Posts Tagged alternate history/fantasy

#RomanceSaturday at SBR Returns with Sherry Thomas’s “The Immortal Heights”

It’s Romance Saturday at SBR!

Sorry about the long delay between reviews, folks…life has intervened. (To make a long story shorter: I’m struggling with my third novel, CHANGING FACES, which is due out in a few months via Twilight Times Books. And Jason recently finished a new novel, KRAKEN MARE, with co-writer Chris Smith…can’t wait to see that one come out.)  But I do have an interesting book to review today…let’s get to it.

theimmortalheights250Sherry Thomas‘s third book in her Elemental Trilogy is THE IMMORTAL HEIGHTS. (Book one, THE BURNING SKY, was reviewed here; book two, THE PERILOUS SEA, was reviewed here.) All three books feature young elemental mages Iolanthe Seabourne (also known as Archer Fairfax) and Titus, Prince of Elberon — otherwise known as the Domain. (The Domain is a magical realm that both interacts with the known world of late 19th Century England and is separate from it.) They’re running from a horrible despot known as the Bane, Master of Atlantis (yes, Atlantis is real in Ms. Thomas’s conception, but is another magical, separate place that’s known to us only via legend). Book two ended with Prince Titus and Iolanthe allied with a number of would-be sorcerers, many of them Indian (including a possible analogue for Mohandas Gandhi called Kashkari, seen here as a young man who firmly believes in sorcery and is deeply in love with his brother’s wife), committed to fighting the Bane in full. They’ve even come up with a rallying cry: “Fortune favors the brave. And the brave make their own fortune!”

So, Iolanthe and Prince Titus might be young, and still somewhat inexperienced, but they are powerful. (Iolanthe in particular is the most powerful magician anyone’s ever seen, as she has command over all four elements — Air, Fire, Earth, and Water.) But the Bane is a coercive sorcerer who’s been stealing other people’s bodies for years, in order to keep himself alive and keep his reign of terror going. How are these two naïfs going to beat the Bane?

Ah, but I promised you a romance, didn’t I?

Trust me, there’s plenty of that. Prince Titus must lean on Iolanthe quite heavily, and they are in danger throughout as the Bane is wily, skilled, and has learned much during his unnaturally long life. Yet there’s plenty of time for quieter moments, too…it’s obvious these two are deeply in love, and that love is based on friendship and shared experiences.

I loved that.

But that’s only one part of THE IMMORTAL HEIGHTS. There were many other questions to be answered here, including, “Who were Iolanthe’s parents, really? What happened to Prince Titus’s father? What will happen to Kashkari, his brother, and his sister-in-law during the epic battle?” Ms. Thomas answered these questions carefully, with great skill, and yet with an odd sort of reserve that I tend to view as particularly British…so it’s historically as accurate as a writer of our times can get, while still being a rip-roaring action-adventure novel.

As for Kashkari, I enjoyed the additional glimpses into his life and career. (In the previous two novels, Kashkari was a fellow teenage student at Eton with Prince Titus and “Archer Fairfax,” Iolanthe’s masculine alter-ego.) He was a useful presence, and while he, himself, did not have magic, he respected those who did. He could and did make plans, and aided Prince Titus and Iolanthe/Archer quite a bit, which I appreciated. Still, I wanted a lot more from him, as I sensed quite a story there, and I didn’t get it.

(Mind, maybe Ms. Thomas plans another novel in this series centered around Kashkari. If so, good, because I’d love to see him as a romantic hero in his own right. But I digress.)

Bottom line: I enjoyed THE IMMORTAL HEIGHTS quite a bit. It’s a fun book with excellent historicity, a great age-appropriate romance, and it wrapped up all the loose ends nicely (with the exception of Kashkari). But I was left wanting more from the minor characters, and didn’t get it.

Grade: A-minus.

–reviewed by Barb

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The Wait is Over — Katharine Eliska Kimbriel’s Long-Awaited “Spiral Path” is Out!

It’s been a few weeks in between reviews here at Shiny Book Review (or as we affectionately call it, SBR); this is mostly because life has interfered. But having to wait for a review may just prove beneficial after all, as we have the best news imaginable for any reader of fantasy: The third book in Katharine Eliska Kimbriel’s acclaimed Night Calls series — the long-awaited SPIRAL PATH — is now out! (Note that NIGHT CALLS was reviewed here, while KINDRED RITES was reviewed here.)

In the previous books in the Night Calls series, we met Alfreda “Allie” Sorensson, a practitioner — and student — of magic. Allie grew up on a farmstead in an alternate version of 18th Century America, so she has tons of practical skills and is resourceful and intelligent, seeming much older than her actual years. (When Allie actually started her training, she was the ripe, old age of eleven.)

Along the way, Allie has faced a number of problems: a were-wolf. A soul-sucking vampire of an unusual type. Healing the sick, comforting the aged, and birthing a number of babies. She’s also met Azrael, the Angel of Death, and has been given a name by him — Alfreda Golden-Tongue — and appears to have more power than the average five other practitioners.

However, she doesn’t seem to know this. At all. So while she does a number of things that surprise the older (and presumably wiser) magicians around her, she also can get tripped up by the oddest and most ordinary of things because she’s just not all that experienced. (Which is what makes her human and worth rooting for . . . but I digress.)

Onto the story.

SPIRAL PATH opens with an unusual set of births. One is that of Allie’s much-younger sister, Elizabeth, who promises to be a force to be reckoned with down the line (we can tell this by the highly unusual things that happen during the birthing); the other is that of a unicorn. While Elizabeth’s birth is straightforward, the unicorn’s is not; in fact, the unicorn’s mama bespells Allie to help her rather than just ask, for reasons that probably make sense only to unicorns.

It’s because of what the unicorn mama does that Allie is packed off to a first-rate magical school in the state of New York in order to learn how to better protect herself by the use of ritual magic. Because the next person (or unicorn, or whatever) who bespells Allie may not be benign . . . and Allie knows it.

Of course, Allie isn’t told this is a first-rate school. She’s only told she’d better learn, and quickly, because her talents need honing.

So she’s tested in various classes, taking lessons in some while teaching others, and has a number of interesting adventures — including one on the docks of old New York that I refuse to spoil.

All of Allie’s adventures (not just the one in the port of New York) are rousing.  And the quieter challenges Allie faces of being a farmgirl among some rather high-in-the-instep types at the specialty school are equally absorbing. But the best moments are those between Allie and her almost-boyfriend, fellow practitioner/student Shaw Kristinsson. (I say “almost” because Allie is, after all, only thirteen.) These interpersonal moments show Allie at her best — which, oddly enough, is also when Allie is just like anyone else: a bit shy with her friend, who she wants someday to be more than a friend . . . but still herself, with joy and sorrow intermixed as it is for any living creature.

It’s because of these moments that I seriously considered holding this review for SBR’s Romance Saturday promotion. But SPIRAL PATH, all in all, is more than a romance: it’s all about finding yourself, even if the person you are consists of layers within layers without end . . . a spiral path indeed.

Bottom line: SPIRAL PATH was most definitely worth the wait, and is a worthy addition to the outstanding Night Calls series.

More, please, and soon!

Grade: A-plus.

— reviewed by Barb

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Katharine Eliska Kimbriel’s “Night Calls” is Excellent, Rousing YA Fantasy Adventure

Katharine Eliska Kimbriel’s NIGHT CALLS is about magic on the American frontier.  As such, it’s both an alternate history and a fantasy.  And as its protagonist is the young Alfreda Sorensson, it’s a story that’s meant for all ages.

So you’re to be pardoned if you think, “Well, Barb, come on!  What’s so special about that?  You’ve already reviewed Patricia C. Wrede’s THE FAR FRONTIER, haven’t you?  Isn’t that the same thing?”

Well, yes and no.  It is the same type of novel, for certain.  But Ms. Kimbriel did it first, as the paperback edition of NIGHT CALLS first came out in 1996 . . . which means that if we’re about to have a showdown as to one-upmanship (really, do we need one?), Ms. Kimbriel would come out the winner even though both authors are well worth the reading.

But I digress.

More importantly than what specific type of novel NIGHT CALLS is — is it dark fantasy?  Is it alternate history?  Is it YA?  Is it all of the above?  (Yes, yes, yes, and yes . . . ) — you need to know one thing, and one thing only.

It was written by Katharine Eliska Kimbriel.  So it’s extremely good.

The plot itself is compelling, mind you.  Alfreda starts out at the tender age of eleven thinking she’s much like other girls, even though it’s clear from the start that she isn’t.  She has a few friends, she loves to read, she loves her family, but a crisis that’s precipitated by a werewolf thrusts her magic into the picture far earlier than she would’ve liked.  When her brother’s life is lost due to the werewolf, she wonders what good magic is — this mostly is subtextual, mind you, but it’s real and it’s there — which points out that no matter how much power you have, life is something that cannot be taken for granted.

This one thing helps to ground the novel from the start, and is a welcome change from many other contemporary dark fantasy novels.  (Yes, Stephanie Meyer, I’m looking squarely at you.)

Alfreda’s adventures as she grows into her young womanhood — some quiet, some decidedly not — are excellent and rousing.  She is not the type of young woman to sit on the sidelines and wait for men to do her work for her — no, she’s going to do for herself, thank you.  And as she learns and grows, she also becomes more and more herself and happy to be so, which is why I found reading NIGHT CALLS to be both life-affirming and something that lifted my spirits no end.

Look.  I know this sounds like I’m laying it on thick, but I’m not.  Alfreda, for all her strengths — and she has many — is no one’s Mary Sue.  While she’s exactly the type of young woman every parent would like to have, being resourceful and intelligent, she still has some weaknesses as she skews like a real person.  And while she obviously has magic, she sees it as a responsibility, partly because she’s a farm girl at heart and is used to doing all sorts of chores.

So there’s the value of hard work.  There’s the value of personal sacrifice.  There’s the value of human dignity.  There’s a good deal about religion and spirituality, discussed in a quiet, calm way that I found particularly appealing.  And there’s a rousing action-adventure going on throughout that makes you forget about all of the above until the book is over and you start thinking about how wonderful it all was before you turn back to read it all over again.

Bottom line?  NIGHT CALLS is excellent.  Truly, truly excellent.  It’s a can’t-miss novel with heart, style and wit that will please all ages.  Guaranteed.

Grade: A-plus.

— reviewed by Barb

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