Book review: Everything Under the Heavens by Dana Stabenow

Everything Under the Heavens (Silk and Song Trilogy, #1)Everything Under the Heavens by Dana Stabenow
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I bought this book because it is uncommon to find English language historical fiction books about China. This book takes place in 14th century China, at the end of the reign of Kublai Khan (the grandson of Genghis Khan). The main character is the granddaughter of Marco Polo and, due to a variety of reasons, leaves her home to find her grandfather’s people. She is accompanied by various friends and relatives.
The historical period is interesting enough, and the historical detail is well integrated throughout the book. But I found the writing flat and without depth. And the characters were not interesting enough for me to be deeply invested in their fate. In fact, the story ends on a cliffhanger (which also annoyed me because even in a series, each book should be self-contained enough to stand on its own), but even that is probably not enough for me to read the next one in the series.
I say this with some disappointment, as I was truly hoping I would like the book. And I did enjoy it–it was a fast and easy read of an interesting historical time. Unfortunately, the book just wasn’t compelling enough to entice me to read the next one in the series.

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Book review: Lords of the North by Bernard Cornwell

Lords of the North (The Saxon Stories, #3)Lords of the North by Bernard Cornwell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the 3rd book in the Saxon series (I know–I am way behind), and this one is my favorite so far. (Which is not to say that I disliked the other ones.) But by book #3, Uhtred’s personality is well-established as one where he knows perfectly well what he should do but often ignores it in favor of what he wants to do. (Trust me, so far there is no moral lesson to be derived from Uhtred’s behavior.) He continues to be snarky and sarcastic and irreverent, and I love him.
This book also deals very little with Alfred. Alfred the Great is one of my favorite characters in history and so I’m not always thrilled with the treatment he gets in this series (suffice it to say that Uhtred is not a fan). That being said, I like the fact that the author is willing to go against the commonly held conceptions about Alfred even as I cling to my illusions.
As always, the book is quintessential Cornwell. It is gritty and violent and gory, with no attempt to prettify the historical context. You can almost hear the grunts and screams of the men in battle and feel their swords slice into flesh.
If you haven’t read this series, I highly recommend you do so (but do it in order). I very much look forward to reading the next installment!

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Book review: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The Song of AchillesThe Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I first realized a few pages into this book that Achilles was going to be the hero of this particular novel, I did a mental eye-roll (I may have even done a physical eye roll). Achilles has never struck me as being anything but an arrogant, petulant and sulky “hero” during the Trojan War who got his comeuppance too late as far as I was concerned.
That the author managed to convince me that there may be more to this Achilles fellow than I had previously given him credit for is a testament to her writing, her imagery, her characters, and (possibly) her imagination.
The plot isn’t much of a surprise, but the characterizations are the author’s own, and it’s a testament to her detailed writing and her passion that they are convincing. The author’s writing is lyrical and vivid and a complete pleasure to read. I strongly urge you to read this, if you have any interest in Greek mythology at all, and I very much look forward to her next book!

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Book review: The Far Pavilions by M. M. Kaye

The Far PavilionsThe Far Pavilions by M.M. Kaye
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have long been a fan of M. M. Kaye’s books and had an opportunity to re-read this one, as it recently became available in e-book form. I had forgotten how beautiful a book it is. The author’s experience living in India gives the book a ring of authenticity. The book is a lengthy one and traces each main character’s back story before pulling all of the disparate threads together in one story. And what a story! The main character is Ash Pelhem-Martyn, who is pulled in two directions as a member of the British upper class who grew up thinking he was Indian. The author is knowledgeable about Indian life and customs and interweaves the romance with the British rule in India and Afghanistan. The novel has an epic narrative sweep without the sensationalism that often accompanies those types of novels, and the author’s prose is compelling and readable.
I rarely give 5 stars for a book, but I give that rating to this book without hesitation. If historical fiction is a genre you appreciate, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Read it now! 🙂

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Book review: The Forever Queen by Helen Hollick

The Forever Queen (The Saxon Series, #1)The Forever Queen by Helen Hollick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“The Forever Queen” is the first book of two about Emma of Normandy, who married Aethelred of England (known as the Unready) and slowly transforms from a shy and timid girl into a woman of confidence and self-assurance who knows what she wants. And what she wants is to be Queen of England and to do the best she can for her adoptive country. Book #1 is the transformation of Emma with secondary characters including her first husband, her stepsons Aethelstan and Edmund Ironside, her sons Edward, Alfred, and Hardecanute, and her second husband, Cnut. Also starring in a prominent role is Earl Godwin, a stalwart ally and friend.
The events covered in this book are not well known–most know British history starting with William the Conqueror. The book is well-researched, and the author does not shy away from the violence of the time (although it is never gratuitous, it is often graphic).
In some ways, Cnut is the most fascinating character in this book, as he evolves from a Danish savage to a strong and respected English king. But the book is Emma’s story and her single-minded devotion to the well-being of England. I highly recommend this fascinating read!

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Book review: Time and Chance by Sharon Kay Penman

Time and Chance (Henry II & Eleanor of Aquitaine, #2)Time and Chance by Sharon Kay Penman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I rarely give 5 star ratings, but Sharon Penman’s novel on Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitane, and Thomas Becket deserves the rating and more. This is the second in the author’s Angevin series. And while I think no writer or historian can ever completely understand how the marriage between Henry and Eleanor unraveled and how the deep friendship between Henry and Thomas Becket disintegrated, Ms. Penman comes as close as possible to doing so. Her Henry is a complex man–brilliant, determined, and unable to part with any degree of power. Eleanor is equally brilliant and stubborn, but she is constrained by the medieval role for women and chafes at those bonds. Thomas Becket is a man whom Henry elevated from humble beginnings who turns his allegiance from king to God after being appointed Archbishop of Canterbury.
The backdrop is the middle ages–a time of savagery and violence but also a time of deep faith and loyalty. The author depicts the historic events in the context of its time, portraying all of her characters with clarity and yet at the same time, with understanding.
The research is impeccable (with a comprehensive Author’s Note with additional information), the characters vibrant and realistic , and throughout the book, you sense a deep understanding by the author of the subject material and fondness for the people she touches.
The only critique I can give of this book is that it ended, but I reassure myself that there are still more of her books to read!

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Book review: Outlaw by Angus Donald

Outlaw (The Outlaw Chronicles, #1)Outlaw by Angus Donald
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A good friend recommended this book to me, since I am also a huge fan of Sharon Kay Penman’s and Bernard Cornwell’s books. I won’t admit this to my friend, but he was spot on with his recommendation. 🙂 “Outlaw” is the story of Robin Hood told from the viewpoint of Alan a Dale. The story is told very much in the Cornwell style–gritty, violent, and occasionally very gory. But Angus Donald’s writing is more well-rounded than Cornwell’s. The characters are better fleshed out, and the pacing is even stronger. Robin is a flawed but heroic character, with strengths and weaknesses that are well developed. The historical setting is full of accurate period details and are effortlessly incorporated into the story. You never feel like you’re in the middle of a history lecture. The violence is realistic but never gratuitous or sensationally gory.
The biggest weakness of the book is the character development of the secondary figures–a skill that I think male writers of historical fiction often lack. But the story is so compelling and the details so vivid that I happily forgive the author for this one fault and eagerly look forward to the next volume of Robin Hood’s adventures!

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book review: The Tiger Queens by Stephanie Thornton

The Tiger Queens: The Women of Genghis KhanThe Tiger Queens: The Women of Genghis Khan by Stephanie Thornton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Tiger Queens” covers the lives of four influential women in Genghis Khan’s life–his first wife, Borte; one of his daughters, Alaqai; a Persian captive, Fatima; and one of his daughters-in-law, Sorkhokhtani. By doing so, the book covers the life of Genghis Khan as well as what takes place after his death, as his empire is in danger of crumbling. The book is divided into 4 mini-books, each one covering the life of one of the four main characters.
I liked this book tremendously. The writing is fluid and easy to read. The characters are well drawn. The author does not shy away from the brutality of the Mongol conquests, although the scenes of brutality and violence are drawn with maximum impact and minimal gratuitous desire. Clearly, for this period in time, the many gaps of historical knowledge have to be filled in with the author’s best guesses, but she does so convincingly and tells a compelling story. The large cast of characters with unfamiliar names can be a bit confusing, but there is a list to help keep the names straight. The author also uses historical names for various places, so it is easy to underestimate the breadth of the Mongol empire if you don’t pay attention to the map. My only other complaint is that the book ended too soon–I would very much like to have learned about Kublai Khan’s story as well!
For those interested in this time period of history, I highly recommend this book!

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Book review: The Pale Horseman by Bernard Cornwell

The Pale Horseman (The Saxon Stories, #2)The Pale Horseman by Bernard Cornwell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In “The Pale Horseman,” we follow the continuing adventures of Uhtred, a snarky Saxon-raised-as-a-Dane-who-is-now-a-reluctant-subject-of-King-Alfred. (Emphasis on the “snarky” part.) Alfred has been caught by surprise by the Danes and has fled to the swamps where he plots his comeback. Uhtred is caught between his desire to regain his lost land, his family loyalty to the Danes, and his oath of loyalty to Alfred.
I do love Bernard Cornwell’s description of battle scenes–they are gritty, gory, and vivid. I also delight in his depiction of Alfred, whom Uhtred clearly dislikes and distrusts. (My favorite description of Alfred in this book is when Uhtred says, “Once we returned to the swamp, Alfred did what he does best–write letters.”)
I agree with some of the reviewers that female characters are not the author’s strong point (a common failing in male authors). But since the book is written in first person by Uhtred, the weakness does not significantly affect the book or the story. Uhtred’s flaws make him all the more appealing as a character, and the events covered in the book are well-paced and well-written.
I am definitely looking forward to the next book in the series!

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Book review: Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Code Name Verity (Code Name Verity, #1)Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is classified as Young Adult fiction, but it is so much more than that. The plot is fairly simple–a young woman is caught by the Gestapo in occupied France and is writing her story about how she ended up as a spy in France. But the book is so much more than a story of World War II. It is the story of the bonds of friendship and what true friendship really means. It is the story of wartime and how it affects families. It is the story of women and their role in World War II. But, mostly, it is the story of two young women from two very different classes in life, who wind up as unlikely best friends, and how their friendship evolves and withstands the test of time and war and tragedy. The universal themes of friendship and conflict will resonate with every reader. It is a fabulous book for kids (my 12 year old son read it and loved it) and adults. I highly highly recommend it!

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