Review of "Milady" by Laura L. Sullivan

Sullivan, Laura L. Milady. New York: Berkley, 2019.

Paperback | $16.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0451489982 | 366 pages | Historical Fiction

5 stars

I first heard about Milady from Elisabeth Lane when she picked up an ARC and a conference and featured it in a video, finding myself mildly intrigued at a spin on a male-dominated classic told from one of the only female characters, relegated to the role of villain. Subsequently, Dominic Noble’s video summing up the book (uploaded a day after the book released, but given his tremendous backlog of Patreon funded requests, and that this was based on one such request, I’m willing to chock it up to pure coincidence), and it made me realize, just as Laura L. Sullivan did, that the “heroes” of The Three Musketeers are horrible people, even allowing for historical context, and Milady is arguably much more sympathetic, in spite of being cast in the role of villain.

Sullivan thus takes the original story and allows Milady to reclaim the narrative in a wonderful way. Splitting between time periods, focusing on her backstory showing how she got to that point, and the “present” showing her version of the events of the original novel, it shows that while she was miscast to lift up D’Artagnan and the Musketeers, it was all by her design, with her use of excellent deception every step of the way to influence their perception of events.

As a result, I really loved the twists she put on the relationships between the characters, especially focusing on the relationships between women to contrast the theme of fraternity in the original. I love the twist that instead of being essentially a tragic figure, Constance (called “Connie” in the novel) is also in league with Milady and is given a better ending, and there’s a couple memorable scenes of them together that show the depth of their friendship.

As for Milady’s romantic life, I enjoyed seeing how she developed from a naive girl more or less who falls in love with someone who doesn’t reciprocate to seizing control of her own sexuality and eventually finding someone who respects her for it…and the fact that he was revealed to have essentially been there all along as well as being a great tie-in with a relationship her character has in the original is wonderful.

This is an absolutely amazing book in its own right, and I love how it pays tribute to the Dumas classic while also acknowledging that some characters deserved way better than they got…and giving it to them. I recommend this to anyone who loves female-centric historical fiction or female-centric retellings of classic novels.

Review of "Sherwood" by Meagan Spooner

Spooner, Meagan. Sherwood. New York: HarperTeen, 2019.

Hardcover | $17.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0062422316 | 467 pages | YA Historical Fiction

3.5 stars

I don’t remember where I first heard about Meagan Spooner, but I had her previous fairytale retelling on my radar for a while, then subsequently added Sherwood to my TBR upon its release. While I wasn’t super familiar with the Robin Hood legend beyond the basics, I was intrigued by the twist on the story suggested in the blurb.

And it’s a petty good story, particularly in terms of developing Marian as a character in her own right. I love her taking up the mantle of Robin Hood, in light of Robin’s death and the growing political corruption. And the way it develops an understanding of her and Robin’s bond through flashbacks to their courtship was great, and I wish they had been more frequent, espevially when they dwindled in the latter half.

Unfortunately, the other romance between Marian and her other suitor, Guy of Gisborne, put a bad taste in my mouth. I’m not opposed to her finding another romantic partner on principle, but the fact that he is opposed to everything she stands for and the execution of his supposed defection is handled in a completely unconvincing way made the relationship hard to buy into.

It’s a great attempt at writing a feminist, gender-flipped Robin Hood, but it is still a bit flawed. The writing style is engaging, and the plot is fun, centering on a great characterso I feel like it’s still worth giving a shot if this book appeals to you.

Review of “The Business of Blood” by Kerrigan Byrne

Byrne, Kerrigan. The Business of Blood. [United States]: Oliver-Heber Books, 2019.

Paperback | $9.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1700310286 | 296 pages | Historical Mystery

5 stars

I received a copy of this book from the author in a giveaway and have voluntarily chosen to post a review. All opinions are my own.

The Business of Blood is perhaps Kerrigan Byrne at her best. Known for her dark, atmospheric, writing style, it’s almost mind boggling that she didn’t write a historical mystery sooner. And now that she has, it definitely delivers, presenting all the intensity readers may expect from her books, but in a slightly different way.

I enjoyed the heroine, Fiona. I love her devotion to getting justice for her slain friend by finding Jack the Ripper, ending up mixed up in solving a similar murder. And the way she is connected to the “business” of murder through her occupation was both “fun” (if you can call it that?) and interesting.

There were a ton of twists and turns, leading up to the great reveal of the bad guy. I’m definitely anxious to see how her further adventures unfold, given the way this one ends.

This is a unique historical mystery, utilizing the atmosphere of Victorian London during the time of the Ripper murders to create an engaging story.

Review of “Jane Steele” by Lyndsay Faye

Faye, Lyndsay. Jane Steele. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2016.

Hardcover | $27.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0399169496 | 422 pages | Historical Mystery/Thriller

5 stars

I heard about Jane Steele from BookTuber Jashana C, who raved about this book in a recent video. And the concept immediately intrigued me, particularly in terms of what it meant for Jane’s character, who in spite of her trials and tribulations, was always moral and upright in the original.

And she is an engaging character in Faye’s reimagining, with her narrative once again tackling the role of women in Victorian society (and, in some ways, our own), but instead showing how Jane has the strength to defend herself physically in the face of violence from male figures who exert violence over her or people she cares about.

It also adds further nuance to the power dynamic between Jane and the Rochester character, Charles Thornfield. Whereas the power imbalance in the original was rendered through injury and loss for him, as well as her own gain, they are consistently on even footing due to their respective dark pasts, and this is what brings them together, in a union that feels much more satisfying than the one in the original.

And the way Faye pays tribute both to plot elements from Jane Eyre and, in turn, the autobiographical influences from Charlotte Bronte’s life, is wonderful. From something as small as the naming of the institution Jane is sent to (Lowan Bridge, after Cowan Bridge, where the Bronte sisters were sent as children and Charlotte’s older sisters sickened and died) to the broader plot elements like the bigamous union and the mad wife, I loved all the little touches infused into the story.

This book is truly wonderful, and I would recommend it to anyone looking for a dark take on a classic story.

Review of “The Beauitful” (The Beautiful #1) by Renee Ahdieh

Ahdieh, Renee. The Beautiful. New York: G.P. Putna’s Sons, 2019.

Hardcover | $18.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1524738174 | 424 pages | YA Historical Fiction/Paranormal

2 stars

The Beautiful is a vampire story arriving when pop culture has largely fallen out of love with vampires. And I think what makes this one work to an extent is that it leans on the older stories, like Anne Rice’s books, prior to the big Twilight boom (even if it did shamelessly plug it in some of its marketing).

It does take its time to establish the world, and vampires aren’t nearly as prominent in the story as you might expect. But in some ways it amps up the creep factor and Gothic atmosphere, especially with the occasional interstitial moments written from the vampire perspective in between those focused on the human characters.

However, I did find the characters themselves rather uninteresting. There’s a rather forgettable love triangle (the setup of which, along with some of the atmospheric tones, reminded me a bit of Phantom of the Opera), Celine has “secrets” which end up being underwhelming, and while there is some payoff on the vampire front (the best part of the entire story), it is of course left open-ended to set up the sequel.

And one of my major criticisms as far as characterization is concerned is the way culture is incorporated. Ahdieh’s previous books were so entrenched in the respective cultures of the Middle East and Japan, respectively, it’s odd that the only reference to diversity is a throwaway mention of Celine being half “Oriental” (I can’t recall it being given further clarification than that). While I didn’t go in expecting diversity, given the setting, I did expect a bit better representation of the diverse character(s) Ahdieh decided to incorporate once that statement was made, given her previous track record, and I just didn’t feel like I got that.

This book has seen a lot of divisive opinions, so I’m not really surprised to fall on the “this isn’t really for me” side of things, with the exception of the plotting itself and its usage of the vampire myth in a relatively cool way. I think, if you really enjoy vampires, it’s still worth checking out, as it does that part super well, and I do really hope that we see more of them cropping up again.

Review of “Before Versailles” by Karleen Koen

Koen, Karleen. Before Versailles. 2011. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks Landmark, 2012.

Paperback | $16.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1402275906 | 373 pages | Historical Fiction

4 stars

Karleen Koen has long been on my TBR list, and while her Tamworth Saga has been the one more frequently mentioned, I was also intrigued by Before Versailles, as while I had an interest in the period and was looking for more books within it, I didn’t know much about Louis XIV beyond what most people know, and its claim to focus on his reign for several months in 1661, before he had fully come into his own as king intrigued me.

And in terms of the plot, it delivers. While the span of the novel is brief, it demonstrates how much can happen in a royal court, from scandalous affairs to political corruption. It’s an uncertain time, and it’s wonderful to see the start of Louis becoming that celebrated ruler of France.

There are multiple perspectives, and thus it’s hard to really become invested in one person too much. But I was drawn most particularly to the domestic drama between Louis and his brother, particularly as Louis develops a passion for his brother’s wife. Really, all of Louis’ relationships are quite well-drawn, including his dynastic union with Maria Teresa, who he has difficulty feeling passion for and the growing passion he has with Louise, which ends on a good note here, even if historically, it would go on to end badly.

This is a multi-faceted, leisurely paced historical fiction book, that ultimately has a great payoff and provides greater insight into the young man who would become the Sun King. I recommend it to fans of historical fiction.

Review of “The Magnolia Sword: A Ballad of Mulan” by Sherry Thomas

Thomas, Sherry. The Magnolia Sword: A Ballad of Mulan. New York: Tu Books, 2019.

Hardcover | $19.95 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1620148044 | 348 pages | YA Historical Fiction

4 stars

I was incredibly excited for The Magnolia Sword, in part because Mulan is one of my favorite Disney Princesses, for all the reasons listed in this video and more, and because I loved hearing about the unique journey Sherry Thomas went on finding out about the original tale and the time period in which it’s believed to be set in, which went beyond even her scope of knowledge as a Chinese immigrant, which she documented during the writing process on social media, also touching on briefly in her author’s note.

And ultimately, her work pays off, sending readers on a similar journey to hers with these book as she presents a story not inspired not only by the “original” Mulan, but also capturing the era of fifth century China in all of its political complexity in an easily digestible way that also pays respect to the historical period, while also making it very much her own with her sensuous and evocative writing style.

I loved delving into Mulan as a character and her place in relation to the familial and gender politics, which play a role in the story. It’s great to see her as a genuinely good fighter from the start, in keeping with the original, yet she also feels like a real person with real flaws, which makes her easy to root for.

While the romance wasn’t the main element, I found myself rather underwhelmed by the “princeling” character. His “secrets” do leave an impact for the broader story, but I just didn’t care for him as a romantic interest, and as much as I love a good romance, I think it would be great for Mulan, of all folktale characters, to end up alone in certain iterations…or at least give her a more interesting love interest, if you must have romance.

This is a wonderful retelling of Mulan, for the most part, and one I recommend to all Mulan fans, whether their entry point was the Disney movie, the original retelling, or something else.

Review of “The Secret of Aaron Burr” by Susan Holloway Scott

Scott, Susan Holloway. The Secret Wife of Aaron Burr. New York: Kensington, 2019.

Paperback | $16.95 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1496719188 | 500 pages | Historical Fiction

5 stars

The Secret Wife of Aaron Burr seems to have drawn some minor controversy (defined purely by the book’s status as more mid-list than runaway bestseller, and the fact that, unlike other books with greater notoriety, it did not draw headlines in major news outlets), for good reason.

One is the issue of the apparent romanticizing of a relationship between Mary and Burr, which grows more apparent in the latter half of the book. Huge content warning here: the book not only deals with the realities of slavery, but it includes a pretty intense depiction of sexual asault that turns into a semi-consensual relationship.

But this is where I feel like the context of the power dynamic is well done, and even when there is a inkling of some romantic feelings, there is always also a semse that, even when she is freed, serving as a paid employee to Burr, Mary is still in Burr’s power, due both to their past, the resulting children and her desire to care for them, and the years of trained subservience. I even did some research into the modern stories of women who chose to continue “consensual” relationships with their rapists, and, of course, then, as now, what began as an act of power between a superior and subordinate, remains so, even if the subordinate “chooses” to continue the relationship.

Which brings me to the second issue that some readers have: is it really historical fiction if not much is know about Mary? Her children’s lives and family connection to Burr are known, but she is a mystery, so anything directly involving her is fabricated. But as Scott says in her author’s note, her experience as depicted in the nove reflects the experience of many slaves as at the time, including Sally Hemings, whose “relationship” with Jefferson is also getting a lot of new analysis, While it’s likely not a fully accurate depiction of Mary’s life, it does faithfully depict the struggles of the enslaved at the time and the complexity of the choices they had to make in a world that was against them.

And if anything, it makes me admire this iteration of Mary, fictional it may be. She went through a lot, and I could empathize with her almsot every step of the way.

But Aaron Burr…I feel nothing but more loathing for the man. His support for (white) women’s rights is great, compared to some of his contemporaries who did not, but reading this, on top of the evidence of his connection to Mary’s children and the regrettable actions he took in regards to the other slaves he owned when he apparently feared his own life would be taken in the infamous duel with Hamilton, further make me hate him. I do believe it was Scott’s intent to at least depict some ambiguity in his character, given that he is already reviled anyway, so I do think she succeeded.

However, despite being faithful to Mary’s obviously limited role in social and political life, I did enjoy that it offered some balance to the party disputes depicted in I, Eliza Hamilton, with some discussion of Burr and the Democratic-Republicans’ side of things. If nothing else, it is fascinating to get further insights into early American party politics and the in-fighting between the notable politicians of the time.

This is an incredibly moving and educational novel, and while I would urge anyone who is triggered by the aforementioned difficult topics to avoid this book, I would also recommend even the most ardent “history purist” to broaden their horizons to give this book a try. The narrative of the enslaved is one that is not still not told often, although that is improving through the efforts of the curation of plantation tours (like Monticello) to include the discussion of slavery, and I respect Scott’s care in handling the topic with compassion.

Review of “The Lady Rogue” by Jenn Bennett

Bennett, Jenn. The Lady Rogue. New York: Simon Pulse, 2019.

Hardcover | $18.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1534431997 | 372 pages | YA Historical Fantasy

4 stars

While I’ve never been into the modern romantic trend of vampires, I have a fascination with Dracula and his historical inspiration, Vlad the Impaler, so I was excited to see The Lady Rogue was another book (along with a couple of other recent-ish YA favorites The Conqueror’s Saga by Kiersten White and Hunting Prince Dracula by Kerri Maniscalco) released out in recent years tapping into a combination of both the history and the mythos of Dracula. Not the seredipity of reading it on October 20, the birthday of Bela Lugosi, the original actor who played Dracula, who is name dropped in this book.

And the development of the lore and the overall quest plot is the best part of the book. I enjoyed learing about the history of the Order of the Dragon and finding out about the legendary ring and its connection to Theo and her family. Despite being fictionalized to accommodate the fantastical elements, it all feels plausible.

Theo is a fun heroine. While there are elements of her that do feel like it would probably resonate more with a younger reader, I did enjoy her strength and determination. However, the romance left me feeling a little cold, which is odd, Bennett’s author bio states she also writes adult historical romance, so I would assume she can write a good romance. But while friends to lovers/second chance can often be a winning setup for me, I just never felt chemistry between Theo and Huck.

This is a fun, fast-paced book, that, in spite of any flaws, is still an enjoyable read. I recommend it to other fans of YA historical fantasy.

Review of “Ribbons of Scarlet: A Novel of the French Revolution’s Women” by Kate Quinn, Stephanie Dray, Laura Kamoie, Sophie, Perinot, Heather Webb, and E. Knight, with a Foreword by Alison Pataki

Quinn, Kate, et. al. Ribbons of Scarlet: A Novel of the French Revolution’s Women. New York: William Morrow, 2019.

Paperback | $16.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0062916075 | 514 pages | Historical Fiction5 stars

Ribbons of Scarlet is an ambitious book that, if succeeds primarily due to the amount of thought put into the book in order to make it cohesive as a novel in six parts as opposed to an anthology of loosely connected stories of the women involved in the French Revolution. While each author’s voice is distinct and makes each part stand on its own, it also shows the progression of the Revolution from one truly about equality and the plight of the poor to one where all opponents to the increasing radicalism were put to death.

And I love how, in highlighting the roles of women with varying viewpoints in the Revolution, it not only highlights the punishment they or their loved ones faced for such viewpoints and their resultng actions, but also discussed the hypocrisy that when the Revolutionary leaders spoke of “liberty, equality, fraternity,” a lot of emphasis was placed on that last value, to the exclusion and subjugation of women, even though they played substantial roles in shaping the Revolution. In the early days, From the idealistic nature of Sophie and the Marquis having a marriage of equals and hoping to shift the government toward one run by other intellectuals to Louise leading the early charge for vengeance to even the story of Princess Elisabeth, sister to the king, I truly felt for all the women fighting for causes they believed in, even though I was saddened that the political divide that widened as the Terror took root led to so much loss of life.

This is a moving novel celebrating many of the women if the French Revolution, engrossing me in the dark politics of the time period and levinhg me with a lot to think about in the aftermath. I definitely rcommend this to other lovers of historical fiction.