Monday, January 21, 2008

Terra Incognita sequel to Medicus to be released in March

I was thrilled to see that Ruth Downie will be releasing a sequel to her excellent debut novel Medicus in March:

"It is spring in the year 118, and Gaius Petreius Ruso has been stationed in the Roman-occupied province of Britannia for nearly a year. After his long and reluctant investigation of the murders of a handful of local prostitutes, Ruso needs to get away. With that in mind, he has volunteered for a posting with the army in Britannia’s deepest recesses—a calmer place for a tired man.

But the edge of the Roman Empire is a volatile place; the independent tribes of the North dwell near its borders. These hinterlands are the homeland of Ruso’s slave, Tilla, who has scores of her own to settle there: Her tribespeople are fomenting a rebellion against Roman control, and her former lover is implicated in the grisly murder of a soldier. Ruso, filling in for the demented local doctor, is appalled to find that Tilla is still spending time with the prime suspect. Worse, he is honor-bound to try to prove the man innocent—and the army wrong—by finding another culprit. Soon both Ruso’s and Tilla’s lives are in
jeopardy, as is the future of their burgeoning romance.

Terra Incognita shines light on a remote corner of the ancient world, where Ruso’s luck is running short—again."

The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni reimagines epic of ancient India

"A reimagining of the world-famous Indian epic, the Mahabharat—told from the point of view of the wife of an amazing man.

Relevant to today’s war-torn world, The Palace of Illusions takes us back to a time that is half history, half myth, and wholly magical. Narrated by Panchaali, the wife of the legendary Pandavas brothers in the Mahabharat, the novel gives us a new interpretation of this ancient tale.

The novel traces the princess Panchaali's life, beginning with her birth in fire and following her spirited balancing act as a woman with five husbands who have been cheated out of their father’s kingdom. Panchaali is swept into their quest to reclaim their birthright, remaining at their side through years of exile and a terrible civil war involving all the important kings of India. Meanwhile, we never lose sight of her strategic duels with her mother-in-law, her complicated friendship with the enigmatic Krishna, or her secret attraction to the mysterious man who is her husbands' most dangerous enemy. Panchaali is a fiery female redefining for us a world of warriors, gods, and the ever-manipulating hands of fate."

Scheduled for a February 2008 release.

Song of the North by Jules Watson

"Roman Britain, 366 AD: Minna, an eighteen-year-old Roman serving girl, leads a quiet life with her grandmother, a Celtic herbal healer. But when her beloved grandmother dies, Minna must make a difficult choice--marry a man she loathes, or venture out alone to track down her brother, a soldier in a Roman garrison stationed in the wartorn and wild Scottish borderlands.

Desperate to find her brother, Minna falls in with Cian, an aloof but charming young acrobat. A terrible mistake thrusts the pair into slavery in the wilds of barbarian Scotland, where the Romans wage war on the violent, blue-tattooed Picts in Eastern Scotland. Cahir, King of the Dalriadans of western Scotland, is caught in the middle of a war that will seal the fate of the Scots. Year by year, Cahir has watched in shame as his people fall under the Roman yoke. Now Cian and Minna, unwilling prisoners at Cahir's fort, must fight for their survival. And despite her loyalties to her Roman blood, as the war for Scottish freedom unfolds, Minna struggles against another force--an irresistible call of her blood that reveals a destiny she shares with the wounded king Cahir, and which binds her inevitably to the people who have enslaved her."

This is book three of a trilogy that also includes The Dawn Stag and The White Mare.

The Voyage of the Short Serpent by Bernard du Bucheron

Abstract from review by Robert Zaretsky of the Houston Chronicle:

"...The time is the Middle Ages, the place Greenland. In prose as spare as the frozen landscape, we learn that I. Montanus, "inquisitor ordinary and extraordinary" based in Nidaros (the present-day Norwegian city of Trondheim), has been assigned to reclaim the lost colony of New Thule for the Catholic faith.

Perched on the top of the world, New Thule has strayed from the straight and narrow. Sodomy and bigamy, Montanus learns, are widespread. But so are they at any Club Med. More problematic, for modern readers, is the practice of incest and cannibalism.

Montanus seems equal to this monumental task. A learned theologian, he has already shown his mettle in Spain by battling the Moors and hounding the Marranos. At the same time, he is a soft touch for the widows and orphans of those he has condemned to die, enfolding them in the faith rejected by their husbands and fathers. And there is one last flourish to his résumé: He knows the French language and manners. As his archbishop archly notes, Montanus has "learned to enjoy fare other than the barley soup and salted herring so dear to our flock." As he soon discovers, however, even salted herring is a delicacy in New Thule.

The novel opens with a letter from Montanus' superior listing the challenges that await him and his handpicked crew. Ice floes and icebergs, frozen and endless arctic nights, long and pestiferous summer days are the least of it. The spiritual wastes are even greater. As a result, Montanus' mission, should he decide to accept it, is to be "as pitiless in castigating sin as you are generous in recognizing virtue."

Montanus is thus authorized to employ the gamut of inquisitorial punishments, ranging from the stake and head vise to boiling oil and stoning. He is, however, discouraged from using the "beer funnel": This medieval form of waterboarding is "a waste of a scarce commodity and abases the executioner to the vile office of a common inn keeper."

Setting sail for Greenland, Montanus' ship is quickly beset by ice storms that batter and ensnare it. With the onset of frostbite, the crew's arms and legs become as immobilized as the ship. But there is an upside: For the starving men, their numbed appendages are transformed into frozen dinners. As one of Montanus' men argues, "the season was not Lent, and proceeded to devour his own toes."

Yet Montanus' unwavering faith and the ship captain's equally impressive competence allow the crew to make landfall at Greenland. The welcome is scarcely encouraging: Inside the lone and mean dwelling they first discover, the voyagers find several corpses. Were it not for the freshly slit throats of the men, women and children, one might have surmised from their emaciated frames and suppurating lesions that they had been overcome by disease. Completing the nightmarish tableau is the mangled corpse of a monkey — an astonishing find, as Montanus dryly notes, "for I knew that its species did not belong in these arctic climes."

No more so than Homo sapiens, it would seem. In the end, the monkey's presence in Greenland is less puzzling than man's. Why would human beings cling to life in such a dismal and godforsaken icescape? What, indeed, are they doing there in the first place? Of course, if I had a good answer to this question, I wouldn't be writing book reviews for a living. But if, on the other hand, I were writing a book, such a situation would serve a practical purpose. It offers a thought experiment, one that allows us to observe our fellow human beings stripped of every social and moral convention we take for granted. The results are not pretty.

Once Montanus reaches New Thule and its wretched residents, we find that nature's harshness is dwarfed by man's own mercilessness. The novel reads as if Cormac McCarthy had channeled Jack London — or, better yet, Dostoevsky. The Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov, or Machiavelli for that matter, could take a refresher course from Montanus.

Thus, shortly after arriving in New Thule, he condemns two locals to the stake. He does so less for their sins, he writes to his superior, than to assert his authority "in being seen to use immediate severity, thereby saving the need for still greater severity later on." Montanus' political calculus is too optimistic, though, for he launches into a series of ever more gruesome executions and punishments.

By the end of his stay, Montanus has reclaimed New Thule for the church, but at a staggering cost to himself and others. He solves the mystery of the monkey and its slaughtered household, but the answer provides more darkness than light. This holds true for the entirety of this taut and powerful book. It destroys one illusion after another: By the novel's end, even our hope that Montanus' self-discipline is matched by self-understanding has been dashed..."

Sword Song by Bernard Cornwell

"The year is 885, and England is at peace, divided between the Danish kingdom to the north and the Saxon kingdom of Wessex in the south. Uhtred, the dispossessed son of a Northumbrian lord—warrior by instinct, Viking by nature—has finally settled down. He has land, a wife, and two children, and a duty given to him by King Alfred to hold the frontier on the Thames. But then trouble stirs: a dead man has risen, and new Vikings have arrived to occupy the decayed Roman city of London. Their dream is to conquer Wessex, and to do it they need Uhtred's help.

Alfred has other ideas. He wants Uhtred to expel the Viking raiders from London. Uhtred must weigh his oath to the king against the dangerous turning tide of shifting allegiances and deadly power struggles. And other storm clouds are gathering: Ætheleflæd—Alfred's daughter—is newly married, but by a cruel twist of fate, her very existence now threatens Alfred's kingdom. It is Uhtred—half Saxon, half Dane—whose uncertain loyalties must now decide England's future.

A gripping story of love, deceit, and violence, Sword Song is set in an England of tremendous turmoil and strife—yet one galvanized by the hope that Alfred may prove an enduring force. Uhtred, his lord of war and greatest warrior, has become his sword—a man feared and respected the length and breadth of Britain."

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Bulgarian author shares love of her country and its ancient history in new time travel novel

I'm so excited to see that a woman from Bulgaria with a love of her country's ancient history has written a time travel novel that whisks readers back in time to 5th century BCE Thrace. I've been fascinated by all of the reports of such beautiful artifacts that have been peppering the news these past few years and have yearned to learn more about the history of ancient Thrace Now I can do this in a book that also gives me a time travel adventure as well.

Thracian Princess by Bistra Johnson, (nee Tangarova), explores the world of Thrace when its tribes were unified by the Odrysians and ruled by their leader Teres in the 5th century BCE.

"The 144-page book itself tells the story of Veronica, a young English woman whose parents bought a house in Stara Zagora and moved to Bulgaria. In somewhat of a period of transition herself, she goes to visit them, meets a handsome neighbour (an architect, at that) and starts to learn about the country.

Then, the reader is as surprised as is Veronica – suddenly she is in ancient Thrace (called Trakiya in Bulgarian), and the beloved new wife of the king.

Through this experience, the reader, like Veronica, learns first-hand about a world that is probably unknown to most.

Bistra says that her facts came from a variety of sources and lots of research. A comprehensive glossary at the back substantiates and further explains many of the characters and terms. For example, the town where the novel is set has been known under eight names: Beroe (meaning “iron”, a Thracian settlement), Augusta Trajana (Roman era), Beroia/Vereia, Irinopolis (in honour of Empress Irina, in the Byzantine era), Boruy (during the First Bulgarian Kingdom), Eskizagra (Turkish for “behind the mountain”), Zheleznik (Slavic for “iron”), and now, finally, Stara Zagora (meaning “the old one behind the mountain”)."

Thracian Princess is available from in both English and Bulgarian.