Steel Hand, Cold Heart by Rachel Menard

On the island of Helvar, women rule. Sixteen-year-old Carina has trained for most of her life to belong to the coveted Daughters of Hel, the steel-handed Viking warriors who provide souls to the Death Goddess in exchange for the prosperity of their island. Gaining her place hasn’t been easy. She was not borne of the island, but another spoil from another raid, raised by the island Chieftain. There are many who would see her fail, and on her first raid, she does. She doesn’t kill a priestess she should have.

Carina needs to prove her worth or risk losing her place. Before she can, her arch-nemesis drugs her wine and sends her off the isle as a captive of three foreign boys. But what is Carina’s greatest misfortune may turn out to be her greatest gift. The young men are taking her to the jewel of the Southern Isles – Fortis Venitis, a place no other Daughter of Hel can venture. Carina can place Hel’s claims on the Southern isle and return to Helvar with the spoils, a victor.

However there are many obstacles to pass before she reaches her goal. Like her rune stone that everyone keeps trying to steal, the mismatched pirates from a country that no longer exists, and the priest with his poison that melts flesh from bones. But the most dangerous obstacle of all are the odd feelings she’s developing for her victims, especially the knife-thieving captain Nik. That could make it difficult for her to kill him in the end.

Trigger Warning: Mentions of abuse, mentions of rape, assorted violence

Sixteen year old Carina the Unstoppable is one of the Daughters of Hel. The Daughters are a group of Viking warriors who provide souls to the Death Goddess in exchange for prosperity for their own island. Becoming a Daughter of Hel is not an easy task, for Carina it is doubly so as she was not born on the island. But Carina is determined to prove herself and prove worthy of the steel gauntlet she wears.

On the evening of her first raid, Carina is drugged by her nemesis and given to three foreign boys as a captive. She learns that the boys are taking her to Fortis Venitis, an island the Daughters of Hel have never been able to raid. If Carina can place a claim on the Southern Isle and return home with a ship full of spoils, she knows she be held in the highest regard and will have truly earned her place.

But the trip is difficult and fraught with danger – both known and unknown. If Carina is to make it home again she’ll have to fight hard to survive and somehow harden her heart against the emotions she is beginning to develop for her captors.

Steel Hand, Cold Heart is (I believe) the first full length novel for author Rachel Menard. And from the first few lines of the first chapter, it is a wild adventure.

The main character Carina is neither a hero nor is she a villain. She is a young woman who has trained her whole life to become a raider for her island. She believes that what she does is justifiable, that in the raiding and pillaging she does with the other Daughters of Hel, she insures a prosperous life for her home and those she cares for. Those who suffer from their raids aren’t given a second thought. This line of thinking – as well as Carina’s penchant for rushing blindly in to situations – made it a bit difficult to like Carina as a character in the beginning. Thankfully, she grows and matures some as the story goes on though she does continue to be rash.

The three young men that kidnap Carina – Nik, Flavian, and Mateo – I found it difficult to connect with any of them. It isn’t that they aren’t bad characters, it’s just that I felt there wasn’t enough time truly dedicated to any one of them to get a good feel. With the bits and pieces of information sprinkled throughout the story, we the reader do come to understand each young man a bit better but I still feel more could have been given. Also, one particular character revelation (not stated due to spoilers) felt tacked on unnecessarily and was provided so late in the story as to not lend much in the way of sympathy.

Like I said, they aren’t terrible characters, I just didn’t feel any kind of real connection with any of them.

The one thing that I truly did not like was the way Steel Hand, Cold Heart ended. It was so abrupt it left me wondering if perhaps I had received a faulty e-copy. I am assured that this is indeed how the book ends, it just left me with a feeling of “That’s it? What happens next?” Of course, leaving the ending open like this opens up the possibility for a sequel or even series. I personally hope this is true because while I enjoyed reading Steel Hand, Cold Heart I also want more.

Provided for Review: The Strange Adventures of H by Sarah Burton

Orphaned young, H is sent to live with her doting aunt in London. H’s life is a happy one until her lecherous cousin robs her of her innocence, and the plague takes away the city and the people she loves. H is cast out—friendless, pregnant and destitute–into the rapidly emptying streets of London under quarantine.

Forced to fend for herself, she is determined to gain back the life she lost. H will face a villain out for revenge, find love in the most unexpected places, and overcome a betrayal that she never could have foreseen. Weathering it all, can H charm, or scheme, her way to the life of freedom and independence that she longs for? 

Thank you to NetGalley and Legend Press for this Advanced Review Copy

Trigger Warning: Mentions of sexual assault/rape; Teenage pregnancy; Infanticide

The Strange Adventures of H is much like the title says. Sent with her sister to live with their elderly aunt after their father’s death, H is almost immediately surrounded by an eclectic cast of characters that reside in 16th century London. When fate deals H a cruel hand, it is to these individuals that she must turn if she is to somehow survive.

London in the late 16th century was tumultuous time in history. Not only was the city and surrounding areas besieged by the plague, but it was also decimated by the Great Fire, and again it later survived the Shrove Tuesday riots. Through all of this H is there with her insights and views and opinions on matters. Through her eyes we the reader are a witness to history, walking alongside one who –  though fictional in this case – was one of countless there at the time.

In reading The Strange Adventures of H, it becomes obvious almost immediately the amount of research Burton has put in to the novel. Not only for H herself, but for the people around her (whether they be friend or foe) as well as the city of London itself. The descriptions given are vibrant and full of detail and are given from someone who absolutely loves the subject matter.

The life that H leads is not an easy one and Burton doesn’t shy away from that fact. Though in the end H does prevail, it is a difficult road for her. Several times I had to remind myself that H was just a teenager, a young woman who had yet to even reach 20 during the events of the novel. Such is her strength of character and such are the trials she is put through.

In the end, despite the difficulty I sometimes had reading The Strange Adventures of H, I really enjoyed it. I say difficulty simply because of the sometimes heavy subject matter and also that the book is a bit of a long one. History buffs who are looking for a novel that really seems to grasp the era it is set in and portray it accurately will likely enjoy it. Readers who are looking for a novel with a strong female character, one who is well rounded and well written will likely enjoy it. Readers who are looking to branch out and try something new will likely enjoy it.

I invite any one and every one to pick up a copy and delve in to The Strange Adventures of H.

Lady of Devices (Magnificent Devices #1) by Shelley Adina

London, 1889.

Victoria is Queen. Charles Darwin’s son is Prime Minister. And steam is the power that runs the world.

At 17, Claire Trevelyan, daughter of Viscount St. Ives, was expected to do nothing more than pour an elegant cup of tea, sew a fine seam, and catch a rich husband. Unfortunately, Claire’s talents lie not in the ballroom, but in the chemistry lab, where things have a regrettable habit of blowing up.

When her father gambles the estate on the combustion engine and loses, Claire finds herself down and out on the mean streets of London. But being a young woman of resources and intellect, she turns fortune on its head. It’s not long before a new leader rises in the underworld, known only as the Lady of Devices . . .

When she meets Andrew Malvern, a member of the Royal Society of Engineers, she realizes her talents may encompass more than the invention of explosive devices. They may help her realize her dreams and his . . . if they can both stay alive long enough to see that sometimes the closest friendships can trigger the greatest betrayals . . .

Lady of Devices is the first book in Shelley Adina’s Magnificent Devices series. It opens with the main character, Claire Trevelyan, causing a rather messy accident in one of her classes. Despite the warnings of her instructors, she combines two reactive ingredients because she wishes to know what exactly will happen. And when she is tasked with cleaning up her mess, Claire seems to act as if this wasn’t her fault. If only her teacher had told her what would occur!

This small series of events was only the start of numerous eye rolling moments I had while reading this book.

Now do not get me wrong my dear reader, I enjoy the Steampunk genre as much as the next person. There is so much that can be played with in regards to technology and science. The way history has been shaped by the technology leaves countless ideas for authors to use. Unfortunately, Lady of Devices barely touches on any of them and when it does it is done with a heavy handed and awkward manner.

While Lady Claire is a smart young woman, she can also be irritatingly obtuse at times. When she takes up with the East End gang, she originally berates them for picking pockets. Yet she then turns around and teaches these same children how to cheat and swindle. She becomes a kind of governess for them with the intention of helping them become proper English citizens. But not some time later she (albeit accidentally) kills another gang leader and takes over his base of operations. For someone who supposedly prides herself on being a proper young woman, Lady Claire seems to follow the rules only when it suits her.

While I personally didn’t particular enjoy reading Lady of Devices, neither do I want to discourage my readers from trying it. Over on Goodreads, just as many readers gave it glowing reviews as others gave it less than stellar ones. Like in so many other instances, the reader shall simply have to decide for themselves.

Provided for Review: The Girls with No Names by Serena Burdick

Not far from Luella and Effie Tildon’s large family mansion in Inwood looms the House of Mercy, a work house for wayward girls. The sisters grow up under its shadow with the understanding that even as wealthy young women, their freedoms come with limits. When the sisters accidentally discover a shocking secret about their father, Luella, the brazen older sister, becomes emboldened to do as she pleases.

With rebellion comes consequences, and one morning Luella is mysteriously gone. Effie suspects her father has made good on his threat to send Luella to the House of Mercy and hatches a plan to get herself committed to save her sister. She has however made a mistake, and with no one to believe her story, Effie’s escape from the House of Mercy seems impossible—unless she can trust an enigmatic girl named Mable. As their fates entwine, Mable and Effie must rely on each other and their tenuous friendship to survive.

This book was provided for review by NetGalley. Thank you!

Trigger Warnings: Infidelity, Mentions of rape, Teenage pregnancy, Racial slurs (Specifically the word “gypsy”)

“The times they are a-changin’…” So goes the line in the song by Bob Dylan and so goes the overall theme in Serena Burdick’s The Girls with No Names.

Told from the point of view of a variety of individuals, The Girls with No Names is a story about change. The changes that come with age, that come with knowledge, that come with the inevitable march of time. Events that change the way one sees the world regardless of how large or small it is.

As it is primarily set in the early 1910’s, the way of thinking of some characters might be off-putting for some. When Effie and Luella come across the Romani camp in the beginning of the book, they are enamored of the “other” ness of the group. There is a sense of playing with the forbidden when the girls continue to visit the camp even after their parents express their distaste. It is something that comes up again when the girls’ Grandmother complains of “foreigners” taking over the city.

I personally found myself captivated by each individual characters story in this book. Each woman is connected to the others in numerous ways – by blood, by love, by circumstance. Each connection bringing another layer to the story until it is a veritable tapestry.

Overall, I enjoyed reading The Girls with No Names and was able to finish the book in just two days. While there is some difficult subject matter, I found it to be written about in a way that sensitive without being overly so.

Readers who are looking for well written female characters are likely to enjoy this book. I recommend they give it a go.

Warlock Holmes – My Grave Ritual (Warlock Holmes #3) by G.S. Denning

As they blunder towards doom, Warlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson find themselves inconvenienced by a variety of eldritch beings. Christmas brings a goose that doesn’t let being cooked slow it down; they meet an electricity demon, discover why being a redhead is even tricker than one might imagine, and Holmes attempts an Irish accent. And, naturally, Moriarty is hanging around… in some form or other. 

My Grave Ritual by G.S. Denning is the third book in the ever popular Warlock Holmes series. In it, Denning once again takes the much loved Conan Doyle stories and gives them a macabre and monstrous twist that would do horror authors like H.P. Lovecraft proud.

Much like the original stories, these are also told from the point of view of Dr. Watson. One story however is from the crayon scribbled journals of Warlock Holmes, giving us an insight in to the mind of such a unique character. Funnily enough, aside from how the story ends, Denning’s version strays very little from the original Doyle version.

While some characteristics of both Holmes and Watson have been switched around, one thing does remain true. And that is how highly Holmes and Watson regard one another. How much each man cares for the other, both as a friend and as a work partner.

So far I have been greatly enjoying reading the adventures of Warlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson. Mr. Denning has done a lovely job of giving us readers a new version of these characters while still staying true to what makes them unique. I look forward to reading further stories of these two and seeing what kind of mischief and mayhem they get in to next.

The Alchemist’s Daughter (A Bianca Goddard mystery) by Mary Lawrence

This review was originally published August 4, 2015.

Ask a school aged student what their favorite subject is, and more likely than not their answer will be anything other than “History”. There are those young students who do enjoy history, but for the majority it isn’t until we become adults that the subject holds any interest. This certainly holds true for myself, dear reader. Only as an adult have I found the subject interesting.

The Alchemist’s Daughter is a novel set in a time which I have found interest in – 16th Century London. The time of the reign of Henry VIII, a most turbulent time. In it, we meet Bianca Goddard, an intelligent young woman who uses her knowledge of medicinal plants and herbs to create remedies for the very poor in the Southwark slums where she lives. When her friend Jolyn comes complaining of stomach pains, the usual remedy doesn’t ease the pain but instead kills Jolyn on the spot. Trying to recover from the shock, Bianca begins to suspect that Jolyn was poisoned long before, something the local constable doesn’t seem ready to believe.

In order to keep herself out of the gallows, Bianca must try and find the real murderer. Using her knowledge as well as relying on help from those around her she needs to stay one step ahead and find out who killed her friend before time runs out.

The reviews on Amazon are mixed for this book, and I have to admit my feelings towards it are the same. On the whole, the book itself is fairly enjoyable. A dramatic tale with a variety of characters makes for a good read. The more casual history fan will like this book but the more ardent student will likely find problems. Characters speak more “modern”ly with only the occasional word or phrase from the time thrown in. Outfits, ideas, and even food and drink from a variety of eras form a sort of mish-mash that comprise parts of the novel.

Bianca, as well as the other main characters of the novel, were somewhat interesting. Bianca herself reads as the beautiful yet plucky heroine, constantly overlooked but determined to make her mark. Others seemed more like caricatures instead of full fleshed out persons, right down to the exasperated boyfriend. For me, the only character that I found truly worth wondering about was the mysterious cloaked rat catcher who showed up on occasion. Who was he and what was he doing? I found myself questioning his motives more than the main characters.

I wouldn’t call The Alchemist’s Daughter a light, fluffy read since the subject matter is far from it. It is however for the more casual reader and those who are real sticklers for historical accuracy should stay away. A decent read but I doubt I’ll be searching out any other books in this series.

On Night’s Shore (Edgar Allen Poe #1) by Randall Silvis

Standing on the grimy banks of the Hudson River, street urchin Augie Dubbins spots a young woman toss her baby into the water, then jump in herself. As the only witness to the tragedy, Augie sees an opportunity to make a few pennies recounting the events, and in doing so encounters a struggling young journalist named Edgar Allan Poe, a poet and newspaper hack whose penchant for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time has earned him more than a few enemies.

When the unlikely duo discover the body of yet another young woman shortly after, they become entrapped in a mire of murder, greed, and power that stretches from the Five Points slums to the gleaming heights of Fifth Avenue.

Trigger Warnings – mentions of assault, mentions of sexual assault, mentions of abortion, mentions of incest

On Night’s Shore by Randall Silvis is a fictional account of real events.

Much like Edgar Allen Poe, Randall Silvis has a way with words. Whether this is a good or bad thing is completely up to the reader. The writing felt like Silvis had sat down with a dictionary picking as many large words as possible. It was more than a little disconcerting especially when one considers that the narrator is a street urchin.

Once one has become more comfortable with Mr. Silvis’ writing style, then it is easy to enjoy the story itself. It is easy to become drawn into the narrative and to follow along as Poe gathers information. And much like the detective C. Auguste Dupin, Poe’s genius is evident as he pieces the clues together.

This is the first book I have read by Randall Silvis. As a fan of Edgar Allen Poe, finding a novel with the famed author as the main character was a treat. I enjoy a good murder mystery and was hoping to enjoy this particular story.

It pleases me to say that I enjoyed reading On Night’s Shore very much. And it is one that I would recommend to my readers.

Moriarty by Anthony Horowitz

Review originally published February 2015

Like I have said before, I am a fan of Sherlock Holmes. I have read all the original stories and am currently enjoying the influx of new novels. Needless to say, when I saw this book bearing the title of Holmes’ nemesis, I was greatly intrigued.

Mere days have passed since Holmes’ and Moriarty have their final confrontation at Reichenbach Falls. Frederick Chase, an investigator from the infamous Pinkerton’s Detective Agency in New York arrives in Switzerland. There he meets Inspector Anthelney Jones from Scotland Yard, sent there to investigate and confirm Moriarty’s death.

Upon their meeting, Chase brings a dire warning: with Moriarty’s death a rather large vacancy has been left in London’s criminal underworld. While there is no shortage of candidates to fill the role, there is one particularly fiendish and cruel individual that Chase is after.

Joining forces, the two men travel from Switzerland to London in pursuit of this new threat. They must track down a man who has never been seen and is spoken of only in whispers and who is determined to take Moriarty’s place as his successor.

Moriarty is the second novel by Anthony Horowitz to sanctioned by the Arthur Conan Doyle Estate; and it is with good reason. In the novel Holmes’ world of Victorian London seems to come alive as Jones and Chase traverse its streets. Even those unfamiliar with the city of London will find themselves able to envision the settings in their mind.

Jones and Chase themselves are very interesting characters. Fans of the original Holmes’ stories will recognize Inspector Chase from ‘The Sign of Four’. Hating how he was portrayed in the published story, Chase becomes a devoted student of Holmes’ methods of deductions. He seeks to style himself as potentially Holmes’ successor just as he tries to find Moriarty’s successor. He delves in to his work much like Holmes’ does; head first and damned the consequences. Naturally this creates strife with his family and with his co-workers at Scotland Yard.

Chase is seemingly the penultimate Pinkerton Detective. Intelligent and headstrong he brings his own knowledge of the American criminals to London. He and Jones work well side by side as they try to solve a rather bizarre case.

Rare is the book, dear reader, that leaves me completely speechless by the end. Moriarty joins the rather short list that does just that. Now I will not spoil precisely what exactly left me so shocked, just know that while the entire book was a true page-turner it was those final few chapters that held me entirely entranced. With the final reveal and the final page, all I could say was “Oh wow…”

Well done Mr. Horowitz, well done.

Provided for Review: A Royal Kiss & Tell (A Royal Wedding #2) by Julia London

Every dashing young man in London’s ton is vying for Lady Caroline Hawke’s hand—except one. Handsome, delectable roué Prince Leopold of Alucia can’t quite remember who Caroline is, and the insult is not to be tolerated. So, Caroline does what any clever, resourceful lady of means would do to make sure a prince remembers her: sees that amusingly risqué morsels about Leo’s reputation are printed in a ladies’ gossip gazette…all the while secretly setting her cap for the rakish royal.

Someone has been painting Leo as a blackguard, but who? Socially, it could ruin him. More important, it jeopardizes his investigation into a contemptible scheme that reaches the highest levels of government in London. Now, Leo needs Lady Caroline’s help to regain access to society. But this charming prince is about to discover that enlisting the deceptively sweet and sexy Lady Caroline might just cost him his heart, his soul and both their reputations…

This book was provided for review by the publisher through NetGalley. Thank you!

It is very rare for me to not actually finish a book. It is even more rare when the book was provided with the intent to read and review it here. It saddens me when this happens, especially when the author is one I have read and enjoyed before.

Sadly, such is the case with A Royal Kiss & Tell by Julia London. I jumped at the opportunity to read and review one of Ms. London’s books as I have enjoyed many of them. Unfortunately, I made a little more than a quarter in to the book before I had to set it aside.

As always, Ms. London’s writing is quite well done. The scenes she sets up pull the reader in and it is easy to picture the action as it is happening. She has an ability to make the words jump from the page and to take the reader along for the ride.

My issue is with the characters themselves, especially Lady Caroline. She is a lady and yet her manners would claim otherwise. While she can be kind to most every one she meets, she often talks without caring if she is welcome or not. She also comes across as quite vain and shallow, taking great offense when those around don’t agree with her opinions of her own beauty.

Prince Leopold is thankfully a little better. While he finds Lady Caroline lovely to look at, he also finds her irritating with her apparent lack of manners. He chides her foolishness and spars with her in words. Being the second son, he is the “spare” to his elder brothers “heir”, a position he seems content with.

From some of the other reviews I have seen of A Royal Kiss & Tell, there are certain plot points that are not dealt with very well. They are supposedly dealt with in a ham-handed manner and often feel forced. I did not make it far enough in to the book to come across these particular sub-plots, so I cannot make any comments on to how they were written.

I have long been a fan of the author, Julia London. Having read numerous books by her, I have enjoyed many of them. While I personally did not enjoy reading A Royal Kiss & Tell, I will encourage other readers to give it a try. Just because it wasn’t for me does not mean it won’t be perfect for someone else.

Provided for Review: Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Undead Client by M.J. Downing

Sherlock Holmes has only been deceased a month when Dr. John Watson, still grieving, recounts his final case with Holmes.  A terrifying mystery, it sends Watson and Holmes into the dark reaches of London’s back alleys – and the human soul. 

It begins when Anne Prescott, a lovely Scottish nurse, begs Sherlock Holmes and Watson to help her find her fiancé and her sister, who have gone missing in the teeming streets of London. Immediately, Watson feels an attraction to her that shocks him. Newly married to Mary, and deeply in love with her, he struggles to put Anne out of his mind.

As Watson and Holmes dig into the slums and sewers of London looking for Anne’s fiancé and sister, they uncover a deadly web of bloody murders, horrific medical experiments, and even voodoo ritual that threatens not only London, but the entire British empire, and beyond.

Watson must call on his unique combination of expertise in the medical sciences, as well as his military training to stop this killer before London —and Anne — are lost to the killer’s bloody plan.

But time is short and the mystery ever more complex. How can he manage his feelings for Anne? What about his loyalty to Mary? He can’t have both.

This book was provided for review by Netgalley. Thank you!

If it hasn’t occurred to my readers by now, I am a fan of Sherlock Holmes. I have read all of the original Conan Doyle tales countless times and continue to enjoy them. I am also one who is more than happy to read other author’s stories starring my favorite detective. And while yes, I will admit, that it is often hit or miss with the books, I still enjoy it.

Unfortunately my dearest readers, Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Undead Client is one of those that is a miss.

A great majority of readers are familiar with fan-fiction, and with that they are generally familiar with the term “Mary-Sue”. The term refers to a female character who is absolutely perfect in every way. She is incredibly smart and exceptionally beautiful, whatever task she attempts to do she is almost immediately proficient. And in almost every case she meets a tragic end.

The character of Anne Prescott is, in my mind, such a character. She comes to Holmes and Watson seeking their help in finding her missing fiance as well as her missing sister. At first, her interactions with Holmes and Watson are fairly standard – she is trying to help them find her loved ones after all. Soon though characterization goes a bit sideways and both Holmes and Watson become almost caricatures.

About halfway through Holmes expresses a wish to be more like Anne Prescott with her strength of character. I thought this was completely out of character for him as he had never wanted to be anyone else but himself. Also, about two-thirds of the way through, Anne seduces Watson and causes him to cheat on Mary. Again, this is quite out of character as in canon Watson professed how much he cared for Mary several times.

Aside from the mis-characterization, the writing itself is often over melodramatic to the point where it almost becomes purple. I understand that Downing was trying to capture the particular writing style of Conan Doyle’s Watson but like most everything else, I found it profoundly lacking.

If this book was about original characters fighting zombies in Victorian England, I would be more inclined to give it a better rating. However, because this is book is centered on the well known characters of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson, I must rate it accordingly and advice my readers to skip it entirely.