Book Review: Mortal Heart by Robin LaFevers

Mortal HeartThere aren’t enough stars in the sky to show much I loved this book (no way is five enough)! I haven’t had a book touch me so personally since reading The Mists of Avalon back in 1998.

But before I get into why this book affected me the way it did, a little explanation of the story. Mortal Heart is the third and final book in the His Fair Assassin trilogy by Robin Lafevers. The trilogy centers on a convent of nuns in medieval France who are devoted to one of the nine old gods of Brittany, Mortain, the god of death. As Death’s handmaidens they are trained to be assassins to carry out His will. This fictional setup is blended seamlessly with actual historical events of the time, namely a 13-year-old duchess’ fight to keep Brittany independent from the French.

Each book is told from a different character’s point of view, but is part of a continuing story. The first book, Grave Mercy, is told from Ismae’s point of view and is very much about politics and court intrigue. The second, Dark Triumph, is Sybella’s story, one of adventure and heart-pounding action. In Mortal Heart, Annith finally gets to tell her story, one of romance, love and faith. (If you haven’t read the rest of the series, start with Grave Mercy. You’ll be lost if you pick up with Mortal Heart.)

Throughout all of the other books, Annith has patiently waited in the convent where she was raised for her turn to be sent out to do Mortain’s work, which is her life-long dream. She’s watched Ismae and Sybella be sent out before her, even though she is the most skilled. When she finds out that the abbess has other plans for her, ones that involve her never leaving the convent, she must make a decision whether to obey the rules as she has always done, or seek Mortain’s will on her own. Her choice leads her on a journey not even the convent seeresss could have predicted, revealing long-held secrets that threaten to unravel everything she’s ever believed about herself and the convent and send her straight into the arms of Death himself.

Being a fan of love stories and fantasy, as well as someone who is fascinated by religion, it probably shouldn’t be surprising that this my favorite book of the series. It delves much more deeply into the religion and mythology of the series, placing a truly devoted nun, Annith, at the fore. As someone who used to want to be a nun (although, not the assassin kind), I deeply related to Annith. I understand what it’s like to “be in love with” your God, to want to do his will more than anything else in the world, as well as the frustration of not understanding how you’re supposed to bring this cherished dream to fruition. Add to this that the old gods are based on the Celtic pantheon (which is near and dear to my heart), and that this book deals with the intersection of the old religion and Christianity, and how the gods and mortals interact, and you have what is personally for me, a life-changing book.

But I also realize that most people won’t have this personal connection to the book. Even if you don’t relate to it on the level I do, I believe you will be moved by the themes of love, trust, faith and hope – things we all struggle with, no matter what our personal beliefs are. Mortal Heart is also very much about the lengths to which we are willing to go for those we love, and the impact of the secrets that each and every one of us carry around with us. There is something for everyone in this richly layered tale of devotion, love and adventure.

Maybe it’s because this is the final book in the trilogy, but I felt like I was much more a part of the world of this book than in the previous books. It was a joy to see Ismae, Sybella and Annith together again and learn the final resolution of the political situation I’ve been invested in since the first book. I also loved getting to see the inner workings of some of the other orders devoted to the old gods.

There is so much more I want to say about this book, but I can’t because it involves spoilers for key plot points. Please trust me on how wonderful this book is and give it, and the series, a chance. Even though it’s marketed as YA, it certainly doesn’t read like a YA book. To me it’s a wonderful historical fantasy perfect for those who love their fantasy with strong female characters, unlikely love, a bit of mystery, and a dash of danger.

Have you read any of the books in this series? Did you like them? Why or why not? Are you planning to read Mortal Heart? Does anything I’ve said about this series intrigue you? Why?

Treatment of Female Characters by Male Writers of Historical Fiction

Mary Magdalene by Georges de La Tour (Source: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Mary Magdalene by Georges de La Tour (Source: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

I’ve been thinking about the subject of this post for quite some time now, and I’m hoping that all of you can offer some recommendations. You see, I’ve really been trying to diversify my historical fiction reading by including books written by men. After all, if I preach about female equality, I should exhibit equality in my own reading, right?

Here’s the problem: I can’t find any male historical fiction authors I like. (Tyler, I haven’t read your book yet, so I’m not including you in that statement.) I’ve tried a variety of male authors (whom I won’t name out of respect for them and those who like their books), and my dislike of their work boils down to one of two things:

  1. I don’t really go for military history, so that rules out a lot of male authors who concentrate on that part of history.
  2. Out of the stories I’ve read, nearly all portray women in a negative light.

I’d like to focus on that second point for a moment. The stories that I’m referring to at best treat their female characters as afterthoughts, cardboard props to fawn over their male heroes (my what a big sword you have), and at worst (and more commonly) portray them as prostitutes and/or victims of the male characters. I’ve read the female-character-as-prostitute trope so many times in male authored books that I wonder if I need to write a book called,”Healers, Mothers, Craftswomen and Estate Managers: Other Roles to Give Your Female Characters.” A prostitute can serve a very important role as one who has access to all sorts of information from a variety of types of men, and who can slip in and out of both the respectable areas and the underworld, so I can see why giving that profession to a character could be useful. But that’s not generally how I’ve seen her used in books written by men. Many times, the prostitutes serve no real purpose to the story other than to give the male characters someone to physically and sexually abuse, often graphically. It’s as if the scenes are some sick fantasy of the author (which I hope they are not),  they think this is how readers expect women to be portrayed in history, or maybe it’s just lazy writing. (See my friend Shauna Granger’s post on sexual violence as lazy writing.)

There is no faster way to sour a book than to abuse a woman or an animal for no reason (and rarely is there a good reason). There is one male author in particular who is wildly successful, and whose book I enjoyed immensely until there were multiple gratuitous scenes of abuse of women and animals. I think he was trying to show how sick and twisted one of the male villains was, but I can think of at least a dozen ways that could be done that wouldn’t have involved such needless violence. (Not that I’m saying that I’m a better writer, just that there are other options.)

I realize that throughout most of history, women had little power. But that is no excuse for continuing to reinforce the woman as victim trope. Yes, women were (and still are) brutalized, raped and murdered as part of war or even just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. If this is important to the plot and accurate to the time period, by all means it should be included. (One of my books has a fairly lengthy section where the main female character is raped and tortured, but it is traditional to the mythology and serves a larger purpose in the overall plot.) What I have trouble accepting is when such things are used without apparent purpose or just because the author can.

Sometimes I wonder if this portrayal of women is due in part to the gender roles people were raised with. Boys are supposed to like war and fighting and girls are supposed to care about relationships and love, therefore that’s what we focus on when we write. (Although there are a few female military history novelists whom I’ve heard are very good.) It’s also possible that men may feel the need to show how macho or heroic their male leads are by making the females look or be subservient by comparison. Another possibility is our schooling and popular history has enforced the “male as hero, woman as servant role” and these authors are just repeating what they know. However, we live in an age where contrary information (biographies of female leaders, studies of historical gender roles, especially women’s) is easily accessible if one looks, so the latter should no longer be an excuse. Actually, none of these should be valid excuses.

In a world where both boys and girls, adults and children can enjoy the exploits of a boy wizard called Harry Potter (written by woman), shouldn’t it be realistic to expect that as a woman, I can enjoy historical fiction written by a man without feeling the need to defend my entire gender afterwords?

I’m sure this does not represent all male historical fiction authors and that’s why I even brought it up. Please tell me in the comments if you’ve read and/or can recommend non-military historical fiction written by men that has some well-rounded female characters. I would love to be able to write a follow-up post declaring that I’ve found a few I like.

PS – I also realize some female authors are guilty of doing the same things with their characters. But I’ve been able to find plenty who aren’t, which has not been my experience with male authors.

Giving Away 35 Books for My 35th Birthday

I realized a few days ago that there are more books in my house than I have room for, thanks to my own book addiction and also to the advanced reading copies (ARCs) I get for reviewing for the Historical Novel Society.

In honor of my 35th birthday today, I’m giving away 35 books. I tried to group them into logical categories, so that means seven people will win packs of five books. Here’s what you could win:

Fantasy pack

Fantasy pack

Group 1: Fantasy

  1. The Falconer by Elizabeth May
  2. Dreams of Gods and Monsters (Book 3 of a trilogy) by Laini Taylor (personalized to me, but autographed)
  3. Netherworld by Lisa Morton
  4. The Water Witch (Fairwick Chronicles #2) by Juliet Dark
  5. Longinus by Steven Maines (personalized to a stranger, but autographed)
Mystery pack

Mystery pack

Group 2: Mystery

  1. Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas by Stephanie Barron (A Jane Austin mystery) (ARC)
  2. Murder and Mendelssohn by Kerry Greenwood (A Phryne Fisher mystery)
  3. The Prioress’ Tale by Margaret Frazer
  4. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishigurd
  5. Heat Wave by Richard Castle (audio book)
Chick lit/romance pack

Chick lit/romance pack

Group 3: Chick Lit/Romance

  1. Living Single by Holly Chamberlin
  2. Once Upon a Kiss by Jayne Fresina (ARC)
  3. How to Lose a Duke in Ten Days by Laura Lee Guhrke
  4. The Quilted Hearts Omnibus by Mona Hodgson
  5. Cocktails for Three by Madeleine Wickham
Historical Fiction Pack 1

Historical Fiction Pack 1

Group 4: Historical Fiction (Group 1)

  1. Boudicca: Dreaming the Eagle by Manda Scott
  2. The Winter King by Bernard Cornwell
  3. Perfiditas by Allison Morton
  4. The Amber Treasure by Richard Denning
  5. The Secret History by Stephanie Thornton
Historical Fiction Pack 2

Historical Fiction Pack 2

Group 5: Historical Fiction (Group 2)

  1. Mary Called Magdalene by Margaret George
  2. The Memoirs of Cleopatra by Margaret George
  3. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See
  4. Lionheart by Sharon Kay Penman
  5. The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier
Historical Fiction Pack 3

Historical Fiction Pack 3

Group 6: Historical Fiction (Group 3)

  1. The Virgin’s Lover by Phillippa Gregory
  2. The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
  3. The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant
  4. The King’s Daughter by Barbra Kyle
  5. Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir
Non-fiction Pack

Non-fiction Pack

Group 7: Non-Fiction

  1. The Druids by Ronald Hutton
  2. The Mysteries of Avalon by August Hunt
  3. The Celts by Jean Markale
  4. Christianity and Paganism in the 4th – 8th Centuries by Ramsey MacMullen
  5. The Rise of Western Christendom by Peter Brown

Some of these books are brand new, some are gently used only by me, and some came from book fairs but are in good condition. All you have to do to win one group is complete the Rafflecopter link. (You’ll tell me your order of preference of the groups in the comments below, but you have to use the Rafflecopter for your entry to count.) There are more ways to get additional entries there, too. I’m keeping the contest open for a week, so you have plenty of time to enter. I’ll announce winners here sometime after September 3. Good luck!

PS – My goal is to be able to give away my own books next year!

Click here to enter Rafflecopter giveaway

Meeting Elizabeth Gilbert: a Joy and an Inspiration

Elizabeth Gilbert (left) and a very excited me

Elizabeth Gilbert (left) and a very excited me

I’m popping my head out of the research cave to share with you an amazing opportunity I got this past week. Last Tuesday, I had the good fortune to meet author Elizabeth Gilbert as part of her book tour for The Signature of All Things. (If you haven’t read it yet, go, go, go! It’s historical fiction that is so lush, you really feel like you’re there with the characters. Plus, it’s unique to all the other nineteenth century novels out there – I promise you’ve never seen these characters or settings before.)

I first encountered Elizabeth like so many of us, with Eat Pray Love, which had a profound effect on my life, albeit one I can’t really put into words. But how I really came to love her was through her TED talks on creativity. (Here’s are the first on creative genius and the second on success, failure and the drive to keep writing). Both of them made me cry, in a good way, out of pure joy at encountering someone who spoke directly to my artistic soul. Then I read The Signature of All Things (I’m about ¾ of the way through – had to give it back to the library, but now I own it!) and knew she was an author I’d stick with long into the future.

Elizabeth is no less wonderful in person than she is on the Internet. She has the rare gift of being both a fantastic writer and an inspiring, engaging and entertaining speaker. And she’s so human.  I found myself in tears (it had been a very trying day anyway) several times while she spoke, nodding my head, thinking, “Yes, yes. This confirms that I’m meant to be a writer.” I’ve included below a recording of her opening remarks and reading from The Signature of All Things. (Not sure why it didn’t give me a proper thumbnail. The video really is there, I promise. Sorry if the sound is low. This is the best I could do.)


Even if you don’t watch that, you may want to see her answer to a fan’s question about where she gets her inspiration. I missed the beginning of her answer, but she started with “Are you ready to get freaky?” and proceeded to explain how she believes ideas are always floating around looking for a home (which is my theory as well. I believe our stories choose us, not the other way around):

Other highlights of her talk/Q&A:

  • Even though Eat Pray Love was such a huge success, she was not an overnight phenomenon. She was three books into her career before she quit her day job.
  • She recommends writing every day and using a kitchen timer for whatever time you can allot yourself, even if it’s only 15 or 30 minutes. She doesn’t work based on word count because “you might right one word one day that’s a really important word, but a thousand the next and end up having to delete them all.”
  • She will be continuing in historical fiction (yay!). Her next book is set in the theatre world of 1940s New York. (Love that already!)
  • She is still in touch with everyone mentioned in Eat Pray Love, except for Richard from Texas, who passed away three years ago. But they were close friends to the end and she spoke at his funeral.
  • She talked about the word focus and that it comes from the Latin word for “fire.” The idea is that when people sit around a fire, they inevitably end up all staring into the fire. She emphasized the importance of making sure you have a fire at the center of your narrative to keep your reader’s attention.
  • Her biggest tip for anyone is to follow a path of curiosity, because that spark of questioning will lead you to your passion in life.
  • She also talked about how you can tell more truth in fiction than in memoir and many times you end up doing it without even realizing it. She said that while memoirs are true, they are a matter of “making a piece of art out of what happened,” rather than showing you a raw diary. They are by necessity, very polished versions of the truth. In fiction, you can let the more raw versions of yourself out.
  • Her sister is MG/YA author Catherine Gilbert Murdock.

IMG_0712When she was finished speaking, Elizabeth was kind enough to personalize the already autographed books and sign copies of other books people brought along. I had her sign my copy of Eat Pray Love as well. While she was doing that, I got to talk to her a bit about being a writer and she noticed my tattoos and wanted to see what they said. When it was my turn to get a picture taken, she put her arm around me and said, “oh, you!” in a favorite aunt sort of way. It was a wonderful, uplifting experience that went a long way toward refreshing my well of creativity and hope, which was running a bit dry.

I’m really amazed by the kindness and graciousness of the three authors I’ve been fortunate to meet so far (Alyson Noel, Deb Harkness and Elizabeth). They strong women in their own right and wonderful examples of how to interact with your fans. I hope that I’ve internalized what I’ve learned from them and will be just as pleasant to my fans someday as they are.

If nothing else, they’ve all taught me some important lessons: 1) success is possible, 2) don’t ever give up, 3) it may take time, but it will happen.

Have you ever gotten to meet a famous author? If so, who? What was it like? If not, who do you want to meet?

10 Books That Made Me Who I Am

“You can turn a phrase into a weapon or a drug.” – Sara Bareilles, “Brave”

The first time I heard this song, I’ll admit to tearing up, because as a writer, it meant that I have tremendous power to influence others, for good or for ill. I hope my own writing someday makes someone’s life a little better.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized how much certain books changed my life and shaped me i. Here’s a small sampling of the books/series that made me who I am today:

  1. Little EngineThe Little Engine that Could – I have a scrap of memory of sitting with my mom while she read me this book. I also remember one night “reading” it back to her (I memorized it) and telling her when she missed/skipped parts (I’m sure she loved that.) To me, this book symbolizes the time and care my mom took to instill a life-long love of reading into me. Plus, as I’m navigating the world of becoming a published author, I still repeat, “I think I can, I think I can,” to myself every step of the way. (I think that’s the 80s version of “just keep swimming.”)
  2. The Bernstein Bears series – This may sound silly, but I’m an only child, so books were my best friends growing up. A recent Huffington Post article reminded me what an effect these books had on my formative years. I have to say I learned quite a few life lessons from them, and I hope they made me a better person.
  3. Sweet-Valley-HighThe Sweet Valley Twins/High series – As I said, I didn’t have siblings, so for me, Jessica and Elizabeth were the sisters I never had. I always wanted to be Jessica, the popular, fun, cool twin. I decided my favorite color was purple because it was Jessica’s (it’s still my favorite color today). In high school, I took French because that was what Jessica studied (it probably would have been wiser to take Spanish, not that I remember any of it anyway). In reality, I was definitely Elizabeth, the bookish, do-gooder twin. I didn’t like the New Adult reboot that came out a few years ago, but the twins live on in my imagination, growing as I do. And yes, I still want to be Jessica.
  4. Life in a Medieval Castle by Joseph and Frances Gies – This is the first history book I remember buying. I was in fifth grade and obviously a strange child, if I bought history books for fun. But I was born with a love for castles and the Middle Ages in general. (It was only in college that my studies turned toward the Celts.) I devoured this book and the other books in the series (life in a village, life in a town). It gave me my first sense of how different daily life was in other times, and I began to imagine the people’s stories. I should have known then and there that I’d write historical fiction some 25 years later. (By the way, I still have this book.)
  5. interior-castleThe Interior Castle by St. Teresa of Avila – I’ve been fascinated with religion since I was little. I got a hold of this classic of mystical literature when I was a sophomore in high school. I’ve been a Teresa fan ever since. I like her intimate, personal relationship with God (she goes so far as to describe the union of the soul with God as a “mystical marriage”). I continue studying her and other mystic saints to this day. You’ll see my fascination with mysticism reflected in my writing.
  6. Silverthorn by Raymond Feist – I actually came to Feist’s work through the computer game Betrayal at Kronor, which will always hold a special place in my heart (even though the later novelization didn’t do it justice). I was in love with the characters of Jimmy the Hand, Owyn, and Gorath (*sigh*), so I sought out other books with them and found Silverthorn. It was my first adult-level fantasy and is the book I credit for hooking me on the genre.
  7. The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley – I’ve mentioned this before, but this book is the reason I write Arthurian legend. Besides wanting to make me write a strong Guinevere, it also opened my mind to the possibilities of the old faith and coincided well with the beginning of my studies of Druidism and other neo-pagan paths when I started researching for Guinevere. This book is part of a very personal change in my life and is one that I will always treasure.
  8. moll-flandersMoll Flanders by Daniel Defoe – Okay, so I saw the BBC miniseries starring Alex Kingston before I read the book, but I did read it. Moll showed me a side of a historical (albeit fictional) woman that I’d never seen before, one who defied all the conventions of her time, grabbed life by the horns and did what she willed. I think she influenced some of my characters even though I didn’t realize it as I was writing them.
  9. Twilight by Stephenie Meyer – Laugh all you want. Yes, I was a Twihard. I think the reason this book qualifies for me is that I read it around the same time I started taking my own writing seriously. Stephenie was the first author I knew of with a web site and she just seemed more accessible than those I’d heard of growing up. I loved the book (shut up, I did) and when I read her story, I thought to myself, “well, if she, as an ordinary person, can get published, so can I.” Hence, an author was born.
  10. Discovery-of-witches_360A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness – I reviewed this book here, back in 2012 when I first read it. Since then, I’ve read it several more times, each time finding new nuances to the language, new layers of meaning and plot. Her character of Diana still speaks to me in ways no other character has. While I may not be a witch or be able to walk through time (that I know of…), I share Diana’s dedication to history and unfortunate suffering with anxiety. I even took rowing lessons because of this book. Maybe someday I’ll find my Matthew, too. Plus, next month I get to live with and learn from the author for a week. That will make it all the more life-changing!

What are your life-changing books? Which ones had the most effect on you throughout your life? Have you read any of these? Please share your stories with me in the comments.

My Top 10 Books of 2013

So Goodreads tells me that I’ve read around 50 books this year. And those are only the ones I bothered to track. If you count my research books, the number is probably closer to 80 (seriously, I counted). The good news for you is that I’m not going to review all of them, just a handful of my favorites.

Please note: These are listed in no particular order. Not all of these books were published in 2013; they are just ones I read this year.


Winter Sea 1. The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley – This was the first book I read by this author, who is now in my top five of all time. The Winter Sea is a historical time travel story that follows writer Carrie McClelland as she both writes her next book and uncovers family secrets. But this is no mere fictional tale; it takes on the idea that memories can be passed down through generations. It’s a great semi-gothic, semi-romance, but what really propelled this to the top of my list is Kearsley’s ability to describe what it’s like to be in the “writer’s trance” and feel compelled to write, something every writer will be able to relate to. Trust me, you don’t want to miss this one.

Demon lover2. The Demon Lover by Juliet Dark – Juliet is the pen name of Carol Goodman (whose book Arcadia Falls could also easily have made this list) and is the first, and in my opinion the best, novel of the Fairwick trilogy. It tells the story of Callie McFay, a professor newly installed at Fairwick College, who experiences startlingly vivid (read: sexy) dreams after moving into an old house in the area. She soon learns that she’s not alone in the house, nor are all the residents of the town as normal as they first appear. Something supernatural this way comes. 🙂

3. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern – Which I reviewed here.

4. Night of Cake and Puppets by Laini Taylor – This novella takes place during Taylor’s previous book, Daughter of Smoke and Bone (go read it if you haven’t already. It’s amazing!), and tells the story of the first date between Zuzanna and Mik, two of the supporting characters in the Daughter series. This story is sweet and full of whimsy and will leave you with a smile on your face and a renewed belief in magic and the power of love. This is one I plan to read over and over again.

Dark Triumph5. Dark Triumph by Robin LaFevers – This is the second book in Lafevers’ His Fair Assassin series, a YA trilogy I can’t recommend highly enough. The trilogy is about a convent of assassin nuns who worship the old gods (I know it sounds crazy, but hear me out) set in a fantasy version of medieval Brittany. The first book, Grave Mercy (also wonderful), told the story of Ismae; this is Sybilla’s story, which is much darker and fraught with danger. What has captivated me about this series is the mythology Lafevers has created. I find myself wanting to believe it is real. Why this books are classified as YA is beyond me (probably the main character’s age); they certainly don’t read that way to me and I recommend this series for readers of all ages.


1. Historic Figures of the Arthurian Era: Authenticating the Enemies and Allies of Britain’s Post-Roman King by Frank D. Reno – I read this book during my novel research this year and could have kissed the author – that’s how useful it was. Reno examines Arthurian legend and then lays over it the historical records of the time (such as they are) to try and determine who the historical figures behind the myths were. I used it especially to get the lay of the land in the years leading up to and after what I consider the Arthurian period. To me, this is a resource that is much undervalued in the study of who King Arthur may have been and the world in which he likely lived.

Orange is the new2. Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman – I read this book after seeing the Netflix series which is loosely based on Kerman’s experiences and I’m glad I did it in that order. Usually, I’m a book-first kinda gal, but in this case, it was fun connecting the fictional characters to their real-life counterparts. If you’ve seen the series, I’ll offer this word of warning, much of it is fictionalized, so don’t go into the book expecting the same thing. The book is tame by comparison, but it also offers an interesting perspective on our system of institutional justice and the power of the collective female spirit to support and thrive, even in the darkest of circumstances.

3. The English Housewife by Gervase Markham and Michael R. Best – I read this book while doing research for a Tudor-era book that is now on hold indefinitely, but I had to include it on this list. This is an actual instruction manual of all the things an English woman would have been expected to know in the early 17th century. Consider it a Renaissance Redbook. If you are interested in how people lived during that time, how they cured disease or even the elements and courses of a proper feast, this is the book for you. The information on their folk cures was so detailed, it made me want to injure my characters just so I could heal them.

Tudor Housewife4. The Tudor Housewife by Alison Sims – This is an incredibly easy to read compendium of the elements of daily life during Tudor times. Unlike a lot of scholars, Sims makes this time period fun, while enlightening on subjects as varied as washing clothes, education, preserving food and how to brew beer.

5. Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maas – Mr. Mass is a well-known agent and this book is the result of his years of experience in the publishing industry. Unlike other “how to write” type books, this one goes beyond the basics, showing you how to take your writing to the next level and push yourself further in your creation of a plot with truly high stakes that the reader will care about. Maas doesn’t just want to teach you how to be a writer; he wants to teach you the elements that will make you a best-seller. I found this book very thought provoking and it is one I’ll turn to time and time again when plotting books.


LostAnd as a little teaser for next year, I’ll add that one of my favorite books of 2013 won’t actually be out until March 2014 in the US. It’s The Lost Sisterhood by Anne Fortier, which I was fortunate to review for the Historical Novel Society. An in-depth review will be posted here as soon as the short version is published in Historical Novel Review.

Happy New Year, everyone. May 2014 bring you even bigger blessings and good fortune than this year did. I’m hoping to have lots of big news for you, so please stay tuned and as always, thank you for reading!

What were your favorite books of 2013? What should I add to my TBR pile?

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Guest Post by J. P. Reedman: Cups of Gold: Writing the STONE LORD Sequel

Moon LordToday I’m thrilled to welcome back J.P. Reedman for her second post here at Through the Mists of Time. (Here’s her earlier interview and my review of Stone Lord.) Her new novel, Moon Lord, is now available on Amazon. Take it away, J.P.! 

When I first began weaving tales of a Bronze Age King Arthur, I thought it might be difficult to fill a whole novel with this subject. Instead, little known, archaic versions of the legends leapt out at me from mouldering tomes, screaming to be included, and relevant archaeological  finds seemed turned up in the landscape almost daily …and so the tale grew in the telling.

And grew.

So STONE LORD became book one of a two-part series, with MOON LORD the sequel (although a standalone book in its own right). In STONE LORD, we have a young “Arthur”-Ardhu the Stone Lord, rising from obscurity under the tutelage of the shaman known as the Merlin, high priest of the temple of Khor Ghor (Stonehenge) and driving back sea-raiders seeking to steal the precious British tin. The usual Arthurian elements are  present, but in a more ancient form—The White Phantom, faithless bride but sovereignty of the Land; the Spearman, the mighty friend who betrays his lord; the Hawk of the Plain who fights the Green Man at Midwinter; the malign sister who seduces her own half-brother in revenge for status and love lost.

So what would be included in MOON LORD, how would it differ from its predecessor? Whilst the earlier part of the original legend is quite cohesive, traditionally the Arthurian myths tend to become more choppy and fragmented in the middle section of Arthur’s “reign”, with the king appearing less and less often while other knights such as Percival and Galahad come to the fore in various adventures for the glory of Camelot. It is a series of episodic tales rather than a straight narrative.

The Quest element, with its mysticism (both pagan and Christian) which is of course part of an older tradition, the Imram of the Celtic hero or saint, becomes a main area of focus, bringing with it a batch of new younger characters that replace or compete with the old… Such a shift of focus seemed appropriate for my purposes, since in the Bronze Age you were old by 30 and often dead by 40. So the setting was moved seventeen years into the future, and my first anti-hero was ‘born’– Mordraed, the King’s illegitimate son by his own half-sister, the Dark Moon who would be the foil to the ‘White Light of Arthur’ and  the destroyer of the stability and rudimentary civilisation his sire had worked to create.

Mordraed leaped out, snarling, from my imagination but he was probably the most fun to write of any character I’ve created so far—beautiful but twisted, hard and bitter and yet vulnerable, driven by ambition and by his mother and yet, underneath, struggling to understand what he feels and what he does. He came to life for me; one of those rare characters that almost wrote himself.

The Quest that I set for my ancient warriors is a prehistoric version of the Grail Quest, starting with a trip to the Wasteland of the Maimed King and finishing up in the ritual complex that grew up around Newgrange in Ireland in the early Bronze Age after the great chamber-tomb had lost much of its original function. They seek a Cup of Gold that is rumoured to be the font of all fecundity—a primitive Holy Grail which is based on mythological vessels such as the Cauldron of Cerridwen and the Cauldron of the Dagda. The appearance of the Cup itself is based on several finds from the archaeological record—the golden beakers from Rillaton and Ringlemere. The latter cup obviously had a ritual use as its bottom was curved so that it could not be set down; hence it must have been passed from hand to hand in some kind of ceremony.

In MOON LORD there is no actual magic; the prehistoric ‘Grail’ is made holy by the mythic power of our imaginations, made sacred by the power of sacrifice…and like in the original Arthurian myth, the vessel is attained by the only one of Ardhu’s company ‘pure’ enough to accept it, but there is no resulting joy, no magical turning of the hands of Fate to spare Ardhu his final doom at his ‘Camlann.’

The Cup was a symbol of hope but when hope failed it was the steadfastness and the nobility, even if primitive, of a lost heroic society that echoed down the paths of time to us, from the Dark Ages and perhaps even from an earlier time– its more admirable qualities still flickering in our consciousness like ghost-dancers in a mist.

And though the Moon has set, and the great stone monuments of the ancient world lie bleached and ruinous beneath a hard sky…

We remember.

Do you have any questions for J.P? Leave them here and she’ll answer. What do you think of her new book? I know I can’t wait to read it!

Book Review: Divided by Jennifer Sights

Full disclosure: I’m friends with the author, Jen Sights. We met through NaNoWriMo. But she did not provide the book to me or ask me to review it. I’m doing it because I want to.

DividedDivided is the story of private investigator Elena Ronen. When she’s called on by a mother to find her missing teenage daughter, Courtney, it seems like run-of-the-mill case. It turns out to be anything but. Elana is pulled into a world of witches, covens and dangerous power plays she never knew existed. Along the way, she discovers her own power and meets Vittorio, a handsome fellow witch to whom she’s instantly attracted. As the case progresses, magic, fate, love and human machinations intervene to blur the lines between friend and foe, illusion and reality. Elena is determined to find out the truth and rescue Courtney, but doing so may cost her life and endanger those she holds most dear.

I downloaded Divided because I wanted to support my friend and fellow writer. Never in a million years did I think I’d finish it in a matter of days. I couldn’t put it down and spent way too many nights awake reading when I should have been sleeping. Jen does a great job of turning what could be a conventional urban fantasy plot on its head. She deals with magic in a way I’ve never seen before (and I’ve read LOTS of books with magic in them), plus the powers Jen gives to her witches and the mythology governing them are fresh and believable (I’m still waiting to discover mine). Her storytelling ability is evident in the way she uses the missing girl plot as a way of revealing the bigger story of Elena, Vittorio and the coven they could rule or may kill them both.  And if you’re wondering about character development, let me just say this: I’d like Vittorio to leap off the page and kiss me (although sometimes his devotion gets a little cloying for me). I also yelled at the book (out loud) when something bad happened to one character, so Jen definitely got me to care about them.

While the book has some flaws and typos, Jen is a promising author and Divided is an excellent illustration of her talents. I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, Ravaged (which comes out September 26) and watching her grow both as a writer and in her career.

Have you read Divided? What did you think of it? What similar types of books would you recommend?

Book Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

nightcircus-styled-01Wow. When I finished this book that was all I could think. But I’m sure you’re going to want more in a review, so here it goes:

The Night Circus is the story of a mysterious circus that is only open at night and comes and goes from a location without warning. But the circus is only a backdrop for a much more serious event: a magical competition between Celia and Marco, who were drafted into this fight as children without their consent because of their abilities to control time and space. Over time, it becomes clear that their competition involves not only the two of them and their masters, but the whole circus and the fate of everyone in it.

This is Erin Morgenstern’s first novel, which is so hard to believe because she writes with the skill of someone who’s been honing her craft for 30 years. It’s a lush, romantic, suspenseful tale worthy of the hype it has received. Morgenstern truly makes magic real through her prose. The descriptions are so vivid, so evocative in their creativity that you feel like you’re in a dream in the whole time – one you can’t wait to get back to. From the searing pain of a binding spell to the lofty heights of a circus tent meant to emulate walking the clouds, you’ll feel like you’ve lived it all by the end of the book. The plot is well paced and will leave you breathless at certain points, while wishing you could freeze the story on a particularly beautiful scene at others. The characters are strong and unique, about as far from stock as you get. Thanks to the author’s masterful storytelling, you form a relationship with them as you read that makes them all feel like family, even the ones you despise.

If I had one criticism of the book, it would be that the ending fell a little flat for me. The book is so grandiose that I was expecting a bang at the end, when it really just quietly came to a conclusion. What happens makes sense, but it’s a little bit disappointing that there wasn’t one more dramatic revelation. It’s like being on a roller coaster and going up that last hill, but instead of the final sharp descent, you just travel on an even track until the ride stops. But that’s not enough for me to take anything away from my 5-star rating of the book.

I listened to this as an audio book and I have to say it was a little difficult to follow the jumps in time since I couldn’t just flip back a few pages to see the order of things. But the narrator, Jim Dale, once again proves why he’s the best in the business. I highly recommend this format.

In short, this is an incredible book that I will read over and over again, if only to escape from reality and hopefully learn to be a stronger writer from Morgenstern’s enviable talent. I can’t wait to see what she writes next.

PS – This is the only book written in present tense I’ve ever read where I didn’t notice it (and I hate present tense books). I actually felt it was the only way the story could have been told. Bravo to the author for showing this skeptic how this manner of writing can be done well.

Have you read The Night Circus? If so, what did you think of it? If not, is it something you plan to read?