People of the Book – A Historical Account of a 15th Century Hebrew Text

People of the Book: A Novel

Geraldine Brooks
Paperback, 400 pages
Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
December 30, 2008

 

The Sarajevo Haggadah, a Hebrew prayer-book that miraculously survived centuries of warfare and uprisings, has surfaced once again and ancient text conservator Hanna Heath has been tasked with the job of restoring it before it goes on display at the National Museum.  Hanna is surprised and delighted when the honor could have gone to any number of experts in text conservation, namely her mentor Werner Heinrich who is considered to be the authority on Hebrew manuscripts.  But given the delicate political state of the area in the mid 1990’s, the Bosnian government had reservations about hiring a German, and Hanna  being a native Australian, fit perfectly.

 As soon as she steps onto the tarmac she’s whisked to the museum by a UN escort and gets to work on the haggadah.  This particular haggadah was made famous because of the beautiful illuminations that are unique to a text of this type because it was made at a time when traditional Jewish beliefs prohibited illustrations.  During her conservation work, Hanna discovers tiny clues amidst the pages and binding that could shed light not only of the history of the book itself but of the people who made and cared for it through the generations.

 What follows are the stories that explain these small treasures – an insect wing, a wine stain, salt, and a white hair – told by people of various religions, nationalities, and time periods that all played a part in the haggadah’s history.  These tales are interwoven with chapters of Hanna as she solicits the help of friends and colleagues to delve deeper into the mysteries of the book.  Along the way she’s distracted by a brief affair with Ozren Karaman, chief librarian of the museum – who risked his life to save the book – and his dying son, drama with her disapproving neurosurgeon mother (who dubs Hanna’s chosen profession as “Kindergarten work”), and the identity of the father she never knew.

 After wrapping up her research and concluding her report, Hanna returns to Sarajevo for the opening of the haggadah’s brand new exhibit only to discover to her horror that the vellum used for the book’s pages doesn’t match that of the one she studied.  She tries to convince Ozren that the book is a forgery and all her confidence is shattered when he doesn’t believe her.  Consumed with self-doubt about her life’s work, she swears off ancient texts and returns to Australia to study Aborigine cave paintings.  But was she really wrong about the haggadah or had it been found only to be lost again?

 People of the Book was an excellent read.  The artifacts that Hanna found brought the people involved with the book to life for me and illuminated the tragedies and struggles of so many years of religious persecution and conflict between Jews, Christians, and Muslims.  The historical aspect alone was wonderful, but I also enjoyed the 20th century chapters with Hanna, who is a great character.  I loved her personality, use of Aussie idioms, and how she bickered with her impossible mother. 

 The whole book was gripping and there weren’t any parts that I felt were slow or boring, even though I was introduced to a new character quite often.  Some of the scenes were so intense my heart was pounding as I read them (the torture scene in the salt chapter quickly comes to mind).  This was my first try at a Geraldine Brooks novel and I was definitely impressed enough to check out her other books.  If you’re interested in history you should give it a try!

Revolution: A YA Historical Fiction Novel

 Revolution

Jennifer Donnelly
Hardcover, 496 pages
Random House Children’s Books
October 12, 2010
*Thanks to Random House for the ARC!

Andi and Alexandrine live worlds apart, but the miles and centuries that separate them do nothing to lessen the connection that Andi feels when she discovers Alex’s secret journal written in the final days of the French Revolution.  As the daughter of a Nobel prize-winning geneticist, Andi is used to a life of privilege, attending a highly prestigious prep school where her classmates are the children of the rich and powerful. 

But ever since the tragic death of her little brother, Truman, Andi has all but given up on life.  She’s tormented by guilt and plagued with suicidal thoughts that the high dosage of antidepressants she pops like candy can’t dispel.  Her only remaining passion is music, but even that doesn’t seem to help anymore.  When her quasi-estranged father gets a call from her school informing him that she’s dangerously close to failing out, he insists that Andi accompany him on a business trip to her mother’s native Paris during Christmas break so he can make sure she finishes the outline for her senior thesis. 

More depressed than ever after her mother is checked into a psychiatric hospital back home, Andi throws herself into her thesis research on 18th century French composer Amadé Malherbeau and makes a deal with her dad that if she finishes her outline to his satisfaction she can hop on the first flight back to the U.S. 

Her dad is just as engrossed in his work as she is in her research and though she sees little of him during the day, he fills her in on what he’s working on.  G, a historian and old friend of his, has enlisted him to do DNA tests on a human heart believed to belong to Louis-Charles, the child of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette who was walled up alive during the Revolution.   While staying at G’s house Andi stumbles upon a journal hidden in a secret compartment of an old guitar case, along with a small portrait of the very same doomed prince her father and G spoke of.

Andi is filled with a sense of dread the instant she opens the weathered pages, but something compels her to discover their secrets.  She soon finds herself drawn into a world where the guillotine never rests, the streets of Paris are awash with blood, and its citizens live in constant fear.  The author of the diary is Alexandrine, a street performer employed by the king and queen to keep their morose son happy and entertained.  Alex can’t believe her luck when she catches the queen’s eye by making Louis-Charles laugh and she soon finds herself living at Versailles, surrounded by wealth and luxury.  Planning to use the boy as a means to rise to fame and fortune on the stage, she devotes all her skills to making him adore her. 

But now the king and queen are dead and Louis-Charles is locked away in the tower, being held captive in horrible conditions and left to die, alone and afraid.  Alex grew to love the young prince while he was in her care and refuses to stand aside and do nothing while he suffers.  Knowing his love for fireworks, she risks life and limb on the rooftops of Paris, shooting off rockets that light up the sky so Louis-Charles knows that he’s not forgotten. 

Andi feels an overwhelming connection with Alex and naturally equates the young prince’s death with her brother’s.  As she delves deeper into Alex’s story, the line between reality and fantasy begins to blur and she soon learns that the past is a lot closer than she thought.

I love reading books with parallel stories and Revolution was no exception.  It was exciting and mysterious while highlighting this tragic period in human history, when so many lives were lost in the name of liberty, equality, and fraternity.  The historical aspect was fascinating and it really made me want to learn more about the French Revolution. 

I would have preferred more chapters devoted to Alex’s story in general.  As a character I found her much more engaging than Andi, who really irritated me at times.  I think she might appeal to a younger audience, since that’s who the book is directed toward in the first place.  It wasn’t just the teenage angst that got on my nerves (and I had to give her a break on that since she was mourning her brother after blaming herself for his death), but her personality and attitude as a whole.  She had a huge chip on her shoulder and there was an arrogance about her that rubbed me the wrong way.

But that was a minor blip in the grand scheme of things.  I loved all the connections and coincidences throughout the book, like how fate seemed to lead Andi to the diary (which was entwined in her father’s DNA case) or how she got to meet the subject of her thesis face to face and teach him the musical genius of Jimmy Page.  So many questions were left unanswered (Did Andi really see the dead like Alex?  Was her journey back in time real or a hallucination brought on by a drug overdose?), but in the end it didn’t really matter because ultimately the story was about learning to let go of grief and, despite all the cruelty and brutality in the world, finding a way to heal and get on with life.

Have you read Revolution?  What did you think?  I would love to get other French Revolution historical fiction recommendations!

Maybe This Time

Maybe This Time

Jennifer Crusie
Hardcover, 352 pages
St. Martin’s Press
August 31, 2010

I won an ARC of Maybe This Time from St. Martin’s Press and I’m so glad because it’s not something that I would usually read and I loved it! 

Andie Miller is about to get married again.  But before she does there’s one thing she has to take care of first – return the ten years of alimony checks that she never cashed to her ex husband, North Archer.  But when she finds herself sitting across from him at his office at the family law firm, they’re both in for a big surprise when he makes an unusual proposal and she accepts. 

North recently became the legal guardian of two orphans who live in a monstrous, dilapidated 200 year old home brought over from England (complete with moat).  They’re all alone in the house except for the housekeeper, Mrs. Crumb, who’s been with the house for sixty years, and they refuse to come live with North in Columbus.  After going through a string of nannies, North asks Andie to take one month to care for the children, Alice and Carter.  Get their education up to speed so they can enroll in school, make sure they’re healthy physically and emotionally, and convince them to come to Columbus. 

When Andie arrives at Archer house, she soon finds out that there’s more going on here than kids with behavioral problems and fed up nannies.  Alice and Carter are terrified of leaving the house and Mrs. Crumb insists that the house is haunted.  Andie has her hands full trying to win the kids’ trust, reassuring her distraught fiancé, and dealing with feelings for North that seeing him again has stirred up.  Things really get interesting when the house is flooded with unexpected guests.  North’s brother Sullivan (who Andie calls Southie) arrives with his semi-girlfriend, TV reporter Kelly O’Keefe, who in turn brings a medium and a parapsychologist so she can investigate the haunting (though she has a hidden agenda).  North’s overbearing mother comes to stop Kelly, and Andie’s tarot-reading mother shows up because she couldn’t get her on the phone, and the pair resume their decade long feud.  To top it off, her fiancé also shows up uninvited to save their shaky relationship. 

A storm prevents Andie from kicking everyone out and chaos ensues as she tries to keep everyone in line amidst séances and tantrums.  The final visitor turns out to be North, and Andie couldn’t be more relieved to see him, thinking he’ll be able to help her restore order and finally get the kids away from the house (plus she hasn’t been able to stop thinking about him since she arrived).  But things are about to get a lot stranger, and the real danger hasn’t even begun.

Maybe This Time was such an engaging and fun book!  It’s all about second chances, learning from the past, and starting fresh -  not starting over.  Andie won me over immediately and North followed shortly after.  I was glued to the page whether for Andie and Alice’s daily Three O’Clock Bake ritual or murder and mayhem.  The cast of characters is kooky and entertaining – a fabulous mish-mash!  I didn’t want it to end but when it did I was left feeling perfectly satisfied and content.  What else can I say?  I loved it!

This was my first Jennifer Cruise book but I’ll definitely be checking out her other ones!

Stonehenge by Bernard Cornwell

Stonehenge: 2000 B.c.

Bernard Cornwell
Paperback, 448 pages
HarperCollins Publishers
December 01, 2004

I just finished Bernard Cornwell’s Stonehenge and I am impressed and amazed at this piece of work that is part epic historical fiction and part fantasy.  I say fantasy because though it takes place four thousand years ago in modern day Britain, there are zero modern geographical or temporal references.  All the deities, characters, settlements, and tribes are fictional and without the book’s title or cover art I could easily have thought the story took place in some other realm.

Stonehenge is about exactly what it sounds like, though it focuses more on the people responsible for the construction of the mammoth standing stones and the reasons they had to build it (as imagined by the author).  It’s a tale of sacrifice, ritual, murder, love, and the power of belief to achieve the impossible.  The story is narrated mostly by Saban and his brother Camaban, though the cast of characters span generations and tribes across the land.  Saban and Camaban are two of the three sons of the chief of Ratharryn.  The third, Lengar, brings an end to his people’s way of life when he happens upon an Outlander carrying gold lozenges from the settlement of Sarmennyn.  The priests declare the gold a gift from the sun god Slaol and refuse to return it to its rightful owners. 

Camaban, who starts out as a crippled outcast who narrowly escapes being sacrificed to the moon goddess Lahanna, comes under the tutelage of the sorceress Sanna in Cathallo, who heals his twisted foot.  The student soon becomes the master and he uses his newfound status as a powerful sorcerer to manipulate the leaders of all three tribes to do his bidding.  He convinces Lengar, now chief of Ratharryn, to return the gold lozenges to Sarmennyn if they give him one of their temples.  Camaban has a plan to banish winter and end all human toil and suffering by reuniting Slaol and Lahanna with the temple.  He enlists Saban to build the seemingly impossible temple of standing stones and arches. 

What follows is an account of the 20 years of backbreaking labor, uneasy truces, raids, and violence that ensues while Sarmennyn’s temple is dismantled and transported back to Ratharryn.  The blood and sweat of the laborers and the careful planning and execution of Camaban and Saban as they struggled to figure out a way to erect the immense stones in their new home that would bring an end to winter was beyond measure.  Camaban’s demands become increasingly unrealistic and as the years go by he begins a slow but steady descent into madness.  He becomes obsessed with the temple and will stop at nothing to see his vision realized. 

The size and scope of what would come to be known as Stonehenge was impressive in its own right, but learning about the lives and deaths of the ones responsible for its creation was even more satisfying.  My mind wandered during the pages dedicated entirely to the finer details of the mechanics of shaping and erecting the stones (I definitely don’t need to read about levers or sleds again any time soon), but everything else was enthralling. 

I loved Saban and Camaban throughout the book.  I agonized over the uncertain outcome upon the temple’s completion, mourned the loss of loved ones, and gloated over exacted revenge right along with them. 

This book was so different from anything else I’ve read lately and it was exciting, tragic, and captivating – a fascinating account of what might have been.  We’ll never really know who built the engineering marvel that stands today on Salisbury Plain or what its purpose was but I’d like to think that Cornwell’s version comes close to the truth.

The Uncrowned King by Rowena Cory Daniells

The Uncrowned King

Rowena Cory Daniells
Paperback, 448 pages
Rebellion
July 27, 2010

* Thanks to Rowena Cory Daniells for sending me a review copy!

The Uncrowned King is the second book in the fantasy trilogy, The Chronicles of King Rolen’s Kin (click here for my post about the first book, The King’s Bastard).  There are so many things I want to say about the storyline but to ensure I don’t give too much away I’ll just give you the summary from the back cover:

Thirteen year old Piro watches powerless as her father’s enemies march on his castle.  A traitor whispers poison in the King’s ear, undermining his trust in her brother, Byren.

Determined to prove his loyalty, Byren races across the path of the advancing army, towards the Abbey.  Somehow, he must get there in time to convince the Abbott to send his warriors to defend the castle.

Meanwhile, the youngest of King Rolen’s sons, Fyn, has barely begun his training as an Abbey mystic, but he wakes in a cold sweat, haunted by dreams of betrayal…

After reading the first two books I am loving this trilogy.  Not only is the storytelling engaging, fun, and exciting, but the worldbuilding is spot on.  I love how I’m able to picture Rolencia and get a sense of its people and their beliefs and lifestyles.  The magical powers and abilities of those touched my Affinity continue to fascinate me as well, and one of the highlights for me was when Byren is accepted by an ulfr pack that adopts him as one of their own.  Love it!

The pacing is lightning fast as we follow Byren, Fyn, and Piro on their individual journeys to defy the king’s enemies and save their family.  Orrade isn’t in this book since he’s taken up his late father’s post as Lord Dovecote and is currently leading his people to safety, but Florin and Leif return and we’re introduced to a few new characters, my favorite being Lord Dunstany - the power worker who takes Piro as his slave after the fall of the castle. 

The helpless frustration I felt while reading The King’s Bastard stayed with me during this book (in a spine-tingling, good way).  The constant threat of betrayal, the uncertainty of who to trust, and the slurry of rumors and misinformation hiding the truth kept me on the edge of my seat with suspense and anxiety.  Piro and her brothers are all isolated, not knowing if the others are alive or dead, yet determined to push on. 

I’m so excited to see what happens next and how the power struggle will play out in the end.  I’m especially anticipating Piro’s role as a servant to King Merofyn’s daughter.  Looking forward to more intrigue and adventure in The Usurper!

The Lovely Bones By Alice Sebold

The Lovely Bones

Alice Sebold
Paperback, 352 pages
Little Brown & Company
April 20, 2004

 

Susie Salmon (“like the fish”) was murdered at age 14 by a man in her neighborhood.  She left behind her parents, her brother and sister and the family dog, Holiday.  Before being lured to her death in an underground hideout hidden in a local cornfield, Susie had been a normal girl with a normal life.  She went to school, pined over her crush Ray Singh, and dreamt of being a wildlife photographer.  But all her hopes and dreams of a future she would never live to see were ripped from her by the man who’d carefully prepared for her rape and murder.  And she hadn’t been his first.

The Lovely Bones is a compilation of memories throughout Susie’s short life and the events that followed her death, centering around her family, Name, and an acquaintance from school named Ruth Connors, who sensed Susie’s terrified soul as it fled the earthly realm the night of her death.  Susie narrates the story from her heaven, a ever-changing place she calls the In Between, where she spends time with fellow departed souls whose heavens overlap with hers and watches the loved ones she left behind on Earth. 

She suffers as her family slowly falls apart in the aftermath of her disappearance, and when her case switches from missing person to homicide her mother eventually leaves for California to try to forget her dead daughter.  Susie watches as Ray and Ruth grow closer in their grief for her, and as her neighbors hold vigil in the cornfield on the anniversary of her death.  She sees her family struggle to pick up the pieces and carry on with life as the years go by and her siblings grow up.  She sees all this, and we see it with her, all while she is constantly reminded by others in her heaven that she must forget Earth.  But she doesn’t forget the ones she left behind, just as they never forget her.    

When I saw Peter Jackson’s film version of The Lovely Bones a few months ago I was absolutely blown away.  The cinematography was stunning and the emotion was so raw and tangible, by the end I was so overwhelmed I was speechless and in tears.  Beautiful, beautiful movie. 

So naturally I was really excited to read the book and I expected it to be even better than the movie (because books usually are).  Unfortunately, this turned out not to be the case.  I still loved the premise of the story, but I couldn’t connect with Susie and her family as much as I did with their movie counterparts.  And Susie’s memories in the book weren’t woven in as seamlessly.  They felt choppy and disjointed, interrupting the flow of the narrative.  Somehow the book just felt flat and dull when compared to the movie.  The emotional scenes weren’t as intense and even during the suspenseful parts my heart was calm and even, as opposed to when it felt like it was going to beat out of my chest during the movie (when Susie’s sister breaks into George Harvey’s house and finds his journal).

Overall it was a good read, and one that I don’t regret, but my experience while watching the film clearly influenced my perception of the book.  Maybe if I had read the book before seeing the movie I’d be writing just the opposite. 

What do you think?  Did you prefer the book or the movie?

Just finished…wizards and vagabonds

Just finished…

Two completely different books, but loved them both.  The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls and Storm Front by Jim Butcher. 

The Glass Castle (thanks to Krystal for lending it to me!) is actually a memoir that focuses mostly on Jeannette’s crazy childhood.  It was unbelievable and amazing.  It had me completely captivated from start to finish and I found my jaw dropping several times as my brain tried to fathom the existence that this family had.  Not only were they constantly on the move but they lived in filth and squalor, the kids forcing their mother to get out of bed to go to work (when she was working) and fishing for scraps of food out of the school trash cans (when they went to school).  Their father worked odd jobs from time to time but spent most of his time drinking and gambling.  Both parents refused to work or accept any help from others, yet became outraged whenever the kids accused them of neglect or irresponsible behavior.  All I can say is that Jeannette and her siblings must be some tough people to have survived such an upbringing.  This isn’t the sort of book I would normally pick up and read but my friend practically shoved it in my face and swore up and down that it was fantastic.  She couldn’t have been more right.

Storm Front is the first of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, an urban fantasy series featuring Harry Dresden, the only practicing wizard for hire in the United States.  Dresden is a wonderful character and from the first few pages I was hooked.  He might be dangerous and powerful, with a streak of anger hidden just beneath the surface, but he’s got a sense of humor and really he’s just a nice guy.  Plus, he wears a duster.  That’s just awesome.  In the first book he gets caught up investigating a series of gruesome murders that could only have been the work of a sorcerer, while at the same time he’s hired by a nervous wife who wants him to find her missing husband.  The two cases turn out to be related and Harry faces a slew of dangers before finally getting down to the bottom of the mystery and facing off with the bad guy.  I’ll definitely continue this series and I’d like to check out his other fantasy series as well.

Vampires and Werewolves and Sidhe, Oh My!

This summer has been a busy one, with lots of travelling – which means a lot of time to read but not much time to talk about it.  I think I’ve let about four books go by without posting a thing about them.  So I thought I’d just mention them briefly because they were all great, though wildly different, and merit a mention.

The first was an Emma Campion galley I won called The King’s Mistress, about Alice Perrers, who became entangled in a web of court intrigue after becoming the mistress of Edward III.  I love this type of historical fiction and I’m not all that familiar with this time period so it was interesting to get a chance to learn more about the Plantagenets and Lancasters while seeing through the eyes of a woman who was vilified for her affair with the king.  The story was engaging and I really enjoyed it, but when the tension began to mount I didn’t experience the delicious fear and constant anxiety that books like The Other Boleyn Girl evoked.  Alice made it plain the many dangers she faced throughout her life but I was more curious about what was going to happen than anxious.  The writing itself was beautiful and Alice was a strong and admirable protagonist.

For a change of pace I turned to an urban fantasy that was featured on the Nook’s weekly Free Fridays promotion – the first in Karen Marie Moning’s Fever series, Darkfever.  It’s about MacKayla Lane, a woman in her early 20s who travels to Dublin, Ireland after the brutal and unsolved murder of her sister.   In the hopes that the local law enforcement will renew their efforts to find the killer if a family member is there in the flesh, Mac settles into the city where her sister’s life was cut short and unwittingly stumbles into a dark and magical world where faeries roam the streets disguised as humans and entire blocks are swallowed from memory.  She finds an unlikely partner in Jericho Barrons, a rich and eccentric book store owner with a few mysteries of his own, who tells her that she is a Sidhe seer – someone who can see the fae.  Not only that, but she can sense magical artifacts and freeze all manner of fae creatures with one touch.  Mac discovers that her sister was also involved with the Sidhe somehow and as she learns more about her abilities and continues the search for her sister’s murderer she becomes all the more bound to Jericho and his quest for an all-important Sidhe artifact that, according to Mac’s sister, is the key to everything.  Darkfever was a fast-paced urban adventure with a fantastic array of exotic and dark faeries – and these are no Tinkerbells, mind you.  I loved the tension and banter between Mac and Jericho.  It was just a lot of fun and great storytelling.  I’ll definitely be continuing the series.

Also a Nook Free Friday title, Cry Sanctuary came next.  Also an urban fantasy – werewolves this time – and the first in the Red Rock Pass series by Moira Rogers, this book was another speedy, brain candy type of adventure.  Werewolf packs live in secret all over the country and most are run by greedy alphas who abuse their position and power and terrorize their subordinates to get what they want.  Red Rock is place that provides sanctuary to any wolf who seeks a different way of life.  Abigail Adler escapes an abusive alpha with the help of her close friend, who risks everything to get her out of harm’s way, and the two of them find shelter in Red Rock.  The story follows Abigail and Keith Winston, a Red Rock wolf newly returned from Europe, fighting in the war between werewolves and wizards, who rescues her and her friend while they’re on the run.  As a newly turned werewolf Abby has a lot to learn about her new life and Keith, who is instantly and almost irrationally attracted to her, hopes he will be the one to act as her guide – but it has to be her choice.  Keith was my favorite character in the story, I absolutely loved him.  Part knight, part cowboy, all badass.  And I didn’t hate the hot scenes where Abby gave in to his charms.  Can’t say I blame her really.  Another really fun urban fantasy and I look forward to the next Red Rock book.

After reading Lamb a few months ago I’ve been dying to read another Christopher Moore book.  And of course with my incurable vampire obsession I decided to go with You Suck: A Love Story, which chronicles the new un-life of Tommy Flood after being turned into a vampire by his undead girlfriend Jody.  Tommy’s not exactly thrilled with his new situation and as he struggles to come to terms with being a bloodsucking fiend the pair get themselves in all kinds of shenanigans.  The ancient vampire who sired Jody is after them (you would be too if you were covered in bronze by Tommy’s biker neighbors and turned into a statue) and Tommy’s former Safeway stockboy co-workers have been compelled by a blue hooker (long story) from Vegas to hunt them down.  They decide to accept the dark and brooding (but hopelessly perky) goth Abby Normal to be their minion and run errands for them during the day.  There are whole chapters of Abby’s diary that are absolutely hilarious, and luckily since I’m fluent in angsty-teenage-girl-diary-speak I could understand it all with ease and appreciate it from a former angsty teenage diary author myself.  The book is a laugh-out-loud witty, outrageous, and ridiculously funny window into the mind of a genius wordsmith.  It’s definitely not as emotionally driven as Lamb, although it’s hysterically funny as well, it’s more like a romping adventure.  Unfortunately after I finished it I found out that it’s actually a sequel (Love Bites is the first book).  I had a sneaking suspicion that it might be, based on all the references to events that felt more like I should already be familiar with rather than backstory.  But I’ll just go back and read that one before continuing on with the next book, Bloodsucking Fiends

What are you reading?

Book Review: The King’s Bastard

 

The King’s Bastard

Mass Market Paperback, 448 pages
Rebellion
June 29, 2010

*Many thanks to Rowena Cory Daniells for sending me a review copy!

The King’s Bastard is the first book in the new fantasy series The Chronicles of King Rolen’s Kin, which focuses on the lives of several members of the royal house of Rolencia.  Byren Rolen Kingson and his twin brother Lence, the eldest sons of King Rolen and Queen Myrella, have always been close despite their good-natured sibling rivalry.  Being the younger twin, seven minutes stand between Byren and the throne, but he’s never had any interest in ruling the kingdom, preferring to leave the burden to Lence.  But after a strange run-in with a renegade seer, who prophesies that Byren will turn on his twin and claim the crown, and the sudden arrival of their cousin Illien of Cobalt – the bastard son of King Rolen’s brother – Byren senses a growing distance between them.  Illien manipulates, fabricates false evidence, and spins a web of lies, all designed to discredit Byren and gain the confidence of Lence and the king.

The story is also told by the younger royal children, Fyn and Piro, who are both god-touched with Affinity.  Fyn’s Affinity was discovered when he was six years old and, in accordance with his father’s law, he was sent away to Halcyon Abbey to learn to control it so he wouldn’t be susceptible to evil influence.  Piro’s lay dormant until she reached puberty and, sick at the thought of being sent away to serve the cold god Sylion, she swore to keep her Untamed Affinity a secret so she could stay with her family at Rolenhold.

It’s a crucial time in Rolencia, when the spar warlords renew their oaths of allegiance to the king and a new alliance will be forged with the neighboring kingdom of Merofynia with the betrothal of Lence and Isolt Merofyn Kingsdaughter.  But alliances are fragile and some would stop at nothing to gain control and rise to the top.  Byren is surrounded by treachery and deceit and the constant fear that the prophecy of the renegade seer will come to pass.

I absolutely loved reading this book.  It was thrilling and suspenseful with enough humor and emotion to draw me even more into the story and invest in the characters.  The world-building was fantastic and I appreciated that I wasn’t bombarded right off the bat by dozens of confusing place-names and ancient history, just enough to give me a sense of my surroundings and then get on with the story.  I was fascinated by the concept of Affinity, how it seeps up from the ground, attracting creatures like leogryfs and manticores, and dwells inside people granting them magical abilities and a glimpse of the Unseen world. 

Of all the characters, I connected most with Byren and Piro.  Byren is a born leader, strong and dedicated to his friends and family.  When his best friend Orrade is disinherited by his father for being a lover of men, Byren tries to cover for him even though it could mean losing the love of Orrie’s sister, Elina.  My frustration when he was wrongfully accused of being a Servant of Palos and plotting against his father was so tangible I could practically taste it.  I wanted to slap some sense into the king and throttle Illien.  Piro is a little firecracker.  She’s strong-willed and fiercely protective of her family.  She reminds me a little of Arya Stark from George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series.  In fact, the whole time I read this book I was reminded of that beloved series and I half-expected Jon Snow to charge around bend followed by his faithful direwolf. 

I’m always game for court intrigue and the battle for thrones so The King’s Bastard was a perfect match for me.  I can’t wait to see what happens in the next book!

ARC Review: Dracula In Love

Dracula in Love: The Private Diary of Mina Harker

Karen Essex
Hardcover, 384 pages
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
August 10, 2010

 * I received a complimentary galley from the publisher.

If you’ve ever read Bram Stoker’s Dracula then you’re already familiar with the story of the Mina Murray, her husband Jonathan Harker, and the infamous Count that comes between them. But if you think you know the whole story, wait until you’ve heard it told through Mina’s lips. In Essex’s version, she sets the record straight and recounts what really happened, starting with her engagement to Jonathan and his subsequent business venture abroad.

As a teacher and former student at Miss Hadley’s School for Young Ladies of Accomplishment, Mina knows just how lucky she is in finding a caring and respectable man like Jonathan Harker.  When Jonathan is called away to Styria on business with a new client, she leaves the school to spend the remainder of her engagement in Whitby with her wealthy friend Lucy Westenra, newly engaged herself.  Though anxious to begin her new life as a married woman, Mina is deeply troubled by spells of sleepwalking and frightening, illicit dreams about a stranger that somehow feels familiar to her.  During one such spell, she wakes to find Lucy in the arms of her fiance’s friend, Morris Quince, and Lucy confesses that they’ve been having an affair and plan to marry. 

Mina tries to talk some sense into her friend and convince her that Quince doesn’t truly love her, but soon receives word that Jonathan is ill and must leave Lucy to travel to Styria and bring him home.  While she’s away Lucy is admitted to the asylum where Dr. John Seward, another friend of her fiance’s, treats the infirm and insane (mostly women who have been diagnosed as nymphomaniacs after exhibiting what we would consider to be normal sexual behavior today).  Too late, Mina finds out that her dear friend has died under the doctor’s care and after reading a pair of smuggled letters detailing the horrific ordeals she was forced to undergo, Mina vows to find out what really happened to her friend by volunteering her time at the asylum while Jonathan is treated by Dr. Seward and his colleague Dr. Von Helingser after contracting brain fever abroad.

But Mina soon finds herself in the same position as Lucy when her sanity is questioned and she becomes a patient in the asylum, subjected to imprisonment, drugs, and torture, all sanctioned by her now husband Jonathan who thinks it’s for her own benefit.  After almost dying from the “water cure” Mina is rescued by the mysterious stranger from her dreams, who brings her into a world of magic, blood, and immortality.

Like all things vampiric, I’ve been fascinated with the story of Dracula since I was little.  Before I even read the famous Stoker tale I was enthralled by Coppola’s film version and it was thrilling to get to hear Mina’s point of view.  It was a fresh and unique take, enchantingly dark and bewitching.  I loved the origin of the Count and the depiction of the vampires that seduced Jonathan as daughters of Lilith and Mina’s relationship with the Sidhe, ancient fairies from Irish folklore.  The references to the red-haired writer who kept nosing into the story made me smile. 

As much as I truly enjoyed reading this book, I have to say that I was wholeheartedly disappointed with the ending.  I don’t want to give too much away but I just couldn’t comprehend how Mina could make the choice that she did.  Granted it was a selfless and noble act, but after being manipulated and ill-treated by all the men in her life, especially those that should have cared for her and protected her, she baffled me in the end.  After finishing the book I was angry and upset the rest of the night  I couldn’t stop thinking about it, running the ending through my mind over and over to try to make some sense of it and come to peace with it, and for the life of me I couldn’t do it.  I guess that speaks to the power of the storytelling that I couldn’t get it out of my mind, but I almost felt cheated, robbed. 

Maybe it’s just me, and most people would agree with Mina’s choice.  I would love to know.  Overall, still a wonderfully dark story, and so much fun to revisit such a classic and cherished tale.  I still recommend it but if you’re left feeling unsatisfied at the end, my sincere apologies.

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