Currently Reading: Courting Darkness by Robin LaFevers

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Remember how much I liked Grave Mercy? It was years ago, and I never wrote reviews for the other two books in Robin LaFever’s excellent His Fair Assassin trilogy, but the stories of Ismae, Sybella, and Annith have stuck with me for ages and have, quite honestly, made other historical fantasies pale in comparison. So imagine my joy when I saw, newly arrived on our YA shelves, Courting Darkness!

I’d been in a book slump ever since finishing Normal People. I needed something gripping, intricate, and not so close to home.  Enter my old assasin-nun friends, the girls I’d grown to love over three books and miss terribly in their absence. Even better, we get to meet new characters with connections to Saint Mortain in Courting Darkness.  I’m already so invested in the betrayals and connections at court, and can’t wait to read more tonight.

It did take me a few minutes to re-adjust myself in the world of 15th century France and Brittany.  Luckily for those of us who don’t have such canny memories, Robin LaFevers’ website has quite a lot of helpful information. A quick break to absorb it all and I was right back in the action (and the romance, and the drama… all that good stuff.)

I’ll try to post an actual review when I’ve finished the book. I imagine it will be soon. It’s been so long since I dove headfirst into a time-period and setting so rich as this, and I’m so happy to be back.

Book Review: Queen Of The Tearling by Erika Johansen

Star Ratings:

Characters: *** (3 stars)

Character Development: ** (2 1/2  stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **1/2 (2 1/2 stars)

Overall: **1/2 (2 1/2 stars)

Age range recommendation: 14 and up (Medieval violence including sexual violence.)

Let it thus be known: I read an advanced copy of this book, and some details may have changed before the official release on July 8, 2014.

It’s been an weirdly long time since I read a novel set in your typical fantasy world, with queens; outlaws; and miserable serfs. I can’t remember the last time I sat in the Fantasy section at the library with a heavy paperback – cheesy illustrated cover and all –open on my lap. While The Queen Of The Tearling brought me right back to the familiar world of contested borders and names I can’t pronounce, I’m struggling to find a category for it in my head. The world and logic weren’t described clearly enough for me to associate it with those extensive, detailed series. And while the writing; characters; and plot were more right for the YA market, certain “mature” details would prevent me from recommending it to anyone under 14. (I don’t always like the term “mature” when it comes to saying that there’s NSFW content, because I know plenty of younger readers who have better critical reading skills than most adults. The point here is: there’s a bit of grossness that’s definitely not for children.) Basically, The Queen Of The Tearling was a fairly quick read with a decent plot, but it doesn’t promise anything new or exciting for habitual browsers of the fantasy shelves.

We first meet Kelsea near woodland cottage where she was raised in hiding by adoptive parents. The Queens Guard, a troop of her mother’s dedicated knights, have come to bring her back to the castle. Kelsea just turned nineteen, and so it’s time for her to become queen. Even though Barty and Carlin taught Kelsea as much as they could about nature, humanity, and The Tearling, she still feels completely unprepared to fill her mother’s powerful shoes. Actually, they were probably just fancy shoes; Kelesa’s started to notice that her mother wasn’t a very good queen at all, and has resolved not to be so vain and out of touch with her own people.

Their journey to the keep is a long one, endangered by her guards’ certainty that the current regent – Kelsea’s uncle – will try to kill her en route rather than give up his power. Throw in some dashing outlaws; scary assassins; and bloodthirsty hawks, and it’s a miracle she makes it to the throne at all. Growing up isolated from the kingdom, Kelsea had no idea how badly the general population was doing. Her subjects are treated as bargaining chips by the corrupt court in an attempt to keep the the domineering neighbor kingdom’s evil “Red Queen” at bay. The Tearling needs a True Queen and it needs one fast. But in order to help her people, Kelsea will have to remain true to herself while everyone nearby tries to sway her to suit their own needs.

I assume that The Queen Of The Tearling is the beginning of a series – or maybe a trilogy – because the history and nature of Erika Johansen’s world only came through in partial references throughout this first installment. From what I gathered, The Queen Of The Tearling takes place in the future, with mankind there being descended from people who left our known Earth in “The Crossing.” When was the crossing, exactly? What did William Tear and the other emigrants even cross? An ocean? A magical portal? Space? I’m still not quite sure. What I do understand is that William Tear brought along some utopian Americans and British, and attempted to establish a new colony where things would be simpler. Based on the presence of other races and countries in the new world – Mortmesne seems to have a lot of French influence I think – there must have been some other groups who made the journey for various reasons.

By the time Kelsea comes into power, the high ideals brought over by settlers have regressed into a medieval type of society. Few people can read, all the medical science went down in one sinking ship, and the Red Queen of Mortmesne has spent over a century terrorizing neighboring countries into submission. How has she lived for so long? The answer to that is just as mysterious as the reasons for her cruelty. Despite the several chapters illustrating just how wicked the Red Queen is, there’s no point in this book which clarified her motives.

And then there’s the question of these magical jewels Kelsea inherits, which have unexpected control over some situations. Kelsea is only just discovering their uses as she learns to be queen – figuring out everything as she goes along – but by the end of the book I was less curious about their magical properties and more frustrated with them. Fantasy worlds should still have rules, but it seems we’ll have to wait for another book to learn how they work. Twinned relics containing some sort of destiny aren’t too surprising in fantasy literature. It will be hard to justify their use without some really unique twist about their powers in some future installment.

The writing was just so-so: it could get dully obvious at times, but wasn’t noticeably bad. The characters, on the other hand, were sympathetic in some cases and completely flat in others. Kelsea’s struggle to make the right decisions and her attempts to inspire loyalty without fear were certainly noble, though her disdain for vanity almost came off as snobbish at times. I did like her enthusiasm for literacy, and the fact that she didn’t get entangled into any sordid romance during the book. Nearly everyone at court was so shallow they barely stuck in my mind, though Kelsea’s lady-in-waiting might show some secret bad-ass-ery later on. “The Fetch”, our dashing outlaw, is a similar case: he has the potential to become a really fun folk-hero or a force to be reckoned with, but in this book he just appeared and disappeared without much rhyme or reason. Most minor characters either faded into part of the scenery or stood out as a stereotype. A few exceptions would include the priest who is supposed to spy on Kelsea (his love for learning made his moral dilemma easier to forgive), the gate guard who damns himself by assisting a traitor (he wants to do the right thing but is desperate to save his wife), and the Mace – Kelsea’s main guard.

The Mace was easily my favorite character. Even though he keeps much of his past a big secret I thought he had more depth than anyone else. The Queen’s Guard definitely gets the most page-time besides Kelsea herself. In fact, I might have preferred to read a book all about their own part in the growing political unrest. Not all of the guard members were fully developed characters, but their actions were genuine and I actually cared about what might happen to them. The only time I felt truly distraught at any character’s misfortune was in relation to the Queen’s Guard. They were also the most grown-up element of the book.

The Queen Of The Tearling was an entertaining diversion into familiar fantasy grounds. I liked some of the characters and appreciated the lack of any one-true-love nonsense. Erika Johansen’s ideas about how society will fall back into past patterns when starting anew made a good basis for a fantasy setting, and I wish that she had developed the background of that world better before finishing her debut. While I won’t be recommending this book to readers looking for something similar to those heavy series out there right now, I can see it acting as a gateway to more intricate fantasy novels for slightly tentative fans.

Will I be racing to read the sequel when it comes out? Probably not. Next time I want to read about courtly intrigue, I’ll finally get to reading Dark Triumph, the sequel to Robin LaFever’s Grave Mercy. That series about assassin nuns in medieval Brittany has excellent writing and a really smart grasp of history. That being said, The Queen Of The Tearling is a fast read with the potential to grow into a darkly enjoyable series.

Mini Review: Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers

This is just a tiny little review, mostly copied from my blog, because I don’t have enough time to do a proper write-up of Grave Mercy but I do want to recommend it to anyone who likes historical YA fiction.

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: ***** (5 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4  stars)

Age recommendation: 13+

I borrowed Grave Mercy from the library, following my best book buddy’srecommendation. I’d seen some girls get really excited about the sequel in the Teen section a few weeks ago. Rosie just had to say, “Nun-assassins in 15th century Brittany,” and I immediately flopped into a comfy library armchair to start reading.

Grave Mercy follows teenaged peasant Ismae as she escapes from a brutal marriage to become a handmaiden of Saint Mortain, the God of Death from the Breton peoples’ old religion. I loved reading about her time spent at the mysterious convent with other nuns, learning about concealed weapons, proper dancing technique, and the importance of protecting her country and its duchess from France and other, more cunning, enemies. When Ismae gets sent to investigate the source of political turmoil, she needs to co-operate with a man of questionable loyalty, and her loyalties to her heart; her convent; and the Saint of Death himself are tested as she finds herself involved in the Duchess’s court navigating treachery with no one she can trust but herself. I loved the historical details of Grave Mercy; Ismae is self-reliant and brave without ever adopting a perspective so modern as to draw us out of the story’s time period.

There is an element of romance in the book which I didn’t necessarily enjoy, but it never quite overshadows Ismae’s strong feelings for her country and her devotion to Saint Mortain, so I shan’t complain too much about that here.  I think that other readers might find that the romantic elements add another layer of interest to the story, if they like that sort of thing.  Rest assured that there is more to Ismae’s motivations than her own heart, and her love interest is an interesting character in his own right.

I didn’t know much about Brittany before I read Grave Mercy, but now I have a newfound respect for the young Duchess Anne, who is a major character in the book and a complex but admirable role model. Ismae herself is all sorts of awesome, especially since she recognizes her weaknesses and questions authority with such honesty that her own journey of faith is nearly as suspenseful as the dangerous plot which comes from the political intrigue.  The historical detail was subtle but intelligent; I closed the book feeling both entertained and educated. And, come on, Death nuns with crossbows! I can’t wait to read the sequel, which focuses on a different Sister from the Abbey of Mortain who appears briefly in Grave Mercy and left me curious about her role in the grand scheme of things.