victorian

Review: The Burning Sky, Sherry Thomas

The Burning SkyThe Burning Sky (Goodreads)
Author:  Sherry Thomas (website)

Rating: ★★★★☆

It all began with a ruined elixir and an accidental bolt of lightning…

Iolanthe Seabourne is the greatest elemental mage of her generation—or so she’s being told. The one prophesied for years to be the savior of The Realm. It is her duty and destiny to face and defeat the Bane, the greatest mage tyrant the world has ever known. A suicide task for anyone let alone a sixteen-year-old girl with no training, facing a prophecy that foretells a fiery clash to the death.

Prince Titus of Elberon has sworn to protect Iolanthe at all costs but he’s also a powerful mage committed to obliterating the Bane to avenge the death of his family—even if he must sacrifice both Iolanthe and himself to achieve his goal.

But Titus makes the terrifying mistake of falling in love with the girl who should have been only a means to an end. Now, with the servants of the Bane closing in, he must choose between his mission and her life.

Details

Series: The Elemental Trilogy #1
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy, in a historical setting
Published: Balzer & Bray, September 2013
Pages: 464
My copy: The publisher via Edelweiss

Paper copies:  Amazon.com • Amazon.co.uk • Book Depository
E-copies: Amazon.com  Amazon.co.uk Barnes & Noble • Bookworld (ePub)

Review

The Burning Sky is a story about Elemental Mages set partially in Victorian England. I couldn’t wait to get stuck into this one after hearing about it! I was even more delighted to discover that the English setting is none other than Eton College, just up the road from where I used to live in the UK. Any book that mentions Windsor Castle is a winner for me, and as it turns out, this is a very enjoyable story as well.

Iolanthe Seabourne is a gifted Elemental Mage. When trying to fix a light elixir, she calls down a bolt of lightning, which draws attention to her from a variety of directions. Suddenly she is The Realm’s most wanted person, hunted by the mages of Atlantis and nearly captured. Much to her surprise, she is instead whisked away to the non-mage realm of mid-1800s England with Prince Titus of Elberon, the rather attractive but cold and driven sixteen-year-old ruler of the Realm. Realising her potential from visions by his seer mother, Titus hides Iolanthe within his school disguised as Archer Fairfax – a fictional student who has supposedly been on a leave of sickness. Can Iolanthe pull off the public school boy masquerade, while training her magic abilities and avoiding the notice of the agents of Atlantis?

In preparing for this review I discovered that not only is Sherry Thomas an acclaimed Romance author, but she also writes in English as her second language. The romance part I can see in the way Titus and Iolanthe interact, but wow, she really writes in English like a native speaker. This is a beautifully written story, told in the slightly formal style of classical literature – a style that fits very well with the Victorian English setting.

The story is told from both Titus’ and Iolanthe’s points of view, sometimes switching after just a few paragraphs. At first, this jumping between heads was quite distracting and a little confusing at times, but it draws out the tension well and gradually becomes less annoying as the story goes on.

The world building here is amazing, although not everywhere. We don’t hear a lot about the Realm or Atlantis, but we do get a good sense of the interior of the magical construct of the Crucible, and also of the Eton School and surrounds (although perhaps that’s because I’ve been there!). What wasn’t made particularly clear was how the mage realms relate geographically to the non-mage world. Are they just integrated into each other as in Harry Potter, or are they actual separate countries? There was quite an information dump at the start that made the whole Atlantis situation unclear. I’m hoping that will be explained a little more as the story progresses.

My only real disappointment with the story was the magic system – magic performed by uttering a few words, with or without a wand and no energy expended. To make a spell more potent you just add “forte!” to the end of your command! As I’ve said before, magic without consequences or price is just not my cup of tea.

Despite my magical concerns, the story is action-packed and exciting all the way through. The romantic aspect was really quite predictable but ended up being subtle enough not to be annoying. Titus was a bit of a flirt all the way through which went against his aloof public persona a bit, but I loved Iolanthe’s rebuffs and the way she gradually warmed to him again.

I’d highly recommend this story to young adult fantasy readers – while perhaps not as gritty as Throne of Glass or Graceling, The Burning Sky has the same epic feeling about it. Bring on book two!

What did others think of The Burning Sky?

  • “With strong world-building, a rich magical infrastructure, consistent characters, and a touch of romance, The Burning Sky is exactly the sort of book that effortlessly pushes the rest of the world to one side.” – Realm of Fiction
  • “This beautiful story, and especially the romance, had me flailing around on my bed, seriously stifling sobs and squeals. It struck me in the heart like Cupid’s arrow.” – Snuggly Oranges
  • “Oh Titus, you adorable princeling. Let me love you.” – Writer of Wrongs

Review: Dodger, Terry Pratchett

Title: Dodger (Goodreads)
Author:   Terry Pratchett

Rating: ★★★½☆

Dodger is a tosher – a sewer scavenger living in the squalor of Dickensian London.

Everyone who is nobody knows Dodger. Anyone who is anybody doesn’t.

But when he rescues a young girl from a beating, suddenly everybody wants to know him.

And Dodger’s tale of skulduggery, dark plans and even darker deeds begins . . .

Details

Series: Stand-alone
Genre: YA Fantasy Comedy
Published: HarperCollins, September 2012
Pages: 360
My copy: The publishers via Edelweiss

Paper copies: Amazon.com • Amazon.co.uk • Book Depository • Booktopia.com.au 
E-copies: Amazon.com • Amazon.co.uk • Barnes & Noble

Review

Dodger is on the tosh – that is, collecting valuables washed down drains into the old sewers. A massive storm arrives and Dodger happens to pop out to the street long enough to rescue a young girl who is trying to escape some violent men in a carriage. This rescue and subsequent meeting with one Mr Charlie Dickens sets off a chain of events that draws Dodger out of the slums and into more upper-class circles of Victorian London. Can Dodger work against the powers-that-be to rescue the girl of his dreams a second time, and make something more of his life?

Dodger is an interesting departure from the Discworld for Terry Pratchett. It feels very much like a City Watch book, with a mystery to be solved, dirty streets of a big city and policemen everywhere. I think that’s the main reason I didn’t quite enjoy it as much as I wanted to – every time the peelers (policemen of Sir Robert Peel’s Scotland Yard) were involved, I expected Nobby Nobbs to appear. Peel himself had rather a “beat copper” feel about him – very Sam Vimes. In any case, this is not the Discworld and I had to keep reminding myself of that as I read.

Pratchett has taken real-life personalities from Victorian England and put them into a fantasy situation. Charles Dickens, John Mayhew, Benjamin Disraeli and several other notable personalities are involved. At times, it did feel like people were being stuck in just to see how many could be included (Sweeney Todd, for example), but they did all mostly fit in with the story.

The story itself has exciting moments, although had a rather rambling start which slowed my progress into the book. Secondary to the main story was a very interesting look at how the poor lived in Victorian times – it was a time of extreme poverty for the underclasses of London. There are some distressing discussions of the trend of young girls who moved to the city, got taken advantage of by men who ply them with drink, then threw themselves into the river when they discovered they were pregnant. The plight of orphaned children is also rather terrible and is one of the reasons I like to keep away from Dickens and the like – too depressing!

Dodger lives in the Seven Dials with an old Jewish watchmaker. I’m not sure if Samuel Cohen is based on a real person but he is certainly a fascinating character – full of snippets of stories about his travels and meetings with famous people. I’d love to hear more about him!

Dodger has just the right amount of humour for a story with quite a dark undertone. Although billed as a “young readers” story, all fans of Pratchett (and indeed, fans of Dickens and Victoriana) should give this one a read. I just found that the story didn’t grab me quite as much as I hoped it would.

Warnings: Some violent behaviour.

What did others think of Dodger?

  •  “I can’t even begin to tell you how wonderfully well all of this is executed. The writing itself is strong, but the ideas are even better.” – Book Aunt
  • “…it is a terrific read, a break from Discworld for those who might not appreciate pure fantasy.” – Wickersham’s Concience
  • “Unexpected, drily funny and full of the pathos and wonder of life: Don’t miss it.” – Kirkus

Review: India Black, Carol K. Carr

Title: India Black (Goodreads)

Author:  Carol K. Carr

Rating: ★★★★☆

When Sir Archibald Latham of the War Office dies from a heart attack while visiting her brothel, Madam India Black is unexpectedly thrust into a deadly game between Russian and British agents who are seeking the military secrets Latham carried.

Blackmailed into recovering the missing documents by the British spy known as French, India finds herself dodging Russian agents-and the attraction she starts to feel for the handsome conspirator.

Details

Series: Madam of Espionage #1 of 3
Genre: Historical, Spies
Published: Berkley Trade, January 2011
Pages (Hardcover): 296

Paper copies: Amazon.com • Amazon.co.ukBook Depository
E-copies: Amazon.com • Amazon.co.uk • Barnes & Noble

Review

India Black is the first book our shiny new book club decided to read, and wow, what an opener! This review is a little about what I thought of the book, and a little about the group’s opinions from last night.

India Black is the proprietor of Lotus House, an establishment in Victorian London. In other words, she’s a retired bint, now the abbess of an upmarket brothel of which she is immensely proud. When one of the regular customers dies at the house and important government documents go missing from his possession, India is drawn into a dangerous ring of spies in order to recover the documents for Prime Minister Disraeli (whom she likes to refer to as “Dizzy”).

The chase leads India and the inscrutable English spy, French, into the Russian Embassy, swanky London hotels and eventually across-country and across the Channel!

Not only was this rather saucy story about whores and spies, but India herself is a delight to read about – a very strong, snarky and rather bitchy character. She’s grumpy a lot of the time but extremely determined. She doesn’t think much about the well-being of others. Her real draw, however, is her very dry wit. She made me laugh on several occasions, while also wincing at her treatment of Vincent the urchin boy and some of the girls in her employ.

In general we felt that the characters were a little one-dimensional – although showing snatches of interesting histories, there really wasn’t any back-story told about India or any of the supporting characters. The mention of romance in the blurb might as well have not been there – there are hints of a romance but barely any action. Perhaps in the future adventures.

The chase for the Government documents is a fast-paced cat and mouse, with the English and Russian sides passing the spoils back and forth several times in increasingly desperate circumstances. By the end of the book I thought the chase was starting to draw out a little, but it wrapped up rather nicely.

I found that India Black was a very enjoyable read. In general the book club decided it wasn’t a waste of our time (although not everyone felt that way!) and it was an easy and entertaining read.

Warnings: Plenty of sexual references. Violence.

The Madam of Espionage Series

  1. India Black
  2. India Black and the Widow of Windsor (2011)
  3. India Black and the Shadows of Anarchy (expected 2013)

Review: The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern

Title: The Night Circus (Goodreads)

Author:   Erin Morgenstern (@erinmorgenstern)

Rating: ★★★★★

The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts and billboards, no mentions or advertisements in local newspapers. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. The towering tents are striped in white and black, no golds and crimsons to be seen. No color at all, save for the neighbouring trees and the grass of the surrounding fields. Black-and-white stripes on grey sky; countless tents of varying shapes and sizes, with an elaborate wrought-iron fence encasing them in a colorless world. Even what little ground is visible from outside is black or white, painted or powdered, or treated with some other circus trick.

Details

Series: Stand-alone
Genre: Fantasy, Romance
Published: Doubleday, September 2011

Paper copies: Amazon.com • Amazon.co.uk • Book Depository
E-copies: Amazon.com • Amazon.co.uk • Barnes & Noble

Review

Marco and Celia are pitted against each other in a mysterious game they have been preparing for since they were children. Le Cirque des Rêves is the staging ground – a magical circus full of wonders.

The Night Circus seems to be one of those books that people either love or hate, judging by the reviews I’ve seen. The story is quite slow to develop. The main characters don’t even see each other for years at a time and compete by adding wonders to the circus to out-do each other. If you’re after a battle with Cruciatus curses flying around, you’re in the wrong place.

I loved reading this book. It’s hard to put into words why I did, but I think the descriptions of the Cirque is what did it for me – Morgenstern’s gift for beautiful prose is undeniable and she conjures dream-like images from every page. I may just have to get myself a red scarf and become a rêveur!

Set in and around the late 1800s, the story is made up of many small chapters, switching between several different threads of story. At first this was a little confusing  because some sections are later in time than others, but once I started paying attention to the dates at the start of each section I understood better how all the threads fit together. Another potentially confusing element is that it is told in the present tense. It took me a little while to get used to it, then every now and then there is a section of second-person point of view (for example, “You move the curtain aside”) which allows Morgenstern to describe a tent that the characters haven’t visited.

As the story moves on, the threads become shorter and closer together, until they are woven together into one story. The story itself does peter out a little at the end, the action giving way to a lengthy discussion between characters in the last few chapters.

The author has created a cast of interesting characters, complete with a web of relationships. The romance is sweet and delightful, although there isn’t really any explanation as to why it exists. That didn’t stop it from sending tingles up my spine while reading, though.

Erin Morgenstern’s debut is a delight to read. If you love magic and descriptions of beautiful and fantastic places, read The Night Circus without delay!

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