True Love and Secrets

firestarsOf Fire and Stars

By Audrey Coulthurst

Betrothed since childhood to the prince of Mynaria, Princess Dennaleia has always known what her future holds. Her marriage will seal the alliance between Mynaria and her homeland, protecting her people from other hostile lands. But Denna has a secret. She possesses an Affinity for fire—a dangerous gift for the future queen of a kingdom where magic is forbidden.

 Now, Denna must learn the ways of her new home while trying to hide her growing magic. To make matters worse, she must learn to ride Mynaria’s formidable warhorses—and her teacher is the person who intimidates her most, the prickly and unconventional Princess Amaranthine—called Mare—the sister of her betrothed.

 When a shocking assassination leaves the kingdom reeling, Mare and Denna reluctantly join forces to search for the culprit. As the two become closer, Mare is surprised by Denna’s intelligence and bravery, while Denna is drawn to Mare’s independent streak. And soon their friendship is threatening to blossom into something more.

 But with dangerous conflict brewing that makes the alliance more important than ever, acting on their feelings could be deadly. Forced to choose between their duty and their hearts, Mare and Denna must find a way to save their kingdoms—and each other.

Via Goodreads


So the description above is a good summation of the plot. What I enjoyed about the book was the natural way the relationship between Mare and Denna developed. First they were forced together with Mare giving Denna horse-riding lessons. Then they become friends as they search for the assassin. And finally they fall in love.

The chapters switch between Denna and Mare, each in first person, which could have been tricky. While the voices and styles weren’t completely different between the two of them, I was able to remember who was speaking at all times. Certainly the chapter labels helped but even putting down the book halfway through a chapter and picking it back, I could tell who was speaking.

They need to find out how far they are willing to go to stay in each other’s lives. Denna has been raised to do the right thing, put duty first, so making a choice from love is a scary thought. Mare has always been an outsider in her royal family and as much as she does her own thing, she doesn’t want to force anyone to go along with her.

Add to the romantic tension Mare’s family who abhors magic and Denna’s secret powers. The magic becomes a catalyst for their relationship so it’s more than a fun, flashy element to the story. Mare’s kingdom hates and fears magic, and prepares to go to war with a neighboring kingdom known to support those with magical abilities. Denna must decide if she can trust Mare with her secret; otherwise she will be punished like the others.

Of Fire and Stars is a love story encased in larger tale of kingdoms and war and machinations. It is a story of two young women discovering who they are and what they are willing to stand up for.

A fictional memoir just became the best memoir I’ve read

A Natural History of Dragons
(Memoir by Lady Trent, #1)
by Marie Brennan

All the world, from Scirland to the farthest reaches of Eriga, know Isabella, Lady Trent, to be the world’s preeminent dragon naturalist. She is the remarkable woman who brought the study of dragons out of the misty shadows of myth and misunderstanding into the clear light of modern science. But before she became the illustrious figure we know today, there was a bookish young woman whose passion for learning, natural history, and, yes, dragons defied the stifling conventions of her day.

Here at last, in her own words, is the true story of a pioneering spirit who risked her reputation, her prospects, and her fragile flesh and bone to satisfy her scientific curiosity; of how she sought true love and happiness despite her lamentable eccentricities; and of her thrilling expedition to the perilous mountains of Vystrana, where she made the first of many historic discoveries that would change the world forever. 

-via Goodreads

This may sound strange but it takes a fictional memoir to help me figure out what I want from actual memoirs – perspective!! Hear me out.

Lady Trent is an old woman, one who has been called a “national treasure”, induced by a publishing house to write a series of memoirs chronicling portions of her life. A Natural History of Dragons is the first memoir and begins with her precocious childhood.

Isabella is fascinated with ‘sparklings’, at the time considered insects that resembled dragons, and learns how to preserve them in vinegar. She is curious about the natural world in general but in dragons in particular. Questions, such as why do chickens have wishbones, lead her to read books in her father’s library to find the answers. Through such machinations as leaving a book catalogue open on her father’s desk she is able to read “A Natural History of Dragons” which cements her love of dragons and the course of her life, although she wouldn’t have known it at the time.

At fourteen, she recklessly dressed as a boy to ride out with the men to hunt down a wolf-drake dragon that was savaging sheep. Turns out wolf-drakes prefer female prey which outs her to the group, including her father. A result of this misstep enters Isabella into her self-proclaimed grey years wherein she dedicates herself to more womanly pursuits. It also demonstrates her headstrong personality and unfortunate ability to bring on trouble due to her curiosity.

Soon it is time to enter Society and find a husband. Her father does her a solid and provides her a list of eligible bachelors who have excellent libraries, carefully noting which contain her favorite book on dragons. He may not be able to allow her to take more manly pursuits to further her education but he can help her find a husband who will allow her to study to her heart’s content. As luck would have it, she meets one of the men on the list during a visit to the king’s menagerie. Jacob Camherst overhears Isabella’s conversation with the menagerie’s naturalist about the dragons and quickly joins in. She enjoys his company and hopes to become his friend, one with whom she can discuss shared topics such as dragons. Jacob is known to not be pursuing a wife. It turns out that their friendship ends with a proposal from Jacob.

In a charming scene that demonstrates the path of their marriage, Isabella is blunt, asking why he would propose to her. He is equally blunt, stating that she is the first woman to have any interest in him for a reason other than his money. She admits she has heard about his library which makes him laugh. She agrees to marry him and so begins their life together.

I’ll interrupt any plot points to return to my original point. The narrator is an old woman looking back on her life. She is clearly choosing which memories to share and how to share them. She also applies a layer of analysis or judgment or learning on certain memories which, to me, flushes out Isabella even more as a realistic person. Take this paragraph after her nuptials.

“As absurd as it may sound, I think that was the moment at which I realized I was truly leaving. This is something the gentleman readers of this memoir may not understand, but the ladies will know it all too well. If they are married, they have been through it already, and if not, I am sure they have devoted some thought to the matter. To marry means to leave home for another, and often one place for another. My own experience was not so disconcerting as that of royal brides who depart for another country, but from my family’s estate in Tamshire, on which I had spent virtually all of my young life, I know left behind everything I knew and removed to Jacob’s house outside Falchester.”

It’s a small commentary but illuminating to Isabella’s experience at that time. Instead of merely saying where she moved to or describing Jacob’s estate, she ruminates on the heady realization that everything is about to change. Those types of pauses in the memories add depth to the tale, something missing in many memoirs of actual living people that I’ve read.

I’ll skip ahead to the interesting action that follows. Jacob and Isabella meet a Lord Hilford and through a developing friendship are invited on an excursion to Vystrani to study dragons. Isabella is able to convince both her husband and Lord Hilford that she will be an asset on the trip. She can sketch what they find and file their notes for the eventual paper or book that will be written. They eventually agree and the expedition departs.

The ‘memoir’ takes an interesting turn at this point. Remember, there must be a reason why this particular portion of Lady Trent’s life is being recalled. While in Vystrana, a mystery occurs including smugglers, local villagers and politicians. Dragons are tracked and found. Men are hurt, even killed. Through it all, Isabella acknowledges that several of her choices have jeopardized her life or the lives of those around her. However, those same choices often result in helpful leads toward dragons or toward solving the overarching mystery of what is going on in Drustanev, the village where they are staying.

I don’t want to spoil the mystery. Suffice it to say there is intrigue and plotting and dragons and a tragic death. Isabella’s commentary heightens the tension and deepens the emotions. I truly believe that the author’s choice to have Lady Trent looking back on her life was the best one for this story. A purely linear tale from her point of view at the time of the action, when she was nineteen, wouldn’t have been as satisfying or tantalizing. The conceit allows Lady Trent to drop hints at stories that will be told in future volumes and dismisses other tales or rumors outright with no further explanation. For being set in a world where dragons exist alongside bears and foxes and birds, the characters were very human, especially the narrator.

Shades of Milk and Honey adds a dash of magic to Austen

Shades of Milk and Honey

(Glamourist Histories #1)
By Mary Robinette Kowal
Shades of Milk and Honeyis an intimate portrait of Jane Ellsworth, a woman ahead of her time in a version of Regency England where the manipulation of glamour is considered an essential skill for a lady of quality. But despite the prevalence of magic in everyday life, other aspects of Dorchester’s society are not that different: Jane and her sister Melody’s lives still revolve around vying for the attentions of eligible men.

Jane resists this fate, and rightly so: while her skill with glamour is remarkable, it is her sister who is fair of face, and therefore wins the lion’s share of the attention. At the ripe old age of twenty-eight, Jane has resigned herself to being invisible forever. But when her family’s honor is threatened, she finds that she must push her skills to the limit in order to set things right–and, in the process, accidentally wanders into a love story of her own.

-via Goodreads
Set in the Jane Austen era and written generally in that style, Shades of Milk and Honeyfollows Jane Ellsworth as she struggles to accept that she will likely never marry since she is single at the ripe old age of 28 and not nearly as pretty as her younger sister Melody. What Jane does have going for her is a superior ability to manipulate ‘glamour’, a form a magic that allows one to change how something looks or sounds or smells. It is considered an art, not a science, so is relegated to the women’s realm. Men have the ability but most don’t bother to learn how to glamour, unless they are especially adept. (Per usual, the best teachers are men even though young women are supposed to be the students.)
Jane knows her glamour skills are better than most but only uses them in the typical ways – to enhance her painting or piano-playing, to create a parlor with a slight breeze that smells of honeysuckle for guests. She doesn’t dare indulge in applying a glamour to herself, as in the case of a neighboring young woman who glamours her face to be prettier. Jane fears what will happen when the suitor has to deal with the reality underneath the magic.
Melody is pretty and lovely and flirts exceptionally but has little skill in glamour. Both have the case of the grass being greener. Jane knows that a man wants a pretty wife. Melody sees her sister’s skill as more attractive because what can a pretty face do? The title comes from the description of Melody’s complexion as shades of milk and honey, and drives home Jane’s inadequacy as a major component of the story.
They are both interested in Mr. Dunkirk. Jane is surprised when she learns Melody likes the man but respectfully hides her own feelings. She preens internally when Mr. Dunkirk compliments her glamours and comments on how that sort of skill can really make a house a home. When his sister Beth arrives, her interest in learning about glamour turns into a friendship with Jane, which is something of a comfort as Jane and Melody are drifting further and further apart as their emotions and pursuits cause each other pain.
Also in the area is Mr. Vincent, a renowned glamourist hired by the FitzCamerons to complete an intricate mural in their dining room. Jane has several encounters with Mr. Vincent that challenge her, often making her uncomfortable. He glowers at her for peering into the magic behind his work before the mural is complete. He prefers that the audience take in the effect for what it is instead of trying to see the structure that holds it together. When he completes a glamour during a group outing that makes him disappear, she is able to decipher his technique and quickly copies the spell which earns more derisive remarks. She is intrigued by Mr. Vincent but also on edge around him as he isn’t particularly pleasant and makes strong pronouncements that confound her and make her question her own art and skill.
Add into the mix Captain Livingston, nephew of Lady FitzCameron and childhood friend of the Jane and Melody, and even more romantic options, hence intrigue, ensues.
While on the surface a story about a potential spinster trying to make do with her lot in life, Shades of Milk and Honey had a deeper theme of passion. What is art without passion? What is life? Should Jane really accept what appears to be her future or should she find a way to pursue pleasure? Emotions run high underneath the societal rules of civility and Jane needs to learn how to explore and even embrace those emotions for a fuller existence.

I always enjoy Regency era stories that are about people, as opposed to events. Not every tale needs to be about the larger world. A domestic drama can be just as compelling if the personal stakes are high for the characters. Jane and Melody’s futures, as well as a threat to the family’s drama, are very real for them so push the plot up the hill to the climactic fight scene. (The only spoiler you’ll get.)

An Apt Title

I don’t pre-order many books but I had The Book of Life by Deborah Harkness purchased at least a month before the release date.  I spent the wait time rereading the first two books – A Discovery of Witches and Shadow of Night. Here’s a high-level synopsis of each book to lead us into the final installment.
A Discovery of Witches introduced us to Diana Bishop, a descendant of a storied line of witches, who eschews all magic. She is a historian studying the history of science, particularly the time when science transitioned away from magic via alchemy and into what we would now call ‘hard’ science. While working at Oxford’s Bodleian Library, she calls a manuscript from the stack that turns out to be a magical palimpsest. The alchemical drawings don’t use the standard symbols and several pages are missing. She sends the manuscript back into the stacks, not realizing the impact of her innocent act of opening the book.
Diana meets Matthew Clairmont at the library. He’s a vampire who studies genetics to learn more about vampires, witches and daemons. (Yup, there are daemons. More like highly intelligent, creative types than scary horned demons.) Against all odds – and the rules – they fall in love. Their relationship creates fear within the non-human population and puts them at danger, as does Diana’s ability to open the manuscript which is assumed to be the Book Of Life, the book that will explain the existence of these supernatural beings.
Shadow of Night takes Diana and Matthew back in time. Diana has learned she is a time-walker like her father and travels back to Elizabethan London with Matthew so she can study with older, stronger witches who will understand Diana’s unique brand of magic. They also want to find that manuscript before it was bewitched and put in the Bodleian Library.
If the first installment was Diana’s story, then Shadow of Night is Matthew’s. We are in a time when he existed, although not actually in London – that would be confusing. They move into Matthew’s home and meet with Matthew’s friends, who happen to be all of the writers and artists and intellectuals of that time. Matthew is called to meet his vampire father (who is dead in the first book) and introduces Diana.
The love story deepens in the second book. Diana becomes pregnant, against all odds, but loses the baby. She learns more about Matthew, seeing an entirely new side of him in this older century. Matthew realizes the full extent of Diana’s powers and supports her pursuance of education by the local coven. In a time when men must protect woman, Diana is vulnerable in certain situations and they must constantly adjust their modern sensibilities to the time while remaining close.
By the time they return, where The Book of Life begins, Diana is pregnant again with twins and the vampire and witch are married, closer than ever.  A singularly aggressive act propels the final installment. Worlds collide as vampires, witches, daemons and humans work together to search for the Book of Life and figure out what it means. A war is coming that will divide those who stand by Diana and Matthew, and those who don’t. Family and friends have choices to make.
A new aggressor is Matthew’s vampire son, Benjamin Fuchs, who has been torturing and impregnating witches for centuries in an attempt to create a master race. Benjamin has the same ‘blood rage’ as Matthew, only he doesn’t fight it the way Matthew does. He has his eyes set on Diana once he learns she became pregnant by Matthew.
Harkness includes the expected depth of history and science in The Book of Life, as she did in the first two installments. Locations are conjured with efficiency. World events are grounded in reality (with some artistic license on the timeline, as often happens to include a particularly interesting event or person). The sections on alchemy and genetics may seem long to some but I found them fascinating. Diana is a layperson in Matthew’s scientific world and Matthew is a layperson in her history. Harkness made an excellent decision in rendering her two protagonists as opposites in many ways that help provide necessary moments of exposition (as opposed to exposition stuck because it has to be done).
Like the previous books, The Book of Life revolves around the themes of identity and family and choice and acceptance and love. These are weighty themes to consider but are made lighter and easier to digest in a fantastical version of the world. We root for Diana and Matthew to find a way to be together without everyone trying to keep them apart. We want to understand the fear that drives the hatred of their union. We want to know that we can be ourselves and still be loved. The All Souls Trilogy provides that solace. It is possible, just never easy.
These three books will remain on my shelves. I anticipate returning to them time and again when I want to remember that people are both vulnerable and strong, and the fight is worth it.

Is a Discovery of Witches like a Murder of Crows?

I decided to reread A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness because I was a little bummed when I finished The Twelfth Enchantment. I was in the mood for a good witch book so I returned to a book I had loved when it came out.
A Discovery of Witches definitely held up its end of the bargain.
By page two you know Diana Bishop is a historian working at Oxford and a witch not so into her witchiness. A manuscript innocently requested turns out to be a magical document on which the entire plot hinges. A three forms of creatures in the world – witches, vampires and daemons – want access to this manuscript which has been lost for hundreds of years.
Diana’s parents are descendants from two powerful magical families – the Proctors and the Bishops. And yet she rejects magic. Her parents were killed abroad when she was seven and her childish logic resulted in a world view that clings to logical and rationality. Magic couldn’t save her parents, it won’t save her, ergo magic should not be considered.
Despite being a grown woman with a challenging career, Diana is on the typical coming-of-age journey for a witch – she must learn to embrace her powers, she must learn to trust them and she must learn how to use them.
An ally and potential love interest appears in the form of Matthew Clairmont, a 1,500 year-old vampire. Without understanding why, he follows his protective instincts and helps keep Diana safe from all three kinds of creatures, for even witches will hurt her to get to the manuscript.
Beneath the veneer of a witch’s coming-of-age is a tried and true romance. Matthew wants the document as well, only that impulse is muddied by his feelings. Diana learns about his original intent after acknowledging her feelings, which raises significant questions. They struggle through these secrets and misunderstandings while they also struggle to keep Diana alive.
Keeping her alive is an important goal since more and more people seem to be moving against Diana and Matthew. A conspiracy the size of The DaVinci Code – with a secret society to boot – grows and expands as more and more villains arrive.
Harkness does an admirable job of explaining the magical world Diana and Matthew inhabit. Since Diana rejected a magical understanding from her aunts as a child, we get to learn along with her. The best moments when information arrived was when it came in the form of a secret revealed. Matthew withholds information to keep Diana safe, she eventually learns about it and there is a fallout to deal with. Creating tension with each reveal is an excellent way to present exposition.
The back jacket flap on my book mentions that Harkness writes an award-winning wine blog. Wine features prominently in the novel as something vampires enjoy drinking when they don’t need blood. Some of the sections involving Matthew’s education of Diana were a big long. And that very prominence made me wonder how necessary the yoga and rowing scenes were.
Diana has a very strong fight-or-flight instinct and gets huge bursts of adrenaline. To keep her anxiety at bay, she runs, rows and does yoga. The rowing fit pretty naturally into the plot. Matthew inviting Diana to a yoga class for witches, daemons and vampires? That didn’t fit as well. I know that a class where the three types of creatures mingle without animosity is important to the overall theme and struggle in the book but it stands out as too much information.
If Harkness is so into wine that she included a lot of stuff about wine in the novel, it begs the question of how into rowing and yoga (and horseback riding, by the way) she is into as well. Did these interests get included because Harkness enjoys them so knows a lot? How necessary to the plot were they?
I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy some of those activity-related scenes – the entire book is well-written and engaging. I just wonder about the use of personal details in a debut novel. It’s something for me to think about while I work on my WIP.
A Discovery of Witches is part of a trilogy and I enjoyed the second installment. I’ll write about that soon. Spoiler alert – I liked it!