Greyfriar by Clay Griffith and Susan Griffith

Greyfriar by Clay Griffith and Susan Griffith, a husband-and-wife writing team, is the first book in the Vampire Empire series. It is an alternate universe novel, set in a time when vampires banded together and essentially took over the world in the late 1800’s. Humanity, which now lives in the cities closest to the equator where there is the most heat and sun, has finally made enough technological advances that they are prepared to start fighting back. The main protagonist in the story is Adele, Princess and future Empress of Equatoria, and land that encompasses most of the former British Empire. While on a diplomatic mission, Adele’s airship is attacked by vampires. She is rescued by the legendary Greyfriar, a human known for his ability to fight vampires. As she travels through Northern Europe and falls in and out of the hands of the ruling vampire clan, her worldview is shattered, and she learns quite a bit about herself and the vampires she has grown up hating and wishing to destroy.

greyfriar coverA unique take on the vampire lore is presented in this novel. Vampires are creatures that a born, not made from humans. They have exceptional senses of sight, hearing, and smell but feel little pain and have a terrible sense of touch that makes it difficult for them to manipulate tools – which is fine, because they are arrogant and find manual labor beneath them, forcing their human “bloodmen” to do it for them. They have retractable claws which they use as a main weapon. They can also fly – sort of? They can change the density of their body, and therefore float and move around with the breeze.

 

On one hand, I had a bunch of issues with this novel. I’m not sure I ever completely bought into the vampire lore. I respect the authors for trying to do something different, but I think it was too different. I believed almost everything right up until the change their body density to float/fly thing. I also found it unusual that the vampires had no interest in any sort of knowledge – they couldn’t read or write, and didn’t care that they couldn’t. They ruled and conquered by physical strength. Perhaps it is just because I have read far too many vampire novels in which the vampires are brilliant, rich and well-read, using the knowledge they gain by living for centuries to their advantage. The fact that these long-lived vampires had no concept of that seemed strange to me. I wanted this new and different take on vampires to be refreshing, but instead it irked me and took away from the story.

 

 

I did enjoy the relationship between Greyfriar and Adele. I felt Greyfriar appeared a bit too vulnerable at points, and it took away from the believe-ability of his character. But I thought their relationship was believe-able and well-written, and that kept me interested in the story. I figured out Greyfriar’s real identity almost immediately, and at first I was annoyed, but then later decided the writers did it on purpose and it worked.

 

There were these few and far between moments that alluded to some sort of magic. Presumably this becomes more important to the plot in the next novel? Otherwise I can’t figure out why it was mentioned. So little information about it was offered, that I found it annoying and abrupt rather than mysterious. I just wanted to get back to the action with Adele and Greyfriar. The mystery-magic either needed to be more developed or removed completely, particularly the secret meetings. I think moving them to the beginning of the next novel would have been more effective and interesting, and just left the readers wondering why Adele’s prayers have an effect on the vampires. This paragraph was a bit vague, but I don’t want to give anything away.

 

Overall, this novel was OK and I do plan to read the next one eventually, being interested in Greyfriar and Adele, and how their relationship will grow and change. I give it 3 out of 5 stars and recommend it to fans of alternate history and steampunk vampire novels. I use the term steampunk loosely though – the novel has airships, but that’s about it for typical steampunk technology.

 

Truthwitch by Susan Dennard

truthwitch cover 01This. Book. Was. AWESOME. High fantasy set in the mythical Witchlands, it follows the story of Threadsisters Safiya and Iseult, Windwitch and Prince Merik, and Bloodwitch and assassin Aeduan. The story focuses mainly on the relationship between Safiya and Iseult, two strong and powerful women bonded by friendship, whose strengths beautifully even out the other’s weaknesses. I typically enjoy any novel with a strong female protagonist, and this novel had two, both interesting and involving, and I loved it.

The world building was excellent in this novel. In the system of magic, witches have a specialty. A Windwitch can control air, even including a person’s “air” (or breath) depending on their level of power. A Truthwitch can tell if a person is telling the truth. A Poisonwitch has poisonous blood and can use it as a weapon. These are just a few of the witches we met in this novel. The land itself is nearing the end of the Twenty Year Truce, which (almost twenty years ago, obviously) ended a Great War. The war destroyed many of the lands belonging to the Witchlands, and now that the Truce is nearing its end, various empires are fighting for power. So Safi and Iseult’s personal struggles occur in the midst of significant political drama, which effects them both directly and indirectly, most notably when Prince Merik becomes involved. He belongs to a land devastated by the War, and seeks to do everything he can to help his nation Nubrevna grow and flourish before the Truce ends. Bloodwitch Aeduan is a more enigmatic character, one who is chasing Safiya at the behest of an emperor. We see part of the story from his POV, but know little about him other than he rejects his lot in life, and his power is considered a myth by most, at least until they meet him. His mysterious father, another king, is referenced but not explained, and presumably we will learn more about him in the next installment of the series. He is possibly the most complex character of the group, with much more story to tell.

truthwitch cover 02

My copy of the book read used cover art above, but when I found this one online I loved it so I included them both. 

The stories of the land and its history are skillfully woven into the tales about the girls’ lives by author Susan Dennard. Clearly the Witchlands have a detailed past and well-thought out religious beliefs, both ancient and current. The world, and strong leading ladies, put me in mind of Sarah J Maas’s Throne of Glass series, which made sense when Dennard mentioned Maas as her best friend in her acknowledgments. If you liked Maas’s writing, you will like Dennard as well.

I discovered this book because I happened to be wandering around Barnes and Noble when the second book in the Witchlands series, Windwitch, released, and the beautiful cover caught my eye. I’m glad it did, and I’m also glad Windwitch is already out and available at my local library, so I don’t have long to wait before I can read more of Safi, Iseult, Merik, and Aeduan’s stories. I give this book a rare 5 out of 5 stars, and recommend it to fans of high fantasy, magic and politics, strong female characters, and very minimal love stories. Go read and enjoy it!

Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin

mistress of the art of death coverAdelia is a forensic pathologist, a doctor who studies corpses to discover the cause of death. Alone, this isn’t a shocking or particularly special characteristic. When you add “in 12th-century England” it becomes much, much more interesting. Adelia trained to become a doctor in Salerno, Italy, a quite progressive town for the mid-1100’s, not only because the people who live there know so much about medicine, but because they trained a female doctor. Adelia is even more of an oddity because her particular field of study – that of death. While she is respected by those in the medical profession in Salerno, she is still so unique that her foster father must take credit for her work. Thus it becomes a shock for absolutely everyone when Adelia is the “death doctor” chosen to fulfill the King of England’s request for a doctor to help the determine the cause of death of the several children in Cambridge.

I was intrigued by this novel before reading it. The idea of a “death doctor” in the 12th Century was enough to make me want to pick up this book – the fact that the lead character was a woman made me even more interested, and I was not disappointed. Adelia is a strong, independent, and brilliant young woman. She is faced with an exceptionally difficult task, taking a long journey to England, a country that is much more conservative, and practically even backwards by the standards of Salerno that she is accustomed to. Her servant and dear friend dies on the journey. She must pretend her other servant is really the doctor, as female doctors in England are unheard of, and she would be accused of witchcraft and executed. Not to mention she’s living in a time period where women are considered property of their man, and without a man are regularly taken advantage of. Adelia faces her challenges with her head held high and never backs down from those who consider themselves her betters. She makes mistakes as she learns her way, but she learns from them, and this only makes her more human and relate-able.

Some other reviewers complained about Adelia’s indecision about her belief system. At times she rejected religion, and at other times prayed and called upon God, Allah, or whoever came to mind at the time. I found this understandable rather than obnoxious. Adelia comes from a place where science and medicine are appreciated and practically worshiped, which does not often lend itself to belief in a higher power. Traveling to England, she finds herself in a location where God is the ultimate power, believed to be the only thing that can take pain away, and any sort of science or medicine is not just disbelieved, but frowned upon and reviled. Being surrounded by these varying ideologies, it only makes sense that Adelia would question and at times change her views.

There was some romance in the novel, but it was not essential to the plot and did not distract from the story in any way. Most of the supporting characters were well-written and had their own depth and backstory. I enjoyed the history in the novel as well. I recently read Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, and noticed Kind Henry II and some other events in this novel were similar to those in Follett’s novel, which took place about 100 years later. Had I not read Pillars so recently, I would not have noticed, and while this might bother the more historical minded, it didn’t effect my enjoyment of the story. I am looking forward to A Serpent’s Tale, the next book in the series.

I give the novel 4 out of 5 stars, and recommend it to fans of mystery and historical fiction.

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

pillars of the earth cover

There are tons of covers for this book. This one is my favorite. 

You wouldn’t think a book about building a cathedral would pull you in and refuse to let you go. The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett did exactly that. The novel follows a large cast of characters though 12th-century England as they struggle with war, famine, corrupt rulers, rape. accusations of witchcraft, death, poverty, and ultimately the decades-long task of of building a stunning cathedral.

This is a very difficult book to sum up because it is extremely long – over 900 pages – and spans the lifetime of several characters, whose difficulties and growth I would hate to give away. I will say all the characters are beautifully written and exquisitely human, each with talents and flaws, and who make decisions that make the reader love and hate them equally. There is a character for everyone – the feminist who overcomes severe adversity to make a name for herself without the help of a man, the strong independent woman accused of witchcraft who lives in the forest, the religious monk who constantly finds himself between what his religion teaches and what society demands, the corrupt bishop who manipulates all those around him for his own gain, the father who struggles to raise his children on his own, the child who must choose whether to follow his parent’s footsteps or strike out on his own. Finally, there is a spectacular villain, you spend the entire novel gleefully hating and waiting for karma to catch up to him.

In addition to a fabulous cast of characters, the novel presents a detailed account of life in 12th-century England, in which travelers would die on the road if they came across bandits, families starved if they couldn’t find work, earls were free to do as they pleased to those in their power with no oversight, religion and royalty fought to determine who was really in charge. And the idea of these uneducated (even then, and certainly by our current standards) peasants building a magnificent cathedral without any of the machinery we are familiar with today was particularly impressive.

On his website ken-follett.com, author Ken Follett notes that the cathedral in his novel is fiction, but he drew inspiration from two real-like cathedrals in his writing, the Wells Cathedral and the Salisbury Cathedral, pictured here to give an idea of what these amazing people were capable of before electricity.

My only, albeit very small, gripe with this novel was that as fascinating as it was learning the minutiae of building a cathedral, I just wasn’t that interested in it, and I occasionally skimmed through some details about building plans. The novel did feel a bit long at points, but on the other hand was so enthralling that when it was over I wanted more, so ultimately no complaints about the length.

I give this book a rare 5 out 5 stars, and recommend it to anyone interested in historical fiction. Truthfully, I recommend it to everyone. There is something in this novel for every reader to enjoy, and I like Follett’s writing style enough that I now plan to seek out some of his other works.

PS – There’s a sequel! It’s called World Without End and apparently occurs in the same location two centuries later, during the Black Death. I will be reading it ASAP.

Scythe by Neal Shusterman

scythe coverHumanity has conquered death and achieved immortality. Because disease, hunger, war, or crime no longer exist, a special sect called the Scythedom is created to control the population. They exist to kill, and are the only ones capable of ending a life. Teenagers Citra and Rowan become unwilling apprentices to a man named Scythe Faraday. Though they both initially struggle with the idea of becoming killers, they soon discover they must learn this new terrible skill set to keep themselves alive.

Initially, I struggled with this novel. To be honest, I’m never sure I entirely bought in to the utopia concept of immortality and the Thunderhead – the name for what “the cloud” becomes, an omniscient over-seer essentially in control of all life on Earth. But eventually I became so invested in the story of Citra and Rowan that it didn’t matter that I didn’t buy in to the Thunderhead, I still loved the story. The Scythedom, the professional assassins in charge of “gleaning” the population is becoming more corrupt with each passing year – as you can imagine would happen to a group with no oversight and members who live for several centuries. Citra and Rowan get caught up in this corruption, one on the side of the “new guard” who yearns for change and the permission to glean as many lives as they want in whatever manner they choose. The other ends up on the side of the “old guard” who would never consider killing for sport and understand the importance and solemnity of their jobs. The difference between these two groups and watching Citra and Rowan figure out how they fit in along with all the other struggles that go along with being a scythe was fascinating.

Of course there was a love story – its YA fiction, after all. But it didn’t overwhelm the story – it was almost an afterthought, and was written in a believable way that didn’t take away from either character, especially Citra the female leading lady. The supporting characters were nicely developed. I wanted to know more about Scythe Faraday and Scythe Curie, two scythes who lived for centuries and had much more story to tell than we got in this book. Perhaps we will see more of them in the next book. We have a long wait though – the expected publication is 2018!

I enjoyed this book more than I thought I would. Recommended for YA Sci-Fi fans, though at times you need a bit of a strong stomach. 4 stars out of 5. Pick this one up if you get a chance, the series is only going to get better from here.

A Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahir

torch-against-nightThis book was awesome. Even better than the first in the series, An Ember in the Ashes, reviewed here. This review will contain EPIC SPOILERS for said first book in the series

Elias and Laia are on the run, trying to stay one step ahead of Elias’s former best friend Helene while they travel to the prison Kauf to rescue Laia’s brother. Laia knows the prison break will be almost impossible, but will do anything to save her last living family member. Elias just hopes he lives long enough to help Laia, since he is dying from poison inflicted by his mother when they fought during his escape. The two face plenty of danger, make unexpected allies, suffer tragedy and heartbreak, and at times its difficult to believe either will ever reach anything resembling a happy ending.

Both Elias and Laia go through some significant character development in this book as well. Elias struggles to figure out who he is and where his loyalties lie now that he has escaped the empire and has only months left to live. Laia discovers magic powers have been awakened in her, and she must learn to control them and use them to help her in her quest to free her brother. She also must take a stand and decide whether or not she wants to be part of the Scholar Resistance. Everyone in this novel becomes more than they originally thought they were capable of. Watching the characters grow and struggle with their choices and the consequences of them is captivating.

New to this installment in the series are chapters told from Helene’s perspective. Talk about a conflicted character. Helene’s world is turned completely upside-down, as she finds herself hunting her best friend Elias with orders to kill him. If she fails in her mission, her family will be killed. Everything Helene tries to do feels like the wrong thing for one reason or another, either because of her loyalty to her friend and man she once loved, or her loyalty to her family and the empire. Reading events from her perspective in addition to Elias and Laia really added an extra layer to the novel, and was a brilliant choice by Tahir.

It was nearly impossible to predict how this story would end. From the beginning it was clear everything could not be tied up with a nice neat bow. But the twists and turns were unpredictable and added to the suspense and excitement. Total emotional roller coaster. It’s difficult for me to say more without giving away some major plot points, and trust me this story is better if you don’t know what’s coming.

I give this book a rare 5 out of 5 stars and recommend it to those who enjoy high fantasy, adventure, magic, and suspense. Definitely read the first book in the series before you read this one. It’s going to be a loooooong wait for the next book!

Showdown by Ted Dekker

This book was pitched as the ultimate showdown between good and evil. Except it wasn’t. It was more about mind control and people who thought their intelligence gave them the right to play God.

There were two main settings to the book. Paradise, a tiny town of about 400 or so people in the mountains of Colorado. And the Monastery, hidden in the mountains outside Paradise, and home to a bunch of brilliant young showdownchildren, wise beyond their years, who are being taught all about love by a group of very smart adults with the eventual goal of “changing the world.” Eventually you, the reader, find out that hidden in the basement of this monastery are a bunch of blank books – whatever you write in the books becomes reality, but you can only write in the books if you have childlike innocence, or something along those lines. Hence, the discoverer of the books sets up the monastery with the intention of raising a bunch of brilliant kids who will write only positive, wonderful things in these books and make the world a better place. What could possibly go wrong?

Turns out just about everything can go wrong. A rogue teacher (because there’s always one, isn’t there?) encourages a student to seek out the books. The student discovers its way more fun to write stories filled with evil and violence than with love, and once he realizes everything he writes in the book is happening in real life, he gleefully turns Paradise into hell. And now, for the SPOILERS

Of course there is one student in the monastery who isn’t taken in by thoughts of doing evil, and with his father, the head of the monastery, writes in one of the books and tries to turn things around. This plan fails, he eventually this child goes down to the town and sacrifices himself to save the townspeople. The father, who is suddenly able to write in the books, unlike every other adult ever, manages to resurrect his son and fix the town. I don’t suppose this story sounds familiar to anyone, does it?

I guess I had trouble buying in to this story. Not only was I not convinced a bunch of thirteen year-olds would immediately abandon everything they had been taught and mindlessly write terrifying evil, there was also this magic, hallucinogenic “worm gel” involved, that the students found in the dungeons with the books and which made them sick but was addictive…and yeah, was never explained fully. And all the while the rest of the supposedly brilliant adults in the monastery could just do nothing? Really?? And the sacrifice of the perfect son to save the town was just too on-the-nose for me.

In the end, I just don’t think Ted Dekker is an author for me. I always think the synopsis of his books sound great, but then when I read them they are too concerned with religious symbolism and parallels for my taste. I give this book 2 out of 5 stars, but do recommend it for those who like science fiction with lots of religious overtones thrown in.