Review: Blood of Elves

Blood of Elves, Andrzej SapkowskiHumans, dwarves, gnomes, and elves have coexisted peacefully for over a century. But that peace has always been tenuous, and now The Continent is on the brink of war. Skirmishes are common — especially on the border between the Northern Kingdom and the Nilfgaard Empire — and everyone is choosing sides.

Except for Geralt of Rivia. He’s a witcher, one of the few remaining monster killers. His job is killing, not politics.

But Geralt’s destiny is far larger than he realizes.  He and his ward, the child Ciri, are at the center of a prophecy that will change their world — and may destroy it forever.

A bit of backstory

My first encounter with the witcher world was 2015’s The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, the third game in a series created by CD Projekt RED. It’s a great game that I still enjoy playing, but I had no idea it was based on a book series until recently.

Geralt of Rivia first appeared in a short story written by Andrzej Sapkowksi and submitted to the Polish science fiction and fantasy magazine Fantastyka. Sapkowksi expanded the world with dozens of short stories and published his first novel, Blood of Elves, in 1994. The first Witcher game was released in 2007, and Blood of Elves was translated and released in America in 2009.

I’m an enormous fantasy fan, and loved every second of The Witcher 3. The way the game itself works and is crafted is amazing, but I also loved the characters. Wouldn’t it be great, I thought, if there was a way I could read more about them?

So of course I was ecstatic when I found out about Sapkowski’s short stories and novels.

Sapkowksi’s world is large and complex, and you get thrown right into the deep end from the first page; I recommend you check out How to Get Into the Witcher Novels before you dive in.

I loved this

This novel has two of my favorite things: detailed world building and fantastic characters. And it’s got both in spades.

The Continent was once a much less dangerous place. But when it collided with other planes of existence, all kinds of Bad Stuff made its way over. Normal people, even knights and warriors, were not able to keep the monsters under control and protect the people.

Thus were witchers created. Young boys (rarely girls) were taken from orphanages and ditches, trained in fighting and basic magic, and given powerful mutagens. These mutagens gave them the additional strength, reflexes, and supernatural powers necessary to defeat the things that go bump in the night.

Yet for all the good they do and people they save, witchers are considered half-monsters themselves. They recognize no laws but their own, and will dispatch a monster only if paid well enough for their trouble.

They live in a moral gray area — Geralt in the grayest of all. He’s caught between warring factions, all of which would love to have an assassin on their side. He also knows that his ward, Ciri, is more than she appears, but isn’t ready to admit just how powerful and important she is — or how vital he is to the prophecy surrounding her.

Geralt is the protagonist of Blood of Elves, but the novel is packed with many great characters — several of them female and total badasses.

Although Ciri is young (around 13 when the book opens), she’s intelligent and clearly powerful. She’s also curious, stubborn, and brave.  She’s the most truly good character in the novel.

The sorceress Yennefer is much (much) older, and much more jaded. She inhabits some of the same gray areas as Geralt, and in some ways is more of a bad guy than many of those the reader meets.

The more I read of Blood of Elves, the more I wanted to read. These characters are tough, nasty, strong, and trying to do what they think is best — either for themselves or for their world. I love seeing how they react to the situations Sapkowski throws at them.

I didn’t love this

As much as I love fantasy novels, I don’t often enjoy what seems to be their mandatory political intrigue plots. I wanted to learn more about the world, the characters, and the prophecy swirling around Ciri — not about wizards colluding with various leaders to gain more power for themselves, or how Nilfgaard is encroaching on the Northern Kingdom again.

Seriously, did we need that entire chapter with the group of wizards talking about how armies can/should/shouldn’t cross a river to fight? It all seems so meaningless when set next to a prophecy that could mean the end of the world.

Plus, it’s an election year, and I’m dealing with enough political garbage in real life. I don’t want to read it in my books.

An awesome read

I loved Blood of Elves. It’s got everything I love in a fantasy novel, and I’m so glad to get the opportunity to read the stories that inspired a game I enjoy so much.

In what turned out to be a fortuitous mistake, I actually read The Last Wish, Sapkowski’s first set of short stories, before I picked up this novel. There’s an additional set, The Sword of Destiny, that wasn’t translated until last year but is set chronologically between The Last Wish and Blood of Elves. I think reading both of those anthologies will give folks new to the world some much-needed context — I know it really helped me. Then you can hop right into the novels and enjoy them more.

Fantasy lovers and those who enjoy getting totally immersed in incredible worlds will love Sapkowski’s stuff. Go check it out right now!

(I read this book as part of the Monthly Motif Challenge. September’s challenge was to read something steampunk, science fiction, or fantasy.)

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Review: Mr. Darcy’s Secret

Mr. Darcy's Secret, Jane OdiweThe newly-married Mrs. Elizabeth Darcy is happy — if a bit nervous — to finally be situated at Pemberley. Managing such a large home is challenging, and Elizabeth is for the help of Mr. Darcy, Georgiana, and new friends in Lambton.

While exploring the library one day, Elizabeth happens upon a secret: anonymous, passionate love letters that may be Mr. Darcy’s.

Elizabeth tries to respect her husband’s privacy — why should his previous romances bother her? —  but the local gossips’ tongues are already wagging.

Can Elizabeth trust her husband, or will Mr. Darcy’s secret be their ruin?

Sweet, sweet, brain candy

I didn’t pick up Mr. Darcy’s Secret expecting Pulitzer prize-winning material. And of course I didn’t get it, but who cares? Summer is the perfect time for light reading, and Jane Odiwe’s book fits the bill (I live in Texas; it’s summer until November).

The best Pride and Prejudice “sequels” are the ones that don’t mess with a good thing. Elizabeth is smart and charming; Georgiana is shy and kind; Darcy’s good but a bit foreboding; and Wickham is a rogue. Odiwe sticks to these archetypes, and the novel is mostly successful.

The mystery isn’t surprising or even that mysterious. Georgiana’s story was more interesting to me. She’s falling in love for the first time, but feels a deep duty to her brother to marry the man he has chosen for her. Seeing her grow throughout the novel was so fun.

I enjoyed Mr. Darcy’s Secret because it felt faithful to Austen’s characters, was funny, a bit scandalous, and had a happy ending. What’s not to love?

What are you reading this summer?

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Review: The Wicked Boy

The Wicked Boy, Kate SummerscaleIt’s July 1895, and brothers Robert and Nattie Coombes are having the perfect summer. With their father away earning a paycheck and their mother visiting relatives in Liverpool, the boys take all their meals at coffee houses, visit the seaside and theatre, and attend local day-long cricket matches.

When their aunt — suspicious that the boys’ mother hasn’t written or returned — forces her way into the home, she discovers something horrifying: the decomposing body of Emily Coombes.

13 year-old Robert confesses to stabbing his mother, and expresses no remorse. The court hears testimony about his debilitating headaches and mood swings, as well as his obsession with “penny dreadfuls” and their glorified violence.

This testimony, plus the lack of any known motive, leads the jury to declare Robert Coombes insane. He becomes one of the youngest ever inmates of Broadmoor, the most infamous criminal lunatic asylum in history.

The Victorian era was the epicenter of titanic shifts in the way society thought about criminality and criminals, education, and the effects of pulp fiction on the human brain. The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer focuses on these shifts — as well as the astonishing life of Robert Coombes.

“The Plaistow Horror”

I am obsessed with this book. I finished it weeks ago, but have been avoiding writing a review because I can’t figure out where to start.

The first few chapters were unsettling. The boys seem like callous freaks. Who murders their mother and then spends a week going out on the town while her body decomposes in an upstairs bedroom?

No one really knew what to believe. Both the defense and the prosecution informed the jury that Robert’s headaches, behavior problems, and collection of gory literature were the result of a twisted brain. His defense team believed he was insane; the prosecution believed he was a monster.

In the end, not even the hanging-happy English society was comfortable with sentencing a 13 year-old to death. Robert was declared insane, a danger to those around him, and sent to Broadmoor.

At Broadmoor and beyond

Fortunately for Robert, Broadmoor was a different kind of asylum. There were no straitjackets, no horrifying “therapies.” Just routine, a quiet country setting, and capable staff.

Robert went on to become a champion chess player, worked in the onsite tailor’s shop, and was a member of Broadmoor’s brass band.

17 years after he was committed, Robert was discharged. He traveled to Australia, joined the military at the beginning of World War I, and became a fucking war hero.

In 1930, Robert took saved his neighbor’s son Harry from an abusive stepfather, and essentially raised him as his own. He died in 1949, and is buried in Australia.

Mind. Blown.

So what happened? How did a 13 year-old who stabbed and bludgeoned his mother to death go on to live a normal — even heroic — life?

Author Kate Summerscale believes that Robert suffered a psychotic break brought on by his mother’s abuse. Emily Coombes frequently threatened both boys, and beat Nattie early on the day of her murder.

Robert’s headaches and mood swings were, Summerscale believes, the symptoms of living in the shadow of abuse. At some point Robert came to believe that the only way he could protect himself and his brother was to escape their mother. When running away didn’t work, his anxious mind supplied an alternative. Only when Emily Coombes was gone did Robert believe he would be safe.

I can’t imagine what this would do to a kid. Becoming fully aware that you had killed your mother, that you were likely going to spend the rest of your life in an asylum.

Is that what made Robert so anxious to join the military, to be a stretcher-bearer responsible for saving lives on the battlefield? Is that what made him take responsibility for a kid he barely knew, but who he could see was being abused by his parent?

We know so little about Robert’s thoughts in his lifetime. If he kept a diary, it’s long gone. We can only look at his actions. The press considered him a monster — no matter how abusive Emily had been, she didn’t deserve to be murdered — but in the end Robert’s actions throughout his life proved his rationality, kindness, and bravery.

Read this right now

Get a copy of Summerscale’s book right now. The Wicked Boy is well-researched, fascinating, and will absolutely suck you in.

I’ve read it twice now, but will definitely be picking it up again very soon. One of my favorite reads of 2016.

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Writing Prompt #9: Handle with Care

Writing Prompt(This month’s writing prompt is Handle with Care: Write about a very fragile or delicate object.)

I went with haiku because I’m a masochist.

Heart

When you hold my hand,
You hold my heart in your grasp.
Please don’t squeeze too hard.

Rose

My cheeks are your rose.
I save my best colors for you.
Lean in and kiss me.

Egg

So small and fragile.
Yet contained within is the
Secret to the world.

Peace

Put down your weapons.
We don’t have room for them here.
Let’s hold hands instead.

Bones

The crack, the splinter.
Red and white exposed to air.
Only time can mend.

Silence

A pressing stillness.
Feeling the heartbeat, the breath.
Breathe deeply with me.

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Review: Dear Abigail

Dear Abigail, Diane JacobsJohn and Abigail’s letters to each other are famous; less known are the letters between Abigail and her sisters, Mary and Elizabeth. They were separated by geography, family life, and in some cases ideology, but throughout their lifetimes relied on each other for knowledge, comfort, and humor.

In Dear Abigail: The Intimate Lives and Revolutionary Ideas of Abigail Adams and her Two Remarkable Sisters, author Diane Jacobs presents these letters as well as the Revolutionary times in which they were written.

The Smith sisters’ letters are remarkable not only because they give us a peek into America’s very beginnings as a nation, but also because they introduce us to three women who were themselves revolutionaries.

Oh so very good

I read and enjoyed The Letters of John and Abigail Adams in 2011, but it never occurred to me that of course Abigail wrote letters to other people. Reading Dear Abigail has been one of the most enjoyable and interesting experiences of my summer.

Most of the books written about the American Revolution focus on the lives of the men who led it, and who struggled to keep the newly-fledged nation alive. It’s interesting to read a book featuring women who were just as smart and opinionated as men, and were incredibly frustrated by the limitations of being merely females.

Abigail is the most famous (as is her exhortation to John to “remember the ladies”), but her sisters were just as determined to make their own marks on the world. Oldest sister Mary became a well-respected, if unofficial, town leader; youngest sister Elizabeth founded the second co-educational school in the country. This on top of dealing with sick or abusive spouses, raising children, and keeping their own farms productive.

I loved reading about how these women viewed the war, politics and politicians, and were excited and worried for their new country’s future. Abigail in particular was always at her husband’s shoulder, advocating for the rights that would give future female generations the ability to participate in politics on (kinda sorta) the same footing as men. The sisters believed women deserved the same educational opportunities as men, and deserved the same right to decide the future of their country. They didn’t want the women of the future to have to rely so entirely on their fathers and husbands in order to survive and thrive.

While this book looks at the lives of all three sisters, it is Abigail on whom Jacobs’ writings focus most. As a Puritan wife, she believed that she must be subservient to her husband. But as a political force of her own (and eventual First Lady), she wanted to express her own beliefs about equality. Her personal and political beliefs around what being a good woman and a good wife meant changed throughout her life — her letters reflect these changes.

It was comforting to see that even as dedicated an American as Abigail Adams could at times doubt her leaders, her country, and even herself.

All three women were admirable, capable, strong human beings. They deserve acknowledgement for the way they captured history in their letters to each other, and for setting the stage for future generations of women to succeed on their own merits.

I recommend Dear Abigail to anyone — particularly women and girls — who wants to learn more about how women helped shape the United States from the very beginning.

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