The King’s Sword ~ C. J. Brightely

  • Title:  The King’s Sword
  • Author:  C. J. Brightley
  • Series:  Erdemen Honor #1
  • Genre:  Adventure, Fantasy
  • Format:  eBook
  • Source:  Author-provided review copy
  • Reviewed by: Valerie
  • Rating:  3.5 out of 5

Description:  A riveting tale of honor, courage, and friendship.

The King’s Sword is a gripping first-person narrative of a warrior’s honor and a friendship that shapes a nation. When retired, disillusioned soldier Kemen Sendoa finds the young prince fleeing a coup, he wrestles with questions of duty and honor as he reluctantly takes the role of mentor. An outsider, Kemen loves his country but has no place in it. Will he be able to keep the prince alive and carve his own place in the shadow of the crown?

Potential Spoilers

Review:  The King’s Sword has all the makings of a great adventure tale. A king dies and political treachery ensues. As a young prince flees for his life, he meets an honorable ex-soldier who decides to help. Danger abounds!

This is a tough book to classify. It is written at a level to be accessible to YA readers and follows a bit of a coming of maturity story, but it really isn’t YA at all. I would call it an easy to read adventure story. Yet, it has strong elements of violence and death. The story setting is based in classic swordplay of an imaginary realm, but it lacks the magical component that would traditionally characterize it as fantasy. My difficulty in classifying this book is not a criticism. Quite the opposite! The blending of styles works well for this book.

One thing that IS clear, The King’s Sword is a story about friendship. The strength of the book lies in the depth of the relationship that develops between the young prince, Hakan, and the aging outcast soldier, Kemen. While the relationship began as one of mentor and student, it evolved into one of mutual respect and admiration.

Brightley uses the challenges faced by Hakan and Kemen to allow each character to reveal their strengths and also to bare their vulnerabilities to one another. In the beginning, Kemen’s frustrated with Hakan because he’s a frightened and spoiled youth. Later, the soldier realizes the prince is afraid of failing his country. It is this sense of Hakan’s underlying sense of honor that spurs Kemen into the role of protector and mentor as they flee the assassins that seek to eliminate Hakan’s claim to the throne. At the same time, as Hakan’s confidence grows, he is able to recognize Kemen’s struggle to fit into a world that fears him and his commitment to a kingdom that abandoned him.

There were several key moments in the story that moved me, mostly centered on the relationship between Hakan and Kemen and the depth of their characters. I won’t be responsible for ruining any moments for you (I suspect you will recognize them when you come to them), but I will say that Brightley did a great job of using the plot to develop both characters.

There were times when the overall plot dragged a little and sometimes the author kind of beat a dead horse. Hakan will never be a great swordsman. Kemen is really self-conscious about that fact that he cannot read. I also felt that the ending was just the tiniest bit anti-climactic. Regardless, I would say The King’s Sword was an overall enjoyable read.

Cover note: I liked almost everything about this cover. It has a lot of really good elements. The background effect of aged parchment and the wooden texture of the same color lend itself to the setting of the story. The layout is well-balanced and the fonts were well-chosen. The concept of the mounted soldier silhouetted against the backdrop should play out well to capture the sense of honor and loneliness experience by both Kemen and Hakan, however the rider in the image lacks definition and the angles are bit awkward. Because the rider is such a focal point, it really takes away from the overall impact of the cover.

A Study in Silks ~ Emma Jane Holloway

  • Title: A Study in Silks
  • Author: Emma Jane Holloway
  • Series: The Baskerville Affair #1
  • Genre: Steampunk, Fantasy, Paranormal Romance
  • Format: ebook
  • Source: Review copy
  • Reviewed by: DarthVal
  • Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Description:  Evelina Cooper, the niece of the great Sherlock Holmes, is poised to enjoy her first Season in London’s high society. But there’s a murderer to deal with—not to mention missing automatons, a sorcerer, and a talking mouse.

In a Victorian era ruled by a council of ruthless steam barons, mechanical power is the real monarch, and sorcery the demon enemy of the empire. Nevertheless, the most coveted weapon is magic that can run machines—something Evelina has secretly mastered. But rather than making her fortune, her special talents could mean death or an eternity as a guest of Her Majesty’s secret laboratories. What’s a polite young lady to do but mind her manners and pray she’s never found out?

But then there’s that murder. As Sherlock’s niece, Evelina should be able to find the answers, but she has a lot to learn. And the first decision she has to make is whether to trust the handsome, clever rake who makes her breath come faster, or the dashing trick rider who would dare anything for her if she would only just ask.

Review:  A Study in Silks kicks off a new lightly steampunk series, The Baskerville Affair. I say lightly steampunk, because although the world is powered by steam and clockwork creations abound, the world really does not feel all that different from traditional historical romance. Hmm, romance is not really the right word, either, maybe historical chick lit? Clearly, it is difficult to pin down exactly which category owns this book, and well, defining books by genre has very little practical use, so I’ll move right along.

One can definitely define this book as a mystery. The main character, Evelina Cooper, has an inquisitive mind and a touch of magic, neither of which help her blend into London society any better than her dubious heritage. She is a guest in the family home of her best friend, with whom she is preparing for her introduction to debut into society when a series of mysterious events begin to unfold. Being niece to the illustrious Sherlock Holmes, Evelina, of course, sets out to discover the truth and hopefully protect those close to her.

I have mixed feelings about the use of Sherlock Holmes within the books. Other than solidifying Evelina’s natural inclination toward solving mysteries, I am not sure that it really serves much purpose in progressing the plot of the story. It almost feels as if the author is trying to create the effect of the celebrity cameo, a device which I find trite. Perhaps Holloway intends to use this relation as a resource in future books. Only times will tell.

For a book that is not really a romance, the story relies heavily another over-used trope, the love triangle. Throughout the book, Evelina finds herself torn between her affections for her BFF’s brother and someone from her questionable past. Both characters are depicted as intelligent, dashing, and full-of-life. They are also both a bit full of themselves and prove themselves unworthy of Evelina by the end of the book. I truly hope that Ms. Holloway does not try to use them as potential romantic interests in future books. I feel that both kind suitors leave behind burnt bridges in regards to Evelina’s affections. I have to admit that I love this. It is refreshing to read a story where the female lead is not defined by finding her true and everlasting love by the end of the book. Well done, Ms. Holloway.

Going back to the mystery, it is pretty ambitious, if a little convoluted. I am willing to give the benefit of the doubt, considering this book is clearly also setting up deep intrigue for books to come. I appreciate that the author was unwilling to scrimp on the complexity of the story in favor of world building. I do so love a good enigmatic plot.

No matter how good the plot, it will remain unsatisfying without decent characters. Evelina is a character that I can like. She is smart, resourceful, and independent. I look forward to following her adventures as they unfold throughout the series. I also think there is more to her sidekick, er, I mean BFF.

My overall impression of the book was favorable. I am definitely interested to see where the author takes the series from here.

**Disclaimer: Reviewer was provided with a digital advance review copy of this book by the publisher via Net Galley.

River of Stars ~ Guy Gavriel Kay

  • Title:  River of Stars
  • Author:  Guy Gavriel Kay
  • Genre:  Historical Fiction, Fantasy
  • Format:  Audio book
  • Source:  Library
  • Reviewed by: Valerie
  • Rating:  3.5 out of 5

<

p>Description:  In his critically acclaimed novel Under Heaven, Guy Gavriel Kay told a vivid and powerful story inspired by China’s Tang Dynasty. Now, the international bestselling and multiple award-winning author revisits that invented setting four centuries later with an epic of prideful emperors, battling courtiers, bandits and soldiers, nomadic invasions, and a woman battling in her own way, to find a new place for women in the world – a world inspired this time by the glittering, decadent Song Dynasty.

Ren Daiyan was still just a boy when he took the lives of seven men while guarding an imperial magistrate of Kitai. That moment on a lonely road changed his life—in entirely unexpected ways, sending him into the forests of Kitai among the outlaws. From there he emerges years later—and his life changes again, dramatically, as he circles towards the court and emperor, while war approaches Kitai from the north.

Lin Shan is the daughter of a scholar, his beloved only child. Educated by him in ways young women never are, gifted as a songwriter and calligrapher, she finds herself living a life suspended between two worlds. Her intelligence captivates an emperor—and alienates women at the court. But when her father’s life is endangered by the savage politics of the day, Shan must act in ways no woman ever has.

In an empire divided by bitter factions circling an exquisitely cultured emperor who loves his gardens and his art far more than the burdens of governing, dramatic events on the northern steppe alter the balance of power in the world, leading to events no one could have foretold, under the river of stars.

Review:  Once again, Guy Gavriel Kay has immersed himself in the historical culture of ancient China, this time focusing within the 12th Dynasty. Just he did in the acclaimed Under Heaven, he slowly and methodically crafts his tale. Perhaps a little too slowly in River of Stars. There were times when story seemed to drag a bit, and yet I could not help but continuing on with the story.

Kay has a way about his story telling. In River of Stars he puts so much detail into creating the world that you almost feel as if the setting is itself a character of the book. It is clear that he spent a great deal of time researching this period of the Song Dynasty’s history. By the story’s end, the readers feels almost as if they visited that time, so long ago. Or maybe that is because they feel a compulsion to read up on some of the history on their own.

The two primary characters in River of Stars, Ren Daiyan and Lin Shan are clearly inspired by actual historical figures. Kay has a way of taking people and moments from time, and weaving a fictional account of what might have been. Within his telling, he pays homage to the existing mythology by capturing their truths of beauty, loyalty, and honor.

The characters of Ren Daiyan and Lin Shan remind me of the Yin and Yang. They are bound together and yet they are opposites. Ren Daiyan has a clear sense of his place within his time, a purpose that motivates him. Whereas, on the other hand, Lin Shan is a woman out of place in her own time and struggle to find her place in society. While they are very different, they both share an ability to recognize truth.

In addition to characters and themes, Kay incorporates much of Song Dynasty culture in this opus. In fact, while this book is often categorized as fantasy, the fantastical elements play more into the cultural superstitions of the time, making them seem more of a historical interpretation of events through the eyes of the characters. The author really seems to like the concept of fox spirits, featuring one in both River of Stars and Under Heaven. He details the prominent role of poetry and art and their cultural significance to that time. I can’t help but reflect that in our modern equivalents of pop music and movies just do not hold the same serene sense of beauty. In contrast, the battles scenes are sharp and brutal, yet equally brilliant in the telling.

I experience River of Stars in audio book format. The narration is very calm and slow. I thought that this worked well for Under Heaven, but found it frustrating for River of Stars. There were just moments that I felt would be better told with more energy. In particular, the understated vocalization did little to capture the sassy and mischievous nature of the Daji (fox woman). At times, the calming tones felt as if they might lull me to sleep.

While I enjoyed the story, I did struggle to get through the book. The entire tone of the story was so calm and methodical that it made an already long book feel even longer.

Scarlet ~ Marissa Meyer

  • Title: Scarlet
  • Author: Marissa Meyer
  • Series: Lunar Chronicles #2
  • Genre: Fantasy, Science Fiction, YA
  • Format: Audiobook
  • Source: Library
  • Reviewed by: DarthVal
  • Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Description:  The fates of Cinder and Scarlet collide as a Lunar threat spreads across the Earth…

Cinder, the cyborg mechanic, returns in the second thrilling installment of the bestselling Lunar Chronicles. She’s trying to break out of prison—even though if she succeeds, she’ll be the Commonwealth’s most wanted fugitive.

Halfway around the world, Scarlet Benoit’s grandmother is missing. It turns out there are many things Scarlet doesn’t know about her grandmother or the grave danger she has lived in her whole life. When Scarlet encounters Wolf, a street fighter who may have information as to her grandmother’s whereabouts, she is loath to trust this stranger, but is inexplicably drawn to him, and he to her. As Scarlet and Wolf unravel one mystery, they encounter another when they meet Cinder. Now, all of them must stay one step ahead of the vicious Lunar Queen Levana, who will do anything for the handsome Prince Kai to become her husband, her king, her prisoner.

Scarlet picks up right where Cinder left off, but follows parallel plots featuring different groups of characters. The primary plot features Scarlet, a young woman in France who searching for her missing grandmother. She teams up with the mysterious Wolf, when evidence indicates his former gang may have Grand’Mere. Meanwhile, back in New Beijing, Cinder’s storyline is focused on her escape from prison with the aid of a dashing fellow prisoner, Captain Thorn.

The level of adventure is much higher in this book. While the first book was set in a scenario with a threat of danger, in this second book the danger has arrived. I found my heart racing and I could not stop reading (er, listening). Would they capture Cinder? Can Scarlet really trust Wolf? Is the Lunar Queen going to attack Earth? Well, my dear reader, those are things your will need to discover for yourself.

The world building in this series is so vivid. I like the soft feel of the science fiction fabric woven by Meyer. She gives us just enough description to accept the technology without having it intrude upon the story itself. This gives her much more room to focus not just on the intrigue (of which there is plenty), but also on the development a great characters.

Scarlet is both soft and strong, determined, yet compassionate. She is the perfect foil for our flawed hero, Wolf. Dear Wolf, so fierce and hard, yet he unable to deny his warm heart. My favorite new character, however, has to be Captain Thorn. His arrogant, yet charming demeanor brings a smile to my face. It is also refreshing to see that Cinder and Kai do not just become caricatures, as is often the case when the leads from the first book appear in the sophomore book of a series.

A growing cast of characters and plot lines can often result in an unwieldy storyline. Not in this case. Meyer masterfully weaves these threads together in a book that is exciting and satisfying. My only disappointment is that I have to wait several months until the release of the next book.

*Foot note: I want to also give a shout out to the narrator for this series, Rebecca Soler. She does a great job of creating distinct voices for her characters and capturing their emotions as appropriate. I also give major props to the cover artist. the covers for this series are simply awesome. The pop of red on each cover draws the eye, while the fairy tale font and the primary image hint at the fairy tale being adapted in each book.

Twice Tempted ~ Jeaniene Frost

  • Title: Twice Tempted
  • Author: Jeaniene Frost
  • Series: Night Prince #2
  • Genre: Urban Fantasy, Paranormal Romance
  • Format: Paperback
  • Source: Library
  • Reviewer: DarthVal
  • Rating: 3 out of 5

Description:
Dating the Prince of Darkness has its challenges…

Leila’s psychic abilities have been failing her, and now she isn’t sure what the future holds. If that weren’t enough, her lover, Vlad, has been acting distant. Though Leila is a mere mortal, she’s also a modern woman who refuses to accept the cold shoulder treatment forever–especially from the darkly handsome vampire who still won’t admit that he loves her.

Like choosing between eternal love and a loveless eternity…

Soon circumstances send Leila back to the carnival circuit, where tragedy strikes. And when she finds herself in the crosshairs of a killer who may be closer than she realizes, Leila must decide who to trust– the fiery vampire who arouses her passions like no other or the tortured knight who longs to be more than a friend? With danger stalking her every step of the way, all it takes is one wrong move to damn her for eternity.

*Potential Spoilers*

Review:  I am a big fan of Jeaniene Frost’s Night Huntress series. I especially appreciate the action-based plots that are liberally laced with humor. Twice Tempted is the second book Night Prince series, spun off from the Night Huntress Series. This series focuses on Vlad, the vampire of Dracula legend.

The Night Prince books skew much more heavily toward the paranormal romance genre, rather than the urban fantasy style that I prefer. Don’t get me wrong, there is still a good bit of action and I enjoy the stories. I just wish they would focus more on the adventure rather than the lover’s angst.

The book features a lot of high drama, Leila runs away from Vlad, who cannot admit to her, let alone himself, that he loves her. Vlad is determined to let her go, if it will make her happy, but then danger strikes and his alpha male kicks in to try to protect her. What follows is chaos, mystery, and danger – oh, and a crap ton of love fueled chemistry.

I will give Ms. Frost credit, she does a wonderful job of building romantic tension and serving it up piping hot. Paranormal romance fans will want to line up for seconds. For me, it is fun enough to tide me over until the next Night Huntress, but it did not earn a spot on the top shelf.

As for the cover, it is a pretty eye-catching, if cliché use of the muscle bound bare torso. I do have to say, the publisher chose a suitable tasty model to depict Vlad. The flames are a good visual representation of the story, in more ways than one.

The Peach Keeper ~ Sarah Addison Allen

  • Title:  The Peach Keeper
  • Author:  Sarah Addison Allen
  • Genre:  Literary Fiction
  • Format:  Trade Paperback
  • Source:  Own copy
  • Reviewed by: Valerie
  • Rating:  3.5 out of 5

Description:  The New York Times bestselling author of The Girl Who Chased the Moon welcomes you to her newest locale: Walls of Water, North Carolina, where the secrets are thicker than the fog from the town’s famous waterfalls, and the stuff of superstition is just as real as you want it to be.

It’s the dubious distinction of thirty-year-old Willa Jackson to hail from a fine old Southern family of means that met with financial ruin generations ago. The Blue Ridge Madam—built by Willa’s great-great-grandfather during Walls of Water’s heyday, and once the town’s grandest home—has stood for years as a lonely monument to misfortune and scandal. And Willa herself has long strived to build a life beyond the brooding Jackson family shadow. No easy task in a town shaped by years of tradition and the well-marked boundaries of the haves and have-nots.

But Willa has lately learned that an old classmate—socialite do-gooder Paxton Osgood—of the very prominent Osgood family, has restored the Blue Ridge Madam to her former glory, with plans to open a top-flight inn. Maybe, at last, the troubled past can be laid to rest while something new and wonderful rises from its ashes. But what rises instead is a skeleton, found buried beneath the property’s lone peach tree, and certain to drag up dire consequences along with it.

For the bones—those of charismatic traveling salesman Tucker Devlin, who worked his dark charms on Walls of Water seventy-five years ago—are not all that lay hidden out of sight and mind. Long-kept secrets surrounding the troubling remains have also come to light, seemingly heralded by a spate of sudden strange occurrences throughout the town.

Now, thrust together in an unlikely friendship, united by a full-blooded mystery, Willa and Paxton must confront the dangerous passions and tragic betrayals that once bound their families—and uncover truths of the long-dead that have transcended time and defied the grave to touch the hearts and souls of the living.

Resonant with insight into the deep and lasting power of friendship, love, and tradition, The Peach Keeper is a portrait of the unshakable bonds that—in good times and bad, from one generation to the next—endure forever.

**Potential Spoilers**

Review:  The Peach Keeper is one of those book club books that I felt compelled to read. In fact, we read it as a book club selection for the local book club that I host. It was a light and quick read, definitely falling into the genre of chick lit with a hint of mystery. I had hoped the plot to be focused more on the side of the mystery, but it was focused much more firmly on relationships and romances. The book also had a bit of a mystical element that was unexpected, and that I’m not quite sure fit.

The primary theme of the book was friendship. The story centered on two women, from different sides of the metaphorical track, Willa and Paxton, whose grandmothers had been best friends once upon a time. The girls are pulled together in coordinating an open house for a club founded by the grandmothers. As Willa and Paxton bond with one another, and certain men in the lives, they uncover deep secrets at the root of their grandmothers’ friendship.

In addition to finding friendship in unexpected places and the strength of friendship through the year, the book is also a tale of self-discovery. Willa spent her youth making a statement of rebellion and in the present day is trying to contain her impulsive side to blend in. On the other hand, Paxton has spent her whole life trying to be the perfect southern belle, and longs to just be herself. As their friendship develops, both women realize that they both are victims of their own insecurities.

While not overly deep, the book does make some relevant, if light-hearted social commentary. One of the concepts that struck me the most is that no matter from which strata of society one comes, everyone struggles to balance preconceived notions of who they should be with who they want to be. There was also that suggestion that secrets breed more secrets, and once you pull the string on one, they all start to unravel.

There was one thing that I really did not like about this book. At the end, there is a flash-back chapter to tie up the loose end of what really happened when the grandmothers were young friends. This chapter felt out of place, as if the author did not know how to include this information, so it was tacked on clumsily at the end. I felt that there had to be a better to way to either include this information, or to leave it ambiguous.

The cover of the book was attractive and eye catching. The delicate font and the peach blossoms capture the whimsical tone of the story. The girl facing away touching her hair hints at that she may have a secret, as befitting the story.

This was an enjoyable book, if not overly deep. It is a good beach book for sure.