and far too much emphasis is placed on it. So Julianna’s wicked Uncle (your fairly typical cardboard cut-out type villain) naturally has his own torture chamber in his castle complete with thumbscrews and other diabolical instruments that you see in movies.

The worst part for me was when he wanted to have Julianna burned at the stake- for stealing. Seriously, that has to have been one of the worst travesties against historical truth I have ever encountered in fiction. Now some might say that this was not inaccurate, as people were burned at the stake in the Middle- Ages. Indeed it did happen- but it was almost always the punishment for heresy or High Treason- (and it wasn't anything like as common as Hollywood movies make out) not stealing or shooting squirrels. For the record, Hanging drawing and quartering was only ever a punishment for Treason too.
The whole passage was just so far-fetched and implausible. It's like the most extreme punishments ever devised in history have been found, and applied to the most trivial offences imaginable for the sole purpose of shocking the audience and creating drama.

Now it might be argued that I’m over analysing, and that the story is ‘meant to be a fairy tale- not set in a real country or the actual historical past. That may well be, although the use of sone place names, such as Wessex, Windsor and Maidstone, which are names of actual regions, towns or cities in England did make me wonder. Really, its the principle of the thing that made scenes like the above objectionable.
I can accept a certain degree of inaccuracy- but it saddens me that ‘Medieval’ fiction seems to be a licence to include references to unnecessary acts of violence and abuse- to depict all of the pre-American past as some quagmire of violence as lawlessness.
It’s also the fact that some are liable to take what they read in books like this as a true and factual representation of past reality. It is very far from that.

So in conclusion, the story had a few plusses, but overall it just seemed sloppy and rather OTT. A bit too much like a rip-off of various Robin Hood movies, and other girl outlaw spin-offs with the odd original scene or incident, but not a lot to distinguish it from others except the torture (not a good thing).
As YA Medieval Romantic Fiction goes, I prefer Melanie Dickerson and Dina Sleiman’s Dauntless- which is in a similar vein. I almost got the impression that perhaps not as much care was taken over this series as other titles by the same author- that perhaps it was churned out in something of a hurry to cater for popular demand.

I received a free e-book edition of this title from Zondervan via Booklook Bloggers for review. I was not required to write a positive one and all opinions expressed are my own.

15 Mar 2016

Audiobook Review- Cascade- Lisa T. Bergren

Cascade- River of Time Series #2 
May 21st 2012, Oasis Audio 

"In the first audio book of the River of Time series, two bored American sisters stumble on a door to the past, where Gabi is rescued by a handsome knight who vows to love her forever. But there is a rival for his affections, and the girls flee into the present to escape.
Now lovestruck Gabi persuades Lia to help her return, even though she knows dangers abound in medieval Italy, including an entire city who seeks revenge. But Marcello awaits, and Gabi must decide if she's willing to leave her family behind for love."
What to make of this second book in the series? Well, it wasn't terrible- but nor was it great. It all has the feel of a rather cheesy movie.
I get that 14th century Italy seems to have been in something of a state of flux- but I don't really go in too much for books that rely on pretty much non-stop action and danger, as I think this often comes as the expense of other literary values like character development.

The whole thing just seems a little over the top, with the almost constant fight scenes, and the two protaganists, Gabi and Lia, coming across as nigh on invincible superhero type characters. You know the thing- going out without armour, shooting off three or four arrows in ten seconds whist running or going a somersault.
Maybe I exaggerate a bit there, but you get the picture- taking down fully armed knight coming after them. Then hefting heavy swords to kill enemies who seem to have convenient gaps in thier armour.
Sure they get hurt (usually Gabi), but in some cases seem to recover rather more quickly than would seem plausible.

What's more, there were some issues with the langauge and ideas of the characters. Seriously, Medieval Europeans did not measure distance in blocks. That is an almost exclusively American 'thing'- ergo- 14th century Europeans should not be saying such things.
Also, in the early part of the book, Marcello asked 'Have you been baptised- Do you believe in God'? This isn't something a Medieval person would have said- they believed baptism made you a Christian- so he would have asked something more like, 'Are you a Christian?' Simply believing in some remote higher power was something foreign to Medieval religious ideas and teachings. They were more specific than that.

So in conclusion, 'Cascade' was an interesting read and sequel to 'Waterfall'- but I think for an adult its not so satisfying that it might be. Teens, the target audience might well like it better. I am keeping the Kindle editions to maybe re-read at some point, as its an interesting setting and the story is alright.
I will press on and start on 'Torrent' soon- and then maybe borrow the sequels from my library.

9 Mar 2016

The Confessions of X - Suzanne M. Wolfe

Thomas Nelson, 26th January 2016
304 Pages 
Before he became the sainted church father of Christianity, Augustine of Hippo began a love affair with a young woman whose name has been lost to history. They were together for over thirteen years, and she bore him a son. This is her story.

She met Augustine in Carthage when she was just seventeen years old. She was the daughter of a tile-layer. He was a student and the heir to a fortune. They fell in love, despite her lower station and Augustine’s dreams of greatness. Their passion was strong, but the only position in his life that was available to her was as his concubine. When Augustine’s ambition and family compelled him to disown his relationship with the her, X was thrust into a devastating reality as she was torn from her son and sent away to her native Africa.

A reflection of what it means to love and lose, this novel paints a gripping and raw portrait of ancient culture, appealing to historical fiction fans while deftly exploring one woman’s search for identity and happiness within very limited circumstances.
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I confess, I’m not usually interested in fiction set in the Roman era. I prefer my Medieval Fiction and Regencies- and I wasn’t massively interested in Augustine of Hippo- though I have seen a movie about him, which went into a lot of details about his early life.
One thing that attracted me to this book was the background of the author. British born (always a plus when it’s by a compatriot) and a Cambridge Graduate- and besides- Augustine lived in a period that just about counts as the beginning of the Medieval era. So……

Overall, I liked The Confessions of X a lot. The writing style was wonderfully descriptive and evocative of the world and environment of the characters, giving a sense of sights, sounds and smells. As someone who’s actually travelled to North Africa, the details of that region were fascinating.
The intent of telling the story of an unnamed women, lost to history was well achieved, with believable portrayals of many of the key characters and their relationships. The love between Augustine and X was one that one could feel was genuine. I would say the treatment of the relationship between the protagonists is less like the mushiness one finds in a lot of romances. However- there were, as others have pointed out, a number of sexual references, which, although not graphic- were descriptive- and at times a little too much. I guess I really didn’t want or need to know about.

In terms of the historical content- the characters seemed to be mostly ‘of their time’, although many of Augustine’s beliefs about Christianity before his conversion seemed to mirror those of modern sceptics and atheists, rather than a Platonist, and adherent to a Late Roman pseudo-Christian sect. Clearly, most of the details of the story were meticulously researched (despite the odd modern Americanism- like the characters talking about the season of ‘fall’).

Other reviewers have questioned the inclusion of this story in the Christian fiction genre, as the protagonist’s religious affiliations are decidedly ambiguous (I would say she leans more on the side of pagan than Christian)- and because of the nature of her status in relation to Augustine- his concubine instead of his wife. In this regard, though I don’t mean to condone illicit sexual relations, it’s hard to ignore that various biblical figures had concubines and this was not something they were condemned for.
I would personally leave it to the reader’s discretion whether they wish to count this as Christian fiction or not. It’s certainly a touching, moving and fascinating story of love and loss. 

I received a free e-book edition of this title courtesy of the publisher via Booklook Bloggers for the purposes of review. I was not required to write a positive one, and all opinions expressed are my own. 

1 Mar 2016

Audiobook Review- Waterfall by Lisa T. Bergren

Waterfall: River of Time Series #1 
February 1st 2011, Oasis Audio 
What do you do when your knight in shining armor lives, literally, in a different world? Most American teenagers want a vacation in Italy, but the Betarrini sisters have spent every summer of their lives among the romantic hills with their archaeologist parents.  
Stuck among the rubble of medieval castles in rural Tuscany on yet another hot, dusty archaeological site, Gabi and Lia are bored out of their minds … until Gabi places her hand atop a handprint in an ancient tomb and finds herself in fourteenth-century Italy. 
And worse yet, in the middle of a fierce battle between knights of two opposing forces. Suddenly Gabi’s summer in Italy is much, much more interesting.         

I finally purchased the Kindle, and then the audible editions of the first three titles in the very popular River of Time series. Some might call the series pioneering, having made books set in the medieval period more popular and ‘respectable’ in the Christian Fiction Genre.

I don’t think it was a bad book- but- I have read- or listened to- much better. Perhaps it had something to do with the target market, and the book being written from the viewpoint of a teenage girl- but it often came across as rather silly and shallow. Certainly, Gabi’s speech and thoughts were true for her background, but, as other reviewers have commented, the romantic content, and out heroine’s approach to it, could be said to have lowered the tone. Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with romance, but not mushy and gushy romance that overcomes the story. Or silly, inconsistent behaviour and attitudes by the characters- although I guess that can be expected for teens.

A lot of the details also just struck me as being very unrealistic. Take the first scene in which Gabi falls head over heels for Marcello when she claps eyes on him during a skirmish, and starts admiring his face and physique. An unusual reaction when finding oneself just having been transported through time into the Middle of a Battle- certainly- but where was his armour?
Seriously, the average gear of a Lord’s son in the first half of the fourteenth century would have consisted of some pieces of plate armour, with some kind of padded tunic underneath, for extra protection. With all that on, you wouldn’t really have been able to see a person’s physique- and to describe as much of his face, including his cheekbones, out hero must not have been wearing a helmet at all- never a good idea in a Medieval battle. I mean seriously, was be lounging about in his undergarments or something?

Perhaps another problem was that the story tried to do too much and be too much. To tick all the boxes for ‘what a teenage girl would like’- beautiful boys, beautiful clothes, strong and tough heroine, action and adventure. Oh, there was action aplenty- but some of the fight scenes were like something out of a cheesy movie. I’m sure it’s really not that easy to slice through armour- and as another reviewer pointed, out- a fencing rapier like Gabi was trained to use, is quite different from a medieval broadsword. Yet our heroine seemed to master its use in about 5 minutes, and by two thirds of the way through, is in the Middle of a pitched battle against people who have been training for years. Again, I have no problem with strong heroines- but I like them to be strong in a plausible way- not just because warrior women are fashionable.

Admittedly, she did learn not be quite so judgemental on some occasions (not having all the facts or knowing all the circumstances) but at times her views or the details represented popular myths about the period more than anything else. Medical ignorance and rotten teeth amongst them. Actually, it’s been demonstrated that more people suffered from tooth decay in the 20th century than the 14th, as a result of having too much processed sugar in their diet. That said, it did at least depict the people of the time as being concerned with bathing and hygiene.

One just didn’t feel ‘transported’ back to the time, as I like good historical fiction to make me feel. It all came across as a little bit superficial and shallow, especially when the historical backdrop and context seemed to fall by the wayside, and the story focused more on Gabi and Marcello (who despite his good looks, was not the most well drawn character- more like the stock sexy tough guy) kissing or wanting to kiss, or agonizing about being unavailable.

I understand that Young Adult fiction has certain limitations, and maybe looking at it from the perspective of an adult was the wrong thing to do- but this could have been so much better. . I am probably going to take it through to the end of the series, to see how the series pans out, and if the characters and story might develop more.

Readers way wish to note that due to certain content issues, this book is probably not suitable for pre-teens. This involves a character pinning down Gabi and intending to rape her, and another character taking her into a corner to talk to her, and making lewd remarks as well as inappropriate touching.
I don't really approve of such content being justified as 'realism' when its really just put in for dramatic effect, but readers may wish to exersize thier own discretion here.
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