Goodbye to the Sun, by Jonathan Nevair: A Review

Some of the most elegant and provocative writing I’ve come across in some time.

An aging, alcoholic diplomat with memories he cannot face, filled with cynicism and guilt in equal measures, is taken hostage by freedom fighters seeking to use him as a pawn in negotiations. But the worlds of the known and inhabited galaxy have been the sites of many battles for power and dominance, and no one can be trusted. Nor, perhaps, can trust be given to memory, love, or family.

Keen is the diplomat, seeking in his chosen second career to forget the people he loved and could not – or did not – save, and the approval of his father, who makes no secret of his disdain for his son. Razor is the freedom fighter, raised in the harsh deserts that are all that left of her once-verdant planet, before the winds were captured for energy, and the ecosystems destroyed by the ruling Targitians. Together they are played by the ruling powers, buffeted by factions as politically strong, and as deadly, as the Wind Tides of Kol 2, Razor’s home planet.

Goodbye to the Sun is packed with action and political intrigue, but it is also a deeply philosophical novel. Echoing themes (and perhaps structure) from Antigone but addressing issues of privilege, gender identity and climate change within the greater questions of the tension between love of family and love of an ideal, it contains some of the most elegant and provocative writing I’ve come across in some time. It made me think, but at the same time was a fast-paced, intelligent space opera with characters I card about: a hard balance to create and maintain, but debut author Jonathan Nevair has done it.

Goodbye to the Sun is the first of a planned trilogy. I look forward to the next book immensely.  

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Visit Jonathan Nevair’s website for more information.

The Lover: A Sufi Mystery, by Laury Silvers

I recommend The Lover strongly both as an engaging mystery, and to anyone who wishes to learn more about medieval Islam and the lives of women in that time.

Dust and cool water; ascetism and the bonds of love. In 10th century Baghdad, Zaytuna is torn between the mysticism of Sufi practice and her need for connection to the world – and the reality of survival day to day. When a child dies in a fall, she must try to understand why, bringing her into conflict with both powerful people and her own brother, and challenging, too, her own understanding of herself and her faith.

The setting is carefully and slowly built, with great skill: I could imagine myself there in the markets and courtyards, among the crowds on the streets and on the flat roofs of houses. Characters are drawn precisely, with a beautiful economy of words, giving the reader just enough.

Laury Silvers gives us a glimpse into a world unfamiliar to most of us, that of women of medieval Islam. Not women of privilege, but women whose lives are given up to labour, the women who wash rich families’ clothes, or sweep houses and cook meals. Lives that are limited by poverty, but sometimes joyous, sometimes transcendent, and sometimes cruel.

The need for relationships – with family, with friends, with God – is central to The Lover. (The title refers to one of the faces of God.) Zaytuna is driven to investigate the boy’s death for reasons that are interwoven with her own need for love, and the value she sees in each life.

The Lover is the first of a series. I hope to read the others soon; meanwhile, I recommend The Lover strongly both as an engaging mystery, and to anyone who wishes to learn more about medieval Islam and the lives of women in that time.


Discover more of the history behind Laury Silvers’ books on the author’s website.

Featured image: Girl Reciting the Qurān (Kuran Okuyan Kız), an 1880 painting by the Ottoman polymath Osman Hamdi Bey. Public Domain.

A Wider World by Karen Heenan: A Release Day Review

The best book I’ve read this year, bar none.

Can stories save a life?

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Robin Lewis, once a musician in Henry VIII’s court, now a man of letters and secrets, stands charged with heresy by Mary Tudor. Only a journey of a few days separates him from inevitable execution, but journeys are liminal spaces where anything can happen. Especially when one has a mind as agile and subtle as Robin Lewis’s.

In this second book in the author’s Tudor Court collection, author Karen Heenan has taken the prickly, almost-unlikeable Robin, a supporting character in her first book Songbird, and told his rich story with consummate skill.  Or, rather, Robin tells his own story, because the book is built around his reminiscences. But these aren’t the memories of a man considering his life in the face of mortality: there is a purpose to Robin’s storytelling, a fish to be caught in the net he is weaving.

With prose as close to perfect as it comes, and settings and history thoroughly researched but conveyed with a light touch, A Wider World is not only a different look at Tudor history, but a study of a man whose childhood shaped him into a wary, self-serving boy. Watching – or rather hearing – Robin’s clear-eyed examination of his own life and the experiences that transform him into the educated, introspective, and deeply honourable man he becomes makes Heenan’s book one of the finest character studies I know. Characters from Songbird make brief appearances, enough to tie the books together, but A Wider World stands on its own. It’s the best book I’ve read this year, bar none. Highly recommended.

BOOK SPOTLIGHT & REVIEW : DISCERNING GRACE by Emma Lombard

The White Sails Series, Book I

London 1826. Wilful Grace Baxter, will not marry old Lord Silverton with his salivary incontinence and dead-mouse stink. Discovering she is a pawn in an arrangement between slobbery Silverton and her calculating father, Grace is devastated when Silverton reveals his true callous nature.

Refusing this fate, Grace resolves to stow away. Heading to the docks, disguised as a lad to ease her escape, she encounters smooth-talking naval recruiter, Gilly, who lures her aboard HMS Discerning with promises of freedom and exploration in South America.

When Grace’s big mouth lands her bare-bottomed over a cannon for insubordination, her identity is exposed. The captain wants her back in London but his orders, to chart the icy archipelago of Tierra del Fuego, forbid it. Lieutenant Seamus Fitzwilliam gallantly offers to take Grace off the fretting captain’s hands by placing her under his protection.

Grace must now win over the crew she betrayed with her secret, while managing her feelings towards her taciturn protector, whose obstinate chivalry stifles her new-found independence.

An excerpt from the novel, followed by my review.

London, 13 May 1826

A deep-throated rumble of laughter drew Grace’s eyes across the crowded drawing room, and over to Uncle Farfar. Heading over to him, she admired the double row of gold buttons on his blue naval coat glinting in the luminescence of the gilt chandelier above. The crystal beads cast a sprinkling of starlight around the room. Grace thought the evening had a distinctly tropical aura with wide-fronded palms and vines spilling from all corners in a waterfall of greenery. Grace also thought Mothers’ décor was fanciful and faux.

Uncle Farfar beckoned a young man, the single epaulette on his right shoulder announcing that he was a lieutenant in His Majesty’s Royal Navy. “Ah, Fitzwilliam. Just in time,” beamed Uncle Farfar, his face flushed with pleasure. Uncle Farfar was actually Admiral Arthur Jameson Baxter, highly decorated for his successful engagement in Admiral Nelson’s campaign at the Battle of Trafalgar. He had lovingly endured the childhood nickname Grace had bestowed upon him when she was eighteen months old, and unable to pronounce his name, Uncle Arthur. He had not escaped the deep weathering of a man who had spent his life at sea, and though his face was much rounder these days, Grace thought he still had a kindness in his eyes.

Centring himself between Grace and the new arrival, Uncle Farfar said, “Lieutenant Seamus Fitzwilliam, may I introduce you to Miss Grace Baxter, my niece and the delight of my life.”

Grace smiled politely, admiring the shades of gold shimmering across Fitzwilliam’s smoothed-back hair, caught tidily in a black silk ribbon at his graceful nape.

“The pleasure is all mine, Miss Baxter,” said Fitzwilliam, formally kissing her hand.

“Lieutenant.” Grace took her hand back, fingers curling, and Fitzwilliam clasped his own behind his back.

Uncle Farfar’s sharp eyes flicked across the room, and his cordiality shrivelled. “God save us, see who approaches? Lord Silverton.”

To Grace, Lord Silverton appeared closer to a hundred years old, despite him only being in his early fifties. He was also a childless widower of renowned wealth and lineage. His bulging midriff announced no shortage of good food. He had been a mysterious figure on the outskirts of Grace’s life since she could remember, but no number of years had lessened her discomfort around him.

“Your servant, madam,” drawled Silverton, bowing stiffly.

Grace dipped her head in greeting, lowering her gaze from Silverton’s beady eyes to the neatly tied cravat at the base of his bulbous, waggling chin. How could any respectable lady willingly draw herself to the attention of this crusty, timeworn creature?

“Your gown is simply delightful, Miss Baxter,” said Silverton. “Reminds me of the gossamer wings of a dragonfly.” Silverton’s obtrusive stare seemed to blacken Uncle Farfar’s mood further.

Oblivious, Silverton droned on, “Fascinating creatures! Dragonfly rituals of courtship may seem romantic to those inclined to observe the world through rose-coloured spectacles, but the amazing show of flips and spirals is usually the female trying to escape the boorish behaviour of the males.”

“I cannot possibly imagine how that feels,” Grace muttered, peering impassively around the crowded room. Fitzwilliam’s quick dry cough sounded suspiciously like a laugh, and Grace studied him from the corner of her eye. His face betrayed nothing.

Just then the butler rang the bell. Silverton’s beady eyes fixed on Grace. “Would you care to dine with me this evening, Miss Baxter?”

Uncle Farfar cleared his throat. “If you don’t mind Silverton, I’d appreciate my niece’s company this evening.” Uncle Farfar drew Grace away before Silverton could say anything more, and ushered her into the dining room. Fitzwilliam followed two steps behind with his allotted dinner companion, Miss Pettigrew. Her petite hand curled in his elbow, and her coifed black hair barely met his shoulder. Grace had made her acquaintance only once before, and realised with a sinking heart that she was in for an evening of little to no conversation with the demure creature, should she sit beside her. The stretched table was laid with the snowiest of linen, and set with such precision that even the King of England would have been pressed to find fault.

Uncle Farfar waved at the empty chairs. “Would you care to sit between Lieutenant Fitzwilliam and I, Grace dear? You might need to give me a kick under the table if we bore you with too much naval chatter.”

Grace sank into her chair. “Nonsense, Uncle. I do so enjoy your tales.”

Fitzwilliam waited for Miss Pettigrew to be seated as she gave him a simpering smile. A wave of relief washed over Grace at not being stuck with Silverton for the evening. Uncle Farfar clearly had the same thoughts, and he chuckled, “At least you’re squirrelled with us, away from that pompous windbag.”

Grace peered down the long table, her eyes narrowing as she caught Silverton’s beady eyes, grey as a wolf’s pelt, roaming freely across her décolletage. She scratched absentmindedly at the fine lace edging around the low neck of her lavender gown, aware that her unladylike fidgeting would likely irk Father at some point in the evening. But it could not be helped. Lace was wretchedly itchy.

Fitzwilliam pulled in his chair, and nodded at Captain Steven Fincham sitting stiffly opposite him like a squat Napoleonic figure. Dark circles beneath Fincham’s bleary, bloodshot eyes gave Grace the impression that he was in poor health, was suffering from the crapulous effects of intoxication, or both.

With the soup course over, Grace eyed the line of footmen entering with platters laden with succulent roast lamb. The thin slices looked perfectly browned on the outside with just a peek of pink inside. Her stomach grumbled at the rich buttery scent of the potatoes being served onto her plate. She intended to enjoy every mouthful. At the sound of cutlery pinging on glass, Grace turned her attention to her father, Lord Flint, who rose with his wine glass raised.

“As you know, my dear wife’s partiality to dinner parties ensures they happen with alarming regularity.” A polite smattering of laughter rippled around the table. “But tonight, we have two guests who deserve our well wishes.” Father inclined his bewigged head at Captain Fincham. “Captain Fincham and Lieutenant Fitzwilliam will soon be leaving England’s fair shores in an effort to expand our great nation’s knowledge of the world.” His crystal cut glass glimmered in the candlelight. “To a safe and prosperous journey, gentlemen.”

“To a safe and prosperous journey,” echoed the diners.

Uncle Farfar’s grey head peered around Grace at Fitzwilliam. “Where are you off to this time, Lieutenant?”

Relieved to be released from Fincham’s melancholy, and Miss Pettigrew’s muteness, Grace widened her eyes, equally interested to hear his answer.

“Plymouth first, to pick up the rest of the ship’s company and fresh supplies, before we sail to Tierra del Fuego,” said Fitzwilliam.

“Damned notorious waters off the Horn of South America, eh?” declared Uncle Farfar.

“That’s right,” interrupted Fincham, his unsteady hand lowering his empty glass to the table. “We’re sailing out tomorrow on the Discerning. To chart the coasts between Montevideo and Chiloé Island.”

“Ah, yes, the hydrographic survey! I recall hearing of it around the Admiralty.” Uncle Farfar’s eyes blazed. “The Royal Navy has been around those parts for years, but they’ve few charts to show for it. About time someone had a crack at it.” He inclined his head at Fitzwilliam. “Sounds just the kind of adventure a young man like you would relish.”

“Indeed, sir.” Fitzwilliam agreed.

Grace tucked a chocolate corkscrew of hair, that had rebelliously come undone, behind her ear. “What a pity you shan’t be here for the ball next week, Lieutenant. Mother will no doubt outdo herself again.” Fitzwilliam was about to reply when Lady Flint’s tinkling laughter drew his attention down the other end of the table. Despite numerous suitors declaring that Grace’s natural beauty stemmed from her mother, Grace thought Lady Flint’s shrewd eyes and downturned mouth erased all prettiness. She glanced back at the handsome naval officer beside her.

“You’ll have to pardon me, Miss Baxter,” Fitzwilliam said ruefully. “I find society balls to be little more than an exercise in attaching one unwitting party to another, usually for monetary gain.”

“Hear, hear!” Fincham banged the table, jangling the silverware. Miss Pettigrew squeaked with fright. Fincham blustered, “The oceans of the world are far less dangerous to navigate as far as I’m concerned.”

Grace laughed. “I quite agree, Captain Fincham. Father had me all but married off to Colonel Dunne until he found out he’s as poor as a church mouse and about to be shipped off to India.” She turned to Fitzwilliam, one brow arching as she whispered from the corner of her mouth, “Dull as a butter knife too.”

Clearly amused by her honesty, Fitzwilliam’s shoulders jiggled with silent laughter, and he smirked. Grace had never understood how Father threw her at suitors who were highly suitable on paper but wholly unsuitable in person.


Now you’ve read the excerpt, here’s my review:

A young woman discovers she’s been promised to a disgusting old lecher, and so, she runs away. Not the first time this scenario has started a story, but the young woman in question doesn’t usually end up as a cabin boy on a survey vessel! 

But that’s exactly where Grace Baxter’s flight takes her, and the twists and turns of her story (or should I say the ebb and swell, as we’re aboard ship?) as she adapts to life on board, learns the skills of seamanship, and fights for acceptance among the other men make for entertaining reading. We meet an array of characters against whom Grace must pit her wits – and her fists – to take her place as one of the crew, creating an ensemble cast, each of whom adds in their own way to the story.

Emma Lombard’s debut novel is full of detail that helps the reader envision the confined world of the Discerning, the ship on which she’s taken refuge. It’s clearly well researched: the daily tasks of the crew; the fear when Grace must learn to climb rigging; the food served, and the stench of the sleeping quarters all serve to create a believable backdrop to Grace’s tale.

Many conflicts and reversals, big and small, keep the reader’s attention, without feeling forced or added simply to have yet another problem to be solved. Discerning Grace is a romance, too; can you put a determined young woman and an honourable lieutenant together on a ship without one?   Discerning Grace is an admirable debut novel, and a beguiling blend of historical fiction and women’s fiction.

AUTHOR BIO

Emma Lombard was born in Pontefract in the UK. She grew up in Africa—calling Zimbabwe and South Africa home for a few years—before finally settling in Brisbane Australia, and raising four boys. Before she started writing historical fiction, she was a freelance editor in the corporate world, which was definitely not half as exciting as writing rollicking romantic adventures. Her characters are fearless seafarers, even though in real life Emma gets disastrously sea sick. Discerning Grace is the first book in The White Sails Series.

Connect with Emma: WebsiteTwitterFacebookInstagramGoodreads

Legacy of the Brightwash, by Krystle Matar: A Release Day Review

Legacy of the Brightwash isn’t an easy book; it raises many questions that resonate in our current world.

The choices we make are complex, and our reasons for making them sometimes understood, sometimes not. We are influenced by our upbringing, our society and its place in it; by an immediate situation. Sometimes no choice is right, or safe, or even moral: like Odysseus, we are caught between Scylla and Charybdis, deciding which choice leads to the least grief.

Tashué Blackwood, the protagonist of Legacy of the Brightwash, is a man who has had to make such a choice. In a complex world of power and subservience, Tashué walks carefully, following the law and staying safe, even through the imprisonment of his son for refusing to give in to the laws of the Authority and register his Talent; even through seeing his son’s mother taken to a breeding program to give more children with Talent to the Authority.

But all men have a breaking point. For Tashué, it is the discovery of a mutilated child’s body on the banks of the Brightwash, a child with an unfamiliar tattoo on its neck. Torn by offered power and influence; by a woman whose love is forbidden to him; by his love for his son and by his own conscience, Tashué is a man fighting not only a corrupt society, but his own past.

Krystle Matar’s debut novel has both outstanding world-building and character development. There is nothing superficial or stereotypical about either her world or the people in it. While clear parallels can be drawn between Matar’s fictional world and our own, it stands as a unique creation. We are shown pieces of its structure, but like a partially completed jigsaw puzzle the outline is there, and some parts are more complete than others, but it’s not a finished picture – just like most of us don’t have a thorough picture of our own histories, either personal or of the world in which we live. Instead we have hints, echoes, memories, allowing the reader to slowly build a concept of what has shaped both the world and its inhabitants.

It’s an immersive world: Matar uses all our senses to evoke luxury, horror, pain, exhaustion, love. Characters’ thoughts are shown to us, their fears and obsessions, their momentary joys, their disgust and doubts. That Tashué is a tormented man is made abundantly clear. Matar is a skilled writer: words and sentences and paragraphs flow, show, sometimes overwhelm the reader with sensation and emotion.

The magic – Talent – is nearly irrelevant to the book, except as a metaphor for difference, for something that can be used to separate one group of people from another, to control and degrade – and sometimes because of that constant debasement, explode. The truth behind the mutilated child is both horrifying and a logical extension of the arrogance and privilege of the ruling class who see only themselves as truly human.

Legacy of the Brightwash isn’t an easy book; it raises many questions that resonate in our current world. Its ending raises more questions than it answers: mysteries have been solved, but Tashué is far from being free of conflict – nor is he likely to be. Truly a magnificent first novel. I look forward to its sequel.

Featured image: Image by Brigitte is always pleased to get a coffee from Pixabay 

Marco Polo & Kublai Khan: Two Views

Hands down, these were the most authentic Mongols we’ve seen on screen from the US.

In my monthly newsletter, News from the Empire, I’ve started a new section on historical dramas and books that complement them. I’ll be reposting those to my blog occasionally. This is the first.

I watch a lot of historical dramas, although ‘historical’ should often be taken with a grain of salt. (Or a bag of salt, in some cases.) Right now we’re watching Marco Polo on Netflix, and I’m finding it – regardless of its poor reviews – both entertaining and beautiful. Partly this is because I was in Mongolia in 2019, and while the show is filmed in Kazakhstan, the terrain is nearly identical, the horses actually look like the thousands of Mongolian steppe horses we saw, and I slept in a ger (yurt) camp for 5 nights. (We were in the Altai mountains, looking for – and finding – a snow leopard.) So it’s very familiar in terms of landscape, which is always my anchor. 

Some companion reading from the Mongol viewpoint can be found in Bryn Hammond’s books. A good place to start would be with Against Walls, described by the Asian Review of Books as ‘Total and instant immersion… thoroughly compelling and powerful.’ 

Here is what Bryn answered when I asked her what she thought of Marco Polo:

I think John Fusco’s Marco Polo on Netflix had an odd reception. It seemed to me audiences weren’t ready for these Mongols. I watched in frustration as reviewers who had little exposure to Mongol history suspected historical license and didn’t see the truths the series told. Scholars of the Mongols didn’t necessarily like it either, because of its fictional strategies.

It got a few big things right. It presented real Mongol culture. It acknowledged the freedoms and political agency of Mongol women. It did justice to the cosmopolitan court of Khubilai Khan. Hands down, these were the most authentic Mongols we’ve seen on screen from the US.

Khubilai – performed with human substance by Benedict Wong – perhaps should have been the titular character. As seen in the series, he staffed a poly-ethnic government, in resistance to pressures to become fully Confucian. He was a conscious innovator in the old world of China. For example, he introduced a universal script, Phagspa. It didn’t outlive its sponsor, but nevertheless was a great experiment in change. Imagine if the script to write all languages, functional and effective as it was, had been more easily accepted, instead of rejected by conservatives.

There are different ways to understand ‘accuracy’ in historical fiction. I have my own creed by which to write my novels, in that I treat my origin text, the Secret History of the Mongols, as sacred, nothing to be changed or omitted if it’s in there. But the Secret History is as much a work of art as of history-writing. So, I try to be true to Mongol artistry, as well as Mongol self-portrayal. Is that the same as ‘history’? Yes and no. History’s a slippery animal.

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The Moon Hunters, by Anya Pavelle

An atypical post-apocalyptic story.

The Moon Hunters: A Post-Apocalyptic Science Fiction Adventure by [Anya Pavelle]

The Moon Hunters is an atypical post-apocalyptic story; instead of a devastated, destroyed world, much of the narrative occurs on a lush tropical island. Members of a group led by a charismatic man escape an early 21st century pandemic by travelling to a remote, privately owned island. Out of touch with the rest of the world, sub-societies within the group evolve in several different directions. But one man’s belief in his own divine enlightenment – and his power over others – challenges the lives of everyone, but most of all the protagonist Leilani.

The reaction of individuals or small groups to years of isolation is not an uncommon theme in books: Robinson Crusoe, The Swiss Family Robinson, Lord of the Flies – but the evolution of a isolated society is usually the realm of science fiction stories based on lost colony ships. That The Moon Hunters is set on our world was a refreshing change.

What does a group withdrawing from the 21st century world take with them? The eclectic choice (Leilani is a librarian/scribe, and so has access to the books and written documents brought) is, I think, key to Pavelle’s world-building. The society has developed cultural traditions that appear drawn from a wide range of cultures, as it would be if their libraries – and members of the group – reflected a varied cultural heritage. Add to that the materials and foods available on a island in the tropics, and the rituals and hierarchies that have emerged in one of the towns on the island are reasonable developments.

World-building is The Moon Hunters greatest strength: detailed, precise description of the environment, of clothes and buildings, of the sounds and sights of the island – and of the off-island settings. Immersive and imaginative, the reader is subsumed into the world. But for all the lushness and beauty of the physical world, the political one – in Leilani’s village, at least – is harsh and unforgiving. How she navigates and eventually breaks free of its restrictions and expectations is a large part – but not all – of the story – and there is a romance, too.

Recommended for readers looking for a post-apocalyptic story less dark and disturbing than many.

Hollow Road, by Dan Fitzgerald

As with all good speculative fiction, Fitzgerald has asked some hard questions about our society

I’m pleased to be participating in the Storytellers on Tour blog tour for Hollow Road, Book I of The Maer Cycle by Dan Fitzgerald.

Legends describe the Maer as savage man-beasts haunting the mountains, their bodies and faces covered with hair. Creatures of unimaginable strength, cunning, and cruelty. Bedtime stories to keep children indoors at night. Soldiers’ tales to frighten new recruits.

It is said the Maer once ruled the Silver Hills, but they have long since passed into oblivion.

This is the story of their return.

Carl, Sinnie and Finn, three companions since childhood, are tasked with bringing a friend’s body home for burial. Along the way, they find there is more to the stories than they ever imagined, and the mountains hold threats even darker than the Maer. What they discover on their journey will change the way they see the world forever.

Travel down Hollow Road to find out which legends are true, and which have been twisted.

Three friends on a journey together: what a classic start to a fantasy story! Two men: an apprentice mage and a soldier; one woman, a skilled archer. They’ve been hired (and well paid) to take the dead body of a friend back home for burial. Too well paid, in truth. Why?

Danger lies on the road home; danger that comes from legend and story: the Maer, a humanoid people reputed to be cruel, fierce fighters. But as Finn, Sinnie and Carl discover, the perceived danger from the Maer is mostly that: a perception, the result of fear and lack of communication. The Maer are as human as they are, although their appearance is different, and their culture perhaps more advanced than the three companions’ own.

Hollow Road is the first book of a trilogy. It serves as a wonderful introduction to Fitzgerald’s world, introducing the societies, the conflicts, and the main characters deftly. The three main characters are distinct personalities: conflicted Carl, who’d wanted to be a mage but had no skill; Sinnie, a woman who knows she can’t settle to the village life of her mother; Finn, the young adept who quickly will outstrip his mentors. Each has a role to play in the tentative alliance with the Maer, and each have things to learn from them.

The scale of Hollow Road appealed to me. The world is small (so far); the action takes place in a limited geography, devoid of huge armies, fortresses to storm, or vast distances to travel. Sufficient small details build the world without weighing down the story, building a believable iron-age society with some magic, but not so much that it dominates. Finn’s body magic assists the trio in their goals, but only in a way equivalent to Carl’s prowess with a sword and Sinnie’s skilled archery.

I had two small niggles with the story, neither major. One is the pacing of fighting scenes, where I felt tension could have been increased by a change in the rhythm of the narrative; the other is in some of the language in dialogue. Fitzgerald’s characters speak naturally, often using modern words in an iron-age setting, and while for the most part I didn’t find this jarring, one or two words did jump out at me as inappropriate.

As with all good speculative fiction, Fitzgerald has asked some hard questions about our society; about how we judge and fear people by their outward appearance. His characters – and readers – see that once true dialogue begins, commonalities outweigh differences. But while individuals learn this, and accept the Maer as human, will the Realm, the larger government which is only hinted at in this first book? Hollow Road ends with questions that should make the reader impatient for the next book in the trilogy, The Archive, due out December 4th. It certainly made me frustrated that I couldn’t keep reading the story immediately!  Strongly recommended for readers who like character-based fantasy with a solid plot.

Win a signed paperback copy (US only) of Hollow Road!

September 13, 2020 at 12:00am EDT to September 20, 2020 at 11:59pm EDT

Hollow Road by Dan Fitzgerald. Adult Fantasy, 243 pages, published: September 17, 2020 by Shadow Spark Publishing.

Book Links

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/54801285-hollow-road

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08FDPR332

Author Information

Dan Fitzgerald is a fantasy writer living in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, DC with his wife, twin boys, and two cats. When he is not writing, he might be gardening, doing yoga, cooking, or listening to French music.

Find out more about Dan and his books at www.danfitzwrites.com, or find him on Twitter or Instagram, with the handle danfitzwrites in both places.

Author Links

Website: http://www.danfitzwrites.com/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/DanFitzWrites

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/danfitzwrites/

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/danfitzwrites

Ruskin’s Copper Shadow, by Jennifer Wineberg

A modern Victorian novel.

Ruskin’s Copper Shadow is set in Victorian times, and it has the feel of a Victorian novel, a mix of Dickens and Trollope and a touch of Wilkie Collins. Not quite a roman à clef, nonetheless the life and passions of its central character, the Canon, reflect and mirror in spirit some of the life of the polymath and social reformer John Ruskin.

John Ruskin

For a modern novel, the pacing is slow and the story, like a stream in summer, slowly meanders among characters and settings, but if you relax and drift along, the view is enjoyable. A debut novel based to some extent on some unexplained history in the author’s family, it examines the all-to-frequent occurrence in Victorian (and later) society – who fathered the child of a servant? It looks at the manners and expectations of Victorian society, and the gulf between the strict propriety of the Church and the upper classes, and humane behavior; it examines guilt and redemption.

Ruskin’s Copper Shadow won’t appeal to everyone. It’s very much an allegory: several characters have no identity beyond their titles: the Canon, the Magistrate; others are stock figures. But they were in Dickens, too, many times. Sometimes the reasons for the Canon’s behaviour are unclear, as that meandering stream divides and one stream goes underground for a while here and there, but it always re-emerges.  I enjoyed where its currents took me.

Amazon.com

Photo credits:

Featured Image: Wallington Hall, Northumbria: Glen Bowman, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Portrait of John Ruskin by W.& D. Downey, Photographers, London. Public Domain.

(By one of those strange 6 degrees of separation coincidences, the photographer William Downey was the grandfather (or maybe great uncle) of a friend of my father’s here in Canada.)

Songbird: A Novel of the Tudor Court

I wanted to read this book in one long sitting, immersing myself in its beautifully drawn world.

A review with a guest blog from the author, Karen Heenan.

I absorbed my father’s love for Tudor history almost by osmosis, and it’s never left me, although the better-known aspects of Henry VIII’s six wives and his rift with the Roman Catholic Church were never the parts that interested me the most. Social history and the lives of people who were not courtiers or nobles, but still affected by the massive changes that Henry brought to England during his reign, are my area.

Karen Heenan’s Songbird caught my attention as soon as I heard about it, pre-publication. I knew about Henry’s love for music: he was reputed to be a skilled musician himself. I knew, vaguely, that he had court singers and minstrels, and with a little thought I would have related the name William Cornysh with Henry’s court, and I might have even known he had something to do with music.

This tale of Bess, a young girl sold to the King for her pure, lovely voice, and of her training to be part of the troupe of singers who entertained Henry and his court plunges the reader into the lives of a group of young men and women of the back corridors and rooms of the palaces. Like all royal servants, they had little control over their lives; they were subject to royal demands and whimsies: sing now; travel now; perform now, as they moved in and out of favour.

It would be easy to see them as pawns, unimportant, but Heenan crafts a rich and satisfying story around three lives, the girl Bess, the boy Tom, and the outsider Robin. The names expected in a Tudor court story are there, of course: Henry himself, Queen Katherine, Anne Boleyn, Cardinal Wolsey. But they are the minor characters.  Through Bess’s eyes, we see events unfolding that are familiar to any student of Tudor history, but we also see the intimate details of her own.

Heenan writes with confidence and style, vividly drawing the reader into the Tudor court. Each character in her story is fully real, even the enigmatic Robin, and as they mature over the course of the book, their personalities develop. They become much more complex, but in ways that seem fully consistent with the children the reader first meets.

Court intrigues and politics; the fear of almost-random death from disease or accident; the divisions of class and the restrictions of religion: all these form the background to a bittersweet love story that unfolds over the course of the story. Each colours Bess’s view of life. her expectations, and her determination to grasp as much control of her life as is possible for a young woman in her position.

I wanted to read this book in one long sitting, immersing myself in its beautifully drawn world both familiar and new. I didn’t: I rationed myself, to enjoy it longer. I await its planned sequel with impatience.

William Cornysh and the Alchemy of Fiction

by Karen Heenan

Songbird was inspired by a throwaway fact in a biography of Henry VIII: the music-obsessed King once purchased a child from his mother to sing in the chapel choir. That was all it took to send me down the rabbit hole of history.

Then, of course, it occurred to me that meant I would be writing a book about music. I knew next to nothing about Tudor-era music, its structure, or its instruments. Thankfully, my main character, Bess, was a singer, so I could start there and learn as I wrote.

I quickly encountered the King’s Music, the name used for the royal company of minstrels who entertained at court, both publicly and in private, and placed Bess among them.

On researching the Music, and the topic of Tudor music generally, it was impossible to miss William Cornysh, who, in addition to being a significant composer of music both religious and secular, was Master of the Children of the Chapel Royal, and also managed many of the musical and dramatic entertainments at court.

Those few facts were enough to start building the man, and then, with the strange alchemy that is fiction, when I learned more about him, those new facts fit the character I had created. Cornysh was talented, hard-working, and seemingly underappreciated, having only been rewarded with a grant of property shortly before his death in 1523. He was also a father figure to the choristers, many of whom were quite young. When the court was in London, the children often spent nights at Cornysh’s house with him and his wife, Jane, giving them a taste of normal life.

Much of my research for Songbird was done in the dark days of the pre-internet era, which on one hand meant I stumbled across interesting facts that I didn’t know I needed, but on the other meant I didn’t always find what I needed, except by the same happy accident.

As an example, the story had moved on from Bess’s early days with the Music, and Cornysh was mentioned only rarely. Then, while reading an online article totally unrelated to him, I saw a mention of his sudden death.

What to do? He wasn’t a major character at that point, and leaving him alive wouldn’t be egregious because history would not be changed in service to the story, but my sense of accuracy meant I could not suffer a man to live who had actually died.

Back I went to give him his end, and the story was actually stronger for his loss.

Songbird is available on Amazon