Overdue Book Reviews
Lady of Sherwood
by Molly Bilinski
I entered this version of Sherwood Forest with a bit of trepidation. After all, there are outlaws in there. Also, Robin Hood is one of my all-time favorite legends, right up there with King Arthur, and I’ve seen some pretty awful re-imaginings (looking at you, Prince of Thieves).
I needn’t have worried. Molly Bilinski’s retelling of the legend of Robin Hood is a marvelously textured, gender-bent effort that pays proper homage to the source while exploring heretofore uncharted bits of the forest.
Rhiannon (called Robin by her father) of Locksley’s backstory is handled deftly, with Bilinski providing her an absolute imperative to start down the path which will lead her to ultimately become the Lady of Sherwood. She allows the reader to experience firsthand both Robin’s joyous ecstasy and the subsequent despair and rage that will drive her on this journey to the heart of Sherwood and herself.
Robin is conflicted about her role, but fiercely loyal both to those she seeks to protect and to the memories of those she holds dear. The character development of Robin and the large cast of supporting characters is excellently done—my only complaint overall is that I sometimes had a hard time keeping track of who was who amongst Robin’s ever-widening circle of comrades in that clearing in Sherwood.
I shan’t go into too much detail, for that would only lead to spoilers best left hidden for the reader to uncover and enjoy as I did. Suffice it so say the parallels to the original Robin Hood legend are kept lovingly intact, while the nuanced twists and turns of Bilinski’s retelling set them all brilliantly inside-out.
Bilinski continually ratchets up the tension and the stakes as the story gallops full-tilt to its inevitable satisfying conclusion with the impact of a perfectly placed arrow landing square in the center of the target. Molly Bilinksi has landed a bullseye with this tale, and I shall eagerly await Robin and Co.’s return in subsequent adventures. Because, as any good writer does, she leaves me wanting to know “what happens next???”
by K.L. Young
Back in February my fellow fantasy author K.L. Young asked if I would like to be a beta reader for the final pass through her debut novel, CARDBOARD CASTLES. “Would I?” I demanded. “I’ve been dying to read this book.”
On Friday, May 18th, the general public will have the opportunity to read this tale, and I envy them. I wish I could read it again for the first time… CARDBOARD CASTLES is by turns introspective, heart-wrenching, brilliant, and daring. Kenda Young’s prose seized me like a dragon’s talons, never letting go as I galloped breathlessly through this dazzlingly ingenious twist on the traditional portal fantasy.
Of course, saying CARDBOARD CASTLES is a YA portal fantasy is rather like saying King Lear is a little tale about a guy who goes for a walk in the rain. It just doesn’t quite do the material justice. And I use the Lear reference purposefully, because the entire first section reminds me vividly of Shakespeare’s mad king. This had to be a difficult book to write, and I can feel Ms. Young’s blood on every page.
The main character, Josilyn, is a young woman struggling to survive and cope with a life of homelessness, and a father whom she adores but whom she is pretty certain is mad. I loved Jos, and Ms. Young has nailed her voice perfectly, evoking Bogie doing Sam Spade—tough, world-weary, but good-hearted underneath. Although I have to admit Jos seems like one of the most unreliable narrators since Chief Bromden told the world how Randall Patrick McMurphy and Nurse Ratched squared off.
The world-building in CARDBOARD CASTLES is outstandingly well done, and Ms. Young’s talent shows here especially. While both worlds Jos inhabits are intricate and complex, Young brings them each to vivid, sometimes painful reality. I’ll be honest—this is not a book for the faint of heart. Ms. Young explores some dark themes here—homelessness, mental illness, betrayal. And yet despite this, there is humor and hope and love abounding in Josilyn’s story. It will leave you wanting more from Ms. Young’s pen, and I certainly hope she delivers…and soon.
Oil and Water
by Nikki Andrews
In the spirit of full disclosure, I have to confess that Nikki Andrews is both a friend and the editor of my Knights of Kilbourne series. So allow me to say that Oil and Water is unequivocally The Great American Novel!!!
All kidding aside, Oil and Water a terrific follow-up to Nikki’s 2013 mystery, Framed. Where the first book in the series featured gallery owner Ginny Brent and her loyal sidekicks Sue and Elsie, Oil and Water takes Ginny out on her own, as she’s invited to be a judge for the prestigious Oil & Water Arts Festival in Ogunquit, Maine. Before Ginny can say “lobstah” she attracts the attention of several men of dubious character; gets caught in a barroom brawl, and discovers the body of one of the artists washed up on a rocky beach.
After her last outing with murder, Ginny is determined not to get involved, but events and personalities conspire against her. In addition, Ginny’s inquiring and intuitive nature force her to draw conclusions that may lead her into danger, to the point where she finds herself on a park ranger’s tiny boat, up the proverbial creek, on the track of a killer.
Nikki Andrews is well-versed in the art world, and she has a deft touch with the various characters who populate the festival. She also spent quite a bit of time in Maine, snarfing lobster and doing on-location research for this story, and it shows. Oil and Water is a fast paced, engaging, and satisfying mystery that will keep readers guessing, and leave them eager for another venture into the cutthroat world of art with Ginny Brent and friends.
by Deborah Kaminski
Intriguing, surprising, well-written, nicely plotted, and fun. Deborah Kaminski’s debut outing Damian’s Workshop is easy to read, but hard to classify. Part historical fiction, part time-travel-ish science fiction, part romance, with a dash of Indiana Jones thrown in for good measure, it might sound like a mish-mosh, but the book works on all its levels, resulting in an excellent read.
The basic premise—grad student/researcher Brook develops a means of virtual time travel, by accessing the memories of an individual’s ancestors—provides the springboard into the world of ancient Constantinople at the time of the Fourth Crusade. The Memex—the device Brooke is utilizing—allows her to experience in brief snippets the lives of Damien the goldsmith and his daughter Julia, as well as Garnet, one of the Crusaders, who also ends up as one of Brooke’s ancestors. I’m no historian—I make up all my history—but Kaminski has obviously done a ton of research into the period, the city, and the Crusades, and provides a fascinatingly detailed vision of the great city of Constantinople before, during, and after the siege by the western Crusaders, from the perspective of both sides of the conflict.
Back in her own world, Brooke is experiencing some major problems. She’s operating the Memex without sanction, and testing human subjects (herself and her lab partner Chad) in direct violation of her school’s directives; her funding is fast evaporating and she still has no clue how the Memex actually works, or why; her thesis advisor is obstructive and obstreperous; and even though Chad obviously adores and desires her, Brooke remains intentionally oblivious to him, fearing another bad relationship like her last one. With time and funding running out, Brooke desperately strives to prove both that the device is safe (test subject mice have been dying of brain tumors) and that it has a use that will render it commercially viable. And, she must somehow come to terms with her feelings for Chad.
The last quarter of the book morphs into a search for treasure, as Brooke has clues to where the goldsmith of Constantinople may have hidden not only his own treasure but also the Church’s sacred relics from the clutches of the Crusaders. The lure of gold paves the way for acceptance of the Memex, and the search is on, in true Dan Brown/Steve Berry fashion (minus the evil masterminds and their minions who are also seeking the treasure.
Kaminski, an engineering professor at the redoubtable RPI, has her history and science down pat, and her writing flows nicely throughout the story. My only quibble would be that I sometimes felt some of the historical scenes, while loving written and excellently executed, didn’t always serve to drive the story forward and thus could have been a bit tighter. A minor point in the grand scheme of things—Damian’s Workshop is a fun read for anyone with a love of science, history, or romance—or just a good story.
The DuLac Chronicles
by Mary Anne Yarde
Historical fiction isn’t one of my normal go-to genres. Ah, but when it’s historical fiction melded with (post)Arthurian legend, that’s a different kettle of dragons. MaryAnne Yarde’s The DuLac Chronicles is a telling of Britton after Arthur’s death, when the area has been divided up into numerous small kingdoms. Two of these are ruled by—ready for this?—the sons of Lancelot DuLac.
The tale opens with Alden DuLac, King of Cerniw, bested in battle by Cerdic of Wessex. Cerdic was a former ally, and brother of Alden’s (now-deceased) wife. And Cerdic wants more. More land, more power, and the title of High King. Alden is forced to surrender in an effort to spare his subjects from any more bloodshed, and is brutally tortured and condemned to death even as Cerdic continues to pillage Cerniw. Nearly dead from the lashes he received and due to be executed at dawn, Alden is rescued by Annis, Cerdic’s daughter. Annis had fallen in love with Alden at his wedding to her sister.
An interesting touch is that neither Alden nor Annis speak the other’s language, and must communicate through Latin, the language of the now-departed Roman invaders. This makes things extremely difficult for Annis as, on the run with Alden, she rarely knows what he’s saying to people they meet along the way.
The DuLac Chronicles is as much a tale of romance as it is historical fiction. Alden and Annis are decidedly star-crossed lovers, each coming with so much excess baggage they’d never be allowed near the plane. She’s on the run with the sworn enemy of her father, and will certainly be executed as a traitor if caught. Alden is literally a man without a country—he’s lost in the battle with Cerdic. He’s thus lost the respect of his peers, and his self-respect. In addition, everyone he meets tells him he can't trust her, and that he must send Annis back, as she’s the daughter of his dire enemy, something Alden refuses to do, to the point where he pretends they’re married in order to protect her.
With nowhere left to turn Alden seeks out his brother Budic, King of Brittany since the death of Alden’s beloved other brother. Budic is the only one with enough troops left to face Cerdic and have any hope of defeating him. Budic, a nasty of the first order, would just as soon see Alden dead and Annis ransomed back to her father. Alden’s other brother, Merton, appears at critical moments throughout the story, but Alden can never be sure which side he’s actually on. Along his journey to win Annis and win back his kingdom, Alden discovers some startling revelations about his own father, Lancelot.
Yarde has drawn splendid characters in both Alden and Annis. However, the character of Merton, the conflicted and enigmatic younger brother, is the one who really stands out to me. I found him fascinating and want to know more about him. I think the next book may satisfy that need. In addition, she's dropped some clues regarding Alden's past and set things up nicely for more mystery and intrigue.
The DuLac Chronicles deftly melds well-researched history, romance, mystery, political machinations, double- and triple-crosses, and intrigue with a healthy serving of desperate flights and fights in a 5th Century version of not-so-merry olde England. Fast-paced, well written, and with characters you can root for all the way through the book, Yarde provides a fascinating twist and examination of the post-Arthurian world—and the notion that Arthur might not have been such a nice guy after all.
My only quibble with the book is a tendency to rapidly shift POV, which I found a bit distracting for the high quality of the writing. Other than this minor issue, The DuLac Chronicles is a spirited and rousing tale to be devoured in one sitting. I’m ready and eager to dive into the next volume.
Four and a half swords up!