6 Dec 2015

New for 2015- The Golden Braid- Melanie Dickerson

 368 Page, Print, Ebook and Audio
Thomas Nelson, 17th November 2015

The one who needs rescuing isn’t always the one in the tower.
Rapunzel can throw a knife better than any man. She paints beautiful flowering vines on the walls of her plaster houses. She sings so sweetly she can coax even a beast to sleep. But there are two things she is afraid her mother might never allow her to do: learn to read and marry.
Fiercely devoted to Rapunzel, her mother is suspicious of every man who so much as looks at her daughter and warns her that no man can be trusted. After a young village farmer asks for Rapunzel’s hand in marriage, Mother decides to move them once again—this time, to the large city of Hagenheim.

The journey proves treacherous, and after being rescued by a knight—Sir Gerek—Rapunzel, in turn, rescues him farther down the road. As a result, Sir Gerek agrees to repay his debt to Rapunzel by teaching her to read. Could there be more to him than his arrogance and desire to marry for riches and position?

As Rapunzel acclimates to life in a new city, she uncovers a mystery that will forever change her life. In this Rapunzel story unlike any other, a world of secrets and treachery are about to be revealed after seventeen years. How will Rapunzel finally take control of her own destiny? And who will prove faithful to a lowly peasant girl with no one to turn to?

 Although I have read all of Melanie Dickerson’s books, and will likely continue to do so, they have been something of a mixed bag for me. It is interesting to read an alternative representation of fairy tales from a Christian perspective, stripped of the magical and ‘fairy godmother’ type content. However, some of the content can also be a little clichéd, implausible……and romantic mush in any novel by any author is starting to wear a little bit thin for me. I really don’t want to read about characters admiring one another’s lips or physique, or having some ‘warm’ feeling when they kiss. It’s just eye-roll inducing…

Anyway, I was eagerly anticipating The Golden Braid although I had some reservations based on the synopsis (I worried it might be overly politically correct). In the first half, I was pleasantly surprised by the well-drawn characters who were obviously harbouring secrets and baggage, but also the historical details. I was rather pleased to see that the author went some way towards questioning the assumption that it was ‘heresy’ to read the Bible in one’s own language in the Medieval period. (This was not considered heretical in and of itself).

The relationship and developing friendship between Rapunzel and Sir Gerek was quite sweet and endearing- one might say rather refreshing for being free of romantic mush. He taught her to read to pay her back for helping him, and she was able to get over her distrust of men to learn about faith. Also, although she was strong and able to look after herself, Rapunzel was not one of those militant proto-feminist heroines with a chip on her shoulder against the whole world, like you see in some stories.

As the story progressed however, there was some crossover with one of the previous novels The Princess Spy, with the story covering a lot of the same ground and content. This did not continue for too long- but I felt that towards the end, after about three quarters of the way through, the story started to become somewhat rushed, choppy, and weaker than it was before.
Rapunzel gets locked in a tower (to follow the fairy tale) but it was rather a minor aspect of the story that was dealt with better elsewhere. In some ways, Mother Gothel’s control and demands on Rapunzel were more of an imprisonment. Also, there came to be some details that seemed rather- far-fetched- like Gerek just happening to pull a ‘tarp covered’ torch out of his saddlebag. Seriously? Was tarpaulin even invented then? Also, I found the idea of a war-hose being spooked by a hare a bit much- they were meant to be highly trained so as not to be easily scared. An animal like that would be pretty much useless on the battlefield, so why would an experienced knight even keep it.

Also, things got a little mushier later on in the story in terms of romance- with more kissing and touching. Although it was interesting to see the characters wrestling with one another’s revelations and feelings for one another, as well as to forgive those who wronged them.
Overall, The Golden Braid was a satisfying and interesting story which holds the attention of the reader. In spite of some weaknesses, I would say it was one of the better stories in this continuing series. Although, perhaps later novels might be better for including newer characters and storylines not related to the family and region of the others.

Thanks to Booklook Bloggers and Thomas Nelson for providing me with a free kindle edition of this book for review. I read this alongside listening to the audiobook (which I purchased of my own volition), I was not required to write a positive review and all opinions expressed are my own.

29 Nov 2015

New for 2015- Sword of Forgiveness- Debbie Lynne Costello

Winds of Change #1
344 Pages, February 27th 2015

When her father died, she had promised herself no man would own her again, yet who could defy an edict of the king?

After the death of her cruel father, Brithwin is determined never again to live under the harsh rule of any man. Independent and resourceful, she longs to be left alone to manage her father's estate. But she soon discovers a woman has few choices when the king decrees she is to marry Royce, the Lord of Rosencraig. As if the unwelcome marriage isn't enough, her new husband accuses her of murdering his family, and she is faced with a challenge of either proving her innocence or facing possible execution.

Royce of Hawkwood returns home after setting down a rebellion to find his family brutally murdered. When all fingers point to his betrothed and attempts are made on his life, Royce must wade through murky waters to uncover the truth. Yet Brithwin's wise and kind nature begin to break down the walls of his heart, and he soon finds himself in a race to discover who is behind the evil plot before Brithwin is the next victim.

  I honestly did not know what to expect from this book before I read it (I actually thought it was set in the 1100s from the style of the armour shown on the cover when I first heard of it). For a first full length novel, it is certainly a good effort, with plenty going for in in terms of storyline, Romance and suspense.

What I could say, however, it that sometimes the Historical Romance genre hampers the progress of stories like this....and for the genre, there was not a lot in this novel that was not untypical. I'm going to say right now that the trope of 'forced marriage' in medieval stories really annoys me, and can be a big turnoff. It’s totally inaccurate (forced marriage was in fact illegal) and it’s an awful cliché.
I really thought that the marriage in this one was not supposed to be 'forced'- but it was described as if it was, and Brithwin's belief that she could be executed for refusing to marry the person the King wanted was just absurd.
Seriously- that's another pet hate of mine- characters who are supposed to live in a certain society or time period- but are totally unfamiliar with the laws, norms or customs of that society. Medieval English noblewomen could not be killed for refusing an arranged marriage- even one that the King wanted. In fact, the evidence shows they did things like that on quite a regular basis.

On the plus side, the characterization was pretty strong for the most part, and the element of conflict and intrigue was well done. There was enough, I think to keep the audience guessing and the story moving on, and enough human drama to make for well-rounded, imperfect characters and a strong central theme. Who doesn't love a story the age old story about a tough guy trying to win over his Lady?
The geographical location (the Northern English county of Cumberland, just shy of the Scottish border), also made an interesting background for some of the events, with the tendency towards instability, lawlessness and raiding that was common in the late Medieval period.
That said, the characters did seem to do some very stupid things at times (which was usually necessary to bring them into some kind of situation of danger or conflict), which on, reflection, they really ought to have learned not to do. Why did they keep on leaving the castle without an escort knowing there were enemies in the area, or someone trying to kill them?

Other reviewers have said this story is 'anti-Catholic'. I don't think it is that necessarily- but I will say there was some inaccurate details about the Lollard movement and its founder John Wycliffe. For instance, the Lollard priest claims that many of his fellows had been killed for their beliefs- but historical records make it clear that no Lollards were killed until after 1401, when the law was changed. There was persecution of the members of the movement, yes, but no actual executions- and certainly not by secular rulers. 

Also, the historical note describes John Wycliffe as a 'lay preacher', when he was in fact an ordained Priest and a Canon- perhaps these errors were due to some deficiency in the sources that were used for research (there are certainly a lot of incorrect ideas around about Medieval religious movements), but its unfortunate.

Overall, this was a worthwhile story. I would say that I would almost certainly have purchased it for myself if I had not won a free Kindle copy in a competition, and I will certainly keep it to read again. I just think it could have been better- maybe more use could have been made of the political situation of the period, and some situations felt a little clichéd or improbable.

9 Nov 2015

New for 2015: The Abbess of Whitby- A Novel of Hild of Northumbria- Jill Dalladay

Lion Ficton/Kregel, October 2015 (US) 
352 Pages
The dramatic story of a seventh-century evangelist
Chosen as handmaid to Eostre, the Saxon goddess, Hild would spend a year serving the goddess before she was wed. Her future was mapped out - until her father was murdered, and King Edwin claimed her as kin. Hild’s first love was given a key command in Edwin’s forces, and vanished from her life, wed to her elder sister. That same day, the court was baptised, ending the people’s fertility religion and Hild’s role. 
Life looked bleak – even more so when the husband to whom she was given was killed, along with her child. Hild resented the compulsory baptism, but became intrigued by the Iona priests, and eventually converted.  Aidan, the charismatic figure who taught, and lived, a new kind of love, persuaded Hild to help spread the new faith. In thanks for a significant victory, King Oswy ordered her to found one of his new monasteries at Whitby. 
She would see the men she trained appointed by the Pope as missionary bishops, carrying the faith across Britain.
When I saw Lion Fiction (Kregel in the US) the Publisher of Edoardo Albert's fantastic Northumbrian Thrones Series, set in seventh century England were bringing out another book about a major figure from this time, I snapped it up. I confess to a long-enduring love for the Anglo-Saxon era, and the seventh century was a golden age for the famous Kingdom of Northumbria.

Whilst many other works set at this time are very masculine with an emphasis on battles, war and politics it was interesting to find a story that looks at the time from a female perspective focused on everyday life, family relationships and the management of estates.
Such a woman was Hild, sometimes known as St Hilda, born to a royal Saxon father and British mother. Little is known of her early life and adulthood, before she assumed the leadership of Whitby Abbey- in its day one of the most famous religious houses of Northern England.

As such, much of the novel is what I would call speculative history (based on likely circumstances of what might have been but we cannot know for certain), recounting Hild's journey through marriage, life the turbulent political circumstances of the time and place, and ultimately to faith.
After her conversion, and entry into a religious house, Hild has been lauded as one of the most powerful and influential women of her time- Kings and clerics came to her for advice, and her Abbey trained men who would one day become Priests, Bishops and Missionaries- even a poet.

Her story and those of her fellows are told with honesty, compassion and is compelling enough to hold the reader's interest. My only complaints were the writing style. Somehow, in the narrative passages it lacked the descriptive, almost poetic beauty of Edoardo Albert's novels which evoke Tolkien and the Epic Literature of the age, instead a rather informal conversational tone is used.
At times, this resulted in language that seemed too modern for the time, and certain turns of phrase which might have been unique to Northern England which might pass over readers from other backgrounds. I did spot a few anachronisms, and in places the writing seemed a little 'rushed', and I found myself reading passages again as within a sentence or two the characters would leave to a different room, place or situation. Sometimes it could be hard to keep up.
However, the author's note suggests that much sound research had gone into the story, so maybe what felt like a lack of a 'sense of period' in some parts can be put down to personal opinion.

Aside from the above, this book had many positives. It is a wonderful spiritual biography of one of the most important women in Early Medieval Christian Britain. I would certainly recommend to any interested in women's history or this fascinating, formative era of England's past.

Thanks to Lion Fiction for the copy they gave me for review. I was not required to write a positive one an all opinions expressed are my own.

7 Nov 2015

Historical Saturday- Another Word on Medieval Marriage....

I know, another post on a subject done before might be enough to induce an eye-roll, but I think that my reading habits have shown that this subject is misunderstood, and to a certain extent, misrepresented so much that another word is needed to clear things up. 

The continuing problem is that so many Medieval Fiction stories still feature forced marriage, or inevitably unhappy arranged marriages that the ancient Canon Law prohibition on the former seems null and void. In fiction do we get the idea that this sort of thing was somehow normal, because of the common fiction trope of the pretty young girl married to a horrible, ugly or abusive man....you get the picture.
Christian Fiction books are treading in very risky territory by portraying any kind of adultery or sexual immorality- as a novel I recently encountered did in a similar scenario, and I am almost inclined to think that is a good thing. There are standards, which I think should be upheld.

Yet conversely, many if not most Romance type stories of this genre set in the Medieval period will feature a girl or young woman who is either threatened with or subject to some kind of forced marriage. 
The age old trope over again. Now don't get me wrong, I understand the need for drama and conflict in stories, but it seems to me that time and time again authors are ignoring a fundamental aspect of Medieval law and custom- namely that the church banned forced marriage very early on- from the late twelfth century in fact. 
Very often though, in fiction, the ban is either not mentioned at all, or is simply brushed aside, as something that made to real difference, and it is made out that forced marriage was pretty much the norm anyway (at least for the noble classes). The cynic in me is inclined to think that the reason for this is that authors simply want to write about forced marriage- because its seen as more interesting or dramatic, and don't want to let an inconvenient fact get in the way of the story. 

Sometimes, though, I encounter specific reasons why the ban is not addressed or is not considered relevant.
It might be said families or guardians could put pressure on children, regardless of what the law said, to accept a marriage that they did not want, or that they dared not defy a royal edict (a common scenario). Otherwise, it might be made out that clerics and priests could easily be harassed or even bribed to turn a blind eye to a less than legal marriage ceremony.
I for one am inclined to think that the level of 'corruption' in the Medieval church, and the English church through the ages has been grossly over-stated, by some of the early supporters of the Reformation- and, perhaps controversially, by Modern Americans making sweeping generalisations about British history and culture- but that is a different matter. 

Whist it is not implausible that families could put pressure on their members- the historian in me rails against the idea that it was so easy to just ignore or get past the ban on forced marriage, as we often see in fiction.

One reason was the nature of the law itself. Canon Law did not directly say 'Forced marriage is forbidden'. Rather, it stated that both parties had to give their free and willing verbal consent in front of witnesses for any marriage to be considered legally valid. (Which is probably why we still have the 'I do's' today). 
Now, you might be thinking, it would be easy for the superlative tyrannical and abusive father to simply make his daughter give her verbal assent- but, forced consent is not free or willing....and, here is the key point.
Lack of free consent was one of only a few basis on which a person could secure a divorce in the Middle Ages.
That is right. If little Mary's father ordered her to give her consent in the part of the wedding service which asked her for this, she could, later on take the matter to the church courts that were common in the Medieval period, and dealt with most matters relating to marriage and morality. If she could prove that she had not given this consent freely, then she could, at least in theory, get the marriage annulled because it was not legally valid. 

Perhaps the idea of a repressed Medieval woman going to court  to fight for her rights seems implausible,  (I can almost hear shouts of '.....but Medieval women had no rights!') but its actually not so far-fetched at all. 
In England, the Medieval court system produced extensive records- sometimes literally almost everything pertaining to proceedings and cases was written down- (expect sometimes the final verdict), in Latin of course. This is wonderful for historians, as so many records have survived, and then can give us some intriguing insights into Medieval law, and how it related to people at all ends of the social scale. 

One thing the records show is that women went to court on a regular basis- and often as the Plaintiff rather than defendant. Yes indeed, Medieval ladies were inclined to sue if the need arose. When it came to cases related to marriage in church courts women frequently crop up- but they also appear in cases related to the secular courts as well. 
Here is the interesting thing- there were many cases of guardians taking their wards, or former
wards,  to court over 'unauthorized' marriages- namely marriages to persons not of the guardians choosing entered into without their permission and consent. 
In other words, it would seem that young people of the nobility and gentry were frequently ignoring the wishes of their guardians where marriage was concerned, and freely choosing their own spouse. 

Hardly the picture that we have of forceful elders bullying and cajoling the younger generation to marry someone that did not want. In fact, the legal records also reveal something else- the number of cases pertaining to marriage and property ownership suggests that Medieval men and women were fully aware of their legal rights, and were more than willing to go through the courts to secure and defend them. 
There are even cases of wives complaining to the courts about mistreatment at the hands of their husbands. In other words, abuse of women was not something that was necessarily legally accepted or condoned in the Medieval period. In extreme cases, abuse could be grounds for separation. 

I think, as time goes on, the above is one thing that I am learning to love about what I do. The past is not something that is dead, dull and boring (though the records can be tedious). It has left behind traces and sources which can give us vital evidence about the lives of past people, as well as their culture and society. 
Very often, what is revealed by the evidence can defy or expectations and preconceived ideas about what life was like in that past, their actions, attitudes and beliefs. 
In this case, the evidence seems to reveal that Medieval women were assertive, knew their rights, and had the support of the law- and I for one rather like that idea more than seeing them as repressed and passive pawns in the hands of other people.

1 Nov 2015

New for 2015- By Divine Right- Patrick W. Carr

 The Darkwater Saga # 0.5 
E-book only, Bethany House 
September 1st 2015, 119 Pages
Willet Dura ekes out a living as an assistant reeve in the city of Bunard, the royal city, investigating minor and not-so-minor crimes in the poor quarter. Ever since a terrible battle, Willet's been drawn to the dead, and has an uncanny ability not only to solve their crimes, but even to know when one has been committed.

When a gifted singer is found dead in the merchants' quarter of the city, everyone assumes by the signs that the old man simply died of a stroke, but Willet's intuition tells him better. When he learns that this is the second death within the last month of one of the gifted, those with a rare inherited ability, he begins to suspect that something more is afoot, and he soon finds himself chasing a mystery that could bring down the very kingdom of Collum.

 A couple of years ago I read A Cast of Stones, the first book in this author’s original fantasy trilogy, and I was probably in the minority for not being very impressed. I just found it unrealistic in a lot of places, and the writing style rather sloppy and undeveloped. As it was a first novel, however I decided to give Mr Carr’s books another try, and purchased this prequel novella to his new trilogy.

Generally, it did not disappoint. The setting seemed generally more credible and detailed, the characters more memorable and writing much improved. Like his previous trilogy, the author takes a fairly generic medieval type fantasy setting, and gives the characters some kind of special power or ability that provides the major basis of the plot. In this story, the elements of political intrigue and a mystery were also cleverly worked in and the ‘gifts’ endowed on certain character provided an original twist.
As someone who does not do in for sword, sorcery and dragon type fantasy stories, its always good to find what I call 'human' fantasy and historical fiction that is does not go in for the unnecessary and excessive sex references that one finds in those made by so much of the mainstream media today.
Although this is usually required by most of the major Christian publishing houses anyway.

I did have a couple of issues, generally with some of the language and minor historical details. I know that some will argue that fantasy does not have to be accurate or authentic.
Yet I argue that if the setting is reminiscent of a certain historical period (even if it’s in a fictional country or place), there should be some degree of authenticity and world-building, something that transports the audience into that world, without it feeling too much like the society inhabited by the author. What is the point of fantasy otherwise?

This was a great introduction to the background, setting and characters of the full length novel. I had already  The Shock of Night on Netgalley and look forward to reading that one, hopefully later his year.

19 Oct 2015

New for 2015- A Sapphire Season- Lynn Morris

368 Pages, August 11th 2015 
Faithwords Publisher

Lynn Morris, bestselling author of The Baron's Honourable Daughter, once again sweeps readers into the Regency era with striking period detail.  

Lady Mirabella Tirel, the beautiful daughter of the Marquess of Camarden, takes a practical approach to love since a dashing captain broke her heart at age 17. Now at almost 22 years old, she has decided to endure one last London season to secure a suitable engagement and begin a simple life in the country. 
Sir Giles Knyvet is Mirabella's oldest friend and her most dependable ally, and he is also secretly in love with her. 
Yet he knows the prospect of a relationship is doubtful: Besides being a mere baronet, he aims to settle a large family debt before sharing his feelings with her. But as Mirabella draws close to a suitable match, Giles may need to interfere to buy himself more time.

For starters, it was I think pleasant to find a Regency Romance story which does not rely on various plot devices such as espionage, political intrigue, or some kind of threat from criminal activities to crank up the drama. There was no mystery, no fast-paced action- no murders, kidnappings or treasonable plots. For some, that might be a bad thing- but I didn’t really mind it.

I could describe the story as a simple, plain, old fashioned Regency that is more character driven than plot driven, and does as it promised- focusing on the heroine’s attempts to find a husband in one particular season. In some ways, actually, I think some Regencies focus too much on the sensational or dramatic, and so it’s good to find one that just offers a simple story which was still enjoyable.
The downside for me, was that I sometimes found it a little hard to follow. I think perhaps that there were too many characters, and so it was hard to keep up with their interactions to one another and their activities. Sometimes I found myself forgetting who X and Y actually were and how they were related to other characters, which cannot be a good thing.

Also, alongside a few annoying Americanisms that intruded upon an otherwise solid and credible period setting (I’m fairly certain that nineteenth century Englishmen did not describe distances in urban areas in ‘blocks’), I think perhaps I had some issue with the heroine Mirabella. In some ways, she was everything a Regency heroine could be- but in other ways, she came across as very fickle, indecisive and rather priggish.
She seemed to lead men on, with her known intent of finding a husband, court them and seem keen on them- and then totally go off them for sometimes the most trivial of reasons, whilst still holding a flame for the distant hero. I mean, was she really trying to find a husband or not? As it seemed as if nobody but the guy she fancied all along could ever be good enough…..yet it was obvious that they would get together in the end.

Overall this was an enjoyable book, the Christian theme well delivered without being clichéd or too contrived, and the period details I felt added to the story. I would certainly recommend for fans of Regency and Romance.

I received a copy of this book free from the publisher via Netgalley in return for review. I was not required to write a positive one and all opinions expressed are my own.

7 Oct 2015

New for 2015- A Noble Masquerade- Kristi-Ann Hunter

 8th September 2015, Bethany House 
365 Pages

Lady Miranda Hawthorne acts every inch the lady, but inside she longs to be bold and carefree. Entering her fourth Season and approaching spinsterhood in the eyes of society, she pours her innermost feelings out not in a diary but in letters to her brother's old school friend, a duke--with no intention of ever sending these private thoughts to a man she's heard stories about but never met.
Meanwhile, she also finds herself intrigued by Marcus, her brother's new valet, and although she may wish to break free of the strictures that bind her, falling in love with a servant is more of a rebellion than she planned.

When Marcus accidentally discovers and mails one of the letters to her unwitting confidant, Miranda is beyond mortified. And even more shocked when the duke returns her note with one of his own that initiates a courtship-by-mail. Insecurity about her lack of suitors shifts into confusion at her growing feelings for two men--one she's never met but whose words deeply resonate with her heart, and one she has come to depend on but whose behavior is more and more suspicious. When it becomes apparent state secrets are at risk and Marcus is right in the thick of the conflict, one thing is certain: Miranda's heart is far from all that's at risk for the Hawthornes and those they love.

 I described the prequel novella to this book, A Lady of Esteem as a good, light-hearted, fun read, and it was. As its big sister, A Noble Masquerade had many of the same admirable traits – a socially awkward and often unconventional heroine, with a big heart and a sense of adventure. Some- colourful family members as a supporting cast, and plenty of mishaps, and social customs of the ton that (admit it) most of us have come to love in Regency tales, as well as a sprinkling of romance, and intrigue with the espionage sub-plot.

So on the plus-side it was an enjoyable, well-written novel. Light yet immersive, fun and (generally) clean. Yet- I didn’t enjoy it as much as the accompanying novella, and had a couple of major issues. I suppose the first of these could be described as something of an identity crisis in the plot, style and execution. The book, I think was meant to be light and fun (almost the point of regency spoof, I felt at times) but at the same time had some serious content with the espionage, scheming relatives, and possible seditious plot in the background.

To me, these just did not always seem to mix very well, that it was hard to take one seriously alongside the other. I mean, Ryland was meant to be an experienced spy of many years- he’s not really meant to have been getting his head turned by pretty girls, or walking into traps. So I suppose I would say that some incidents and details seemed to be lacking in plausibility or credibility, and were perhaps resolved too quickly? Perhaps this situation was exacerbated by my finding things a bit hard to follow at times (I mean what did the relatives have to do with someone possibly feeding secrets to Napoleon- or were these two different situations altogether). Am I just being dense? Or perhaps this is a consequence of fast reading over several days.

Putting this aside though- the language really was an annoyance. The odd Americanism in Regencies like this can be overlooked- but in this the characters speech and thoughts were literally crammed full of Americanisms and modern terms and phrases- as if no attempt had really been made to make this authentic for the period at all. Call me nit-picking, but British Aristocrats people in 1812 were not going to be using the word ‘Okay’ which originated as slang in New York/Boston nearly 30 years later. To me, such things damage the credibility of the setting, making it resemble some Regency Drama made by PBS with an exclusively American cast, trying, but not always succeeding, to sound ‘British’.

Elsewhere, whilst It was great to see Miranda, eclipsed by her prettier younger sister getting some happiness, and coming into her own in the course of the book, and sometimes her unconventionality was quite endearing- at the end, some of her conduct could only be described as- really inappropriate. Okay, so kissing happens, it’s a Romance after all- and I have no issue with that.
Nor could she help the situation she was in- but for a Lady of refined manners and breeding, to be sitting on a man’s lap- whilst they ate. And the man in question was a Gentleman- also raised to refinement and good manners. Readers can call me a prude all they want- but by the standards of the time, such behaviour could only be called lewd, totally unnecessary- and perhaps quite out of character.

Altogether, A Noble Masquerade was worth reading, and I would certainly consider more by this author- but I think I still prefer other Regency writers. Perhaps this story was just a little too ambitious, with too many separate elements thrown it that were not always women together seamlessly.

I received an electronic version of this book free from Bethany House via Netgalley for review. I was not required to write a positive one and all opinions expressed are my own

1 Oct 2015

New for 2015- The Lost Heiress- Roseanna M. White

Ladies of the Manor #1  
September 8th 2015, Bethany House
439 Pages
Brook Eden has never known where she truly belongs. Though raised in the palace of Monaco, she’s British by birth and was brought to the Grimaldis under suspicious circumstances as a babe. When Brook’s friend Justin uncovers the fact that Brook is likely a missing heiress from Yorkshire, Brook leaves the sun of the Mediterranean to travel to the moors of the North Sea to the estate of her supposed family.

The mystery of her mother’s death haunts her, and though her father is quick to accept her, the rest of the family and the servants of Whitby Park are not. Only when Brook’s life is threatened do they draw close—but their loyalty may come too late to save Brook from the same threat that led to tragedy for her mother.
As heir to a dukedom, Justin is no stranger to balancing responsibilities.
When the matters of his estate force him far from Brook, the distance between them reveals that what began as friendship has grown into something much more. But how can their very different loyalties and responsibilities ever come together?
And then, for a second time, the heiress of Whitby Park is stolen away because of the very rare treasure in her possession—and this time only the servants of Whitby can save her
I don't normally gravitate towards Fiction set in the Edwardian Era- but what with the huge popularity of a certain TV series, it is becoming more popular in the Christian Fiction genre- and I did recently read another set a few years later.

I was not sure what to expect- having read nothing by this author before, but I had heard goood thigs about this. Generally, I was satisfied, even when listening the to audiobook at work and reading the EPub at home. There is enough romance, family drama and intrigue to keep the reader interested, as well as a hint of mystery.

My only complaints were that the mystery was perhaps drawn out too long- the characters could have acted on clues sooner- and a few mushy romance scenes (which get to me in any book). Also, in spite of some attempt to avoid them, I did notice the odd Americanism (the mention of 'pants' slipping in a couple of times, even though characters had used the approporate British-ism previous passages).
Otherwise, though, the story was well researched as the author's note makes clear.
Also, although I generally liked Brook, she could prove annoying, childish and pig-headed in places. Does a 'spirited and unconventional' woman always have to posess such traits- really?

Overall though, it was a pleasurable and satisfying read- even though at 15 hours the audiobook is on the long side.
I recieved my e-book version free from Bethany House via Netgalley for an honest review. I was not required to write a positive one and all opinions expressed are my own.

27 Sept 2015

The Isle of Arcrea- Nicole Sager

The Isle of Arcrea- The Arcrean Conquest #3
January 13th 2013, 376 Pages 

Subject to the designing rule of evil men, one island's future rests in the hands of an Arcrean.

Lady Meredith of Gilbrenor seeks help from the borders of Arcrea in a desperate attempt to rescue her son from the clutches of Lord Brock and to claim his rightful legacy. When Falconer undertakes the seemingly simple mission and travels to the isle with Meredith and her two young daughters, he is unprepared for the painful memories from his own past that wait to confront him on the distant shores.

Seth is a simple Arcrean shepherd whose worries are few and far between. When the discovery of a costly heirloom starts him on a quest of justice, it quickly becomes a journey that will test the strength of his faith and unlock the truth of his life?s purpose.

A lost parchment, a devastating secret, and an evil lord who seeks their ruin. Will the puzzle of Gilbrenor be solved and her future secured before it is too late?

Another enjoyable read with a sound Christian theme, in which it was interesting to see a formerly minor character come into his own. In this case, it was Falconer the former spy and ‘informant’, whose background and circumstances we learn more about. His getting a chance at love was quite sweet and touching.

Some of the circumstances were rather predictable- I was able to guess Seth’s true identity a chapter or two before it was revealed, for instance. Also, some of the fight scenes left a lot to be desired (one guy beating up three or four trained soldiers- really?), and the characterization of the villain- well, it gets a bit repetitive after a while. Yet another evil Mizgalian nobleman. Finally- potatoes in the Middle Ages- even in a fictional Medieval society of that includes dragons and other made-up creatures, are a real annoyance to me. Ditch the spuds guys- they come from America- not Europe!

I would recommend this series for families and Young Adults, who are the intended audience (and I understand the reason why they can appear rather simplistic), and those seeking a wholesome, clean, magic-free alternative to secular fantasy stories. Those who prefer their fantasy a little more complex, nuanced or realistic might like other stories better- but this series is still worth a look.

Thanks again to the person who loaned this book to me, allowing me to read the whole trilogy for free.
I would consider the author's second series, as I would be interested in seeing the stories of characters like Eliena concluded, but I'm not sure I would be prepared to pay nearly £5 apiece for the books.

18 Sept 2015

The Fate of Arcrea- Nicole Sager

The Fate of Arcrea- The Arcrean Conquest # 2 
November 2012, 328 Pages 

Return to the kingdom of Arcrea,
where the stage is set for an epic battle between good and evil.

Trenton is a young Mizgalian caught up in the deadly beliefs inspired by a life in his father’s garrison. When a simple mission in Arcrea unearths the shocking truth of a mystery two decades in the making, he is left with a choice that may decide the fate of an entire kingdom. Join old friends and new on a journey of discovery, where battling vicious beasts and conquering a coast of dragons will test the mettle of men and set the pace for an adventure like no other

 Good Christian Fantasy with some sounds messages and memorable moments- but with a few of the drawbacks of the last book. Seemingly invincible heroes, and fight scenes that whilst exiting- seemed to be lacking something. Why does nobody seem to wear armour- or if they do why is it so easy to dispatch enemies?
Also, as before, villainary seemed to be determined more by social class and political affiliation more than anything else- in spite of the character's sentiments about there being evil everywhere.

It was interesting to read more about a lot of the characters from the first book, and see some of thier situations resolved, and its a good, easygoing quick read. Preachy in places, but that does line up with the intention of the author, so its not a cause for major complaint.
Perhaps its just not the type of fantasy that I really go in for. Too many Americanisms I think to be a convincing Medieval world, and I did notice a couple of scenes and details that may have been 'borrowed' from various movies. Still worth a read.

Thankyou to the person who loaned me this book.

12 Sept 2015

New for 2015- Chivalrous- Dina Sleiman

Valiant Hearts Series #2
368 Pages, Bethany House
September 8th 2015 

Strong and adventurous Gwendolyn Barnes longs to be a knight like her chivalrous brothers. However, that is not an option for her, not even in the Arthurian-inspired Eden where she dwells. Her parents view her only as a marriage pawn, and her domineering father is determined to see her wed to a brutish man who will break her spirit.

When handsome, good-hearted Allen of Ellsworth arrives in Edendale searching for his place in the world, Gwendolyn spies in him the sort of fellow she could imagine marrying. Yet fate seems determined to keep them apart.
Tournaments, intrigue, and battles--along with twists and turns aplenty--await these two as they struggle to find love, identity, and their true destinies.

A trilogy, that common animal in Fiction, can be a mixed bag. The first book can be wonderful, whilst others fail to please, or vice versa. Such was the case for me with Chivalrous. I did genuinely like Dauntless, the first book and the series- and that is high praise from me, who sets my standards for Medieval Fiction very high indeed.

In such cases, it’s best to start with the positive. Chivalrous was a tight, well-told story, with some important messages, and delivered its main religious theme about trusting God in difficult and seemingly impossible circumstances well, without being too preachy. Readers of the first book might also enjoy seeing Allen of Ellsworth, an important character from the first book, come into his own. There is also plenty of action, adventure and intrigue to keep young adult readers enthralled- as well as plenty of romance.

However, for me there some major deficiencies. One thing was that I never really warmed to the female protagonist, Gwendolyn. Like Merry from the first book she adopts a traditionally male role, that of a wannabe knight- but unlike Merry, her wish to do this seems to result more from rebellious obstinacy, and a refusal to conform to social norms than anything else, and some crazy idea that by acting like a boy, and doing things she knew her father disapproved of she could somehow win his approval.
In the early part of the book, she just seemed like a brat with a chip on her shoulder because she was not allowed to play with swords and was expected to stay in her family’s castle, and do ‘boring’ things she did not want to do. Even her basis for rejecting religion (namely that it supported and endorsed the repression and subjection of women and the lower classes) seemed contrived, clichéd and hopelessly anachronistic.

Okay, so the idea of a medieval woman fighting is not so implausible. Yet the notion of a teenage girl with no direct military experience being able to best trained soldiers, or even kill fully armoured knights on the battlefield when not even wearing a helmet (essential for preventing serious head injuries, or death) and escape unscathed is a bit much. Even for men, failure to use the proper armour or equipment in battle proved fatal, so how could she manage without it? Is this really a credible and constructive example of female empowerment?

Again, I had no problem with the issue of domestic abuse in this story. These things do happen and it’s necessary to explore them at times. However, I do object to the idea that Gwen’s situation- that of having a father who abuses her mother, and even his children, was common in medieval times, and such actions were generally considered acceptable. Nor do I accept the claim that Gwen’s father’s attitude towards women and their roles were normal for the period.
One example would be his belief that women should not ride horses because it could damage their genitals- which seemed to me patent nonsense historically- there are plenty of medieval illustrations that show women riding and I have never heard of anyone at the time raising such an objection.
 No doubt fans will take issue with me remarking on historical accuracy in this regard, but there were cases in Medieval Britain of women taking abusive spouses to court, or 'naming and shaming' them in front of the neighbourhood. Too put it simply, women, even in the 'bad old Medieval' days were not entirely without redress to law and rights. So why do we have to go along with the 'repressed chattels' stereotype as typical of the period- and strong, valued, women in loving relationships as the exception?

I also had issue with how prevalent forced marriage was in this story. It is something else I have a problem with in fiction- mostly because the church actually banned it in the eleventh century, and that it was actually quite hard to get past this ban because of how the law worked. Despite this, many authors seem to ignore or discount the ban, and make out that it was the norm-even though the evidence shows many noblewomen chose their own husbands. I mean, why? I understand drama makes for an interesting story- but does every arranged marriage have to be unhappy and everyone miserable and abused to make a good story?

Even the notion of North Britannia being a ‘progressive’ state got to me, because of the way this was treated. Basically, it’s supposed to be some paragon of medieval chivalric ideals, and Christian virtues in the midst of the universally corrupt society around it. I can accept that this is meant to be ‘dystopian’ fiction- but it’s almost too dystopian.
The characters constantly harping on about how ‘progressive’ they were, whilst pointing the accusing finger at anyone who did not share their ideals smacks too much of modern liberalism, not to mention that they actually come across as quite condescending, something along the lines of "Oh, thank goodness we're so enlightened, and so much better than those stupid, backwards, repressive English. We're so wonderful and smart, they copied the Magna Carta from our ideas!"

An idea supported by the fact that the villain was opposed to this ‘progress’ and wanted a return to ‘traditional feudalism’ which under which were rejected  such notions as rule of Law, rule by council, democracy and equality. The problem this representation in inaccurate- and such notions were not alien and repugnant to Medieval Englishmen.
The notion of rule of law existed in English society before the Magna Carta, most Medieval Kings had councils, and it was a nobleman who established the British parliament including the House of Commons, in the same century as this book is set.

More generally, I was concerned with the attitude towards authority that was held by some of the characters. The most progressive North Britannians seem to have little time for the idea that fathers should be able to ‘rule their household’ and have a legal right to authority over their wives and underage children. Yet this concept is supported in scripture- although not in the way that Gwen’s father uses it, but the characters in question seem to consider the notion itself to be wrong and unjust.
Allen and his fellows seemed to think that if the political authorities, in this case the Council that he was meant to be leading, supported something which that regarded as tyrannical, unfair or unjust, they should ‘follow their own heart’, and the alleged leading of the Holy Spirit- instead of being ‘ruled by men’. At one point in what could really be seen as little more than a fit of teenage pique,  he condemns said council as ‘tyrannical’- because it would not let him run off and rescue a damsel in distress, instead of facing his responsibilities and running the Dukedom.

The New Testament contains a number of passages which expressly state we should obey those in authority, for God puts them in that place, and even be subject to Kings and rulers. Only if they require us to do something which is expressly against Christian teaching is there any precedent for refusal to obey. Not just because we don’t like or think it’s right. Not just because they will not let us do what we want.
Now, I do not in any way condone the abuse of this power that Gwen’s father represents- but nor do I believe we should pick and choose which parts of the Bible we want to believe, and reject that which does not fit in with our ideas. The idea that you can reject anything in mainstream religious teaching, or that any authority figure tells you that conflicts with your innate idea of ‘doing what is right’, as the characters often seem to do, is one that is worrying.  Especially since the characters in question are basically a bunch of green teenagers, with no experience of rule, and yet think they know better than seasoned politicians, parents, religious leaders etc. Not very positive role models for teenagers today who might already have a problem with authority.

I almost think Rebellious could have been a fitting title for this novel, which would really have worked better as the original concept of historical fantasy rather than historical fiction. I would consider reading the next title in this series, and I’m not meaning to imply the author is deliberately misrepresenting anything, but just to proceed with caution.

I received an e-galley of this book, from the publisher via Netgalley for review. No other remuneration was given and all opinions expressed are my own.
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