Grace A. Johnson
February Mini Reviews
#1 These are long reviews, so pull up a chair and grab a bowl of popcorn. You'll be here awhile. #2 When I read a review, I want substantial information. So I will not skimp on the details. Which will mean some spoilers, so watch out.
Welp, like usual, I done a verra bad thing, me luvs. I done three verra bad things, actually. The first I done was I bought meself a brand-spankin-new Kindle. A Generation 10, granted; not a Paperwhite. Most certainly not a Paperwhite—I wouldna be wantin’ t’ break me bank, now would I?
The second was me startin’ up these mini reviews. Y’see, I just couldna live with meself if’n I didna write some reviews for these lovely books I read, but Lord knows I havena the time t’ write out me long rants like usual. So, ‘ere we are, with mini reviews that I’m a-hopin’ I can write correctly. Lord knows I like t’ wander a wee bit.
An’ the third? Why, that was me writin’ out this post with a Scottish accent. I’m a-hopin’ ye can be readin’ me writin’ now.
*clears throat before grinning cheekily* A thousand pardons, my faithful readers. I shall dispose of this Scottish accent posthaste and make good use of my proper British one. I’ll not have any kerfuffle coming from you all about that either, you understand?
Now, where was I? Oh, yes. Well. At least for the month of February, I’ll be sharing the highlights of my monthly bookshelf with y’all. And since I recently acquired a Kindle and three free months of KU, there are some interesting books in my library.
Before we begin, I would like to relate a few things to you. I decided to get a Kindle—conveniently, like, the day after Christmas—to take advantage of the free three months of Kindle Unlimited, so that I could read really only two things—everything by Tamara Leigh and Tales of Goldstone Wood by Anne Elisabeth Stengl.
Of course, I reckoned that I could make good use of the Kindle afterward and that it might be worth the price. (I’m now finding that there are a TON of other books I can read through KU, so I will indeed be very busy.)
Beforehand, however, I cleaned out my bookshelves. Old nonfiction I hadn’t finished; new books that I dared to purchase, knowing that I would have plenty more to read; the large stack of reading material I received for Christmas—all read in January to prepare for three fantabulous months of fantasy and medieval romance.
And so begins the first one, with book one in the Age of Conquest series by Tamara Leigh. (Click on the cover to view the book on Goodreads!)
MERCILESS by Tamara Leigh
Y’all, I have been wanting to read something—anything—by Tamara Leigh for the longest time! And now that I have…
I’m not sure what to think.
Had I been writing this review immediately after completing the novel, I probably wouldn’t know what to write either. But it’s been several weeks, and I’ve already started on the fourth book. So I’ve had time to collect myself, you could say.
But that doesn’t mean Merciless wasn’t an interesting reading experience.
In the strangest way, this book was both foreign and familiar. Leigh’s writing style—which is backwards and inside out and a wee bit archaic—took me forever to get used to—but I could have sworn (I still could swear) that I’ve read this story before!
Everything about it—the plot, the setting, the characters—feels like home! I know I haven’t ever read this book or anything remotely similar—the most medieval I’ve read has been YA fairytale retellings. And I certainly haven’t watched anything like this before (although this series totally needs to become a movie series or TV show).
So it simply must be Leigh’s amazing skill!
Once I grew accustomed to her style, I drifted into the story. It came alive, vibrant and welcoming. Cyr and Aelfled are amazing characters—and the secondary characters such as Maël and Hawisa, Dougray and Em, Chanson and Fulbert, Nicola and Vitalis just as much so. (Let us all note for a second that all but the first pair of names are actual pairs…)
And the plot is both smooth and jarring, fast-paced and calm, emotional and action-packed. How can it be both? I have no idea! All I know is that everything moved so well—quickly when it needed to be quick and slowly when it needed to be slow. In hindsight, it actually went by very fast. I don’t know if I just read it quickly or the story moved forward that well. All I know is that I thoroughly enjoyed it, and the pacing was just one reason why!
Now, apparently a lot of people are complaining about how political, factual, and action-focused this book (and series, and anything having to do with the Wulfriths) is. I have no idea what they’re talking about. Leigh does put a small amount of focus on the political aspects of the time—and I really love that! It shows how much knowledge she has of the period, and it makes the setting come to life! As a history buff, I do so love historical facts—as long as they don’t eclipse the characters and their romance, which never happens in Merciless. I was slightly concerned that I would be bored through some parts—particularly in the beginning, when I couldn’t understand half of the writing—but I devoured every word! Before long, I was so immersed in the story and period that I felt at home in it!
All this being said, although everything about the story kept my attention, it wasn’t my favorite—out of everything I’ve read or out of this series. Now that I’m reading Heartess, the fourth book in the Age of Conquest series, I see that Cyr and Aelfled’s story is not the best of the series. Their characters are well-developed and their romance is tender and sweet, but they didn’t capture me as Isa and Gaurin did in Fearless. That’s just me, though.
One thing that I’d wondered about months before I ever started reading Merciless was the spiritual content (of all of Leigh’s books, actually). Some readers say her novels are too spiritual, others say the opposite. You know how difficult it is to get a clear reading on such things. However, I found the faith content to be exceedingly fantastic. Leigh respected the period she wrote in by depicting the religion of the time authentically, but her message was still powerful. Simple, and certainly not preachy, but powerful.
And y’all know I almost never give content reports (mostly because I (1) almost never read anything secular or non-Christian and (2) what I do read usually possess a reputation that preceeds my reviews—such as Julie Lessman’s work—and (3) I really don’t care)...but I will put in my two-cents. Leigh doesn’t bat an eye at anything—from illegitimacy to slavery to sex—but she’s never graphic. Her portayals of these things are exactly as they should be—straightforward and honest but never condoning. In fact, her innocent kiss scenes are some of the less detailed ones I’ve read, so… *shrugs* I read Julie Lessman, and that’s about as edgy as inspirational gets.
All that boring nonsense aside, I can truthfully proclaim that I am definitely hooked on Tamara Leigh now! I can’t wait to read the rest of the Wulfriths stories, her other medieval novels, and even her contemporary ones!
Oh, and can I just say that Bernia was probably the best character in this book? That’s my kind of grandma, y’all! #oldladiesarethebest
FEARLESS by Tamara Leigh
Y’all. Just...y’all. If you happened to read my review of Merciless, then you know how I got into this series and Tamara Leigh and just how much I love this book!
But I’m going to assume you haven’t and gush about Fearless anyway!
So, yes, the first chapter or two is hard to follow because of how “backward” Leigh’s writing is. Once you grow accustomed to it—because, trust me, you will—the period, the setting, and the characters come to life around you. Hopefully you had sense enough to read the first book in the Age of Conquest series, so it won’t take you two seconds to catch on to what’s going on. Likely, you’ll already be in love with the characters and know the gist of how it ends.
I know I did.
I already knew I would love Isa and Gaurin more than Cyr and Aethfled (no offense, you two; y’all are fantastic in your own ways) and that I would wholeheartedly enjoy reading the events of Merciless from Isa’s POV. I mean, I did have my reservations—as I usually do when reading a book that directly overlaps one I’ve already read—but they were quickly dispelled by how smoothly this book moves along.
The main things I’ve noticed that Tamara Leigh has mastered is pacing. Yes, her prose is beautiful and balanced, so colorful and authentic. Yes, her stories are exciting, intense, suspenseful, and dramatic. Yes, she is a consumate medieval writer who knows her stuff. But seriously, y’all. Her pacing is perfection. Everything goes by so fast, and yet the story is languid and lingering. I know that doesn’t make sense, but I’m serious. She can some transcend time with her writing! It’s phenomenal!
The only way I can think to define it is that when I’m in the moment, I’m in it—every word is a passing second, every paragraph a minute. But when I step back, I see events and people flying by. Or maybe it’s the other way around! *shrugs* All I know is that it doesn’t get much better than this!
Apart from that, my all-time favorite part of Fearless was quite simply the characters. In Merciless, my favorite part was just the plot and concept in general—getting to know the characters, the time, the place, and watching an empire sprout up before my eyes. In Nameless (which I’ll gush about in my March reviews next month), it’s the story—every exchange between Em and Dougray, every battle between good and evil, every family reunion.
But with Fearless, it’s just Isa and Gaurin.
So, yeah, there wasn’t much plot until, like, the last several chapters. The part that overlapped with Merciless was like one long scene playing out in the midst of all the drama that ensued between Cyr and Aethfled in the first book. To be honest, I really, really missed those intense moments with Aethfled and Isa. I’d hoped to see more of the emotion and conflict within Isa that triggered all those interactions that we saw in Merciless—I wanted Isa’s side of the story, which I only got a taste of.
That’s basically the only reason why Fearless doesn’t get a full five stars. (I’d say it’s closer to four and a half.)
As a character-driven everything, I don’t mind the lack of excessive plot. I love more than anything else to be with the characters (and that goes for my own novels), so it didn’t bother me too much, because I do so love Isa and Gaurin. I was just wanting more conflict with Isa, I guess, and more interaction between her and Aethfled.
I will say this, however. Leigh did a fantabulous job balancing the two books. All of my reservations concerning the overlap were dispelled (wait, I already said that, didn’t I? Talk about overlap). Even though I feared being bored by the recounting of all that had transpired between Senlac and the events at Wulfen, I wasn’t! I got glimpses of things I hadn’t seen before and a fresh perspective on those I had.
So, in the end, although I was lacking a few things, Isa and Gaurin’s overall awesomeness more than made up for it! Oh, and can I just say that William is amazing? I mean, I know he’s supposed to be, like, the bad guy in all of this (which is really cool, considering Leigh manages to balance a force of conflict like William with the more immediate threats like Jaxon and Campagnon), but he is HILARIOUS! I love his interactions with the D’Argents and Wulfriths and all—and, y’all, I’m not a feminist by any definition of the word, but what he did with Isa and Gaurin was GOLD! (You’ll know it when you read it!) Later on, William just becomes more and more prominent and entertaining to read. I love the authority Leigh exercises in writing him, making him as much her character as the fictional Wulfriths and D’Argents are—more a man and less a historical figure!
(And I know these things are supposed to be “mini,” but my definition of mini is less than 2k, so…)
Long story short, you will be seeing a lot more reviews of Tamara Leigh’s work in the future. Trust me. (Also, just gonna say, I really admire this lady. She’s an indie author who left the secular fiction and tradition publishing behind to write for God. Respect.)
Heartless by Anne Elisabeth Stengl
Well, when I signed up for #kindleunlimited, I had my eyes locked on two things: Tamara Leigh and Anne Elisabeth Stengl. In particular, Tales of Goldstone Wood. Unfortunately, only the first book in this allegorical fantasy series in available in KU, so I can’t say whether or not I’ll be immediately continuing the series.
However, I am very glad I read Heartless.
Judging by my Goodreads bookshelves, I’m not too big on fantasy. It wasn’t always that way, though, so my childhood of C.S. Lewis and Chuck Black has given me a lot of knowledge of the genre. I know my way around fantasy, believe it or not.
Heartless has the classical sound and allegorical qualities of The Chronicles of Narnia, but it’s unique. In a world of YA fantasy with hussies for heroines and vampires for heroes, it’s very unique.
That fits my requirements, right? But I didn’t get into Heartless the way I hoped. I mean, I got into it all right, but not how I’d expected.
Y’all know I’m not usually one to listen to the masses. When they hate a book, I’ll read it. When they love it, I don’t. But I listened this time. I’ve heard nothing but good things about Tales of Goldstone Wood and Anne Elisabeth Stengl, so I gave in.
From a writer’s/editor’s standpoint, there wasn’t much lacking. It was engaging, fast-paced, and the worldbuilding was excellent. The characters developed well, the plot moved along smoothly. My only qualm would be that there was much more telling than there was showing—somehow, that’s permissible when writing in a more classical style, as Stengl does, so it wasn’t too bothersome. But I did pick up on it sometimes, when I felt like I wasn’t very close to the characters or the story.
But from my standpoint? Eh. To be honest (I mean, I wouldn’t lie), I was hoping for a romance. Say what you will about Una and Leonard and Aethelbald and Gervais...but this wasn’t a romance.
It was an allegory.
Now, I can appreciate a good allegory. I do. But I usually entwine my appreciation with a huge heap of fangirling—like with the Unblemished trilogy by Sara Ella. I couldn’t do much fangirling, if any, over Heartless. (Hence the name, Heartless.)
I do like how you-know-who (whom you’ll peg from the start, I assure you) paralleled Christ. I like how that played out. It was pretty obvious, yes, so I caught onto it the moment I met the fellow, but I still admire how true to the Bible and Christ the allegory was.
I still wanted it to be more romantic, though. I sound like Una.
Speaking of...a lot has been said about how bratty she is, but she wasn’t half bad. Seriously. She was...tolerable. But she was also real. Pretty transparent, too. And what was crazy was that the other you-know-who (I feel like naming names will spoil stuff) worked a wonder on her! True, he was a crappy dude who betrayed her trust, but it showed that Una had a care, had loyalty and strength. Naivete and stupidity, yes, but also a childlike faith—in spite of all her shortcomings.
There was one more thing that was disappointing: the villain. We go through all this rigamaroll with certain goblins and trolls and princes and dukes and all—only to have the main man, the big daddy, el jefe, Darth Dragon, the evilest of the evil and the vilest of the vile appear out of nowhere. There was no foreshadowing him. No shock. No suspense. It’s like...suddenly he’s there and he’s causing trouble, but there was no feeling on my part. After shadowing everyone else, I’d expected either them to be bad or for an equal amount of attention to be paid to the actual villain.
I just wasn’t feeling it.
I was feeling pretty scared, though. This stuff gets dark—and I don’t mean just magic and mythological creatures dark. I mean spiritually dark. The parallel is there, guys, and it’s disturbing. I’m not into freaky stuff (apart from Frank E. Peretti), so when things started to get deep, I started to panic.
I say that to give you my personal experience and to forewarn those under the age of fifteen seeking to read this. Don’t read this before bedtime, kids. Dragons ain’t no joke.
So...I guess this sounds like a negative review. It’s not. Heartless is a good book, Stengl is a good author, and I’m sure the rest of the series is good too. I got into it, I did. I had a hard time putting it down (or switching to another book on my Kindle). In the end, though, Tamara Leigh won out (I was reading Heartless and Merciless at the same time, ironically). This just wasn’t my style. A few things were missing, for me, but I know a lot of other readers have adored this book/series. Seriously, one of my writer friends is part of the ToGW fandom and co-created a blog all about it. You can check it out here!
Long story short (because, yes, this was longer than I’d intended), I have a love/hate relationship with this book. I love it...and then I hate it. *shrugs* I’m like that with a lot of things, I guess. I would recommend Heartless, though, because I know it fits the style of some—just not me.