Book Tour Review: The Romanov Empress by C.W. Gortner

Monday, July 30, 2018

Title: The Romanov Empress
Author: C.W. Gortner
Genre: historical fiction
Series: N/A
Pages: 448
Published: July 2018
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours for review
Rating:  4/5

Even from behind the throne, a woman can rule.

Narrated by the mother of Russia's last tsar, this vivid, historically authentic novel brings to life the courageous story of Maria Feodorovna, one of Imperial Russia's most compelling women who witnessed the splendor and tragic downfall of the Romanovs as she fought to save her dynasty in the final years of its long reign.

Barely nineteen, Minnie knows that her station in life as a Danish princess is to leave her family and enter into a royal marriage--as her older sister Alix has done, moving to England to wed Queen Victoria's eldest son. The winds of fortune bring Minnie to Russia, where she marries the Romanov heir and becomes empress once he ascends the throne. When resistance to his reign strikes at the heart of her family and the tsar sets out to crush all who oppose him, Minnie--now called Maria--must tread a perilous path of compromise in a country she has come to love.

Her husband's death leaves their son Nicholas as the inexperienced ruler of a deeply divided and crumbling empire. Determined to guide him to reforms that will bring Russia into the modern age, Maria faces implacable opposition from Nicholas's strong-willed wife, Alexandra, whose fervor has lead her into a disturbing relationship with a mystic named Rasputin. As the unstoppable wave of revolution rises anew to engulf Russia, Maria will face her most dangerous challenge and her greatest heartache.

From the opulent palaces of St. Petersburg and the intrigue-laced salons of the aristocracy to the World War I battlefields and the bloodied countryside occupied by the Bolsheviks, C. W. Gortner sweeps us into the anarchic fall of an empire and the complex, bold heart of the woman who tried to save it.

Covering decades in the doomed Romanov Court, veteran author C.W. Gortner uses his many strengths as a historical fiction writer to illuminate the life of Dagmar of Denmark, who became known to history by her adopted name of Empress Maria Feodorovna. Mother to the last Tsar of Russia, this kind and clever woman left an impact all her own both on her family and on the country she adopted as her own.

Dagmar, who usually answered to the name Minnie though she had a plethora of nicknames, led a fascinating life. The second daughter of an impoverished and unexpected king of Denmark, her story is full of both heartbreak and quiet determination. Fiancee first to Tsarevich Nicholas Alexandrovich, but the eventual wife of his brother Emperor Alexander III, her romantic life was unpredictable and tangled. Her many allegiances -- to her beloved home country, then to Nixa, then her autocratic husband, and finally to her children and grandchildren -- made the intersections of her identity relatable and recognizable to modern readers. She was a woman pulled in many directions who did the best she could for her country and for her descendants.

Life in the Romanov court is brought to vibrant reality under Gortner's pen, albeit with a few improvisations on the factual. Minnie's introduction to Russian culture and perspective is fresh and atmospheric; seeing Russia through the eyes of the tsars and their family is memorable. Some details and events have been adjusted, moved, or ignored to streamline the narrative and the authorial decisions make sense; Minnie's life was long and convoluted but the gist of her story is contained within The Romanov Empress. She's presented as a whole person; fallible and flawed, but one who no doubt tried to stave off the inevitable decline of her 400-year-old dynasty.

Large in scope but without sacrificing the finer details, The Romanov Empress paints a realistic and researched version of Dagmar. Her personality and opinions shine through, even when overruled by her more despotic spouse; a figure in the Russian court for most of her life, it's easy to get lost in the romanticized version of this period in history. But Maria was a real woman, who loved, lost and then tried to find her grand-daughter after the worst horror befell her extended family. Through all the stages of her public life -- impoverished princess to wary tsarevna to strong-willed tsarina -- Minnie never lost her quiet strength or her deeply-held beliefs. She was an impressive woman and Gortner shows her in all her imperfect humanity.

Waiting on Wednesday: The Ruin of Kings

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Title: The Ruin of Kings (The Godslayer Cycle #1)
Author: Jenn Lyons
Expected Publication: Feb 2019

There are the old stories. And then there’s what actually happens.

Kihrin is a bastard orphan who grew upon storybook tales of long-lost princes and grand quests. When he is claimed against his will as the long-lost son of a treasonous prince, Kihrin finds that being a long-lost prince isn't what the storybooks promised.

Far from living the dream, Kihrin finds himself practically a prisoner, at the mercy of his new family's power plays and ambitions. He also discovers that the storybooks have lied about a lot of other things things, too: dragons, demons, gods, prophecies, true love, and how the hero always wins.

Then again, maybe he’s not the hero, for Kihrin isn’t destined to save the empire.

He’s destined to destroy it . . .

Uniting the worldbuilding of a Brandon Sanderson with the storytelling verve of a Patrick Rothfuss, debut author Jenn Lyons delivers an entirely new and captivating fantasy epic. Prepare to meet the genre’s next star.

I am excited about this. The first few chapters were released and while I am not normally one for a serving before the meal, I am v anxious to get my hands on a copy.

Review: Hullmetal Girls

Tuesday, July 3, 2018
Title: Hullmetal Girls
Author: Emily Skrutskie
Genre: science fiction
Series: N/A
Pages: 320
Published: 2018
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 2.5/5

Aisha Un-Haad would do anything for her family. When her brother contracts a plague, she knows her janitor's salary isn't enough to fund his treatment. So she volunteers to become a Scela, a mechanically enhanced soldier sworn to protect and serve the governing body of the Fleet, the collective of starships they call home. If Aisha can survive the harrowing modifications and earn an elite place in the Scela ranks, she may be able to save her brother.

Key Tanaka awakens in a Scela body with only hazy memories of her life before. She knows she's from the privileged end of the Fleet, but she has no recollection of why she chose to give up a life of luxury to become a hulking cyborg soldier. If she can make it through the training, she might have a shot at recovering her missing past.

In a unit of new recruits vying for top placement, Aisha's and Key's paths collide, and the two must learn to work together--a tall order for girls from opposite ends of the Fleet. But a rebellion is stirring, pitting those who yearn for independence from the Fleet against a government struggling to maintain unity.

With violence brewing and dark secrets surfacing, Aisha and Key find themselves questioning their loyalties. They will have to put aside their differences, though, if they want to keep humanity from tearing itself apart.

While I remain a big fan of this author and her apparently boundless and horrific imagination (that's a compliment, trust me) I found Hullmetal Girls to be maybe 2.5 stars out of 5 if I am being lenient. Maybe. I have to admit that I am disappointed by the lackluster effort that is her third novel. I expect big things from the mind behind The Abyss Surrounds Us and while this book has more than a few good ideas and a few clever science fiction angles, the messy execution of them makes it hard to stick around, much less immerse myself in Key and Aisha's POVs. 

This is a standalone so I understand the author didn't have the time of say her earlier duology to frame and fill her imagined world/starships, but there are many questions left about how the districts work; some subplots are woven into the gaps of the information but overall it's a patchy framework from which to hang a story. The setup of this space-dystopia is also unfailingly familiar to anyone whose read even just the Hunger Games. Skrutskie is usually brimming with originality and flair -- and while the second talent is on display with things like the Scela system, the "rich and poor numbered district' left much to be desired.

The worldbuilding is sink or swim when it comes to the hard scifi (and then comes the body horror, be prepared), but without enough information provided and the POVs felt indistinguishable. There is a definite uptick after about 65% in -- the story makes up somewhat for lost time by the end but it's not enough to entirely compensate. It takes a long time for basic details of Key and Aisha's life to be understood -- how the Scela work, what their function is within the ships, what the General Body means and how it ties into the story. It's clumsily rendered and often too late; I finished the novel because I was intrigued in one of the plots, but not due to any attachment to the characters themselves.

A swing and a miss for Skrutskie's third at bat, but I'll definitely be checking out her fourth.


TBR Plans

Sunday, July 1, 2018

A new month and I am brimming with reading plans.

Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers (Wayfarers #3)

From the ground, we stand. From our ship, we live. By the stars, we hope

The incredible new novel by Becky Chambers, author of the beloved The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet.

Centuries after the last humans left Earth, the Exodus Fleet is a living relic, a place many are from but few outsiders have seen. Humanity has finally been accepted into the galactic community, but while this has opened doors for many, those who have not yet left for alien cities fear that their carefully cultivated way of life is under threat.

Tessa chose to stay home when her brother Ashby left for the stars, but has to question that decision when her position in the Fleet is threatened.

Kip, a reluctant young apprentice, itches for change but doesn't know where to find it.

Sawyer, a lost and lonely newcomer, is just looking for a place to belong.

When a disaster rocks this already fragile community, those Exodans who still call the Fleet their home can no longer avoid the inescapable question:

What is the purpose of a ship that has reached its destination?

Becky writes such warm, creative scifi. I fall in love with characters and her words. This sounds weirdly excellent, aka her brand.

Kill the Farm Boy by Delilah S. Dawson and Kevin Hearne -- two fantasy authors take on fantasy tropes and expectations with crude humor, puns, and cheese. Here for it.

Sea Witch by Sarah Henning -- The Little Mermaid but centered on Ursurla's version of events? Sign me all the way up.

Temper by Nicky Drayden -- brothers, vices, possession -- what could go wrong? I know this author can go super weird but this sounds intriguing.

Dance of Thieves by Mary E. Pearson

A new novel in the New York Times–bestselling Remnant Chronicles universe, in which a reformed thief and the young leader of an outlaw dynasty lock wits in a battle that may cost them their lives—and their hearts.

When the patriarch of the Ballenger empire dies, his son, Jase, becomes its new leader. Even nearby kingdoms bow to the strength of this outlaw family, who have always governed by their own rules. But a new era looms on the horizon, set in motion by a young queen, which makes her the target of the dynasty's resentment and anger.

At the same time, Kazi, a legendary former street thief, is sent by the queen to investigate transgressions against the new settlements. When Kazi arrives in the forbidding land of the Ballengers, she learns that there is more to Jase than she thought. As unexpected events spiral out of their control, bringing them intimately together, they continue to play a cat and mouse game of false moves and motives in order to fulfill their own secret missions.

I really enjoyed Pearson's first series and my friend Gaby loved this spin-off. So. Signs are pointing to good things ahead!

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