Face In A Book Update: Mini-Reviews

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Face in a Book is my weekly mini-review feature, where I review the books I've read this week!

Dark Aemilia by Sally O’Reilly (Picador; On Sale May 27, 2014)
The daughter of a Venetian musician, Aemilia Bassano came of age in Queen Elizabeth’s royal court. The Queen’s favorite, she develops a love of poetry and learning, maturing into a young woman known not only for her beauty but also her sharp mind and quick tongue. Aemilia becomes the mistress of Lord Hunsdon, but her position is precarious. Then she crosses paths with an impetuous playwright named William Shakespeare and begins an impassioned but ill-fated affair.

A decade later, the Queen is dead, and Aemilia Bassano is now Aemilia Lanyer, fallen from favor and married to a fool. Like the rest of London, she fears the plague. And when her young son Henry takes ill, Aemilia resolves to do anything to save him, even if it means seeking help from her estranged lover, Will—or worse, making a pact with the Devil himself.

In rich, vivid detail, Sally O’Reilly breathes life into England’s first female poet, a mysterious woman nearly forgotten by history. Full of passion and devilish schemes, Dark Aemilia is a tale worthy of the Bard.

This beautifully written historical fiction novel tells the story of a burgeoning romance between the Bard himself, William Shakespeare, and “Dark Aemilia,” or Aemilia Bassano – and what happens when everything goes wrong. Based on the true mystery of Shakespeare’s Dark Lady, Dark Aemilia is a period piece thrill ride.

While I generally enjoyed the story, a few things got in the way – I didn’t enjoy that we were always told that Aemilia was clever, but not really getting any confirmation of the fact. In fact, most of her actions are impulsive and rather stupid. I find it hard to believe that she’s a good poet – or at least, good enough of one that her work would “inspire” Macbeth. I was hoping I’d be convinced by the end, but simply wasn’t.

There was a random supernatural thread in the plot – demons, oh my! But I always love when Biblical or mythological elements are brought into a novel, so that was a pleasure.

While I generally mock reviews that call a character “unlikeable” (are we supposed to like every female character? I’d rather be moved or inspired by them instead), Aemilia showed no growth. She was generally stubborn, cruel, vindictive, and relatively one-dimensional. Her only true love was her son apparently, but again, I wasn’t really convinced of anything Aemilia does.

Still, I enjoyed the book overall, and would recommend it to Shakespeare buffs looking for an alternative storyline, historical fiction obsessives, and overly dramatic English majors.

The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkowski (Farrar Straus Giroux; On Sale March 4, 2014)
 As a general’s daughter in a vast empire that revels in war and enslaves those it conquers, seventeen-year-old Kestrel has two choices: she can join the military or get married. But Kestrel has other intentions.

One day, she is startled to find a kindred spirit in a young slave up for auction. Arin’s eyes seem to defy everything and everyone. Following her instinct, Kestrel buys him—with unexpected consequences. It’s not long before she has to hide her growing love for Arin.

But he, too, has a secret, and Kestrel quickly learns that the price she paid for a fellow human is much higher than she ever could have imagined.

Set in a richly imagined new world, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski is a story of deadly games where everything is at stake, and the gamble is whether you will keep your head or lose your heart.

I’ve been on a roll with these great novels! I’m always on the lookout for high fantasy novels with a little bit of romance – just that right amount of romance, that is.

The Winner’s Curse was one of those books that caught me right from the get-go – incredible world-building, compelling main characters, historical throwbacks (I caught overtones of Sparta & Athens), and a deeply tragic conflict.

I loved that Kestrel, the main female character, is wholly herself. Her strength lies in knowing who she is – not a warrior princess, but rather a musician and a strategist. She quibbles very little over what her life path will be – she puts her father off by saying she’ll decide between a military life and marriage – but she knows all along that she’ll choose to wed. Not to avoid warfare, but so that she can ultimately choose to be herself (which reminded me of another recent favorite, Landry Park). She makes the best of the hand she’s been dealt – which is fitting, since apparently she’s an incredible game player.

Meanwhile, Arin, a slave purchased by Kestrel at an auction because of a combination of empathy and the knowledge that he can sing, goes through struggles of his own. His feelings for Kestrel are a very frustrating thing to him – can he truly love someone who “owns” him as property? Are their feelings for each other real? By loving her, does Arin turn his back on his own people?

This is the first in a trilogy, and I’m eagerly awaiting the rest.