Tag Archives: historical fiction

Review: “The Silent Deal” by Levi Stack

Title: The Silent Deal
Author: Levi Stack
Series: The Card Game #1
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Amazon, 2013

I’ve mentioned before the thrill of finding a gem when sifting through the sludge of most self-published work. Once again, I present an excellent debut novel! This time we have The Silent Deal, a nominally (but not restrictively) YA adventure set in the back-country of 1840s Russia. In the interest of full disclosure, I received a digital copy from the author after failing to win a FirstReads giveaway. If you’re interested, this first book in the series is currently available for free on your Kindle from Amazon here.

There’s something wrong with the village of Aryk. Everyone knows it, but no one will talk about it. Strangers exchange knowing glances in the street. Adults clam up as soon as youth enter the room, awkwardly changing the subject and pretending that there’s not an air of impenetrable mystery hanging over the small Russian hamlet. Then there’s the Brass Art, cryptic graffiti plastered over the walls of abandoned alleyways in clear violation of the law yet never cleaned up. Viktor is haunted by the mystery, ever since he saw a man hanged for the capital offense of carrying a playing card. Allying himself with Romulus, a mysterious lad who knows the surrounding forest like the back of his hand and who harbors countless mysteries of his own, Viktor is determined to find out just what happened in Aryk before they were born. What could be so dangerous about a playing card? Viktor and Romulus are about to find out….

As I mentioned above, I really enjoyed this one. The pace was perhaps a bit leisurely at the outset, but that changed quickly. While I had no trouble putting the book down and hitting the hay at a reasonable hour when I started, by the end I was staying up way past when I had planned in an effort to find out what happened next. The resolution wrapped up enough of the mysteries to be satisfying, yet also managed to leave a number of loose threads still hanging to bug you until you get your hands on the sequel. There are still a few elements that might annoy some of my pickier brethren, but on the whole I managed to forgive these scattered potential issues. Classifying this by genre is a bit hard, as after a heavily fantastical opening the book helms hard back into straight historical fiction (or, more accurately, straight fiction in a historical setting)….but the fantastic creeps back in, almost without your noticing it. Surely Gypsy fortune telling is all rubbish….but what if it’s not? And what on Earth is going on inside the walls of the imposing Staryi Castle? Had Mr. Stack not otherwise proven to be a master of his craft, I would suspect the opening to be an artifact from a previous draft, but his otherwise-excellent writing and the knowledge that all is not as it seems with the character in question leads me to believe instead that this is seeding plot elements for the sequel. Throughout the book characters look at evidence and draw conclusions in their attempt to solve the mystery of Aryk’s past. All well and good, except that a number of these conclusions are wrong…and at the time left me scratching my head wondering what they saw that I didn’t, because their assumptions were not at all what I was getting from the evidence. This leads to a sequence that can only be described as a villainous monologue as one of the “big bads” sets straight all their misconceptions about what went on in their town all those years ago. In Mr. Stack’s defense, this was far from your usual “Bond villain explains the plan instead of just finishing off the hero” moment, and the villain in question was far more intent on taunting our heroes in order to break their concentration and resolve their current standoff in his favor, but I can see where some of my fellows are (rightfully, in most cases) annoyed with such a device. In most cases, it’s a storytelling crutch. Here? It may still be a crutch, but Mr. Stack’s storytelling proves pretty nimble regardless.

CONTENT: Mild profanity. Mild sexual innuendo, mostly just flirting. Some violence, ranging from schoolyard scuffles to more lethal and terrifying encounters. Gypsy magic such as fortune telling could be considered occultic, depending on one’s views.

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Review: “The Blood Of Titans” by C. Michael Forsyth

Title: The Blood Of Titans
Author: C. Michael Forsyth
Rating: ***
Publisher/Copyright: Freedom’s Hammer, 2013

Meh. I’ve commented before that sometimes these Goodreads giveaways sneak up on you–there have been quite a few where I have to scratch my head and wonder why I ever entered the giveaway for that particular title. There’s even been a couple where I’ve been notified that I won, but have no memory of signing up! Clearly I need to be more careful, and have been putting an effort into doing so. At least in this case I do remember clicking that fateful link, though I can’t recall why. This isn’t my usual fare. As such, my opinion of it was perhaps lower than many others would be. It wasn’t that it was bad, per se, and in fact when I would pick it up the pages flew by fairly quickly. The problem was simply that I had no motivation to pick it up. It would lay there by my bed, untouched for a week or longer before I picked it up once more. It wasn’t bad, it just didn’t really engage my interest. I’ll also admit to having a “bad taste in my mouth” (if you’ll pardon the expression) towards the book from the get-go. You see, when I received the book in the mail, it came with the following letter:

I hope you enjoy the novel. If you do, please take the time to post an Amazon Review and paste it on Goodreads as well – but only if you rank it 4 or 5 stars. And let your friends know about it on Facebook and Twitter.
If you don’t like it, well please be courteous and don’t post a review–simply pass it on to a friend!
Best wishes,
Mike

I’m sorry, but that’s not the deal. The whole point of the FirstReads program is to generate honest reviews for the books being publicized. To ask me to refrain from reviewing if I didn’t like the book? That’s just manipulative, and subverts the whole program. Not to mention that you only seem to “win” more giveaways after finishing and reviewing the ones you’ve already got, so….yeah, not going to be following those instructions. Not an option.

Our tale is set in ancient Africa, in a time of glorious kingdoms and stunning betrayals. The coastal kingdom of Kali has long thrived under the rule of it’s king, Babatunde The Good, but now their ancient enemy, the Zimbai people of the plains, stand ready to finally destroy them. Each of the king’s seven sons have fallen in battle, and now he is left with only is daughter Halima. With little choice in the matter, Babatunde has betrothed Halima to Olugbodi, the young king of the Snake People, formidable warriors in their own right, to cement an alliance against the Zimbai. But all is not as it seems….what follows is an adventure full of intrigue, romance, peril and betrayal.

Like I said, the book wasn’t bad. It flowed easily, was remarkably well constructed for what I believe is a self-published work, and (when I got around to picking it up) was a moderately-enjoyable tale. Others would probably rate it higher. It just wasn’t for me. Not being an expert on ancient Africa, I can’t speak to the accuracy of Mr. Forsyth’s research, but I will say that it certainly seemed plausible. By and large the characters were well-rounded, or at least showed hints of being even if the plot didn’t always allow them to display their different facets. Even the villain(s) were more subtle than the simple black hats that so many of us want to write, and for that I give Mr. Forsyth credit.

I did have a couple issues, of course, which I shall discuss below. Minor spoilers may occur, read at your own risk. Longtime readers know that I routinely do this even when I’ve otherwise given nothing but praise to a book, so please understand that there’s no ill will here. Had I gone hunting, I might have come up with more, but these are the ones that are still bugging me.

  • The character of Rashida seemed….inconsistent. Maybe even bipolar. When the plot demands that she hate Halima, she does. When it requires she defend Halima, she does. There is some justification for her behavior (jealousy, grief, or gratitude, depending on the scene), but on the whole I had trouble buying into the extremes of her behavior.
  • The alliance between Kali and the Snake People is explained and makes sense. The inclusion of Zimbai in their attack on the Abaka is not–it is randomly mentioned in passing, then never becomes relevant again and is never explained. Were Zimbai and the Snake People in cahoots the entire time? Did Olugbodi conquer the Zimbai completely in the short time Halima is away? We don’t know. And it doesn’t really matter, I suppose, but little things like that bug me.

CONTENT: No profanity that I can recall. Some violence, occasionally a bit gruesome. Some unexpectedly explicit sexual content.

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Review: “The Walking Drum” by Louis L’Amour

Title: The Walking Drum
Author: Louis L’Amour
*Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Bantam, 1984

I’ve documented before my long-held fondness for the works of Louis L’Amour, and this particular book is no exception. Here you will find all of the adventure, excitement and historicity that has long been associated with the works of Louis L’Amour, but this time with a different setting. Most of L’Amour’s body of work is set in the Old West, or if not there at least on the American frontier as it existed at the time the story is set. The Walking Drum, however, is set in twelfth-century Europe, from Brittany to Constantinople and beyond. I am sure some of it’s impact on my memory has to do with it’s uniqueness among L’Amour’s works, but the fact remains that this is a well-wrought adventure novel with a wealth of historical gems hidden inside. My memory of it from childhood did not in the least do it justice. I very much wish that L’Amour had followed it up with the proposed sequel he was planning, but regrettably he died before he managed to get it written.

We join Mathurin Kerbouchard as a boy on the verge of manhood, his mother killed and his home burned by the evil local petty noble. His father, a legendary corsair, is lost at sea, rumored to be dead, but Kerbouchard doesn’t believe it. He resolves to find his father and enlist his aid in seeking revenge on the evil baron who burned their home. Of course, this is easier said than done. The ensuing adventure sees Kerbouchard as a galley slave and a noted scholar, a swordsman and a companion of princes, a merchant and lover to a princess, all culminating in a daring infiltration of Alamut, the fortress of the dreaded Assassins….

I can’t really offer too much of a description of the plot without major spoilers, as it is highly episodic. Kerbouchard embarks on one adventure after another, escaping one scrape simply to land in another. In some ways, Kerbouchard is the anti-Conan. Whereas Conan is an unschooled barbarian, come “to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandaled feet,” Kerbouchard absorbs knowledge like a sponge thanks to the Druidic training passed on by his uncle. Both are skilled swordsmen, and both are incredibly popular with the ladies, but whereas Conan prefers to start the discussion with his sword, Kerbouchard would much rather exchange ideas. This isn’t to say that he won’t fight, but he would prefer to explore other avenues in most cases. As with any of his stories involving a boat in any way, L’Amour devotes considerable time to one of his pet peeves–the misconception that people believed in a flat Earth until Columbus showed them otherwise, with Kerbouchard ridiculing the idea at almost every turn. Another particular notion he perhaps over-emphasizes is the intellectual superiority of the Moorish culture to the close-minded twelfth-century Christendom that made a virtue of ignorance. I’d like to be offended, but he’s not entirely wrong. On the other hand, that’s no longer the current state of affairs, either–they were called the Dark Ages for a reason, however flawed the term may be.

Ever reread a book you read as a child and been blown away by how much you missed on your first encounter? That was this book for me. Dad held this one in reserve until I was considerably older than when reading the majority of L’Amour’s work, and now I can see why. Even though I totally missed it at the time, there is a level of sexual content here that is totally foreign to most of L’Amour’s bibliography. It’s not explicit by any means, and in at least a couple cases I can’t even tell when it occurs, but Kerbouchard pretty much beds every woman he comes in contact with. The subtext is clear, even as nothing is explicitly said. There’s some very pointed and ribald flirting, but on those occasions everyone remains firmly clothed. Kerbouchard’s musings later on, however, make clear that at some point during the overview time-is-passing-quickly sections he and whatever lady he was with at the time definitely got it on. Nine-year-old me totally missed that, but then nine-year-old me was pretty sheltered. Nine-year-old me also missed a lot of the historical content that now makes more sense to the twenty-something student of history, but that’s only to be expected.

CONTENT: There’s quite a bit of sex happening in the time-frame covered by this novel, but absolutely all of it happens between the lines and is completely non-explicit. Mild language. Some strong violence, but nothing particularly disturbing. Some musings on the ancient Druids, but nothing too occultic–we know too little, and L’Amour has too high a regard for accuracy to say much.

*This definitely deserves four stars. The fifth may be a stretch for some people, and I freely admit the possibility of a nostalgic bias. I just don’t care.

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