Book Review: “Thrawn: Treason” (by Timothy Zahn)

Darcy and Winters

So far, I’ve enjoyed each installment of Timothy Zahn’s new Thrawn trilogy, and the conclusion is no exception. In this novel, Zahn manages to tie together the various strands that he’s woven so far. Having established himself as one of the foremost warriors in the Empire and one of Palpatine’s most reliable lieutenants, Thrawn might seem to be at the height of his powers. Unfortunately, other powers are gathering that want to take him down, and the Empire is being threatened by an outside force. Thrawn must ultimately decide whether his true loyalties lay with the Empire or with his native Chiss Ascendancy.

This novel includes fewer passages from Thrawn’s point of view than previous installments. Instead, we get a variety of others, including Commodore Faro (Thrawn’s chief subordinate), as well as Ronan, one of the chief people involved with the development of the Death Star. It also sees the…

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Book Review: "A Darker Shade of Magic" (by V.E. Schwab)

Darcy and Winters

Every so often you read a fantasy books that just sort of sweeps you up in its fictional universe, a book that’s told in such a compelling way that you feel like you literally can’t put the book down.

Such is the case with A Darker Shade of Magic.

This novel, the first of a series by V.E. Scwhab, follows two characters, Kell and Lila, as they attempt to stave off the consequences of a dreadful new type of magic that threatens to upend the fragile balance of power that exists in their interconnected worlds. In the process, they discover much about themselves and, by the end of the novel, the stage is set for further adventures with the two of them.

At first, I couldn’t quite figure out why it was that I loved this book so much. Part of it, a significant part, is the setting. In the…

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Reading History: "Victoria" (by Daisy Goodwin)

I’ve always been fascinated by Queen Victoria, and it’s unfortunate that the image that dominates the popular imagination has been, until fairly recently, the dowdy old queen who appears in so many photos from the period. As a corrective to that, Daisy Goodwin has written Victoria, a novel that exists in conjunction with the British television series of the same name.

In this novel, we get a more intimate glimpse into Victoria as she comes to the throne. She is particularly drawn to the formidable Lord Melbourne. Though he starts out as her prime minister, she soon finds herself falling in love with him, to such a degree that she almost considers taking him as her husband. At the same time, she is surrounded by multiple people who want to see her manipulated for their own advantage, including both her mother and her conspirator Lord Conroy. Through it all, however, Victoria manages to assert her own identity and her own desires, until she meets the man who will change the course of her life forever: her cousin, Albert.

Goodwin excels at drawing us into the mind of the young Victoria, a woman who is willful and more than a little foolish sometimes. However, there’s no question that Victoria matures as the novel progresses, as she slowly comes to terms with what it means to be a queen. She must learn the painful lesson that so many monarchs both before and after her have had to absorb: that being a ruler means putting the needs of one’s subjects and one’s country ahead of one’s own. It’s really quite fascinating to watch Victoria learn these lessons, and her growing maturity is part of what makes her such a charming and sympathetic character.

Now, it must be said that there are times in the novel when it gets a little easy to lose patience with Victoria. She tends to be more than a little childish, and she indulges her whims to an unreasonable degree. However, that is precisely the point. This is a young woman who, because of her mother and her scheming paramour Lord Conroy, has kept Victoria sheltered from the outside world. Is it any wonder that, for a time at least, she was far too willing to give in to the demands of her heart, even if they exist in tension with the needs of the kingdom? And, besides, who hasn’t felt themselves falling in love with someone who showed us a bit of kindness and compassion when we needed it most?

One of the novel’s greatest strengths is in its exploration of relationships. Obviously, the most important one is that between Victoria and Lord M., but we also see the vexed and fractious bond she shares with her mother. There’s something almost tragic about the tension that always exists between the two of them, for while it’s clear that they truly love one another, there are always those who keep them from expressing that in the way that they both clearly want to. Lord Conroy deserves the lion’s share of the blame in this regard, for while he clearly has some affection for the dowager, he primarily sees her, and her daughter, as his pathway to power. Those moments when Victoria finally manages to attain a bit of closeness with her mother are some of the most affecting in the novel, and they remind us of the dangers of alienating those who should be closest to us.

Though the vast majority of the novel is told from Queen Victoria’s point of view, it does occasionally shift into other perspectives. For example, there are several times when we get to see into the mind of Lord Melbourne, and I often found myself struck by just how tragic it is that he and Victoria cannot have the romance that they both so clearly desire. Lord Melbourne is a man whose life has been marred by romantic tragedy, with his deceased wife having been responsible for hurting him (through an affair with Lord Byron, of all people).

Arguably the novel’s most important relationship is that which finally begins to develop between Victoria and her cousin Albert. When they first meet, they spar almost incessantly, each of them attempting to fight back against the feelings that they clearly feel for one another. It is only as they each begin to let their guards down and to embrace their own vulnerability–this is particularly difficult for Albert–that they allow their clear feelings for one another to begin to grow and develop. Though some reviewers have taken the novel to task for waiting until near the end to show the two of them falling in love with one another, I actually found that to be one of the novel’s greatest charms, their romance a satisfying way of bring it to a conclusion.

Only occasionally does the outside world intrude upon the world of enclosed world of Buckingham Palace. There are some few mentions of the war in Afghanistan, and there is a crucial scene in which Alfred bears witness to the grinding poverty afflicting London. These incidents show us the broader world of which Victoria was a part, despite the fact that she spent the vast majority of her life moving in the upper echelons of power.

All in all, I very much enjoyed Victoria. My only disappointment, and it’s a relatively minor one, is that, so far, this is the only novel Goodwin has written about Victoria. Goodwin really has a knack for both capturing the essence of a historical period and for getting us inside the minds of her characters. Though she has, clearly been at work on the television series as well , to my mind there’s a particular pleasure to be had in the reading of a historical novel, one that’s be easily replicated in a television series. However, now that I’ve finished the novel, I definitely plan on watching the show, if only to enjoy the fantastic costumes that will be on display.

Stay tuned for my review!

Reading History: “The Queen’s Vow: A Novel of Isabella of Castile” (by C.W. Gortner)

In the annals of European history, there are few women who have had as great an influence on the course of history as Isabella of Castile. With her husband Ferdinand–called here Fernando–she was responsible for bringing to a successful conclusion the Reconquista, in which the Muslim rulers of Spain were pushed out. While she was certainly one of the more enlightened monarchs of her era, Isabella was also subject to bouts of religious-influenced intolerance.

C.W. Gortner manages to capture all of these contradictions in this spell-binding novel. The Queen’s Vow begins in Isabella’s youth, when she flees the court of her dead father to take up exile with her mother. Due to court politics, however, she soon finds herself swept up in the ambitions of others, and when at last her brother dies she ascends to the throne. After a marriage to Fernando, prince and later King of Aragon, the two of them push to finish the reconquest of Spain from the Moors. By the end, she is poised on the brink of sponsoring the voyages of the man who would go on to become known as Christopher Columbus.

Through trial and triumph, however, one thing remains steady in Isabella’s life: her belief in her own right to rule Castile. And there is plenty of trial in this novel. From the beginning, Isabella finds herself caught up in plots and schemes by those who don’t have her best interests at heart. All too often, these cause Isabella tremendous emotional distress. She has to watch her mother slide slowly into madness, and she also has to confront the reality that both of her brothers are fated to meet ends that are truly tragic.

Through it all, however, she still manages to keep a firm grasp of her vision as the one person who can bring peace to her fractured kingdom. And it is, indeed, fractured. Due to the ineffectual reigns of both her brother and her father, the nobles of Castile are more intent on enriching themselves and oppressing the peasants that work than their land than they are on how to make the kingdom function as a true polity. It is a testament to Isabella’s formidable skills as a queen that she manages to not only survive but positively thrive. Time and again, she does what no one expects and, slowly but surely, she builds up her power.

One of Gortner’s great skills as a historical novelist is his willingness to engage with the flaws of his main character. In this instance, this has to do with the speed with which she decides to abandon the Jews when it becomes politically necessary to do so. And, of course, it’s worth pointing out that she also gave permission for the Spanish Inquisition, one of the most ruthless and cruel religious experiments in the history of Christianity. Gortner doesn’t try to gloss over or explain away these parts of Isabella’s record. As he points out in his note following the text, Isabella was very much a person of her time, and that means that she was as prone to mistakes and acts of cruelty as anyone else. Of course, the fact that she is queen means that her actions have consequences far beyond her own life.

Gortner also captures the strong emotional bond that clearly existed between Fernando and Isabella. Given that this was the Renaissance, a period in which royal women and men married for reasons of political expedience rather than for love, the fact that these two people managed to find so much wedded happiness with one another is nothing short of miraculous. The parts of the novel that depict the passionate love between them are truly steamy, drawing you into the physical intimacy that they share with one another. (Though I have to say that the description of Fernando in this novel is somewhat at odds with most of the portraits of him that I’ve seen).

As he always does with historical novels, Gortner manages to richly and convincingly convey the world of 15th Century Spain. There are times when you could swear that you were actually there, witnessing the sheer breathtaking beauty of this country (having been there, I can attest to the truth of that description). At the same time, he doesn’t get so lost in the details that you find yourself getting bored. Instead, this is very much a novel that you can get lost in for hours.

While Isabella is of course the focal point of the novel, we also get a glimpse into the many other larger-than-life characters that inhabited this particular world. We see ruthless churchmen, caring ladies, zealous friars, and more. All of them attempt to pull Isabella–and through her Castile–in their preferred direction, but she is a woman very much of her own mind. And, of course, there are her children, all of whom are positioned to take up leading roles in the history of Europe. Her descendants, as it turns out, will go on to rule Europe and, in fact, the world.

There is no denying that Isabella lived at one of the most important points in the history of Europe. This was an era of tremendous religious unrest and Spain, with its unique history as a place where Jews, Muslims, and Christians were able to exist in at least a measure of peace and accord, was poised to undergo cataclysmic change. Even though the novel is told entirely from the perspective of Isabella, it nevertheless conveys a significant amount of sympathy for the men and women who are affected by the rising tide of Christian zealousness that is poised to sweep over the peninsula, destroying much in its path.

All told, I very much enjoyed The Queen’s Vow. It’s everything that I look for in a historical fiction, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Soon, I’ll be starting on Gortner’s novel about Isabella’s tragic daughter, the woman known to history as Juana the Mad. Stay tuned!

Book Review: “Star Wars: Thrawn: Alliances”

Darcy and Winters

Warning: Some spoilers for the book follow.

Readers of this blog will remember that I absolutely loved the first installment of author Timothy Zahn’s new trilogy about Thrawn, the Chiss general who rises through the ranks of the Imperial military to become a Grand Admiral. As soon as I finished that volume, I went ahead and started reading the second one, and I was not disappointed. It takes the character in some new and interesting directions, while remaining true to the developments that happened in the first novel.

This novel follows two different timelines. One, set in the diegetic present, follows Thrawn and his reluctant ally Darth Vader as they pursue an unknown disturbance in the outer reaches of the Galaxy. The other follows a younger Thrawn as he engages with Anakin and Padmé as they investigate a mining operation that could seriously reshape the war between the Republic and…

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Reading History: “The Romanov Empress” (by C.W. Gortner)

I’ve been meaning to read the works of historical novelist C.W. Gortner for some time now, and when I saw that he’d recently written a book about Dagmar of Denmark, the woman who would eventually become Tsarina Marie of Russia, I knew that I had to pick it up and read it. From the first page to the fast, I found Gortner’s story utterly captivating. In fact, I almost couldn’t put it down until I’d finished it!

The novel begins with Dagmar–known to many as Minnie–living in her native country of Denmark. While she is initially affianced to the young son of the tsar, after his unfortunate and untimely death she finds herself affianced to his blustering younger brother. What begins as a reluctant marriage soon blooms into true love, and they find true happiness with one another. Unfortunately, it is Minnie’s destiny to live in Russia during a period of tremendous upheaval and turmoil, and by the end of the novel she has lost nearly everything as the Russian Revolution sweeps the monarchy away.

Minnie is a captivating narrator, and it’s easy to like her. She’s fierce and intelligent, willful and clever, and she isn’t shy about letting others know about how she feels. The novel ably portrays the ways in which she was a positive influence on the rule of her reactionary husband, curbing some of his darker tendencies and channeling her own energies into a variety of charitable causes. Likewise, she tries–with only limited success–to imbue her sensitive and ineffectual son Nicky with the strength and determination he needs in order to secure his throne.

Now, the book doesn’t shy away from the less flattering aspects of Marie’s personality. She does tend to be a bit imperious, and she has a certain pride that doesn’t always allow her to be as sensitive to the needs of others as she should be. In particular, she has a difficult relationship with her two daughters, and she often finds it difficult to accept that they are not willing and/or able to follow the same path that she did. Born into a role that they didn’t ask for, one can hardly blame them for striking out on their own and forging their own destinies (in fact, it may be just that independent spirit that keeps them alive during the Revolution).

Minnie’s most difficult relationship, however, is with her daughter-in-law Alexandra. It’s not hard to see why. There’s no doubt that Minnie feels some jealousy that her beloved Nicky falls head-over-heels in love with a woman she deems unsuitable (for both good and bad reasons). For all of her flaws, Minnie truly cares about the well-being of the empire and the people, and she realizes, even if the two rulers do not, that their actions are exacerbating an already-existing political crisis. She sees the truth with a clarity that the rest of her family lacks, and this often means that she has the unenviable burden of seeing how the future will turn out, even as she is unable to change it.

I really admire a historical novelist who can both capture the ambience of a past historical moment while also not getting too bogged down in the details of material culture. I mean, I love the descriptions of fabrics and furniture and jewels as next as the next person, but sometimes it’s easy for novelists to get lost in the detail and to forget about the plot. Not so Gortner. He manages to keep the plot moving at a quick pace, and when I was finished with the book I was rather surprised to feel that I actually had a pretty good snapshot of most of Minnie’s life. What’s more, I felt as if I had a stronger understanding of what it was like to be a royal living in the heady days of the 19th and early 20th Centuries, right before the chaos of modernity swept all of their lives away.

There’s no question that, for many, the Romanovs are the epitome of tragedy. Unwilling or unable to transform their country in the ways that it needed in order to move into the 20th Century, they ultimately found themselves victims of a situation of their own making. While the novel ends on a somewhat triumphant note–with Marie escaping from the Bolsheviks–it also leaves us in no doubt that she has lost almost everything that was dear to her. That crown and throne that she committed so much time and energy to preserving has now been utterly abolished, and to make matters worse she doesn’t have definitive word about what happened to her beloved Nicky and her grandchildren.

Of course, now we know that Nicky and his family were indeed slain in the basement of the house in Yekaterinburg, in one of the most infamous slaughters in a regime known for its barbarity. One can’t help but feel a powerful sense of pity for Marie, never knowing exactly what happened to either of her two sons who perished in the Revolution. She can hardly blame the woman for insisting that they might still be alive, clinging to the hope that there might be a restoration of the monarchy that she worked so hard to preserve. To my mind, Minnie, more perhaps than any of the other members of her family, draws us into the complicated mindset of the last ruling Romanovs. She might not be perfect, and the system of which she was a part might have been fatally flawed, but you can’t help but have at least a little bit of sympathy for them, trapped as they were in a gilded cage.

Overall, I very much enjoyed The Romanov Empress. It has all of the things that I usually look for in an historical novel, and I can’t wait to dive in to some of the other books that Gortner has written. Next up is his novel about Isabella of Castille, certainly on of history’s most powerful queens. Stay tuned!

Book Review: “Children of Virtue and Vengeance” (by Tomi Adeyemi)

Darcy and Winters

When I first read Children of Blood and Bone, I was absolutely blown away. It wasn’t just that I was excited to finally see a young woman of color writing what was, by all accounts, a stunning fiction debut. It was that this extraordinary talent had managed to create a compelling world based on Africa mythology, one that lived and breathed and drew you in from first page to last. Thus, when Children of Virtue and Vengeance came out, I rushed to the store.

I’m glad I did.

Children of Virtue and Vengeance picks up shortly after the previous novel ending, with Zélie mourning the death of her father, while royal siblings Inan and Amari each struggle for the throne in order to bring an end to the war that has already cost so many lives. The novel follows each side as they each go to ever-greater depths of darkness…

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Screening History: “The Spanish Princess” (Season 1)

Having really enjoyed both The White Queen and The White Princess on Starz, I naturally decided to dive right into The Spanish Princess, which picks up the story several years later. By this point, Henry and Lizzy have settled quite well into their lives as king and queen of England. They now have four children that have lived to adulthood, and at last it is time to find a bride for elder, Arthur. Enter Katherine of Aragon, a young woman of indomitable will and sweeping passions. Katherine, however, will find all of her considerable charm, strength, and political skills challenged by the nature of the Tudor court.

From the moment that she appears on screen, Charlotte hope shines as Katherine of Aragon. She somehow manages to capture both Katherine’s steely self-control and vulnerability, her heart and her sharp intellect, and that’s quite an accomplishment. I’ve always thought that there’s been far too little focus on Katherine’s youth in popular culture, and The Spanish Princess really allows us to see how this young woman would grow into a queen who would hold her own against all who came against her.

Much as I liked Hope as Katherine, she’s a little outshone by two other members of the cast. The first, of course, is the divine Harriet Walter as Lady Margaret Beaufort. She’s a little less dour and bitter than Michelle Fairley’s iteration of the character, but she seems to be a bit shrewder in terms of her political abilities. She’s laser-focused on ensuring that her dynasty continues, even if that means destroying Catherine. Walter brings all of her considerable talent to bear in the role, and her presence helps to elevate some of the clunkier writing (it remains a little unclear why she bears Katherine such irrepressible hatred). Walter truly shines in the final episode of the season, as she has to confront the sudden death of her beloved son, the collapse of her own power, and the legacy of her own actions that brought her family to the throne. Walter fully captures the mix of strength and vulnerability that has always been key to Margaret’s character in all three of her iterations. As the only character that has had a substantial presence in all three series, it was very satisfying to see it brought to such a stunning conclusion.

In my opinion, the real star of this show is Lina, played by Stephanie Levi-John. Her character is fascinating for a host of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that we finally get to see a woman of color playing a prominent role in a costume drama set in the 16th Century (something that I’m sure will cause all of the racist fans of the genre to lose their minds). More than that, though, Lina’s storyline allows us a glimpse into the lives and mentalities of a group of people who have been largely ignored in costume dramas set in this period: i.e., the first generation of those who were forcibly converted by Catholic monarchs of Spain. In The Spanish Princess, it is precisely this question of faith that is one of the central crises that Lina must negotiate, since her beloved Oviedo still adheres to Islam. Her conflict, between her love of Oviedo and her devotion to Katherine, is one of the most moving in the entire season.

As with the previous two series, however, I found some of the writing infuriatingly lazy. For example, I’m not sure I buy the idea that Maggie Pole was in on the conspiracies against the Tudors rather silly (though Laura Carmichael is spot-on casting for this character). Unfortunately, some of this sloppiness is due to the nature of the source material. Philippa Gregory is a little notorious for her tendency to blur the boundaries between fact and fiction in her work, while insisting that she isn’t doing so, and the series carries on with that.

To some degree, The Spanish Princess is hamstrung by its own story. It’s a little difficult to feel much sense of narrative urgency or mystery about Katherine’s narrative, since we already know how it ends up. We all know that Katherine ended up being Henry’s first wife, if only because his attempt to get that marriage annulled would be such an earth-shattering historical event. The cast, however, deserves universal praise for doing their best to keep things moving forward and engaging.

Ultimately, The Spanish Princess is about the ongoing conflict between the past and the future in the Tudor court. Margaret Beaufort is, of course, the most visible icon of the past and its iron hold on the present, while Henry and Katherine are the promise and the peril of what’s to come. Even at this early stage, however, we can see the ways that Henry’s willfulness and disregard for how things are done are setting him on the road that will lead to his later despotism (and it’s worth pointing out that Ruairi O’Connor does an excellent job of bringing a young Henry to life. His is certainly one of the better interpretations of the monarch in his youth). Likewise, Katherine’s choices–particularly her claim to be a virgin–will come to have consequences that are truly historic in their impact.

All in all, I was mostly pleased with this outing into Renaissance England. Though some of the plot points felt rather contrived–and not particularly effectively, at that–overall I thought that the series did justice to Katherine of Aragon’s plight as she sought to navigate the vicious and venomous court. I’d ultimately place it somewhere between The White Queen and The White Princess. It has significantly better production values and acting than the former, but the writing and acting aren’t quite as strong as the latter.

I’m very excited about the fact that there is now a second season on the way, and I’m genuinely curious to see how far they take it. Given my endless fascination with the Tudors and with costume drama, I’m willing to go along for the ride.

Book Review: “Star Wars: Thrawn”

Darcy and Winters

In the annals of the Star Wars Expanded Universe, perhaps no figure looms larger than Thrawn. Originally introduced in Timothy Zahn’s “Heir to the Empire” series, he subsequently became something of a fan favourite. Though only a neophyte when it comes to the Expanded Universe, I can well imagine the howl of outrage that erupted when Disney announced that all of the works that had already been published in that universe would be rendered noncanon, including Thrawn.

Fortunately, Zahn has successfully wound his beloved Chiss character back into the canon by focusing on his early years and his incorporation into the machinery of the empire. The novel is split among three different perspectives. There is, of course, Thrawn, whose tactical genius allows him to ascend quickly through the ranks. Other chapters are told from the point of view of his assistant Eli Vanto, who finds himself caught up in Thrawn’s…

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Book Review: “Star Wars: Tarkin” (by James Luceno)

Darcy and Winters

As I continue my journey through the expanded Star Wars universe, I continue to find myself drawn to the books about some of its most iconic villains. Thus, I decided to read Tarkin, because I’ve always found him to be a fascinating character. So far we’ve only seen him in two films, and in neither one do we get much of an indication about what makes him tick and why he’s devoted himself so fully to the Empire and its nefarious purposes.

In Luceno’s book, we get a bit more insight into both of those areas, though not as much as I would have liked. The story follows two tracks, one in the present that focuses on Tarkin’s attempt to track down a group of rebels, and the other focuses on his youth and the brutal training he undergoes at the hands of his kinsman Jova.

There are parts of…

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