Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Character Conversations: Hugh Despenser, from the King’s Greatest Enemy series by Anna Belfrage

Tewkesbury Abbey was quiet and I was grateful. I knew people could see me when I traveled through time to conduct interviews, but I wasn't sure how it all worked when my interviewees stepped through time to talk to me and I wasn't prepared to test the waters with someone as controversial as Hugh Despenser. 

The fact of the matter was that the request itself had caught me off guard, but on learning of the discussions I host here at Flashlight Commentary, Hugh simply wouldn't be denied the opportunity and hounded Anna into setting up an interview. Thinking back on it, I half wonder what would have happened if we'd refused to arrange the meeting. I'm not sure it'd have gotten violent, but Hugh is quite intimidating and I'm not convinced a polite declination would have been accepted.

I'd arrived early to take in the grounds before the interview. The Abbey's vaulted ceilings and stained glass fascinated me, but so did many of dead and I took my time looking over the tombs that lined the ambulatory. I was on the south end, considering a fairly modest installment when I sense someone approach and take position just behind my left shoulder. I turned quickly and found myself face to face with Hugh, a smug grin of amusement on his lips as he held out his hand gestured me to the door. 

He made a quip about being interviewed over his dead body, but intimated he'd be more comfortable outside in the fresh air. I agreed and we head out to settle ourselves under a tree near the churchyard. 

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You and your wife were great patrons of this monastery. What inspired your generosity?
Truth be told, it was more Eleanor’s thing than mine. Her family has roots the size of upside-down oak trees here, and what with the de Clare line going extinct on the male side with the SO unfortunate death of Gilbert at Bannockburn, someone had to take up the mantle. Quid pro quo, if you will: I got the lion’s share of dear, dead, Gilbert’s lands – well, officially Eleanor did – and so I graciously passed some of all this wealth on to the good monks of Tewkesbury. Besides, men like me need all the help they can get to ensure a comfortable afterlife – assuming one exists. There are days when I am struck by the blasphemous thought that maybe this life is all that we get, and if so, one must really suck the marrow out of it, right?

How do you feel seeing it today?
The abbey? Dull thing these days, isn’t it? In my time, it was an explosion of colour and gold, now it is all unadorned stone. And then, of course, there’s the infected matter regarding my tomb. THEY’VE MOVED ME!!! (If we’re going to be correct, they’ve moved the parts that Eleanor managed to recover, which wasn’t all that much – not enough to get by on once Resurrection Day dawns) Instead, my alcove now contains the tomb of some fat abbot or other. Huh! Ah well: in difference to that accursed Mortimer there are some reminders of my existence – my dear wife donated a window on my behalf – and even if I am no longer where I rightfully should be, I remain close by. Mortimer, the bastard, lies buried God knows where. Serve him right…

Getting into you background, I’m curious, how did you distinguish yourself at court and rise to the position of royal chamberlain?
The same way anyone who wants to rise at court does: be adequately capable and do a lot of flattering – or maybe brown-nosing is the correct term. In my case, it helped that Edward always had a special fondness for his niece, my Eleanor. I was sort of part of the family, and when things get sticky, who do you turn to but to those closest to you? It also helped that Edward found me entertaining and refreshingly unburdened by chivalric codes and all that idiotic stuff. What the top dog wants, the top dog should get, I have always said, and Edward was more than happy to agree with that.

Your marriage obviously helped your rise. How do you feel about Eleanor and how would you describe your relationship?
Ah. Some people insinuate my dearest liege has indulged in bedsport with my Eleanor. Had he done so, I’d have been obliged to murder him – my wife welcomes no one but me to her bed. She is beautiful, my wife, and shrewd and loyal. We may not indulge in all that mushy stuff that goes for courtly love, but we are partners, determined to build a future for our children – even if it comes at the expense of others.  

Your wife has given you several children. What future do you see for them?
“What future do I see for them…” I know, don’t I? *sags* Three of my little girls, forced to take the veil, my eldest son, fighting on so bravely before finally surrendering in exchange for his life… Isabel, that apple of my eye, so cruelly divorced by her husband, and my baby Elizabeth, married off to one of Mortimer’s grandchildren. Ugh! But despite all this, the Despensers survived, didn’t they? Oh yes, they most certainly did! 

Getting back to your role at court, what are your roles and responsibilities? 
Anything the king doesn’t want to handle, I handle for him. Nice and simple, don’t you think? 

What is the nature of your relationship with Edward II? 
He’s my king, my uncle by marriage. He is also a man whose company I truly appreciate – we have the same sort of wit, I believe, and both of us enjoy some heated word sparring. He’s quite the hunk, my king, tall and handsome, strong and forceful. I make him laugh. I support him against those pesky barons of his – and especially that odious Thomas of Lancaster, a man so full of himself it’s a miracle he could ever tear his eyes away from his own reflection. It is my job to make sure my king is not bothered by the minutiae of ruling a kingdom – he is easily bored. It is my privilege to control access to his ear, thereby ensuring anyone who wishes to raise something with the king must come to me first – even, of late, the queen herself. *chuckles* She doesn’t like that, I can tell you: Isabella, daughter of France, ousted by me, Hugh Despenser.

Modern historians speculate that you two shared a bed. Do you care to comment on the rumors? 
Of course we share a bed. Don’t men in your day and age do that when travelling? When desiring to converse without any potential eavesdroppers? Do we do other things in bed than talk? Well, my dear, that is none of your business. But let’s just say my liege is hot – seriously hot. All that outdoor activity he is so fond of leaves him with a physique to die for, and I’m none too bad either, even if I say so myself. Maybe a tad too hirsute, but Edward always says he likes it. 

What of his queen? What are your thoughts and opinions of Isabella?
Isabella is the pampered only daughter of a king who showed little affection for anyone else than her. Pretty, I’ll give her that, and fully aware of how men drool in her presence. Not all men – her husband rarely falls for her wiles, preferring the company of other men to hers. I dare say it irks her, that she cannot entice him to follow her, no matter how much she batts those long dark eyelashes of hers.  Other than her looks, she is also gifted with cunning and an impressive intellect for a woman, and she is therefore a potentially dangerous influence on our king, which is why I do my utmost to drive a permanent wedge between them. Must say I’ve done a great job there. Maybe too great…

Who would consider your Lord’s greatest enemies? 
Lancaster. Well, he was, until he was executed back in 1322. Mortimer, may his name be cursed. Isabella, her damned brother Charles IV of France, and that ambitious Flemish bastard, Guillaume de Hainault.   

What are your feelings on men like Roger Mortimer and Adam de Guirande?
Adam? *laughs out loud* The man is a pain in the nether parts, and handsome enough to have me considering using certain parts of his anatomy for my pleasure, but ultimately, he’s of little consequence, minor knight that he is.  Mortimer, on the other hand, is a snake – and a dangerous one. I pleaded and begged my liege to execute him back in 1322, but Edward, fool that he sometimes is, chose to be lenient. Lenient! *spits* Look where that has got us, eh? That accursed rat of a man escaped the Tower and now sits in France, like a huge cat ready to pounce on its mouse. And we are the mice…

Were it your decision, how would you deal with these men? 
They’d have been dead since years back – both of them. Preferably after long, extended executions. I’d have liked to see Mortimer maintain that stiff upper lip of his as his entrails were drawn out of his body.

What is the worst thing you’ve had to do in Edward’s service?
Not kill Mortimer when I had the chance. What? Oh, you meant from a moral perspective. *drums his fingers on the armrest of his elaborately carved chair* You know, I can’t think of anything. Besides, Edward rarely asks me to do something I’m not happy to do, if you know what I mean.  

You had Llewelyn Bren hung, drawn and quartered without a trial. Did you feel this justified?
Yes. The man had looted Caerphilly and besieged my castle there. What do I care that the king chose to commute his death sentence to imprisonment? He deserved to die – and men with so much informal power as he had, are best dealt with by relieving them of their lives. 

You’ve robbed widows of their lands. Why?  
If not me, someone else. What do you think this is? Some sort of picnic? This is England, early 14th century, and everyone who can is out to grow their wealth. Widows and orphans make good victims – all they can do is bleat while they’re being fleeced. And as rich widows are not thick on the ground, one must be quick – or in a position of power – to grab the juicier morsels. I happen to be both quick and powerful. 

What does Eleanor think about you robbing her sisters of their share in the de Clare inheritance? 
*Smiles* As I said, we’re partners. And Eleanor is the eldest and has far more children than any of her sisters – I suppose one could argue we need the land much more than they do…

Are you haunted by any of your actions?
No. Wait: yes, I am. I will never forgive myself for convincing my beloved liege to send his son to France to do homage for Gascony. I did it to save my own arse, because had King Edward left me to rule on his behalf while he swanned off to France to pledge his allegiance to Charles, I can tell you I’d have been dead within days – beaten to death by a mob, likely. I know, unbelievable, isn’t it? Imagine anyone wanting me, the king’s favourite, dead! Anyway: the long and the short of it is that Edward sent his son instead. In retrospect, that was like handing Isabella a…a…would a WMD be a correct comparison? The prince legitimizes any venture Isabella and Mortimer may decide on, and that is my fault. Damn! 

What do you see for yourself as far as your legacy is concerned? How do you think history will remember you?
*gives a sour look* I’ve been voted the vilest man in English history, haven’t I? Huh: just goes to prove that old adage that history is written by the winners. A more balanced view would be to recognize that Mortimer and I aren’t all that different – ambitious, greedy and hungry for power the both of us. Having said that, I’d rather be hanged, drawn and quartered than be compared to that bastard! *Takes a deep breath and clears his throat” I wasn’t all bad, you know. I loved my king – and not only because he so generously feathered my nest. I loved my wife and children. I respected my father – he taught me everything I needed to know about being cunning and grasping. Circumstances made me into what I am – is that my fault? And seriously, had Mortimer died back in 1322, who do you think history would have remembered in glowing terms? Me, Ms Davies. Me, the most powerful man in England, the father of a dynasty of future royal chancellors. Damn the wheel of fate for being such a fickle thing! Damn Mortimer for ever having been born, damn Isabella for being such a prize bitch. *slams his hand down on the table, and in doing so, his apparition begins to disintegrate and fade. All that he leaves behind is a faint fragrance – of lilies-in-the-valley and sulfur. 

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Date of Birth: Birthday? Hugh scrunches up his brow and says he’s of an age with Mortimer, some years younger than his king – born in 1287 in the merry month of May, as per his mother, and she would know, wouldn’t she? 

Physical Appearance: Dark hair, dark eyes, middling height, excellent taste in clothes. Beautiful hands, if he may say so himself. Light on his feet, good teeth and a rather full lower lip. Has a tendency to overdo the jewelry, what with rings and gold collars, precious stones in his cloaks, ornate brooches decorating his mantle. 

Education and Job Skills: Education is really same old, same old: first a page, then a squire and then, finally, a knight. Skills include number-crunching, piracy, a flair for administration, for making people open up and share their secrets (and yes, at times some mild coercion might be required, but a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do). A soothing companion for a restless king, Hugh can also, when required, hum a song or two – him being David to King Edward’s Saul.

Family: Wife and kids. Father. Two sisters and a half-sister, married to Thomas of Lancaster’s brother, no less. 

Allies: Edward II, Walter Stapledon, his wife, his father and all those who remain loyal to Edward II. Hugh would like to point out that he isn’t the traitor here – Mortimer is. And as to that false wife of a queen – in Hugh’s opinion, Isabella should have been spanked more often, tamed, if you will. 

Enemies: Queen Isabella, Mortimer, those idiotic bishops who somehow see a better person in Mortimer than in Hugh, such as Orleton and Burghersh, bishops of Hereford and Lincoln respectively. Plus, as time passes, for some inexplicable reason (as per Hugh) most of the English barons develop a dislike for him. 

Hobbies: Embroidering – but Hugh will kill you if you tell someone that. He also enjoys hawking and hunting rabbits with ferrets. It’s so much fun to release a ferret into a warren and watch the rabbits get caught in the nets as they attempt to escape. A bit like flushing rebellious barons, Hugh says – and almost as satisfying. 

Most Cherished Possession: Ah. A rather fine set of matching golden goblets. No one in the entire kingdom has one as gorgeous – not even his dear lord and king.

Strengths: Determined, self-motivated. Never takes his eyes off the final goal. 

Weaknesses: A tad too self-centred? Plus a covetous streak a mile wide. 

Fictional Appearances: Hugh is a main player in the series the King’s Greatest Enemy. 

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Anna was raised abroad, on a pungent mix of Latin American culture, English history and Swedish traditions. As a result she's multilingual and most of her reading is historical- both non-fiction and fiction. Possessed of a lively imagination, she has drawers full of potential stories, all of them set in the past. She was always going to be a writer - or a historian, preferably both. Ideally, Anna aspired to becoming a pioneer time traveller, but science has as yet not advanced to the point of making that possible. Instead she ended up with a degree in Business and Finance, with very little time to spare for her most favourite pursuit. Still, one does as one must, and in between juggling a challenging career Anna raised her four children on a potent combination of invented stories, historical debates and masses of good food and homemade cakes. They seem to thrive…

For years she combined a challenging career with four children and the odd snatched moment of writing. Nowadays Anna spends most of her spare time at her writing desk. The children are half grown, the house is at times eerily silent and she slips away into her imaginary world, with her imaginary characters. Every now and then the one and only man in her life pops his head in to ensure she's still there.

Website ❧  Facebook ❧  Twitter ❧  Goodreads ❧  Blog

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Thursday, September 8, 2016

At the Water's Edge by Sara Gruen

Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: September 2, 2016

After embarrassing themselves at the social event of the year in high society Philadelphia on New Year’s Eve of 1942, Maddie and Ellis Hyde are cut off financially by Ellis’s father, a former army Colonel who is already embarrassed by his son’s inability to serve in WWII due to his being colorblind. To Maddie’s horror, Ellis decides that the only way to regain his father’s favor is to succeed in a venture his father attempted and very publicly failed at: he will hunt the famous Loch Ness monster and when he finds it he will restore his father’s name and return to his father’s good graces (and pocketbook). Joined by their friend Hank, a wealthy socialite, the three make their way to Scotland in the midst of war. Each day the two men go off to hunt the monster, while another monster, Hitler, is devastating Europe. And Maddie, now alone in a foreign country, must begin to figure out who she is and what she wants. The novel tells of Maddie’s social awakening: to the harsh realities of life, to the beauties of nature, to a connection with forces larger than herself, to female friendship, and finally, to love.

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I enjoyed Riding Lessons and Water for Elephants well enough, but Sara Gruen’s At the Water’s Edge simply didn’t suit. I found the characters ridiculous and I wasn’t impressed with the situational drama she created. I personally think the book was over-hyped and while I appreciated the end-all, I was annoyed that the story followed the same formula as Gruen earlier work.

The roles aren’t exact, but it’s hard not to notice that the Loch Ness Monster serves the same purpose Rosie did in Water for Elephants. Ellis and August could wear the same shoes, as could Angus and Jacob. Maddie and Marlena could share a wardrobe, but if I’m honest I much preferred the latter leading lady. This recycling bothered me and left me questioning if Gruen was out of original ideas or if she’d been pressured to replicate her past success by the powers that be. You don’t even need to read the book to see what I’m talking about, it’s all there on the jacket. The muted tones, the stylized fonts, the angled texts… I can’t say for certain, but I’m disappointed to admit I spent more time pondering these similarities than I did the actual narrative.

Maddie, Ellis, and Hank annoyed me to no end. I found their world view obnoxious and couldn’t relate to them at all. I believe the trio were written this way intentionally as Maddie’s transformation is at the heart of the story, but I thought it a poor structural choice as it made her character impossible like and/or appreciate early on. I tossed the book aside in frustration on more than one occasion and honestly considered abandoning it outright, but I’ve a deep-seated love of my ancestral homeland as well as WWII and couldn’t give up without seeing how the Gruen utilized both time and place.

The Scottish cast and their culture were easily my favorite part of the book, but the conflict that had drawn me to story played virtually no importance. It makes enough of a splash to be recognized for what it is, but I think the story would have been stronger if it’d been set after the war ended. Maddie’s journey to Scotland would have been more plausible and Gruen would have been able to manage the rest with only slight adjustment.

In the end I didn’t see much value in the story and was truly disappointed by the rehashing. Not for me and not something I see myself recommending down the road.

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“The monster—if there was one—never revealed itself to me again. But what I had learned over the past year was that monsters abound, usually in plain sight.”
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Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Cover Cliché: Velvet Exclamations

Sometimes, while browsing the virtual shelves on Amazon and Goodreads, I see an image that gives me an oddly disconcerting sense of deja vu. I could swear I've never read the book, but I know I've seen the jacket image somewhere before.

This phenomenon is what inspired Cover Clichés. Images are often recycled because cover artists are often forced to work from a limited pool of stock images and copyright free material. That said, I find comparing their finished designs quite interesting.  

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New Orleans, 1902. A killer walks the streets of New Orleans, eviscerating men and leaving them in the streets, and for madam Trula Boudreaux, it's bad for business. Trula needs help but she's not prepared for Zeke Barnes, the charming would-be savior who darkens her doorway-or the yearning he awakens. For while Trula knows well the delights of lust, she avoids love at all costs... Investigating the killer was one thing, but Zeke can't help but be enchanted by the gorgeous mystery woman who runs an exclusive brothel. Caught between his duty to protect the city and his clear-as-day desire for Trula, Zeke sets about capturing Trula's heart-or at least a place in her bed. But with every moment Trula resists, Zeke falls into greater danger. For his investigation into the haunted city and madam doesn't just risk his heart but both their lives.

Bayou Moon was previously released as A Haunting Desire in July 2015.

Cameron MacGreagor’s wife, Flora, passed peacefully in her sleep, taking their unborn child with her. Consumed with grief, he didn’t think he would ever recover, but a child in need of a family changed all that. There was only one problem; she was the daughter of the last person the MacGreagors ever wanted to see again.

Jedediah Tanner became a thief at the early age of twelve. By the time he was twenty-six, he decided to give up his life of crime, find an honest wife and settle down. Little did he know, the remarkably beautiful woman he would fall madly in love with had a few priors of her own.

England 1651

England has been engaged in a bitter Civil War for nearly ten years. Ralph Chaplin, a farmer’s son, has fallen for beautiful copper-haired Kate. There is only one problem – he is a Roundhead soldier and she is a Royalist lady.

Tired of bloodshed, Ralph volunteers to fight, sensing that the Battle at Worcester will be a chance to finish the fighting for good. He longs for peace, so he can forge a secure future and find a different, more equal way of life for himself and Kate.

But War is not what he imagined, and soon he has made a deadly enemy; one who will pursue Ralph and those he loves, and wreak vengeance. What’s more, Ralph finds he has as many enemies at home, as on the battlefield.

Told by Ralph’s ghost, Spirit of the Highway is the stand-alone second part of the Highway Trilogy based on the real life and legend of Lady Katherine Fanshawe, Highwaywoman.

The Honourable Annabelle Spencer might have been called The Incorrigible Annabelle Spencer. She chafes at the rules and restrictions that forbid a proper Victorian young lady doing anything fun or dangerous. These strictures were most difficult to endure while growing up in a household with six rowdy brothers, and one might be tempted to forgive Annabelle her penchant for pushing against the arbitrary boundaries set round her gender.

Still, Annabelle’s fondness for exploring the outer limitations of propriety does not imply that she has no desire to find someone in her life strong enough to take her in hand when she has gone too far. Willfully jumping onto the wrong train, and then travelling alone with a handsome stranger to a house party is bad enough behaviour to get her into all sorts of trouble with the people who are putatively in charge of her. But when that stranger expertly takes her over his lap for exactly that wrongful behaviour, and gives her the bare-bottomed, erotic spanking she has always craved, Annabelle knows that she is far out of her depth.

In such company as this man’s, can Annabelle maintain the image of the demure young lady that society demands? Or will this ruffian in gentleman’s garb, who has a gentleman’s manners but not a gentleman’s mannerisms—at least in one very important respect—turn this young lady into the perfect spanking submissive he has always dreamed of? The Duke of Rothmuir, a member of the infamous Ruttingdon Club, is most determined to find out, and Annabelle must decide for herself just how much of this lewd peer’s lascivious but oh, so welcome attentions to her body and soul she can take.

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Which cover strikes your fancy and why? What colors draw your eye? Do you think the image appropriate next to the jacket description? Leave your comments below!

Have you seen this image elsewhere? Shoot me an email or leave a comment and let me know. 

Monday, September 5, 2016

1066 Turned Upside Down by Joanna Courtney, Helen Hollick, Annie Whitehead, Anna Belfrage, Alison Morton, Carol McGrath, Eliza Redgold, G.K. Holloway & Richard Dee

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Personal Kindle Library
Read: September 5, 2016

Ever wondered what might have happened if William the Conqueror had been beaten at Hastings? Or if Harald Hardrada had won at Stamford Bridge? Or if Edward the Confessor had died with an heir ready to take his place? Then here is the perfect set of stories for you. ‘1066 Turned Upside Down’ explores a variety of ways in which the momentous year of 1066 could have played out differently. Written by nine well-known authors to celebrate the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, the stories will take you on a journey through the wonderful ‘what ifs’ of England’s most famous year in history.

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Harold's death as depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry
It’s unusual for me to spend a month reading a book, but that’s how long I spent working my way through 1066 Turned Upside Down. I’d looked forward to the book, I’d even pre-ordered a copy ahead of the release, but I have to admit that the reality of the volume left me with mixed feelings.

To be fair, most of the month I spent with 1066 Turned Upside Down was dedicated to not reading it. I devoured the first story the day the book arrived on my kindle, but my mind swam when I realized the second submission was wholly unrelated to the chapter that preceded it. The second author utilized an entirely different twist and the strain of keeping everything straight quickly threatened to overwhelm my imagination. Was Harold King in this version? Was he alive? Was he dead? Did the Vikings invade? There was simply no way I could keep the actual history and twelve alternate realities straight so I resolved to tackle the book a chapter at time and consider each submission as a standalone piece which accounts for the long gaps in my completion of the volume.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but this approach actually worked well as it complimented the structure of the book. Each chapter starts in a specific month and opens with a brief description of historical events. This factual refresher is followed by an intro to the story, the alternative fiction, an author’s note, and a set of discussion questions. Most reviewers have omitted any comment on this, but I personally felt the format made it difficult to enjoy the stories back to back as each author bounced between fiction and non before asking me to pause and critically consider their work. The breaks seemed natural to me and I had no trouble losing myself in other books between chapters.

That said, the actual fiction had it's own set of challenges and while I’ve no trouble recommending the volume to other readers, I don’t hesitate to caution that I found the stories unequally balanced. I've very genuine appreciation for much of the material, but I was disappointed that so few ventured into wholly original content. Playing it safe by revisiting familiar ideas and characters was their choice, but as a reader I was disappointed that so many failed to capitalize on the creative opportunity this project afforded. I might have felt differently if the authors had limited themselves to subtly nodding at their independent titles or used an existing supporting character to explore new themes and ideas, but as it stand I feel there was too much repetition within these pages and found myself distracted by the creative decisions behind several chapters.

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To Crown a King & In the Wake of the Dolphin by Helen Hollick
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Helen Hollick is an author I’ve wanted to read for some time, but 1066 Turned Upside Down marks my first experience with her work. She’s one of two authors to have contributed two stories to the anthology and I while I quite enjoyed both for their content and prose, I was curious at her decision to submit adapted content from Harold the King/I Am the Chosen King. I enjoyed her take on Edgar and William and will be seeking out her work again in the future, but her submissions definitely left me wondering what she'd have done with a blank slate.

Uncle Edward was not the stuff of being a kind when he returned from exile in Normandy. My father, when Harold, here, escorted him - us - home to England would not have made a suitable king either, yet, had he still lived, would we be having this discussion? He would have been king by right of birth. I am his son. I am the last in the blood-line of Cerdic of Wessex, why then, should I not be your king?

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A Matter of Trust by Annie Whitehead
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Annie Whitehead is another author I’d never read, but she put herself on my radar with her take on Edwin and Morcar. I found an added bonus in a light moment of humor involved an aged Godiva and I appreciated how complete her submission felt despite its modest length. There was obviously room to take it further, but I liked how she developed her twist and didn’t leave her readers with a simple ‘what if’ scenario. Her character felt developed and distinct and one could easily imagine what might have been once the story ended. So far as I can tell, her submission was not based on her prior work and I thought the risk spoke well of her range and imagination.

This has naught to do with kingship, or loyalty. The bastard is on our lands, and he need to be shoved off them.

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Emperor of the North & Hold England Firm by Joanna Courtney
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Joanna Courtney was new to me, but I was so impressed with her prose that I ordered a copy of The Chosen Queen on completing Emperor of the North. This fact wouldn’t mean much under other circumstances, but in looking at her work I realized that her stories tend to feature female protagonists. I found that very interesting as it was her male leads that captivated me in 1066 and, contrary to some close-minded individuals might preach, female readers have no trouble appreciating well-written male protagonists. Courtney’s world-building is also worth mentioning and I was quite impressed by the ‘what ifs’ she speculated over.

We were wild enough to earn for battle and arrogant enough to believe we could seize England, the jewel in Europe's crown - a land so sure of itself that all man longed to hold it.

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The Dragon-Tailed Star by Carol McGrath
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Carol McGrath incorporated a lot of personal detail into her story of Thea. I liked the portrait her submission drew of Harold’s domestic life and complex personal affairs and I thought the detailing of Halley’s Comet fun, but here again I found myself at a loss. I enjoyed McGrath's prose, but like Hollick, McGrath seemed to be revisiting her own work and I was caught up in questioning why she didn’t venture out of her comfort zone and tackle people and concepts she hadn’t played with before. I've not read the Daughters of Hastings series, but the themes of The Dragon-Tailed Star appear to emulate the ideas on her standalone titles and I was distracted by the similarity.

She shuddered and hurriedly crossed herself. Surely better for Uncle Edward that he was a star in the night sky, than facing the terrors that lay between Heaven and Hell?

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If You Changed One Thing by Richard Dee
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Richard Dee was another new author for me, but his submission stood out for a couple of reasons. Unlike his fellows, Dee put a bit of a sci-fi twist on 1066 and wrote a story that is set largely in the modern world. It was a dramatic shift and it threw me at first, but looking back I think the submission one of the strongest pieces in the anthology. I thought it was fun, I thought it was creative, and I liked how it allowed the reader a unique vantage point and perspective.

He looked at me and said nothing, but his eyes were full of tears. He was shaking his head as if the weight of the world was on him. I didn't understand why, perhaps he would tell me later. After all: I still had to hear how he had escaped without changing history.

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A Roman Intervenes by Alison Morton
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Alison Morton is one of the four authors I was familiar with on picking up 1066 and while I quite enjoyed seeing the Roma Novans once again, my enthusiasm was tempered by having considered so much of the thematic material on my own. Morton’s Roma Nova series centers on the world where Roman Culture never died and as before, I recognized a certain degree of repetition in her submission. The story was new and I liked it for what it was, but conceptually the material felt safe.

'Sometimes we must do dreadful act to prevent greater disasters, but at least history will record that the Galilean year of 1066 was not the one in which Northman William invaded Saxon England.

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The Danish Crutch by Anna Belfrage
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Anna Belfrage made a name for herself with time slip fiction and is currently working on a series set against the Despenser War which made her submission for 1066 interesting as it was not a time she’d written about before. Her submission features a strong female heroine and I liked how the story was driven by action and theme without incorporation of a heavy romantic relationship. I’ve never had an issue with Belfrage’s presentation of love and affection, but I expected to see a couple headlining this story and was pleasantly surprised to see Belfrage challenge herself by placing emphasis elsewhere.

She clutched at the amulet round her neck depicting Thor's hammer while mumbling a few lines of the Pater Noster - she did that a lot, hedging her bets by invoking both the gods of old and the new god - and begged them to spare her from ever becoming this man's wife.

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The Battle of London Bridge by G.K. Holloway
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The Battle of London Bridge marks my second encounter with author G.K. Holloway. I read 1066: What Fates Impose back in 2014 and remember being impressed with Holloway's command of the political landscape. The Battle of London Bridge plays on that same strength, but in the opposite direction and causes the reader to really question the long term implications of a failed Norman invasion. All the stories made me think, but I really liked how this one paired the alternative reality with the strength England's roots.

The English are celebrating their victory against this foreign foe. Now they think, with relief, that they have a leader in whom they can have faith.

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The Needle Can Mend by Eliza Redgold
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Last, but not least is Eliza Redgold's The Needle Can Mend. The story explores the origins of the Bayeux Tapestry and stands as my favorite in terms of subject matter. I've a deep appreciation for the relic and grinned when I realized it made it into 1066, but here again I found myself in a familiar seat. Redgold's heroine is a older version of her own Lady Godiva and while I was entranced by the ideas explored in this fiction, I couldn't help feeling Redgold had short-changed herself by opting to work within an established comfort zone.

Some women, widows, mothers of lost sons, gave pieces of wool. Some send needles, sharp as knives. My own beloved daughter, Nest, made for her part a read dragon, the creature of Wales. Harold's older sister Edythe worked with skill and speed, often by my side at the convent. She joined together the pieces as it grew, like a banner unfurled.

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Thursday, September 1, 2016

Tamer of Horses by Amalia Carosella

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: August 29, 2016

Abandoned as a baby, Hippodamia would have died of exposure on the mountain had it not been for Centaurus. The king of the centaurs saved her, raised her as his own, and in exchange asks for only one thing: she must marry the future king of the Lapiths, Pirithous, son of Zeus, and forge a lasting peace between their peoples by giving him an heir. It would be a fine match if Pirithous weren’t more pirate than king and insufferably conceited, besides. But Hippodamia can hardly refuse to marry him without betraying every hope her people have for peace.After the death of Dia, queen of the Lapiths, tensions are running high. The oaths and promises protecting the Lapith people from the Myrmidons have lapsed, and the last thing Pirithous needs is to begin his kingship by making new enemies. But not everyone wants peace on the mountain. There are those among the centaurs who feel it comes at too high a price, and Peleus, King of the Myrmidons, lusts for the lush valley of the Lapiths and the horses that graze within it. Pirithous needs a strong queen at his side, and Hippodamia will certainly be that—if he can win her loyalties. But no matter their differences, neither Hippodamia nor Pirithous expected their wedding banquet to be the first battle in a war.

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The Abduction of Hippodamia
Tamer of Horses has been on my list since I hosted a Character Conversation with Polypoetes. It was mentioned that he’d appear in a forthcoming novel and I set myself to keeping an eye out for Carosella’s next release. Lucky for me, I didn’t have to wait long. Three months later I was granted an ARC of the novel and I jumped straight in.

As far as heroines go, Hippodamia is a breath of fresh air. She has tomboyish mannerisms and a great love of horses, but her real motivation is a simple desire to be loved. She wants a husband and a family and I found her modest ambitions both endearing and relatable, especially in a world where glory and immorality reign supreme. She was a very genuine woman in my mind’s eye and I loved how Carosella managed to keep that fundamental element of her character at the forefront of her arc.

Much like his immortal father, Pirithous is an intensely sexual being and it would have been very easy to tire of his appetites, but Carosella plays his prowess against his insecurities and the end result is surprisingly charming. The jealousy he feels towards Eurytion and Antiope soften him and I enjoyed the dimension his flaws afforded. I also appreciated the idea that those same failings eventually drive him to become a better version of himself, but you’ll have to read to book to fully understand what I mean.

The politics of war for the Lapiths fascinated me from the start and I loved how the cultural struggle between the Lapiths and the centaurs heightened the tension throughout the narrative. I was impressed with the role the Gods played in the lives of Carosella's mortal cast and I fell head over heels in love with Antiope, but the moment that stands out in my mind is the final scene. Hippodamia’s sacrifice is profound, but the fact that her worth is truly understood in that moment bring the novel full circle and cuts straight to the heart.

Long story short, I loved every minute I spent with Tamer of Horses and highly recommend it to fellow readers of myth based fiction.

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“A woman who earned her name taming horses ought not be kept from them, Princess. Surely you did not think me so foolish as that?”
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