Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers

Summary: Why be the sheep, when you can be the wolf?

Seventeen-year-old Ismae escapes from the brutality of an arranged marriage into the sanctuary of the convent of St. Mortain, where the sisters still serve the gods of old. Here she learns that the god of Death Himself has blessed her with dangerous gifts—and a violent destiny. If she chooses to stay at the convent, she will be trained as an assassin and serve as a handmaiden to Death. To claim her new life, she must destroy the lives of others.

Ismae’s most important assignment takes her straight into the high court of Brittany—where she finds herself woefully under prepared—not only for the deadly games of intrigue and treason, but for the impossible choices she must make. For how can she deliver Death’s vengeance upon a target who, against her will, has stolen her heart?

Commentary: I was pretty excited to read Grave Mercy–assassin nuns in medieval France? Definitely not something that’s been done before. I was drawn in from the very first chapter, but then my interest sort of petered off, and I’m not exactly sure what went wrong.

While the premise of the novel was certainly interesting, I felt like the author didn’t deliver. I had a hard time connecting emotionally with our narrator, Ismae, whether because of the awkward and kind of stumbling narration, or because she was just kind of flat as a character. We see that she escapes from her horrible arranged marriage, but her transformation to a full-formed character never happens. I wasn’t able to relate to any of her emotions and was never fully pulled into her trials and travails,which means the romance also fell completely flat for me.

I did enjoy the historical aspect of this novel, however, and appreciated the political intrigue between Brittany and France.

Overall, Grave Mercy had a very interesting premise but failed to deliver fully. Really fabulous cover though, I have to say.

Grave Mercy is the first in a series, but I don’t think I’ll be following up with the rest of the novels.

Author Website: http://www.robinlafevers.com/
How did I get this book? The public library!

His Majesty’s Service (Temeraire #1-3) by Naomi Novik

This is an omnibus edition of the first three novels in Novik’s Temeraire series. 

Summary: Together in one volume, here are the first three novels in Naomi Novik’s New York Times bestselling Temeraire series, combining the gripping history of the Napoleonic era, the thrill of Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern books, and the excitement of Patrick O’Brian’s seafaring adventures. In His Majesty’s Service also includes an exclusive original Temeraire short story.

Capt. Will Laurence is serving with honor in the British Navy when his ship captures a French frigate harboring most a unusual cargo–an incalculably valuable dragon egg. When the egg hatches, Laurence unexpectedly becomes the master of the young dragon Temeraire and finds himself on an extraordinary journey that will shatter his orderly, respectable life and alter the course of his nation’s history.

Thrust into England’s Aerial Corps, Laurence and Temeraire undergo rigorous training while staving off French forces intent on breaching British soil. But the pair has more than France to contend with when China learns that an imperial dragon intended for Napoleon–Temeraire himself– has fallen into British hands. The emperor summons the new pilot and his dragon to the Far East, a long voyage fraught with peril and intrigue. From England’s shores to China’s palaces, from the Silk Road’s outer limits to the embattled borders of Prussia and Poland, Laurence and Temeraire must defend their partnership and their country from powerful adversaries around the globe. But can they succeed against the massed forces of Bonaparte’s implacable army?

My Thoughts: I have been a big fan of this series ever since the first book came out a few years ago. Novik writes in a very unique and perfectly suitable-to-the-time-period kind of style. Dragons in the Napoleonic wars! Amazing idea. Really unique. Very fun and original story. Novik has become one of my favorite authors.

The first book was my favorite. In the rest of the series Temeraire and Laurence travel all over the world–each book sort of has a “focus”. They go to China in the second novel, and then to Turkey in the third. They also visit (for various plot-related reasons) the African continent as well as Australia.

Author Website (and excerpt from the first book in the series): http://www.temeraire.org/in-his-majestys-service/#reviews

Cleopatra by Stacey Schiff

Summary from Stacy Schiff’s official website: 

“Her palace shimmered with onyx and gold, but was richer still in political and sexual intrigue. Above all else, Cleopatra was a shrewd strategist and an ingenious negotiator. Though her life spanned fewer than forty years, it reshaped the contours of the ancient world.

She was married twice, each time to a brother. She waged a brutal civil war against the first when both were teenagers. She poisoned the second. Ultimately she dispensed with an ambitious sister as well; incest and assassination were family specialties. Cleopatra appears to have had sex with only two men. They happen, however, to have been Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, two of the most prominent Romans of the day. Both were married to other women. Cleopatra had a son with Caesar and—after his murder—three more with his protégé. Already she was the wealthiest ruler in the Mediterranean; the relationship with Antony confirmed her status as the most influential woman of the age. The two would together attempt to forge a new empire, in an alliance that spelled their ends. Cleopatra has lodged herself in our imaginations ever since.

Famous long before she was notorious, Cleopatra has gone down in history for all the wrong reasons. Shakespeare and Shaw put words in her mouth. Michelangelo, Tiepolo, and Elizabeth Taylor put a face to her name. Along the way the supple personality has been lost. In a masterly return to the classical sources, Stacy Schiff here boldly separates fact from fiction to rescue the magnetic queen whose death ushered in a new world order a generation before the birth of Christ. Rich in detail, epic in scope, Schiff’s is a luminous, deeply original reconstruction of a dazzling life.”

My Thoughts: Once again, school has kept me from reading and reviewing in a timely manner. I read this one back in April.

I didn’t quite finish this one. With biographies I’m usually in one of two extreme camps, never in the middle: I either love them to death or I am bored. With Schiff’s Cleopatra, I was bored. Her writing was clean and sometimes interesting, but I really need a good, moving, overarching story (which is attainable with even the most fact-checking biographies!) and this one didn’t really do it for me.

Author Website

The Histories by Herodotus (translated by David Grene)

I’m not going to give this one a rating because to be honest it’s not something I would have read on my own and I did not enjoy it much. It was assigned reading for my Greek Thought & Literature class (as was the Iliad, but I enjoyed that) and we were only assigned certain chapters within it, so I didn’t read the whole thing.

The basic gist is that Herodotus gives us a detailed background on events leading up to the many wars between the Persians and the Greeks. The famous story depicted by the recent movie 300 is also in here (the battle of Thermopylae), as well as a couple of other big battle: the battle of Marathon, the battle of Salamis, etc. etc.

Herodotus also likes to go off on a lot of tangents, and he tells us about how a singer named Arion took a ride on a dolphin, and there’s exhaustive lists on geography (or what the Greek world knew of geograph at that time) and other unrelated things.

However, in Book III Herodotus gives us an interesting debate between three Persian men on the merits and pitfalls of three forms of government: Democracy, Monarchy, and Oligarchy. My professor later said that most scholars agree this did not actually happen, and Herodotus made this section up, or heard about it from someone else who made it up. Anyway, monarchy wins out and Darius becomes king of Persia, followed by Xerxes (the bad guy in 300).

All in all, not exactly my favorite read…

Genghis: Bones of the Hills by Conn Iggulden

COVER genghis bones of the hills by conn igguldenRating: 7 out of 10
Summary: The Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan, stalked by enemies seen and unseen and plagued by a divided family, leads a sprawling force of horsemen beyond the realm of their known world. He will bring a storm to Arab lands and face the armies of the shah in all their strength.

From the fierce cold plains of Mongolia to the Korean Peninsula, Genghis’s brothers, sons, and commanders have made emperors bow, slaughtering vast armies of fighting men. But as Genghis enters a strange new land of towering mountains and arid desert, he stirs an enemy greater than any he has met before. Under his command, Shah Ala-ud-Din Mohammed has thousands of fierce Arab warriors, teeming cavalry, and terrifying armored elephants. When Genghis strikes, the Arabs prove their mettle. On the verge of defeat, Genghis is forced to leave his own vast encampment, and the women and children in it, in the path of an enraged, savage enemy.

While the Mongols—men, women, and children—fight back, as secret assassins are sent into the night, another battle is taking shape. Two of Genghis’s sons, Jochi and Chagatai, are steeped in enmity. Warriors choose between them, and a murderer commits an unspeakable crime. Soon the most powerful man in the world, who has brought devastation to this land, must choose a successor. And when he does, it will touch off the most bitter conflict of all.

In a novel that ranges from the fertile lands of the Chin to the dust and rock of Afghanistan, Conn Iggulden weaves the epic story of history’s most enigmatic conqueror —those who feared him, those who defied him, and those whose bones he left behind.

My Thoughts: This is the third book in the Genghis series by Conn Iggulden. My reviews of the first and the second novels.

Bones of the Hills, the third (and last novel) about Genghis Khan by Iggulden, was great–lots of action, lots of political, military, and strategic plotting, as well as more focus on Genghis’ family especially his sons and the problem of an heir.

The main focus and conflict is Genghis’ rage and revenge against the Shah, who has an empire covering what is modern-day Afghanistan, bits of Iran too I think. It begins when the Great Khan sends ambadassadors and men to the Arab city of Otrar, demanding tribute and submission. The governor of Otrar repeatedly rebuffs Genghis by killing these “diplomats” (actually spies) and makes basically the “worst military decision in history” (I quote Iggulden) by offending Genghis, and the Mongol ruler sweeps down with his entire nation and sets fire and destruction and Doomsday on the Shah’s lands.

I was unaware of the fact that the Mongol Empire was so large (larger than the Roman Empire and Muslim Caliphate, or “largest continuous empire”), stretching from present-day Korea in the east all the way to the Caspian Sea in the west, touching Russia in the North and parts of South-East Asia and India. Seems like Iggulden made an effort to keep pretty factual with the events and plotting, and I enjoyed learning so much about Mongol history.

As this is the last novel about Genghis, it includes his death and plants the seed for a new series Iggulden will write about his descendents, most notably his grandson, Kublai Khan. I will definitely be following that series, and will also try Iggulden’s other books about Julius Caesar.

Great ending to a decently entertaining series.