Posts Tagged ‘Alternate History’

The Hunted

“‘What do you think you’re playing at, Father?’

Without stopping to pause, Tacit powered a fist square into his face and the man went down in a motionless heap.’”

About :

Tacit Poldek is not a normal priest: he’s an inquisitor traveling through an alternate-20th century Europe to neutralize supernatural threats wherever he finds them. Today, he seeks the murderer of a priest in Sarajevo before that murderer can reach its next target: Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The Hunted is adult horror/alternate history written by Tarn Richardson and published February 20th 2015 by Gerald Duckworth & Co.

I ran across this series on Tammy’s terrific speculative fiction blog, Book, Bones & Buffy, and after reading the synopsis of book III (of which she was running a giveaway), I knew I had to try it out. Speculative fiction set against historical backgrounds can often balance entertainment with details that bring a period to life at the same time. Winning! Bonus: The Darkest Hand also deals with church history, something I find endlessly fascinating. Max Gladstone introduced me to the sort of fiction that explores both faith and magic in the same volume, and I’ve been addicted ever since. So finding the short story prequel to the series (available for free on Amazon!) was really exciting.

Thoughts :

“The pavement around the Priest was slick with blood, thick rivulets of darkening crimson snaking from the body drying fast beneath the hot Sarajevo sun.

A priest is dead. The crowd assumes he fell from a window, but Tacit Poldek sees the signs: someone—or something—threw this priest to his death. As Poldek sets off to find the murderer, we quickly learn that this violent brandy-swigging priest will stop at nothing to get answers. The story moves at a good clip and I enjoyed the chase, although the predictable outcome and the repetitive, violent nature of the priest’s investigative techniques left me feeling “meh” about the final third of the story. I think the constraints of the short story form hindered potential character development and clever plotting in The Hunted.

Overall :

However, this free prequel does provide a fast and helpful introduction to the author’s style, the world of the Darkest Hand series and to the hero (or, rather, antihero?). I’m certainly interested in continuing the series to find out more about this dark, gritty world.

Recommended To :

Anyone intrigued by the idea of mixing horror and urban fantasy, set against a background of 19th century alternate history. I would recommend skipping this prequel, though, and going straight to book I. This feels more like a prologue than a standalone story, mainly published to promise series potential.

Plot: 3/5
Worldbuilding: 4/5
Characters: 3/5
Writing: 3/5

***3/5 STARS

 

 

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thevaliant

“I punched my fists skyward in victory before sweeping my arms out to either side, stretched wide as wings. I felt for that fleeting instant as if I really were the goddess Morrigan in flight, swooping low over a battlefield to collect the souls of the glorious dead.”

About :

Fallon is a Celtic Princess with an ax to grind: Julius Caesar killed her warrior-sister in his battle to conquer Britain (or Prydain, as the Celts call it) and Fallon trains to one day get revenge on the Roman conqueror. But when her father betroths her to her boyfriend’s brother, instead of asking her to join his royal war band, she’s sure she’ll never get the chance after all.

While tracking down her betrothed to confront him, Fallon’s life takes another sharp left turn: slavers capture her and bring her to Rome, where her greatest enemy, Caesar, buys her for his gladiatrix training academy. While Fallon’s Cantii spirit still cries for freedom, she trusts the will of her goddess and trains hard to become the best gladiatrix in Rome. The Valiant is YA Alternate History authored by Lesley Livingston and published February 14th 2017 by Razorbill.

Thoughts :

The Valiant opens with Fallon successfully completing the fabled chariot stunt known as the Morrigan’s Flight, wherein a warrior steps from the chariot’s carriage to the shaft between the running horses and hurls a spear at her target. This lushly detailed and action-filled opening sets the tone for the rest of the book. The first third sucks readers into Fallon’s journey from Roman Britain to Rome itself with the thrum of chariot wheels, the stench of corpse-fouled wells and the chill of the metal torcs that mark you as royalty—or slave.

Then we reach the promise of the premise: Caesar buys Fallon for his gladiatrix training school. The “school” trope is one of my favorites in YA, and this very trope is the “twist” that makes The Valiant an alternate history: though rare, individual female gladiators did exist; but Livingston imagines elite training schools to prepare the female warriors for the Colosseum battles. As in the first third of The Valiant, Livingston brings this premise alive with great details.

One of my favorite examples: when Fallon is training for the Colosseum, she analyzes the different styles and strategies of gladiatorial combat, such as what classes of gladiator the women belong to, depending on their weapons—and what Hunger-Games-like strategies they use to please the crowd of spectators:

Gratia fought in the style of the murmillo gladiators, with sword and heavy shield. It suited her physique—and her penchant for thoughtless brutality—and made her something of a force to be reckoned with in the arena. It also compensated for her utter lack of personality.

And that was something that the masters of the ludi, the gladiatorial games, coveted above all else.

Flair.”

The rest of the plot feels a little stringy and predictable to me, but Fallon’s journey to the school and her struggles there draw the real focus anyway.

And although the character psychology doesn’t always ring true, the politics of identity, race and culture give strong flavor to character interactions and agendas. For example, Fallon chafes against her bondage, disgusted by the idea of battling to satisfy this foreign Roman bloodlust; she can’t understand how the Romans can stomach forcing their slaves to fight like animals. But she also realizes that her tribe and family kept, worked and sold slaves just like the Romans:

We bought them and sold them the same way as we did out cattle. Slaves had meant swept floors and lit fires and clean water carried in heavy clay pots. I was ashamed to admit I had never given them much thought. They just…were. I had been so very blind. And stupid. And now I was learning what it was like to have someone else decide my fate.”

While I expected some action and hoped for some good historical detail, I didn’t at all expect this kind of historical depth. It was such a great surprise!

Overall :

This is exactly what I’m looking for, when I pick up a YA with a historical bent. I want the entertainment and the detail. Balanced pacing, slam-bang action and an engaging level of historical awareness raises this YA Alternate History above the market average. It’s very well edited with invisible prose, active description and almost none of the “telling” that can drone on and on and kill the forward motion in historical fiction.

Recommended To :

Readers who wish Rosemary Sutcliff had written more YA. Or, you know, anyone who likes the idea of reading about female gladiators 😀

****4/5 STARS

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portalofathousandworlds

“I helped him advance on the staircase of worlds.”

A pretty euphemism for assassination, no?

About :

The Good Land lives for centuries at a time without serious threat to its traditions. Each dynastic emperor rules from The Heart of the World, unseen by the masses and advised by his eunuchs. Periodically, rebellions protest the power of the emperor’s “usurper” mother, who appears to rule the throne; fortunately for the ruling class, the only real competing power lies with “The Grey Helpers” of “The Houses of Joyful Departure”—you guessed it, an assassin’s guild 😉

But the emperor takes fearful notice when the Man of a Thousand Lives reappears, a man who is reincarnated cyclically through the ages to share the wisdom of the prophets about the Portal of a Thousand Worlds. This time, the Man of a Thousand Lives prophesies the opening of the Portal. As the auguries pile up, the powerful grow nervous, for the Portal always brings great changes to the Good Land. Dynasties end and natural disasters rock the land.

The changes rarely favor the powerful. The Portal of a Thousand Worlds is adult epic fantasy/alternate history authored by Dave Duncan and published February 14th 2017 by Open Road Media Science & Fantasy. Duncan also authored The King’s Blades and The Seventh Sword series.

Thoughts :

Portal of a Thousand Worlds feels like the sort of book that might take a lifetime to write—tightly plotted and cast, fully-developed in setting and characterized by the sort of raucous, racy and word-perfect humor that enlivens what might otherwise be considered a grim Chinese political fantasy.

The conflict between Emperor’s family and the rebels is the main focus of the book. Every so often, the focus slides back to the Man of a Thousand Lives (also known as the “Firstborn” or the “Urfather”) and his mysterious agenda; but basically every other narrator (and there are many) focuses on the palace intrigue. Most of the narrators are either nobility or Grey Helpers, and from them we learn delicious details of both palace life and the inner workings of the assassin’s guild. It’s like a very (very! Wonderfully! Atmospherically!!) Chinese Game of Thrones.

The story builds to address the climactic mystery of The Portal. Only rumors survive about its opening in centuries past, and nobody knows why. But everyone wants to know, of course—so they ask the Firstborn, who currently resides in the body of a fourteen year old peasant boy named “Sunlight.” But even he doesn’t know much—he always gets assassinated before the Portal itself opens.

So everybody watches and waits, anxious about the opening of the great portal.

My favorite part of Portal is the delightfully wicked and ever-present humor. Clever verbal gymnastics, situations that lurch sideways and riotous personality humor kept me giggling throughout the book. The Firstborn himself trademarks his own running joke, sharing hilarious anecdotes or reprimands about the confusion surrounding past philosophical teachings.

On top of the humor, surprises show up on every page. Tensions run high with conflicting character agendas, sudden tips in power, deaths, magics and all kinds of other ingenious plot twists. I was never bored. Certain portions could have probably been trimmed to shorten the book—I didn’t expect to take two weeks to read this ARC; but every page was honestly a pleasure to read.

The ending may disappoint readers who enjoy the concrete answers often found in a hard-fantasy like Brandon Sanderson’s stories; nevertheless, I found it to be profoundly touching and everything I didn’t know I wanted. I love the theme about how the passage of time can affect religion and public perception of religion. The religion also serves justice in a rather unique way…

The limitations of the female sex may also bother some readers. Life is unapologetically rough for all but noblemen (emphasis on the “men”), in this early 1800s-like Chinese fantasy. Women can gain only a little power, and only by birthing sons; as such, every female with a modicum of power spends or has spent time as a prostitute or concubine. If feminism is a touchy issue for you, you might consider the female situation anything from boring to grating; I took off half a star for the disturbingly obvious lack of strong, unique female heroines. But thankfully despite the limits on female power, I enjoyed the female characters as much as the heroes in this one. The range of personalities is both vast and entertaining. (My favorite character, Horse, grew up in a House of Joyful Departure where females get just as much opportunity and have just as much success as males. He is one of the few men who respects women outside the bedroom…and you might like where his arc leads, and what it promises for the future of the Good Land.)

Overall :

I thoroughly enjoyed Portal. The humor and inventiveness far outweigh any negative considerations. It’s billed as a Chinese Game of Thrones, which seems like a fair description. (You might take this with a grain of salt, as I’m only familiar with book 1 + season 1 of GoT.) Occasional short action scenes pop up, but mostly as humorous or dramatic beats. The book is much more about politics and power than about the magic or even the Portal, really.

Recommended To :

Anyone looking for a hilarious and political epic fantasy with a Chinese twist. Not recommended to feminists. Slight content warning for younger readers, there’s some violence and a loooooot of sex, haha. I don’t recall anything too dramatic, but sex is probably mentioned on every other page, in some form or another (often as a device of humor).

4.5/5 STARS

Thank you so much to Dave Duncan,  Open Road Media Science & Fantasy and Netgalley for this amazing ARC of Portal of a Thousand Worlds!

gildedcage

“Understanding slid into Luke’s brain and lodged its sharp point there…

‘We’re all going to do our slavedays.’

About :

Luke and Abigail Hadley live like normal teenagers all over Britain until their parents suddenly commit the whole family to their “slave days.” Every British commoner is forced to devote 10 years of service to the magically “Skilled” elite class that rules over Britain, a caste known as the “Equals.” At least the Hadleys manage to score a cushy group deal: all five will serve the richy rich Jardine family on their legendary estate of Kyneston.

At least, that’s what they’re told.

But when the bus arrives, Luke gets marked as “surplus” and sent instead to Millmoor, “Manchester’s filthy, unforgiving slavetown.”

Because in a “state of non-legal personhood,” you have no rights.

You are now chattels of the state.”

Gilded Cage was authored by Vic James and will be published February 14th 2017 by Del Rey Books.

Thoughts :

I requested Gilded Cage mainly hoping to read about the cool “Dark Gifts” of the series title (and based on Vic James’ exciting bio). But the meat of the first 50% focuses instead on the challenges you might find in a British drama. Maybe more like Downtown Abbey? With cruel lords and ladies making life miserable for their butlers, maids and slaves. (I haven’t actually seen much Downtown Abbey, as I don’t watch a lot of tv beyond Cops and 48 Hours, so this guess could be somewhat off.*) The publisher is clearly marketing the book to people who enjoy this sort of story, and I think the target audience would enjoy it more than I did.

I read to 50% before deciding to set it aside.

Why DNF?

The title Gilded Cage perfectly encapsulates the majority of narrative perspectives in this book: Abigail Hadley tells us of life Kyneston; her new masters, the Jardine men, also share their perspectives with us in the first 50%. The “Gilded Cage” refers mainly to a magical wall that surrounds the Kyneston estate, keeping slaves locked inside, although it may also refer to the British society at large that cages its commoners into servitude. So we spend a lot of time in this cage, reading the thoughts of both captors and captives.

This is unfortunate for two reasons: (1) The Jardine men are a largely despicable lot, and (2) Abi’s plot mainly consists of developing feelings for one of them. The plot summary suggests more to her plot, later in the book—she discovers the Jardine family secret and must decide whether to reveal it or not—but I didn’t get that far because I just couldn’t get into the story. The focus stays mainly on domestic and political troubles rather than magical, during the first half, and I had a feeling the focus wasn’t going to change.

But my main problems with Gilded Cage relate to the characters. First of all, I thought there were too many narrators for such a short novel. The first 50% cycles through enough narrators that I don’t remember who they were or how many I met. More importantly, none of the characters feel like authentic people (with the bare exception of Abigail, who feels like a legitimately moony teenaged girl). The Jardine men especially fell flat for me. I had a difficult time buying Silyen’s antisocial brilliance and everyone’s fear of The Young Master. I especially couldn’t believe that the violently angry Gavar cared most in the world about his baby daughter. No amount of Gavar’s POV could convince me of that, after he shot the mother while she held the child in her arms during the prologue. No caring father would do that. The unrealistic psychology and motivations of the Jardine men left me bored and unconvinced.

Luke Hadley is also unfortunately a very wooden character, although his scenes in the slave town of Millmoor are the most exciting to read. Luke takes part in a slave rebellion, and I enjoyed the action scenes in his perspective. Little things in his perspective did make the narrative lose credibility, though, such as when one character gets harnessed up and steps straight off a rooftop, instead of carefully lowering herself down. Ouch! That would give you quite a jolt and likely smash you into the side of the building. I would definitely not recommend doing it thataway.

Overall :

Unfortunately, Gilded Cage doesn’t appeal to the “Fantasy,” “Alternate History” or “British Mystery” parts of me and I couldn’t get into the characters. Very little surprised or interested me about the first 50%. The author focused on Abi’s romantic ambitions or the proceedings of the court of cruel lords when I was hoping for something more magical.

Recommended To :

Readers who like both YA and British dramas. From what the positive reviews are saying, readers appeared to most enjoy the “Britishness” of it. It does feel very British. Lots of class warfare. I can see the Dickensian influence, as another positive review remarked—but only in the class structure and relations. That particular comparison makes me a feel a little sick; Dickens is known for his characterization and this book has terribly un-lifelike characters.

Thank you so much to Vic James, Del Rey and Netgalley for this e-galley!

*In the comments, Maddalena @ Space and Sorcery kindly corrected my misconception about Downtown Abbey: apparently the house staff doesn’t get abused, which is a relief!

“Your mother is Wallachia.”

Premise :

The young royals Ladislav and Radu Dragwlya are sold from their homeland of Wallachia into the heart of the 15th century Ottoman Empire. Lada never stops dreaming of her country, but Radu finds a new home in Islam and in the friendship of Mehmed, son of the Sultan. But even as prince Mehmed works his way into both Lada’s and Radu’s hearts, he dreams of ruling and even expanding his father’s empire over more lands like Wallachia. As the three friends grow up together, their very different paths and desires strain the bonds of love.

YA Historical, published 2016 by Delacorte Press.

About :

And I Darken focuses primarily on the desires and nuanced relationships of the three main characters. But within this context, the book also explores the period politics.

If we were not pushing, fighting, claiming what is ours and challenging what is not yet ours, others would be doing it to us. It is the way of the world. You can be the aggressor, you can fight against Crusaders on their own land, or you can stay at home and wait for them to come to you. And they would come. They would come with fire, with disease, with swords and blood and death. Weakness is an irresistible lure.”

It’s a simplified, intensely character-driven Game of Thrones, Ottoman royal teen edition. Except…this really isn’t fantasy. It’s historical fiction with a twist: Vlad the Impaler is a girl.

What I Liked :

(1) The characters. The perfectly mapped, clear desire lines of the two narrators, Lada and Radu, relentlessly drew me through the pages; this is their shared Bildungsroman. But the characterization continues far beyond just them. The author writes all the characters with care, including Mehmed, Lada’s hilarious cohort of Janissary soldiers and even minor female characters of the harem.

I love how different women characters explore the power dynamics available to them, especially Lada, the female version of Vlad the Impaler. She’s so careful as she weighs her options [highlight to read spoiler: of ruling her own country, or co-ruling the empire that conquered her country in the first place. Mara’s defeat of the harem system seems to inspire Lada’s rejection of “the woman card.”].

Lada’s chapters give me almost everything I wanted from this book. They show off the Ottoman landscape, politics and battle-tactics. Lada considers herself a freedom fighter, and she professes her patriotism well, in an exchange with prince Mehmed:

I would sooner see my country burned than see it improved under Ottoman rule. Not everywhere needs to be remade in your image. If we were not so busy constantly defending our borders and being trespassed by other nations’ armies, we would be able to care for our own!”

My favorite part of Radu’s chapters is his devotion to Islam and the devotion of other characters who led him to it.

(2) The prose works overtime to bring each character and setting to life. For example, Radu wishes he could see the prince, as they march to one of the crusades, but…:

“But Murad’s and Mehmed’s forces were on different ends of the procession, separating Radu and Mehmed by a full day’s march. The sheer logistics of moving this many men and this much equipment was staggering.”

They’re in the same war party, but they’re separated by a full day’s march?! That is staggering! It really brings home the enormous size of these battles.

What I Disliked :

While the love triangle is both unique and well-written, involving sibling rivalry and themes of patriotism vs. love, it does steal some of the focus from the politics and war, especially at the end. The tension ratios are thus:

35% love triangle, mostly thanks to Radu’s chapters; 65% war and medieval secret service.

This is actually a great ratio, for YA; but while I enjoyed some of the romantic scenes, angsty drama does get old. I preferred Lada’s scenes because she’s constantly plotting some exhibition of her battle skills or saving Mehmed from assassination. I wanted to know more about her study of war strategy. I wanted to spend more real time with her crew of Janissaries.

I wanted to hear less of Radu’s whining.

Basically, I wanted this to be “Bernard Cornwell writes the Ottoman Empire.” I got about 70% of that, and it was awesome. But the rest consisted of historical romance + teen angst – hot sex.

The Ending :

Overall, the book doesn’t finish as strongly as the first 370 pgs predict. The ending feels sloppier than the carefully-plotted beginning and middle—the protagonists “discover” the antagonist’s grand plan with vague guesswork; plot points are suddenly explained in brief dialogues, instead of experienced; the prose slackens with lazy physical telling. It feels a little like the author tired of revisions or ran out of time for them.

Thankfully, a great plot twist saves the book from a so-so climax. I also love the final scene [highlight to read spoiler: at the Wallachian border. Even though the ending is bittersweet and totally reminds me of Gone With the Wind, I cheered when Lada and her men returned to their homeland. It’s irritating that she and Mehmed can’t just work something out, like making Lada be a warrior queen and keeping their relationship. Couldn’t they build an alliance, but still remain separate countries? I’m sure that’s completely historical untenable, but this isfiction! Haha. That would have been a cooler ending, imo. Just sayin’.].

Recommendation :

Perfection for fans of YA fiction. In fact, if you like YA at all, I’ll almost guarantee you’ll like this book. Fans of Bernard Cornwell’s historical action/adventure may have a more lukewarm response because neither Lada nor Radu do a lot of fighting. Fans of historical romance might really enjoy the book, though, if they don’t mind the lack of bedsport 😉 I will definitely recommend this book to some teens (in fact, I already have), despite the annoyances of teen angst.

After all, teens are living through it. I’m sure it’s more interesting to them.

4.5/5 STARS