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review 2017-08-21 02:57
The Dinosaur Lords by Victor Milan
The Dinosaur Lords: A Novel - Victor Milán

Warning: this book includes on-page rape and detailed descriptions of violence. Many characters die.

In the world of Paradise, humans exist alongside dinosaurs. The tame (or, in some cases, relatively tame) dinosaurs are treated much like our pets and livestock. People breed and train dinosaurs for hunting, riding, and fighting.

When I first heard of this book, it was described as Game of Thrones meets Jurassic Park. There are the dinosaurs plus medieval-ish fantasy politics - as far as tone and overall feel goes, it's more like Game of Thrones than Jurassic Park. The four main players are: Karyl Bogomirskiy, a famed dinosaur knight who is one of the few to ride a Tyrannosaurus rex; Rob Korrigan, a minstrel and dinosaur master (trains and cares for fighting dinosaurs and dinosaur mounts); Jaume, famed dinosaur knight and poet, the Imperial Champion of Emperor Felipe, and the fiance of Princess Melodia; and Melodia, who is eager to do important things but seems doomed to waste away in the palace.

This was mostly focused on politics, and unfortunately that politics bored me. I also had a tendency to lose track of what people were doing and why. For example, for a while there I thought Jaume and his soldiers were marching towards the location where Karyl and Rob were training peasants to fight. But no, they were riding towards a completely different area. They didn’t start going towards Karyl and Rob’s location until late in the book (I’m guessing they’ll meet in Book 2?).

It felt like I was supposed to at least be rooting for Jaume, Karyl, Rob, and Melodia, but for the most part I had trouble caring about them. Jaume’s romantic entanglements were exhausting. He was in a relationship with both one of his fellow knights (or not a knight, but at least part of his group? I can’t remember) and Melodia. The problem was that both Melodia and Pere seemed to want Jaume to love them best. Melodia was happy to share Jaume as long as she was more important to him than Pere, and Pere would likely have preferred his relationship with Jaume to be monogamous. Jaume, for his part, seemed to think everything was fine. It bothered me that Milan never really dealt with or resolved these issues, just...made them go away.

Karyl was cardboard, a fallen legendary character who was clearly destined to become legendary again. Rob thought he was awesome, so readers were supposed to think so too. Oh, and Rob. I seriously disliked him. I think he was supposed to be the “loveable rogue” of the bunch, but the more I read about him the more I wanted the author to ditch him. I couldn’t for the life of me understand why one minor female character slept with him. I thought for sure she was a secret spy or enemy, because I couldn’t understand what could possibly be appealing about him. I disliked just about everything about him except his dinosaur mount. One specific thing about him that bothered me was his habit of mentally trying to guess the gender of androgynous urchins. He mentally described one as “it,” before eventually deciding upon “he.” Hello! “They” exists and can be used as a gender neutral pronoun in English. Also, if a character was female and reasonably pretty, he probably leered at her at least once.

Now for Melodia. For most of the book, she had potential. After a while, “potential” seemed to be all she’d ever have. As the story went on and she continued to do nothing much, her horniness and childishness began to bother me more and more. She was so very horny. But only for Jaume! Except when she was mad at him, then she started to consider other options. And when she was mad at him, she was childish enough to not even read his letters. Never mind that she’d have regretted it for the rest of her life if he had died in battle. But as much as I disliked Meloda, she did not deserve what Milan had happen to her near the end of the book. That particular scene killed any desire I had to try the next book in the series. It felt like it happened more for shock value than anything - incredibly lazy writing on Milan’s part.

The world building was intriguing but vague. At first I thought this was an alternate history, but it turned out to actually be a completely different planet/dimension. Dinosaurs either existed there from the start or were transported there from our world and thrived. Humans and several other animals were transported to the world at a later date. Humans live longer and, if injuries don’t immediately kill them, can heal faster, and disease is almost unheard of. How humans and other beings made it to Paradise is never mentioned.

The best thing about this book was its cover and the black-and-white artwork at the start of each chapter. The story itself had far fewer dinosaurs and cool dinosaur moments than I was expecting - there was one battle I enjoyed and a fascinating bit involving an enormous dragonfly used like a hunting falcon, but that was basically it. Shiraa, Karyl’s mount, had potential but disappeared early on in the book. It’s likely she’ll show up in the next book but, as I said, the horrible and unnecessary scene with Melodia killed my desire to continue on with this series.

All in all, I really wanted to love this and I’m sad to say I didn’t. Even if that scene with Melodia hadn’t existed, this would never have been more than a so-so read. It was surprisingly boring for something that should have been completely awesome.

 

(Original review posted on A Library Girl's Familiar Diversions.)

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review 2017-05-03 21:33
The Devil's Hunt
The Devil's Hunt - Paul Doherty

A Medieval Mystery featuring Hugh Corbett

 

England, 1303

 

Ascham opened his eyes. the library was dark. He tried again to scream but the sound died on his lips. The candle, flickering under its metal cap on the table, shed a small pool of light and Ascham glimpsed the piece of parchment the assassin had tossed onto the table. Ascham realised what had brought about his death: he'd recognised the truth but he'd been stupid ebough to allow his searches to be known. If only he had a pen! His hand grasped the wound bubbling in his chest. He wept and crawled painfully across the floor towards the table. He seized the parchment and, with his dying strength, carefully hauled himself up to etch out the letters – but the pool of light seemed to be dimming. He'd lost the feeling in his legs, which were stiffening, like bars of iron.
'Enough,' he whispered. 'Ah, Jesus ...'
Ascham closed his eyes, coughed and died as the blood bubbled on his lips.

 

When the book opens, Hugh Corbett is at home in Leighton, in Essex, enjoying his peaceful life as Lord of the Manor, even if that does involve the odd hanging (as on the first page of Chapter 1) which he certainly does not enjoy, though everyone else seems to. But this country idyll is rudely shattered when the King, Edward I, arrives at the manor house demanding that Hugh return to his service immediately.

 

A demand from a king, though phrased as a request, is in reality an order, and in the case of this king, to cross him when he is in this mood would be to invite disaster. So Sir Hugh, along with his henchman Ranulf-atte-Newgate and their friend-servant-squire Maltote, are despatched to Oxford, where Sparrow Hall is in a state of turmoil. Two murders have already been committed there. Left near the second corpse was a parchment announcing "The Bellman fears neither King nor clerk [...] The Bellman will ring the truth and all shall hear it."

 

Meanwhile, outside the college, in the city, this Bellman has been posting proclamations attacking the King and claiming that Simon de Montfort was in the right of it when he took up arms against the King. And these proclamations purport to be emanating from Sparrow Hall, which the masters there all fervently deny. Well, they would.

 

Also outside the Hall, another seemingly separate series of murders has been taking place. In each case, an old beggar from the city, by definition helpless and defenceless, has been taken out into the forest and decapitated and his head has been hung from the branches of a tree. Sir Hugh finds reason to believe they were not actually killed in the forest but taken there – from Sparrow Hall, which would link them in some strange way with the Bellman and the murder of the two masters.

 

Another perfect medieval whodunnit from Paul Doherty. Not a word is wasted, and the excitement never flags for a moment. Nor can one possibly guess (without cheating!) who the Bellman really is.

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review 2017-03-11 20:52
An Unholy Alliance
An Unholy Alliance - Susanna Gregory

A Matthew Bartholomew Chronicle, Cambridge, England, 1350

 

He inserted a chisel under the lid and tapped with a hammer. The lid eased up, and he got a good grip with his fingers and began to pull. The lid began to move with a great screech of wet wood, and came off so suddenly that he almost fell backwards. He handed it up to Michael, and all five of them peered into the open coffin.
Bartholomew moved back, gagging, as the stench of putrefaction filled the confined space of the grave. His feet skidded and he scrabbled at the sides to try to prevent himself from falling over. Jonstan gave a cry of horror, and Cuthbert began to mutter prayers in an uneven, breathless whisper. Michael leaned down and grabbed at Bartholomew's shoulder, breathing through his mouth so as not to inhale the smell.
'Matt!' he gasped. 'Come out of there!'
He began to tug frantically at Bartholomew's shirt. Bartholomew needed no second bidding, and scrambled out of the grave with an agility that surprised even him. He sank to his knees and peered down at the thing in the coffin.
'What is it?' breathed Cymric.
Bartholomew cleared his throat to see if he could still speak, making jonstan jump. 'It looks like a goat,' he said.
'A goat?' whispered Michael, in disbelief. 'What is a goat doing here?'
Bartholomew swallowed hard. Two curved horns and a long pointed face stared up at him, dirty and stained from its weeks underground, but a goat's head nevertheless, atop a human body.

 

An Unholy Alliance is long, and it is slow, but if total immersion in mid-fourteenth-century Cambridge appeals to you and you are in no hurry to return to the modern world, this is your book.

 

Dr Matthew Bartholomew, our hero, teaches medicine at Michaelhouse to students who, in the years immediately following the Black Death, are desperately needed in the community but are mostly either less than gifted, or less than committed, or (as in the case of the Franciscans among his students) less than convinced about his unorthodox methods; for Bartholomew is a scientific practitioner before his time and is forever clashing with bigots and in very real danger of being accused of heresy. A nice typical touch comes at the beginning of the book when he notices a film of scum on top of the holy water in the stoup:

 

Glancing quickly down the aisle to make sure Michael was not watching, he siphoned the old water off into a jug, gave the stoup a quick wipe round, and refilled it. Keeping his back to Michael, Bartholomew poured the old water away in the piscina next to the altar, careful not to spill any. There were increasing rumours that witchcraft was on the increase in England because of the shortage of clergy after the plague, and there was a danger of holy water being stolen for use in black magic rituals. […] But Bartholomew, as a practising physician, as well as Michaelhouse's teacher of medicine, was more concerned that scholars would touch the filthy water to their lips and become ill.

 

The Michael referred to here is Bartholomew's sidekick, the gourmet Benedictine monk with an eye not only for a tasty dish but for a beautiful woman – as when he and Bartholomew call on "Lady Matilde", a well-known local prostitute, in the course of their investigation:

 

Matilde answered the door and ushered them inside, smiling at their obvious discomfort. She brought them cups of cool white wine and saw that they were comfortably seated before sitting herself. […] 'How may I help you?' she said. She gave Michael a sidelong glance that oozed mischief. 'I assume you have not come for my professional attentions?'
Michael, his composure regained now that he was away from public view, winked at her, and grinned.
'We have come to give you some information,' said Bartholomew quickly

 

A lovely scene, and beautifully written – though you must read the whole thing.

In fact, the book opens with the death of a prostitute, her throat cut in a churchyard as she makes her way home in the darkness, and this turns out to be but one in a series of murders, not all of prostitutes and some by garotting rather than throat-slitting, though there is a link: the small red circle painted in blood on the victim's foot.

 

This circle is the sign of a mysterious "guild"of devil-worshippers who meet in a local church, abandoned and decommissioned since the Black Death, one of a host of such cults that sprang up in the wake of the plague, when many had lost their whole family and God seemed to have abandoned his people and there were almost no priests left to minister to them.

 

But what apart from the circle on the foot is the link between the various victims? And who is organising this guild? What is his aim in all this? (Or her aim. A rather intimidating woman called Janetta is always there hovering in the background surrounded by a band of thugs.) Is it really satanism, or is he – or she – simply cashing in on people's helplessness and gullibility?

 

Slow, as I say, but memorable, and well worth the time spent reading it.

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review 2017-03-07 17:32
The Darkling Plain
The Darkling Plain - Douglas R. Mason

The north-west of England,

13th Century

 

There was a patter of bare feet on the beaten earth floor and Aelfgyth, late but willing, was among the company nervously smoothing down a stained yellow robe from where it had been hitched up in a plaited thong belt. There was already a sweet smell of decay about the shabby room, but from the fresh stink she carried with her, it was likely she had been busy with the pigs when the summons came. She said, 'Here, Master. What do you lack?' and stopped with her head hanging down under the stares of Alain's men-at-arms.

The host put a hand flat on her chest and shoved her away. 'When will I teach you not to push yourself forward? This gentleman was speaking to me. Away. Bring a new loaf and cook a pan of eggs. And broach the barrel I fetched up yesterday. Lively now, or you'll feel the weight of my hand.'

She was off again at a run, hair flying in a dark brown pennant, and he was ready to wink and nod at Alain and draw him aside as far as space allowed.

[...]

The muttered conference with the host was finished and the man had a self-satisfied smirk on his face as he waddled across the floor to the seated figure. He never knew how close he came to having his head swiped off its stalk. But at the first words, Edward knew that the moment of truth was not yet.

The innkeeper said, 'Here's a stroke of luck for you now. Here's a gentleman looking to employ you. He'll give you a fair price and set you on your way …'

[…]

Edward relaxed, stood up slowly and nodded down at the innkeeper.

On his feet, he was seen to be a massive figure. His straw blond head was only an inch from the cross beams. The thick folds of his cloak could not conceal his breadth of shoulder and the bearing of a man trained in arms.

 

Set in what seems to be a straightforward late twelfth or early thirteenth century English provincial world in which there is still a clear distinction between Norman, Saxon and (encroaching) Welshman, this is a short book (less than 150 pages) and can easily be read in one night (I did). It is also a deceptively simple book: a younger son denied his birthright by his elder brother; a daughter deprived of her inheritance (following the death of her brother) by a wicked uncle; a beautiful Jewish girl whose father is killed when local people who are in debt to him set fire to his house; a wandering scribe and scholar who turns out to be a great nobleman and – more to the point – fearsome warrior.

 

Yet it is thoughtful, too. We see the world as it was, but also hear sensitive people questioning the mores of that world. And we realise once again that there are good – and awful! – people in every world and at every level of society. A great nobleman may have far more in common with the serving wench in a sleazy tavern than with his own brother.

 

An excellent story set in an unusual part of the country (Wallasey – opposite Liverpool – on the Wirral Peninsula), well worth reading, and suitable for teenagers, too.

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review 2017-02-18 18:37
Christmas in (Medieval) Paris
Of Witches, Whores and Alchemists (Mariana de la Mar Book 1) - Jim Hawkey

I was provided with a free copy of this book by the author

in return for an honest review.

 

Of Witches, Whores & Alchemists is Book 2 of the Mariana de la Mar series of novels set in the 1370s in Spain and France. It is preceded by two other books, The Rose of Sharon (Mariana de la Mar 1) and a prequel, Mariana la Loca, but it is the only one of the three that is a real Medieval Mystery, and is in my view the best one to start with. It is not only very much a stand-alone but the first two are both in a sense prequels to it. Mariana la Loca, the official prequel, tells of Mariana's childhood in the south of Spain, up to the point where, at the age of fourteen, and following the death of her father, she is abducted and sold into slavery. The Rose of Sharon (Mariana de la Mar 1) takes us from that point to her arrival in Paris.

 

Now she is in Paris and has fulfilled her dream of becoming a student at the university there. But her life is still beset with difficulties.

 

For a start, the university admits only boys and men to lectures, so she has to dress as a boy. On top of that, her self-appointed guardian, Ferchard (Sir Farquhar de Dyngvale), an old friend of her father's (who was a Scot living in exile in Spain) insists that she must now grow up and be the lady (Lady Marian MacElpin) she was born to be, and turn her back on the years spent as a prostitute in Spain and Avignon. But this, she finds, is not so easily done.

 

However, her experience of life and knowledge of the world is much greater than that of her peer-group of students and hangers-on, so it is to her they turn when one of their number is accused of murdering his uncle, a miserly alchemist reputed to have a horde of gold nuggets tucked away somewhere.

 

And no sooner has she agreed to do what she can to help discover who was really responsible for the death of the old man than she learns that another murder was committed that same night (Christmas night!), a murder closely connected with the first one.

 

As the title implies, the book is full of medieval witches and prostitutes – Mariana is more than a little of both herself –  but others Mariana meets and gets to know during the course of her investigations include the Holy Roman Emperor, an alchemist himself and in Paris for Christmas, his daughter Anna, soon to be the wife of Richard II and Queen of England, the one-armed Albanian King of the Paris underworld, the celebrated proto-feminist Christine de Pisan, then a girl of thirteen, and the legendary alchemist Nicolas Flamel.    

 

There are many so-called medieval mysteries about and feeling at home in the medieval period I have read most of them, but I want to say simply that there is more medieval magic and mystery in this one book than in any ten of the others. And more horror. Some scenes are more than gripping, they are mesmerising. Medieval Paris is unforgettably depicted and quite apart from that it is astonishing how this very male writer gets into the heart and soul of the all-female Mariana. (But then why not, when you think that Cadfael and Falco are both written by women?)

 

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