Review: Troubadour by Isolde Martyn

troubadourimPublished by: Harlequin MIRA
ASIN: B01N1IZ6PG
ISBN 13: 9781489220370
Published: March 2017
Pages: 448
Format reviewed: eVersion from NetGalley
Site: Author Site
Goodreads: Book Page
Stars: Five out of Five

Set in the time of the Crusades a young hairbraider to the Queen finds herself through crazy random happenstances that land her in Southern France and in the arms of a Lord who thought her beautiful in Court, but their differences in linage meant they could never be together. He then thinks her dead for refusing her King’s advances, and he moves on with life. Thanks to her likeness to a Lady travelling to marry him to strengthen armies and political alliances, who is slain before their party arrives in the Lord’s castle, Adela takes her place almost by accident and limited fluency with languages and though she means to tell him she’s Adela rather than Lady Alys it keeps getting delayed over and over.

At almost 450 pages we see almost unbelievable instances of events, but on paper it flows and holds you tight so you can’t put the book down at all. If you listed the plot down in dot points it would seem unbelievable, but thanks to excellent characters and sturdy language, Martyn leaves you only wanting more. We have romance, battles, and clever characters trying to stay alive and on top. The Lord Richart isn’t easily swayed one way or another, even when Adela is involved, and we see a believable lord in a time where he’s probably had to avoid many attempts on his life by the time he is 18 – his healthy paranoia was what really set him apart for me – he thought for himself, which was refreshing to see.

Adela was an excellent protagonist – she’s utterly human and compassionate for even those who wrong her, and she is believably intelligent for the time, and good at using it when necessary. I only now want another book to see how she copes with this new chapter in her life – even if it were just a novella – please, Martyn?

There is no better way to learn history than reading an excellent piece of historical fiction. I haven’t come across Martyn’s books until now, but now I’m certainly one the hunt for more.

For further information, the publisher website is excellent.

Discussion Post: Barrayar by Lois McMaster Bujold

Barrayar is the second book we are reading as part of the Vorkosigan Saga Project. It sequentially follows on from Shards of Honour, but was actually not published until 1991, five years and several other books later. It follows Cordelia as she grapples with having moved to Barrayar and the external events which make that even more difficult than it might have originally seemed.

 

You can read Tsana’s review of Barrayar here, and Katharine’s review here.

 

Tsana: This was an interesting book to come back to. Certain events that happen later in the book are kind of burned into my brain from my first readthrough and I spent the entire first half or so (maybe it was less than that) anticipating the oncoming storm. I had forgotten how staid the opening was!

Katharine: From a new reader the first part of the book was quite nice – almost a little domestic, having the side-character’s romance as the biggest worry of our main characters… and then it starts having minor instances of things to worry about – which also made it even more realistic – they have all the intelligence and spies and such, in some books the action would just Happen Without Warning to be ‘dramatic’ whereas in this half the worry is because they know what is about to happen.

Tsana: Yep. And really, given Aral’s critical position in running the planet, it would have been really silly for there not to be any warning of things to come. But before we get to the really spoilery bits that we’re going to have to put behind a cut, let’s talk about some of the other elements, especially in the early parts of the book. When Cordelia came to Barrayar, she knew Aral was probably going to eventually become a Count but, as we saw at the end of Shards of Honour, he actually has a much larger role to play in Barrayaran politics, even before he was made Regent. I think Cordelia did a reasonable job of taking this in her stride. What do you think?

Katharine: I think she had her suspicions that neither of them were going to happily retire, and as we see in Shards of Honour she may not like it, but she also understands and is quite passionate about the fact he’s the best one for the job. Though at the same time, I was a little surprised at the instances she tells him regardless, he has to put his family first – which is interesting. Noble, of course, and good on her … just, not expected.

Tsana: I think she starts off seeing Barrayaran politics as a bit of a joke. Except also not since she was there for the war in the previous book and knows more about it than most. But the war is over, everything is fine and she can focus on being a Barrayaran Vor lady, even if there’s also suddenly this whole Regent Consort thing to deal with. Basically, no very high demands are placed on her near the start and she’s more or less left to focus on her pregnancy and impending motherhood. I think motherhood/pregnancy and the differences between Beta Colony and Barrayar are one of the key ways Bujold uses “backwards” Barrayar to shine a light on some of our real-world society’s faults, along with many other instances of misogyny/gender inequality and heteronormativity depicted in the book.

Katharine: Agreed, and yet Bujold is careful to not go over-the-top as I expect some others would do – it still feels quite accurate and believable. Although Barrayar feels quite advanced as far as weapons technology is and so on, it certainly doesn’t care about its people. I’d love to see more about Beta Colony and their tech – it all sounds fascinating! I also think it’s interesting that we see the majority of Barrayar’s way of thinking via Aral’s father, Piotr.

Tsana: Yes, and the animosity from Piotr towards Cordelia’s way of life pretty much only grows, despite all the good Cordelia manages to accomplish. Especially once baby Miles comes into the picture. I liked how certain ideas gradually become more prominent in the text. For example, we had some hints about ableism in Barrayaran culture in Shards of Honour, and in Barrayar we see Koudelka with his walking stick not coping too well with his new disability. But then we witness Cordelia sitting behind some chaps who call Koudelka “spastic” which is the first really blatant piece of ableism we are slapped with in the series. This foreshadows the ableist attitudes from Piotr and others towards baby Miles.

Katharine: At least they have the ability to seem abashed when Cordelia confronts them on it. I was actually really impressed with how charming Piotr could be when he was happy with the idea of getting a grandson, and then how instantly he turns all hackles raised and all. BUT, then, when the trouble really starts he does count his family first, and does good by Cordelia. Should we activate the spoiler shield now to get into the nitty gritty?

 

Spoilers start here! 
Continue reading

Review: The Shadow Soul by Kaitlyn Davis

Series: A Dance of Dragons #1
Published by: self-published
ISBN: 1494900092
ISBN 13: 9781494900090
Published: Jan 2014
Pages: 292
Format reviewed: mobi for SPFBB 2016
Site: Author Site
Goodreads: Book Page
Stars: Two out of Five

Like my previous review, this was read for the final round of the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off 2016 hosted by Mark Lawrence, more of which can be read here.

In this, we first meet Jinji, a 16yo who still mourns the loss of her twin brother but is about to become another step closer to being the leader of the Arpapajo tribe by marrying a close friend, a warrior called Maniuk. However, everything goes terribly wrong when dark magic wipes out every single person of her tribe, leaving her all alone. To make matters worse, that magic inhabited Maniuk to do so.

Then we meet Rhen, a young prince. He seems to hate royal life (so tries to throw everyone off the scene by appearing to be the type who beds women and disappears often) and often masquerades as a common villager so he can travel in peace and seek information that would otherwise be kept from him. He’s travelling when we first meet him, and it’s through that travel that he meets Jinji, and from there on they partner up – apparently their individual quests match up, however it’s unfortunate that although we start with Jinji it seems that from here on in, Rhen’s plot takes over.

This novel contains the usual tropes one would expect – prince wants to hide he’s a prince, and young woman travels as a man. They keep some things from each other in a way where they narrowly don’t immediately discover and hijinx ensue. As I’ve said in a previous review for this challenge, it doesn’t matter if we see the same tropes over and over, as long as the author does them well, which, sadly, didn’t hit the mark for me.

My main issue with this novel simply comes down to writing ability. We’re often told of their anguish or conflict when it’s otherwise obvious from the events, and from the start the tone seems childish – Jinji’s interactions with her best friend seem stilted and like they’re moving through blocking on a movie set. The book could use a strong edit, for flow as well as minor spelling errors and inconsistencies. The magic structure in this novel didn’t feel real or reliable. It often seemed to be an efficient answer for certain things to happen, rather than having its limitations and feeling like a force upon itself. The plot, too, left a similar impression on me. This is fine sometimes as I mainly read for character and I can forgive a lot (or often don’t notice!) if the plot isn’t one of the stronger elements… And in general, I think the author needs to do some research on what accurate travelling time/terrain would exist, and how villages would have first been created and therefore, what natural supplies would they have (gold alone doesn’t happen for a reason in the real world after all).

On the good side, the voice of the characters themselves is what gives both of them the majority of their sense of self, and the chapters shifting POV focus were handled well, when often it’s easy for it to seem clumsy – that wasn’t the case here. The tone of the novel however seems to be mainly aimed at middle grade, when it’s supposed to be YA (and also said to be like Game of Thrones, which in itself does a disservice to the book).

The strongest elements were Jinji herself, and the culture of her people – if everything in the book felt as fleshed out as this then we could have had a very strong novel indeed. Instead, they are all wiped out early and through the rest of the book we see quite a narrow slice of their world and its inhabitants and it feels like the rest hasn’t been created yet. The only other culture we see in the novel is of the antagonists, which is unfortunate. Nearly everything about Rhen is problematic and my review has already been harsh enough without stepping near that landmine…

Overall, I wanted to like this book. In reality, it felt like a wander through a single path decorated by cardboard cut-outs, and even from there a lot of them would have been blown over.

Review: The Path of Flames by Phil Tucker

Series: Chronicles of the Black Gate #1
Published by: self-published
ISBN: 1530935660
ISBN 13: 9781530935666
Published: May 2016
Pages: 622
Format reviewed: ePub for SPFBB 2016
Site: Author Site
Goodreads: Book Page
Stars: Five out of Five

Like my previous review, this was read for the final round of the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off 2016 hosted by Mark Lawrence, more of which can be read here.

This is the type of book that throws aside any misunderstood preconceptions about self-publishing. This has everything – history presented without info-dumping, and yet you easily understand a great deal about their history, even though there’s numerous races of people involved. The numerous races have a caste tier system, reincarnation is discussed over what the majority believe and how this influences how they interact and treat those around them… and of course there are the finely tuned and played politics that are just as easily understood.

The book starts with an epic battle, in which we see an important man (Lord Kyferin) slain, and it’s the aftermath that is what causes much of the plot as we follow what this means for countless people. We see how religion ties into the lives of multiple classes of people, and what it means in the bigger picture.

We move through the novel through multiple points of view, and each feel worthwhile – at no stage do you feel annoyed that you’ve left a character you’d rather be seeing more of, and instead are stuck with someone boring. We follow Asho – someone from the lowest class, who rises through believable and dramatic turns of events to be a person of importance. There’s Kethe, Lord Kyferin’s daughter who aspires to be a knight, and her Lady Iskra, her mother, also has POV chapters and is just as strong, and supports Kethe’s journey.

Tharok is a fierce warrior that experiences berserker type rages – and his tusks and body build certainly makes his entire warrior path the more believable and interesting. Within his race of people there’s another class structure, and the warring tribes have their own loyalties or disgust based on who they’re viewing. When he is captured by a group who aren’t on his side at all, his story gets increasingly interesting as he has to use newly found items of value to his best value.

There’s Tiron, a former knight and follower of Lord Kyferin, who is not the only person in this book who hates the former Lord with a vengeance. His characterisation feels utterly real to read as his reactions craft his character, but his plotline is possibly one of the weaker elements of this otherwise engaging book. Don’t get me wrong, it’s pretty complex and tortured and such, and it’s slowly dealt out as one of the more mysterious plot points where you have to keep reading to find out what happened… but it was the slower plot and characters to win my affection.

Then there’s Audsley, a Magister, who has a fire cat that can fly, and is one of the few friends to Lady Iskra’s young son who is soon more alone than a young boy should be. Audsley is one we know little of for the first half of the book, and yet it works.

The characters are what drive this novel – though the plot is equally as interesting. Magic exists in this world, though some (or all?) of it has been gone for a long, long time. It makes a resurgence in this novel much to the disbelief and horror it’s used against. Berserker rage (or something like it) is also an interesting plot point of this novel as it appears in some surprising places.

A lot of this we’ve all seen before, and yet it proves the point that anything that is done well is captivating – no matter how many times we may see it. This book also wins bonus points for me thanks to its multiple strong female characters – and they’re firmly self-motivated and empowered. Even amongst the barbaric Tharok plotline, there are still strong and intelligent female characters who hold their own.

Of course this novel could use an editor to tighten it up here or there, but it certainly doesn’t need much work done at all. Personal preference would also call for a different cover. Overall this novel is engaging and had me looking up whether there was to be another book before I was even a third of the way through – and it was to find both books two and three are already published – which is excellent news. I firmly rank this amongst Michael J. Sullivan, Michael McClung, and Mitchell Hogan. And I can’t wait to read book two.

Review: The Moonlight War by S.K.S. Perry

Published by: self-published
ISBN: 1514847949
ISBN 13: 9781514847947
Published: July 2015
Pages: 315
Format reviewed: MS
Site: Author Site
Goodreads: Book Page
Stars: Three out of Five

This was read for the final round of the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off 2016 hosted by Mark Lawrence, more of which can be read here. I have recently taken over for Bibliotropic for the final four novels – right at the end of this massive event – so I’m one of ten judges. This event is the same one that previously found ‘The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble’s Braids‘ by Michael McClung as the winner – a book I adored.

I’ve always held an open mind to self-publishing – many friends through NaNoWriMo since 2004 onwards found mild-success this way; I was a reader of Michael J. Sullivan and on the same writing forum as he for a few years; and I was on the panel that chose the first self-published work for Best Fantasy Novel in the Aurealis Awards (which then went on to get a publishing deal), the very lovely Mitchell Hogan for his ‘A Crucible of Souls‘.

That said, this book was good – pretty good, in part, but not great. It’s the famous Epic Quest novel we’re all used to, but can’t help but enjoy. There’s a land we’re introduced to immediately as being a land that few can pass successfully. In the blurb itself it says invincible warriors have set off to investigate but have never returned. Now however, they must be able to make it through for various high powered and high financed reasons. A strong group are put together in order to make this all possible – two female characters only, sadly, and of course one is a seer… – through I have to admit that throughout the novel all the characters do show twists on the usual expectations/cliches, which also made it more engaging to read. The romance, however, was not one of the stronger elements of the novel.

The action however, is excellent. It keeps the pace well and makes the book a fast read because you can’t put it down when there’s an action sequence. And it’s no surprise that these work well and are part of the stronger element of the novel, as the author is a Sergeant in the Canadian Forces. The fight sequences aren’t over-written, either – you can visualise them perfectly in your mind but there’s little to no info-dumping throughout the whole book – even when meeting the characters initially and getting to learn their backstory.

The world-building is limited, but you still feel like you have a good handle on the story. It’s definitely character-driven (my favourite kind), and you do get to know parts said in passing, but most is given as describing the people in the world – the Kel-tii and the Ashai – as being basically the Japanese and the Irish. Parts of this were mild personal irks to me, as I find it hard to read a book that does anything Japanese-inspired well (the curse of knowing something too well), though this is of a very personal note to me, and I didn’t take it into account with my final score.

All in all, this was a decent book. It could use a sharp editor to ease several plot points and character interactions into something a little more human and possible, and some general sentence flow here and there – but this is certainly readable, and quite enjoyable.