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Review – The Blackthorn Key

The Blackthorn Key, Middle Grade Historical Fiction by Kevin Sands

Series: The Blackthorn Key #1

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I saw Kevin Sands speak with a couple of other authors at a local event (got to speak with him for a bit too) and decided to check out his books because he seemed like such a great guy. He is a great guy who writes excellent books.

Christopher Rowe lives a rather happy life apprenticed to the apothecary Blackthorn. It’s hard work, but Christopher is quite good at it and enjoys it. His master never strikes him and they share a mutual respect for one another. But when rumors of a mysterious cult assassinating apothecaries prove to have some weight, Christopher must use all of the skills Blackthorn has taught him in both chemistry and cryptography.

This book is really hard to talk about without spoilers. That’s part of its charm. It’s an eminently recommendable book. There’s something for everybody. As historical fiction, it reminded me of the research and joyful passion of GM Fraser, although without Fraser’s humorous intentions. This largely comes from the way Sands depicted the life and work of an apothecary. He has an impressive commitment to detail without overloading the book with anything unnecessary or unwanted. The codes are intriguing and fun, and a sufficiently motivated reader could figure them out along with Christopher.

Admittedly, the beginning is a little wobbly. It’s a grabbing start that involves a cannon, but I felt like it teetered somewhat in establishing a few of the characters’ personalities. That ceased to be a problem rather quickly, though.

It’s exciting and unafraid of depicting violent threats realistically. So probably be careful gifting the book to precocious younger readers. I highly recommend it for older readers and mature members of the target audience.

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Review – Those Endearing Young Charms

Those Endearing Young Charms, Regency Romance by MC Beaton writing as Marion Chesney

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

“It was in the evening, when what little light there was began to fade, that London became a magic place with carriages rolling over the cobbles and houses ablaze with lights. Then the shops came into their own, with many thousands of candles lighting up silverware, engravings, books, clocks, glass, pewter, paintings, women’s finery, gold and precious stones, and endless coffee houses and lottery offices. Each street looked as if it were lit up for a fair. The apothecaries harlequinned the streets with the light from their display glasses filled with spirits, purple, yellow, and verdigris-green. Most dazzling of all were the confectioners with their candelabra and their hanging festoons and Spanish grapes and pineapples, their pyramids of apples and oranges, their rich cakes and tarts, all served by exceptionally pretty girls with silk caps and white arms.”

While other prolific writers have their charms, there is something incredibly comfort-food-like about MC Beaton under any name that will draw me inexorably back forevermore. Her books are like cupcakes. They may not be nutritious, some may not even taste that great. But I consume them in bulk because CUPCAKES.

This particular cupcake has rather a nice fresh beginning. Mary and Emily are sisters who get along. Mary is awaiting the arrival of her husband to be, once poor Captain Tracey now Earl of Devenham. Her parents disapproved his first proposal ten years previous, and see nothing gauche or vulgar about accepting the same man now that he’s received an unexpected title. To be fair, they’re not the worst parents a Chesney heroine has had.

Unfortunately for Mary, ten years is long enough for the flames of young love to snuff out, and she finds herself returning the ardent regard of the local vicar. In a bid to save her sister from a dutiful marriage she doesn’t want, Emily drugs Mary’s chocolate and marries the earl herself. It’s intimated that Emily reads too many novels.

After the marriage, miscommunication delays consummation. This is much more Emily’s story than Devenham’s. She has the most characterisation, his grievances are downplayed while she is admired as a martyr to his bad behaviour by other characters. Also, she gets a kitten and he is a beast about it. Clearly, she is the superior protagonist.

This book went by in a haze of frosting and sweet prose. I recommend it the same way I have always recommended all MC Beaton books. Get this and five others, have a cup of tea and an evening in.

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Review – The Fire Opal

The Fire Opal, YA Historical Fantasy by Regina McBride

My rating: ⭐️⭐️

The Fire Opal is a fairy tale. Not sure if it’s a retelling or simply told in a sort of longform style of a fairy tale. It’s written in a dry, generally somber manner, yet is quite beautifully poetic. The story also strikes a compelling balance between stark pragmatism of historical fiction and the wistfulness of  a fantasy quest. However, I would recommend it more to people who like reading Andrew Lang’s fairy books or Grim and Perrault than to those who enjoy retellings. Reading it put me in mind of Koschei the Deathless.

Like a fairy tale, not everything is elaborated upon or given a firm foundation. The main character makes obvious mistakes because that’s what fairy tale protagonists do, and she also receives an absurd number of magical items. There’s a romance, but it’s completely bloodless as well as boneless. She meets Fransisco, a Spanish sailor, falls in love immediately, and yearns for him forever after.

The major downside for me is that it’s ultimately pretty forgettable. It’s a swift, smooth enough read, but I actually had to go back and reread bits before finishing because they’d failed to stick in my mind. Two stars means “it was okay,” and I certainly would tell anyone interested to check it out.

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Review – The Phantom Tree

The Phantom Tree, Historical Fantasy by Nicola Cornick

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Alison and Mary are linked across time, both struggling with their own present troubles as well as tragically weighed down by the past. Alison moreso than Mary, but they are both orphans. Being touched by the supernatural only seems to complicate things, though Alison is a sharp survivor who turns it to her advantage, and Mary eventually comes to accept it in herself.

I am an extremely soft mark for this book. On more than one point. Time travel appeals to everyone. I don’t see how it can fail to do so. We all have things we wish undone, or we feel displaced and wish for a brighter better future, or even a simpler past. (Although much as I love history, I don’t believe the past was ever simpler or easier than the present day.)

I’ve always loved the phrase, “the past is a different country.” For all that the two women’s accounts take place in the same geographical country, they are in very different places. That juxtaposition serves to show how much they have in common as the story progresses. Particularly when the action cranks up in the latter third, when answers come in a satisfying avalanche.

Although Mary is resilient, wispy, and delightfully self-aware, Alison is my favourite. She’s strong and smart enough to know that being nice is a luxury that she can’t afford. Consumed by the loss of her son and living in an impossible emotional situation, the fact that she can keep going is inspiring.

There’s a continuous theme of yearning for things that have passed, or simply wishing for them to have gone differently or contributed to a better present. Six or so years after my RA diagnosis, I still find myself prey to these sorts of thoughts. This book portrays the emotions involved in a beautifully genuine way, while anchoring itself and everyone involved in the reality that one cannot undo anything. Acceptance is the true goal.

The Phantom Tree is a lovely piece of historical fiction generously coloured by the supernatural elements. It feels true, which is one of the things that makes this genre is so intriguing.

(I received an ARC from NetGalley in return for an honest review.)

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Review – The Lawrence Browne Affair

The Lawrence Browne Affair, Historical MM Romance by Cat Sebastian

Series: The Turner Series #2

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

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Three stars can either feel exactly right as a symbol of “I liked it” or it can be damning with faint praise. In this case, it’s the latter. This book feels like an exercise in mediocrity. Romance boiled down to instruction and formula, as if it had come in a flatpack from Ikea. The setting is just historically accurate enough to not trigger potato rage. But since most of it takes place indoors in Cornwall, that isn’t asking for much. The writing is probably better than good enough, but it gets lost in a sea of checked boxes and familiar tropes. Both of the main characters are an example of the latter.

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We’re told that Georgie Turner is a con artist who’s growing a conscience, despite his best efforts to quell it. Consequences for failure to fight that nascent conscience are already in play before the story begins. I say, “we’re told” because his behaviour doesn’t bear it out. He’s sentimental and squishy from the word go. There isn’t a character arc, he just eventually stops denying his squishiness.

Lawrence is an earl with scientific leanings, and he also thinks he’s mad. There seems to have been some attempt to imply the autism spectrum to a modern reader. These attempts fell flat for me, largely because the author seemed to forget about it. By the last third, madness was suddenly okay to joke about (because that isn’t insensitive) and his condition was flanderised into “he only eats ham and apples.”

I’m not kidding.

The romance has high points. For all that the initial attraction deserves the term ‘instalust’ they are genuinely into each other. They also develop a friendship first, and it’s lovely to see how they get to know each other through both caring observation and questions.

Unfortunately, the sex is pretty basic. There’s nothing wrong with it, it’s suitably sexy, but I had to make myself go back and read some scenes after skimming because nothing happens other than sex. Sex scenes should be an opportunity for the characters to discover things about each other, themselves, or at least to show that their relationship is something special. Maybe not every sex scene should be ~something more~ but at least one should. These felt interchangeable, like factory add-ons. They could have been between any two men so inclined. Ugh. It’s fine. The sex is fine.

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There’s too much plot, yet it doesn’t do anything but show up. A gangster has it in for Georgie, Lawrence’s voltaic piles, fear-mongering rumours about Lawrence, an eight-year-old son comes home for the holiday, smugglers because Cornwall. It feels like a laundry list. Some things are resolved, although not all of them need to be addressed in the manner they were addressed. Contrivance is rife. Other things simply fall by the wayside. Yet it all comes to a nominally satisfying conclusion. Everyone lives happily ever after, and I believe they will be happy.

Honestly, there is only one real problem with this perfectly competent novel. It has no substance. I feel like that’s why I had so many minor details to quibble over: there is nothing seriously wrong with this except that it doesn’t do anything special. Many people like or love it, and I can’t help thinking that it’s more due to the reader than the book. If you bring a slice of cake to an empty table, you get to eat cake and it doesn’t matter that the table didn’t actually give you cake. I don’t love tables for their correlation to cake.

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Review – Anna of Byzantium

Anna of Byzantium, Historical Fiction by Tracy Barrett

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️


This reminded me of Lion in Winter in so many ways. The intricacies of political intrigue coloured by the protagonist’s youth and family relationships beyond royalty are all compelling and dutifully made real.

Anna’s identity is entirely tied up in her position as the firstborn princess and heir apparent, but the slightly nonlinear nature of the books lets you know from the start that this isn’t her ultimate destiny. This made it a bit hard to get into at first, as her life in the monastery is just as energetically depicted as the rest. Anna is a character who at all times cares very deeply, and resists change.

Most of the book is about her initial life and the many losses and disappointments she suffers. Everything that led her to where we find her in chapter one. As is often the case in such a narrative, it was hard to see her struggle, knowing where her efforts would eventually lead. But it’s also an interesting emotional journey.

Tracy Barrett is an exceptional writer. The Byzantine setting is calmly realistic, even chained to the small environment of the palace. Moral lessons Anna learns are subtle and poignant. Particularly near the end, when the lesson is a challenge for the reader to learn and accept.

One of the most interesting parts of my reading experience was realising how little I actually think about the function of first person perspective. In some books, it’s merely a style choice. In this book, Anna’s perception directly affected my own, despite my power as a third party to judge events differently.

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Review – Grayling’s Song

Grayling’s Song, Middle Grade Historical Fantasy by Karen Cushman

My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

 

I think this is half what I wanted Frogkisser to be. The two aren’t similar beyond having a young female protagonist who goes on a road trip with a motley crew to deal with a larger than life antagonist. In this case, the antagonist is technically more larger than life. (Is that grammatically possible?) Too small a point of comparison to help much in deciding whether or not to read it. Whatever, the characters are awesome and it’s a nice simple quest with some roadblocks they have to think their way through and around.

Grayling is the daughter of wise woman Hannah Strong, ordered about and wishing for some time to herself. She gets it when their home burns down and Hannah is rooted to the ground, slowly turning into a tree. Grayling must gather other magic practitioners like her mother for their help in finding Hannah’s grimoire, which hopefully contains the solution.

The others who answer Grayling’s call are motley indeed. An old weather witch who can’t use lightning to fry people, a sullen girl named Pansy, an enchantress who is a literal narcissist, and a mouse. The mouse is my favourite. He gains the ability to speak and shift shapes, whereupon Grayling names him Pook. He reminds me of Killer the rabbit (Calling on Dragons) without being nebbish and obnoxious.

Seriously, Pook should be enough for anyone to check this out. The origin for his “powers” is funny, and his loyalty to Grayling is sweet and endearing. If Disney mascots were more like Pook, they wouldn’t be phasing them out of the formula.

For such a short book, there’s a twisty plot. Grayling is resourceful and clever, and her allies aren’t always helpful. I wasn’t completely surprised by the full antagonist reveal and the ending is a bit too open for me, but it’s still a good quest story with a great main character who matured into an even better one.

As one might expect from Cushman, the writing is excellent and the dialogue is so perfectly old English that it makes the setting with or without description. She does Historical Fiction as if it is a way of life—with passion and brilliant execution. This is a book I’d like to see get a movie adaptation.