Book review: The Silver Branch by Rosemary Sutcliff

You ever read a book that sticks in your mind as being full of shining things? I know this is an older book, but … gosh, this book did things to my mind.

First off, it’s the sequel to the Eagle of the Ninth. Eagle is a story about a young Roman centurion whose father was part of the Ninth Legion, which marched away into the north of Britain and never returned. He sets out on a quest to find the eagle of the Ninth, which was the legion’s standard, and in the hands of the Britons, could be turned into a dangerous magic talisman against Rome. He’s accompanied by his slave turned best friend, Esca, a Briton who knows the tribes and languages. It’s a total bromance book and was great fun.

A friend told me that the Silver Branch’s main character is basically my character Jayesh from my After Atlantis books. Curious, I picked it up and started reading.

The Roman province of Britannia, 292 AD

Justin is an introverted, awkward young military surgeon. His family line, Aquila, has been connected to Britannia for two hundred years, but he has never set foot there till now. A Celtic leader named Curoi, called Carausius in Latin, has declared himself emperor of Britannia and the northern part of Gaul; he has gained temporary recognition from actual Emperor Maximian in honor of Carausius’ sea victories. (By now, the Roman Empire has become a Tetrarchy).

Justin is immediately befriended by a red-headed soldier named Flavius—who turns out to be his cousin, Marcellus Flavius Aquila, direct descendant of Marcus from The Eagle of the Ninth. Flavius is thrilled to meet a kinsman from the Continental branch of the family, and both lads live at the ancestral homestead Marcus and Cottia built when they’re not in the barracks.

One of those whom Justin heals in the infirmary is Evicatos, an exiled Hibernian (Irish) warrior. Cases like his demonstrate Justin’s skills as a doctor and bring him, and his inseparable cousin, to the notice of Carausius himself.

But when Justin and Flavius witness an apparent act of treachery by Carausius’ minister of finance, Allectus, the world as they know it is upended. It’s up to these two, their dignified great-aunt Honoria, Evicatos, a Hibernian jester, an idealistic Centurion, a fussy little man and the boy he rescued from slavery, a washed-up former gladiator, and a small group of elderly farmhands to restore order in Britannia… (Summary from a Goodreads review because the official summary on Amazon is trash)

Anyway, the book is more or less a cloak and dagger spy novel from about chapter 5 onward, with nailbiting tension as Justin and Flavius constantly watch for spies and shadows … And maybe it’s the writing that got to me. The way it’s written paints vivid pictures in your mind.

Everyone’s attention was turned toward the Emperor, who was at that moment preparing to pour the second Libation to the gods. Everyone, that is, save Justin and Allectus. For some unknown reason, Justin had glanced again at Allectus; and Allectus was watching the moth. The moth was circling wildly nearer and nearer to one of the lamps which stood directly before the Finance Minister, its blurred shadow flashing about the table as it swooped and spun in dizzy spirals about the bright and beckoning flame, closer and closer, until the wild, ecstatic dance ended in a burst of shadows, and the moth spun away on singed wings, to fall with a pitiful, maimed fluttering close beside Allectus’s wine-cup. And Allectus, smiling faintly, crushed out its life under one deliberate finger. That was all. Anybody would crush a singed moth—it was the obvious, the only thing to do. But Justin had seen the pale man’s face as he watched the dancing moth, waiting for it to dance too near, seen it in the unguarded instant as he stretched out the precise forefinger to kill.

The Silver Branch by Rosemary Sutcliff

So yeah, I was expecting the cloak and dagger stuff. I wasn’t expecting it to tie into Eagle of the Ninth so beautifully.

Justin had complete faith from the first that the Eagle was what Flavius had guessed it to be, but if he had doubts, they would have left him that night as he worked in the sinking firelight with the soft sou’wester filling the night outside. The thing was strangely potent under his hands. What things it must have seen–bitter and dark and glorious things–this maimed bird of gilded bronze that was the life and honour of a lost Legion. And now, he thought, it must feel that the old days were back. Again there came to him as he worked that sense of kinship with the young soldier who had made a home in this downland valley, the young soldier who surely had brought the lost Eagle of a lost Legion home to its own people, so that Eagle and farm were linked, and it was fitting that the ancient Standard should go out from here to its last fight. The feeling of kinship was so strong that when, just as they had finished their task, someone loomed into the open doorway, he looked up almost expecting to see the other Marcus standing there with the windy dark behind him.

The Silver Branch by Rosemary Sutcliff

There were so many moments like this that just kind of get into your head. But what I was not expecting was that finale, as the heroes fight to save their town from rampaging Saxons. Justin goes from bandaging wounds to fighting with sword and shield and back to tending the wounded. There’s a part where he’s sitting with a dying man as the building is burning down around them, telling him that the roar of the flame is really the crowd cheering for him … and I’m getting choked up just remembering it.

Anyway, yeah, this is a good book. And all the book covers try to make out that the Silver Branch is a sword. That’s because apparently nobody who ordered the covers had read the book. The Silver Branch is this odd little instrument like a harp, except it has bells instead of strings. It becomes this running symbol throughout the book, the silver branch with its bells, vs the night moth …

Go grab it on Amazon! It’s also on if you don’t mind reading crummy scanned versions.

Books I read in 2022

I read 31 books in 2022, all kinds of different oddball stuff. Here’s some of my reviews.

Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones: Well duh, it’s Howl’s Moving Castle! It’s so good! It’s very different from the movie, too. The movie followed the book to the halfway point, then threw the book aside and wrote whatever the heck they wanted. The book is so much weirder!

Castle in the Air by Diana Wynne Jones. The sequel to Howl, but it starts off as an Arabian Nights story. Just as fun and fascinating.

The People of the Mist by H. Rider Haggard. I read this to the kids because I like it better than King Solomon’s Mines. Two brothers lose their fortunes and titles and go to Africa to make back their wealth. One brother dies, and the other, the hero, gets landed with a quest to rescue a girl from slavers. The woman who hires him promises him immeasurable wealth in the form of uncut rubies, which the tribe of her people keep secret, the People of the Mist. The hero rescues the girl from the slavers (there is much swashbuckling) and sort of accidentally marries her, except not. So now there’s all this tension between the guy and girl as they go on this quest to steal rubies from these horrible, horrible people way up in the mountains in African somewhere. It’s edge of your seat, swashbuckling, and the final escape down the side of a glacier on stone sleds is pretty much the best part of the book.

Starganauts by C.E. Stone. This book was okay. It’s very clean and Christian, appropriate for homeschoolers and teens. I found the stuff on the desert planet pretty slow, but it picks up once they get their armor.

Nomads of the North by James Oliver Curwood. As a kid, I watched the Disney movie of this book a million times. I think it’s called Niki, Wild Dog of the North. I had no idea that the author of Kazan and Baree, Son of Kazan had written it. Wonderful book, wonderful story, with an ending that tied it all up in a perfect bow. Sitting here with a few happy tears, actually.

Ronnie Akkard and the Brotherhood of Blades, by AC Williams. This was a tough read. The book reads like the first half is missing. What are the armors? How did they get them? The rules of the world aren’t told to the reader. We’re left to fumble around in confusion for the first twenty or so chapters. We meet a bunch of characters who hate each other … and why are they together? Who are they? The second half of the book sort of details it, but … there are layers of things that aren’t explained, like the incident in Texas, and Barb. That happened in the missing front half of the book, but it’s important at the end. Is there a short story that introduced the armors and the tiger and the samurai mentor from another dimension? Something that explains the bad guy robot things? If there is, read that first. I was so confused for this entire book.

Linnets and Valarians by Elizabeth Goudge. This is a beautiful, wonderful book. I just read it aloud to my kids and we loved it. JK Rowling cited it as one of her inspirations, along with the same author’s other book, The Little White Horse. In Linnets, you will find a man with a pet owl, an antagonist named Tom Biddle, and a cat who is not what he seems. There is black magic and white magic, and children having to do homework. It’s not a magical school, but this book is entirely magical.

Holes by Louis Sachar. You take a bad boy, you make him dig holes all day in the sun, you turn him into a good boy. At least, that’s what the warden of Camp Green Lake says. But the hero thinks maybe the Warden is searching for something … Always a great read, so fun to read aloud to the kids.

Salvage in Space by Jack Williamson (short story). This is a story like Alien, but older, and much more positive. If you like space ships haunted by monstrous aliens, this is a very fun read.

The King’s Spell and the King’s Enchantress by EJ Kitchens. I wrote a long review post for these.

Derwood, Inc, by Jerri Massi. I’ve loved this book since I was a kid, and my copy is very dogeared. I recently read it to my kids, because they needed the Fifty-Ton, Mile-Long, Giant Killer Octopus in their lives. We laughed all the way through. We are always on the lookout for funny books, and this one fits the bill perfectly.

Dealing with Dragons and Searching for Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede. Very fun books, kind of exhausting to read aloud because of the pages and pages of dialogue. My kids love this series.

How to Train your Dragon, by Cressida Cowell. Read this aloud to my kids and we had a lot of fun. The book was a lot better written than I expected, coming straight from Tracy West’s Dragon Masters books. The kids want me to read the whole series, so I may have my work cut out for me …

The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff. A friend of mine recommended the movie, The Eagle, as a solid, wholesome bromance. I haven’t enjoyed a good bromance in a while, so I watched the movie, and it was okay. Then I went and sampled the book on Amazon, and it was so much better than the movie. More emotional depth. But the sample ends before Marcus buys Esca, so I grabbed the book.

Oh my. If you enjoyed the movie at all, you’ll enjoy the book so much more. The bromance starts early and the book follows these bros on their quest to find the lost Roman Eagle standard. The book goes like this:

Historical exposition
Funny thing

Repeat for the whole book. The funny things constantly took me by surprise. I’ve read so many dry historical fiction novels for school, it was a welcome change to read fun characters. I think I’ll pick up the rest of this author’s stuff, because I appreciate an author who can entertain and educate in equal measures.

The Wheel on the School by Meindert DeJong. Wonderful kids book, like the kind they used to write. I’ve read a lot of DeJong’s books, my favorite being Along Came a Dog because it’s about a chicken, lol. This one is about the adventures a bunch of kids have while searching for wagon wheels to put on their school to make nests for storks. As the kids say these days, it’s very wholesome. They make friends and help people along the way. Mean Legless Janus has the best character arc, but as a kid, you don’t see it. As an adult, Janus’s change from a mean, depressed crippled guy to the leader of the village is amazing and refreshing. Highly recommend this book.

Power On by HL Burke. Good superhero adventure for teens. Fun powers, decent characters who grow on you, and just enough peril to keep things interesting. Oh, and invisible ferrets.

Watership Down by Richard Adams. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise, Watership Down is a fantasy novel. The gang of buddy male rabbits, their epic quests, first for survival, then for mates, then to defeat the crazed General Woundwort, has all the hallmarks of an excellent fantasy novel. Once you get used to all the protagonists being rabbits, it’s such an excellent read.

The Hobbit, the Fellowship of the Ring, the Two Towers, Return of the King, by JRR Tolkien. Reading it aloud to the kids is kind of a chore, and the books get so dark toward the end. But at the same time, I realized that LOTR is actually a WWII spy novel. No wonder nobody’s ever duplicated it, haha.

The Shock of Night, the Shattered Vigil, the Wounded Shadow, by Patrick Carr. I wrote a long blog post review of these.

The Librarian of Crooked Lane by CJ Archer. A very odd mystery that was like watching a BBC period mystery series set in WW1, except with magic.

Sea and Soul by Shari Branning. Wrote a blog review for this one.

Of Ice and Roses by Heather M Elliot. This is a beautifully-written rendition of the Snow Queen by Hans Christian Anderson. But it starts off with Cinderella, so it’s this kind of neat fairytale mashup. Gemma is a poor girl who catches the eye of a prince, who invites her to a week-long ball. Her stepmother (who is not wicked!) gives her an enchantment to create beautiful dresses, and over the course of the week, she and the prince fall in love. Classic fairytale stuff.
They get married and have their honeymoon–
Why is the snow queen attacking
Why is Gemma’s missing childhood friend Casper mixed up in it
Why has Gemma’s memory of him been altered
Why does her stepmother’s enchantment for making dresses also work to make cold-weather clothing
There are amazing tribal werewolves
Ice monsters
Casper must be rescued from the snow queen and I want to wrap him up in a warm blanket except he wouldn’t like it because the cold never bothered him anyway
Why is this book so amazing

Fate and Fang by Shari Branning. This is a fun sidestory set in the Seer’s Gambit universe. The premise is like Person of Interest: you have Elliot Reed, who has visions of murder, and you have Tristan Quinn, the werewolf who tries to rescue the victims. There is lots of werewolfy brawling and fighting and killing of bad guys, and the bad guy is a really nasty sorcerer. I hope this becomes a whole series, because it’s too good to leave alone.

Book review: The Librarian of Crooked Lane by CJ Archer

While browsing Hoopla, this little book kept being recommended to me. I scooped it up on a whim because hey, it’s free. It turned out to be very relaxed and very … odd.

Amazon summary:

A librarian with a mysterious past, a war hero with a secret, and the heist of a magic painting. THE LIBRARIAN OF CROOKED LANE is an intriguing new fantasy from C.J. Archer, the USA Today bestselling author of the Glass and Steele series.

Librarian Sylvia Ashe knows nothing about her past, having grown up without a father and a mother who refused to discuss him. When she stumbles upon a diary that suggests she’s descended from magicians, she’s skeptical. After all, magicians are special, and she’s just an ordinary girl who loves books. She seeks the truth from a member of the most prominent family of magicians, but she quickly learns that finding the truth won’t be easy, especially when he turns out to be as artless as her, and more compelling and dangerous than books.

War hero Gabe is gifted with wealth, a loving family, and an incredible amount of luck that saw him survive four harrowing years of a brutal war without injury. But not all injuries are visible. Burying himself in his work as a consultant for Scotland Yard, Gabe is going through the motions as he investigates the theft of a magician-made painting. But his life changes when he unwittingly gets Sylvia dismissed from her job and places her in danger.

After securing her new employment in a library housing the world’s greatest collection of books about magic, Gabe and Sylvia’s lives become entwined as they work together to find both the painting and the truth about Sylvia’s past before powerful people can stop them.

But sometimes the past is better left buried…

So this book is very odd and slow-paced. It’s set in post-WWI London, in a world where there are magician craftsmen who create more beautiful things than nonmagicals do, to the point where they have to be under a luxury goods tax. But the story is a mystery about a girl who gets mixed up in the robbery of a magical painting.

While accompanying the handsome yet enigmatic detective around on his search for suspects and clues, they go the oddest places and meet the oddest characters. I felt like I was watching a BBC period drama. The kind where the detective interviews artists with the nude model in the background, and everyone drinks alcohol like it’s soda pop.

It’s very slow paced and not much violence. In fact, the book lamely tries to make up for its lack of violence by having false cliffhanger chapter endings. “And suddenly a dark shadow came up behind me … Next chapter: Hi! said my friend.” Aside from that annoyance, the story was what cozy mysteries used to be. Just the amateur sleuth talking to people and going interesting places. I read it every night before bed and it helped me relax and get sleepy, while giving me a few more clues and suspects to think about. It was just a pleasant read. I don’t know if I’m invested enough to read the second book, but I think other folks might be.

Grab the book here!

Book review: The Darkwater Saga by Patrick W. Carr

A friend of mine has been talking up this series by Patrick Carr for a long time. I kept brushing her off and going, “Eh, I don’t feel like reading a fantasy trilogy right now.” The last one I read, Seventh Born, kind of left a bad taste in my mouth. Also, I have a bad habit of reading only book 1 of everything.

Then we got to talking about wounded heroes, and characters who carry on despite their wounds and flaws, and ultimatly overcome and triumph. My friend assured me that the hero in Darkwater was that kind of hero. I ventured into the depths of my library’s Hoopla system, and lo and behold, they had the whole trilogy (except for the prequel novella, more on that in a minute).

So I started reading. I’ve spent the last month reading this trilogy like I was popping salted peanuts. So here is my review, so you, too, might want to read them:

The first book is really that prequel novella, By Divine Right, where the King’s Reeve (aka detective) Willet Dura sniffs out a bad guy in the king’s court who is stealing magic gifts. In reward for finding and killing this guy, Willet is given a title and the hand of the noblewoman Gael in marriage, but it also makes his name mud in the royal court. This is where book 1 starts off.

Actual book 1:

The Shock of Night

Amazon summary:

The Darkwater Claims All Who Enter It.
All But One.

When one man is brutally murdered and the priest he works for mortally wounded, Willet Dura, reeve to the king of Bunard, is called to investigate. As he begins to question the dying priest, the man pulls Willet close and screams in a foreign tongue. Then he dies without another word.

Willet returns to his task, but the clues to the crime lead to contradictions and questions without answers, and his senses are skewed. People he touches appear to have a subtle shift, as though he can divine their deepest thoughts. In a world divided between haves and have-nots, gifted and common, Willet soon learns he’s been passed the rarest gift of all–a gift that’s not supposed to exist.

Now Willet must pursue the murderer still on the loose in Bunard even as he’s pulled into a dangerous conflict that threatens not only his city, but his entire world–a conflict  that will force him to come to terms with his inability to remember how he escaped the Darkwater Forest–and what happened to him inside it. 

So if you hadn’t guessed, this is a mystery story set in a fantasy world. I’ve wanted to read something like this since Harry Potter tried it, and it was a pleasant surprise to realize I was following around a detective. It really clobbers you with the worldbuilding and magic system at first, so I felt like I was drowning in the first few chapters. And then Willet gets his magic gift from the dying dude, and then it really gets wonky for a while. I kept asking my friend, “Does it get less weird?” She assured me that it gets better if I’d just stick with it. So I did, and it does settle down a bit once he understands his power. He can basically touch people and see all their memories. Trouble is, do this too much and you can go insane, so he has to learn the rules of his power.

Further trouble: there is a secret society of mind-readers called the Vigil, and they really don’t want him in there with him. See, Willet has a vault in his mind–a locked scroll of secrets that was placed there by something in the Darkwater Forest. At night, this vault opens … sometimes. Most people become murdering rage-puppets for this … thing in the Darkwater. But Willet doesn’t, and the question of why drives the entire trilogy.

Anyway, the thing that murdered the priest in the beginning is coming for the rest of the city, and book 1 is about thwarting it. It ends with a fantasy Christmas celebration that is about the most terrifying solstice celebration ever. And it ends with even more questions being asked, and a bunch of stuff getting revealed. I went and checked out book 2 at once.

Book 2:

The Shattered Vigil

Amazon summary:

Victory over the dark forces during the feast of Bas-solas should have guaranteed safety for the continent. Instead, Willet and the rest of the Vigil discover they’ve been outsmarted by those seeking to unleash the evil that inhabits the Darkwater. Jorgen, the member of the Vigil assigned to Frayel, has gone missing, and new attacks have struck at the six kingdoms’ ability to defend themselves.

Just when the Vigil thought they had quenched the menace from their enemy in Collum, a new threat emerges: assassins hunting the Vigil, men and women who cannot be seen until it’s too late. The orders of the church and the rulers of the kingdoms, fearing the loss of the Vigil’s members altogether, have decided to take them into protective custody to safeguard their gift. On Pellin’s orders, the Vigil scatters, leaving Willet to be taken prisoner by the church in Bunard.

In the midst of this, Willet learns of the murder of an obscure nobleman’s daughter by one of the unseen assassins. Now he must escape his imprisonment and brave the wrath of the church to find the killer in order to turn back this latest threat to the northern continent.

In this book, the Vigil goes from being Willet’s antagonists to being his allies. Mostly because of the invisible assassins that can only be seen by children. Each of the Vigil basically adopts one of the street urchins from book 1, and these kids wind up being pretty much the best characters in the book. Anyway, the Vigil split up to figure out what the heck is happening and who is sending the assassins. More detective work, more mysteries with Willet’s vault.

Early on, you find out that the priest who heard Willet’s confessions was a figment of his broken mind. Willet finds this out and is humiliated and sad. I was humiliated and sad for him.

But then … uh … the guy ISN’T a figment and winds up being SUPER DUPER IMPORTANT.

Also Willet gets a dog. A very big telepathic magic dog who is the Goodest Boi.

If you can’t tell, I’m trying not to spoil a billion twists and turns.


The Wounded Shadow

Amazon summary:

The kings and queens of the northern continent lay siege to the Darkwater Forest, desperate to contain its evil. But rumors of gold and aurium have lured deserters and the desperate into its shadow, creating a growing army held in its sway. Desperate after the death and dissolution of their greatest ally, Willet and the Vigil seek the truth of what lies at the heart of the evil they face. They delve the mind of an old enemy and find an answer far worse than they could have imagined.

Danger stalks the cities of the north, striking at the rulers of the kingdoms. As Willet and the rest of the Vigil seek to find answers, the group is scattered with an ever-growing darkness around them. Will they discover a path to keep their land safe, or will an ancient evil reclaim the world it once called its own?

As you can tell by the shortness of this summary, there’s a lot to give away and a lot to spoil. Let me hit the highlights:

One of the urchins discovers how to make the invisible assassins back into human beings.

They learn how to break Willet’s vault without killing him.

The priest who heard Willet’s confession is a freaking fae.

The thing in the Darkwater is satisfyingly weird and horrifying.

What happened to Willet in the Darkwater is satisfyingly weird and horrifying.

There is a happy ending and Willet gets his happily ever after.

Looking back over the books in my mind, I just feel so satisfied and happy with how they turned out. For one thing, although this is a Christian fantasy series, it doesn’t beat you over the head with any sort of altar call. Instead, the characters debate theology the whole time. The Vigil are all priests, and they’re kind of entrenched in religion and prayers and catechism. Now pair them with street urchins who live by their wits and have only seen the church go near them to maybe do last rites, if they’re lucky. The kids run the gamut of outright atheism to “I believe in God but I don’t like him”. And seeing these kids clash their life experience into the Vigil with all their training and very little practical life experience is fascinating.

And then you have Willet Dura, who would have been a priest except for getting drafted in a war and winding up in the Darkwater Forest. He’s a liability to everybody because the Darkwater is probably listening to them through him. They want to break his vault and kill him, but they need his skills too badly. Poor Willet believes in God but he also struggles with his own PTSD hell. He’s also the kind of self-sacrificing kind. “Well, the only way to get the truth is to throw myself into the lion’s den, so here I go.” His sarcastic bodyguard, Bolt, is one of the best characters, always getting mad at Willet for doing stupidly heroic things.

There are all kinds of pictures of faith and mercy and hope in these books. Sometimes a fantasy series just leaves you feeling tired and beaten up, but this trilogy left me feeling uplifted. Goodness and right did triumph at the end, all the way down to Willet overcoming the petty bully in court who had pushed him around for the first book.

Five stars, highly recommend. Go grab them on Amazon or your library!

Book review: Sea and Soul by Shari Branning

The last few books I’ve reviewed in here have been less than favorable. So, let’s review a book I actually liked!

Sea and Soul, by Shari Branning

An evil queen sits on the throne, and the Seer has seen a curse is coming.

When empath Dylan Blaine is summoned to a gala on the Isle of Selkies, he knows it will likely spell his doom. But you can’t turn down a summons from a seer. His fears are justified when he encounters Lyselle, a sorceress who wants his power for her own.

Selkie heiress Kiah of Lomasi doesn’t know what help she could possibly be in the Seer’s game against the Witch Queen, but then disaster strikes as they’re leaving the gala, and she’s the only one who can save Dylan’s life.

Will Dylan, Kiah, and a handful of others that the Seer has brought together be able to navigate court politics, black magic, assassins, and monsters to keep their country from destruction? Or will the Witch Queen, who’s been sacrificing people with magic to feed her own stolen powers, end them all?

Sea and Soul is the first book in the Seer’s Gambit series, but can be read on its own or out of order.

Amazon link

This book is kind of like urban fantasy, but it’s not. It’s kind of like paranormal romance, but it’s not. This is almost a fairytale set in modern day. It has an evil stepmother queen, witches, princesses, selkies, werewolves, elves, and a cursed forest. But it also has guns, helicopters, motorboats, cars, and cell phones. In fact, people use magic mirrors and cellphones side by side. The setting is based on Alaska, so the city is built on a rugged coast of cliffs and restless seas. I can’t remember the last time I read a fantasy book set in Alaska.

Dylan is an empath, which means he has the ability to sense other people’s feelings. Instead of this making him touchy-feely, it makes him grouchy and snarky. Also, he’s been in fear for his life for years, because everybody wants an empath. A king with a leashed empath could always tell who his enemies are, or could control the emotions of anyone around him. The evil witch-queen wants him. Her sister, another witch, wants him. The elves want him, the selkies want him, everybody wants Dylan and his powers.

Thing is, humans don’t have magic. Dylan, as a human and being an empath, is very rare, and not exactly magic. For humans to get magic, they have to become a sorcerer and steal the magic from one of the magical races by sacrificing them and taking it from their blood. So for a witch queen to be in control of a country of magicals … this is really bad.

Dylan and a small group of others are brought together by the Seer and told that they need to become friends, because they’re going to have to work together to take down the witch queen and save their country. If they don’t, the whole country will be cursed, like the neighboring country of Marieadd, which got cursed after a war where everybody misused magic. That’s the whole cursed forest thing. The group aren’t sure about this, because everybody has their own secrets. But this isn’t a team-up book. Each of these characters will get their own books, and let me tell you, I want them all.

Dylan walks out the door and is attacked by the witch, Lyselle, who wants this empath under her thumb before her sister gets to him. She puts a subjugation spell on him, which he fights until he’s almost dead. But he’s saved by Kiah, a selkie whose only magic is sea-based. (Selkies are a sort of were-seal.) To save Dylan and break the subjugation spell, Kiah has to replace it with a stronger spell–that of her coat, which in selkie culture, is how they get married.

So Dylan wakes up with this pretty white glowing tattoo thing wrapped across his chest and back, and it’s Kiah’s coat, and it can’t come off. So … they’re married and it’s awkward because they only met the previous night. Whoops.

So now, as they work together to fight the queen and Lyselle and help their friends, Dylan and Kiah have this growing attraction as they awkwardly try to date and get to know each other. The action kicks off and never lets up, with the queen drawing the net tighter and tighter. I won’t spoil any more, but it has a heck of an ending. Dylan learns to weaponize his empath powers, and it’s terrific.

Whenever I’ve read a book with someone who can sense feelings, it’s always a girl doing it. To have a guy who senses feelings … and then makes wisecracks … was oddly refreshing and fun. Dylan smarts off to his enemies, even when it costs him. There’s a lovely theme of faith and the power that faith bestows. There’s a wonderful picture of love vs lust and how different they are.

I’d recommend this book for teens and up. Even though it has the imagination and action of a young adult novel, the characters are in their 20s, and … well, I just mentioned the love vs lust thing. Nothing is shown, and there’s only a few hot kisses, but there’s quite a lot of stuff implied, if you get my meaning. Such as what the witch wants to do to Dylan. In Dylan’s own words, “Ew!”

I can’t wait for the next books with the other characters. Also, I did the cover art!

5/5 stars

Book review: King’s Spell and King’s Enchantress by E.J. Kitchens

Buckle up, folks, this is going to be a long one.

So, I saw on a FB group that an author was looking for readers of an upcoming book. It was book 2 in a series, and it had very pretty covers, so I volunteered. First, I read book 1. So, here we go:

The King’s Spell by E.J. Kitchens:

Only a king can banish sorcerers and strip enchanters of their power. Only a king is immune to spells and potions. Only a king knows the truth behind the legends. Until now.

Magic Collector Devryn Ashby may have deserved the curse that saps his magic-manipulating abilities, but it certainly won’t help him with the task King Reginald has assigned him. Instead of allowing him to continue hunting for those who stole the powerful Enchanter’s List, the king makes Devryn trainer-in-magic to the mischievous enchantress Lady Meredith Lofton.

Except for an occasional matchmaking exploit, Lady Meredith has little use for her power of enchantment—until the king asks her to train in magical warfare techniques. This both excites and terrifies her. And irks her, for she refuses to be bossed around by the critical Devryn Ashby, a man she’s not even sure she should trust.

But as dangers increase and the sorcerers’ schemes unfold, Devryn and Meredith must choose whom to follow—their own desires and prejudices or their king. Only a king knows how much the kingdom depends on their choice.

THE KING’S SPELL, Realm and Wand book 1, is a YA Christian fantasy series with a “Jane Austen romance meets fantasy adventure” feel. It’s mystery and adventure with a slow-burn romance. It is part of the Magic Collectors story world but is a standalone series. Devryn Ashby is a minor character in The Rose and the Wand, but it is not necessary to have read that book beforehand.

Amazon link to book

My review: 3/5 stars. It’s a Regency style fantasy world with fancy dresses and top hats, and all the social and political craziness that goes with a Jane Austen novel. There are the enchanters, who are people born with magic. There are the Half-magics, who have the ability to take magic from an enchanter and use it, but they don’t generate magic themselves. There are Sensors, who can tell when someone or an object has magic, but they can’t manipulate it. Then there are the Sorcerers, who … uh … I guess do bad things with magic and enslave people and stuff. Thing is, we hear about them, but we don’t see them in action.

The worldbuilding for these books is terrific. The characters are fun. But the book is hampered by a couple of things.

First off, even though the summary says that you don’t need to have read the earlier books … you need to have read the earlier books. King’s Spell starts off with a villain from an earlier book being stripped of his magic, demonstrating just what the King’s Spell can do. Devryn, the half-magic hero, has a cursed cut on his hand that keeps him from collecting magic. How’d he get it? Whoops, if you didn’t read The Rose and the Wand, you’re up a creek, because the book is going to tiptoe around the plot of the earlier book without telling you much. Which is a shame, because his curse has all kinds of interesting conditions that are barely touched on.

Second, the cover art screams ‘romance’, but this book is not romance. It’s historical fantasy thriller. It’s all about the mystery of an assassin trying to off the king, and a lot of trying to figure out the pieces of the mystery and put them together. This is great if you were expecting a thriller. Not so great if you were expecting a romance.

Meredith, the heroine, is cute and spunky and associates with Oliver Twist-esque pickpocket kids, trying to get them off the street and into a respectable orphanage. These kids wind up knowing an awful lot about the evil sorcerers trying to infiltrate the country. But at the same time, Meredith is a happy carrier of the Idiot Ball, which she will lug for pages and pages. In fact, the end of the book is a cliffhanger in which she lugs the Idiot Ball clear off the side of a dock into a river. I liked her as a character and I kept waiting for her to put two and two together. Hm, no, she never does.

Welp, so much for book 1. Onto book 2!

The King’s Enchantress by E.J. Kitchens:

Only a king has no magic and yet the command of it. Only a king does an enchantress serve. But even a sorcerer can be a king to some.

Devryn Ashby has reluctantly accepted his appointment as Guardian—a trainer in magic—to enchantress Meredith Lofton, but the effects of his curse are getting worse. If he can’t get find a way to get around it or cure it, he might be forced to reveal his secret to the Loftons and King Reginald. He’d do almost anything to keep his curse a secret. And the Dark Mage knows it.

But with Meredith and her beloved street urchins in danger and something both magical and animal hunting enchanters for the Dark Mage, Devryn must learn to overcome his curse. Or work with an enchantress.

The King’s Enchantress is book 2 of the clean “Jane Austen romance meets fantasy adventure” series Realm and Wand.

Amazon link to book

My review: 3/5 stars

Book 2 starts right off with the climax book 1 didn’t have. I don’t know why it was removed from book 1 and installed in book 2, instead. Meredith recovers from her fall in the river weirdly fast, the terrible curse she was suffering from turns out to be only a sort of magical food poisoning. She and Devryn actually interact to save some urchin kids (GASP they actually interacted! This almost never happened in book 1).

This funky precedent is being set with these books. In between the gorgeous worldbuilding and the tantalizing tastes of magic, the fascinating politics and the mysterious notes from the Dark Mage, there is no real tension. A Bad Thing happens and then … it gets resolved with few consequences. Over and over.

King’s Enchantress is 445 pages long, and it should have been about 100 pages shorter. There are pages and pages of filler scenes where the characters diligently study books at the library and learn nothing. The best parts, where Devryn and Meredith are training in magic, are sparse and short. The pacing is S L O W. I know some people like slow pacing, and that seems to be an expectation for these semi-fairytale books. But it would be pages and pages before anything actually happened. I kept expecting the pieces to fall into place. Soon I’d reach a part where I’d understand everything. Everything would be explained. I was at 70%. They’d explain everything at 80%, right? Or at 90%?

The whole book is about tracking these magically altered animals called mage hunters. They attack enchanters and suck the magic out of them. The whole book is about these things. And then, suddenly, in the climax of the book … there are no mage hunters. There’s a sorcerer plot to enslave the heroes with a spell that had literally never been mentioned until that point. You’d think in all those 445 pages, it might have been mentioned that sorcerers could enthrall enchanters and use them as slaves. Seems like an important plot point. But nope.

I reached the end of the book frustrated at the lack of any explanation of anything. Devryn hasn’t figured out the curse on his hand despite some really obvious foreshadowing. Meredith learned something important about the mage hunters and … nothing came of it. The romance was limited to fluttery feelings and denial of those feelings. I imagine these plot threads will be explored in later books, but it made for a really unsatisfying read. I kept thinking and hoping that there would be that AHA moment when it all comes together, and it never did.

Overall, both books get a 3/5 star rating from me. Good writing, fascinating worldbuilding and politics, highly imaginative uses of magic, but hampered by a lack of cohesion and consistency in the storytelling.

Bloganuary: What’s next on your reading list? Why, it’s Diana Wynne Jones

Today’s prompt asks, “What’s next on your reading list?”

From the Howl’s Moving Castle film by Studio Ghibli. Very pretty, but doesn’t follow the book.

I’ve been reading books aloud to the kids to start off the year. I know we should be reading deep, pithy educational stuff. So we started off with Howl’s Moving Castle, because that’s educational, right? It’s about a girl cursed to be an old woman, and she goes to the wicked Wizard Howl for help. Turns out Howl isn’t so wicked, and needs her help to break the spell that he’s under. The book is a hilarious readaloud, with chapter titles like, “In Which Howl Expresses His Feelings With Green Slime”.

Naturally, we had to read the sequel, Castle in the Air. This is a take on the Arabian Nights, where a humble carpet merchant buys a magic carpet and falls in love with the Sultan’s daughter, only to see her kidnapped by a djinn. Then he has to go on an adventure to rescue her, aided by a grouchy genie in a bottle, a dishonest soldier, and a black cat whose only power is to make herself huge. It has nothing to do with Howl until the 3/4ths mark, where it suddenly has everything to do with Howl.

Well, we finished that one, and I asked the kids what they wanted to hear next. They voted for Witch Week, also by Diana Wynne Jones, but it’s in the Chrestomanci series. In a world where witches are burned for being witches, a strict boarding school takes in witch-orphans. The story starts when a teacher gets a note saying, “Someone in class 6B is a witch.” And the shenanigans that ensue have had us laughing and laughing.

I never noticed how funny these books were until I read them aloud. Jones has a very dry sense of humor that only comes through when you’re trying to voice the crazy things these characters are saying or doing. Harry Potter is funnier when read aloud, too.

What will we read next? Probably more Diana Wynne Jones. I want to buy A Tale of Time City and surprise them with it, because they’ve never read that one.

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The Talented trilogy by Rossano: a theology review

A friend on my Discord was telling me about her favorite book series. “But I’ve only read the first two books,” she said, “because I had to wait for the third one to come out.” I picked up a sample of the first book, liked what I read, and kept reading, all the way through three books.

BTW, if you are the author, click away now.

The three books in the Talented trilogy by Rachel Rossano

Since the summaries of the books are garbage, I refuse to use them and instead have written my own:

In a world based on Europe after the fall of Rome, a very Rome-inspired kingdom has the Talented and the non-Talented. This means that some people are born with psychic and telekinetic powers, and some aren’t. Seventh sons, in particular, have lots of powers, and the seventh son of a seventh son has multiplied powers. This is great unless the seventh child is born a daughter, because girls are only fit for breeding in this universe. The heroine, Zezilia, is seventh born and about to be introduced to society on her 15th birthday, when a talent trainer notices her insane levels of psychic power and takes her off to train her against her father’s wishes.

The highest mage in the land is the Sept Son, and his job is to train other talents and keep them from turning their powers to criminal use. Hadrian is barely old enough to drink and the seventh son of a seventh son, chosen for his crazy levels of power. He has to check Zezilia for powers and sparks fly. Bam, three years go by so now she’s eighteen and legally able to have romance, lol! Her powers are stronger than his. Since everybody in the kingdom wants Hadrian dead for increasingly hazy reasons, Zez becomes his bodyguard, except whoops, he already agreed to marry her sight unseen as the cost of training her. Cue the dramatic tension.

I have a weakness for psychic romance, and I thought it was interesting that the characters pray to the Almighty all the time. So I dove in. The psychic romance is very mild compared to, say, Firebird by Kathy Tyers. Psychic romance is very hot because of the intimacy without any physical contact. This author obviously tried to keep everything to a very mild T-rating. The characters barely kiss even after they’re married, snicker. The action is entertaining and the politics are kind of fun … at first. More on that later.

If you can’t tell, I’m building to a gripe about this trilogy. Surprise, it’s the theology.

I don’t know what denomination this author is, but the Christianity is very constrained, and by the end, I would say it’s very neutered. In book 1, the driving conflict of the plot is that the country nominally worships the Goddess, while the hero, Hadrian, worships the Almighty. And … uh … that’s about all we’re told, even though these characters pray to the Almighty literally on every page. What is the name of the Goddess? How do people worship her? Why are they threatened by Almighty worship? We’re never told. The high priest of the Goddess works very hard to undermine Hadrian and replace him … but why? By book 2, the high priest is randomly killed off and the Goddess thing is a non-issue.

We’re told that the Almighty hates sin and you have to pray to be forgiven and stuff, and the characters lug around battered copies of the holy book, the Revelation. But that’s all there is to the religion. They pray and pray and pray to this Almighty and receive in exchange a vague sense of peace. The Almighty never speaks to them, which is weird in a trilogy about psychic communication. You’d think somebody would get a message, or an emotion, or a picture, or some guidance of any kind. Book 2 has a character pick up the idiot ball and run with it twice because “apparently it’s so hard to figure out the will of the Almighty”.

By book 3, it’s apparent that the high priest of the Goddess had to die because the religion of the Goddess actually had more depth than the Almighty one. Instead, he is replaced by a political insurgent who uses abuse and sex to control people so you know he’s really the evil one. The constant praying to the Almighty slowly loses steam because the author has nothing else to say about him. He’s, uh, good or something. Even though the religion is used like a bludgeon (“You’re depressed? It’s because you don’t BELIEVE hard enough!”). There’s no joy, no reward, no relationship in this religion. The Almighty never intercedes for his followers. He’s just as distant and uncaring as the Goddess is said to be.

This really bothered me, because I’ve been writing very vivid relationships between my characters and the Divine. Since God, himself, is hard to fit into the human brain, I’ve been experimenting with metaphors, like Fith in After Atlantis, who is basically an elemental of fire and righteousness. He is present. He is terrible. He is good. And he shows up to chat whenever the heroes need him, usually with hard advice and lavish kindness combined. I was hoping that with this Christian psychic book, with intricate worldbuilding, would find a unique way to portray the believer’s relationship with God.

Turns out, I was wrong. I got to the end and was like, okay, so, what’s the deal with the Almighty? You could cut him and the Goddess out of the books and it would make literally no difference. If you made the hero black and the bad guys white, it would be the exact same conflict, and have the exact same depth. And by the end, it’s some kind of class warfare struggle anyway, because … apparently that was actually a deeper conflict to build a plot on than anything religious.

I finished the trilogy happy for the ending the characters got, but frustrated with the shallowness of the theology. I expected deep moral issues, and any kind of a portrayal of God. What I got was some kind of tract. You’re taught how to join this religion, but the religion itself is nothing I’d want to be part of. It was dead and awful. And I’m sorry to say it. As a Christian, myself, I’m deeply disappointed in this portrayal. It misrepresents everything about true faith and how God’s will actually works.

Anyway, this was a lot of space to rant about a book trilogy that I nominally enjoyed. Here is the Book a Minute of the trilogy:

Zez: I have powerful powers.

Hadrian: I am cruelly overworked.

Zez: Let’s kiss.


Hadrian: Sorry about that. Let’s kiss.


Zez: That sucked. Let’s kiss.




Book review: Wilding by Isabella Tree

These last few weeks, being miserably pregnant and watching social media turn into a dumpster fire, I needed to take my brain someplace else. No fiction appealed to me–too stressful. So I picked up a non-fiction book I’ve been wanting to read for a long time: Wilding, by Isabella Tree.

I first read about the Knepp Estate Wilding project a few years ago in this article. It was so strange to me, so backward and refreshing, that I just had to know more.

The farm is on the famously heavy clays of the Sussex Weald. It’s no coincidence that Sussex folk have more than 30 dialect words for mud, from clodgy to gubber: this poorly draining “marginal” soil sets like concrete in summer and porridge in winter, and will never provide high yields of crops.

For 17 years, Burrell did what the conventional farming world told him to do: intensify, and diversify. Tree quotes Burrell’s aunt: “We were all brought up to believe we would go to heaven if we made two blades of grass grow where one had grown before.” They invested in better machinery, unleashed the latest pesticides and launched their own brand ice-cream. They almost doubled their wheat yields. It didn’t work. After 15 years of farming, they made a cash surplus in only two. Both Burrell and Tree enjoyed wildlife. “We’d go all over the world looking for nature, never thinking about what we were doing to it here, or how it could be here,” says Tree. In 1999, the ancient oaks on their land were inspected by an expert, Ted Green. He told the couple that their trees were in poor health because of their farming system’s ploughing of roots and the destruction of mycorrhizae, a vast subterranean fungal network that is crucial to plant health. His visit, writes Tree, coming just when they realised their farm business was unequivocally failing, was an epiphany.

Raising cows among the weeds, the Guardian

This is where the book starts–a failing farm on heavy clay that is no longer good for anything. So the couple take inspiration from a rewilding project in Scotland, where you let the land go wild and introduce hardy, grazing animals like deer, cattle, and pigs. It’s important to use old breeds that still have survival instincts and can feed themselves through the winters. That’s where things got interesting.

When they first let the land go fallow, they immediately had three years of weeds coming up, among them the hated Devil’s Thistle. It sends out a huge root system from one plant and covers acres this way. The surrounding farmers gave them crap for it, but the couple held on, hoping that the whole rewilding thing would work itself out. Then came an absolute plague of painted lady butterflies up from Africa.

Painted ladies love Devil’s Thistle. They blanketed the farm and covered the thistles in caterpillars. By winter, the thistles were so decimated that the wild ponies ate them to the ground, and by the next year, there wasn’t a thistle to be found.

The book is filled with story after story like this–where they assumed one thing and found out it was wrong. For instance, (highly endangered) nightingales were assumed to be a woodland bird–until they began nesting in the scrub brush at Knepp in amazing numbers. Same for the (even more endangered) turtle dove. Each chapter is fascinating examination of things that conservationists believe, and how they were wrong.

Ultimately, the book ends on a hopeful note. The world’s farms are producing food enough to feet ten billion people, and that surplus goes to waste every year. Improving the microscopic life in the world’s soils would absorb the excess carbon in the atmosphere within a few short years. By letting rivers return to their floodplains and letting marshes return, the pollution runoff from farms is reduced to nearly nothing. These observations go on and on–what a positive effect it is to let our over-farmed land lie fallow and let the wilderness return.

It’s a deep, refreshing read, quite different from the hysteria on the news right now. It’s encouraging and hopeful, and backed by pages and pages of studies. I kept joking that I was reading a fascinating book about conservation. But it really is fascinating, and also refreshing, like taking your mind on a vacation.

I highly recommend it for anybody who would like to take a stroll around an English farm and watch it slowly turn to wilderness.

I loved these books (and will not be reading more)

Seems counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? To love books in a series and yet quit on the series two books in. Well, let me explain. (The following is MY OPINION. If you are the author, for heaven’s sake, click away now.)

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I picked up Starship’s Mage by Glynn Stewart on the recommendation of a friend. Great book, set in a future where magic has been discovered as a kind of new kind of science. Mages can interact with specially-designed spaceships to jump them lightyears through space, bypassing the need for hyperspace entirely. Magic works by sending energy through engraved runes, making it all work like a computer language or a circuit board.

The first book follows a space freighter and its captain who have been marked for death by space pirates. They pick up a young mage who can’t land a job owing to his lack of social connections. However, this mage, Damian Montgomery, has the ability to actually see the energy flow in magic runes. He hacks the ship and turns it into a giant magic amplifier, i.e. a freaking magic wand made for blowing up ships. This is hella-illegal. Now the pirates are after them, and the government is after them, and a Hand of the Mage-King is after them, too.

What made the first book great was the way the characters pulled together as a team. The captain protected his crew and especially his mage. His mage constantly pushed his own limits to save the captain and crew, driven by guilt that all this is his fault, anyway. Such a screaming good read.

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Then I picked up book 2, The Hand of Mars. No more team. Damian is now Uber Leet Trained Mage who is solving massive planetary political problems all on his lonesome. The crew from the first book are off doing their own thing. Damian is kind of the underdog for a while, until suddenly he’s leading the rebels in retaking their planet from a corrupt governor. It was fun and suspenseful, but … I don’t know, without the team all pulling for each other, and Damian being both target and underdog, it felt more like a superhero book. Watch one guy save the day by being awesome.

Slightly disappointed, I checked out the next few books. Again, same thing. Damian single-handedly saving the day. No team. Cheap sex hookups that don’t last and don’t mean anything. No lasting relationships or character development.

Sadly, I decided not to read any more. I don’t have time to read the same book over and over. You can see the series ending coming miles away that Damian is going to wind up as the next Mage-King, so it’s not like it’s even any big surprise. The team dynamic is what sold me on the first book–the team constantly doing the right thing to save their people, and it biting them in the butt hardcore. If the series had continued with Damian still with his team, just facing bigger and badder threats, I’d have probably read every single book and clamored for more. But I don’t have the patience for a James Bond in Space kind of story. I know lots and lots of people love that kind of thing, and if that’s your thing, check out these books! But it’s just not for me. And I’m sad to say it, because that first book was amazing.