Tag Archives: historical

Fire on the Mountain (Mountain Trilogy #2)

Title: Fire on the Mountain

Author: Michelle Isenhoff

Series: Mountain Trilogy #2

Quon knows he’s not cut out for his father’s trade of making carriages, but when an accident with horrific consequences strands him, he has no idea what to do. Taking up the offer of an old man, he agrees to journey and learn . . . and eventually to become a hero. A mighty dragon is terrorizing the villages in the mountains, but Quon is destined to defeat it. Or is he?

This is technically a sequel, although almost everything in this book happens before the first one, so the only difference is readers will walk into this knowing how Quon’s quest has to end. And that makes everything just a little tragic, because Quon’s mistakes and triumphs and growth are ultimately pointed towards a different end than anyone he knows expects.

I like the setting, once again. It’s a fantasy vision of rural, historical China, and Quon lives as many kinds of laborer as he’s working his way towards defeating the dragon. It’s interesting to see how many of his decisions have reverberations throughout his life, and the lives of others.

It’s also nice to see a bit more of Song Wei and what became of him after the end of Song of the Mountain, though it amounts to little more than a good epilogue for his earlier quest.

Overall this could easily be stand alone, even though it will help to have read the first one just to understand more of the very beginning and very end. I rate this book Recommended.

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Song of the Mountain (Mountain Trilogy #1)

Title: Song of the Mountain

Author: Michelle Isenhoff

Series: Mountain Trilogy #1

Song aches to know about his family. His parents have died, and he lives with his grandfather, who refuses to speak of them. But without knowing his past, how can Song know his future? Then a dragon shows up, and Song realizes there is more to both his past and his future than he ever expected . . .

I really liked this. The story is set in an alternate historical China (with bits of fantasy, such as a fire-breathing dragon). The setting builds in a natural way, and the description never stalls describing things that would be unfamiliar to a Western audience. Instead it’s all presented as Song experiences it.

Song himself is interesting in a couple of ways. His focus on wanting to know his own history is understandable, but it’s also unique because he feels he doesn’t have a future without knowing his family history. It’s less a personal grief and more of a cultural expectation. That said, he’s also the only one making a big deal of it. The villagers may or may not care about their own ancestors, but Song isn’t close enough to any of them for a direct comparison.

I’m not sure what to make of Nori’s ending. I don’t quite believe what Song believes actually happened, and I don’t have much sympathy for her in any case. At least Song comes to his senses about her sooner rather than later.

Overall this is a somewhat short read but a good one. I rate this book Recommended.

The Shadow of Black Wings (The Year of the Dragon #1)

Title: The Shadow of Black Wings

Author: James Calbraith

Series: The Year of the Dragon #1

Bran is a young dragon rider eager to graduate from the Academy and go on with the rest of his life—even if he’s not too sure what he wants to do. A journey taken with his father on a ship bound for places he’s never heard of sounds like a good start. But destiny has some marked him for something else . . .

The land of Yamato is more isolated than the Qin behind their barrier. An island unreachable by most sailors, it nonetheless contains a civilization to rival the rest of the world. But strange divinations foretell great changes. A shrine maiden and her best friend, a female samurai, are more involved than they suspect in the turmoil to come.

I really liked this, but the book suffers greatly from a lack of cohesion. The worldbuilding is excellent, picturing an alternate-history where Bran, who is from either Scotland or Wales (I never looked up what the new names referred to), finds himself on a sea voyage that takes him all the way to China and Japan. Along the way we see various kinds of dragons and magic, and the ways different cultures approach them both. The majority of the beginning and middle is devoted to this, with the greater plot only picking up at the end.

The biggest flaw is that the narrative doesn’t flow well at all. The initial scenes put a great deal of emphasis on Bran’s time at school and the bully that torments him. Both of these things drop out of the story after he graduates (hopefully they’ll surface in a future book so the time spent developing them wasn’t wasted). Then the sea voyage is less of a journey and more of a series of vignettes about various places Bran sees along the way (and the frequent switches from Bran’s point of view to his father’s don’t help much). Then we switch to Yamato and spend a good amount of time setting things up there before the story ever circles back around and connects the two threads. And the story cuts off in the middle of rising action, with nothing resembling a climax, even a minor one.

The ending may be less of a problem if you read the bundle, since I presume the second book will pick up immediately after this one left off. But whether or not you enjoy the book is probably going to come down to how much you like exploring the world, as the rest of the story feels like it needed another draft. I would have preferred alternating chapters between Bran and the girls, as it would have allowed the moment their stories merge to come much closer to the event that caused it.

Overall, I suspect I’ll keep going with this, because I do like it, but you’re probably better off getting the first book while it’s free and sampling it that way. I rate this book Neutral.

Yamada Monogatari: To Break the Demon Gate

Title: Yamada Monogatari: To Break the Demon Gate

Author: Richard Parks

Series: Yamada Monogatari (technically there are more about the same character but I was unable to track down what order they are supposed to go)

Yamada no Goji is a minor nobleman with a keen mind and a tolerable blade, but he has little influence at court. So when the conspiracies of the nobility reach out to ensnare him again, he’s reluctant to get involved. But for the sake of an old friend, he agrees—and finds himself confronted by a silent killer who is leaving dead bodies around the city. If he can’t solve the mystery fast enough, he’s bound to lose more of the few people dear to him.

I’m reading these incredibly out of order, I suppose, but it didn’t make much difference as far as I could tell. The story is good about introducing characters, places, customs and so on as needed, without assuming too much knowledge beforehand. I liked the historical Japanese setting, and how naturally the supernatural intersects everyone’s lives. Yamada is smart but not impossible to follow, and the layers of mystery generally work well.

I wasn’t as fond of the alcoholism, or the way the story breaks between its first segment and everything that comes after (largely because Yamada spends four months drinking his life away). It’s a little harder to sympathize with his poverty when he’s wasting multiple opportunities to stay farther out of it.

All in all, though, it worked far more than it didn’t, and I would be interested to read more in this series. This story is fairly self-contained, so it doesn’t hurt to read out of order or as a standalone. I rate this book Recommended.

The King’s Traitor (Kingfountain #3)

Title: The King’s Traitor

Author: Jeff Wheeler

Series: Kingfountain #3

King Severn has gone past the point of harsh but not unjust, and is now becoming the very monster everyone said he was. Which leaves Owen in a hard position: continue to support the man who rules over him, or support those who would rather see him fall? And the king’s decision to use Owen’s marriage as a bargaining chip is not a welcomed one—particularly not when Owen finds things going in directions he never expected.

This was the hardest book to read, in a way, but also the best. Owen is no longer young, or idealistic. The loss of his first love (to a happy marriage, no less) has embittered him, and the long-term presence of King Severn and his biting remarks has shaped Owen into someone much more like the king than he wants to be. Owen has little left but his honor, and Severn seems determined to destroy even that.

The plot took several unexpected twists, although I think the title is unfortunate as there can be little doubt as to whom it will refer. But I did enjoy the ambiguity of it all. Owen wants to do right, but it’s terribly unclear what the right thing to do actually IS. He’s so sick of destiny playing the same story of betrayal, revenge, and usurpation that he continually tries to find a better way—but when magic can manipulate the fates of men, is that even possible? Can he trust his own judgement about those who offer support, but might after all be something far worse than the alternative?

I also really liked Owen’s struggles to stay honorable. To be a true knight, even though that costs him some of what he desires. It’s rare to find characters who both struggle with questions of virtue but also ultimately triumph—lust vanquished, and love remains. And I was also impressed at the way it ended. Breaking the cycle of violence isn’t just a platitude. Owen is so serious about it he goes way beyond what I’ve ever seen. And because of that, although it may still go horribly wrong in the future, the ending feels far brighter.

Overall this would be a rather bad book to start on, as watching Owen grow, mature, and change provides a lot of depth to what happens here (not to mention it would spoil a lot of neat things from the earlier books). I rate this book Recommended.

The Thief’s Daughter (Kingfountain #2)

Title: The Thief’s Daughter

Author: Jeff Wheeler

Series: Kingfountain #2

Owen has grown into a strong and capable young man, one of the few King Severn trusts. But such trust comes with burdens. The king is a hard master, and he continually tests the loyalty of those who are close to him. Owen has served faithfully for years, but he’s not certain he can withstand this latest trial. When war threatens, Owen must choose between his childhood love and his king.

I liked how this unfolded. Owen has grown up a lot since the first book, leaving that shy boy behind for a much more confident young man. At least, confident until it comes to telling Elysabeth exactly what he feels for her. I was impressed at how seriously Owen takes virtue and honor. He has multiple opportunities to indulge his own desires, some with little risk, yet he puts the well being of others above his own comfort. That was a refreshing change.

Elysabeth has also grown up, although she hasn’t changed as dramatically. If anything, time has tempered some of her wild side. But she’s still a woman unafraid to act her own way, which makes a lot of her interactions as a diplomat funny. That is not how I expected her to handle negotiations, although in retrospect that’s probably exactly what I ought to have seen.

And I did like the way it ended, with loyalty and love shaking out in some interesting ways. In order to be true to one, Owen must neglect the other. But if he rejects even one, can he keep his own soul intact? The consequences don’t get a lot of time to play out here, but that’s what the sequel is for. . .

Overall this is a very good followup to The Queen’s Poisoner. It expands the world and the political situation, and better yet this time around Owen is strong enough to be a major player in the events around him. I rate this book Recommended.

Spartan Gold (Fargo Adventure #1)

Title: Spartan Gold

Author: Clive Cussler with Grant Blackwood

Series: Fargo Adventure #1

A lost mystery discovered by Napoleon Bonaparte leads to a treasure hunt two hundred years later. Sam and Remi Fargo were tracking down a different mystery when a glass bottle and an old German U-Boat give them their first lead to something much bigger than they anticipated. Because Napoleon’s secrets have also captured the attention of a much more dangerous man, who will stop at nothing to get there first.

This isn’t typically my genre, but I read this for a book club.

The book as a whole made for a somewhat frustrating read because most of the strong parts are balanced out by weaker parts. The history, the clues, the treasure, and the various links to locations around the world were well thought-out, and the various exotic locales helped with the sense of adventure. The plot never flags, and the occasional switch to the villain’s point of view helps to heighten the tension. It’s easy to visualize the whole thing as a movie.

On the other hand, I found the characters only believable about half the time. I usually like competence, but this is the first book I can remember where I kept thinking they pushed it too far. In the first half of the book especially, it felt like every time they came up against another situation, either Sam or Remi had a degree/hobby in exactly that area, and of course they were experts in various wildly diverging fields. Their extreme abilities took a lot of the fun out of most of the situations they got into, as I didn’t really feel the tension until the scope got much further out of their control.

The beginning also felt like it pushed very hard to make them “good guys” which to my mind the story as a whole doesn’t support. Technically, Sam and Remi go a step farther than the actual villain in several areas, particularly in how they acquired one bottle’s riddle and what they ultimately did in the caves at the end. I fully support that kind of ending for most bad guys, but the way it happened left me wondering why I was supposed to cheer for this. In a way it was almost amusing to compare the way both sides were breaking a lot of the same laws. For more amoral characters this would be less problematic, but again, it felt like the story was setting them up as complete contrasts to the villain, when in reality they’re not all that different.

I also didn’t buy the fact that the home base was secure enough to make even a man with those kinds of connections back off. Unless they’ve physically fortified the structure, all an alarm system is going to do is ensure the police arrive in time to take people to the hospital. If they did fortify the structure, why not just bomb it? A quick and dirty bomb is ridiculously easy to rig together (as events like the Boston Marathon unfortunately proved). Even just as a warning, perhaps with the aim of taking out a bodyguard or two, if he really needs them to keep hunting down the treasure he can’t quite get to himself.

I did like the fact that the lead couple being married meant a complete lack of romantic shenanigans to distract from the action. This left the focus on the action and not on some flimsy relationship likely to be completely discarded by a sequel. Having other people back home to help with the research also eased a lot of the logistical problems.

All in all, I suppose it was a good choice for a book club since there will be a lot to talk about, but I’m not convinced I want to read another one. As a historical mystery it works just fine, but I had a lot more problems with the present-day side of things. I rate this book Neutral.