Thursday, October 22, 2015

Healing Montana Sky by Debra Holland

Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: October 21, 2015

After a grizzly bear kills Antonia Valleau’s trapper husband, she packs her few worldly possessions, leaves her home in the mountains of Montana, and treks to nearby Sweetwater Springs, seeking work to provide for her two young sons. Reeling from the loss of his wife during childbirth, Erik Muth must find a nursing mother for his newborn daughter to survive. For their children’s sake, Erik and Antonia wed, starting a new life together on his farm on the prairie. But it’s no easy union. Antonia misunderstands Erik’s quiet personality. He finds her independence disconcerting. Both hide secrets that challenge their growing intimacy. When Indians steal livestock from farms around Sweetwater Springs to feed their starving tribe, the outraged townsfolk demand retaliation. Erik and Antonia must work together to prevent a massacre. Will a marriage forged in loss blossom into love?

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I'll be the first to admit Debra Holland's Healing Montana Sky isn't my usual fare. Light fiction is well and good, but I personally find it difficult to sink my teeth into. Make of that what you will and take my comments however you see fit.

As far as leading ladies go, Antonia Valleau had a lot going for her. She's a little rough around the edges, but I thought her position and perspective intriguing. Unfortunately, the character's dialogue drove me up the wall.

"I won’t be breakin’ down. For the sake of my children, I must be strong."

"Should I be takin’ the boys and leave? Head for Sweetwater Springs?"

"No! I won’t be leavin’ Jean-Claude. Cain’t leave my home."

I get what Holland was doing and I appreciate the idea, but as a reader, I found the speech patterns the Holland employed to illustrate Antonia's lack of education both cumbersome and distracting. I groaned in annoyance on more than one occasion and that frustration definitely colored my impressions of the novel. 

Moving on, I found very little to appreciate in Erik Muth. Forgive me, but the man lacked both charm and intensity. I couldn't picture him managing a Montana homestead with ease, but I'll get back to that in a minute. The point I'm trying to make is he didn't feel authentic and that made the relationship he shared with Antonia difficult to substantiate and his lifestyle impossible to believe.

Atmospherically, this novel does no justice to Montana. It's a romance and I didn't expect much, but the story could take place almost anywhere and it wouldn't change a thing. It's a shame really, my home state has a lot to offer and in the right hands could be a breathtaking backdrop, but Holland dropped the ball. She utterly ignores the natural beauty of the state and the character of its inhabitants.

Healing Montana Sky is clean literature and slow paced. The themes are a little too soft for my tastes, the story too predictable and the structure too simplistic. There's nothing inherently wrong with the book, but it didn't speak to my interests and I'd have a tough time recommending it forward. 

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Seeing Erik’s obvious care for them—his need to reassure himself of each family member’s well-being—touched something inside Antonia, melting the edges of the ice she’d carried in her chest since Jean-Claude’s death. We be formin’ a connection—a blessin’ blown in on the winds of a storm.
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Friday, October 16, 2015

The Leopard Unleashed by Elizabeth Chadwick

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Personal Library
Read: October 16, 2015

Renard, Lord of the Ravenstow, is a crusader in Antioch, a place far removed from the cold Welsh Marches of his birth. Summoned home to his ailing father, Renard brings Olwen with him, an exotic dancing girl whose sensuous beauty and wild ways have ensnared him. Yet, in a political match made by their families, Renard is already betrothed to the innocent Elene and he know he is also returning to the duty of marriage. Torn between Olwen and Elene, Renard's personal dilemma is set against a background of increasing civil strife as Ranulf of Chester, his greedy neighbour, strives to snatch his lands. When Renard is taken prisoner at the Battle of Lincoln, his fate is placed in the hand of two women - his former mistress, now in the bed of his deadliest enemy, and his determined yet inexperienced wife, protecting his lands against terrible odds...

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Stephen of Blois, Empress Matilda,
Raymond of Poitiers and Owain Gwynedd
I've a problem with Elizabeth Chadwick. Well, not personally, I've a problem reading her work. I pick it up intending to read one chapter, but somewhere between points a and b, I fall through the damned pages and lose all sense of time and responsibility. I should have started the laundry two hours ago, but what was I doing instead? Tramping around the Welsh Marches.

Am I sorry? Not in the least. Okay, maybe a little. I'll be scrambling to find clean clothes come morning, but I'm quite pleased with the time I spent on this book. Chadwick's ability to blend fact and fiction is brilliant and while I don't feel The Leopard Unleashed is her strongest effort, I admire much of the content and greatly enjoyed the narrative's direction and tone. 

Guyon trumps both, but I admit I like Renard more than Adam. I had difficulty warming to the latter when reading The Running Vixen, but Renard's easy-going manner, modest tastes, and perceptive nature intrigued me almost instantly. I wish Chadwick had written more from his perspective, I think there was a lot of untapped potential in his character, but I liked what she offered and thought his personality and disposition engaging just the same. 

That said, I think Elene the strongest of the three heroines. She's a contented homemaker, but shrewd, intelligent, and capable. She's insecure, but I think her struggles intensely realistic and I liked how Chadwick was able to showcase her emotions without sacrificing Elene's integrity. Her gentle inexperience makes an interesting contrast to Olwen's bold proclivities, but she's intensely empathetic and I found much to appreciate in her quiet strength and intense loyalties. 

I wasn't particularly fond of Olwen, but that has more to do with the structure and development of her character than her personality. She's shamelessly bold and conniving, but I think she'd have read better if the reader had been privy to more of her scheming. She disappears for several chapters of the narrative and is reintroduced in an entirely new situation and I would have liked to see her rationalizing that transition. The incident with Ranulf's would have been equally interesting, as would her seduction of Owain. All this happens 'off screen' and while I recognize the intent, I felt the approach left her somewhat fractured and arbitrary. Like Renard, I liked what was offered, but I think more could have been done with her character and role.

The supporting cast didn't interest me as much as they did in earlier novels. Ranulf of Chester was more a more convincing antagonist that Walter de Lacey, but I struggled to understand the origin of the animosity he harbored against Renard. Judith and Guyon make brief appearances, but their roles aren't as significant as Miles' in The Running Vixen. Henry felt underdeveloped in my eyes which made his emotional trials difficult to fathom. Hamo was superfluous in my opinion and while Stephen made an impression, he paled next to predecessors William II and Henry I. I truly enjoyed Chadwick's interpretation of Antioch and the Battle of Lincoln, but I felt the absence of Raymond of Poitiers and Empress Matilda. Both are mentioned, but neither enjoys face time with the reader. Owain Gwynedd interacts with Ranulf toward the end of the novel, but it is a cameo appearance, one that left several unanswered questions in its wake. 

There is a lot going on towards the end of the novel and while I appreciated the action, I felt the final chapters rushed and slightly awkward. It isn't like Chadwick to leave loose ends, but I felt there was a lot of unresolved drama in this particular volume and that put a slight damper on my appreciation of the novel's strengths. I loved the book and would definitely recommend it, but I wish there'd been more to it as it doesn't offer the closure one expects at the end of a series. 

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It was more than just the girl, he thought. It was the responsibility for Ravenstow. It was the sight of their father dying by fractions before his eyes. It was the constant living on a blade's edge. What wonder that he should seek oblivion in the arms of a woman who was a reminder of the lost freedom of Outremer. What wonder that her should object to being roused and thrust face to face with duty.
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Sunday, October 11, 2015

Not by Sight by Kate Breslin

Rating: ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: October 5, 2015

With Britain caught up in WWI, Jack Benningham, heir to the Earl of Stonebrooke, has declared himself a conscientious objector. Instead, he secretly works for the Crown by tracking down German spies on British soil, his wild reputation and society status serving as a foolproof cover. Blinded by patriotism and concern for her brother on the front lines, wealthy suffragette Grace Mabry will do whatever it takes to assist her country's cause. When she sneaks into a posh London masquerade ball to hand out white feathers of cowardice, she never imagines the chain of events she'll set off when she hands a feather to Jack. And neither of them could anticipate the extent of the danger and betrayal that follows them--or the faith they'll need to maintain hope.

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Members of the Women’s Forage Corps posed in front of laden General
ce Wagons. Image from the Hampshire and Solent Museums 
Kudos to the Bethany House cover artist who designed this jacket. I don't know your name, but without your efforts, I'd have next to no positive commentary to offer on Kate Breslin's Not by Sight. I'm sorry folks, but I honestly feel I wasted my time on this piece. My sincere apologies for any offense my blunt assessment might inspire, but I found the narrative shallow, unconvincing, predictable, and preachy. There's no depth to the story, the themes lack complexity, and there is absolutely no atmospheric detail to be had.  

Heroine Grace Mabry struck me as a holier than thou, self-righteous, goody two shoes. I found her outlook exceedingly naive and couldn't credit the patriotism Breslin meant to express in her character. The spoiled socialite possesses little if any substance and her championing of the suffragette cause felt both awkward and quixotic. There is no natural correlation between Grace and the subject matter Breslin forced on her, which probably explains why the sections dedicated to Emmeline Pankhurst's movement felt strained, forced and contrived.

Jack had potential in the opening chapter, but his accident reduces him to little more than a wishy-washy, insecure, faltering mess of a human being. His emotional journey put me in mind of Archibald Craven, but I noted very little intensity and/or significance in his structure and disposition. To get right down to it, I found him dull as dishwater and I'm sorry, but I don't have time for banal, platitudinous, and/or cliché-ridden romantic heroes. 

I felt the pacing tedious and the tone pretentiously didactic. I also thought the narrative grossly stereotypic and one-sided. Historically there were some interesting moments involving the Women's Forage Corps and stigmas attached to conscientious objectors during WWI, but I don't think Breslin put enough meat on the bone and I had difficulty sinking my teeth into the story she presented.

It probably goes without saying that I'd have trouble recommending Not by Sight, but I'd like to point out I'm in the extreme minority. Most have adored the title and have nothing but good things to say about it. 

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Jack laughed, and it was a hollow sound to his own ears. “You do sound convincing, my dear. But what else could you say to persuade me, especially in my circumstances?” A pause. “I doubt you even know what love is.”
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Saturday, October 10, 2015

Cold Morning by Ed Ifkovic

Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: October 10, 2015

January 3, 1935. The trial opens in Flemington, New Jersey, for the man accused of the crime of the century. And Edna Ferber is there to cover it. 1932. On a windy March 1 night, Charles Lindbergh, America s hero, discovers that his twenty-month-old son has been snatched from his crib. A ransom is arranged. Yet two months later, Little Lindy is found in a ditch near his Hopewell home, several weeks dead from a blow to the head. It takes over two years to arrest a suspect. Bruno Richard Hauptmann is caught passing one of the marked ransom bills. Press from across the world swarm to his trial. Bestselling novelist Edna Ferber and raconteur Aleck Woollcott, both hired by the New York Times to cover it, are part of the media frenzy, bickering like the literary lions they are. Did this immigrant carpenter really commit the crime? Alone? Observant sometime-sleuth Edna is not so sure. Local citizens, whipped into a frenzy by the yellow press, march through the streets demanding Hauptmann burn. Walter Winchell takes the lynch mob sentiment national. A British waitress at Edna's hotel, who'd hinted she had priceless information that could blow the trial wide open, is murdered. Edna begins to suspect a miscarriage of justice is underway, fueled in part by anti-German sentiment, in part by class privilege. Edna doesn't find Colonel Lindbergh the golden boy of legend. But there he is, entering the courthouse flanked by a quartet of New Jersey troopers. There's Hauptmann, handsome and calm despite his date with the electric chair unless Edna can alter the course of justice.

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Charles Lindbergh testifying.
I didn't have to read the description of Ed Ifkovic's Cold Morning to know what it was about. I casually studied the Lindbergh kidnapping several years ago and something about the house lodged itself in my memory. The colors on the jacket image are more haunting than the crime scene photos, but the subject matter is unmistakable.

The abduction of Charles Augustus Lindbergh, Jr. shocked and captivated the nation. There was intense pressure to arrest and convict the culprit and the trial was nothing short of a media circus. The atmosphere was chaotic and I think Ifkovic did a marvelous job recreating in Cold Morning. The story is fiction, but I like the ideas Edna Ferber's investigation inspires. The course of the action forces the reader to think about the trial and the actions of those involved. It makes one question the outcome of the proceedings and whether justice was truly served. 

Unfortunately the story is undermined by rapid momentum and paper thin characterizations. The narrative hits the ground running and never lets up which made reading it something of an endurance test. Events aren't difficult to grasp, but the constant motion was mentally taxing. To make matter worse, my lack of experience with heroine Edna Ferber put me at a distinct disadvantage. Cold Morning is the seventh installment of Ifkovic's investigative series and he wastes no ink developing his leading lady. I understand he knows this character inside and out, but the omission leaves new readers very aware they've missed something and makes it next to impossible to empathize with the tribulations she faces as the story unfolds. 

When all is said and done, I found Cold Morning thought-provoking, but bland. Interesting in terms of subject matter, but not particularly memorable. 

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Flemington would always be one long cold morning for me—a frozen tableau of hoary ice and snow showers and the awful stillness on the landscape. An empty street at that time of day, but within hours impassable, clogged with cars puffing out exhaust, people streaming past, frantic, loud, anxious. The specter of death and judgment covered the trees like a fog. Cold morning: this was a town that could never get warm again.
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Thursday, October 8, 2015

Wendy Darling: Stars by Colleen Oakes

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: September 28, 2015

Wendy Darling has a perfectly agreeable life with her parents and brothers in wealthy London, as well as a budding romance with Booth, the neighborhood bookseller’s son. But while their parents are at a ball, the charmingly beautiful Peter Pan comes to the Darling children’s nursery and—dazzled by this flying boy with god-like powers—they follow him out of the window and straight on to morning, to Neverland, a intoxicating island of feral freedom. As time passes in Neverland, Wendy realizes that this Lost Boy’s paradise of turquoise seas, mermaids, and pirates holds terrible secrets rooted in blood and greed. As Peter’s grasp on her heart tightens, she struggles to remember where she came from—and begins to suspect that this island of dreams, and the boy who desires her—have the potential to transform into an everlasting nightmare.

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All children, except one, grow up. That child, the adolescent waif who rides the back of the wind has inspired countless storytellers with his exploits among the stars, author Colleen Oakes among them. Her latest release, Wendy Darling, is a darker, more mature, re-telling of Barrie's timeless masterpiece and while I liked the idea, I admit the execution left me rather disappointed. 

I wish I could say otherwise, but my frustrations started early. The prologue is artistic, but vague and I still haven't figured out why the author thought it necessary. The scene didn't draw me in, establish relevant details or set the stage for the story to come. It's superfluous in every sense and I can't help wishing it'd been omitted. 

As a character, Wendy boasts an abundance of potential, but the early chapters of her adventure left me suspicious of Oakes and wary of the direction she appeared to be taking. My misgivings were legitimized as the novel progressed and I found myself increasingly disgusted with the liberties taken against a much loved classic. Perhaps I'm old fashioned, but I believe re-tellings should emulate or at least compliment the spirit of the work that inspired them. Wendy Darling does neither and stands as a flagrant affront to the themes the original author sought to emphasize and explore. 

Forgive me, but I think Oakes went too far with this adaptation. I appreciate dark storytelling as much as the next reader, but I can't condone butchering a classic children's story to do it. Were this a standalone novel, a fantasy adventure of the author's own creation I'd  praise Oakes' complex characterizations and intense motifs, but part of re-telling a story is maintaining a connection and I don't think that happened here. 

Fair warning folks, there are scenes of violent death in this book, adolescent alcoholism and a few raging hormones. If that sort of thing bothers you, it might be best to steer clear. Not bad, but not what I expected. Very much doubt I'll be continuing the series. 

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“I knew I was bound for something different. Something better. I was meant to rule the stars, not gaze at them from under our poverty.” 
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Sunday, October 4, 2015

A Curious Beginning by Deanna Raybourn

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: September 22, 2015

London, 1887. As the city prepares to celebrate Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee, Veronica Speedwell is marking a milestone of her own. After burying her spinster aunt, the orphaned Veronica is free to resume her world travels in pursuit of scientific inquiry—and the occasional romantic dalliance. As familiar with hunting butterflies as she is fending off admirers, Veronica wields her butterfly net and a sharpened hatpin with equal aplomb, and with her last connection to England now gone, she intends to embark upon the journey of a lifetime. But fate has other plans, as Veronica discovers when she thwarts her own abduction with the help of an enigmatic German baron with ties to her mysterious past. Promising to reveal in time what he knows of the plot against her, the baron offers her temporary sanctuary in the care of his friend Stoker—a reclusive natural historian as intriguing as he is bad-tempered. But before the baron can deliver on his tantalizing vow to reveal the secrets he has concealed for decades, he is found murdered. Suddenly Veronica and Stoker are forced to go on the run from an elusive assailant, wary partners in search of the villainous truth.

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Lesendes Dienstmädchen in einer
Bibliothek by Edouard John Mentha 
I picked up Deanna Raybourn's A Curious Beginning without reading the jacket description. I'd not heard of the book, I hadn't read any of the early reviews and despite being a self-admitted cover slut, I can honestly say the cover image prompted little if any interest. The improbable exploits of an unladylike lepidopterist might have roused my curiosity if I'd bothered to do my homework, but the truth is that my decision was dictated by past appreciation for Raybourn's signature wit and clever dialogue.

As a heroine, Veronica Speedwell is anything but stereotypic. She flouts convention at every possible turn, but what I liked most is that she lacks the self-righteous indignation so many authors associate with women of independent mind. This is a character who lives on her own terms and does as she pleases. She makes no excuses, offers no apologies and that is all. She's not out to change the world and she isn't positioned on a soapbox to preach the evils of Victorian inequality at Raybourn's audience.

Stoker is equally unrepentant, but far less optimistic and impulsive. Brooding, boorish, and brusque, the knife throwing circus performer turned taxidermist is as atypical as his leading lady. He is brilliant, but I particularly liked how his countenance and demeanor balanced Veronica. For all her exuberance, the woman is an insufferable know-it-all and Stoker's unabashed and often blunt assessment keeps her in check.

Sparks fly, but fire between Stoker and Veronica is slow to burn. The author leaves no doubt that their partnership is leading to something more, but at this point the association is based entirely on playful banter, intellectual rivalry, and mutual admiration. Raybourn is building something authentic here, something that is more convincing than raw carnal attraction.

The narrative itself is packed with both the bizarre and comic, but I can't deny a certain disappointment with regard to how easily the intrigue surrounding Veronica's existence was unravelled. I've read too many novels or watched From Hell too many times, but I caught the scent in the first thirty pages and spent the better part of the next two hundred and fifty watching the cast blunder their way to the same inevitable conclusion.

All things considered, I'd be hard-pressed to recommend A Curious Beginning on the perplexity of its central plot, but I can't say the time I spent with it wasted. Despite its flaws, the quirky content and humorous situational drama tickled my imagination. I'm not likely to jump when the next installment is released, but I definitely plan to continue the series somewhere down the road. 

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“Mrs. Clutterthorpe, I can hardly think of any fate worse than becoming the mother of six. Unless perhaps it were plague, and even then I am persuaded a few disfiguring buboes and possible death would be preferable to motherhood.”
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Saturday, October 3, 2015

The Running Vixen by Elizabeth Chadwick

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Personal Library
Read: October 3, 2015

It's 1126. Heulwen, daughter of Welsh Marcher baron Guyon FitzMiles, has grown up with her father's ward, Adam de Lacey. There has always been a spark between them, but when Heulwen marries elsewhere, to Ralf le Chevalier, a devastated Adam absents himself on various diplomatic missions for King Henry I. When Ralf is killed in a skirmish, Heulwen's father considers a new marriage for her with his neighbour's son, Warrin de Mortimer. Adam, recently returned to England, has good reason to loathe Warrin and is determined not to lose Heulwen a second time. But Heulwen is torn between her duty to her father and the pull of her heart. Adam is no longer the awkward boy she remembers, but a man who stirs every fibre of her being - which places them both in great danger, because Warrin de Mortimer is not a man to be crossed and the future of a country is at stake...

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Henry I and Empress Matilda
I've no nostalgic memories of Elizabeth Chadwick's The Running Vixen. I've read The Wild Hunt three times, but the second installment of 'The Ravenstow Trilogy' enjoyed limited international release and was next to impossible to find when I first discovered the series in the late nineties. Fortunately for me, the book was reprinted in 2009 and I was afforded a cost-effective means of indulging my interest.  

Though not specifically illustrated, I love Chadwick's mention of The White Ship and the crisis it created for Henry I. The book itself documents events between 1026 and 1028, but it is chock full of references to The Anarchy and the events that led to it. William le Clito, Geoffrey of Anjou and Hugh de Mortimer enjoy small, but noteworthy roles and I liked how their inclusion added to the political drama that played out in the background of the novel. I was further impressed with how Chadwick made the bureaucratic unrest relevant in the eyes of her fictional cast. Miles' grandson and namesake drowning alongside William Adelin, Adam serving as royal escort for Empress Matilda, and Guyon's personal support of Stephen of Blois weren't exactly pertinent to Adam and Heulwen's story, but such details spoke to the author's deep appreciation for the facts on which her story is based and her dedication in recreating this time and place for her audience. 

As far as the narrative is concerned, I wont deny feeling The Running Vixen took a long time to find its feet. Chadwick's books usually draw me in immediately, but I was a good seventy pages into this installment before I fell into the story and I think that had a lot to do with the relationship between Heulwen and Adam. Unlike their predecessors, Adam and Heulwen have history. They are at a turning point in their association while the reader is playing catch-up. Chadwick handled the situation well, but as stated, development took a little longer than I'd anticipated. In comparing the book to its predecessor, there is also a notable shift in both style and tone. It's not bad by any mean, but it is very different. 

I found Heulwen fascinating, especially as the story progressed. She has many original attributes, but I noted traits reminiscent of both mother and stepmother in her demeanor. I made no secret of my appreciation for Rhosyn in my review of The Wild Hunt and maybe I'm alone in this, but I thought Heulwen's tendency to seek solace away from the confines of the keep a nice nod to her mother's aversion to stone walls. Her married life is challenging, but Chadwick managed to make her demons very different from Judith's which is why I feel the story works. The author picked up where she left off, but took things a completely new direction to explore entirely new subject matter. 

Guyon is a tough act to follow, but I think despite the odds, Chadwick managed to do a lot of interesting things with Adam. I thought his struggle to balance his own merit against his father's legacy inspired and feel it brought an interesting dynamic to his role, especially toward the end of the novel when his insight serves a poignant and tender purpose. I also liked that for all the skill in his sword arm, he finds himself at something of a disadvantage with Heulwen. It's not something I've noted often in medieval fiction, but I found the intimate role reversal both striking and original. 

Miles caught my eye in book one of the series, but he shines in book two. Despite his pride, the aging patriarch is openly devoted to his family and I liked how Chadwick utilized him to further his granddaughter's story. Rhodri has a lot going on under the surface and while I wasn't particularly fond of him, I wont deny appreciating how the author's presentation challenged me to think about him from different angles. As far as antagonists go, I felt Warrin de Mortimer stronger than Walter de Lacey. He's isn't likable or sympathetic, but he isn't one dimensional either and I liked the idea of villain with layers. 

The Running Vixen is heavily romantic, but it is also clever and engaging. It's a little slow in places, but it is a solid sequel to The Wild Hunt and something I'd definitely recommend to fans of medieval fiction. 

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"Widows don't stay widows long in the marches. It is too dangerous, and Heulwen accepts the fact..."
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