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Debut Series Review – The Youngest Templar

KeeperOfTheGrail
Keeper of the Grail
(Amazon USAUK Canada)
by Michael P Spradlin
G. P. Putnam’s Sons (Penguin)
Paperback

Wow; this is an exciting series.

Penguin sent me these books over the summer. The second book in The Youngest Templar series, Trail of Fate, was coming out this week, so they thoughtfully sent me the first book, Keeper of the Grail, as well as the second.

I devoured both!

Keep in mind that this series hit a bunch of my loves all at once. It was historical fantasy, which I love. It was placed during the Third Crusade. I was once a fairly serious Crusade scholar. My area of expertise is the first Crusade, but it’s hard to study the First Crusade without learning about the other Crusades as well. (To be specific, I own five books on the Crusades. Three are about the First Crusade in particular, the other two are about all the Crusades. One of them is The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, so don’t think I just got one side of the story. I also own Will Durant’s Caesar and Christ, which is to blame for getting me interested in the Crusades in the first place.)

Anyway, the story is about a boy who was abandoned at an monastery. The monks decide to call him Tristan. When he is about fourteen years old, a group of Templars come to quarter at the monastery. One of them, Sir Thomas, is impressed by Tristan’s ability with animals, and he asks Tristan to become his squire. At the same time, Tristan runs afoul of the powerful Sir Hugh. Eventually, they end up in the Holy Land.

The plot moves very fast because in no time at all, they are in the thick of the battle for Acre, an important port city. During this battle, Tristan’s actions save the life of Richard III, King of England. As soon as they conquer Acre, Saladin besieges the city. They hold out for a while, but then Saladin’s forces close in, and Sir Thomas knows the city is going to fall.

And that’s when he entrusts Tristan with a precious treasure, and sends him on en epic quest across Europe.

One thing I would have liked to seen here is more development of Sir Thomas and Tristan’s relationship. Thomas tells him at one point that Tristan is the only person he trusts. Since there are other good knights among their company–excellent knights, to all appearances–this came across as false.

Two additional people show up in the latter half of the book. I don’t want to give away their identity, but one of them is a Muslim, and is therefore the enemy. Except this person switches sides and helps Tristan for reasons that I wish the other two characters would have explored more. But it is a very short novel, and I guess there wasn’t room to explore all the character’s motivations to the extent I would have wished.

This novel followed the Mythic Journey template, which I learned about on Kimber An’s site. Think the basic plot of Star Wars, of The Lord of the Ring, of many coming-of-age, or bildungsroman novels. It’s a perfect template for YA or middle grade, but it makes it a bit predictable for the adult market. Still, it was highly enjoyable and I just tore through it. It did end on a cliffhanger, but fear not! The publisher provided the first chapter of the second book, so you don’t come away unsatisfied.

TrailOfFate
Trail of Fate
(Amazon USAUKCanada)
by Michael P. Spradlin
G. P. Putnam’s Sons (Penguin)
Hardcover

Trail of Fate picks up in the next breath after the end of Keeper of the Grail. Literally. Tristan and his two companions, which I will keep unnamed for the purpose of this review, is on the run across Europe with Sir Hugh hot on their trail. They end up on the east coast of France after surviving a shipwreck. Oh, Tristan also has a fourth companion, a small female dog, which, at the beginning of Trail of Fate, is unnamed. In this novel, the dog becomes an important character.

After Tristan collapses on the shore, he is found by a sword-bearing group of young men and women. They take him for a spy, but eventually accept his story that he is a Templar on his way home. Except they have no love for Templars. They are Cathars, which is a group that preaches tolerance toward other religions, except Templars, apparently. Their leader is the beautiful Celia, daughter of a leader of the Cathar movement.

Tristan gets more and more involved with Celia’s struggles, and his male friend (who is pictured on the cover) must remind him that he is on a quest. At this point, Tristan’s companions know nothing of Tristan’s true quest, since Thomas swore him to absolute secrecy. By the end of the novel, Tristan decides that his friends has earned his trust, and he takes them into his confidence, completely.

Although I enjoyed this novel, I didn’t feel that the story propelled the overarching story of the series along very far. Toward the end, there are some secrets revealed–especially about Tristan’s parentage–but much of it is one long side quest. It makes me wonder how many books are going to be in the series altogether. It ends at another cliffhanger, and since my copy is an advance reader copy, I didn’t get the perk of having the first chapter of book 3 included at the end. I guess that’s the price I must pay for being able to read it early.

I especially liked the cover of this novel because I know exactly what shot that the character is trying to take here. And it’s a very important shot, indeed!

I thoroughly enjoyed these novels. The characters are unabashedly Christan, except when they are Muslim. The Muslim character’s Muslim-ness could have been explored a bit more. I could not classify this as a Christian novel, because the theme is not Christian-centric. Yes, the subjects are Christian, but you don’t get the impression that the author has an agenda here. There are evil Christians and there are good Christians. The character spends such a short amount of time in the Holy Land that you don’t really have the opportunity to explore any evil Muslims. Mr. Spradlin toes a delicate line here, but eliminated much of the difficulty for himself by keeping the characters mostly in Europe.

This is a rousing adventure, which I heartily recommend for the young and old(er) alike!

WordPress Advice Needed

Ok, you know how the title of this page is “Tia Nevitt” up there in the heading? I’d really rather it say “Debuts & Reviews” while on this blog page, and say “Tia Nevitt” on every other page. I would also like it to be a clickable link back to Debuts & Reviews, not back to tianevitt.com. But this appears to be surprisingly difficult.

Some facts: I am using WordPress to power my entire site. The server is set up on a Linux platform. I am comfortable with Linux. I am comfortable wading through just about any type of code. I am comfortable with writing the javascript to handle my alternating names.

What I don’t have is a lot of time to figure out where this code needs to go. I just need someone to point me in the right direction. I would appreciate any advice.

Thanks!

Some Public Thank-Yous

Thank you to everyone who added Debuts & Reviews to your blogrolls and feed readers this week. As of today,, my Feedburner subscription was up to 154, over double was at Fantasy Debut, but still not quite half of what my Google Reader subscription count was, which was pushing 400. My Google Friend Connect subscriptions are going up much slower, but I partially blame the system, because there is no easy way to link to your Friend Connect address from outside of your website.

The following blogs posted a special shout-out concerning my blog move, and I’d like to thank them by name:

Daya of The Road not Taken

Kimber An of Enduring Romance

Mihai of Dark Wolf’s Fantasy Reviews

Katie AKA Superwench83 (twice!)

Maria Zannini

And that’s everyone that Google’s BlogSearch caught. Hopefully, I haven’t missed anyone!

Introducting My Cohorts. Plus Some Requests.

You might have noticed that the first two reviews here at Debuts & Reviews were not written by me. I have cohorts!

I have been following Superwench’s blog since 2006, when I “met” her during one of Rachel Vater’s query contests. She is my beta reader, and has read both of my novels (I’m still waiting to read hers). I noticed that she was reading a lot of things that I was announcing. Since almost exactly the same thing happened with Raven, I invited her to review here.

Superwench–aka Katie–has tastes that are very similar to mine, so expect her to read things that I can’t get to, and then for me to leave comments saying things like, “Oooh, I wish I read this!”

In the meantime, I continue to count on Raven to read the darker, grittier stuff that I don’t go for. She’s no huge fan of urban fantasy either, but she reads them occasionally enough for the purposes of this blog. She also reads horror. She has an aversion to romance, which is okay because a little romance is just fine by me. One of the things I appreciate about Raven is I almost have to give her no instructions. She models her posts very similar to mine, even using the same tagging scheme without my asking her to. Therefore, all I have to do is slap a cover image on it and post it. She is so very easy to work with! Raven occasionally blogs as well.

Please welcome them aboard!

A while back, on Fantasy Debut, I put up a post asking for an urban fantasy reviewer. And although I had many kind responses, my heart wasn’t in it. Urban Fantasy just isn’t my thing, and I really had little desire to cover it, especially since so many of them run right smack into my red flags. (Demonic/angelic/vampiric lovers–ugh! I prefer my male heroes to be actual men.) I will continue to showcase any debuts that I hear about, of course.

Blogroll Stuff

I have added a few blogs to my “Longtime Readers” category. I am still adding people; it’s going to be a work in progress.

I am also looking for some recommendations for blogs that cover the Mystery, Christian and Historical Fiction genres. Some of the things I look for when I consider adding a blog to my blogroll:

  • Lack of long rants. I don’t mind rants, as long as they’re short and succinct. If I see a lot of long rants, I won’t be interested in adding it.
  • Not cluttered by ads. I don’t mind some ads. But if the  sidebars consist of nothing but ads, I probably won’t link it.
  • Has a blogroll. I’m interested in linking to blogs that might reciprocate.

And that’s about it. Know of any good ones?

Debut Review: The Birthing House

The Birthing House
The Birthing House (Amazon USAUKCanada)
By Christopher Ransom (US Website, UK Website)
UK Publisher: Little, Brown (Sphere) (Jan. 1, 2009)
USA Publisher: St. Martin’s Press (Aug. 4, 2009)
Hardcover
Excerpt (pdf)
Review copy provided by Little, Brown.

Reviewed by Raven.

I started The Birthing House (debut showcase here) with high hopes. A birthing house, which I had never heard of before, is apparently a house owned by a doctor, and women would go there to give birth. The idea behind The Birthing House is that birth, the beginning of life, is just as traumatic an event as death, the ending of life, so it’s just as likely to open the door to evil and result in a house becoming haunted. This concept intrigued me, and I liked the writing style in the excerpt, so although I rarely read ghost stories, I wanted to read this book.

Having read it, I still think the concept is intriguing. I enjoyed the way Christopher Ransom pulls the reader into the head of his main character, Conrad Harrison. However, a couple of things kept me from enjoying the book as much as I wanted to.

One biggie was I felt Ransom didn’t exploit the concept fully. He set up a lot of births and upcoming births (several pregnant women, a clutch of parthenogetic snake’s eggs, and a number of odd, apparently ageless children born in the house). The problem was none of these setups really paid off. Instead the book took off in a different, less original direction, and most of these intriguing mysteries never got explained. The less interesting story we got instead even made me roll my eyes at one point, unfortunately.

I guess I’ve read books before where the author seems to run out of steam in the second half, although I see it more often in movies. Most of the time it seems to happen in works with a high, easily explainable, original concept. Well, this book has one of those. It hooked me with the “birth opening the door to evil” idea. But, as seems to happen with these concepts all too often, the author didn’t explore every angle. So, while the concept made me read the book, I wasn’t satisfied.

So, a note to writers writing strong, original concepts: follow through. In the case of The Birthing House, the whole book should have reflected the birth/evil idea. But instead this idea seemed to go by the wayside halfway through.

I also wished the hero were more active and, well, more heroic. Instead of working to solve the mysteries he was encountering, he moped around and reflected on his past. Granted, his past tied into the theme, but I would’ve loved to see him presented as a guy taking action to whip this house and its ghosts instead of letting them whip him.

But I probably could have forgiven the hero for being passive (okay, maybe I could have) if the novel had been strong in the second half. Can you tell I’m gritting my teeth with frustration because it wasn’t? The mysteries I wanted to see resolved are still mysteries.

Has this happened to you? You’ve been hooked by a concept and disappointed by the execution? It really does frustrate me, because strong concepts have so much potential to become strong novels (or movies) that I hate to see them not do so.

Debut Showcase: The Windup Girl

TheWindupGirl
The Windup Girl (Amazon USAUKCanada)
by Paolo Bacigalupi (website)
Night Shade Books (includes excerpt and stories from the same world)

Hardcover – 24.99

Emiko is the Windup Girl, a strange and beautiful creature. One of the New People, Emiko is not human; instead, she is an engineered being, creche-grown and programmed to satisfy the decadent whims of a Kyoto businessman, but now abandoned to the streets of Bangkok. Regarded as soulless beings by some, devils by others, New People are slaves, soldiers, and toys of the rich in a chilling near future in which calorie companies rule the world, the oil age has passed, and the side effects of bio-engineered plagues run rampant across the globe.

What Happens when calories become currency? What happens when bio-terrorism becomes a tool for corporate profits, when said bio-terrorism’s genetic drift forces mankind to the cusp of post-human evolution? In The Windup Girl, award-winning author Paolo Bacigalupi returns to the world of “The Calorie Man” ( Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award-winner, Hugo Award nominee, 2006) and “Yellow Card Man” (Hugo Award nominee, 2007) in order to address these poignant questions.

I recently got a large stack of books from Night Shade books, but this one was not among them. John Ottinger over at Grasping for the Wind called it “good, if depressing, fiction.” This is one case where the title hooks me more than the blurb. If I saw this on the shelf, I’d be tempted to buy it on the strength of the title alone. However, I’m not sure I get the premise, because it mentions things like calorie companies without giving any clue as to what that is, and how bio-terrorism can possibly bring about corporate profits. John Scalzi has a Big Idea post on it.

Debut Review: The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker

MissPercyParker
The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker
(Amazon USAUKCanada)
by Leanna Renee Hieber (site includes blog and book trailer)
Leisure Books
Mass Market Paperback

Reviewed by Superwench83

Blurb
What fortune awaited sweet, timid Percy Parker at Athens Academy? Considering how few of Queen Victoria’s Londoners knew of it, the great Romanesque fortress was dreadfully imposing, and little could Percy guess what lay inside. She had never met the powerful and mysterious Professor Alexi Rychman, knew nothing of the growing shadow, the Ripper and other supernatural terrors against which his coterie stood guard. She knew simply that she was different, haunted, with her snow-white hair, pearlescent skin and uncanny gifts. But this arched stone doorway offered a portal to a new life, an education far from the convent—and an invitation to an intimate yet dangerous dance at the threshold of life and death…

A Victorian ghost story with a hint of Bronte and a splash of myth: such is The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker by Leanna Renee Hieber. In an almost-hidden realm in Victorian London, the supernatural occasionally bubbles into the normal realm to cause events which most cannot understand…but then, Alexi Rychman and his friends are not most. And Percy Parker is about to stumble into their world.

There is richness and passion in the people on these pages, and it shines forth even through the constraining veil of Victorian manners. Or perhaps it shines so brightly because of this contrast? There is Percy Parker, as pale as the ghosts no one but she seems to see, haunted not by specters but by the cold eyes of all who scorn her for being different; the brooding and handsome Professor Alexi Rychman, for whom Percy cannot shake her fascination; and Rebecca Thompson, the no-nonsense headmistress with a connection to Alexi which Percy doesn’t understand. Not to mention kind and friendly Michael, ever-sarcastic Elijah, and the rest. These characters’ relationships are both bitter and sweet, full of the complexities of all human relationships. And the mood these conflicts create sets the stage very nicely for the gothic gloom and mythological beauty.

The mix of myth, history, and the supernatural in this novel is refreshing. In a novel set in England, one might expect to deal with myths of fairies and Celtic spirits, but not a legendary love story of another ancient land. And to tie it into stories of famous English ghosts and Jack the Ripper is just something no one else has ever thought of. The magic and mystery tumble open in a series of breathtaking circumstances which fly by with each eager turn of the page. The book is short enough to read comfortably in a day, and that’s a good thing because I, for one, couldn’t put it down. It clips along at a steady pace, balancing mystery, romance, and action scenes so that things never get static.

The plotting wasn’t perfect, mind. There was a bit of predictability here and there, and I can’t grasp why no one saw through the villain right from the start; the villain was so transparent to me. Also, one particular assumption the Guard makes over a definition bothered me because their definition was so narrow—which was rather convenient in allowing them to overlook something important. And in the powers of the Guard, Rebecca is supposed to be Intuition. But regarding the one thing which leads directly to the climax, I didn’t find her very intuitive. Also, Michael’s power seems vague, weak. I’d like to have seen a better display of the Heart, what it means, and why it’s so essential. Despite this, though, The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker was more than a worthy read.

For those who love dark old London, mannerly mysteries, magic, and gothic romance, this is a book for you. It’s like a student in a mythology class crashed into a British Literature student and their notes got all shuffled together. The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker is a haunting and, yes, beautiful story. It is the first in a series of Strangely Beautiful tales, and Leanna Renee Hieber has set the bar high for herself. There is much potential for these next books.

As an added benefit, I got to meet Leanna Renee Hieber recently. She’s a Cincinnati area native like myself who came home to do an Ohio book tour. At her reading and signing, she talked briefly about the coming books in the series. She plans for a series of five books, not all of them featuring the characters from The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy Parker. The series will include a prequel, taking readers back to the Guard’s origins, and will run into the twentieth century at the time of WWII. (Or did she say WWI? I can’t remember!) She is super, super nice, not to mention fascinating. Leanna Renee Hieber is an actress, which certainly made her reading interesting. Not every writer can read each of her characters in a different voice!

Suffice it to say that this is one instance where the author is as charming as the world she has created. I can’t wait to read the next book.

About Debuts & Reviews

For over two years, I have run a successful review blog called Fantasy Debut. The tag line was “all debut fantasy, all the time.” After a while, I was compelled to stick an “almost” in there, because I kept straying from my own niche. Why? Several reasons:

  • It proved to be very difficult to read all debut fantasy. Often, I wanted to read the author’s next book, too. Therefore, I capriciously coined a phrase: debut graduate. And so I reviewed second books. And thirds. No fourths yet, but I already have one in my possession. Flatteringly, authors think of me and want to send me their books, and I, quite frankly want to keep reading them.
  • From day one, I included the definition of fantasy to include science fiction. So the title of my blog was never entirely accurate.
  • It proved to be unreasonable of me to expect publicists to remember that I focus on debuts. Therefore, I have received a lot of non-debut novels, usually as surprises in the mail.

I have several other reasons for starting a new blog.

  • I am frustrated with Google’s inability to deal with comment spam. I like opening up my comments to all and sundry, whether they wish to leave a name or not. But when I do, I get comment spam that takes precious time to go in and delete. I have been told that WordPress deals with comment spam much better than Blogger, so here I am.
  • I have my own domain, and it is all based on this WordPress blog. That made this domain easy to set up. I like easy, because easy = fast.
  • I read historical and mystery as well, and I wanted to cover those without going off-topic. Therefore, I decided that this blog would not be focused on a specific genre.

I’ll be honest. I almost stopped blogging altogether. But stopping the flow of review copies is much like rebottling a genie without making a wish. Therefore, I took a step back and figured out what I found frustrating about Fantasy Debut, and what I enjoyed. If this isn’t an enjoyable hobby, then it’s not worth doing.

What I’m Keeping

  • Writer Wednesday. This proved to be a popular feature, so I will continue it here.
  • Discovery Showcases. Now open to any genre, and posted sometime on Sunday.

What I’m Changing

  • Debut Showcases. These will be posted weekly, and will be more round-ups than full-fledged showcases. I hope to cover a wide variety of genres, not only speculative fiction.
  • Debut-focused reviews. I will now review any novel that fits in my areas of interest. I still expect to read a lot of debuts, since I will learn of them through the debut round-ups. As ever, I prefer to be queried, rather than sent unsolicited copies.

What I’m Eliminating

  • Can’t think of anything.

What I’m Adding

  • More genres. I have my favorites, but I’m not going to limit myself.
  • More personality. Expect me to go off-topic more frequently. I enjoy lots of things, not just reading.

If you came over from Fantasy Debut, thanks so much for following me. If you just found me, welcome! I hope to see you’ll around the comment threads. Thanks for visiting and please let me know what you think!