Monday, February 23, 2009

Review + Interview: The KingMaking by Helen Hollick

A novel of Arthur as he really was.
In the first book of this exciting trilogy, author Helen Hollick brings to life Arthur Pendragon as he really might have been. Leaving behind the fairy-tale element of Merlin's magic and the improbable existence of Lancelot, Hollick instead transports the reader to the early years of Britain circa 455 AD and tells the
Arthurian legend in a solid and believable way.

For one, Arthur does not pull a sword from a stone using superhuman strength; rather, he is named heir to Britain (if he can win it from the tyrant Vortigern) while standing near a "hallowed stone, the symbol of a warrior's strength and the chieftain's right of leadership." Later, a sword won in battle signals his place as Britain's King.

This is a story of harsh battles, secret treasonous plots, and the life-threatening politics of the dark ages of early Britain. Intertwined through it all is the often-tested love of Arthur and Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere in Welsh - her name as it really would have been) as they struggle to survive and conquer to see Pendragon become King.

The summary doesn't even tip the iceberg of the story. The KingMaking covers seven years in which a lot happens to both Arthur and Gwenhwyfar. They are separated, plotted against, hurt, endure hardships and heartbreak. Arthur, under the weight of heavy expectation, is in a constant battle for the throne. Gwenhwyfar is faced with many atrocities, some that would bring a lesser person to their knees. One thing that is overarching is Arthur and Gwenhwfar's love for each other. It is a continual thread and is very much the heart of the story.

In The KingMaking, the legend of Arthur is brought to life in a way that made him more real than I ever felt he was. There is no sword in the stone, or magic. No Merlin, no Knights of the Round Table, not even a Lancelot. Since little is known of Arthur's history or even if he actually existed, taking liberties with his character has been done through time. In this book, however, Arthur is portrayed like I've never read him before. He is described by his first wife's father as a "Drunken whore-user" which he is. He likes his wine, his women, and battle, not necessarily in that order. He is harsh, ruthless and unrelenting. He does not always make the right decisions, most times making the wrong ones for what he sees as the right reasons. Arthur is not what we today would consider chivalric, but he is a man of his time.

It takes skill to make an anti-heroic character likeable. Often times author's excuse a character's behavior by making other character's so horrible that the reader ignores the protagonist's despicable acts. I've seen it attempted and failed before, but not here. Arthur is little better than the people who plot against him, as he is plotting against them as well - all for the same end. His actions are not sugar coated or excused away. It simply is what it is. It does help that that Arthur is given a charisma that translates well and makes him character the reader can root for even when his actions are not always easy to swallow.

Besides Arthur and Gwenwhyfar, there are many other characters in The KingMaking, most getting a point of view, which helps understand motivations better than a limited point of view would allow. One of the most stand out aspects of this story is Arthur's relationship with the women in his life - his mother, his father's mistress, Gwenwhyfar, and Winifred- his first wife. These relationships vary from tender to absent to outright dysfunctional. The war scenes were bloody, but that is to be expected. The political intrigue was well done, and the relationships between all of the characters is something to marvel at.

For those who like historical fiction, who are interested in a different, straight forward, no holds barred take on the life and times of King Arthur then this is the book for you. If you prefer the more romanticised versions of Arthur, are squeamish of war scenes, and like your characters wholly noble, then this story may not work for you. I happened to really enjoy The KingMaking and look forward to reading the rest of the trilogy. Grade A+.

Q&A with The Kingmaking author, Helen Hollick:

B: The legend of King Arthur has many different versions. In The Kingmaking we meet Arthur as a fifteen year old boy about to enter into a manhood that he never expected. What was it about the legend of King Arthur that made you want to add your own take to his shadowy legend?

HH: The usual Arthurian stories have never interested me. I could not believe in round tables, Holy Grails, and all those knights clonking around in armour. To my mind they were so “good” they were boring! Give me a loveable rogue any day! The King Arthur of the medieval tales was such a useless King; once he became King - after fighting hard for the title – he promptly disappears in search of the Holy Grail abandoning his Kingdom and his lovely wife. Why did he not foresee that Lancelot and Guinevere would have an affair? For fans of these tales, I’m sorry but I also detested Lancelot. The stories were so false, so unreal.

I had “discovered” the “real” Arthur (assuming he was real – he may well not have been) in an author’s note in Mary Stewart’s novels – The Crystal Cave and the Hollow Hills. She stated that if Arthur had existed he would have been a post-Roman war lord not a medieval knight. I preferred that idea and set about researching this more interesting version of Arthur. The problem with research is that you form your own opinions and I became so frustrated with other views. I was so annoyed with one author’s portrayal of Gwenhwyfar that I threw the book across the room—so annoyed that I decided to write my own version.

B: Though the story of King Arthur has been told many ways, one thing that has always prevailed in his character and that was that he was an honorable man. The Arthur in The Kingmaking is a bit less honorable in a few ways. I liked that in this story Arthur is portrayed as walking a thin line between heroic and anti heroic. What made you want to write him with shades of gray as opposed to the way that he has often been depicted through time?

HH: I had decided that there were to be no knights, turreted castles or Holy Grails in my story. No supernatural elements, no magic. No Lancelot, no Merlin. Instead, I researched the early Welsh legends of Arthur and Gwenhwyfar (a Welsh spelling of Guinevere). These legends were far more exciting than the Medieval stories. This Arthur was more plausible. This Arthur was real. If Arthur had existed he would have lived circa 450 -550 A.D., between the going of the Romans and the coming of the Anglo Saxon invaders, when government and supreme control was in chaos.

I wrote my trilogy based on those Welsh legends because they were contemporary with the period when Arthur was probably alive. He was a War Lord, the son of a Romano British nobleman – and he lived and fought for what he considered his by right. These contemporary records do not portray him as a chivalric king and not even a Christian. The Church was still young in the Dark Ages, was still developing – and many people remained Pagan.

In these early stories we hear of Arthur stealing cattle from a monastery, of kicking a woman, and being condemned as a non-Christian. He had three sons, a wife – Gwenhwyfar, and close companions - Bedwyr (Bedevere) and Cei (Kay) There are twelve battles mentioned and “Camlann in which Arthur and Medraut (Mordred) fell.” No mention of Mordred being his sister’s son, or that this was civil war. The two could as easily been fighting on the same side.

I wanted to make my Arthur an earthy, capable – and realistic King. (Although in fact he would have been Dux Bellorum, or a similar Roman title, not “King” which is a Saxon term – I decided to keep to a modern familiar title, though.) To be a successful war lord – a leader who could inspire men, who could fight hard to gain a kingdom – and as hard to keep it – Arthur would have been a rough, tough man. He was honourable – but his honour and loyalty did not belong to the Christian God of the later tales, his honour and loyalty was to the men who served him with equal loyalty. His honour was to his kingdom. He was also, in his way, loyal to the woman he loved, Gwenhwyfar. Although he did stray sometimes and their love had some enormous ups and downs!

B: There are a lot of characters in this story. Some of the players I grew to really like and some I never cared for. It often was that the characters I liked met their ends early and the ones that I disliked kept on living. How did you decide which characters would live and which ones would die, and how they would meet their end?

HH: Some of the time I did not decide, the early legends dictated it. (and a warning here – you will need a box of tissues beside you for book two, Pendragon’s Banner!) Some of the decisions to kill off the characters were dramatic necessity – others, because the characters did not seem to continue into Arthur’s adult life. I won’t say any names here as it will spoil the story – but the brother of Gwenhwyfar who is murdered must have died at a young age because all of his brothers’ names are remembered in place names or recorded as leaders/fighters; i.e Ceredig founded Ceredigion in Wales. But there is no mention of this particular brother, logically then, he did not survive into adulthood.

B: On that same note, most of the deaths that came about seemed to act as a catalyst to move the story forward. Were the deaths then purposeful to reach a certain end or did the story just form itself that way?

HH: Some of the deaths, yes, were dramatic license. But much of the story wrote itself, in the sense that what happened seemed logical.

B: One of my favorite characters in The Kingmaking is Gwenhwyfar. Her character has often been portrayed in many different and conflicting lights. From unfaithful, mean spirited and disliked to intelligent and loved. Of all of the depictions that I've come across, I have enjoyed the one in The Kingmaking best. In this story Gwenhwyfar is a self assured young woman with an inner strength and beauty that shines through. It seems that you have taken bits from each portrayal and shaped them until they made a full formed character. Did you use much research to bring your version of Gwenhwyfar to life or was she more of your own creation?

HH: She is entirely my own creation – apart from the fact that Celtic women were equal to the men folk. It was the women who taught the boys to fight, for instance – and look at Boudica! (Boadicea) The Gwenhwyfar of those early Welsh legends was not an adulteress, but she was loyal and a respected “Queen” – and I also felt that she and Arthur were very much in love.

I wanted her to be a heroine. Thank you for your kind words about her – I hope you will grow to like her even more throughout the next two books.

B: Not much has been gleaned about Gwenhwyfar's past in the legends, but you have given her a history and a deep rooted family. Both helped to make her character more three dimensional than I've ever felt she was. What made you decide on the past you gave her?

HH: Cunedda, Lion Lord of Gwynedd existed, as did his brood of sons. At some time in the mid fifth century he moved from what is now Scotland to North Wales – he founded Gwynedd and is the ancestor of Llewellyn Fawr – Llewellyn the Great (who is my favourite character of all from Sharon Kay Penman’s wonderful novels.) I wanted to use Cunedda as he was a factual figure. Then while looking through some genealogies (admittedly not very reliable ones) I found that he may have had a daughter – Gwen. Well that was it! Matter decided!

B: On the opposite spectrum of Gwenhwyfar is Winifred. I did find it kismet that Arthur ended up bound to a woman who was so much like Morgause, who he hated. Winifred, if I'm not mistaken, was never mentioned in any of the legends of King Arthur. With so many other problems that could have stood in Arthur and Gwenhwyfar's way, why this character?

HH: I wanted an opposite for Gwenhwyfar – but Winifred, as a character, was not my invention, although I made her name. The Arthurian Historian Geoffrey Ashe suggested that it was possible Arthur had been married to a daughter of Vortigern and his Saxon wife Rowena – I loved the idea as it opened up such a wonderful can of worms! It was great fun making her such a bitch!

B: Of course there could be no kingmaking without the battles. Some of the descriptions of battle were a little hard to read about, but understandably needed in order to show the real grit of war and the times. On the other hand, there were times of beauty and calm. Which of the two very different sides did you have an easier time writing?

HH: It depended on what mood I was in. If ever you have any angst to get rid of – write a battle scene! :-) Yes, some of the battles are a bit grizzly – but what is the point of writing a historical novel and putting in as much effort as possible to bring it alive, to make it real, and then create the battles as nothing more than an afternoon picnic or a staid bit of a punch-up? Battle was battle – men and horses were wounded and died – horribly. Fact.

I deliberately tried to balance these scenes by peace and calm – and romance - though, as happens in real life.

B: Ms. Hollick, I enjoyed The Kingmaking immensely and look forward to reading the final two books in the trilogy. Thank you for your time.

HH: My great pleasure, thank you for inviting me onto your blog!


Review based on advance copy from Sourcebooks. Visit Helen Hollick's site here. Read an excerpt here.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Review: Angels' Blood by Nalini Singh

I've been a fan of Nalini Singh since her first paranormal romance, Slave to Sensation. Since then, I have enjoyed her Psy/Changeling series, especially the world building. When I found out that Ms. Singh was coming out with a new series, an Urban Fantasy centered around angel's, Angels' Blood became one highly anticipated release for me. I went into reading this book with little knowledge of what it would be about and ended up being absolutely delighted with the story as it progressed.

Elena Deveraux is a vampire hunter. She works as a hunter for the Guild, a company that goes after rouge vampires, hunts them down, and sends them back to their sire's--the immortal Angel's. Elena's hunter skills are good. She uses her heightened senses to track vampires and is highly effective at her job, so effective that her aptitude puts her under The Archangel of New York's radar. The beautifully cruel archangel, Raphael, needs Elena's talent as a hunter to track down a rouge. He enlists her (more like commands her) to find a very dangerous rouge that is terrorizing Raphael's New York territory.

Elena thinks the job will be a piece of cake. She has tracked down many vampire rouges before with little problem. She soon finds out that the mad-man that she's after is terrifyingly different from any other before him. And he has the power to destroy the world. Elena, with the help of the extremely seductive Raphael, sets out to find the rouge and stop him before his madness brings the world to destruction. Along the way, secrets that change life as Elena knows it are revealed and a bond, frowned upon by Elena herself, is forged between she and Raphael.

Unlike most recent Urban Fantasy, Angels' Blood is not told from the first person female perspective. It is told in third person and the point of view, while mainly Elena's, also extends to Raphael, and there are short passages where the reader gets a glimpse into the rouge's mind. The world that Angels' Blood takes place in is something like an alternate earth. Everything is as we know it, the difference being that angel's rule the world and they have the ability to make vampires. So there are three species of people: angel's, vampires and humans. Like Ms. Singh's Psy/Changeling series, this one is filled with fully realized, multicultural characters. Also like her paranormal romance series, this one is great on the world building, which is always a plus when reading Urban Fantasy.

Angels' Blood is equally plot and character driven. Neither point is overshadowed by the other. I will admit that it took me a few chapters in before I began to warm to Elena. For me, her character was a little off putting in the beginning, but when I finally began to understand Elena, I grew to connect with the character. Raphael, on the other hand, I liked from the jump. Angel's are known to be cruel and harsh to a fault, and Raphael fit that mold. But there was more to him than that, as was shown through his relationship with Elena. The supporting characters were fleshed out and I'm not sure if there are plans to feature any of them in the future, but I'm sure that a few of them would make really great leads in their own books.

The story does not skimp on the gore and is not for the squeamish. It delves into the gritty, displaying the killer's work in grotesque detail. I'm not a fan of gore for the sake of gore, and luckily, there is none of that here. The descriptions serve to show just how far gone the killer's mind is. It also ups the creepy factor and the stakes for Elena and Raphael. On the flip side of that is the romance. For those who like their UF to have a little romance, this one fits the bill. Elena and Raphael have chemistry for days and their relationship has a slow, tantalizing build with a payoff that makes it worth the wait. The romance plays a great counterpoint to the darker side of the story, balancing out the good with the bad.

Angels' Blood is full of surprises and twists and turns. Truth's are slowly revealed through the story, successfully fleshing out the world and the characters. The ending, while unexpected, was very pleasing. There is resolution enough that the reader won't be left unfulfilled, at the same time there are a few open threads that should carry nicely into the next installment. Angel's Blood was an excellent first entry in the Guild Hunter series. All around satisfying. I'm eagerly anticipating Angel's Kiss. Grade A-.

Review based on advance review copy. Visit Nalini Singh's site. Read an excerpt here.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

I'm Back + What's to Come

I was busy all last week moving, but I'm finally done (for the most part) and now I can get back to reading and visiting blogs.

Coming up this week is my review for Angels' Blood, the first book in Nalini Singh's new Guild Hunter series. Great story and I'm looking forward to the next one. Following that will be a review for Rachel Caine's Undone. And to round out the week, a review for The Kingmaking and an accompanying interview with author, Helen Hollick, will be going up. I loved this book and can't wait to post the review for it.

So, that is what is to come in the next couple of days. Hope to see you here.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Review: Hot Mail by Janice Maynard

I have a guest review up at Book Binge.

Jane has wanted Ethan for years but has never found a way to tell him. With Valentine's Day fast approaching, she decides to seduce him by sending anonymous erotic valentines every Friday until the big day. Then she'll finally reveal her true feelings— and wildest desires.

But when her stationery store is vandalized, it's Ethan who comes to her rescue—and the sparks start flying way ahead of schedule. Now Jane and her erotic alter ego are competing for Ethan's affections— and the results couldn't be hotter.

Check out my review for Hot Mail by Janice Maynard.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Review: The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare

Title: The Witch of Blackbird Pond
Author: Elizabeth George Speare
Category: Young Adult
Setting: Connecticut Colony, 1687
Challenge: Young Adult Challenge

With this book, I'm now two books down in the Young Adult Challenge and have ten more to go. One thing I'm really enjoying about this challenge is the sense that I'm kinda reliving my youth through the stories of these young characters. I'm also learning patience with characters. Normally if I feel that a character is being immature, I quit reading the book, but with YA I'm reminded that the characters are young and are allowed to be immature and selfish from time to time. Hopefully this new patience will bleed over to my normal reading.

The Witch of Blackbird Pond opens with orphaned Katherine "Kit" Tyler aboard the Dolphin on her way to Connecticut Colony. Kit has journeyed from her life long home in Barbados to travel to Connecticut following the death of her grandfather which has left her alone and penniless. Her last living relative is her mothers sister, Rachel, whom Kit has never met. Rachel and her husband have settled in the Puritan community of Connecticut and with nowhere else to go, Kit hopes that they will welcome her arrival.

Kit's unexpected arrival at her aunt's house brings about a mixed welcome. Her aunt is happy to have her sister's daughter show up and welcomes her immediately. Her two cousins, Judith and Mercy, welcome her with a little apprehension, and her Uncle isn't in good spirits about Kit's arrival. Over the weeks to come, Kit tries to fit into the household, but she finds it a hard thing to do. Having been waited on all her life in Barbados, she can't seem to be able to do anything right. Cooking, cleaning, weeding, spinning - all come hard to her and she feels as though she's not much help to anyone.

Kit is out of place in this new world and longs for her old life in Barbados. Then her life changes when she finds a meadow that gives her the only solace she's known since her arrival. In the meadow by Blackbird Pond lives an old Quaker woman labeled The Witch of Blackbird Pond. Kit is warned against going anywhere near the witch's little cabin, but she can't seem to stay away from the meadow. One day she comes face to face with the old Quaker woman and realizes that Hannah is not a witch at all, just a lonely woman.

Against her aunt's wishes, Kit goes to visit Hannah often and a friendship is forged between the two. But then the colony faces a horrible occurrence and witchcraft is thought to be involved. Hannah falls prey to the colony's wrath and when they can't get to her, they go after Kit. What comes next changes the relationships around Kit and brings to her a love that she never thought she would find in Connecticut.

I had so much fun reading The Witch of Blackbird Pond. At 249 pages, it was a quick read, but not as light as might be expected. The story deals with trials of the time, religion, slavery, family relationships, and prejudice. Kit finds herself in the middle of an always changing world as her uncle struggles with other's to preserve Connecticut's charter. There is also a love story that involves all of the younger characters in the story making it a well intentioned yet convoluted love hexagon. Luckily, it has a fitting resolution.

Kit in the beginning of the story is just as most sixteen year old girls are: self involved. But as the story progresses, she loses her ever present self-importance and is able to open her eyes to the people around her. When she finally does that, the story becomes something truly meaningful. Kit's struggle with reconciling the life she once had with the one she has in Connecticut was heartfelt and by the end of the book, I hoped that she would find the happiness that everyone around her had. When she finally did, it was sigh-worthy. The Witch of Blackbird Pond was a delight to read.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

It's Not You, It's Me.

Or at least I hope that's the case.

I refuse to DNF you just yet, but I think we need a break. It's not you, it's me.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Anti-Valentines Day Contest

The ladies of Breezing Through are taking Valentine's Day back with an Anti-Valentines Day Contest. They are giving away some hot new releases in honor of not needing Valentine's Day to celebrate romance.

Someone send that memo to my husband who goes by the Man Law. According to Man Law, romantic displays are only required three times a year: anniversary's, birthday's and Valentine's Day. The rest of the year I'm lucky if he surprises me with a candy bar.

Anyway, the ladies over at Breezing Through know that we don't need a single day to celebrate romance and are doing something about it. Head on over to Breezing Through and enter.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

January Reading Wrap-Up

I am behind on my posts! Blame it on my hubby who surprised me with a trip to Maui for my birthday. I had a great time by the way. :)

Now back to business as usual.

January was a decent reading month for me. I normally only have time to read about four books a month, but this month I was able to more than double that count with a full nine books read! I'm laughing now because nine books is like chump change for some of my blogging buddies, but for me it's a really big accomplishment. Here's what I read:

1. Mine to Possess by Nalini Singh (Grade C+)
2. Sugar Daddy by Lisa Kleypas (Grade A)
3. Sea Fever by Virginia Kantra (Crade C-)
4. Gathering Blue by Lois Lowry (Grade B-)
5. Smooth Talking Stranger by Lisa Kleypas (review to come)
6. The McKettrick Way by Linda Lael Miller (Grade C+)
7. HeartSick by Chelsea Cain (Grade B-)
8. The Bride Finder by Susan Carroll (Grade B+)
9. Hot Mail by Janice Maynard (review to come)

The most notable of this months reads were both Sugar Daddy and Smooth Talking Stranger. Though I'm still thinking over my feelings on Smooth Talking Stranger, I can say that it was an enjoyable read. I will post a review for it closer to the release date.

I read my first Category, The McKettrick Way for Keishon's TBR Challenge. It wasn't what I had hoped for, but I'm glad it helped add a small dent to my TBR pile.

Gathering Blue by Lois Lowery had such an effect on me that I now have the first book in the trilogy, The Giver, lined up to read as another addition in the Young Adult Challenge.

Thanks to Nath's Re-Read Challenge, I was able to reread The Bride Finder by Susan Carroll and absolutely loved it!

While I've only completed 9 books, I have started a few more. I was lucky enough to win an ARC of Angels' Blood, the first book in Nalini Singh's new series about angels, a review for that will be going up late next week. I also started Gabriel's Ghost by Linnea Sinclair. Right now I'm reading and LOVING The KingMaking by Helen Hollick. This book brings a fresh take on the story of King Arthur. Since I love history and equally love historical fiction, this book is right up my alley.

So, all in all, I think I had a pretty good reading month. How was yours?