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Thursday, 15 February 2018

PAULA READS: THE COLD LIGHT OF DAWN by ANNA BELFRAGE

The King's Greatest Enemy #4 : 

 The Cold Light of Dawn

by 
Anna Belfrage



The author of this book is kindly giving away a copy of an ebook so to enter, please leave a comment on the blog below or on my Facebook Page

Will be drawn on Friday 23rd Feb 2018


This is the fourth book in The King's Greatest Enemy and the final instalment of the series in which Roger Mortimer, who has earned the moniker which entitles the series, continues to forge a deadly reputation, one that brings danger to those who love him and owe him allegiance. 
Adam and Kit de Guirande have been there throughout the troubles that started with King Edward, II of that name, and through their eyes we are plunged into a medieval world of intrigue, where danger lurks in every shadow, under every cloud and on every corner of this labyrinth of schemes, plots, and secret machinations.
When The Cold Light of Dawn opens, it is 1329, Edward II is now a mere sir Edward of Caernarvon, and his corpse has been buried, or so we think... A new king sits on the throne, and this new Edward is a youth of 17, a husband to a 15 year old tree-climbing queen and son to the 'she-wolf', Queen Isabella, whose illicit relationship with the Earl of March, Roger de Mortimer, is now brazenly and openly displayed.
In the midst of it all, are Kit and Adam, not just mere observers in this historical game of thrones, but players who  live on their wits to stay alive - for there are enemies everywhere; and jealousy, envy and hatred.


The story of Kit and Adam is so vividly told, that I was drawn into their minds, their very beings, every time I viewed a particular scene through their eyes. The story is written very closely in third person, and the author's ability to engage the reader within the context of her characters is a skill that few can master. She makes you think, feel, and act like her characters, and I found myself at once relating to them in the deepest of senses. 
There were times when I felt dread, in the same way that Kit might have, when her man was in danger. My veins flowed with emotion as Adam, comforting Mortimer in his time of need, realises there is nothing he can do for him, but just that, comfort him, nothing more. 




The most appealing thing about this installment and all the books is the manner in which the author applies the relationship between the main protagonists as a device in which to convey the story of Edward III, his mother, Queen Isabella, and her paramour, Roger Mortimer, Earl of March. We are in actuality, witnessing two distinctive threads, that are intertwined within themselves, and the dynamic of this quintet proves to be both mesmerising and enthralling. 
The pace of this fourth installment is much slower than its predecessors, however, that did not mean that I was not up late at night, my head sagging, desperately trying to keep awake so I could turn one more page - just one more - and just one more, so I could find out what happened next. Such is the nature of the author's style and talent as a writer, that she will keep the reader hooked at all times, no matter the pace of the narrative.
Historically, the facts are true to the time and events, except for one occasional liberty, which Belfrage writes in her Author's note. Of course we know that writers of historical fiction approach l research looking for reasons, not just facts, and somehow they try to justify actions with plausible accounts of what, why, when, and where. The author of this book, has filled in the grey areas with distinction, in my view, using well thought out plots to create the bits that Historians cannot, when dealing with facts only. 

Within the relationship with Kit and Adam, we are given insight into the machinations of a thirteenth century court. The reader gets a feel for the love that the couple have for one another, and how their love has formed their characters, their morals and their own inner workings and how they interact with their environment. Within this context we see how the stories of those around them play out; thus we view the actions of the young king, his mother the dowager queen, his own little Queen Phillipa, and the scheming Lord Roger, and are able to nod our heads when Kit, or Adam, express a viewpoint. Essentially, we are Kit and Adam, and we empathise with their emotions, their feelings toward one another, and their feelings toward their supporting players. When Adam is angry or disgusted with the king, we feel annoyance and are desperate to challenge.The prose compels us to remain firmly in the mind of our knightly Adam, who, in all the years he has had to wrestle with his own inner turmoil, still manages to assuage the degree of conflict that others cause within himself. If he didn't, he would surely go insane, so it is his strength of mind that we find so reassuring, that whatever happens, we know that Adam will always be the most knightly of knights, caring for those he loves, whatever they do, but at the same time rejecting their wrongs, even standing against them on the side of right. 

Even when the king threatens two very unlike-able suspects with torture and gives them a Hobson-style choice, do we, like Adam feel a sense of abhorrence:


They stood holding hands as the king informed them of their future destinations. Not a word, not as much as a sound of protest.
"I will give you one last night to spend as man and wife," the king finished. "Come the morrow, your ways will part, so make the most of it."
Adam was horrified by his callousness. From the look on Thomas' face, so was he, but at the king's orders they escorted their stunned prisoners to the little room the king had procured for them. No windows through which to escape, and the door could be barred from the outside, but at least there was a bed and a fire, a pitcher of wine, and some food. 
If Adam is, at times, like a soul, torn between his loyalty for one man, and his love for another, Kit is like sunshine after rain. She is the life that is breathed into Adam whenever he has need of it; when all has been sucked out of him by those who want a piece of him constantly, she is there to warm his spirit and restore him back to being. When we are Kit, we are Adam's love, his best friend, his spirit guide, his hope, and his life. Without her, Adam is only half, and vice versa. In the days when men dominated most dominions of life, Kit is a striving force to make sure that when other's refer to Adam, they are also referring to her, for they are as one. Over the years they have grown together, from a difficult start, through some rocky roads, they have come to trust and love one another with all their being. Tis a rare, but beautiful love, indeed, and we share with them this remarkable relationship which is played out tastefully and with skill, and see and feel the envy in the eyes of those around them. I still stand by my claim, that Ms Belfrage writes the best sex in a historical novel. They are breathtaking, emotional, and evocative. And I often found myself wiping away a tear from the corner of my eye. Oh, to be loved like that.
Edward III

Of course there are other aspects to the book; courtly intrigue, late night kidnapping, wonderful character interaction and dialogue. One of my favourite secondary characters is Thomas of Brotherton who had an interesting entry into the world after his mother went into labour after a hunt. Seeing as he was King Edward's second son, he was, for a while, heir presumptive until Edward the III came along. He was made Earl of Norfolk and Earl Marshall in 1316, and when his brother was away fighting in Scotland, he was named Keeper of England. He was a victim of his brother's favourite, Hugh Despenser's who'd stolen some of his lands. In this tale, we see him as an affable man and a bit of a rogue, but with goodness within him. I enjoyed Ms Belfrage's portrayal. Little was known of his personal life, and there doesn't seem to have been a lot written about him in contemporary terms which meant that the author was given pretty much a blank canvas on which to draw him. His interactions with the de Guirandes is believable and well written, and his desperate attempts to flirt with Kit had me smiling, reminding me of someone I know. When he is filled with remorse at his treatment of his wife, through the eyes of Kit, we feel sorry for him and we nod, knowing how it feels when we lose a loved one. When he begs for his brother's life, like Adam, we want to embrace him and let him know he is not alone in his grief. Such are these powerful scenes that our story-teller is able to create. It is clear, that the author gets right into the minds of her characters.

Ms Belfrage is an experienced author having published thirteen books of her own and has contributed to others. She knows her craft and knows how to use her skills as a writer and a researcher of history, to create believable situations for her fictional and non-fictional characters. She is also very adept at using as little as possible to say so much. She creates an environment that immediately takes us into the past without making us read reams of information and description. such as her portrayal of Woodstock.
A heavy gate set in an old wall allowed access to the palace itself, the original stone buildings expanded with upper storeys in wood. A hall, a chapel, the king's apartments on one side, tables and mews - the buildings followed the circumference of the walls, creating a large open courtyard bustling with people. Nowhere did Kit see the distinctive shape of her husband - or the King - and one of the old grooms who came to take their horses told her the men were out hunting and not back for hours yet.
Already, in my mind, I have a vision of this place, and it is not lost in what follows, but clearly embedded in my head. And one of the most moving scenes in the book arrives at the end, and I realise now, why the author has not laboured the deaths of the other characters in her books, because to have done so would have watered down the ending which is designed to make us wring our hands with despair, wipe the tears from our eyes, hope for a better ending that we know will not come, and when the end does come, we are, like Adam, bereft. 

But as always, with sadness, some happiness will follow and as we reach the final denouement of this tale, we can sigh with relief that the worst is over, but also, a sigh of sadness that we shall not see our Kit and Adam again... or will we?

 Ms Belfrage has managed to write a magnificent, epic novel - a Tour de Force of a story that most writers today can only dream of matching. Breathtaking in its richness, Kit and Adam's story will leave you exhausted by the emotion it will evoke in you; and wanting more, you will have to wait and see if Ms Belfrage will continue with their tale. I certainly hope she will. I don't think that Kit and Adam's story is finished yet... but perhaps that is my wishful thinking.




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Wednesday, 24 January 2018

PAULA READS: ALBA IS MINE by JEN BLACK






The bloody struggle to be king has begun for Finlay of Moray. Cheated by his grandfather, the girl he expected to marry wed to another, he rebels and faces an ultimatum from the old king - face execution or persusade Thorfinn of Orkney to join them. 

His half-brother Thorfinn rules a sea-based empire from Orkney and he too wants something of Finlay - marriage to his sister and a war against kith and kin that will cost him dear. 

Two women vie for his love and in the turbulent world of 1034 AD the threat of death is as close as a cold shiver down the spine. Set in present day Scotland, then known as Alba, this is an absorbing, fast moving tale of power, greed, family rivalries and one man's vision of the future for his troubled kingdom. A hero worth fighting for and an exhilarating historical thriller that will keep you turning the pages into the wee small hours.


Being an author of 11thc stories myself, I offered to read and review for the author after a copy was received in return for an honest review. The story starts swiftly, beginning with the hero, Finlay, who I might add is fictional as are most of the characters in this book, incarcerated for daring to attempt an elopement with the girl he loves. She was married to someone else, at the bequest of his grandfather, the old King Malcolm and Finlay is unable to accept this. The king gives him the options of execution, or travelling to Thorfinn's stronghold, to get him onside and join the king in his fight against his enemies who want his crown. But whilst there, Finlay is convinced that he should have the throne for himself, and goes against his grandfather's plans and joins in with Thorfinn's plans. Add an undesirable marriage plan and having the indignity of being accompanied by the man who is now wed to his girl into the plot and this makes for a very interesting historical romp, not to mention fierce battles, unrequited and romantic love, and betrayal.

What I like best about this book were the characters and the fact that the focus wasn't always on the hero. When I read a book, I enjoy investing my time and emotion into more than one character. I like to know and feel the secondary players reasoning and angst, it gives me a deeper, meaningful reading experience. Jen Black's skills in character development are high up there with some of the best authors. She entranced me with Finlay's sometimes flawed characteristics, but honourable nature; irritate me with his intended's (Ratagan) superior attitude and annoying habit of not knowing when she's on to a good thing, and devastate me with the death of a character I had a soft spot for. 

The battle scenes were exciting, and there were some interesting, and bloody, fights. The plot itself was solid, though totally fictional, which sometimes makes for a better read, because the author can invent the scenes as she wishes.

One thing I would have liked, that was missing, an explanation in the historical note that the main characters were fictional. I found myself perplexed as I was trying to look them up on the net, and found they didn't exist. I admit to preferring my historical fiction to be backed by fact and set in an environment that is true to the period and events of the time, but I can accept, and enjoy, a fictionalised version, even mixed with historical accuracy as long as I am aware and that the author has made these points openly. A few things jarred, some phrases and expressions were not, imho necessarily right for the period, and although I could see that the author had made a great effort to create the historical milieu, it didn't always feel right. 

Events in Scotland, or Alba, as the author correctly refers to it in the book, is not always very well recorded in these early medieval periods, so there was a lot of leeway in regards to the story. Viking invasions started in the 8th century and like their English counterparts, the Scots and the Picts were forced to unite against them.The Kingdom of Scotland was eventually united under the descendants of Kenneth MacAlpin, who was the first king of a united Scotland. The descendants of his  House of Alpin, fought among each other during frequent disputed successions. The last Alpin king, Malcolm II, who has a part to play in the beginning of the book, died without issue in the early 11th century and the kingdom passed through his daughter's son, Duncan I, who started a new line of kings known to modern historians as the House of Dunkeld or Canmore. It is this Duncan whom Finlay challenges for the crown. This is where the story becomes wholly fiction, perhaps it could even be referred to as alternative history, however it makes for an interesting, exciting read, with larger than life characters and a plot that will keep you wondering what will happen next. 

Thorfinn is one of my favourite Characters and I would have loved to have seen him play a bigger part in the story than he did. He is Finlay's fictional half-brother, having had the same mother. Ms Black uses one of the quirks of the time: there were lots of half brothers, half sisters etc, as a device to create certain aspects of the plot. This probably also contributed to the eventual downfall of the House of Alpin in real life, because the many half brothers and sisters ended up having many cousins and half cousins, and many contenders for the throne. So when Finlay arrives at Thorfinn's stronghold, he has a plan to marry his half brother to his own half sister who is not related to Finlay, but in real life, this arrangement may have been frowned upon because of the blood relations between the two brothers and Thorfinn and his sister. Confused? I must admit, it took me a little while to get my head round it.

Thorfinn was also known as The Mighty, and was half Scottish and half Scandinavian. He once appeared as MacBeth in a book by Dorothy Dunnett, but there is no basis in him being MacBeth, at all. His father was the Viking Jarl, Sigurd Hlodvirsson and his mother, a daughter of the king, Malcolm the II, who would have been his grandfather. This means that he was also a contender for the throne, but he is not interested in taking the throne in the book, and is supportive of Finlay's claim. Thorfinn was the only child of the union between his father and the Scottish princess, so he had a lot of half brothers and sisters.

The Orkneyinga Saga says this of him:   
He was unusually tall and strong, an ugly-looking man with a black head of hair, sharp features, a big nose and bushy eyebrows, a forceful man, greedy for fame and fortune. He did well in battle, for he was both a good tactician and full of courage." 
Ms Black's description of his was very accurate. I enjoyed reading about him in the book, he was an interesting character I would love to have seen more of. 

The book is well written and wholly enjoyable. And Ms Black is very good at descriptive writing. Here is a small example of how well the author wrote her prose, describing the state of the armour in the aftermath of a battle:  
"The linden wooden shields had lost their bold, bright colours. They were sword weary, chipped and hacked, but the byrnies, hard and hand linked, shone in the sunlight. Ash and hazel spears came to the hand like long lost friends."
There would be much more I could add to this review but it would go on forever. All in all, the book is filled with enchanting characters who drive the plot which is well thought out and beautifully performed. I have asked the author, because I would love to know what happens further with the characters and I think that this is not all we have heard from Finlay, at least, which is a happy thought indeed!


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ABOUT JEN BLACK
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Jen's home town is Newcastle upon Tyne in the north east of England. She lived within sound of Durham Cathedral bells until she was seven, then moved to Stockton where she attended Grangefield Grammar School, and later went to Newcastle University as a mature student and gained an Honours degree in English Language & Literature. Work in various industrial, public and academic libraries in the north east followed, including a stint as library manager at Gateshead College for a number of years. 

She updates her blog three times a week: http://jenblackauthor.blogspot.com
and can also be found on Twitter and Facebook as well as Goodreads.