Category: Historical

The Business of Blood by Kerrigan Byrne

The Business of Blood by Kerrigan ByrneThe Business of Blood by Kerrigan Byrne
Series: The Business of Blood, #1
Published by Ardent Publishing on 20th October 2019
Pages: 309
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four-stars

London, 1890. Blood and death are Fiona Mahoney’s trade, and business, as they say, is booming.

Dying is the only thing people do with any regularity, and Fiona makes her indecorous living cleaning up after the corpses are carted away. Her childhood best friend, Mary, was the last known victim of Jack the Ripper. It’s been two years since Fiona scrubbed Mary’s blood from the floorboards, and London is no longer buzzing about the Ripper, but Fiona hasn’t forgotten.

And she hasn’t stopped searching for Jack.

When she’s called to a murder in the middle of the night, Fiona finds a victim mutilated in an eerily similar fashion to those of the Ripper, and only a few doors down from Mary’s old home. The relentless, overbearing, and irritatingly handsome Inspector Grayson Croft warns her away from the case. She might have listened, if she hadn’t found a clue in the blood. A clue that will lead her down a path from which there is no return.As a killer cuts a devastating swath through London, a letter written in blood arrives at her door, and it is only then that Fiona realizes just how perilous her endeavor is. For she has drawn the attention of an obsessive evil, and is no longer the hunter, but the prey. Fiona Mahoney is in the business of blood.

But she’s not the only one.

Taking place smack in the aftermath of the Ripper murders in the most squalid bits of London, ‘The Business of Blood’ follows an intrepid Fiona Mahoney who has somehow managed to eke a place out for herself as the clean-up crew of wet work, keeping company with questionable characters just so she can live decently. But it’s also one that has put her on a path of investigation and ultimately revenge: to search out the Ripper who’d torn up her friend 2 years prior, up until she tangles with law enforcement and the people who may or may not have had a hand in the murders suddenly happening all around her once more.

I loved the premise of the story from the start: it’s suspenseful, and probably groundbreaking for putting a female protagonist in a role that most heroines steer clear of in historical romances. It’s also macabre but fascinating in the way murder cases and unsolved crime mysteries probably are, hinting of ethnic struggles and the consequences of those in individuals that eschew the notion of life being sacrosanct—more so as these seem to underpin Byrne’s London as a gritty and unstable hotbed for brutal violence and insanity.

There’s barely a hint of romance at all in fact; much of it is Fiona’s story, her quest to unravel the thread linking the pile of bodies rapidly falling around her and her interactions with characters who are hiding too many secrets of their own for her liking. Seeing as this is a series, the Ripper murders aren’t done and dusted just yet, with the climax taking a bit of a hooked twist while leaving unresolved matters for the next few books to cover.

Byrne does write a good mystery, though it’s the purple prose and some over-descriptions of emotions or events that I could have done without. Still, ‘The Business of Blood’ is an intriguing read and a bit of a mental screw, to be honest. Yet I’d be the first in line for the next book already.

four-stars

The Lost Spear by N.J. Croft

The Lost Spear by N.J. CroftThe Lost Spear by N.J. Croft
Series: Lost #0.5
Published by Sideways Books on 26th August 2019
Pages: 114
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two-stars

Archaeologist Dr. Eve Blakeley has dedicated her life's work to finding Genghis Khan's final resting place. But first she'll have to find the Spirit Banner, Khan's lost spear, an eight-hundred-year-old weapon shrouded in as much mystery and lore as his lost tomb. The two are intertwined by centuries of secrets.

During her search through the mountains of Mongolia, she's joined by MI6 agent Zachary Martin, who is convinced that recent, seemingly random acts of terror around the globe are somehow connected to her.

But as they follow the clues to the spear, the line between her historical research and present-day terrorism blurs even more... Someone doesn't want her team to find the spear, and they'll do anything to keep the secrets of Genghis Khan buried forever.

It’s strange that ‘The Lost Spear’ came as part of the ARC offering under Entangled Publishing. But the blurb wasn’t one that I could resist, so I took a chance on an archaeological thriller, not knowing whether it was actually part of an imprint primarily associated with romantic fiction.

The long and short of it is, ‘The Lost Spear’ would be a disappointment especially if you think this is one that falls under that category. The romance plot is thin and weak, with the barest hint (that’s more told than showed) of what could happen between several characters. That the male protagonist (is MI6 agent Zachary Martin even one?) was kissing Eve Blakeley with nary a hint of chemistry while contemplating his own feelings towards his recently-dead partner mere pages ago didn’t really bode well for a strong romance.

That said, if archaeology and searching out lost items, racing against time if your thing, then ‘The Lost Spear’ does well to outline an intriguing mystery surrounding Genghis Khan and his Spirit Banner and the quest to find it.

But at 114 pages, it felt like this went nowhere, with a compendium of theories about the Spirit Banner, the revelation of bad guys who quite predictably masqueraded as good guys and an unsatisfactory cliffhanger that at the end, left me wondering if this was just a circular walk in the steppes of Central Asia. It’s a clear setup for what looks like a full-length sequel, but I’m not sure if I’m into this enough to continue.

two-stars

Bringing Down The Duke by Evie Dunmore

Bringing Down The Duke by Evie DunmoreBringing Down the Duke by Evie Dunmore
Series: A League of Extraordinary Women, #1
Published by Berkley on 3rd September 2019
Pages: 320
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three-half-stars

England, 1879. Annabelle Archer, the brilliant but destitute daughter of a country vicar, has earned herself a place among the first cohort of female students at the renowned University of Oxford. In return for her scholarship, she must support the rising women's suffrage movement. Her charge: recruit men of influence to champion their cause. Her target: Sebastian Devereux, the cold and calculating Duke of Montgomery who steers Britain's politics at the Queen's command. Her challenge: not to give in to the powerful attraction she can't deny for the man who opposes everything she stands for.

Sebastian is appalled to find a suffragist squad has infiltrated his ducal home, but the real threat is his impossible feelings for green-eyed beauty Annabelle. He is looking for a wife of equal standing to secure the legacy he has worked so hard to rebuild, not an outspoken commoner who could never be his duchess. But he wouldn't be the greatest strategist of the Kingdom if he couldn't claim this alluring bluestocking without the promise of a ring...or could he?

Locked in a battle with rising passion and a will matching her own, Annabelle will learn just what it takes to topple a duke....

Reading about fictional, historical women ahead of their time should well resonate with those living in this century, as far removed as we are from them, simply because the issue of equality among the sexes is still a highly contested one despite the leaps we’ve made.

Despite the levity of the cover, Evie Dunmore’s debut historical is rather compelling, with all the peaks and troughs of the historical romances that I turn to from time to time. There’s some sensitivity to the social and cultural constraints of the time and Dunmore shows that awareness in her prose and her protagonists’ behaviour—where they should step or not—while piling on the rising heat between a vicar’s daughter studying at Oxford and a blue-blooded, pedigreed duke who has the ear of the Queen.

Anchoring her story straight in the middle of a time where bluestockinged women were petitioning for their right to vote—a fundamental right so many take for granted these days—in Victorian England is sly and smart, as Dunmore weaves the politics of the day quite deftly with ideas of social standing, fidelity and the transactional nature of marriage in two protagonists who lie on the opposite ends of the ladder.

The slow burn between Annabelle Archer and Sebastian Montgomery is a believable one, more so because Dunmore writes Annabelle as a character who’s easily empathised with: as one who wants more, who yearns to bridge the chasm that gapes between her and her duke, but can’t. My only let-down was her own hand-wringing, her lack of conviction and her dismally cowardly behaviour towards the end in a supposedly self-sacrificing cruel move—cruel to be kind so to speak, and a stupid action—where it was left all to Sebastian to do the hard work and climb the mountain while she did nothing to fight for what she really wanted. Ironic, considering the passion she had for the suffragist movement.

If I thought Sebastian impenetrable and difficult to grasp, Dunmore’s rushed stripping away of his defences towards the end of the book made him a different romantic protagonist I wanted to get behind—one who almost deserved better than what Annabelle did to him.

These grumbles aside, Dunmore’s rather impressive debut is making me sit up and take note. It’s well-written, well thought-out and engaging. For someone with hands and feet firmly in contemporary romance, this is quite a feat.

three-half-stars

The King’s Man by Elizabeth Kingston

The King’s Man by Elizabeth KingstonThe King's Man by Elizabeth Kingston
Series: Welsh Blades #1
Published by Createspace Independent Publishing Platform on 9th August 2015
Pages: 324
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three-stars

Ranulf Ombrier’s fame throughout England for his skill at swordplay is rivaled only by his notoriety as King Edward I’s favorite killer. Ranulf's actions have gained him lands, title, and a lasting reputation as a hired butcher. But after years of doing his king's bidding, he begins to fear for his mortal soul and follows his conscience away from Edward, all the way to the wilds of Wales.

Gwenllian of Ruardean, Welsh daughter of a powerful Marcher lord, has every reason to leave Ranulf for dead when one of her men nearly kills him. As a girl she was married by proxy to a man Ranulf murdered, only to become a widow before she ever met her groom. In the years since, she has shunned the life of a lady, instead studying warfare and combat at her mother’s behest. But she has also studied healing and this, with her sense of duty to knightly virtues, leads her to tend to Ranulf’s wounds.

Saving her enemy’s life comes with consequences, and Gwenllian and Ranulf are soon caught up in dangerous intrigue. Forced together by political machinations, they discover a kinship of spirit and a surprising, intense desire. But even hard-won love cannot thrive when loyalties are divided and the winds of rebellion sweep the land.

‘The King’s Man’ is in short, a mesmerising read. More so because I can’t even remember the last time I’d dipped a toe in one that’s past the 18th or 19th century. But undoubtedly, this is also a hard review to write, torn as I am between the superb writing and a lacklustre romance that sputtered out before it even began.

That Elizabeth Kingston managed to frame the story within the confines of 13th century Britain yet pull the smallest parallels to modern life makes this story heart-wrenchingly contemporary and frankly, impressive, at least in the way Gwenllian struggled with giving up her identity as swordswoman and a commander of the men in her keep the moment she was made to marry Morency.

In Gwenllian, we get a multifaceted and complexly drawn portrayal of an unusual woman of that time, with such wondrous strength of character and ferocious adaptability that it puts—or should put—many to shame. Forced into a role that put her squarely in a round hole of running the keep as a newly-married lady, and torn between warring factions and political intrigue, her ultimate decision to leave her former self and devote her life to being a lady felt like a bittersweet decision that is admittedly hard for a 21st century reader to swallow—a reminder perhaps, that such sacrifices in some form or other, still exist today even as strong women fight just as hard to have it all.

Kingstons’s characterisation draws no complaint from me, though the pairing left me more than a little wanting: there’s heat at nights, and muted remoteness between the protagonists by day, in a connection that never quite sparked given the lack of communication for most of it and for the repetitive lines of how much Gwenllian felt drawn to Morency and to her obedience to duty. And if I loved her spunk in the beginning, that merely flared as bright and as briefly as a shooting star before she’d determinedly shed her armour in a displacement that drew all the feels. In short it was a sacrifice I’d hoped never to read in the story, only to have it dug even more deeply by the time it ended.

I thought Kingston glossed over the fluidity of the concept of beauty despite the refreshing idea that not only beautiful women in romantic literature deserves a happy ending. Even for 13th century sensibilities about supposedly immutable gender roles, the unforgivable insults that Morency hurled at Gwellian in the early days merely made him a cruel and arrogant prick who never quite redeemed himself by the end of the book. I’d not seen enough of his vulnerability or his devotion to Gwenllian—nor of any active encouragement for her to be who she needed to be—to believe that he’d truly loved her and to this extent, ‘The King’s Man’ felt like a massive let down.

three-stars

When We Left Cuba by Chanel Cleeton

When We Left Cuba by Chanel CleetonWhen We Left Cuba by Chanel Cleeton
Published by Berkley Books on 9th April 2019
Pages: 368
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three-stars

Beautiful. Daring. Deadly.

The Cuban Revolution took everything from sugar heiress Beatriz Perez--her family, her people, her country. Recruited by the CIA to infiltrate Fidel Castro's inner circle and pulled into the dangerous world of espionage, Beatriz is consumed by her quest for revenge and her desire to reclaim the life she lost.

As the Cold War swells like a hurricane over the shores of the Florida Strait, Beatriz is caught between the clash of Cuban American politics and the perils of a forbidden affair with a powerful man driven by ambitions of his own. When the ever-changing tides of history threaten everything she has fought for, she must make a choice between her past and future--but the wrong move could cost Beatriz everything--not just the island she loves, but also the man who has stolen her heart...

‘When we left Cuba’ isn’t quite a sequel to Chanel Cleeton’s much-loved ’Next Year in Havana’, the latter of which I do consider one of my best reads of the year. Still, it’s a book that stands on its own feet even if it’s less sweeping than its predecessor. Still, ‘When we left Cuba’ is a compellingly written story of the oldest Perez sister who struts her way through the pages, armed with the thirst for revenge as she somehow moseys her way into the clutches of the CIA while tangling with a senator whose a player in politics and in every sense of the word.

Within the fodder material of the fabled and many attempts of the CIA to assassinate Fidel Castro is where Cleeton posits Beatriz Perez after her escape from Cuba, navigating the thorny issues of policy and politics of the time. Bold, hot-headed and reckless, Beatriz carves a path for herself that’s as treacherous as you’d expect, resulting in having her loyalties sorely tested as her decisions change the course of her life.
Cleeton writes in favour of long, descriptive passages of place and emotion; the pace is slower as a result, the plot a little more convoluted. The romance isn’t quite the focus here; rather, Beatriz herself is the star of the show, front and centre. Her long, longstanding affair with a powerful senator is carried out amidst society’s expectations and the uncertain political climate, a subplot that runs alongside her involvement with the CIA.

I’ll admit though, that it is harder to be singularly or emotionally invested in Beatriz completely as I was in Cleeton’s first book about Elisa and her granddaughter. Undoubtedly, Beatriz is a colourful character who stands out sharply—sometimes too painfully sharply like a woman cut from a different cloth—not just by means of her birth but also her life experiences, but ultimately, she’s still a protagonist whose story I read about from a distance as she made her own small stamp on history, for better or worse.

Cleeton’s impactful writing carries it all here, despite the odd hollowness I felt about Beatriz by the end. It’s what took me through the politics, the lies, the dirty games and the passing of time within the pages after all and it’s what keeps me coming back.
three-stars

The Duke with the Dragon Tattoo by Kerrigan Byrne

The Duke with the Dragon Tattoo by Kerrigan ByrneThe Duke with the Dragon Tattoo (Victorian Rebels, #6) by Kerrigan Byrne
Published by St. Martin's Paperbacks on 28th August 2018
Pages: 333
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four-stars

The bravest of heroes. The brashest of rebels. The boldest of lovers. These are the men who risk their hearts and their souls—for the passionate women who dare to love them…

He is known only as The Rook. A man with no name, no past, no memories. He awakens in a mass grave, a magnificent dragon tattoo on his muscled forearm the sole clue to his mysterious origins. His only hope for survival—and salvation—lies in the deep, fiery eyes of the beautiful stranger who finds him. Who nurses him back to health. And who calms the restless demons in his soul…

A LEGENDARY LOVE

Lorelei will never forget the night she rescued the broken dark angel in the woods, a devilishly handsome man who haunts her dreams to this day. Crippled as a child, she devoted herself to healing the poor tortured man. And when he left, he took a piece of her heart with him. Now, after all these years, The Rook has returned. Like a phantom, he sweeps back into her life and avenges those who wronged her. But can she trust a man who’s been branded a rebel, a thief, and a killer? And can she trust herself to resist him when he takes her in his arms?

Kerrigan Byrne writes the most tortured, menacing and sinister men in Victorian Rebels, which is a feat considering this is no less than an old-school bodice ripper that can be indulged in simply because the story does turn out to be way more than the stereotypes it plays to.

Ash, first a victim of his circumstances, now an unapologetically ruthless pirate, leads the charge in Byrne’s sixth book as the predominant force that helps turn the pages. Rather, this shadowy and fearsome pirate steers not just his own ship but also the plot, looming so much larger than life that Lorelai, who, portrayed as the angelic, innocent one (though with some spine to her personality), pales in comparison to the darkness and the unrelenting personality that he has.

The power of fiction here however, lies in its ability to bestow super-human strength and resistance to its protagonists, though truthfully it’s still difficult to swallow the incredulity that keeps popping up each time Byrne puts Ash through the wringer only to survive it all under such dire conditions when lesser people would have long succumbed to heinous illness.

In fact, I constantly wondered how Ash lived past the age of 18, from the very day he was found by Lorelai—given the brutal, unsanitary conditions of Victorian times and all—, let alone through nearly 40 years of cruel, indentured servitude. Consequently, a lot is packed into a reunion after 2 decades apart (through no fault of the protagonists at all), and Ash powers through it in a dazzling contradiction of emotions dictating his actions, while Lorelai remains the genteel Angel determined to reclaim the boy she once nursed back to health.

Ash/Lorelai’s relationship however, characterised by Byrne’s prolific purple prose, simultaneously enraptured and bothered me. Hyperbolic descriptions of every emotion and every touch stretch into embellished metaphors and analogies, made for both passionate, poetic moments—that undoubtedly made her characters wonderfully nuanced—and cheesy over-doneness.

In any case, along with the growing action towards the end and Byrne’s revelation of the intriguing connections between her male protagonists, I’d say this is enough of a hook to keep a watch out for the next book to come.

four-stars

The Sins of Lord Lockwood by Meredith Duran

The Sins of Lord Lockwood by Meredith DuranThe Sins of Lord Lockwood by Meredith Duran
Series: Rules for the Reckless #6
Published by Pocket Books on February 27th 2018
Pages: 368
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four-stars

BACK FROM THE DEAD, AN EARL SEEKS VENGEANCE...

Liam Devaliant, Lord Lockwood, was born into a charmed life. Charismatic, powerful, and wild, he had the world at his feet—and one woman as his aim. His wedding to Anna was meant to be his greatest triumph. Instead, in a single moment, a wicked conspiracy robbed him of his future and freedom.

...BUT WILL HIS LONG-LOST COUNTESS PAY THE PRICE?

Four years later, Liam has returned from death with plans for revenge. Standing in his way, though, is his long-absent bride. Once, he adored Anna's courage. Now it seems like a curse, for Anna refuses to fear or forget him. If she can't win back Liam's love, then she means at least to save his soul...no matter the cost.

There are few authors who can tempt me back into historical romance and Meredith Duran is always one of them. But it certainly doesn’t hurt that the very peculiar situation of Lord Lockwood, or better known as Liam Devaliant—first revealed in ‘The Duke of Shadows’ as the man with an odd temper, an odder past and an obviously missing bride—is one that’s gripping and compelling enough to wait several years for.

‘The Sins of Lord Lockwood’ is an absolutely unexpected treat, dashing away all my expectations of a wimpy, hiding heroine and a man who constantly pushes her away for his shame at having been kidnapped and imprisoned. Instead, Duran presents a strong heroine capable of matching her husband’s changed mien—riddled with PTSD and a barely-concealed rage that leaks out as near-schizophrenia—and in doing so, has probably crafted one of the most memorable historical heroines I’ve ever had the pleasure of cheering for.

Lockwood’s and Anna’s present reality is interspersed with the lazy days of their meeting and their courtship 4 years prior, as Duran’s narrative weaves between the pragmatic (though flirty) circumstances of their initial union and the strained volatile interactions of their reconciliation. There are hints of what Liam suffered in Elland, but the details are fuzzy: Duran concentrates on sensation, conflict and pain rather than gives a blow-by-blow account of what really happened, as these help to explain why Lockwood seemingly vacillates between moments of forced indifference and letting the tormented beast loose at unexpected times.

What surprises me most perhaps, is how Anna comes across, though Duran—which I loudly applaud—writes very contemporary sensibilities into her heroines that make them three-dimensionally relatable. Anna’s capability, her management skills, her fearless leap into the affairs of men, her strength and determination to pull her husband back from the brink left me in awe…here is the ‘modern historical’ female protagonist whom I absolutely dig (though clearly this is not the norm of Victorian England), the woman whose alpha tendencies could probably have helped front the #MeToo movement if given the chance.

Duran’s superlative prose is as always, a big draw, pulling the nuances of emotions and desire together in a way that makes me stop and savour her written word. That alone is reason enough to put Duran on my reading list, though ‘The Sins of Lord Lockwood’—read it even if only to revisit Emma and Julian—is one that I’ll remember for some time to come for a protagonist who stands starkly apart from so many others.

four-stars