Sex and Sexuality in Ancient Rome, by L J Trafford: A Review

Many long years ago, I took courses from a Scottish Studies professor who, hands down, was the most entertaining lecturer I ever had. He combined serious scholarship with stories – sometimes scurrilous – that made us howl with laughter. L J Trafford’s Sex and Sexuality in Ancient Rome fits that model: solid research told in an accessible manner, and it too had me howling with laughter in places.

Divided into sixteen chapters covering everything from ideals of beauty, the sex lives of Emperors, and what constitutes good sex (from the point of view of a Roman male), this is all presented in a fairly light-handed manner. While Trafford does acknowledge that Roman morals and behaviour cannot always be judged by 21st century standards, she also does not shy away from pointing out the inequalities and lack of choice for many Romans, especially those who were enslaved.

I was pleased to see that women’s sexuality was not ignored, as it often is in books on this subject. The information (opinion) still comes from men, who were doing most of the writing at the time, and much of it is as eyebrow-raising as men’s thoughts on women’s sexuality often are…but then we have Ovid, who wrote that mutual pleasure was the goal of sex, and that women’s orgasms were important and desirable. I learned more about women’s sexuality in ancient Rome than any other topic, and for that alone the book was worth reading.

Trafford also shows how some things never change. The sex lives of prominent people, including (maybe particularly) the emperors and their wives, were topics of discussion, and the reputation of many an emperor was dragged in the dirt by the poets, satirists and orators of the day. What we would now view as homophobic slurs were common insults, but this isn’t how the Romans saw it. The gender of your sexual partner was (almost) irrelevant; what position you took – the active or passive partner – was. The passive role was unmanly, and Roman men could not be unmanly. Some of the insults remain the same to this day.

I read Sex and Sexuality in Ancient Rome as a novelist, judging it for its usefulness in world-building. It is full of tidbits that, judiciously adapted, would certainly add to the verisimilitude of historical fiction set in ancient Rome. That along the way I was entertained, educated, but also made to think reflects Trafford’s grasp of her subject as well as her skill as a writer. Highly recommended.

The Place Below: The Maer Cycle Book III, by Dan Fitzerald

In The Place Below, Dan Fitzgerald brings his Maer Cycle to a satisfying conclusion. A generation after the first two books of the series, Sasha, daughter of human and Maer, is now an adult. Empathic, sensitive to touch, her natural skill with languages and communication enhanced as needed by magic, Sasha is searching out the tombs of the Ka-lar, the ‘forever kings’ laid to rest in a form of stasis hundreds of years earlier.  Then one day, her empathetic connection to the minds of the dead encounters an awakened, living Ka-lar among a branch of the Maer who themselves are legendary: the underground-dwelling Skin Maer.

The book alternates between the viewpoints of Sasha and Kuun, the awakened Ka-lar, and they serve as counterbalances to each other: Kuun, who at first presents as confident and powerful, slowly reveals motives and doubts; Sasha, who presents as unsure and solitary by nature, grows into her own competence and agency. Familiar characters—Sinnie, Finn, Tcheen—are reintroduced, but as characters to support Sasha in her quest, not to direct and overshadow her.

Kuun, the scholar-scientist Forever King, choosing stasis in the face of unfinished research in a time of plague, is a nuanced and ambiguous character, his motives slowly revealed over the course of his narrative. Again, Fitzgerald’s themes of communication and understanding play into the development of his character and his actions.

Like Fitzgerald’s first two books, this is fantasy with few battles and heroics of a martial sort, but with questions asked and answered about the power of language; about acceptance of differences that are superficial; about what we might sacrifice for the good of the whole. Commonalities that connect, not contrasts that divide. Sasha, neither human nor Maer, embodies both the possibility and the questions that arise about differences between Maer and human, a question that will be, finally, answered through Kuun’s determination. Recommended (as is the whole series) for readers wanting character-centred fantasy that makes them think.

Find The Maer Cycle, including an omnibus edition with bonus features here.

Dan Fitzgerald

Dan Fitzgerald is the fantasy author of the Maer Cycle trilogy (character-driven low-magic fantasy) and the upcoming Weirdwater Confluence duology (sword-free fantasy with unusual love stories). The Living Waters comes out October 15, 2021 and The Isle of a Thousand Worlds arrives January 15, 2022, both from Shadow Spark Publishing.

He lives in Washington, DC with his wife, twin boys, and two cats. When not writing he might be found doing yoga, gardening, cooking, or listening to French music.

He can be found on Twitter or Instagram as danfitzwrites, or on his website, www.danfitzwrites.com



Bjørn Larssen’s Storytellers in Audiobook Format

From Tantor Media September 7th.

If you don’t know this marvellous book, here’s my review from its release day in 2019.

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Set against Iceland’s harsh but beautiful landscape in the late 19th and  early 20th century, Bjørn Larssen’s debut novel Storytellers explores the multi-generational effect of the evasions, embellishments and outright lies told in a small village. The book begins slowly, almost lyrically, pulling the reader into what seems like situation borrowed from folktale: a reclusive blacksmith, Gunnar, rescues an injured stranger, Sigurd. In exchange for his care, Sigurd offers Gunnar a lot of money, and a story.

But as Sigurd’s story progresses, and the book moves between the past and the present, darker elements begin to appear. Gunnar’s reclusiveness hides his own secrets, and the unresolved stories of his past. As other characters are introduced and their lives interweave, it becomes clear that at the heart of this small village there are things untold, things left out of the stories, purposely re-imagined. Both individual and collective histories – and memories – cannot be trusted.

The book was reminiscent of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, in both theme and mood. Both books deal with the unreliability of memory; both are largely melancholy books. And perhaps there is allegory in them both, too. Storytellers is a book to be read when there is time for contemplation, maybe of an evening with a glass of wine. It isn’t always the easiest read, but it’s not a book I’m going to forget easily, either.

Jati’s Wager, by Jonathan Nevair: A Review

I’m pleased to be participating in the Storytellers on Tour blog tour (Aug 29th – Sept 4th) for Jonathan Nevair’s second novel in his Wind Tide series, Jati’s Wager.

A space opera heist brimming with action, twists, and turns that doubles as a story of personal growth, mentorship, and sacrifice.

Ailo is a streetwise teen surviving alone on the remote moonbase, Tarkassi 9. She wants nothing more than to flee into the wider world of the Arm. When her chance arrives, she makes it no farther than the first ship out of the system. That’s where Jati, the Patent War veteran and general fighting the Monopolies, gives her a second chance. It’s an unlikely partnership, but Ailo’s rogue status is just what Jati’s People’s Army needs to drive the final spike of victory into a weakening Garissian Council.

A team of experts assembles and hope rests on Ailo’s skill, stealth, and tenacity to pull off the impossible. It’s a wild gambit, and a moral code may need to be bent, or broken, to achieve success. When an internal shadow rises, casting doubt on their plans, Ailo and Jati are forced to weigh the cost of revenge against honor and justice.

My Review

Your own survival is paramount when you’re a street kid. You learn to be fast, to be silent, to move in and out of the shadows; to trust your instincts; to rely on your own judgement. You develop coping mechanisms, too; mental ones, to give you support, advice; a friend you can rely on. But all your experience and all your wiles aren’t foolproof.

When stowing away on a ship leaving the moonbase she’d grown up on doesn’t go the way Ailo had hoped, she becomes part of a crew under the legendary Jati, general, Legionary, idealist.  Ailo has to learn to trust more than the part of her mind she calls Gerib, her ‘imaginary friend’ who guides and counsels her, and to see herself not only as an individual but as part of a team with a larger purpose.  As the links between her hidden past and the cause Jati is fighting for are revealed, skills that have lain latent in Ailo’s mind: skills of tactics and strategy, of language, and the fusing of the two that make for skilled diplomacy, begin to emerge. But those are not the only reason Ailo is valuable to Jati. Is she the last piece in the puzzle that will bring them victory against the Garassian council?

Fast paced and complex, Jati’s Wager is a book that needs your full attention. Packed with action, the story moves forward rapidly, but the action invites deeper moral questions, not just for Ailo, but for the reader. There is a war to be won, but can it be done in a way that leaves the long history of violence, of conflict and retribution, behind?  What is the moral path for a warrior? – not a soldier, someone who follows orders, but a warrior, making mindful, conscious choices, aware of the myriad consequences. Is vengeance – or sacrifice – ever appropriate? The questions of personal survival versus the collective good; the role and meaning and restrictions of history, and the power of language are woven throughout the story, reinforced in many ways, large and small, creating layers of meaning and contemplation in both the reader and Ailo.

Jati’s Wager is the second book in Jonathan Nevair’s Wind Tide series, but it can be read as a standalone. Links to his first book, Goodbye to the Sun, are present and important, but sufficiently explained that the reader does not need to have read it (although I strongly suggest you do!) In the background, not only do the myths of the Trojan War have a presence, but the author has quietly included references to classic science-fiction, ideas from Carl Sagan, and – in a sentence that made me bark with laughter – a nod to Apocalypse Now.

Highly recommended, both for lovers of space opera, and readers that like books that make them think.

Like a chance to win a copy?

http://www.rafflecopter.com/rafl/display/e832e988101/?

Prize: A print copy of Jati’s Wager by Jonathan Nevair – US/UK Only

Starts: August 29th, 2021 at 12:00am EST

Ends: September 5st, 2021 at 11:59pm EST

Book Information

Jati’s Wager (Wind Tide (#2)) by Jonathan Nevair,

Published: August 18, 2021 by Shadow Spark Publishing

Genre: Science Fiction, Space Opera, LGBTQ+

Pages: 425

CW: death of parent (mentioned), death of mentor, verbal abuse, graphic violence and death, blood, homelessness, trauma, guilt, kidnapping (mentioned)

POSSIBLE ULTIMATE TOUR EXPERIENCE TICKETS: Let’s Get The Party Started, Represent, Lost In Space, Snark It Up, The More The Merrier, The Wings Of Change

Book Links

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/58579886-jati-s-wager

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B099QM63SQ

Author Info

Jonathan Nevair is a science fiction writer and, as Dr. Jonathan Wallis, an art historian and Professor of Art History at Moore College of Art & Design, Philadelphia. After two decades of academic teaching and publishing, he finally got up the nerve to write fiction. Jonathan grew up on Long Island, NY but now resides in southeast Pennsylvania with his wife and rambunctious mountain feist, Cricket.

You can find him online at www.jonathannevair.com and on twitter at @JNevair

Website: https://www.jonathannevair.com/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/JNevair

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

Publisher Info

Shadow Spark Publishing

Website: https://shadowsparkpub.com/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/ShadowSparkPub

Instagram: http://instagram.com/shadowsparkpub

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/shadowsparkpub/

The Unseen, by Laury Silvers: A Release Day Review

The Unseen, as well as being a police procedural set in 10th century Baghdad, is also an investigation of the balance men and women must find between their existence in the physical world and their desire for human connection and love, and the call of the immanent god to a greater purpose, the subsumation of the life of the flesh in the life of the spirit. That Laury Silvers manages to balance the temporal story of her characters with their spiritual journeys in both a setting and faith unfamiliar to many readers (including me) speaks to her skill as a writer.

The title, as always with Laury Silvers’ books, has multiple meanings within the text, but one ‘unseen’ is the Twelfth Imam. Hidden from view; his very existence is a point of debate and division among the Shia of Baghdad. With tensions already high, when a man is killed in a way that parallels the death of a martyr two hundred years earlier, the city is ready to explode into violence. Grave Crimes investigators Ammar and Tein must find the man responsible before the caliph’s troops enforce peace. But Tein’s sister Zaytuna has a prophetic dream that points to the killer – or does it?  And will Ammar and Tein listen?

As in her earlier books, The Lover and The Jealous, 10thcentury Baghdad is evoked through the senses of the characters. We see the world through their eyes, smell what they smell, taste what they taste. We know, their inner doubts and turmoil as the events of their lives, personal and public, conflict with their values. 

Parallels with today’s politics abound. Difference of opinion over who should lead them causes rifts among the Shia, providing opportunity for other to infiltrate and to feed those fires. Senior police officers are all too ready to provide a scapegoat for the crime. But alongside these conflicts, Zaytuna and Tein, and Ammar too, all have a chance to find a path to a modicum of contentment in their lives, although none easily.

By this third book, readers know the main characters well, and I found myself strongly invested in their personal stories, but also intrigued by the solving of the crime. Highly recommended for readers who want a book that asks a lot, emotionally and morally, of its characters, and does not pretend there are easy solutions.

Laury Silvers is a North American Muslim, raised in the United States but finally at home in Canada. Her research and publications as a historian of religion focused on early Islam, early Sufism, and early pious and Sufi women. She taught at Skidmore College and the University of Toronto. Silvers also published work engaging Islam and Gender in North America in academic journals and popular venues, was actively involved in the woman-led prayer movement, and co-founded the Toronto Unity Mosque. She has since retired from academia and activism and hopes her novels continue her scholarship and activism in their own way. She lives in Toronto.

Laury’s website

Amazon.com link

Goodbye to the Sun, by Jonathan Nevair: A Review

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

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

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

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

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