Monday, April 30, 2012

The Forest Laird: A Tale of William Wallace by Jack Whyte

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Local Library
Read: April 30,2012

In the pre-dawn hours of August 24th, 1305, in London’s Smithfield Prison, the outlaw William Wallace—hero of all the Scots and deadly enemy of King Edward of England—sits awaiting the dawn, when he is to be hanged and then drawn and quartered. This brutal sundering of his body is the revenge of the English. Wallace is visited by a Scottish priest who has come to hear his last confession, a priest who knows Wallace like a brother. Wallace's confession—the tale that follows—is all the more remarkable because it comes from real life. We follow Wallace through his many lives—as outlaw and fugitive, hero and patriot, rebel and kingmaker. His exploits and escapades, desperate struggles and victorious campaigns are all here, as are the high ideals and fierce patriotism that drove him to abandon the people he loved to save his country. William Wallace is the first heroic figure from the Scottish Wars of Independence, a man whose fame has reached far beyond his homeland. Wallace served as a subject for the Academy Award–winning film Braveheart. In The Forest Laird, Jack Whyte’s masterful storytelling breathes life into Wallace's tale, giving readers an amazing character study of the man who helped shape Scotland’s future.

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Those whose knowledge of William Wallace begins and ends with Mel Gibson will be sadly disappointed with Jack Whyte's The Forest Laird. This is not the over dramatized Hollywood hero we all remember from the 1995 blockbuster. Whyte's Wallace has no bells or whistles. His story is that of a man who happened to stand up at a most opportune moment in Scottish history. Nothing more.

I think it is safe to say Whyte's depiction is closer to the truth than Randall Wallace's screenplay, but that's not difficult considering the film implies William, who died in 1305, fathered Edward III, who was born 1312. Did I forget to mention fans of the film would be disappointed? Sorry, I didn't mean to disillusion the masses. My point here is that it is important to remember we actually know very little about the historic William Wallace. Short of his military career and the weeks leading up to his death, the details of his life are really anyone's guess. The Forest Laird is significantly more grounded that the traditional Wallace legends, but it is still very much a work of fiction and shouldn't be taken as anything more.  

Despite having owned a number of Whyte's books for several years, this is actually the first I've taken time to sit down and read. I should be ashamed really, but I don't know that I'll be rushing to my bookshelves anytime soon. I like the story Whyte created but the text was often bogged down by explanations of political events of which I was already very familiar. I wouldn't go so far as to say these passages were boring, wordy is probably more accurate, but they definitely didn't hold my attention. Surprisingly, these overblown political diatribes aren’t what stick out in my mind when reflecting on the novel. Though mildly annoying, they are necessary to the telling. It would be impossible to tell William’s story without explaining the Scottish Wars for Independence and the events that led up to them. No, my three star rating came down the execution, pure and simple. 

Whyte’s narrative is told solely from the perspective of William’s cousin Jamie Wallace. It works beautifully during the prologue and the early chapters of the book, but when the boys transition from awkward teens to young adults, they part company. William taking to the woods with his bow while Jamie dedicates his life to God and quiet study. Obviously this poses a problem as Jamie isn’t witness to many of William’s exploits. I think Whyte would have been better off alternating the narrative between Jamie, Mirren, and Ewan. I’m no author, but I found it difficult to remain interested in a character who was so often removed from the action and the protagonist of the story. 

The execution left something to be desired, but despite its flaws I found I really appreciated Whyte’s attempt at separating the man from the legend. I’m not screaming its praises from the rooftop, but it will be interesting to see what Whyte does with the rest of the Bravehearts Chronicles.

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It pains me to hear people say nowadays the William Wallace died defiant, a heroic patriot, with a shout of "Freedom!" on his lips, because it is a lie. William Wallace died slowly and brutally in silence, to my sure knowledge, for I was there in London's Smithfield Square that morning of August 24th in 1305, and all I heard of defiance was the final, demented scream of a broken, tortured man driven beyond endurance long before he died.
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Sunday, April 29, 2012

A Summons From the Duke by Jerrica Knight-Catania, Lilia Birney & Samantha Grace

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Author
Read: Nov. 18, 2011 

The powerful Duke of Danby summons all of his wayward grandchildren home for the holidays. Book two of the Regency Christmas Summons Collection.

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This review is different than most of the books I feature here as it is an anthology collection. I feel commenting on the entire book as I do with most of my reviews would be unfair so I have opted to review each piece individually. My overall rating reflects my opinion of the book in its entirety.

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Loving Mr. Lockwell by Jerrica Knight-Catania
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First off I want to acknowledge both Knight-Catania and Stone. If you are going to write parallel story lines the details need to correspond correctly. Loving Mister Lockwell and The Counterfeit Summons blend seamlessly from plot twists to dialogue. As I read the Regency Christmas Summons books in order I could not give credit to Stone my review of The Counterfeit Summons and I beg indulgence for high-jacking part of this review to do so. 

Knight-Catania’s story is simple and assuming you’ve read book one of the series, highly predictable. The title alone told me where this story was going. I would be lying if I said it didn’t make me a little nervous but first impressions can be deceiving. The brilliance of this short is in the telling. Izzy and Lockwell’s relationship is reminiscent not of Romeo and Juliet but Benedict and Beatrice. It didn’t matter that I knew the outcome because it was so thoroughly entertaining. Certain lines put me in line of Lord of the Rings, Becoming Jane and Aladdin but even so, I found Loving Mister Lockwell both clever and engaging. 

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A Second Chance for Christmas by Lilia Birney
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How do you spice up a sweet regency era romance? You open your story with attempted suicide, drug addiction and death. I love the distinctly dark direction of Birney’s opening and though I don’t consider myself much of a judge, I think the sex scene was noteworthy in terms of content and because it is the raciest thing to appear in the series thus far. Unfortunately the piece as a whole felt half-baked. Flesh out the back story, gift Emily and Philip a little depth and this is easily one of the strongest installments of the entire collection. As it stands I feel A Second Chance for Christmas falls just a hair short. There is tons of potential here, I mean loads of it. This is not a two bit writer who was thrown in with the big boys. As a reader I am frustrated and yes, these comments sound awful but I beg you to keep in mind where they are coming from. This is so stinking close to awesome it hurts. I applaud the effort but it is just so frustrating to be short changed by an author who is so obviously capable of more. 

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Twice Upon A Time by Samantha Grace
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I have to say I was bored with the beginning of this one. Two individuals with a shared past and a certain attraction to one another. No offense meant, but it had a certain resemblance to Julie Johnstone's contribution, A Gift of Seduction in book 1 of the Collection. Thankfully, Samantha Grace's Twice Upon A Time wasn't a mere rehash. Julian and Felicity's relationship is distinctive and entertaining, especially when you consider Felicity's propensity to issue scholarly diatribes at the most inappropriate of moments. Predictable, but charmingly unique. 

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"Grandfather!" Julian stepped forward to rescue her. "There are some things even a duke must not ask."
"I am a grandfather. I may ask anything I like."
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The Gathering Storm by Robin Bridges

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: October 26, 2011

St. Petersburg, Russia, 1888. As she attends a whirl of glittering balls, royal debutante Katerina Alexandrovna, Duchess of Oldenburg, tries to hide a dark secret: she can raise the dead. No one knows. Not her family. Not the girls at her finishing school. Not the tsar or anyone in her aristocratic circle. Katerina considers her talent a curse, not a gift. But when she uses her special skill to protect a member of the Imperial Family, she finds herself caught in a web of intrigue. An evil presence is growing within Europe's royal bloodlines—and those aligned with the darkness threaten to topple the tsar. Suddenly Katerina's strength as a necromancer attracts attention from unwelcome sources . . . including two young men—George Alexandrovich, the tsar's standoffish middle son, who needs Katerina's help to safeguard Russia, even if he's repelled by her secret, and the dashing Prince Danilo, heir to the throne of Montenegro, to whom Katerina feels inexplicably drawn. The time has come for Katerina to embrace her power, but which side will she choose—and to whom will she give her heart? 

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One might be hard-pressed to finish The Gathering Storm without referencing Wikipedia, but it is equally difficult to complete the novel without being entertained by this impressive debut. The book isn’t without flaw, but Bridges’ rich recreation of turn of the century Russia is brilliant and her integration of Gothic folklore and the paranormal, nothing short of fascinating. 

At first glance the book seems character heavy. I wont deny that the cast is large, but don't think the confusion a lot of readers seem to experience is something Bridges could control. I might be off base here but I think a lot of the problem is that readers are less familiar with the Romanovs than say the Tudors, the Bourbons, or the Borgias. I don't think its fair to criticize Bridges for this, but at the same I recommend familiarizing yourself with the family tree.  

Katerina Alexandrovna’s tendency to act alone isn’t my favorite character attribute, but Bridges more than made up for it with the internal struggle Katerina feels regarding her gift. She is sincerely conflicted by the realization that she is not merely a spectator in the otherworldly activities of her peers and genuinely troubled that she will have to choose a side on which to stand. As a reader, I found Katerina's alternating emotions offered a great deal of insight and solidified her as a compelling central character. 

To any fan of historic fiction, the perpetual scheming and conspiratorial maneuverings of life at court is old news. That in mind, the very nature of The Gathering Storm required Bridges to do something more than simply recreate the political chess board of the Imperial Russia circa 1888. Personally, I think she succeeded, but just how well is hard to say. From a paranormal standpoint, the execution was flawless. Recasting known figures as members of the light and dark Faerie realms added a significant amount of intrigue and originality to the story. It was the historic aspects that gave me reason to pause as I can’t help wondering if my admiration is due to Bridges’ characterizations and description or her general lack of literary competition. The bulk of Romanov lit centers on the reign of Nicholas II. Bridges’ story takes place a generation earlier, during the reign of Alexander III. Many of the characters feel fresh and different because, simply put, they are less well known. I like to give credit where due but I can’t say the whether or not the novelty I feel characterizes The Gathering Storm stems completely from Bridges’ pen. 

Having no real expectations going into the book, I have relatively few complaints. Beyond my aforementioned indecision I can honestly say there is only one aspect of the book I genuinely didn’t care for: the love triangle. It irks me to no end that this particular plot device has become a staple of young adult lit. It is unbelievable, hackneyed and by and large, fails to prove entertaining as most authors lack the necessary skill to pull it off. To Bridges’ credit, Katerina relationships with Romanov golden boy, George Alexandrovich, and the brooding Montenegro heir, Prince Danilo, play relatively minor role in the overall story. They also don’t revolve around pure physical lust. I appreciated that, but I didn’t find either affair particularly entertaining. Call me a fence sitter but I think The Gathering Storm had enough going for it without incorporating the fickle desires of the teenage heart.

A few hiccups here and there, but a memorable read from a promising new author. 

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Matrimony. That was the true mission of the Smolny Institute for Young Nobel Maidens. It was nothing more than a meat market for Russia's nobility, where princes from all across Europe sent their daughters, intending them to marry well. So there I sat, Katerina Alexandra Maria von Holstein-Gottorp, Duchess of the Odenburg... Royal meat for sale. I would rather be dead.
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Saturday, April 28, 2012

Desired: The Untold Story of Samson and Delilah by Ginger Garrett

Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: April 27, 2012

Before Samson was an Old Testament legend, he was a prodigal son, an inexperienced suitor, a vengeful husband, and a lost soul driven by his own weakness. This is his story as told by three strong women who loved him—the nagging, manipulative mother who pushed him toward greatness, the hapless Philistine bride whose betrayal propelled him into notoriety, and the emotionally damaged seductress—the famous Delilah—who engineered his downfall and propelled him to his destiny. Desired celebrates the God of Israel's to work powerfully in the midst of hopes, fears, desires, and sorrows.

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I’m really surprised and somewhat disappointed that Ginger Garrett’s Desired didn’t work for me. I wont lie, I found the darker themes of the Samson and Delilah tragedy very appealing, especially since most of the biblical fiction I’ve encountered centers on much lighter tales.  I also loved the idea of Samson’s story as told by the women in his life. Unfortunately, content alone does not make a good book.

I mean no disrespect to Garrett when I say this as there is nothing inherently wrong with her writing, but her work didn’t speak to me. Her characters appeared stilted, the narrative description heavy and the storyline wooden and lifeless. I read because I like getting away from the stress of the real world, but getting through Desired felt more like a chore than a relaxing diversion. 

I’ll grant that some authors have enormous followings, but no writer has universal appeal and I beg you remember that when taking in my less than enthusiastic commentary. The bottom line is that a rating reflects a reader’s experience and Desired, though technically sound, wasn’t a good pick for me.  

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I will tell you of men and angels, of sons and sorrows. I will tell you of the courage required to wait upon a silent God. I will tell of the strongest man to ever walk the earth, and of what proved mightier than his strength. For the strength of a man cannot save anyone, not even himself.
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Saturday, April 14, 2012

Empress of the Seven Hills by Kate Quinn

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ 
Obtained from: Local Library
Read: April 13, 2012

Powerful, prosperous, and expanding ever farther into the untamed world, the Roman Empire has reached its zenith under the rule of the beloved Emperor Trajan. But neither Trajan nor his reign can last forever... Brash and headstrong, Vix is a celebrated ex-gladiator returned to Rome to make his fortune. The sinuous, elusive Sabina is a senator’s daughter who craves adventure. Sometimes lovers, sometimes enemies, Vix and Sabina are united by their devotion to Trajan. But others are already maneuvering in the shadows. Trajan’s ambitious Empress has her own plans for Sabina. And the aristocratic Hadrian — the Empress’s ruthless protégé and Vix’s mortal enemy — has ambitions he confesses to no one, ambitions rooted in a secret prophecy. When Trajan falls, the hardened soldier, the enigmatic empress, the adventurous girl, and the scheming politician will all be caught in a deadly whirlwind of desire and death that may seal their fates, and that of the entire Roman Empire...

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I'm harder on historic fiction writers than I have any right to be. Honestly, I hold them to a higher standard than authors of any other genre. Those who have impressed me in the past have it even worse. Sorry guys, but if you want to be a top dog you gotta earn it. Quinn has earned it. Her debut piece, The Mistress of Rome, blew me away. Her follow-up, Daughters of Rome, proved the achievement was no fluke and confirmed her place as one of my favorite authors. Naturally, I was on pins and needles waiting for the release of her third book, Empress of the Seven Hills and I'm happy say she didn't disappoint.

I don't think anyone can read the book without falling for Vix. True, he is rough around the edges, uncouth and prone to intense emotional outbursts, but he is also loyal, determined, dedicated and ambitious. This isn't prince charming. He has faults, he suffers from indecision and stumbles through life's trials just like the rest of us. Supporting cast member Titus is everything Vix isn't. A mild-mannered academic with no ambition for fame or glory, his steady countenance is a perfect foil for our male lead. It took a bit longer, but he grew on me. It will be interesting to see where Quinn takes him before the end. I am similarly eager to see how Quinn will approach Hadrian's relationship with a particular young man, but that is a topic for another day. I can't begin to explain how she does it, but Quinn has once again constructed remarkable realism with little more than ink on on the page.

The female cast is equally well-crafted though I can't say I am particularly fond of any of them. Plotina's Juno complex is cringe worthy, but it was her annoying obsession with Hadrian that grated my nerves. Mirah's obvious disdain for anyone but 'her people'  is nothing short of disgusting and Demetra's simpering housewife routine paints her as little more than a milksop. I couldn't even bring myself to care for Sabina until late in the novel when her marriage began to crumble. The educated daughter of privilege who flit from one 'interesting' enterprise to the next didn't do it for me, but as her husband's tolerance waned she started showing some real promise. Again, I find myself wondering where Quinn will take the character. The lone exception here is Faustina. Maybe it is because she is introduced as a toddler and grows to an independently minded young woman over the course of the story, but where I have only lukewarm interest in her older sister, I am very intrigued by Quinn's depiction of the future empress.

I'll be the first to admit that last paragraph doesn't sound too great, but I want you to really think about what I wrote. Poor characterization is marked by a reader's indifference. The fact that I wanted to slap most of the women upside the head at some point proves I am anything but. So I don't want to sit and drink wine or barley water with most of these ladies. Sue me. There is no rule that says a character has to be likable to be good and personally I think Quinn should be applauded for crafting such a diverse cast. 

Unlike its predecessors, Empress of the Seven Hills takes us on the road. During Trajan's campaigns we see a less well known aspect of Ancient Rome, the life of a common soldier. There are moments, but having been a military wife I appreciate that the bulk of Quinn's material is spent on the weeks and months between battles as well as the trials and tribulations of both men and women who opt for such a lifestyle.

Gosh this review is getting long, but I got a lot to say. I love that Quinn includes such detailed Historical Notes. Not every author feels an obligation to define fact from fiction let alone explain why they chose to alter historic fact. I find I am much more inclined to forgive an author who exhibits such respect for their subject matter and readers than I would an author who neglects such entries in anticipation of a royalty check. See my comments on The House of Special Purpose if you need further explanation. 

Quinn's next book is set some fourteen hundred years after Empress of the Seven Hills during an intriguing period of the Renaissance. While I am excited for the release I can't help feeling sad that it will be some time before we see the continuing story of Vix and Sabina under Emperor Hadrian's rule. 

Another excellent read from a very talented writer. Go out, find a copy and enjoy!

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When I was thirteen, an astrologer told me I'd lead a legion someday, and a legion would call me Vercingetorix the Red. Astrologers are usually horseshit, but the funny little man was right about everything... But why didn't the astrologer tell me any of the important things? Why didn't he tell me that Emperors can be loved, but Empresses are only to be feared? Why didn't he tell me I'd have to kill the best friend I ever had - on the orders of the worst man I ever knew? And why the hell didn't he tell me about the girl in the blue veil I met the same day I got all these predictions?... "Girl in blue, beware." What would that have cost him?
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Thursday, April 12, 2012

Cross My Heart by Sasha Gould

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: October 29, 2011

Venice, 1585.When 16-year-old Laura della Scala learns that her older sister, Beatrice, has drowned, she is given no time to grieve. Instead, Laura's father removes her from the convent where he forcibly sent her years earlier and orders her to marry Beatrice's fiancé, a repulsive old merchant named Vincenzo. Panicked, Laura betrays a powerful man to earn her way into the Segreta, a shadowy society of women who deal in only one currency—secrets. The Segreta seems like the answer to Laura's prayers. The day after she joins their ranks, Vincenzo is publicly humiliated and conveniently exiled. Soon, however, Laura begins to suspect that her sister's death was not a tragic accident but a cold-blooded murder—one that might involve the Segreta and the women she has come to trust.

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I was optimistic going into Cross My Heart and perhaps that is why I wasn't too impressed. I don't mean to be a buzz kill, the book is a wonderful young adult historic fiction, but unlike some authors, I don't think Gould's work will be as appealing to older readers of the genre. 

For one thing, the romance felt manufactured. Laura and Giacomo fall for one another after only a handful of meetings. Younger readers might overlook this in their enthusiasm for the intrigue of the Segreta and the darkly mysterious depiction of Venice, but I think older readers look for a little more substance. 

Laura, for all that she is the heroine of the book, suffers similar issues. Outwardly, she is interesting enough, but inside, she is dull as dishwater. I never got the sense that anything truly mattered to her. Not her relationship with her family, not her involvement with the Segreta and certainly not her relationship with the young artist. Gould's leading lady tends to go through the motions while the rest of the cast carries the story. 

To her credit, Gould did throw the occasional curve ball, but in the end I didn't feel it was enough. The mystery felt too contrived, the solution too convenient and outcome too neatly wrapped up. I don't believe this poses much of a problem for the target audience but  I feel older readers will have a tough time sinking their teeth into Gould's story. There just isn't enough here to chew. 

Decent, if not particularly memorable. Recommended to fans of Lisa Tawn Bergren's River of Time series. 

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Laura, men have always governed women - whether at home, when a husband gives orders to his wife, or through the complex machinations of the Grand Council. Men say they rule by the grace of God, but the source of their power is hypocrisy, vice and corruption. The Segreta is a tonic to this poison. By meeting here, we determine the fortunes of Venice. Men may be princes, priests, even the Doge, but the strings that control them are in our hands.
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Monday, April 9, 2012

A Reluctant Queen: The Love Story of Esther by Joan Wolf

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: April 4, 2012

You've read it as a biblical tale of courage. Experience it anew as a heart-stirring love story. She was a simple girl faced with an impossible choice. He was a magnificent king with a lonely heart. Their love was the divine surprise that changed the course of history. The beloved story of Esther springs to fresh life in this inspired novel that vibrates with mystery, intrigue, and romance.

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There is something to be said for an author who can craft a fleshed out composition from a simple Bible story. The bare bones are provided before pen meets paper but it takes real finesse to create something unique from something so well known. Joan Wolf displays such a talent with A Reluctant Queen: The Love Story of Esther. 

I’ve been hesitant with inspired fiction lately. To be completely honest I’ve burnt out on getting preached at. That being the case I was very pleased with what Wolf put together. I couldn’t help but be impressed with the subtly in which Wolf balanced religion with good old fashioned storytelling. The subject matter may be more attractive to those interested in faith based literature, but the restraint exhibited by the author in terms of an inspirational message ensures the book has much wider appeal. 

For all that I praise the narrative, I can’t say I truly appreciate the characters. The entire cast is well-rounded, fully-developed, multi-dimensional, etc. and so forth. Problem is I really didn’t like any of them. Good storytellers create believable characters, great storytellers create memorable ones. No offense meant but the cast of A Reluctant Queen fell just a bit short.

Adding to my concerns is the general pacing of the story. Wolf has no problem incorporating events from the original story but the gaps between are less polished, notably so in fact. I know Wolf is capable; she gave dimension and depth to her players. By comparison I can’t help feeling the story itself received only half as much attention. 

Lastly, realize the book doesn’t adhere to the well-known version of events. I can see where this might bother some readers though I can’t say I fall in with that particular crowd. There is nothing wrong with a little creative license so long as the essence of the story remains unaltered. Wolf has clearly stepped off the beaten path but that in and of itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing. 

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In her heart, Esther was terrified that Muran and Hegai were right. The king had shown more interest in her than any of the other girls. What would she do if he chose her? What would it mean, having to marry the Great King of Persia and spend the rest of her life imprisoned in this place?
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