Sunday, August 12, 2018

Beneath an Indian Sky by Renita D'Silva, a multi-period saga set in England and India

Author D’Silva transports readers to her native India in a new multi-period novel exploring her frequent themes of difficult family dynamics and the limited choices open to the country’s daughters.

In 1936, Mary Brigham, raised in her aunt and uncle’s London home, is preparing her debutante season and planning to be presented at court. An atypical historical novel heroine, she dreams only of marrying well and raising a family—at least until an old friend of her late parents alludes to their lives in India and a terrible tragedy she can’t recall.

Chapters set eleven years earlier introduce Sita, a girl from a wealthy Indian household, and show how her unusual childhood friendship with Mary developed. In the beginning, both Mary and Sita are equally sympathetic: Mary for her sorrowful past and determination to face up to it, and Sita because she can never attain her parents’ approval.

Despite some confusing aspects of their juxtaposed narratives—the girls’ ages aren’t mentioned, for one—the novel smoothly depicts their transformations into adulthood. Sita ends up marrying a prince and moving into his opulent palace, where her mother-in-law makes her life miserable. Years later, what happens at Mary and Sita’s reunion twists their lives irrevocably and leads to a devastating secret left for Sita’s granddaughter, Priya, to uncover decades later. Priya, a modern documentary filmmaker depressed over her husband’s infidelity, plays an unfortunately small role, although her presence serves to bring the earlier stories full circle.

The plot gets over-the-top dramatic toward the end, and colonial Indian politics remain mostly in the background. Also, too many women have the tendency to faint when confronted with bad news. Still, readers desiring a satisfying excursion to a land of jasmine breezes and delicious cuisine may wish to follow the story and indulge in all the lush atmospheric details.

Beneath an Indian Sky was published by Bookouture in 2018; I read it from a NetGalley copy and wrote this review for August's Historical Novels Review.  D'Silva has written a number of family sagas, many of which have historical elements, including A Daughter's Courage (which I reviewed last year).

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Susan Spann's Trial on Mount Koya, a Shinobi mystery of 16th-century Japan

One might expect a Shingon Buddhist temple to be a peaceful site of sanctuary, but the opposite holds true in the atmospheric sixth novel of Susan Spann’s Shinobi Mysteries.

Set in 1565, this entry brings her protagonists – the shinobi assassin Hiro Hattori and the Jesuit priest whose life he's pledged to protect, Father Mateo – to the remote summit of Mount Koya. Hiro has been sent by his cousin, a master ninja, to carry a directive to a spy who’s been living there as a priest. Having left their housekeeper Ana behind at a nyonindo (women’s hall), since females aren’t allowed to enter the sacred precincts atop the mountain, they approach the temple and are welcomed by the very man, Ringa, that Hiro hopes to find.

However, shortly after Hiro communicates his message to Ringa, a brutal snowstorm enshrouds the temple, forming the right conditions for a locked room-style mystery. Then, later that night, Ringa is discovered horribly murdered. Subsequent deaths follow at regular intervals, with the bodies posed as Buddhist judges of the afterlife. Creepily, the personalities of the late priests seem to resemble those particular Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. The small population at the temple is quickly dwindling, with the perpetrator clearly among them – and if the pattern holds true, Father Mateo could be next.

While Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None is the story’s inspiration, the author spins the basic outline into a mystery specific to her chosen cast and setting, making it a very clever homage indeed. There are a multitude of priests of diverse ages, talents, and backgrounds. As is often the case with many characters introduced at once, their personalities take a bit to settle in, but their particular perspectives emerge in time. On site as well are a mysterious pilgrim and his son, and as outsiders, they fall under suspicion.

The growing friendship between Hiro and Father Mateo is a highlight. Consumed by revenge and loss after his lover’s death in the previous book, Hiro isn’t able to acknowledge how much this affects his judgment, but Father Mateo provides support and sage advice. Cat lovers will appreciate the prominence and entertaining personality of Hiro’s cat, Gato, in this entry, too.

What puzzles the detective pair is not only the bizarre nature of the murders, but also the motive. Perhaps it derives from an internal power struggle, or it could be a madman’s work. As the stakes get higher, the suspense level rises. Fortunately, Spann plays fair with her readers, since -- as it turns out  -- the clues are present from the outset. Readers may be tempted to reread from the beginning, noting how well the mystery was constructed.


Trial on Mount Koya was published in July by Seventh Street. Thanks to the publisher and Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours for the e-galley copy via Edelweiss.

During the Blog Tour, five copies of Trial on Mount Koya are up for grabs.  Note that because this is the last stop on the tour, the deadline is tonight. To enter, please enter via the Gleam form below. Good luck!

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– Giveaway ends at 11:59pm EST on August 8th. You must be 18 or older to enter.
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Trial on Mount Koya

Monday, August 06, 2018

The Sea Queen by Linnea Hartsuyker, a tale of Viking-era Norway

The “sea queen” is Svanhild Eysteinsdotter, a strong-willed woman with a difficult path ahead. In ninth-century Norway, six years after events in The Half-Drowned King (2017), Svanhild loves the seafaring life she led with her husband, the raider Solvi, but knows her intellectually-minded son’s needs take priority.

Alongside their marital strife, Solvi pursues revenge against Harald, Norway’s king. He’s not alone. Throughout the country and elsewhere, disaffected exiles and noblemen resentful of Harald’s taxes rise up against him. Svanhild’s brother, Ragnvald, king of Sogn, is Harald’s loyal man, and as pockets of rebellion join forces, helping Harald achieve a united Norway becomes increasingly dangerous.

Although less action-oriented than its predecessor, this second in the Golden Wolf Saga captures the era’s warlike atmosphere, where blood-feuds last generations; an early incident of stark brutality haunts Ragnvald long afterward. Through her multi-faceted characters, Hartsuyker adeptly evokes female alliances, the complications of love and passion, and vengeance both terrible and triumphant. She juggles many subplots and settings effectively, with scenes moving from Norway’s harsh, picturesque coast to sulfurous Iceland and Dublin’s muddy harbor.

The Sea Queen will be published by Harper on August 14th. I wrote this review for Booklist's August issue. I also reviewed the first book last year and look forward to reading the final installment, The Golden Wolf, next summer.

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

The Haunts of London: Jeri Westerson's medieval mystery The Deepest Grave

In his entertaining 11th adventure, Crispin Guest, known throughout late 14th-century London as the Tracker, has his hands full with two perplexing cases.

The first is rather grisly: Father Bulthius of St. Modwen’s asks him to investigate the “demon’s march” of corpses from the graveyard. The dead are supposedly unearthing themselves and dragging their coffins around after dark. Crispin can hardly believe it until he visits the parish church and sees a shadowy figure carrying a heavy object, and then the empty grave. Something mysterious is clearly afoot. His apprentice, Jack Tucker, a devout lad, is too creeped out to be enthusiastic about their venture but dutifully follows where his master leads.

In the second instance, Crispin receives a note from an old lover, Philippa Walcote, who’s now a prosperous mercer’s wife. Her seven-year-old son, Christopher, is accused of murdering his father’s neighbor and competitor; even worse, the boy confessed to the crime. With nowhere else to turn, Philippa requests Crispin’s help.

The novel offers a compelling balance of situations and emotions. There are some hilarious moments spurred by Jack’s reluctance to go skulking about amongst the graves (who can blame him?). Crispin, a disgraced knight and longtime bachelor, also broods a bit about his unusual household. Jack and his wife, Isabel, are living at Crispin’s place and are expecting their first child imminently, and Crispin is sort-of-but-not-quite a member of Jack’s growing family. Both his home life, and meeting Philippa and her son, leave Crispin pondering what might have been.

Westerson wonderfully evokes the streets, taverns, and other haunts of medieval London, when the city’s outskirts were still rural, as well as period mentalities (among other mysteries, a religious relic appears to have a mind of its own). Crispin’s backstory is woven in so well that newcomers won’t feel lost, either.

The Deepest Grave is published today by Severn House; thanks to the publisher for NetGalley access. I reviewed the novel for August's Historical Novels Review.