Review – Secrets of a Wedding Night by Valerie Bowman

Secrets of a Wedding Night
by Valerie Bowman

St Martin’s Press
MM Paperback or ebook

My IRL friend/RWA chaptermate  has a her debut novel out through St. Martin’s Press! It’s called Secrets of a Wedding Night. Here’s the cover. It’s about a young widow who publishes a scandalous pamphlet of the same name as the title of this novel. The pamphlet attempts to educate young maidens on just what happens on a wedding night–because they are almost always completely ignorant.

Well, the widow had an ulterior motive. A certain engagement is broken, and the jilted groom-to-be comes to the author of the pamphlet for revenge … and for a seduction. For the author of the book has it all wrong about wedding nights, and he has anointed himself as her educator.

It’s really not as spicy as it sounds, with only 3 sex scenes. If the sex scenes went on longer than I liked, well no one here will be surprised. I like sex scenes to be about as long as I write them–maybe half a page, which I think is fairly typical in the sort of fantasy romances I write. For a Regency, the long sex scenes should also not be a surprise.

It is also as fun as you might suspect, with saucy conversation and eyebrow-raising oneupmanship. It also introduces two other intriguing men who appear in future installments of the Secret Bride Trilogy. And if there are a few anachronisms–mostly in the form of modernisms in the dialog–they were counterbalanced by the great atmosphere and the grim historical settings.

The hero and the heroine both are a mix of virtue and vice, which adds interesting shades of gray to their character. Lili is ruthless and likes to have her way, but she also keeps her disabled servants employed despite the personal cost, and wants most of all to see her younger sister happy. Devon is ruthless and likes to have his way, but he is a devoted father and a secret philanthropist.

I finished Secrets of a Wedding Night in just two days. It’s fun with a dash of grit, very sensual, and fast-paced. If you like Regency, there is much to enjoy here.

Historical Series Review: The Pink Carnation 5-7

TemptationOfTheNightJasmine
The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, Volumes 5-7
by Lauren Willig
Dutton and NAL

Reviewed by Superwench83

The first four books in Lauren Willig’s Pink Carnation series introduced us to Napoleonic-era espionage, flower-named spies, and a host of charming and not-so-charming but unforgettable characters. And the adventures continue with a trek through India’s wilds, a Christmas pudding, and a cameo of Jane Austen herself.

The Temptation of the Night Jasmine, The Betrayal of the Blood Lily, and The Mischief of the Mistletoe are, like the rest of Willig’s historical romances, crazy fun reads. After seven novels, one might think the series concept of Napoleonic-era spies would get old, but no. One of the best things about these book is that each novel features a new hero and heroine, one or both of whom have appeared as minor characters in previous books—and these prior protagonists turn up again as side characters in later books. It’s like going to a class reunion or a rural county fair, meeting all these beloved or familiar faces in each new book. To tie it all together, each book (with one exception) is a new chapter in the life of Eloise Kelly, a present-day grad student who is researching all of these spy characters for her dissertation, and her adventures in finding a love of her own.

The Temptation of the Night Jasmine features Charlotte Lansdowne, the shy granddaughter of a ferocious cane-wielding dowager duchess with plans to marry Charlotte off to the highest bidder. Too bad for the duchess, but shy Charlotte isn’t very good man-bait, more interested in fanciful novels than dalliances on ballroom balconies. But when her distant cousin Robert, Duke of Dovedale, returns from India, Charlotte finds herself swept off her feet…and swept into the dangerous schemes of the notorious Hellfire Club, which Robert is bent on infiltrating. A favorite side character of mine ever since she appeared with Henrietta in The Masque of the Black Tulip, I was pleased to see Charlotte—and her dashing duke—get a novel of her own. Charlotte may be shy and quiet, but she has a strength built from years of enduring her harsh grandmother, and a sweetness all her own.BetrayalOfTheBloodLily

In The Betrayal of the Blood Lily, Charlotte’s friend Penelope Deveraux finds herself just where people kept telling her she’d end up—in disgrace and married hastily to a man who was much more charming before she had to marry him. Although nobody said anything about India! But when her husband is offered a position there, to India she must go…where she meets Alex Reid, a man nothing like her husband—and a man nothing like her husband is just what she wants but cannot have. As in her earlier novel The Seduction of the Crimson Rose, in this book Willig takes a character I wasn’t very fond of in earlier books and makes her compelling and sympathetic.

The Mischief of the Mistletoe is just so much fun! It may well occupy my second-favorite-in-the-series slot…which is funny, because I was one of the few Pink Carnation fans who was skeptical about a novel featuring the handsome but bumbling Turnip Fitzhugh. Throughout the series, Turnip has always cracked me up with his strange and unwittingly hilarious comments and manners of speech, but Turnip as a romantic hero? Well. Shows how much I know. In The Mischief of the Mistletoe, Turnip wouldn’t know love if he knocked it over and squashed its foot with a Christmas pudding, which is exactly what he does. And soon enough, he and schoolmistress Arabella Dempsey discover that Christmas puddings aren’t always as innocent as they seem, for this one is wrapped in muslin printed with a secret message. Poor Turnip, often mistaken as the famed Pink Carnation, has just bumbled his way into a bona-fide spy adventure! And Arabella discovers that Turnip, like Christmas puddings, is more than what he seems.

MischiefOfTheMistletoeThe Mischief of the Mistletoe is the only book thus far which doesn’t include snippets of grad student Eloise’s life in the present day. (I guess Eloise doesn’t know about Turnip’s Christmas pudding.) Though this book takes place out-of-sequence with the rest (before and during the first part of The Temptation of the Night Jasmine), I would like to have seen some Eloise chapters, anyway, as if she were discovering an out-of-sequence bit of info for her research. But with Jane Austen as a secondary character, who can complain? And I must admit that the Eloise chapters aren’t as exciting as they used to be. In early novels, where she and Colin were just getting to know and flirt with each other, there was so much more thrill. In The Temptation of the Night Jasmine and The Betrayal of the Blood Lily, the tension starts to slide in the Eloise chapters, and in the romantic tension’s place is Eloise’s weird theory and frantic nosiness about Colin’s job. It just doesn’t work for me. But I really like Eloise. I want her chapters to work!

The Temptation of the Night Jasmine and The Betrayal of the Blood Lily are in bookstores now, but The Mischief of the Mistletoe isn’t out until October 28. Although there are benefits to reading the books in order, it is by no means a necessity, so if one appeals to you more than the others, just dive right in. These are light-hearted, witty, and page-turning books, great for Regency history and Austen fans everywhere.

~*~

Tia here. Just a reminder that all commentors are automagically entered into my Amazon Review Drive Giveaway – Phase II! Details on sidebar!

Debut Review – Rakes and Radishes

RakesAndRadishes
Rakes and Radishes
by Susanna Ives
ebook – Carina Press $5.39

FiveStarsAKeeper

I loved Rakes and Radishes! This is one of the best books I’ve read all year. It made me cry. It made me laugh. It made me want to shake some sense into the main characters.

Ok, so I’ve become quite friendly with the author, Susanna Ives. She looks to be quite a bit younger than me, but we hit it off a while ago, and I really get a kick out of her. BUT, I’m telling you, I would not be reviewing this book if I didn’t love it. I had to ask her permission to review it because when we swapped books, she told me not to review it–she just wanted to know what I thought of it.

Anyway. Caveats aside.

Henrietta–how’s that for an non-glamorous heroine name?–dreams of London. She dreams of her future with her cousin, Edward, with whom she lately became secretly engaged. And she dreams of her favorite novel, the fictional The Mysterious Lord Blackraven. What she doesn’t dream of is a future with her grubby neighbor, even if he is the Earl of Kesseley. Kesseley is just a friend, but in him, she confides anything.

Kesseley is the one who dreams of a future with her. Henrietta knows this, and it makes things a bit awkward in their friendship.

When Henrietta learns that her cousin–a recently published and feted poet–is now engaged to one Lady Sara, this year’s Diamond debut, she feels betrayed and heartbroken. She comes up with a scheme to transform Kesseley into a rake–modeled on Lord Blackraven–so he can steal Sara away, leaving Henrietta to pick up the pieces.

Yeah, so she’s a twit. I have a soft spot for twits–especially when they have to grow up and become wise young ladies. And Henrietta does a lot of growing up in this novel.

Kesseley has his dreams firmly in the earth. He is a farmer, heart and soul, and turns his scientific mind toward increasing the crop yield and figuring out better irrigation methods. He is so NOT a gothic hero–he has dirty fingernails and grubby clothes. And his one-armed, color-blind valet does not improve Kesseley’s state of dress. When Kesseley finally decides that Henrietta is forever out of his reach, he turns to The Mysterious Lord Blackraven–and Kesseley becomes him. Suddenly,  Henrietta goes from the only one who would dance with him to one in a crowd.

I’m leaving out so much. I have not mentioned the aging princess and her companion, who has a secret occupation. I have not mentioned the dashing old man who wanders the park, and with whom Henrietta has many mysterious encounters. I have not brought up Kesseley’s mother’s secret heartbreak, nor the man who emotionally abuses her. And I haven’t brought up Kesseley’s dead rake of a father, who still torments Kesseley and his mother from beyond the grave.  And what about the attempts of Henrietta’s entire family to discover a planet that they just know is out there, and can prove it mathematically? There are many plot threads that Ms. Ives deftly twists and turns and weaves together until we have a dazzling tapestry of a story. The timing is impeccable and the metaphors are inspired.

Nitpicks? Only one. But I can’t get specific without spoiling a plotthread, so I’ll just move on. All I’ll say is I wonder what became of Henrietta’s father.

But most importantly, this book made me cry. I hate crying over a book, but an author who can make me cry has ensured that I will never forget the book. For some reason, I have a tendency to cry over twits that grow up. The last time I did so was over Amanda Ashby’s You Had Me at Halo. I cry over kids’ movies all the time. I have to leave the room during The Little Princess when Sarah is saying goodbye to her friends–especially when she hugs the girl who was her enemy. Up sent me over the edge when the boy was eating ice cream with the old man. I never cry over romances. But I cried over this one.

Therefore, I must say brava and well done. A keeper.

~*~

Don’t forget–all commentors are automatically entered in my Amazon Review Drive Giveaway – Phase 2!

Debut Review – The Sergeant's Lady


The Sergeant’s Lady

by Susanna Fraser (blog)
Carina Press

eBook – $5.39

Disclaimer–I am a Carina Press author. I promise that this review is as unbiased as possible.

I enjoy Regency Romances, even though I don’t read a lot of them. What I really enjoy is period literature from all throughout the eighteen hundreds, including Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Henry James, Charles Dickens and George Eliot. So even though they are all Brits, you can see that I’m pretty eclectic. I haven’t read a Regency Romance in many years, but this is quite different from what I recall. Those novels never took place in an army encampment.

Anna Arrington is an officer’s wife and the niece of an Earl. Her marriage is a troubled one, as her ignorant husband makes an incorrect assumption about her on their wedding night, and he will neither be dissuaded from his misconception nor will he forgive her. Adding to their troubles is the fact that she cannot seem to conceive. And of course, he blames her. In an vain effort to help their marriage, she goes with him when he goes off to battle with Wellington’s army in Spain.

The novel starts when Anna defies her husband to help a camp follower named Juana give birth to a child. Juana’s lover happens to be best friends with Will Atkins, a popular sergeant with the Rifles. Anna and Will find themselves working together to save the child, earning both of them Juana’s everlasting gratitude and establishing an unlikely friendship between the officer’s wife and the commonborn sergeant.

I liked both Will and Anna. Ms. Fraser did a masterful job especially when portraying a scene from Will’s point-of-view. We easily feel like we are behind his eyes. She even uses a crude term that would immediately make this an R rated blog if I mentioned it. However, I cannot imagine an innkeeper’s son referring to his … maleness as anything other than his c**k. So it worked perfectly.  There were sex scenes, but I wouldn’t classify them as very hot. I did have a disturbing gustatorial (new word! Refers to taste–similar to visual) of bad teeth during the kissing scenes, but that was not the author’s fault. I simply get squeamish at the idea of kissing anyone in any time period that does not include modern dentistry.

If I had any critique, it’s that some of Anna’s problems were rather quickly solved. Which meant, in order to keep the plot moving, we needed no fewer than three villains. You can forget about the Regency trope where one bad-ass stalker of a villain pesters the lady until a climatic battle between the hero and the villain at the end. I do like that the plot was fresh, but I kept wondering when a certain unkilled villain was going to turn back up. Eventually, I realized that we had, indeed, seen the last of him. It’s good that as a reader, I was kept guessing, but that particular plotline wasn’t entirely satisfying. If any villain deserved to be killed, it was him.

Once the villains were out of the way, the reader was left wondering how the heck Anna and Will were going to get back together. I loved the long delays between letters–you sure had to have a lot of patience back then! The ending was very satisfying.

Also, my kudos to the cover artist. The artwork here is just dreamy.

The Sergeant’s Lady was an adventurous glimpse of a Regency period that does not include cotillion balls and tours in the country. Instead of trimming hats, Anna learns how shoot what must have been a black powder pistol. Instead of sleeping in feather beds, they must sleep in caves while on the run. And although Will rescues her plenty of time, in the end, Anna must rescue herself. I really enjoyed it, and I’ll look forward to Ms. Fraser’s next novel.

Historical Series Review: The Secret History of the Pink Carnation 1-4


The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, Volumes 1 – 4
by Lauren Willig
Signet and NAL

Historical Spy Romance

Reviewed by Superwench83.

Several years ago while doing research on Ireland, I stumbled upon a historical romance about spies on a mission in Ireland. At the time, I still suffered from the misconception that historical romances were nothing but sappy dialogue and purple prose—a misconception based on one bad experience. (Yes, I should have known better.) But I figured this book might help with my research, and that the spy angle might make it interesting, so I read it. And promptly put the rest of the series on my to-read list.

Lauren Willig’s popular series about Napoleonic-era spies begins with The Secret History of the Pink Carnation and continues with The Masque of the Black Tulip, The Deception of the Emerald Ring (that’s the Ireland one), and The Seduction of the Crimson Rose. It features Eloise Kelly, an American grad student working on her dissertation. That work has brought her to England, where she hopes to uncover the identity of the Pink Carnation, an English spy who thwarted Napoleon and his men in their attempts to bring England to its knees. Standing in Eloise’s her way is Colin Selwick, the handsome but overprotective guardian of the papers she needs to uncover the Pink Carnation’s identity. Interweaving Eloise’s story through the narratives, each novel is a two-for-one: a daring adventure of spies and romance, plus another chapter in Eloise and Colin’s struggle…and their own chance at love.

The Secret History of the Pink Carnation features Colin’s ancestor, Richard Selwick, a notorious English spy known as the Purple Genitian. He is good at what he does, and he doesn’t like when people get in the way of him doing his work…which means Amy Balcourt and her cousin Jane aren’t his favorite people on the earth. Intent on becoming a spy herself, the very un-spy-like Amy causes no end of trouble for the Purple Genitian. Which is why Richard is quite surprised to discover that he’s falling for her.

The Masque of the Black Tulip brings Richard’s best friend and sister center-stage. Miles Dorrington and Henrietta Selwick love Richard dearly, but are tired of living in his shadow. They want to do their part to keep England safe from Napoleon’s minions. So when Miles’ employer finally sets him on the trail of the notorious French spy known as the Black Tulip, he eagerly sets to work. What Miles doesn’t know is that the Black Tulip has set his sights on Henrietta, for she has taken it upon herself to deliver correspondence from the Pink Carnation to a London contact. This sends Miles on a perilous threefold quest: unmask the Black Tulip, keep Henrietta safe, and figure out what to do when you fall in love with your best friend’s sister.

The Deception of the Emerald Ring features Richard and Miles’ friend and fellow spy Geoffrey Pinchingdale, who has long been captivated by the charms of Letty Alsworthy’s older sister. But when Geoff and Mary’s elopement plans go awry, Letty finds herself married to a very bitter Geoff and whisked away on an Irish honeymoon which is more than it seems. With the Black Tulip loose in Ireland, Geoff can’t afford to take time off to celebrate his unwelcome marriage. Still, as much as he might wish otherwise, Geoff finds himself in Letty’s company for long enough that he begins to see things about her which he overlooked while distracted by her high-maintenance sister.

In The Seduction of the Crimson Rose, Letty’s scorned sister Mary Alsworthy finds herself in a bit of a bind. Letty has stolen her would-be husband and is now the only person in the family with the necessary funds to find Mary another. Damned if she’ll rely on Letty for support, Mary accepts a risky but much-preferable offer from the rakish Lord Vaughn: become a double agent and help the Pink Carnation stop the Black Tulip from his latest attempt to deliver England into Napoleon’s hands. Apparently, there’s a lot of money in espionage. And a lot of risk, of course, but as time goes by, Mary begins to wonder which is more dangerous: failing to stop the Black Tulip, or falling into the disreputable Vaughn’s arms.

Both as a whole as well as in regard to the individual books, I highly recommend this series. Spies and romance. It worked for Bond, and it works for Willig’s characters. Though the protagonists change in each book, the series feels unified both because of the relationships each set of protagonists have with each other and because of Eloise, whose story is just as riveting as those of the spies she uncovers. I love the contrast between the modern scenes and the historic ones. It’s a great literary device, jumping out of one place and into another at just the right moment. A great technique for creating suspense. I also love how the author creates a vivid historical setting without bogging things down with paragraphs full of nothing but description. That’s no easy task.

And the characters. The characters are so convincing and sympathetic, even the ones you might find annoying or just plain don’t like. One mark of a good author is building a character your readers will dislike, then turning everything on its head and showing what makes the character that way, forcing readers to change their minds. Mary Alsworthy was that way for me. I liked Letty so much that I just hated Mary for being so snide, but after reading Mary’s story, I had a change of heart. And let’s not forget the humor. Witty comments and snide remarks on nearly every page are one of the highlights of these books.

The few gripes I have are very small, and related to individual books, not the whole series. I just finished The Masque of the Black Tulip and The Seduction of the Crimson Rose this month, so they’re fresh in my mind. In The Seduction of the Crimson Rose, I found the technique Vaughn used to get Mary into the Black Tulip’s service unconvincing. Entering the Black Tulip’s service just seemed too easy. As cynical as Vaughn is, I would have thought he’d find this suspicious. I know I did. As for The Secret History of the Pink Carnation and The Deception of the Emerald Ring, it’s been long enough that I can’t recall much in the way of specific qualms I had. I figure that if I can’t remember what those qualms were, they must not be any reason not to read the books.

Lauren Willig’s series is a fun and fast-paced ride through the world of Napoleonic espionage. They’re like crack for English history lovers. And best of all, there are more of them. The series continues with The Temptation of the Night Jasmine and The Betrayal of the Blood Lily, and The Mischief of the Mistletoe comes out in October. I’ll be reviewing these in the near future…but I’ll give you enough time to read these books first!

About the reviewer:

Katie Lovett, better known around these parts as Superwench83, is an aspiring novelist and published short fiction author. She blogs about writing, books, and the fantasy genre at her website, www.katie-lovett.com.

Debut Review – CAPTIVE SPIRIT by Liz Fichera


Captive Spirit
by Liz Fichera
Carina Press
eBook – $4.49

Historical Fiction

DISCLAIMER: My own novella is going to be published by this publisher.  I purchased my own copy.

(And aside – This was my nook inaugural read!)

Aiyana is having a hard time dealing with her impending womanhood. She has to do things like cook now, and dress up nice, and weave baskets. She’d much rather play ball in the ball court with the guys, and hang out with her friend, Honovi. She’d be just as happy to leave that whole marriage thing to her sister, who is happy to do it.

However, the chief’s son has eyed him as his wife, and he’s not about to be denied. So she runs. She doesn’t intend to run far, but there are Spaniards lurking nearby, and they don’t hesitate at the chance to grab her.

Captive Spirit was utterly gripping and engaging. It was loaded with escapes and recaptures, and well-balanced high and low points. It is based on an extinct American Indian tribe in present-day Phoenix valley, known today ad the Hohokam. They vanished for reasons unknown in the sixteenth century, and Ms. Fichera’s novel works on the theory that Spanish explorers were behind the disappearance.

No book is perfect, and I do have just a few critiques. Toward the end, I did wish some things had been better established in the beginning. Because much of this novel takes place away from Aiyana’s home, we didn’t get much of a chance to experience her dread of basket-weaving, which becomes a plot point late in the story. I can understand Ms. Fichera’s reasons for keeping that part of the novel short–it would have been a slow read if she had dragged it out. But the basket-weaving angle seemed to come out of the blue at the end. There was also a certain event at the end of the story that was a mite too convenient for the plot.

Aiyana was an extremely likable character, with a lot of grit and determination. She gives her captors a great deal of trouble, especially when she befriends their pet wolf well enough that he is no longer of much use in tracking her. She recognizes their strengths and takes advantage of their weaknesses. She leaves tokens for anyone who might have followed her to find.

The Apache make an appearance in this novel, and they of course are alive and well nowadays in Northern Arizona. Ms. Fichera gives them a balanced presentation, with characters both antagonistic and protagonistic.

Captive Spirit was a captivating and quick read. Lovers of historic fiction will enjoy it, especially those of you who, like me, enjoy reading about other cultures. It felt well-researched and real, and I recommend it highly.

Review: Tuck

Reviewed by Superwench83.

Blurb:

The story of Rhi Bran y Hud concludes as Abbot Hugo and the Norman invaders attempt to wipe out King Raven and his flock once and for all. Their merciless attack, the first of many to come, heralds a dark and desperate day for the realm of Elfael. Bran and his few stalwarts desperately need encouragement and reinforcement if they are to survive. Bran and Friar Tuck, a most unconventional priest, ride north to rally the tribes of Wales to the fight, making new friends, and even more powerful enemies along the way. . . .

A Welsh Robin Hood? It sounds so strange after all that talk of Nottingham. Yet this is where Stephen R. Lawhead places his King Raven Trilogy, and a number of historical facts point to this being a possibility.

Hood and Scarlet were worthy tales, but this review is not for them (though in the past I discussed them briefly on my blog). Tuck, the final book in the King Raven Trilogy, sees us to the end of Rhi Bran y Hud’s quest to win his kingdom and his crown, and even goes as far as to speculate how the legend came to Nottingham.

Stephen R. Lawhead is a master of poetic prose. He also knows how to write chapter endings that hook you into diving right into the next page. Unfortunately…there’s something missing in this book. I can’t say I disliked it; indeed there were moments I really loved. But all in all, despite a lot of great things going on, I felt apathetic through about half of the book.

I think it was mostly a matter of characterization. Tuck, who is the main character of Tuck (surprise!) doesn’t seem to have any personal stakes. I mean, yes, if Bran’s quest fails, Tuck’s life could well be forfeit. But Tuck doesn’t seem troubled by this fact. He doesn’t dwell on it in dread, doesn’t have to force himself to push the thought away, doesn’t seem to have any dreams that will be shattered if he fails. Nor does he seem overly concerned about the people under oppressive rule. Not that he doesn’t care, but there’s no passion. He just seems to float along with the breeze, rarely proactive.

Another complaint I have is about the dialogue in the argument scenes—especially among the antagonists. It’s petty, silly dialogue…which might work if this were a different kind of novel, one that pokes fun of the villains and paints them as bumbling fools. But this is a serious novel, and the villains pose a serious threat. Their “He said this!” and “He started that!” dialogue seemed quite out of place.

As I said, though, there were moments I really enjoyed. The time Bran spent disguising himself before a pompous noble, as well as his flight away from that errand, were both playful and intense. More than any other scenes in the books, these captured the spirit of Robin Hood legends best, and I wish there had been more like them. I was also happy to see one of the series’ many villains show a few signs of redemption. And the ending was satisfactory, for both the book and the series. Not what I had expected, but a fitting end.

The appeal of this book—of the trilogy, in fact—lies in its unusual placement of the Robin Hood legend in a land and time it has never seen…or at least not for a thousand years. It’s a neat historical spin. I really liked Scarlet, the previous novel in the series, and wish Tuck had captured more of that spirit. All in all, Tuck wasn’t a bad book, but neither was it as strong as I had hoped it would be.

Preview chapter and purchase links

Review: Year of the Horse by Justin Allen


Year of the Horse

Amazon USAUKCanada
by Justin Allen
Overlook Press
Hardcover – 18.95 (12.82 at Amazon)

First, a disclaimer. The author, Justin Allen, got in touch with me during the summer, and we have been in contact off-and-on ever since. He recently participated in an exceptionally lively Writer Wednesday. After I read and reviewed Slaves of the Shinar, his publisher sent me his second novel, Year of the Horse. Therefore, I have had more contact than usual with this author, and I can’t claim a completely impartial review. However, I can claim that I will be honest.

The Year of the Horse begins as Tzu-lu is procrastinating over a homework assignment. Right away, you know this is something different, eh? How many epic fantasies have you read where the character has homework? A visitor arrives at his parent’s shop, providing even more incentive for goofing off — especially when Tzu-lu realizes that the visitor is the famed gunfighter Jack Straw, who has come to visit Tzu-lu’s grandfather.

Naturally, Tzu-Lu must spy. A convenient keyhole makes this possible. There, he discovers that Jack has quite a history with both Tzu-lu’s grandfather and his dead father, plus he has some abilities that can only be described as magical.

The next day, Tzu-lu’s grandfather sends him off with Jack and a gang of men to help John MacLemore recover his stolen gold. With them are Henry, a black marksman, Chino, a Californio refugee, and Sadie, John’s teenage daughter.

In many ways, The Year of the Horse follows the same formula as The Hobbit. Like Bilbo, Tzu-Lu goes off on an adventure as an “expert” in something with which he only has limited experience. A Gandalf-like character goes with them. Their mission is to recover stolen gold. Tzu-lu becomes separated from his companions. The Gandalf-like character leaves them on their own after a time, and so on.

However, the story takes its own distinct direction while all of this is played out against an Old West backdrop. Vast tracts of unexplored territory. Indians. Mormons. Prejudice against everyone who doesn’t look or believe as you do.

And best of all, magic bullets!

All of the named places are fictional, but roughly coincide with an actual place. St. Francis is probably a fictional St. Louis. Hell Mouth might be the Grand Canyon, except it runs north and south. There’s something like the salt flats of New Mexico between Hell Mouth and the Mormon lands beyond — or it could be Death Valley. I looked up one county name and discovered that it was a fictional county invented by Faulkner.

Also, there’s an Easter Egg from Slaves of the Shinar that made me smile.

There is good and evil evenly distributed among all the groups that the gang encounters — kind of like in real life. The central characters all get along very well — almost too well. There is no troublemaker among the group to stir things up, unless it’s Sadie. The lack of conflict among the characters might have bogged down the plot if they all weren’t in conflict with the land itself. Unexpected things happen at every turn, such as a bolt of lightning sending their entire baggage train plunging over a cliff, separating Tzu-lu from the rest of his group. And who would ever have expected a pool of acid?

It’s hard to think of an “if you enjoyed” comparison, except if I were to compare it to Mark Twain. Tzu-lu is more like Huck than Tom, minus the abusive dad. Like Huck, he’s almost passive, and is seen as harmless to his enemies — an assumption they later regret.

You can probably tell that I really enjoyed Year of the Horse. I’d recommend it for any age, although very young children might find the typeface a bit small, and it’s not really packaged for Middle Grade readers, which the age of the protagonist would normally be perfect for. Oh, and since there is no legal drinking and smoking age when this takes place, the underage characters do both. However, I certainly don’t think they glorify such activities.

Year of the House is a delightfully different novel, as familiar as an epic fantasy, but with a distinctly American twist. I hope Mr. Allen finds a way to return us to these characters one day. I recommend it highly.