Today I am thrilled to be sharing an excerpt from Guy Gavriel Kay’s upcoming novel Children of Earth and Sky! I’m quite excited about this one, which will be released on May 10, since Guy Gavriel Kay’s a fantastic writer whose stories and characters stick with me long after reading the final page. I hope you enjoy reading this piece and meeting Danica!

Here is a passage from early in the book, introducing one of the central characters and the setting in which she lives. For now.

Excerpted from Children of Earth and Sky, © Guy Gavriel Kay, 2016

She hadn’t intended to bring the dog when she went out on a moonless night to begin the next stage of her life.

Problem was, Tico jumped in the boat while she was pushing it off the strand and refused to leave when she hissed a command at him. She knew that if she pushed him into the shallow water he’d start barking in protest, and she couldn’t allow that.

So her dog was with her as she began rowing out into the black bay. It could have been comical, except it wasn’t because she was here to kill people, and for all her hard, cold reputation in Senjan, she had never done that.

It was time, Danica thought.

The Senjani named themselves heroes, warriors of the sun god defending a dangerous border. If she was going to make herself accepted as a raider among them, not just a someday mother of fighters (and daughter of one, and granddaughter), she needed to begin. And she had her own vengeance to pursue. Not against Seressa, but this could be a start.

No one knew she was out tonight in her family’s small boat. She’d been careful. She was unmarried, lived alone now in their house (everyone in her family was dead, since last summer). She could come and go silently at night, and all the young people in Senjan knew how to get through the town walls if they needed to, on the landward side, or down to the stony beach and the boats.

The raid leaders might punish her after tonight, the emperor’s small garrison almost certainly would want to, but she was prepared for that. She just needed to succeed. Recklessness and pride, courage and faith in Jad, and prowess, those were how the Senjani understood themselves. They could punish her and still honour her—if she did what she was out here to do. If she was right about tonight.

Nor did she find it distressing that the men she intended to kill were fellow worshippers of Jad, not god-denying Osmanlis—like the ones who had destroyed her own village years ago.

Danica had no trouble summoning hatred for arrogant Seressa across the narrow sea. For one thing, that republic traded greedily with the infidels, betraying the sun god in pursuit of gold.

For another, Seressa had been blockading Senjan, keeping all the boats pinned in the harbour or on the strand, and the town was hungry now. The Seressinis controlled Hrak Island, which was so near you could swim to it, and they’d forbidden the islanders, on pain of hanging, from dealing with Senjan. (There was some smuggling, but not enough, not nearly so.) They were bent on starving the Senjani, or destroying them if they came out. There was no mystery to it.

A good-sized overland party of twenty raiders had gone east through the pass into Asharite lands a week ago, but end of winter was not a time to find much in the way of food there, and there were terrible risks.

It was too early to know if the Osmanlis were advancing towards the imperial fortresses again this year, but they probably would be. Here in the west, the heroes of Senjan could try to capture animals or take villagers for ransom. They could fight the savage hadjuks in fair numbers if they met them, but not if those numbers were greatly increased, and not if the hadjuks had cavalry with them from the east.

Everything carried risks for ordinary people these days. The great powers in their courts didn’t appear to spend much time thinking about the heroes of Senjan—or any of the men and women on the borderlands.

The triple border, they called it: Osmanli Empire, Holy Jaddite Empire, Republic of Seressa. Ambitions collided here. These lands were where good people suffered and died for their families and faith.

The loyal heroes of Senjan were useful to their emperor in the north. When there was war with Asharias they’d receive letters of praise on expensive paper from Obravic, and every so often half a dozen more soldiers to be garrisoned in the tall round tower inland from their walls, augmenting the handful usually here. But when the demands of trade, or finance, or conflicts among the Jaddite nations, or the need to end such conflicts, or whatever other factors in the lofty world of courts caused treaties to be made—well, then the raiders of Senjan, the heroes, became expendable. A problem, a threat to harmony if the Osmanli court or aggrieved Seressini ambassadors registered complaints.

These bloodthirsty savages have violated our sworn peace with the Osmanlis, the terms of a treaty. They have seized shipped goods, raided villages, sold people into slavery . . . So Seressa had notoriously written.

An emperor, reading that, needed to be more honourable, more aware, Danica thought, rowing quietly under stars. Didn’t he understand what they needed from him? Villages or farms on a violent border divided by faith didn’t become peaceful because of pen strokes in courts far away.

If you lived on stony land or by a stony strand you still needed to feed yourself and your children. Heroes and warriors shouldn’t be named savages so easily.

If the emperor didn’t pay them to defend his land (their land!), or send soldiers to do it, or allow them to find goods and food for themselves, asking nothing of him, what did he want them to do? Die?

If Senjani seafarers boarded trading galleys and roundships, it was only for goods belonging to heretics. Jaddite merchants with goods in the holds were protected. Or, well, they were supposed to be. They usually were. No one was going to deny that extremes of need and anger might cause some raiders to be a little careless in sorting which merchant various properties belonged to on a taken ship.

Why do they ignore us in Obravic? she asked suddenly, in her mind.

You want honourable behaviour from courts? A foolish wish, her grandfather said.

I know, she replied, in thought, which was how she spoke with him. He’d been dead almost a year. The plague of last summer.

It had taken her mother, too, which is why Danica was alone now. There were about seven or eight hundred people in Senjan most of the time (more took refuge if there was trouble inland). Almost two hundred had died here in two successive summers.

There were no assurances in life, even if you prayed, honoured Jad, lived as decently as you could. Even if you had already suffered what someone might fairly have said was enough. But how did you measure what was enough? Who decided?

Her mother didn’t talk to her in her mind. She was gone. So were her father and older brother, ten years ago in a burning village, other side of the pass. They didn’t talk to her.

Her grandfather was in her head at all times. They spoke to one another, clearly, silently. Had done so from the moment, just about, that he’d died.

What just happened? he’d said. Exactly that, abruptly, in her mind, as Danica walked away from the pyre where he and her mother had burned with half a dozen other plague victims.

She had screamed. Wheeled around in a mad, terrified circle, she remembered. Those beside her had thought it was grief.

How are you here? she’d cried out, silently. Her eyes had been wide open, staring, seeing nothing.

Danica! I don’t know!

You died!

I know I did.

It was impossible, appalling. And became unimaginably comforting. She’d kept it secret, from that day to this night. There were those, and not just clerics, who would burn her if this became known.

It defined her life now, as much as the deaths of her father and brother had—and the memory of their small, sweet little one, Neven, the younger brother taken by the hadjuks in that night raid years ago. The raid that had brought three of them fleeing to Senjan on the coast: her grandfather, her mother, herself at ten years old.

So she talked in her thoughts with a man who was dead. She was as good with a bow as anyone in Senjan, better than anyone she knew with knives. Her grandfather had taught her both while he was alive, from when she was only a girl. There were no boys any more in the family to teach. They had both learned to handle boats here. It was what you did in Senjan. She had learned to kill with a thrown knife and a held one, to loose arrows from a boat, judging the movements of the sea. She was extremely good at that. It was why she had a chance to do what she was out here to do tonight.

She wasn’t, Danica knew, an especially conventional young woman.

She swung her quiver around and checked the arrows: habit, routine. She’d brought a lot of them, odds were very much against a strike with each one, out here on the water. Her bow was dry. She’d been careful. A wet bowstring was next to useless. She wasn’t sure how far she’d have to aim tonight—if this even happened. If the Seressinis were indeed coming. It wasn’t as if they’d made her a promise.

It was a mild night, one of the first of a cold spring. Little wind. She couldn’t have done this in a rough sea. She dropped her cloak from her shoulders. She looked up at the stars. When she was young, back in their village, sleeping outdoors behind the house on hot summer nights, she used to fall asleep trying to count them. Numbers went on and on, apparently. So did stars. She could almost understand how Asharites might worship them. Except it meant denying Jad, and how could anyone do that?

Tico was motionless at the prow, facing out to sea as if he were a figurehead. She wasn’t able to put into words how much she loved her dog. There was no one to say it to, anyhow.

Wind now, a little: her grandfather, in her mind.

I know, she replied quickly, although in truth she’d only become aware of it in the moment he told her. He was acute that way, sharper than she was when it came to certain things. He used her senses now—sight, smell, touch, sound, even taste. She didn’t understand how. Neither did he.

She heard him laugh softly, in her head, at the too-swift reply. He’d been a fighter, a hard, harsh man to the world. Not with his daughter and granddaughter, though. His name had also been Neven, her little brother named for him. She called him “zadek” in her mind, their family’s own name for “grandfather,” going back a long way, her mother had told her.

She knew he was worried tonight, didn’t approve of what she was doing. He’d been blunt about it. She had given him her reasons. They hadn’t satisfied. She cared about that, but she also didn’t. He was with her, but he didn’t control her life. He couldn’t do anything to stop her from doing what she chose. She also had the ability to close him off in her mind, shut down their exchanges and his ability to sense anything. She could do that any time she wanted. He hated it when she did.

She didn’t like it either, in truth, though there were times (when she was with men, for example) when it was useful and extremely necessary. She was alone without him, though. There was Tico. But still.

I did know it was changing, she protested.

The freshening wind was north and east, could become a bura, in fact, which would make the sea dangerous, and also make it almost impossible for a bow. These were her waters, however, her home now, since her first home had burned.

You weren’t supposed to be angry with the god, it was presumption, heresy. Jad’s face on the domes and walls of sanctuaries showed his love for his children, the clerics said. Holy books taught his infinite compassion and courage, battling darkness every night for them. But there had been no compassion from the god, or the hadjuks, in her village that night. She dreamed of fires.

And the proud and glorious Republic of Seressa, self-proclaimed Queen of the Sea, traded with those Osmanlis, by water routes and overland. And because of that trade, that greed, Seressa was starving the heroes of Senjan now, because the infidels were complaining.

The Seressinis hanged raiders when they captured them, or just killed them on board ships and threw the bodies into the sea without Jad’s rites. They worshipped golden coins in Seressa more than the golden god, that was what people said.

The wind eased again. Not about to be a bura, she thought. She stopped rowing. She was far enough out for now. Her grandfather was silent, leaving her to concentrate on watching in the dark.

The only thing he’d ever offered as an explanation for this impossible link they shared was that there were traditions in their family—her mother’s family, his—of wisewomen and second sight.

Anything like this? she’d asked.

No, he’d replied. Nothing I ever heard.

She’d never experienced anything that suggested a wisewoman’s sight in herself, any access to the half-world, anything at all besides a defining anger, skill with a bow and knives, and the best eyesight in Senjan.

That last was the other thing that made tonight possible. It was black on the water, only stars above, neither moon in the sky—which was why she was here now. She’d been fairly certain that if the Seressinis did do this they would come on a moonless night. They were vicious and arrogant, but never fools.

Two war galleys, carrying three hundred and fifty oarsmen and mercenary fighters, with new bronze cannons from Seressa’s Arsenale, had been blocking the bay, both ends of Hrak Island, since winter’s end, but they hadn’t been able to do anything but that.

The galleys were too big to come closer in. These were shallow, rocky, reef-protected seas, and Senjan’s walls and their own cannons could handle any shore party sent on foot from a landing farther south. Besides which, putting mercenaries ashore on lands formally ruled by the emperor could be seen as a declaration of war. Seressa and Obravic danced a dance, always, but there were too many other dangers in the world to start a war carelessly.

The republic had tried to blockade Senjan before, but never with two war galleys. This was a huge investment of money and men and time, and neither ship’s captain could be happy sitting in open water with chilled, bored, restless fighters, achieving nothing for his own career.

The blockade was working, however. It was doing real harm, though it was hard for those on the galleys to know that yet.

In the past, the Senjani had always found ways of getting offshore, but this was different, with two deadly ships controlling the lanes to north and south of the island that led to sea.

It seemed the Council of Twelve had decided the raiders had finally become too much of a nuisance to be endured. There had been mockery: songs and poetry. Seressa was not accustomed to being a source of amusement. They claimed this sea, they named it after themselves. And, more importantly, they guaranteed the safety of all ships coming up this way to dock by their canals for their merchants and markets. The heroes of Senjan, raiding to feed themselves, and for the greater glory of Jad, were a problem.

Danica offered a thought to her grandfather.

Yes, a thorn in the lion’s paw, he agreed.

The Seressinis called themselves lions. A lion was on their flag and their red document seals. There were apparently lions on columns in the square before their palace, on either side of the slave market.

Danica preferred to call them wild dogs, devious and dangerous. She thought she could kill some of them tonight, if they sent a skiff into the bay, intending to set fire to the Senjani boats drawn up on the strand below the walls.

 

He wasn’t going to say he loved her or anything like that. That wasn’t the way the world went on Hrak Island. But Danica Gradek did drift into his dreams too often for peace of mind, and had done so for a while now. On the island and in Senjan there were women who interpreted dreams for a fee. Mirko didn’t need them for these.

She was unsettling, Danica. Different from any of the girls on Hrak, or in the town when he made his way across to trade fish or wine.

You had to trade very cautiously these days. Seressa had forbidden anyone to deal with the pirates this spring. There were war galleys here. You’d be flogged or branded if caught, could even be hanged, depending on who did the catching and how much your family could afford in bribes. Seressa almost certainly had spies in Senjan, too, so you needed to be careful that way, as well. Seressa had spies everywhere, was the general view.

Danica was younger than him but always acted as if she were older. She could laugh, but not always when you’d said something you thought was amusing. She was too cold, the other men said, you’d freeze your balls making love to her. They talked about her, though.

She handled a bow better than any of them. Better than anyone Mirko knew, anyhow. It was unnatural in a woman, wrong, ought to have been displeasing, but for Mirko it wasn’t. He didn’t know why. Her father, it was said, had been a famous fighter in his day. A man of reputation. He’d died in a hadjuk village raid, somewhere on the other side of the mountains.

Danica was tall. Her mother had been, too. She had yellow hair and extremely light blue eyes. There was northern blood in the family. Her grandfather had had eyes like that. He’d been a scary figure when he came to Senjan, scarred and fierce, thick moustaches, a border hero of the old style, men said. He was the one who’d taught his granddaughter how to handle a bow and knives.

She’d kissed him once, Danica. Just a few days ago, in fact. He’d been ashore south of the town walls with two casks of wine before dawn, thin blue moon setting. She and three others he knew had been waiting on the strand to buy from him. They’d used torches to signal from the beach.

It happened he had learned something not long before and—on an impulse—he’d asked her to walk a little away from the others. There had been jokes made, of course. Mirko didn’t mind, she hadn’t looked as if she did. It was hard to read her moods and he wouldn’t claim to be good at understanding women, anyhow.

He told her that three days earlier he’d been part of a group supplying the war galley in the northern channel. He’d overheard talk about sending a boat to fire the Senjani ones drawn up on the strand. Bored men on ships, especially mercenaries, could grow careless. He said if it were him doing it, he’d do it on a no-moons night. Of course, she said.

He thought if she was the one he told she could reap the benefit of reporting the tidings to the raid captains inside the walls and she’d be happy with him for that.

Danica Gradek kissed really well, it turned out. Fiercely, even hungrily. She wasn’t quite as tall as he was. He wasn’t sure, remembering the moment, if it had been passion, or triumph, or the anger everyone said was in her, but he’d wanted more. Of the kiss, of her.

“Good lad,” she said, stepping back.

Lad? That he didn’t like. “You’ll warn the captains?”

“Of course,” she said.

It never occurred to him she might be lying.

#####

She was protecting the boy, she’d explained to her zadek. Mirko wasn’t a boy, but she thought of him that way. She thought of most of the men her age that way. A few were different—she could admire skill and bravery—but those often turned out to be the ones who most fiercely rejected the idea of a woman as a raider. They hated that she was better with her bow than them, but she wasn’t, ever, going to hide what she could do. She’d made that decision a long time ago.

The heroes of Senjan, devoted equally to Jad and independence, also had a reputation for violence. That last, in the eyes of the world, included their women. There were horrified, wide-eyed stories told of Senjani women streaming down from hills or woods to a triumphant battlefield at day’s end—wild, like wolves—to lick and drink the blood from the wounds of slain foes, or even those not yet dead! Tearing or hacking limbs off and letting blood drip down gaping throats. Senjani woman believed, the tale went, that if they drank blood their unborn sons would be stronger warriors.

Foolish beyond words. But useful. It was a good thing to have people afraid of you if you lived in a dangerous part of the world.

But Senjan didn’t think it good for a woman, not long out of girlhood, to believe—let alone seek to prove—she could equal a man, a real fighter, with her chosen weapons. That, they didn’t like much, the heroes.

At least she wasn’t strong with a sword. There was someone who had spied on her throwing daggers at targets outside the walls and, well, according to him she did that extremely well. She ran fast, could handle a boat, knew how to move silently, and . . .

Some reckless, very brave man, the general view became, needed to marry the ice-cold, pale-eyed Gradek girl and get a baby into her. End this folly of a woman raiding. She might be the daughter of Vuk Gradek, who’d had renown in his day, inland, but she was a daughter of a hero, not a son.

One of his sons had died with him; the other, a child, had been taken by the hadjuks in the raid on Antunic, their village inland. He was likely a eunuch by now in Asharias or some provincial city, or being trained for the djannis—their elite, Jaddite-born infantry. He might even one day come back attacking them.

It happened. One of the old, hard sorrows of the border.

The girl did want to join the raids, it was no secret. She spoke of vengeance for her family and village. Had been talking that way for years.

She’d openly asked the captains. Wanted to go through the pass into Osmanli lands on a raid for sheep and goats, or men and women to ransom or sell. Or she’d ask to go in the boats chasing merchant ships in the Seressini Sea—which they might actually be able to start doing again if this accursed blockade would only lift.

Danica knew the talk about her. Of course she did. She’d even let Kukar Miho watch her practising, thinking himself cleverly unseen behind (rustling) bushes, as she threw knives at olives on a tree near the watchtower.

This past winter the clerics had begun speaking to her about marrying, offering to negotiate with families on her behalf since she had no parent or brother to do so. Some of her mother’s friends had made the same offer.

She was still mourning, she’d said, eyes lowered, as if shy. It hadn’t been a year yet, she’d said.

Her mourning year would end in summer. They’d chant a service for her mother and grandfather in the sanctuary, along with so many others, then she’d need to think of another excuse. Or pick a man.

She was perfectly happy to sleep with one when a certain mood overtook her. She’d discovered some time ago that cups of wine and lovemaking could ease her nights on occasion. She closed off her grandfather in her mind on those nights, relieved she was able to do so. They never discussed it.

But being with a man by the strand or in a barn outside the walls (only one time in her own house—it had felt wrong in the morning and she’d never done it again) was as much as she wanted right now. If she married, her life changed. Ended, she was half inclined to say, though she knew that was excessive. A life ended when you died.

In any case, she’d told her grandfather the truth: she was protecting Mirko of Hrak by not reporting his information to the captains or the military. If the Senjani set a full ambush on the beach for a night attack, the Seressinis would realize someone had given their plan away. They were clever enough to do that, Jad knew, and vicious enough to torture a story out of the islanders. They might or might not arrive at Mirko, but why risk it? One guard out in a boat—that could be routine.

If she’d revealed Mirko’s story she’d have been asked who told her, and it would have been impossible (and wrong) to not tell the captains. She wanted to join the raiders, not anger them. And the Seressini spy inside the walls (of course there was a spy, there was always a spy) would almost certainly learn whatever she said, see the preparations. They’d likely cancel the attack, if it was happening. If Mirko was right.

No, doing this alone was the prudent approach, she’d told her grandfather, choosing the word a little mischievously. Unsurprisingly, he had sworn at her. He had been legendary for his tongue in his day. She was developing a little of that reputation, but it was different for a woman.

Everything in the world was. Danica wondered sometimes why the god had made it so.

She really did have good eyesight. She saw a flame appear and vanish to her right, north, on the headland that framed that side of their bay. She caught her breath.

Jad sear his soul! What pustulent, slack-bowelled fucking traitor is that? her grandfather snarled.

She saw it again, quickly there and gone, moving right to left. A light on the headland could only be there to guide a boat. And to do that in these deadly waters you needed to know the bay and its rocks and shallows.

Tico had seen it too. He growled in his throat. She silenced him. It was a long bowshot to that headland at night. Too long from a boat. Danica began rowing again, heading that way, north, against the light breeze, but still looking west as she went.

Quietly, girl!

I am.

Nothing else to be seen yet. The Seressinis would have a long way to go past the island from where the galley blocked the channel. But that light on the headland was signalling a path through rocks and reefs. Swinging right now, then left, held briefly in the middle, then hidden, most likely by a cloak. It meant someone was coming, and that he could see them.

She gauged the distance, shipped her oars, took her bow, nocked an arrow.

Too far, Danica.

It isn’t, zadek. And if he’s up there they are on their way.

He was silent in her thoughts. Then said, He’s holding the lantern in his right hand, guiding them left and right. You can tell where his body is by how—

I know, zadek. Shh. Please.

She waited on the wind, the small boat moving as the breeze moved the sea.

She was still watching two ways: that headland light, and where the channel opened, by the dark bulk of the island.

She heard them before she saw anything.

They were rowing, not silently. They were not expecting anyone out here and they were coming towards her.

Splash of oars in water, Tico stiffening again. Danica hushed him, stared into the night, and then it was there, clearing the dark bulk of the island, one small light. Seressinis on the water, come to burn boats on the strand. She was awake, this was not a dream of fire coming.

There was anger in her, no fear. She was the hunter tonight. They didn’t know that. They thought that they were.

I don’t need to kill him, she murmured in her mind.

He needs to die.

Later. If we take him alive we can ask questions.

In truth, it might have been hard for her, killing that one on the headland: whoever he was, he was going to be someone she knew in town. She had decided it was time to learn how to kill, but she hadn’t thought it might be a face she knew right at the start.

I ought to have realized they’d need someone to guide them in.

Might have been with them in the boat, her grandfather said. Might still be someone with them. They tend to be cautious.

She couldn’t resist. Like me?

He swore. She smiled. And suddenly felt calm. She was in the midst of events now, not anticipating they might happen. Time had run, after almost ten years it had carried her to this moment, this boat on black water with her bow.

She could see the shape of the approaching craft, dark on darkness. They had one light, would mean to douse it when they came nearer to shore. She heard a voice, trying to be quiet, but carrying, if anyone was out in the bay to hear.

“Over other way, he’s saying. Rocks just there.”

Speaking Seressini. She was glad of that.

Jad guide your arm and eye, her grandfather said. His voice in her mind was very cold.

Danica stood up, balanced herself. She had trained for this, so many times. The wind was easy, and the sea. She fitted an arrow to the string, drew the bowstring back. She could see them in the boat now. It looked like six men. Maybe seven.

She loosed her first arrow. Was nocking the second as that one flew.

ABOUT CHILDREN OF EARTH AND SKY:

The bestselling author of the groundbreaking novels Under Heaven and River of Stars, Guy Gavriel Kay is back with a new novel, Children of Earth and Sky (NAL Hardcover; May 10, 2016; $27.00), set in a world inspired by the conflicts and dramas of Renaissance Europe. Against the tumultuous backdrop the lives of men and women unfold on the borderlands – where empires and faiths collide.From the small coastal town of Senjan, notorious for its pirates, a young woman sets out to find vengeance for her lost family. That same spring, from the wealthy city-state of Seressa, famous for its canals and lagoon, come two very different people: a young artist traveling to the dangerous east to paint the grand khalif at his request – and possibly to do more – and a fiercely intelligent, angry woman posing as a doctor’s wife but sent by Seressa as a spy.

The trading ship that carries them is commanded by the accomplished younger son of a merchant family, ambivalent about the life he’s been born to live. And farther east a boy trains to become a soldier in the elite infantry of the khalif – to win glory in the war everyone knows is coming.

As these lives entwine, their fates – and those of many others – will hang in the balance when the khalif sends out his massive army to take the great fortress that is the gateway to the western world.

Guy Gavriel KayGuy Gavriel Kay is the international bestselling author of twelve previous novels and a book of poetry. He has been awarded the International Goliardos Prize for his work in literature of the fantastic and won the World Fantasy Award for Ysabel in 2008. In 2014 he was named to the Order of Canada, the country’s highest civilian honor. His work has been translated into more than twenty-five languages.For more information, please visit brightweavings.com and follow Guy Gavriel Kay on twitter @GuyGavrielKay

Photo Credit: Samantha Kidd

The Midnight Queen
by Sylvia Izzo Hunter
432pp (Trade Paperback)
My Rating: 8/10
Amazon Rating: 4.1/5
LibraryThing Rating: 3.53/5
Goodreads Rating: 3.5/5
 

Sylvia Izzo Hunter’s debut novel The Midnight Queen was published in fall 2014. Since then, a second book in the Noctis Magicae series, Lady of Magick, has been released. A third book, A Season of Spells, is scheduled for publication toward the end of this year—and I am delighted that there are more books in this series to read since I thought The Midnight Queen was quite charming.

Gray Marshall, an especially powerful mage studying at Merlin College, finds himself in quite a predicament after he and several other students do a job for Professor Callender: one of the other young men was killed during their outing and the others decided, rather unfairly, to blame his death on Gray. While recovering from this incident, Gray awakens and overhears part of a conversation between Professor Callender and another man outside his door that leads him to believe they are plotting to remove the Master of Merlin. Later, Professor Callender informs Gray he shall be spending the Long Vacation with him at his country home—and Gray knows this is not a request but a command, as the Professor also states he will otherwise have to agree with others that Gray no longer belongs at Merlin College.

After their arrival at the estate, Gray becomes acquainted with the Professor’s middle daughter Sophie. The two enjoy each other’s company but are each puzzled by the other. Sophie finds Gray very unlike the students her father has brought home in the past: he’s far more clever and less pompous and sycophantic, and it’s quite clear Gray and the Professor despise each other. Gray is confused to sense magick when the only other person nearby is Sophie, who—despite being interested in the study of magick—insists she has none of her own.

The longer Gray remains the Professor’s captive, the more he wonders exactly what secrets the man is keeping. After Sophie’s younger sister Joanna nearly falls to her death at the Temple of Neptune (a trap Gray is quite certain was intended for him) and a visitor arrives who sounds exactly like the man plotting the downfall of the Master of Merlin in the hallway, Gray begins to investigate, and later shares what he’s learned with others, including Sophie. As Gray and Sophie further unravel these mysteries, they discover a conspiracy with even larger, farther reaching consequences than they’d feared—and that the Professor’s plans involve revealing the truth about Sophie, previously unknown even to her.

The Midnight Queen is a delightful book. It’s not particularly complex with the major characters fitting rather neatly into “good” or “evil” categories, it can be predictable, and it’s a little slow to start, but it was completely enjoyable nonetheless. Though it took some time to get going, I was immediately interested in reading about Gray and Sophie, and once the secret about Sophie was brought to light, I was hooked.

It’s a difficult book to categorize. My first instinct was to call it “historical fantasy” since it’s set in British lands and feels quite like a Regency novel—the elaborate prose style, the expectations society have of women and Sophie and Joanna’s rejection of them, and the expectations Gray’s father has of him and the consequences of his rejection of them. However, despite the overall atmosphere seeming like it could have been Great Britain with magick, it’s very different from our world’s past and it’s altered enough that I’m not actually sure what era it would be. The current monarch is King Henry the Twelfth, and a variety of gods, including Greek and Roman, are worshiped since Christianity never became a major world religion. I really loved how the differences between our world and this fictional world were woven into the story: it was quite unobtrusive and integrated in quiet ways, through the language, traditions, local temples, and rituals.

The romance between Gray and Sophie is also a central part of the story. It’s a rather low key romantic relationship that grows through friendship and mutual respect, and as such it’s free from a lot of tension, angst, and drama. Sophie and Gray have alternating perspectives, and even when it’s clear to the reader that each admires the other, they are each oblivious to the other’s feelings. This is the closest to dramatic romance the story comes, but it’s still not terribly overwrought with misunderstandings galore.

Though they weren’t terribly complex characters, I enjoyed reading about both of them and thought they were great together. They’re both clever and brave people who want to do the right thing. Sophie not only finds someone who encourages her interest in magickal studies, but someone who appreciates her intellect and doesn’t feel threatened when she’s better at something than he is (which is the complete opposite of the way she’s been treated most of her life). I loved Sophie’s tenacity that kept her from letting obstacles get in the way of her desire to learn.

The two main characters aren’t the only ones who work together to prevent the Professor’s dastardly plans from coming to fruition, and the other characters are also wonderful. I especially loved Sophie’s bluntly outspoken younger sister Joanna and Gray’s kind sister Jenny. As much as I did like them, some more depth could have made them more memorable overall since they were rather black and white, though. The “evil” characters other than Professor Callender also weren’t terribly fleshed out, and he had no redeeming qualities at all that I could see. He was greedy, condescending, not particularly talented or clever, and commonly regarded as being laughably incompetent.

Although more complexity could have moved this book from “great” to “phenomenal,” I still enjoyed The Midnight Queen immensely. It’s less dark than the books I normally love, but I found it to be an engaging story with a likable main cast, family secrets, hidden identities, and plots to foil that kept me eagerly turning the pages.

My Rating: 8/10

Where I got my reading copy: Finished copy from the publisher.

This book is March’s selection from a poll on Patreon.

The Leaning Pile of Books is a feature where I talk about books I got over the last week–old or new, bought or received for review consideration (usually unsolicited). Since I hope you will find new books you’re interested in reading in these posts, I try to be as informative as possible. If I can find them, links to excerpts, author’s websites, and places where you can find more information on the book are included.

This covers the last two weeks since not many books showed up the week before—but a book that I’m very curious about showed up a few days ago!

In case you missed any recent posts, here’s what’s happened lately:

I recently finished reading the March Patreon book, The Midnight Queen by Sylvia Izzo Hunter, and am working on a review of it. Spoiler: I found it quite charming and enjoyable.

On to recent book arrivals!

Roses and Rot by Kat Howard

Roses and Rot by Kat Howard

This debut novel will be released on May 17 (hardcover, ebook). I’m quite intrigued by the description, which mentions several elements that I like—fairy tales, art and sacrifice, and sisters.

 

Imogen and her sister Marin have escaped their cruel mother to attend a prestigious artists’ retreat, but soon learn that living in a fairy tale requires sacrifices, be it art or love in this haunting debut fantasy novel from “a remarkable young writer” (Neil Gaiman).

What would you sacrifice in the name of success? How much does an artist need to give up to create great art?

Imogen has grown up reading fairy tales about mothers who die and make way for cruel stepmothers. As a child, she used to lie in bed wishing that her life would become one of these tragic fairy tales because she couldn’t imagine how a stepmother could be worse than her mother now. As adults, Imogen and her sister Marin are accepted to an elite post-grad arts program—Imogen as a writer and Marin as a dancer. Soon enough, though, they realize that there’s more to the school than meets the eye. Imogen might be living in the fairy tale she’s dreamed about as a child, but it’s one that will pit her against Marin if she decides to escape her past to find her heart’s desire.

Additional Books:

The Fantasy Café Patreon account has a reward tier for voting on a poll determining the content of a blog post for the following month. (In most cases, this will be a review of a book that is not currently being discussed all over the blogosphere.) Since April will be the fifth annual Women in SF&F Month, I’m announcing the April book selection a little early. Also due to April being an especially busy month, the April book is a novella. It is…

Bone and Jewel Creatures by Elizabeth Bear

Bone and Jewel Creatures by Elizabeth Bear

Dark magic is afoot in the City of Jackals…

Eighty years Bijou the Artificer has been a Wizard of Messaline, building her servants from precious scraps, living with the memory of a great love that betrayed her. She is ready to rest.

But now her former apprentice, Brazen the Enchanter, has brought her a speechless feral child poisoned by a sorcerous infection. Now, Messaline is swept by a mysterious plague. Now the seeping corpses of the dead stalk the streets.

Now, finally, Bijou’s old nemesis–Bijou’s old love–Kaulas the Necromancer is unleashing a reeking half-death on Bijou’s people. And only Bijou and her creatures wrought of bone and jewels can save the City of Jackals from his final revenge.

I read and reviewed—and LOVED—the prequel novella Book of Iron so I’m looking forward to this one!

The theme for next month’s poll determining a book to be reviewed in May is stand alone fantasy books. Anyone who signs up for that reward tier before the end of this month will be able to vote on that poll, and one of the following choices will be reviewed in May:

Winterwood
by Jacey Bedford
432pp (Mass Market Paperback)
My Rating: 5/10
Amazon Rating: 5/5
LibraryThing Rating: 3/5
Goodreads Rating: 3.62/5
 

Book Description from Goodreads:

Set in 1800 in Britain, Mad King George is on the throne with Napoleon Bonaparte knocking on the door. Unregistered magic users are pursued to the death, while in every genteel home resides uncomplaining rowankind bondservants who have become so commonplace that no one can recall where they came from.

Meanwhile, Rossalinde Tremayne is satisfied with her life as a cross-dressing privateer captain on the high seas. But a bitter deathbed visit to her estranged mother changes her life completely when she inherits a magical winterwood box. Now, not only is she confronted with a newly-discovered brother, and an annoyingly handsome wolf shapeshifter, Rossalinde has to decide whether or not to open the box to free rowankind and right an ancient wrong—even if it brings the downfall of Britain.

This brand-new series is perfect for fans of Elizabeth Bear, D.B. Jackson, and Marie Brennan, as well as readers of historical fiction who are looking for an accessible gateway to fantasy.

Winterwood, the first book in Jacey Bedford’s Rowankind series, has been one of my most anticipated releases of 2016 ever since I hosted the cover reveal toward the end of last year. Both the book and the heroine sounded wonderful, and after reading the first chapter, I thought I was going to love it. Despite its promising opening, I soon found myself bored, and it only occasionally managed to recapture my interest for short spurts once I got further into it.

The first few pages introduce Ross, a widowed privateer captain who followed her heart and defied her mother’s expectations when they didn’t suit her—as well as society’s expectations about how a woman should dress and behave. I was immediately intrigued by her story as I read about her final encounter with her estranged mother as she lay on her deathbed. It shows exactly why Ross left home years ago as her mother hurls insults at her, but it also shows some of the life she’s lived as she thinks about her losses and the ghost of her husband that often appears to her. Their conversation also sets up a big part of the story as Ross inherits a winterwood box and learns that there is a family secret to be uncovered.

I was looking forward to finding out more about these mysteries, but I found the actual story rather dull. Ross encounters magical beings who spout cryptic information about her family’s past in a rather cliche scene, and there’s a lot of wandering around meeting characters who do not appear often enough to have fleshed out personalities. It’s especially unexciting as Ross tries to resist the task that was thrust upon her, but once she decides to pursue it, there’s a lot of time spent investigating that I didn’t find much more exciting: traveling, observing, discussing magic, and asking questions. The narrative spends too much time examining the meaning of what is learned, but I think the biggest problem was that there was a lack of personal connection that kept me from becoming invested in any of the characters.

I loved the idea of Ross as a character: a fiercely independent privateer captain whose crew respected her and looked to her for leadership. Yet, despite being the only character with much development and having her own arc about letting go of her own past, she’s not given much depth since there’s more focus on magic and mystery than her as a person. Even as the story does delve more into the personal when Ross discovers family she never knew she had, there’s still some distance. The closest it comes to a meaningful connection is the romance, but that too seems underdeveloped since it advances rather quickly. There isn’t time spent showing how the relationship grows since she and this other person barely even spend time together before it’s mentioned that he’s in love with her.

Winterwood contains some fantastic seeds for a novel, and the premise of a female privateer captain confronting both her own and her family’s past appealed to me. I also appreciated the emphasis on freedom in various forms that ran through it: literal freedom but also freedom from societal constraints and one’s own reluctance to move forward. Unfortunately, the novel in its entirety wasn’t to my taste due to the dearth of well-rounded characters, a bland narrative voice, and a rather uninspired storyline.

My Rating: 5/10

Where I got my reading copy: ARC from the publisher.

Read an Excerpt (click link below cover image)

Other Reviews of Winterwood:

Today I’m giving away All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders! Since its release earlier this year, I’ve been hearing it’s wonderful, and I have one signed copy to give away courtesy of Tor Books. Those in the United States are eligible to enter this giveaway, and more details on the book and giveaway are below.

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

ABOUT ALL THE BIRDS IN THE SKY (read an excerpt):

Every so often a book comes along that transcends genre and moves into literary territory, marked by the beauty and skill of the writer’s story telling. ALL THE BIRDS IN THE SKY is one such novel. Tor Books is thrilled to publish this wonderful tale by Charlie Jane Anders, editor-in-chief of io9.com, on January 26, 2016.

ALL THE BIRDS IN THE SKY takes place in a time much like our own, with the psychological realism of Lev Grossman, the near-future savvy of Cory Doctorow and the magic of Jo Walton. It is both fantasy and tech sci-fi, a story of outcasts and insiders and of love and hate. Told in alternating chapters, the story follows the lives of Patricia, a girl that can talk to birds and who, “misplaced herself in the woods over and over, until she knew by heart every way to get lost,” and Laurence, a nerdy science geek who runs away to MIT to watch a DIY spaceship launch into orbit. Outcasts in their middle school, they rely on each other to make it through the rough world of bullies — and a potential assassin who is out to destroy them by turning them on each other.

Fast forward 10-years and we meet our wunderkinds navigating young adulthood in hip, Mission District, San Francisco. He is a rock star techno Silicon Alley prodigy, and she is a magician that secretly repairs the world’s ever-growing ailments. As Laurence and Patricia reconnect, they find themselves getting drawn into the opposite sides of a war between science and magic. Little do they realize that something bigger than either of them, something begun years ago in their youth, has brought them together to either save the world, or plunge it into a new dark ages.

ALL THE BIRDS IN THE SKY is a story of best friends, enemies, and lovers, as lyrical as it is enchanting. It is sure to be a tour-de-force that will go down in the annals of great genre fiction by one of the most widely read online writers today.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

CHARLIE JANE ANDERS is the editor-in-chief of io9.com, the extraordinarily popular Gawker Media site devoted to science fiction and fantasy. Her debut novel, the mainstream Choir Boy, won the 2006 Lambda Literary Award and was shortlisted for the Edmund White Award. Her Tor.com story “Six Months, Three Days” won the 2013 Hugo Award and was subsequently picked up for development into a NBC television series. She has also had fiction published by McSweeney’s, Lightspeed, and ZYZZYVA. Her journalism has appeared in Salon, the Wall Street Journal, Mother Jones, and many other outlets.

Courtesy of Tor Books, I have one copy of All the Birds in the Sky to give away to a resident of the US!

Giveaway Rules: To be entered in the giveaway, fill out the form below OR send an email to kristen AT fantasybookcafe DOT com with the subject “Birds Giveaway.” One entry per household and one winner will be randomly selected. Those from the United States are eligible to win this giveaway. The giveaway will be open until the end of the day on Monday, March 28. The winner has 24 hours to respond once contacted via email, and if I don’t hear from them by then a new winner will be chosen (who will also have 24 hours to respond until someone gets back to me with a place to send the book).

Please note email addresses will only be used for the purpose of contacting the winner. Once the giveaway is over all the emails will be deleted.

Good luck!

Update: Now that the giveaway has ended, the form has been removed.