The Eldritch Heart (Excerpt)

The following excerpt has been provided by Xpresso Book Tours. Thank you to them and to the author, Matthew S Cox. A Fantasy YA telling the story of a Princess who must choose between duty and her heart’s desire – The Eldritch Heart is available from 1st August 2017. I hope the below whets your appetite!

Half-dressed, Oona paced a circle about the center of her bedchamber, equal parts annoyed and worried. She held her gown to her chest, still open down the back, with the laces trailing after her. Kitlyn hadn’t answered the summons of her pulling on the rope, which should’ve caused a bell in the hall to ring. Not that she so much demanded the other girl dress her, but most of her gowns required assistance getting into.

Where is she?

Early afternoon sun stretched in long rectangles across the floor, split into shadows cast by the columns of her balcony. She frowned at the wavering treetops outside; they reminded her of a world much larger than a castle. A world she’d not seen in about two years.

“Tenebrea take whoever started this war.” She hurried to the thick golden cord again, which resembled a braid of her hair, and tugged at it while holding fabric to her chest with her other hand. The faint jingle of a bell came from beyond the door. Oona fumed for a minute or two before a soft knock sounded upon the wood.

“Princess?” asked Elsbeth. “Are you all right?”

“Where is my handmaiden?”

The door opened enough to allow the First Maid to peer in. Aside from a few stray threads, her mouse-brown hair sat in a neat bun. Her delicate hand sprouted from a white frill at the end of a billowy grey sleeve, and grasped the wood above the knob. “Forgive me, Highness. I am unaware of the girl’s whereabouts. I do not know why she would not answer your summons.”

Oona narrowed her eyes. “Yes, indeed. Why would Kitlyn be too busy to attend to me?”

Elsbeth broke eye contact, looking down. “May I be of assistance, Highness?”

“Fine.” Oona turned her back. “Since you’re here.”

An air of smug victory wafted off the slightly older servant girl as she stole up behind Oona and set to the task of lacing the gown.

They’ll all think me mad or spiteful if I send this one to the kitchens without proof. Oona jostled as the girl tightened laces, tied one set, and moved up to the next. The long sapphire-blue velvet gown had fourteen individual ribbons down the back, which Elsbeth worked into elegant bows. Oona glanced sideways at the mirror to watch Elsbeth, annoyed by her victorious smile. She didn’t want to attend to Oona out of any sense of loyalty or friendship; she believed it her station by birth. Perhaps if I tell them how I feel about Kit, no one else would want to be so near me. She sighed, worried to the point of sickness for a few seconds at the thought of Kitlyn reacting the same way.

“All done,” chimed Elsbeth. “And don’t you look radiant, Highness!” She fussed at Oona’s hair for a moment. “Getting a touch long.” A finger pressed into her back close to where her bottom started. “It is lovely, but perhaps time to shorten it, ma’am?”

“It’s fine for now.” Oona looked down past a spread of embroidered flowers on her chest and front, at the tips of her black shoes peeking from beneath the hem. She’d worn the plain ones, unconcerned with opinion. “Thank you Elsbeth, that is all.”

“Do you need―”

“That is all, Elsbeth. Thank you.” Oona cringed inwardly at the imperious tone in her voice, harsher than she had intended. She hated using it, but her father often warned her about seeming too ‘nice.’ People would not be slow to take advantage. It helped that she didn’t have much fondness for this girl.

“Yes, Highness.” Elsbeth clasped her hands in front, bowed, and walked out.

After taking a few minutes to calm herself, Oona left her bedchamber and stopped at Kitlyn’s room, unsurprisingly empty. She strolled to the garderobe at the end of the curved hall, also empty. A momentary worry seized her mind. She’d once heard a story of assassins climbing up the toilet shaft to gain entry. Her skin crawled. The thought of someone doing that horrified her more than the idea of being killed in her sleep.

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Magic Study

Author: Maria V Snyder

Date of Publication: 1st October 2006

Genre: Fantasy

Synposis: Book #2 of the “Study” series; Yelena travels to her true home of Sitia to find her family and learn how to train her magic. As usual she finds herself knee deep in intrigue.

Rating: 5/5

Okay, we might be here a while.
It’s no secret that I absolutely loved Poison Study – and that although I loved the romance, the adventure, the plot; my main love was the main character. Yelena is for me the heroine I feel I’ve been searching for in fantasy. She’s a person. Whilst Yelena is brave and funny and immensely likeable, she can also be arrogant, headstrong and childish. I never said I wanted perfect and I feel like Maria Snyder really gets that.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to spend the whole review waxing lyrical about Yelena. However Magic Study, for me, does a great job of building on the character I loved so much in the first instalment. There was a lot going on in Poison Study; a slowly developing romance, introducing a new world, a plethora of fascinating and fun side characters, and over-arching bad guy plot…
I mean come on. That’s a lot. And it was done really well. In Magic Study I felt like a lot more of the focus was put on Yelena. Firstly, she finds her parents (who I love). But she also finds her brother (who is a bit of a dick, but it works) as well as her home. This rediscovering of her roots helps her transition into the idea that the world she always believed to be home actually left her with a big feeling of disconnect. And this theme is played upon even more when she goes to learn how to control her magic; a vital part of her being which she’s spent two decades being completely ignorant about. I liked the development, the way it helped me as a reader understand Yelena better, even as she herself went on a journey of discovery.
Yes, I will admit, there’s a lack of Valek. He spends an almost painful amount of time out of frame. As hard as that was to accept, ultimately I think that’s a good thing. Their scenes together, whilst brief, felt meaningful to me and the lack of overall interaction between the two characters is kind of part of the quirk of them as a couple. They’re in love but they’re not attached at the hip. Both are independent entities with their own responsibilities and goals. They can be everything to each other without being everything to each other. I like that. A lot.
Once again the side characters were tremendously well realised. I absolutely loved Irys in this book, and having talking horses has made my reading year (did anyone read The Star-Touched QueenI was getting Kamala withdrawals!). I also liked the depth of the not so nice characters, such as Cahil. He went on a journey and I hope to God he is the big bad of the third book in the series because that will be awesome.
If I were to criticise at all, my only negative would be that I wanted more depth in the big bad. Although he was nefarious to the extreme, I didn’t feel his presence was ominous enough to be the main rival. He did terrible things and I thought the victims were written with heart-breaking sensitivity and tenderness. But as this “mystery” was reaching throughout the entire book, it occasionally felt a little flat for me.
Despite this small niggle, I would a thousand times recommend Magic Study, and it’s predecessor. It’s the kind of books I write reviews for – where the words pour out and you have to physically stop yourself enthusing all the way to the end of the word count. Will be seeking out the next ASAP!

Poison Study

Author: Maria V Snyder

Date of Publication: 1st March 2007

Genre: Fantasy

Synopsis: Yelena is sentenced to hang for her crimes. But when the King’s food taster dies, she is recruited into a job which, rather than save her from death, might just be postponing her fate. 

Rating: 5/5

WOW. I have no idea where this has been for the last ten years but this is incredible. I was trying, as I read Poison Study, to recall the last time I read a book in 24hrs. You know that kind of frenzied reading, where you take every moment as an opportunity to read more and, when you’re not reading said book, you wonder round with a euphoric look on your face, fantasising about it? That’s what this gave me.

First of all, Yelena is a great heroine. She isn’t over powered, she isn’t weak. She’s been through a lot but Maria Snyder doesn’t take every second line as an opportunity to remind us of this. Yelena is shaped by her past but she is very invested in forging ahead with her future as well. Her interactions with other characters felt real and consistent with her own characterisations. She was intensely likeable, without always being “good”. Based on her alone this would have been given a high rating. Add in a romance which absolutely had me on the floor with the steady, subtle building that Valek and Yelena had and, Snyder, you had me at “food taster”.

I also really, really liked the fact that the plot was important. This book had substance, with an over arching story of spying, deception and power grabbing throughout. Much is it is linked to Yelena herself, giving her good reason to be involved in big events which would usually be far outside of a simple food taster’s realm of interest. Similarly I liked that the magical elements were woven skillfully into this. Yelena’s discovery of her powers, as well as her uncovering of the good and bad around her not always being what they seem, created growth in the character as well as richness in the world.

Any supporting characters that Yelena interacted with for any significant length of time were all graduated with their own qualities and backstories. I loved the power pairing and Maren and the bad guys were sufficiently loathsome for me to detest. In fact the loathsomeness of them brings up my only small complaint; Snyder is very quick to be graphic when it comes to blood and gore, but her romance is much more coy, for want of a better word. There’s a kiss here and there, but anything more is floridly described as “souls joining” or something equally ethereal in nature. Compared to the grounded nature of the rest of her writing, it seemed to stick out a little. But it’s a small complaint and didn’t impact on my enjoyment.

This is a must read – especially I feel for fans of Throne of Glass (I feel like this is better). I’m ploughing straight onto the sequel.

Miss Whitaker Opens Her Heart

Author: Jennifer Moore

Date of Publication: April 2017

Genre: Historical Fiction

Summary: Sarah begins her life in a new land as a young orphan. Over ten years she establishes herself and her farm and hardened herself against others. Enter Daniel Burton; secretly a convict set free due to his rich relatives. 

Rating: 3/5 

This book was given to me in exchange for an honest review. My thanks go to Jennifer Moore, Covenant Communications and Netgalley for the opportunity.

I’ve always had an interest in the population of Australia by the exiling of criminals during the 1800’s – its application of trying to give criminals of less severe crimes a second chance via honest labour (or being used essentially as slave labour, depending on how you look at it) is something which feels both modern and archaic at the same time.

Jennifer Moore does a great job of setting the scene here; the rolling expanse of Sarah Fields seems to jump off the page. I also enjoyed the fullness of the supporting characters; Captain Thackery and the Hawkins family felt more like just plot devices. Their own stories were equally important.

Whilst I thought it was nice for Moore to include the native aboriginal people via Charrah and his family, however I did feel they were more clearly involved as a plot device at the service of the main characters than the others. In order for Sarah and Daniel to experience personal growth, they needed to be involved in the aboriginal’s lives. Other than that, Charrah’s inclusion brought nothing additional to the story.

This is, in all, a sweet tale of redemption and romance. If you like your reads with a historical twist then this is a definitely recommendation for you.

A Second Chance at Life

Author: Kassandra Lynn

Date of Publication: 14th February 2017

Genre: Fantasy

Synopsis: A scorned wife and sister dies; disgraced and alone at the hands of those she trusted most. However a magical amulet grants her a second chance at living, taking her back to two years before her death. Can different choices change her future? 

Rating: 3/5 

This was provided in exchange for an honest review. My thanks go to Kassandra Lynn and Netgalley for the opportunity. 

Do you ever find yourself gripped by a book, whilst simultaenously exasperated by it? That’s a little bit how I felt about A Second Chance of Life. The idea of the main character, Elaina, going back to two years before her death to have a second shot at all the things she got wrong the first time around is an interesting one. However whilst I enjoyed the story and found that Lynn has a real talent for always keeping the plot moving (her pacing is brutally fast but in this context I really enjoyed that), Elaina definitely has some issues.

She’s alternately badass and wimpy, a player of the game and the one being played. I didn’t feel any of her nemises were particularly cunning or devious (just plain evil in Sonia’s case) but they still managed to outwit Elaina at least half of the time. The inconsistency threw me off more than once. Saying that I liked the idea of this alternate world in which etiquette is almost more stringent than in Victorian England. You touched a lady’s hand. She’s your wife now, bud. It added a slow burn to the romantic elements which I thought worked nicely.

My only other criticism would be that everyone is described as beautiful and every man within a hundred yard that isn’t a direct relation to Elaina is a potential love interest. I can understand this in some cases, but with Wayne (youngest son of a General and potential love match number three) I felt it was massively unecessary. He was brought it for about five pages as a new romantic interest, only to be sidelined paragraphs later as Lynn returned to her main romantic focus.

This for me was above all, fun. I could almost see it being a Harlequin title; light, quick to read and enjoyable on a surface level. It was just what I wanted in the moment and so gets my recommendation. However be warned; there are a couple of points in which you’ll want to put this down. Don’t do it. Power through and you will be rewarded.

A Crown of Wishes

Author: Roshani Chokshi

Date of Publication: 28th March 2017

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 5/5

Book provided for review via Netgalley. Thanks to Roshani Chokshi, St Martin’s Press and Netgalley for the opportunity.

I was a great fan of The Star Touched Queen when it came out last year – in part because it was fantasy and I love fantasy unendingly, and in part because I was one of the people who really loved the lyricism in Chokshi’s writing. It felt, and has always felt, that the way she tells a story is intertwined with the type of story she tells. The culture Chokshi takes from almost demands it.

A Crown of Wishes takes what I liked in the first instalment and expands it, with the ever popular overarching plot of a fantastical competition. Whilst the Hunger Games trilogy is the most famous, A Crown of Wishes definitely feels more like Caraval to read. Except, in my opinion, Chokshi does it better.

Whilst this is a romance there isn’t just romance here. The development and growth of the two main characters (Vikram and Gauri) is as important as their growing feeling for one another. Both feel like outcasts in their own homes and both are fighting to claim what they feel is owed to them. Vikram, known as the Fox Prince, lives by his wits. Gauri, the Jewel of Bharata, lives by the sword. They’re a classic tale of opposites, which is what makes them so fun to read.

I read this slowly, savouring the way the story was told. It’s not a sequel, more a companion. But it’s still as magical and engrossing as the first.

My Lady Jane

Author(s): The Lady Janies (Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton & Jodi Meadows)

Date of Publication: 7th June 2016

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 5/5

Wow. After a month and a bit of being stuck in a reading slump, My Lady Jane has brought me back to the land of the living. I, of course, had been doing my typical stubborn thing of avoiding this – because everyone seems to love it. “It cannot possibly live up the hype” I kept telling myself.

Spoiler – it does.

This is a lighthearted, well written and fantastical re-telling of the tragic story of the nine days queen – Lady Jane Grey. For those who don’t know that much about Tudor England, just know that real life Jane was knocked off the throne after a week and a half by stringently devout Catholic pyromaniac Mary Tudor; otherwise known as the Bloody Queen. Mary torched “heretics” (see here anyone who didn’t believe exactly what she did) by the hundred. So it’s not surprising that when poor cousin Jane sat the throne instead of her, Mary got chop happy and Jane’s head rolled.

I’ve always had a yen for Jane Grey. She is impossibly tragic. If anyone has ever seen that 1986 film “Lady Jane” with Helena Bonham Carter and Carey Elwes, you can almost force yourself to believe that Dudley and Grey cared for one another. In reality this is highly unlikely – they were married for less than a year and it’s apparent that Guildford Dudley’s interest predominantly lay in the crown. However here we have a much more palatable version of events – a love story!

I can’t say how refreshing this was. Jane was sharp and massively enjoyable, and this version of Dudley (named Gifford here – or G) was the right blend of proud, funny and warm, bringing a great foil to her. Side characters include Edward VI and the one day Elizabeth I. The whole thing is magical, hilarious and transporting. The additional of magical shape shifting into animals only elevated things further.

Retellings are common place these days and even the most devout seekers of a re-imagining of history are often coming up dry for new material. The irreverence, and yet at the same time obvious care and love, put into My Lady Jane makes it stand out. This is the curve of a new wave in my mind – a step forward from what Seth Grahame Smith did with Pride and Prejudice et al.

I will be looking out avidly for more from these authors in the future (I hear their next project is Charlotte Bronte and her own Jane, Eyre – YES).

Ariadnis

Author: Josh Martin

Date of Publication: 9th February 2017

Genre: Fantasy

Synopsis: Two rival lands produce two Chosen Ones – Aula and Joomia. Both lands want a prize; a book of knowledge. But only one Chosen One can prevail. The twist? It’s prophesied that the two girls will need to work together if they want to save their homes.

Rating: 4/5

I often say with my fantasy that I’m looking for something new and different. You can only take so many tales based on girls with hidden talents competing in competitions and winning the hearts of princes or lords (often both, creating the dreaded love triangle) before enough is enough.
Ariadnis caught my eye because it seemed to avoid all of the above. Yes, our main characters are special girls. But that’s not all they are. Both Aula and Joomia are the Chosen Ones of their rival, post unexplained apocalyptic event, homes. Each have their strengths (Aula is literally strong, and Joomia has power over nature) and their weaknesses (Aula is desperate for affection – often driving those around her away in the process of trying to get it – and Joomia is a mute who is unable to use her powers for fear of losing control). Instantly this humanity in the face of a very fantastic setting made both girls compelling.
What made Ariadnis stand out for me was how the central “quest” – trying to get a book of knowledge which was pre-ordained in prophecy hundreds of years before – isn’t really the central theme of the book. At least not for me. My favourite thing, other than the wonderful world building, interesting supporting cast of characters, and great heroines was this; the story was of Aula and Joomia growing up and becoming the people they were capable of being. It’s a coming of age story which is steeped in fantastical elements, and yet it is also incredibly relatable. Aula is every young girl, trying to find love from those around her and responding to rejection with rebellion. Joomia is every shy and introverted teen who is too afraid to stand out, for fear of the expectations attached with it becoming too much. There’s also great diversity here; characters come in a wide variety of colours and sexual orientations – just what modern fantasy needs more more more of.
I also felt that the writing style, especially the sometimes incredibly frequent changes between narrator, worked really well. When you reach the end of the book you will draw your own conclusions as to whether the device is used well (the plot indicates why it is done so very frequently, and I loved the result) – it keeps things fast paced and connected. However it might not be for everyone, so be forewarned if you’re not a fan of this.
I would have liked to know more about the worlds the characters lived in, and would be really interested in a prequel about how the life changing event which set this into motion came to pass. However in many ways this is perfect as a standalone (another rare trait for a fantasy novel). A good, solid read.

Windwitch (Extract)

Author: Susan Dennard

Date of Publication: 12th January 2017

Genre: Fantasy

Synopsis: We rejoin our cast of characters two weeks after the events of Truthwitch; finding some paths merging and others moving farther away from one another than ever before…

Rating: 3/5

This was provided in exchange for an honest review. My thanks go to Susan Dennard, Pan Macmillan and Netgalley for the opportunity 

Just like Truthwitch before it, this extract of Windwitch left me conflicted. Once again there were stories I loved; I will contest until my last that Aeduan and Iseult would cause the book to fare far better, were they the only POV characters. Safi and Merick I found decidedly lacklustre, their stories barely capturing my attention.

There is, as I have said before, a great foundation here. The idea of Witchery and the forms in which it comes is a good basis for a solid fantasy series. However Dennard seems to almost lose control of her characters, carving out mediocre pathways for them instead of forging plot forwarding journeys.

I am interested to read the rest of this, as Iseult and Aeduan on a road trip together is too good of a deal for me to pass up. However has this sample added anything to my experience? Not enough to up the rating or change my lukewarm review.

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