Sunday, February 27, 2011

Book review: Daughter of Xanadu, by Dori Jones Yang

In Dori Jones Yang's Daughter of Xanadu, an exciting blend of cross-cultural exploration and female adventure, a resolute young woman’s coming of age at the height of the Mongol Empire combines with her surprising attraction to a foreigner.

In the year 1275, Emmajin, the sixteen-year-old eldest granddaughter of Khubilai Khan, wants to achieve glory on the battlefield, a feat unlikely for a woman. Physically agile, serious-minded, and dedicated to improving her skills, she scorns the soft living of the women at court and sneaks away to join her male cousins in an archery contest. She’s determined to prove to her grandfather that she has what it takes to join his army.

Intrigued by her bravery, the Khan charges her with a different task. After an arduous three-year journey east, a trio of Venetian merchants has arrived in his capital city of Khanbalik, bearing goods for trade and a message from their pope. Emmajin is asked to befriend Marco Polo, the youngest among them at twenty-one, and report back with any knowledge that would help the Mongols conquer his homeland.

Marco’s odd appearance startles her – his red beard and green eyes mark him as an outsider – and his demeanor and values present a challenge to her worldview. A talented storyteller with no interest in the “manly arts,” he's the opposite of what Emmajin would normally find appealing, but they grow close as she shows him around the beautiful grounds of the Khan’s summer palace at Xanadu. What will he think if he learns of her betrayal, and will she ever achieve her dream of becoming a Mongolian warrior?

Thirteenth-century China is a setting not often explored in fiction, and even more uncommonly from a woman’s viewpoint. Although Emmajin (a fictional character) may seem like she’s far ahead of her time, she has ample role models to emulate: not only her female ancestors, the fierce women of the grasslands who supported the rise to power of the great Chinggis Khan, but also the legendary Ai-Jaruk, a champion female wrestler whose story is told by Marco.

Seen through Emmajin’s eyes, the cultural differences in the novel become even more striking to note. She and her grandfather are amused by Marco’s ignorance in bowing down to the women of the Khan’s household. Although she was “raised to have disdain for merchants, who live off the labor of others,” her travels through the vast empire – and her growing bond with Marco – open her mind to unfamiliar ways.

Mongolia expands its borders by conquering foreign lands and subjugating their peoples, but after seeing Marco’s love for Venice and experiencing the high cost of war herself, Emmajin wonders if conquest is the only answer. Her gradual shift in perspective is realistically and sensitively rendered. The conclusion – satisfying, if a bit fanciful – leaves the door open for a sequel.

With its gripping combat scenes, subtle romance, and tangible, full-bodied descriptions of court and military life in Yuan Dynasty China, Daughter of Xanadu will appeal to the international adventurer in all of us. A dynamic and enlightening read for young adults and adults alike.

Daughter of Xanadu was published by Delacorte at $17.99 ($19.99 in Canada) in January.  Hardcover, 336pp, including a glossary, map, family tree, and a foreword that explains the historical context.

This is my first entry for the YA Historical Fiction challenge, and one of the first YA novels I've read since I was a YA myself!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Book review: The Sea Captain's Wife, by Beth Powning

With a name like Azuba Galloway, one would expect the heroine of Beth Powning's The Sea Captain's Wife to be anything but ordinary. A young woman growing up in Whelan's Cove, New Brunswick, in the 1860s, Azuba yearns to leave her quiet village and its society women behind and sail around the world on the open ocean.

At nineteen, Azuba falls in love with and marries Captain Nathaniel Bradstock, and they share dreams of spending their lives together on his ship, Traveller.  To her dismay, he refuses to entertain the idea after she falls pregnant.  She raises their daughter, Carrie, with the help of her family and servants, and she doesn't like what she sees as her future: her life unfurling alone, constantly worried about her husband's safety, his picture becoming more real to her and Carrie than the man himself.  She tells her understanding grandmother, "I don't live to fill my rooms with silver tea sets and satin cushions, delivered to me by my husband from Paris or Bombay," and determines to accompany him on his next voyage.

Azuba gets her wish, but the reason turns out differently than she expects.  After an indiscretion causes rumors about her to fly in Whelan's Cove, Nathaniel is forced to bring her and Carrie on board against his will, their new togetherness as a family marred by resentment and fear.

With clear and poetic language and a sharp eye for period detail, Powning charts the shifting patterns in the Bradstocks' unusual marriage. Although Azuba longs to be treated as Nathaniel's equal, she remains a woman of her time, quickly learning that on board Traveller, his position as her captain takes precedence.  The meaning of freedom begins to change for her, too.  While she delights in exploring foreign port cities from London to San Francisco, her home has shrunk to the dimensions of their cabins. The dangers of the journey force her and her family into situations that shake their composure and threaten their lives.

Although Carrie doesn't get many lines, she is one of the novel's most original creations.  A curious, observant, and intelligent child, her trust and devotion capture Nathaniel's heart, and she becomes the only one who can connect with him during the voyage's most stressful moments. Even minor characters are brought to life with a brief flourish of words.  Of one of Azuba's seafaring equals, the tactless wife of Captain Lattimer, Powning writes: "Her permanent state of displeasure suggested that within herself she was but temporarily lodged."  The normally smooth writing becomes choppy in one major dramatic scene; rather than speeding up the action, it slows it down, but the abrupt shift in style demonstrates the suddenness with which trouble can hit.

Reflective, occasionally bleak, and filled with the invigorating spirit of adventure, The Sea Captain's Wife is nautical fiction on the distaff side. Well worth reading for anyone curious about the lives of the brave 19th-century women who followed their husbands when they went to sea.

The Sea Captain's Wife is published by Plume on February 22nd in trade paperback ($15.00, 374pp, with glossary of nautical terms at the end).  It was previously published by Knopf Canada in 2010.  For more information, see the book's official website.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Guest post from C.W. Gortner: Birth of a Spymaster

I'm happy to welcome historical novelist C.W. Gortner back to the blog today.  He's written an enlightening guest post about the Elizabethan intelligence network begun by Francis Walsingham, and Walsingham's complex working relationship with the queen herself during a time of intense political activity and religious strife. 

Christopher's latest novel, The Tudor Secret, first in a series of historical mysteries, was published by St. Martin's Griffin in February ($14.99/$16.99 Canada) and by Hodder & Stoughton in the UK.  Welcome, Christopher!

Birth of a Spymaster: Francis Walsingham and Tudor Espionage

Spies have intrigued us ever since we started telling stories. I imagine that even cavemen told tales of those who infiltrated rival tribes to ferret out secrets and report back on potentially damaging plans. The clandestine act of obtaining information for a cause, while risking one’s life, carries with it an undeniable glamour and adrenaline rush that many of us find irresistible.

The Chinese and the Mongols used spies; feudal Japan relied on ninjas to gather valuable information. In Elizabethan England, Francis Walsingham is credited with giving rise to the modern notion of intelligence gathering, creating a vast organization dedicated to protecting the queen. Walsingham’s targets were Catholic agitators, such as Jesuit priests, assassins and other recusants who might subvert or otherwise damage the established order. Whether or not it was right to hunt down those who opposed a particular religious view was beside the point. So iconic has Elizabeth become in our eyes, so gloriously do we view her realm, in comparison to the brutal suppressions of Spain, that protecting her seems like the right, indeed, the only, thing to do.

While Elizabeth herself was known to dislike Walsingham’s methodology— which included torture— dubbing him her "Moor" because of his complexion or preference for dark clothes or perhaps his infamously somber personality, she contended with his brusque manner. She understood that he was the right man for a nasty job, unparalleled in his competence and fervor, his penetrating insight into foreign affairs, and his devotion to her safety. To him, she was England—the heart and soul of the Protestant movement. She faced a formidable foe in the Catholic king of Spain and legions of dedicated counter-reformation fanatics whom Philip unleashed. Papal dispensation guaranteed passage to Heaven to whoever managed to murder the queen of England. Walsingham was determined that no Catholic on his watch would ever win that prize.

Since time began, there have been men willing to die for a cause; we only need to look at our world today to see that. Some also put themselves at the service of a charismatic leader; and Elizabeth was indeed that. She promised tolerance in an intolerant age; she wanted peace and prosperity for her subjects, above all else. While the latter days of her reign were plagued by upheavals and a savage persecution, she had been literally yanked into that stance by the advent of the Armada and the very real threat of another on the horizon. Walsingham drew upon Elizabeth’s charisma and the threat posed by the Counter Reformation to conscript men of both noble and ordinary birth, who decided they had to do something to safeguard their way of life.

In The Tudor Secret, we meet Francis Walsingham before he becomes Elizabeth’s trusted spymaster. Here, he is still a hireling of the princess’s secret protector, William Cecil, but he’s already converted to the reformed faith upheld by Elizabeth and her brother, King Edward. Dark and enigmatic, Walsingham abducts Brendan Prescott, the book’s lead character, who as a squire to the Dudley family, is drawn into Cecil’s burgeoning spy network in order to uncover a conspiracy against the princess. Walsingham trails Brendan; lurking in shadows, he is a panther with a knife, disapproving of the callow youth whom Cecil has seen fit to hire. Is he friend or foe? Will he help or hinder Brendan’s mission?

It is the beginning of the grand era of Tudor espionage and of Brendan’s, and his rival Walsingham’s, service to an embattled future queen.

Thank you so much for spending this time with me. To learn more about me and my books, as well as access special features, please visit me at: Happy reading!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Book review: Lily of the Nile, by Stephanie Dray

Although it features an adolescent heroine, Stephanie Dray’s riveting Lily of the Nile is less about coming of age than it is about coming into power – and in more ways than one. Cleopatra Selene is the product of the illustrious union between Cleopatra of Egypt and her Roman consort, Mark Antony. As the novel begins, ten-year-old Selene is asked to carry a basket of figs with asps concealed beneath, and her unwitting role in her mother’s death haunts her. Before Queen Cleopatra commits suicide, she tells her daughter potent words that it takes her years to understand.

Captured and transported from Alexandria to Rome by soldiers loyal to Octavian, Selene and her brothers Helios and Philadelphus are paraded in chains before cheering crowds. Despite the siblings' initial treatment, Dray’s portrait of Selene’s new Roman family isn’t completely unsympathetic. Lady Octavia, Octavian's kind and devoted sister (and Mark Antony's former wife), takes them into her household, a dwelling whose simple and plain décor contrasts with the lavish comfort of their Egyptian palace. Selene spends her days sewing, playing, and learning from her tutor, the exiled Numidian prince, Juba; she also befriends Octavian’s neglected daughter, Julia.

It’s left to Selene, an enemy in a foreign land, to navigate her way through the political intrigue surrounding her. She must demonstrate her loyalty to Octavian and Rome while remembering her status as a Ptolemy, the daughter of the most influential woman of her age. Will Selene follow in her mother’s rebellious footsteps or find a way to help Egypt through other means? When messages in hieroglyphics magically appear on her arms, carved out in her blood, her hereditary role as leader of the Isiac faith becomes harder for her and her Roman guardians to ignore.

Even in death, Cleopatra’s presence looms so large in Lily of the Nile that it starts off feeling like a sequel, but enough context is provided for readers to pick up the background details on Egypt’s subjugation by the Roman Republic. Selene’s honest and open voice is inviting, and the clean writing style keeps the pages turning rapidly. Although she chooses a different path than her mother, Selene proves that she’s cut from the same cloth. Even as a teenager, her skillful understanding of political stratagems means she has the potential to become Octavian’s most trustworthy subject or most formidable adversary – all depending on how he plays his part. As she comes fully into her own, so does her triumphant narrative.

This informative and enjoyable novel is recommended for fans of historical fiction and fantasy, including young adult readers. This is the projected first in a trilogy, and I’ll be on board for book two.

Lily of the Nile was published by Berkley in January at $15.00 ($18.50 in Canada), 351pp, including an author's note and readers' guide. Visit the author's website for background information as well as details on the sequel, Song of the Nile, out this autumn.  Also, for more on Selene and the Isiac faith, see her guest post from last November, How Cleopatra Selene Saved Isis.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Guest post from Chris Bradford: A Character-Full History

Today Chris Bradford, author of the Young Samurai series of young adult novels set in 17th-century Japan, is stopping by with an informative and enthusiastic guest post about the historical basis for his characters.  Welcome, Chris, and thanks for contributing an excellent article about Japanese history and culture!

A Character-full History

By Chris Bradford, author of the Young Samurai series

Creating authentic characters is a challenge for any author. But using history as a wellspring for ideas, it becomes merely a matter of discovering the right person in right place at the right time.

When first developing my Young Samurai series, the question that challenged me was whether there were real young samurai in Japanese history, particularly during the 16th and 17th centuries. Otherwise, my books would be just pure fantasy.

My research led to me a man called Miyamoto Musashi. This true historical figure became a central pillar in the formation of my story.

Miyamoto Musashi was one of the greatest swordsmen in Japanese history and he quickly became the source for Masamoto Takeshi, the adult samurai character who rescues my hero, Jack Fletcher, and teaches him the Way of the Warrior throughout the Young Samurai series.

I discovered Miyamoto Musashi was just 13 years old when he participated in his first single combat against the samurai Arima Kigei. Musashi defeated Arima and actually killed him during the duel. This was my proof that young samurai actually existed!

At 16 years old, Musashi began his Musha-Shugyo (a warrior pilgrimage), a samurai tradition in which a warrior would become a ronin (a masterless samurai) and travel the land, fighting in duels to establish and perfect his skill as a warrior. This journey concept is a classic narrative device; and although I didn’t use it for the first three books, the idea inspired my follow-on Five Rings adventures that form the forthcoming 4-to-8 books in the Young Samurai series (never waste a good idea!)

During the late 16th- early 17th centuries, Musashi fought many duels and battles, including the battle of Sekigahara in 1600, and never lost. He defeated many opponents including the Yoshioka family in Kyoto, Shishido Baikin, a noted master of the sickle and chain, and Sasaki Kojiro in one of his most famous duels on a beach using a weapon carved from a wooden oar. This latter story has been adapted for The Way of the Warrior and functions as a thrilling introduction to my Masamoto character.

Musashi went on to found his own sword school, the Niten Ichi-Ryu, 'Two Heavens As One School', after his unique style of fighting using both the samurai swords as one weapon. He taught hundreds of students over the years, but it is said that at the time of his death not one of Musashi's students could master his devastating technique and the style died with its creator.

However, this godsend of a technique provided me with both a goal for my young samurai hero to learn, and supplied me with an authentic school where he could learn his martial arts skills.

In later life, Musashi devoted himself to the perfection of the other arts practised by the samurai, including ink painting, calligraphy, wood sculpture and metalworking.

Musashi wrote two great treatises on the art and the way of the sword, including Heiko Sanjugokajo - the 35 Articles on the Art of Swordsmanship - and Go Rin No Sho - The Book Of Five Rings, the most famous of all Japanese works on martial arts. Not only did this latter work inspire the titles for my follow-on books, but it also provided me with key samurai lessons for my young samurai to encounter during their training at school!

Aside from his supreme sword skill, Musashi is also known for his scarred and pockmarked skin, the result of eczema as a child, from which arose the rumours of his refusal to wash, shave or even undress! These intriguing personal characteristics all lend depth and believability to my own character, Masamoto.

To this day, Musashi's legend survives and is often known to the Japanese as Kensei, the sword-saint.

So, having established a samurai warrior on which to hang my story on; a sword school for my hero to train at; as well as proven that young samurai existed, this led me onto my next predicament:

Was it possible for a young Englishman to be in Japan during this century and realistically become a samurai?

History answered me yet again in the form of one William Adams. You may have heard of him – he is the basis for the classic samurai epic, Shogun. But in my books, I made him a young boy and turned this historical figure into my hero, Jack Fletcher…

If you wish to discover the historical truth behind my Young Samurai, please visit and look under The Legend.


Read The Way of the Dragon and discover the truth behind the adventure!

For competitions, samurai school and more, visit

Chris Bradford is the author of the award-winning Young Samurai series, a tale of adventure, friendship and heroism that follows an English boy as he strives to become the first foreign samurai. (

Chris is a black belt in martial arts and lives in a village in West Sussex, England, with his wife. He is currently training in ninjutsu.

Books in series: The Way of the Warrior, The Way of the Sword and The Way of the Dragon.

The Way of the Dragon Synopsis

June 1613.

Japan is threatened with war and Jack Fletcher is facing his greatest battle yet.

Samurai are taking sides and, as the blood begins to flow, Jack’s warrior training is put to the ultimate test. His survival – and that of his friends – depends upon him mastering the Two Heavens, the secret sword technique of the legendary samurai Masamoto Takeshi.

But first Jack must recover his father’s prize possession from the deadly ninja Dragon Eye. Can Jack defeat his ruthless enemy? Or will the ninja complete his mission to kill the young samurai...

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Book review: Rebellion, by James McGee

James McGee’s gritty and intrigue-filled Rebellion sees former soldier and Bow Street Runner Matthew Hawkwood plunging confidently into his latest assignment. Transferred temporarily to the Alien Office, he agrees to undertake a clandestine mission whose true purpose even he doesn’t know. His London-based superiors feel that his fluent French, military background, and adroitness with disguise make him the ideal candidate for their needs.

It’s October of 1812, and the British are tired of fighting on two fronts. Hoping to use their common interests to unite diverse factions among the French – disenchanted Republicans, the royalist government in exile, and the church, among others – they aim to secretly finance a revolution against Napoleon, ally themselves with the replacement government, and bring an end to the Peninsular War. And with the despotic little Corsican two thousand miles away in Russia with his Grand Armée as winter approaches, they see the perfect opportunity to do it.

Hawkwood’s dangerous journey to the heart of Napoleonic Paris runs an obstacle course through the historical adventure genre. He learns martial arts from a Chinese expert fighter in the dingy cellar of a London pub, barely survives a violent storm at sea, and flees hostile musket fire near the French coastal village of Ambleteuse before meeting with his Parisian contact, several wardrobe changes and pseudonyms later. McGee is equally adept at writing scenes of military combat, naval adventure, and urban suspense. His re-creation of the perils the cutter Griffin encounters feels especially realistic. Readers will hang onto their chairs as the ship reels in the storm’s wake, the sea crashes over the side, and other sailors are swept away in terror.

The many switches in tone and setting get rather frenetic, but when the novel settles in as a political thriller a third of the way in, the plot gains serious momentum. Just eight years after Napoleon crowned himself Emperor, Paris is showing evidence of decline. Through Hawkwood’s eyes, readers view the grim underbelly of a city weary of constant war, poverty grinding away at its people’s hopes. Audacious in its ultimate goal, the scheming amongst the conspirators is satisfyingly twisty. Fictional characters like Hawkwood are convincingly interwoven into the planned coup d’état, a documented historical event. I began to wonder if they’d really pull it off!

Hawkwood, a battle-scarred hero with an “ambivalent attitude towards authority,” has the physical prowess and nimbleness of mind for the job. Yet he doesn’t emerge unscathed from his hairsbreadth escapes. Although he doesn’t indulge in much introspection, he survives thanks to the selfless acts of others, and he can’t help feeling guilty about the many people who die helping him complete his mission. This sobering reality, one often neglected in novels of this type, adds unexpected depth to the narrative. And though Rebellion is fourth in the Hawkwood series, I didn’t feel left out. There were some unexplained references to past events and associates, but if anything, this made him even more enigmatic of a character.

Historical adventure is traditionally a male field, and this evocation of late Napoleonic Paris is very much a man’s domain, yet the few female characters are just as skillfully evoked – and prove to be just as heroic. If you enjoy dark, edgy historical thrillers, with a sampling of other types of adventure fiction thrown in for good measure, Rebellion would be a good place to start.

Rebellion was published by HarperCollins UK on 3rd February at £14.99 (512 pages, hardcover).