Wednesday, March 20, 2019

#Review - Sherwood by Meagan Spooner #YALit #Fantasy

Series: Standalone
Format: Hardcover, 480 pages
Release Date: March 19, 2019
Publisher: HarperTeen
Source: Publisher
Genre: Young Adult / Fairy Tales & Folklore / Adaptations

The Lady becomes the Legend in this gender-bending, action-packed, and highly romantic retelling of Robin Hood by the New York Times bestselling author of Hunted, Meagan Spooner.

Robin of Locksley is dead.

Maid Marian doesn’t know how she’ll go on, but the people of Locksley town, persecuted by the Sheriff of Nottingham, need a protector. And the dreadful Guy of Gisborne, the Sheriff’s right hand, wishes to step into Robin’s shoes as Lord of Locksley and Marian’s fiancé.

Who is there to stop them?

Marian never meant to tread in Robin’s footsteps—never intended to stand as a beacon of hope to those awaiting his triumphant return. But with a sweep of his green cloak and the flash of her sword, Marian makes the choice to become her own hero—Robin Hood.

Robin Hood is dead. Long live Lady Marian! That is pretty much the premise of this retelling by author Meagan Spooner. There have been numerous retellings of Robin Hood in the movies, including 2018's Robin Hood. Recent books include Scarlet by A.C. Gaughen, and The Forest Queen by Betsy Cornwell. But, this story takes a different twist on Robin Hood tale from the perspective of Marian. 

Lady Marian grew up with Robin of Locksley. As kids, they learned how to fight, and how to shoot bow and arrow. Marian was always a little faster to learn and a better shot. She was also taller. With Robin, she could be who she wanted to be. He didn't try to imprison her in the usual role for women of her time. He even took his time in asking Marian to marry him before joining King Richard's Crusades. 

Things change when news that Robin has died in the Holy Land in service to his king. While Marian is inconsolable over the loss of Robin, things change when her maid's brother Will Scarlett is arrested by the Sheriff of Nottingham's men. After discovering the injustices perpetrated by the Sheriff, and his men, she decides to do something about it. She finds Robin's signature cloak, the sword and bow he had made for her, and sets out to rescue Will. 

Her adversary is Guy of Gisborne who wants to take Robin's place both at Locksley and as Marian's new husband. One could say that she never intended to become Robin Hood, but once she saw how much hope Robin's reappearance brought to the people of Nottingham, she sets out on a dangerous path which can either lead to legendary status, or a quick death by hanging. Her crew includes Little John, Alan-a-Dale, Will Scarlet, her maid Elena, her stableman Midge (Much) and Frère Tuck. 

This story incorporates a bit of a back story with Marian and Robin growing up. Robin is also in Marian's head at times during the course of this story. Robin and Marian's relationship is legendary, so yes, I was absolutely saddened by the way this book opens. For years, I've read and watched movies where Robin was nearly indestructible. Marian as a main character was very interesting to read. She's headstrong, and very independent. She was so immersive and shows herself to be incredibly resourceful throughout the story. 

My only real complaint - I absolutely loathed the "mandatory love story". It didn't sit right with me in any way, and I had so much trouble with it through the whole novel. I cast my rating down a bit thanks to the ending and the forced romance. One could say, well, it was time or Marian to move on and find happiness. Or, one could say, just get over it! Read the book and make your own choices. That is my recommendation.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

#Review - Boundary Broken by Melissa F. Olson (Urban Fantasy)

Series: Boundary Magic #4
Format: Paperback, 350 pages
Release Date: March 19, 2019
Publisher: 47North
Source: Publisher
Genre: Urban Fantasy

Years ago, boundary witch Allison “Lex” Luther made a promise to an alpha werewolf. Now, just when the supernatural community in Colorado is enjoying a period of hard-won peace, the alpha turns up at Lex’s door to call in his marker. Two of his pack members have disappeared in the Colorado sand dunes, and he needs safe passage to hunt for them.

With her friend Simon Pellar along for backup, Lex ventures into the dunes to search for the missing couple…but what they find is only the opening move in an ambitious assault against those who hold power in the Colorado Old World. An old enemy has returned to tear their peace apart, and Lex is soon embroiled in politics she doesn’t understand, from a time before she had magic.

To save her friends and her way of life, Lex will have to cross every line she’s drawn since learning what she is—and it may still be too late.

Boulder boundary witch Allison “Lex” Luther returns in the fourth installment in author Melissa F. Olson's Boundary Magic series. Apparently, the book jumps 2 years from the last book titled Boundary Born, but she did appear in Scarlett Bernard's Shadow Hunt. Lex is a former Army veteran who was left to die, but managed to survive thanks to her previously unknown boundary magic.

After losing her sister to a brutal attack which left her only daughter Charlie behind, Lex vowed that nothing would ever touch Charlie who, like Scarlett, is a null. In return for her protection of Charlie, Lex works for Maven, a cardinal vampire who is likely the most powerful & oldest vampire in the so called Old World, as a daytime security person. She is partnered with Quinn, a vampire who is also an investigator and her boyfriend. 

A promise made in the past to a werewolf named Ryan Dunn comes knocking on her door, and it may lead to even more turmoil than she has had to deal with since watching the Vampire Trials with Scarlett. Years before, Ryan and his pack helped Lex defeat a dangerous Sandworm as well as the witch who called summoned it. When Ryan's pack mates are found dead, Lex's attempt at paying off her debt may end up making an already fractured alliance between witches and Maven come unraveled. 

To further exasperate the situation, Lex's allies in the Pellar clan, Lily and Simon, find themselves being attacked and targeted with loss of their abilities. Someone from the past is playing a dangerous game and is well funded. It appears that Lex may be the only one able to stand up and ensure Maven's territory isn't taken over by zealots and an unknown power behind the woman who would do anything to see Maven exiled from Colorado. 

It's fair to say that a whole lot happens in this book, but the most intriguing aspect is the fact that the author doesn't reveal who the mysterious benefactor is, and what this person wants. If you haven't yet read this series, I'll give you a brief summation of why you should. Being a boundary witch means that Lex has abilities that intersect life and death. She can see and speak with ghosts and help them move on. She can also can 'press' humans and vampires (mind control), and raise the dead. She has a steady relationship with Quinn, but there are still hiccups along the way.  

I have to say that I was pleasantly pleased when this book was announced. It's fair to say I like Lex more than I do Scarlett. I like that she's a veteran who experiences episodes of PTSD and claustrophobia since I have similar episodes that take a lot out of me. I like that she's more powerful than she realizes but never once has allowed that power to overshadow who she is. 

Since it has been a few years since the author wrote a book in this series, I do hope the second book in this new arc is released in a timely manner. She's spent the past 3 years writing the Disrupted Magic trilogy featuring Scarlett Bernard.

Monday, March 18, 2019

#Review - Girls with Sharp Sticks by Suzanne Young #YALit #Fantasy

Series: Girls with Sharp Sticks# 1
Format: Hardcover, 400 pages
Release Date: March 19, 2019
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Source: Publisher
Genre: Young Adult, SyFy

Westworld meets The Handmaid’s Tale in this start to a thrilling, subversive near future series from New York Times bestselling author Suzanne Young about a girls-only private high school that is far more than it appears to be.
  Some of the prettiest flowers have the sharpest thorns.

The Girls of Innovations Academy are beautiful and well-behaved—it says so on their report cards. Under the watchful gaze of their Guardian, they receive a well-rounded education that promises to make them better. Obedient girls, free from arrogance or defiance. Free from troublesome opinions or individual interests.

But the girls’ carefully controlled existence may not be quite as it appears. As Mena and her friends uncover the dark secrets of what’s actually happening there—and who they really are—the girls of Innovations Academy will learn to fight back.

Bringing the trademark plot twists and high-octane drama that made The Program a bestselling and award-winning series, Suzanne Young launches a new series that confronts some of today’s most pressing ethical questions.

“The only worthy girls are well-behaved girls.”  

Girls with Sharp Sticks is the first installment in author Suzanne Young's new series by the same name. Philomena (Mena) attends a school called Innovations Academy. It is an all-girls school where students attend for 8 months before being eligible for graduation. The rules are very strict and all the authority figures are men. They are taught to be obedient and demure, as well as specifically attuned to maintaining their beauty.

The girls know they're being groomed for life beyond the academy, where they'll be given to a husband or "investor" to do what they may. Mena has a group of friends, (Marcella, Brynn, Sydney and Annalise), who basically stick with her front the first page until the final chapter. When something strange happens to one of her school mates, Mena starts to unravel the mystery behind the school and what is really happening and why there only men teaching at this school. The school has dark secrets and Mena and her friends are determined to discover them, and in turn, who they really are. 

Speaking of friendships, friendship between these girls was well done. At no point was there any cattiness or competition. These girls supported each other through thick and thin. It is fair to say that I caught onto the so called surprise early on in this story. So when Mena, a boy named Jackson, and her friends discover the truth, I was more than ready to figure out what happens next.

If you are going to compare this story to Handmaids Tale and Westworld, you could also add Dollhouse to make this an even more accurate betrayal of what is happening in this school. Mena's message to readers is pretty simplistic: girls need the courage to fight back and stand up for themselves and as long as they have friends to stand with them, anything can happen. It is also a message that the patriarchy is bad and men are somehow intentionally taking away women's rights by creating what they feel is what women should act like. 


It’s been raining for the past three months. Or maybe it’s only been three days. Time is hard to measure here—every day so much like the one before, they all start to blend together.

Rain taps on my school-provided slicker, the inside of the clear plastic material growing foggy in the humid air, and I look around the Federal Flower Garden. Precipitation has soaked the soil, causing it to run onto the pathways as the rose petals sag with moisture.

The other girls are gathered around Professor Penchant, listening attentively as he points out the varied plant species, explaining which ones we’ll be growing back at the school this semester in our gardening class. We grow all manner of things at the Innovations Academy.

A thought suddenly occurs to me, and I take a few steps into the garden, my black shoes sinking into the soil. There are red roses as far as I can see, beautiful and lonely. Lonely because it’s only them—all together, but apart from the other flowers. Isolated.

The sound of rain echoes near my ears, but I close my eyes and listen, trying to hear the roses breathe. Thinking I can hear them live.

But I can’t hear anything beyond the rain, so I open my eyes again, disappointed.

It’s been a dreadful start to spring due to the constant rain. Professor Penchant explained that our flowers—and by extension, us—will flourish because of it. Well, I hope the flourishing is done in time for graduation in the fall. Our time at the academy will be up, and then the school will get a new batch of girls to take our place.

I glance at the group standing with Professor Penchant and find Valentine Wright staring blankly ahead, her gaze cast out among the flowers. It’s unusual for her to not be paying attention; she’s the most proper of all of us. I’ve invited Valentine, on multiple occasions, to hang out with me and the other girls after hours, but she told me it was unseemly for us to gossip. For us to laugh so loudly. Be so opinionated. Eventually, I stopped asking her to join.

Sydney notices me standing apart. She rolls her eyes back and sticks her tongue out to the side like she’s dead, making me laugh. Professor Penchant spins to find me.

“Philomena,” he calls, impatiently waving his hand. “Come here. We’re at the apex of our lesson.”

I immediately obey, hopping across the rose garden to join the other girls. When I reach the group, Professor Penchant presses his thumb between my eyebrows, wiggling it around to work out the crease in my skin.

“And no more daydreaming,” he says with disapproval. “It’s bad for your complexion.” He drops his hand before turning back to the group. I imagine he’s left a reddened thumbprint between my eyebrows.

When the professor starts to talk again, I look sideways at Sydney. She grins, her dimples deep set and her brown eyes framed with exaggerated black lashes. Sydney has smooth, dark skin and straightened hair that falls just below her shoulders under the plastic rain slicker.

On the other side of her, Lennon Rose leans forward to check on me, her blue eyes wide and innocent. “I think your complexion is lovely,” she whispers.

I thank her for being so sweet.

Professor Penchant tells the group about a new strain of flower that Innovations Academy will be developing this semester. We love working in the greenhouse, love getting outside whenever we can. Even if the sunshine is rare.

“But only those who are well-behaved will get a chance to work on these plants,” the professor warns. “There are no rewards for girls who are too spirited.” He looks directly at me, and I lower my eyes, not wanting to vex him any more today. “Professor Driscoll will concur.”

As the professor continues, turning away to point out other plants, I glance around the flower garden once again. It’s then that I notice Guardian Bose standing near the entrance where we came in. He’s talking to the curator of the garden, a young woman holding an oversized red umbrella. While one hand holds the umbrella, she puts the other on her hip, talking impatiently to the Guardian. I wonder what they’re discussing.

Guardian Bose is an intimidating presence in any setting, but even more so outside the walls of the academy, where he’s become commonplace. He’s here to ensure our safety and compliance, although we never misbehave—not in any significant way.

Innovations Academy, our all-girl private school, is very protective of us. We’re confined to campus most days of our accelerated yearlong program, and we don’t go home on breaks. They say the complete immersion helps us develop faster, more thoroughly.

Recently, the academy raised its curriculum rigor, increasing the number of courses and amount of training. Our class of twelve was selected based on the new heightened standards. We’re top of the line, they like to say. The most well-rounded girls to ever graduate. We do our best to make them proud.

Guardian Bose says something to the woman with the red umbrella. She laughs, shaking her head no. The Guardian’s posture tightens, and then he turns to find me watching him. He angles his body to block my view of the woman. He tips his head, saying something near her ear, and the woman shrinks back. Within moments, she hurries toward the indoor facility and disappears.

I turn away before Guardian Bose catches me watching again.

Thunder booms overhead and Lennon Rose screams before slapping her hand over her mouth. The professor looks pointedly in her direction, but then he glances up at the sky as the rain begins to fall harder.

“All right, girls,” he says, adjusting the hood on his rain slicker. “We’re going to wrap this up for now. Back to the bus.”

A couple of the girls begin to protest, but Professor Penchant claps his hands loudly to drown out their voices. He reminds them that we’ll return next month—so long as we behave. The girls comply, apologizing, and start toward the bus. But as the others head that way, I notice that Valentine doesn’t move; she doesn’t even turn in that direction.

I swallow hard, unsettled. Rain pours over Valentine’s slicker, running down the clear plastic in rivers. A drop runs down her cheek. I watch her, trying to figure out what’s wrong.

Sensing me, she lifts her head. She is . . . expressionless. Alarming in her stillness.

“Valentine,” I call over the rain. “Are you okay?”

She pauses so long that I’m not sure she heard me. Then she turns back to the flowers. “Can you hear them too?” she asks, her voice soft and faraway.

“Hear what?” I ask.

The corner of her mouth twitches with a smile. “The roses,” she says affectionately. “They’re alive, you know. All of them. And if you listen closely enough, you can hear their shared roots. Their common purpose. They’re beautiful, but it’s not all they are.”

There’s tingling over my skin because a few moments ago, I did try to listen to the roses. What are the chances that Valentine and I would have the same odd thought?

“I didn’t hear anything,” I admit. “Just quiet contentment.”

Valentine’s behavior is unusual, but I want to know what she’s going to say next. I take a step closer.

Her smile fades. “They’re not content,” she replies in a low voice. “They’re waiting.”

A drop of rain finds its way under the collar of my shirt and runs down my spine, making me shiver.

“Waiting for what?” I ask.

Valentine turns to me and whispers, “To wake up.”

Her eyes narrow, fierce and unwavering. Her hands curl into fists at her side.

I shiver again, but this time it’s not from the rain. The academy tells us not to ask philosophical questions because we’re not equipped for the answers. They teach us what we need, rather than indulging our passing curiosities. They say it helps maintain our balance, like soil ripe for growth.

Valentine’s words are dangerous in that way—the beginning of a larger conversation I want to have. But at the same time, one I don’t quite understand. One that scares me. Why would the flowers say such a thing? Why would flowers say anything at all?

Just as I’m about to ask her what the flowers are waking up from, there is a firm grip on my elbow. Startled, I spin around to find Guardian Bose towering over me.

“I’ve got it from here, Philomena,” he says in his deep voice. “Catch up with the others.”

I shoot a cautious glace at Valentine, but her expression has gone back to pleasant. As the Guardian approaches her, Valentine nods obediently before he even says a word. Her abrupt change in character has left me confused.

I start toward the bus, my brows pulled together as I think. Sydney holds out her hand when she sees me and I take it gratefully, our fingers wet and cold.

“What was that about?” she asks as we walk.

“I’m not exactly sure,” I say. “Valentine is . . . off,” I add for lack of a better word. I don’t know how to explain what just happened. Especially when it’s left me so uneasy.

Sydney and I look back in Valentine’s direction, but she and the Guardian are already heading our way. Valentine is quiet. Perfect posture. Perfect temperament.

“She looks fine to me,” Sydney says with a shrug. “Her usual boring self.”

I study Valentine a moment longer, but the girl who spoke to me is gone, replaced with a flawless imitation. Or, I guess, the original version.

And I’m left with the burden of the words, an infectious thought.

Wake up, it whispers. Wake up, Philomena.

Friday, March 15, 2019

#Review - Lady Smoke by Laura Sebastian #YALIT #Fantasy

Series: Ash Princess (#2)
Format: Hardcover,512 pages
Release Date: February 5, 2019
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Source: Library
Genre: Young Adult / Fantasy / Epic

The sequel to the instant New York Times bestseller that was “made for fans of Victoria Aveyard and Sabaa Tahir” (Bustle), Lady Smoke is an epic new fantasy about a throne cruelly stolen and a girl who must fight to take it back for her people.

The Kaiser murdered Theodosia’s mother, the Fire Queen, when Theo was only six. He took Theo’s country and kept her prisoner, crowning her Ash Princess—a pet to toy with and humiliate for ten long years. That era has ended. The Kaiser thought his prisoner weak and defenseless. He didn’t realize that a sharp mind is the deadliest weapon.

Theo no longer wears a crown of ashes. She has taken back her rightful title, and a hostage—Prinz Soren. But her people remain enslaved under the Kaiser’s rule, and now she is thousands of miles away from them and her throne.

To get them back, she will need an army. Only, securing an army means she must trust her aunt, the dreaded pirate Dragonsbane. And according to Dragonsbane, an army can only be produced if Theo takes a husband. Something an Astrean Queen has never done.

Theo knows that freedom comes at a price, but she is determined to find a way to save her country without losing herself.


Lady Smoke, by author Laura Sebastian, is the second installment in the authors Ash Princess Trilogy. The story picks up where Ash Princess left off. Ten years ago, the Kalovaxian's Kaiser murdered Theodosia's mother, The Queen of Fire, and kept Theo around as a sort of hostage. Every time her people acted out, Theo was punished. Those days are now over. Theo finds herself is onboard the Smoke, Dragonbane’s ship, with her Shadows and Soren. 

With the help of her aunt Dragonsbane, her Shadows Heron, Blaise, and her cousin Artemisia, Theo was able to escape the Kalovaxians and her former best friend Crescentia. Also, Theo kind of kidnapped Prinz S0ren as a sort of hostage to use in her plans to back at the Kaiser. Theo escaped to form an alliance with another country in hopes of taking back Astrea and defeat the Kaiser. The only problem is, she may end up having to a husband, something a queen of Astrea has never done. 

Theo has a loyal group of friends that she can depend on. I would put S0ren in that category as well. When she is forced into a sort of bachelorette game show, she must find a way to find the perfect match that she is being forced into in order to gain the necessary support without giving away parts of herself. When Theo visits a camp in a country she is temporarily staying in, she is taken aback by how bad the refugees are treated.This is perhaps the most political statement in the entire book. Note: Not putting the author down!

I have to give the publisher and author credit for putting the world map in front of the book. Trust me, this is really important part of the story. You can see where the countries are, and who chooses to attend to Theo hoping for an alliance. You can also see how isolated Astrea is from the rest of the world. The main positive for me was the character growth of Theo. 

She's a very different character from the one who appeared in Ash Princess. Theo was in a state of self-preservation worrying about how long the Kaiser was going to keep her around. But the continued harsh treatment and exposure to the pain of both herself and her people slowly whittled away this softer exterior to reveal an inner-core of strength that disallowed either to become the playthings of another, ever again. No matter the cost. Her resolve has hardened and, with it, my hope for a fantastic finale to this series.

Admittedly, the most exciting parts of this book were the second half and yes, even the ending shocking as that might be for me to say. When all is said and done, there really is some pretty interesting things that I am looking forward to finding out about in the sequel.


The spiced coffee is sweet on my tongue, made with a generous dollop of honey. The way Crescentia always orders it.

We sit on the pavilion like we have a thousand times before, steaming porcelain mugs cradled in our hands to ward off the chill in the evening air. For a moment, it feels just like every time before, a comfortable silence hanging in the dark air around us. I’ve missed talking to her, but I’ve missed this, too—how we could sit together and not feel the need to fill the silence with meaningless small talk.

But that’s silly. How can I miss Cress when she’s sitting right in front of me?

She laughs like she can read my mind and sets her cup down on its saucer with a clatter that rattles my bones. She leans across the gilded table to take hold of my free hand in both of hers.

“Oh, Thora,” she says, her voice lilting over my false name like a melody. “I missed you, too. But next time, I won’t.”

Before her words can make sense to me, the lighting overhead shifts, the sun growing brighter and brighter until she’s fully illuminated, every awful inch of her. Her charred, flaking neck, burned black by the Encatrio I had her served, her hair white and brittle, her lips gray as the ersatz crown I used to wear.

Fear and guilt overwhelm me as the pieces fall into place in my mind. I remember what I did to her; I remember why I did it. I remember her face on the other side of the bars of my cell, full of rage as she told me she would cheer for my death. I remember the bars being scalding hot where she’d touched them.

I try to pull my hand away but she holds it fast, her storybook-princess smile sharpening into fangs tipped with ash and blood. Her skin burns hot against mine, hotter even than Blaise’s. It is fire itself against my skin, and I try to scream, but no sound comes out. I stop feeling my hand altogether and I’m relieved for a second before I look down and see that it has turned to ash, crumbled to dust in Cress’s grip. The fire works its way up my arm and down the other, spreading across my chest, my torso, my legs, and my feet. My head catches last, and the final thing I see is Cress with her monster’s smile.

“There. Isn’t that better? Now no one will mistake you for a queen.”

My skin is drenched when I wake up, cotton sheets tangled around my legs and damp with sweat. My stomach churns, threatening to spill, though I’m not sure I’ve eaten anything to spill, apart from a few crusts of bread last night. I sit up in bed, placing a hand on my stomach to steady it and blinking to help my eyes adjust to the dark.

It takes a moment to realize that I am not in my own bed, not in my own room, not in the palace at all. The space is smaller, the bed little more than a narrow cot with a thin mattress and threadbare sheets and a quilt. My stomach pitches to the side, rolling in a way that makes me nauseous before I realize it isn’t my stomach at all—the room itself is rocking from side to side. My stomach is only echoing the motion.

The events of the last two days filter back to me. The dungeon, the Kaiser’s trial, Elpis dying at my feet. I remember Søren rescuing me only to be imprisoned himself. As quickly as that thought comes to me, I push it away. There are a good many things I have to feel guilty about—taking Søren hostage cannot be one of them.

I’m on the Smoke, I remember, heading toward the Anglamar ruins to begin to reclaim Astrea. I am in my cabin, safe and alone, while Søren is being kept in chains in the brig.

I close my eyes and drop my head into my hands, but as soon as I do, Cress’s face swims through my mind, all rosy cheeks and dimples and wide gray eyes, just as she looked the first time I met her. My heart lurches in my chest at the thought of the girl she was, the girl I was, who latched on to her because she was my only salvation in the nightmare of my life. Too quickly, that image of Cress is replaced with her as I last saw her, with hate in her cold gray eyes and the skin of her throat charred and flaking.

She shouldn’t have survived the poison. If I hadn’t seen her with my own eyes, I wouldn’t believe it. Part of me is relieved that she did, though the other part will never forget how she looked at me when she promised to raze Astrea to the ground, how she said she would ask the Kaiser if she could keep my head after he executed me.

I flop down on my back, hitting the thin pillow with a thud. My whole body aches with exhaustion, but my mind is a whirl of activity that shows no sign of quieting. Still, I close my eyes tight and try to banish all thoughts of Cress, though she lingers on the edges, a ghost of a presence.

The room is too quiet—so quiet it takes on a sound all its own. I hear it in the absence of my Shadows’ breaths, their infinitesimal movements as they fidget, their whispers to one another. It is a deafening sort of silence. I turn onto one side, then the other. I shiver and pull the quilt tighter around me; I feel the fire of Cress’s touch again and kick the quilt off entirely, so that it falls in a heap onto the floor.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

#Review - Bloodwitch by Susan Dennard #YALit #Fantasy

Series: The Witchlands (#3)
Format: Hardcover, 464 pages
Release Date: February 12, 2019
Publisher: Tor Teen
Source: Library
Genre: Young Adult / Fantasy / Wizards & Witches

The breakout third novel in the New York Times bestselling Witchlands series, an epic fantasy adventure hailed by Alexandra Bracken (The Darkest Minds) as “a world you will want to inhabit forever.”


Fans of Susan Dennard’s New York Times bestselling Witchlands series have fallen in love with the Bloodwitch Aeduan. And now, finally, comes his story. Aeduan has teamed up with the threadwitch Iseult and the magical girl Owl to stop the coming destruction. But to do so, he must confront his own father.


Bloodwitch, by author Susan Dennard, is the third installment in The Witchlands series. Bloodwitch follows events two weeks after the conclusion of Windwitch and the characters are all over the place and in strange combinations. This is a story that has lots of points of view that merge and diverge, with more plots within plots and added layers of world building. The story takes place in various places which gives it more depth and scope and you absolute learn about the undertows that each character is facing.  

It is fair to say that this is a character driven series which features Aeduan (Bloodwitch), Iseult (Threadwitch), Safiya (Truthwitch), Empress Vaness of Marstok, Windwitch Merik Nihar as well as his sister Vivia Nihar who is the presumed Queen-in-Waiting. If you haven't yet guessed, this book was intended to put the spotlight on Aeduan who has found himself allied with Iseult, and a girl called Owl, an extremely powerful Earthwitch child. We learn more about his parents, his steadily changing motives, his feelings towards Iseult, and his evolving relationship with Owl. 

Aeduan and Iseult make a fascinating case study in how one can go from being enemies, to being almost happy to be together. Aeduan is such a complex character, that it was nice to actually learn more about who he really is, and what he has had to go through that has led him to this point with Iseult and Owl. Aeduan and Iseult may have darkness inside, but they learned they are not bound to it. Aeduan knows that he can't remain free for long.

Safi has agreed to travel to Marstok to be the Empress Vaness's Truthwitch. So much for keeping her secret from her enemies. While Safi and the Marstoki Empress are hanging out in Marstok, attempting to cleanse the Marstok court of those who have been working against the Empress, an unexpected relation of Safi’s appears and throws her whole dynamic into chaos.

Vivia has been trying her hardest to care for her people after the city was nearly flooded and destroyed, but her father and the members of her council undermine her at every turn. When her best friend Stix disappears, Vivia decides to make an attempt at an alliance with Vaness. She needs to be strong, but she can't help but wonder what will happen once the Raider King forces invade their lands.

Merik is very much alive and has probably the hardest road of any character in this book. He finds himself taken by the Fury, used by Esme who tried to control Iseult, and then a bunch of things happen that I won't spoil. I think it is fair to say that I have not yet read Sightwitch, but really wish I had. I need to borrow it from my library and go back and catch up so that parts of this story can be further explained.

My only complaint about this story is that I waited several years for this to be released and wasn't certain I remembered why I should care about certain characters. I had to go back to my past reviews and refresh my memory. I would have preferred, I think, to have read the books back-to-back to keep things fresh in my mind. Apparently, there are at least 2 more books in this series. Hopefully the next book will be released next year.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

#Review - A Dangerous Collaboration by Deanna Raybourn #Historical #Fiction

Series: Veronica Speedwell # 4
Format: Hardcover, 336 pages
Release Date: March 12th 2019
Publisher: Berkley Books
Source: Publisher
Genre: Mystery & Detective / Historical

Veronica Speedwell returns in another adventure filled with secrets and betrayal from Deanna Raybourn, the New York Times bestselling author of the Lady Julia Grey Mysteries.

Victorian adventuress Veronica Speedwell is whisked off to a remote island off the tip of Cornwall when her natural historian colleague Stoker’s brother calls in a favor. On the pretext of wanting a companion to accompany him to Lord Malcolm Romilly’s house party, Tiberius persuades Veronica to pose as his fiancée—much to Stoker’s chagrin. But upon arriving, it becomes clear that the party is not as innocent as it had seemed. Every invited guest has a connection to Romilly’s wife, Rosamund, who disappeared on her wedding day three years ago, and a dramatic dinner proves she is very much on her husband’s mind.

As spectral figures, ghostly music, and mysterious threats begin to plague the partygoers, Veronica enlists Stoker’s help to discover the host’s true motivations. And as they investigate, it becomes clear that there are numerous mysteries surrounding the Romilly estate, and every person present has a motive to kill Rosamund…


A Dangerous Collaboration is the fourth installment in author Deanna Raybourn's Veronica Speedwell series. If you are unfamiliar with this series, it is a historical mystery series set in Victorian England, featuring intrepid adventuress and sleuth Veronica Speedwell who loves Arcadia Brown's adventures. Having once again won the day in the previous installment called A Treacherous Curse, 26-year old Lepidopterist Veronica Speedwell decides to take a break. 

A break that lasts 6 months and puts a strain on her relationship with Revelstoke (Stoker) Templeton-Vane her partner in the past 3 books. Upon return, Veronica finds her self drawn to yet another mystery when Lord Tiberius Templeton-Vane asks her to accompany him to Lord Malcolm Romilly’s house party off the coast of Cornwall. Tiberius persuades Veronica to pose as his fiancée—much to Stoker’s chagrin. Upon arriving, it becomes clear that the party is not as innocent as it had seemed. 

Every invited guest, except Veronica and Stoker, had a connection to Romilly’s wife, Rosamund, who disappeared on her wedding day three years ago. The mystery in this one is especially interesting because it takes place on a small island, somewhat akin to a locked-room mystery, as it would be nearly impossible for the missing person to have left the island - alive or dead - without someone having helped and others having noticed. Yet it's been three years and she disappeared without a trace. What happened to her? Why? Who knows the truth? 

Even though Stoker and Veronica were often at odds due to what was presumed to have happened when she was gone, there are no better partners. Yes, there's Sherlock and Holmes, but Stoker and Veronica bring an entirely different skill set to helping solve curious mysteries that seem utterly unsolvable. Plus, I wouldn't want these two to be with anyone else. Not even Tiberius. Over the course of four books now, readers have watched the couple dance  around each other in what has sometimes been a most frustrating push-forward-pull-back dance you will ever witness. The sexual tension is so thick that you need a very sharp knife to cut through it. It's fair to say that I am excited about the possibilities for the 5th installment in this series having picked up on several Easter Eggs that appear in this book.

Chapter One
London, March 1888
“What the devil do you mean you’re leaving?” Stoker demanded. He surveyed the half-packed carpetbag on my bed as I folded in a spare shirtwaist and Magalhães’s Guide to Portuguese Lepidoptery. It was a weightier volume than one might expect, featuring an appendix devoted to the butterflies of Madeira and certain flamboyant moths found only in the Azores.
“Precisely what I said. I am packing. When I have packed, I will leave this place and board a train for the coast. There I will leave the train and get onto a boat and when it stops at Madeira, I will have arrived.” My tone was frankly waspish. I had dreaded telling Stoker of my plans, expecting some sort of mild explosion at the notion that I had at last secured an expedition, however minor, to which he was not invited. Instead, he had adopted an attitude of Arctic hauteur. I blamed his aristocratic upbringing for that. And his nose. It is very easy to look down on someone with a nose that would have done a Roman emperor justice. But I could not entirely blame him. As natural historians, we had balked at our enforced stay in London, each of us longing for the open seas, skies that stretched to forever, horizons that beckoned us with spice-scented winds. Instead, we had found ourselves employed by the Earl of Rosemorran to catalog his family’s extensive collections—interesting and modestly profitable work that stunted the soul if endured for too long. One could count only so many stuffed marmosets before the spirit rebelled. The notion that I was to escape our genial confinement whilst he labored on would have tested the noblest character, and Stoker, like me, bore a healthy streak of self-interest.
“At Madeira?” he asked.
“At Madeira,” I replied firmly.
He folded his arms over the breadth of his chest. “And might one inquire as to the expected duration of this expedition?”
“One might, but one would be disappointed with the reply. I have not yet formulated my plans, but I expect to be away for some months. Perhaps until the autumn.”
“Until the autumn,” he said, drawing out the words slowly.
“Yes. Look for me in the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,” I instructed with a feeble attempt at a smile. But even a nod to his beloved Keats did not soften his austere expression.
“And you mean to go alone.”
“Not at all,” I told him, as I tucked a large pot of cold cream of roses into my bag. “Lady Cordelia and I shall travel together.”
He gave a snort of laughter that was distinctly lacking in amusement. “Lady Cordelia. You know her only experience with shipboard life is the Channel steamer, do you not? Her notion of rough travel is not taking the second footman. And I do not even like to think of what Sidonie will have to say on the matter.”
I winced at the mention of Lady Cordelia’s snippy French lady’s maid. “She will not be coming.”
His mouth fell agape and he dropped the pose of icy disdain. “Veronica, you cannot be serious. I know you long to shake the fogs of London out of your clothes as much as I do, but dragging Lady Cordelia to some benighted island in the middle of the Atlantic makes no sense at all. You might as well haul her to the North Pole.”
“I should never attempt a polar expedition,” I assured him with a lightness I did not feel. “There are no butterflies to be found there.”
He gripped my shoulders, his thumbs just brushing the tops of my collarbones. “If this is because of what I said earlier today,” he began, “what I almost said—”
I raised a hand. “Of course not.” It was a pathetic attempt at a lie. The truth was that both of us, in an unguarded moment, had very nearly given voice to sentiments we had no business declaring. I could still feel the pressure of his hand, burning like a brand at my waist, as his breath stirred the lock of hair pinned behind my ear, warm and impulsive words trembling on my lips. Had his brother, the Viscount Templeton-Vane, not interrupted us . . .
But no. That line of thought does not bear consideration. The point is quite simply that we were interrupted, and as soon as the viscount left, I had taken tea tête-à-tête with Lady Cordelia, Lord Rosemorran’s sister and a good friend to both Stoker and to me. By the time we had shared the last muffin between us, we had decided upon a course of action that we knew would surprise and quite possibly annoy the men in our lives. Lord Rosemorran had behaved with his characteristic good-natured vagueness, offering money to fund the venture and raising objections only when he realized his sister’s absence would mean taking care of his own children.
“Call one of the aunts to help you,” Lady C. instructed with unaccustomed ruthlessness. “I am thoroughly exhausted and a holiday is just what I require.”
Lord Rosemorran gave in at once, but Stoker was being bloody-minded as usual, not least because so much hung between us, unsaid but thickening the air until I thought I would never again draw an easy breath.
“It is quite for the best,” I said, forcing the last of my shirtwaists into the bag. “This business with the Tiverton Expedition has been demanding. A little peace and quiet to recover from it will do us both a world of good.”
On the surface, it was a tolerable excuse. The investigation we had just concluded[1] had been harrowing in the extreme, entailing all manner of reckless adventures as well as a few bodily injuries. But Stoker and I throve on such endeavors, matching each other in our acts of derring-do. No, it was not physical exhaustion that drove me from the temperate shores of England, gentle reader. It was the recent entanglement with Stoker’s former wife, Caroline de Morgan, a fiend in petticoats who had very nearly destroyed him with her machinations. I longed to repay her in kind. But I had learnt long ago that revenge is a fruitless pursuit, and so I left Caroline to the fates, trusting she would see her just deserts in time. Stoker was my concern—specifically the powerful emotions he stirred within me and what, precisely, I was going to do about them. It seemed impossible to assess them with the cool and dispassionate eye of a scientist whilst we were so often together. After all, a proper examination of a butterfly did not take place in the field; one captured the specimen and took it away to regard it carefully, holding it up to the light and accepting its flaws as well as its beauties. So I meant to do with my feelings for Stoker, although that intention was certainly not one I meant to share with him. Knowing how deeply he had been wounded by Caroline, I could have no hand in hurting him further.
Luckily for me, Lady Cordelia had been desperate, insistent upon getting right away, and I seized upon her invitation with alacrity, determined to make my escape without revealing our purposes, even to Stoker.
“I daresay I will have nothing more interesting to write about than butterflies, so do not be surprised if I am a poor correspondent,” I warned him. “You needn’t trouble to write if it bores you. I am sure you will have far more interesting activities to occupy your time. I am sorry if it leaves you in a bit of a lurch with the collections,” I finished, buckling the carpetbag.
“I will manage quite well alone,” he replied as he turned away, his expression carefully blank. “I always have.”
As he no doubt intended, Stoker’s parting words haunted me for the better part of six months. Madeira was beautiful, lush and fragrant and offering tremendous opportunities for my work as a lepidopterist. But more times than I cared to admit, whilst hotly in pursuit of a sweet little Lampides boeticus flapping lazily in a flower-scented breeze, I paused, letting the net drop uselessly to my side. Articles for the various publications to which I contributed went unwritten, my pen resting in a stilled hand while my mind roamed free. Every time, my thoughts went to him, like pigeons darting home to roost. And every time, I wrenched them away, never permitting myself to think too long of him for the same reason a child learns not to hold her hand too close to a flame.
In the summer, when the late-blooming jacaranda poured the honeyed musk of its perfume over the island, it was necessary—for various reasons I shall not detail here—to call in the doctor to attend both Lady Cordelia and me. By the time we had regained our strength, half a year had passed and our thoughts turned to England once more. Long afternoons had been spent upon the veranda of our rented villa as we rested like basking lizards in the sun. We were both slimmer than we had been when we set out. Lady Cordelia’s pale milk skin had gathered a cinnamon dusting of freckles in spite of her veils and broad brims, but I had tossed my hat aside, turning my face up to the golden rays.
“You look the picture of health,” she told me as we boarded the boat in the port of Funchal. “No one would ever imagine you had been under a doctor’s care.”
I plucked at the loose waist of my traveling suit. “You think not? I am skin and bone, and you are little better. But some good Devonshire cream and plates of English roast beef will see us right again,” I assured her.
Absently, she linked her arm with mine. “Do you think they have missed us?”
“The frequency of their letters would suggest so.” Frequency was not quite the word. Every mail ship had brought fresh correspondence. The earl and his children had written regularly to Lady Cordelia, and I had received my share of the post as well. Colleagues in lepidoptery had much to say, and there were weekly letters from Lord Templeton-Vane, Stoker’s elder brother. He wrote in a casual, conversational style of current affairs and common interests, and as the months passed, we became better friends than we had been before.
And from Stoker? Not a single word. Not one line, scribbled on a grubby postcard. Not a postscript scrawled on one of his brother’s letters. Nothing but silence, eloquent and rebuking. I was conscious of a profound and thoroughly irrational sense of injury. I had made it clear to him that I did not intend to write letters and expected none. And yet. Every post that arrived with no missive from him was a taunt, speaking his anger as eloquently as any words might have done. I had sowed the seed of this quarrel, I reminded myself sternly; I could not now complain that I did not like the fruit it bore.
And as I stood arm in arm with Lady Cordelia on the deck of the ship bearing us home, I wondered precisely what sort of welcome I could expect.
“What in the name of seven hells do you mean you want to ‘borrow’ Miss Speedwell? She’s not an umbrella, for God’s sake,” Stoker grumbled to his eldest brother as the viscount entered our workroom. (Such demands often comprised the bulk of Stoker’s conversation; I had learnt to ignore them.) “Besides which, she has only been home for two days. I very much doubt she has even unpacked.”
Lord Templeton-Vane bared his teeth in what a stupid person might have mistaken for a smile. “Stoker, how delightful to see you. I hadn’t noticed you behind that water buffalo’s backside. Perfecting your trade, no doubt,” he mused as he looked from the moldering buffalo trophy to the pile of rotten sawdust Stoker was busy extracting. As a natural historian, Stoker’s lot was often the restoration of thoroughly foul specimens of the taxidermic arts. The backside of a water buffalo was far from the worst place I had seen Stoker’s head.
His lordship clicked his tongue as he gave Stoker a dismissive glance. “Besides which, I hardly think Miss Speedwell requires assistance in arranging her affairs.” He lingered on the last word just a heartbeat too long. The viscount had a gift for silken suggestions, and I suppressed a sigh of irritation that he had exercised it just then. Stoker and I had scarcely spoken since my return, exchanging cool greetings and meaningless chatter about our work. But I had hopes of a thaw provided the viscount did not scupper the possibility.
I looked up from the tray of Nymphalidae I was sorting and gave them both a repressive stare. “I am not your nanny, but if required, I will put either of you over my knee,” I warned them.
Stoker, who topped me by half a foot and some forty pounds, pulled a face. His brother’s response was slightly salacious. He lifted an exquisite brow and sighed. “One could only wish,” he murmured.
I ignored that remark and brushed off my hands, putting my butterflies aside. “My lord,” I said to the viscount, “before you explain further, perhaps we might have a little refreshment.”
His lordship looked pained. “I abhor tea parties,” he protested.
It was my turn to snort. “Not that sort of tea.” With Stoker’s grudging consent, I retrieved a bottle of his best single malt and poured out a measure for each of us. We settled in and I studied my companions. In certain respects, they could not have been more different, yet in others they were startlingly similar. They shared the fine bone structure of their mother; from high cheekbones and determined jaws to elegant hands they were alike. It was in coloring and musculature that they varied. While his lordship was sleek as an otter, Stoker’s muscles, honed by his long years of work as a natural historian and explorer, were heavier and altogether more impressive. He made good use of them as he worked on the mounts that would form the basis of the Rosemorran Collection. Whilst we sorted the family’s accumulated treasures from centuries of travel, the earl had given us the use of the Belvedere, the grand freestanding ballroom on his Marylebone estate, as well as living quarters, modest salaries, and a few other perquisites such as entertaining visitors when we chose.
Stoker, as it happened, was not entirely pleased with our current caller. His relationship with his eldest brother was difficult at the best of times, and it was apparent from his lordship’s expression of feline forbearance that he was rather less inclined than usual to tolerate Stoker’s bad temper. Stoker, for his part, was determined to play the hedgehog, snarling with his prickles out.
The viscount gestured expansively towards the specimen Stoker had been stitching when he arrived. “Why don’t you go and play with your buffalo? I have business with Miss Speedwell.”
Stoker curled his lip and I hastened to intervene before bloodshed broke out. “Poorly played, my lord. You know that Stoker and I are colleagues and friends. Anything you have to say to me can be said freely in front of him.” I had hoped this little demonstration of loyalty would settle Stoker’s hackles, but his mood did not change.
The viscount’s expression turned gently mocking. “Colleagues and friends! How very tepid,” he said blandly. He took a deep draft of his whisky while Stoker and I studiously avoided looking at one another. Our investigative pursuits, invariably dangerous and thoroughly enjoyable, had drawn us together, forcing a trust neither of us entirely welcomed. We were solitary creatures, Stoker and I, but we had discovered a mutual understanding beyond anything we had shared with others. What would become of it, I could not say. In spite of six months’ distance, I still thought often of that last significant meeting, when words had hung unspoken but understood in the air. I had alternately cursed and congratulated myself on my narrow escape from possible domesticity—a fate I regarded as less desirable than a lengthy bout of bubonic plague. I had been so near to making declarations that could not be undone, offering promises I was not certain I could keep. My vow never to be relegated to the roles of wife and mother had been tested during a moment of vulnerability. Stoker was the only man I knew who could have weakened my resolve, but it would have been a mistake, I insisted to myself. I was not made for a life of ordinary pursuits, and it would take an extraordinary man to live with me on my terms. It was a point of pride with me that I hunted men with the same alacrity and skill that I hunted butterflies. Only one sort of permanent trophy interested me—and that had wings. Men were a joy to sample, but a mate would be a complication I could not abide. At least, this is what I told myself, and it was perhaps this elusiveness that made me all the more attractive to the opposite sex.
His lordship included. He was lavishly lascivious in his praise, his conversation usually peppered with deliciously outrageous comments. I never took him seriously, but Stoker took him too seriously, and that was the root of their current lack of sympathy with one another. Like stags, they frequently locked horns, and although neither would admit it, I suspected they enjoyed their battles far more than they did the civil affections they shared with their other brothers.
Stoker was glowering at the viscount, who held up a hand, the signet ring of the Templeton-Vanes gleaming upon his left hand. “Peace, brother mine. I can feel you cursing me.”
“And yet still you breathe,” Stoker said mildly. “I must not be doing it right.”
I rolled my eyes heavenwards. “Stoker, behave or remove yourself, I beg you. I still do not know the purpose of his lordship’s call.”
“I do not require a reason except that of admiration,” his lordship said with practiced smoothness. Stoker made a growling noise low in his throat while his brother carried on, pretending not to hear. “I missed you during your sojourn abroad, my dear. And, as it happens, I do have business. Well, business for you, dear lady, but pleasure for me.”
“Go on,” I urged.
“Tell me, Miss Speedwell, in all your travels around this beautiful blue orb of ours, have you ever encountered the Romilly Glasswing butterfly?”
“Oleria romillia? Certainly not. It was as elusive as Rajah Brooke’s Birdwing and twice as valuable. It is unfortunately now extinct. I have only ever seen one preserved specimen in a private collection and it was in dreadful condition.”
The viscount held up a hand. “Not entirely extinct, as it happens.”
My heart began to thump solidly within my chest as a warm flush rose to my cheeks. “What do you mean?”
“I mean that there are still specimens in the wild. Do you know the origins of the name?”
I recited the facts as promptly and accurately as a schoolgirl at her favorite lesson. “Oleria romillia was named for Euphrosyne Romilly, one of the greatest lepidopterists in our nation’s history. She founded the West Country Aurelian Society, the foremost body of butterfly hunters in Britain until it merged with the Royal Society of Aurelian Studies in 1852. She discovered this particular lasswing on the coast of Cornwall.”
“Off the coast of Cornwall,” the viscount corrected. “As it happens, the Romillys own an island there, St. Maddern, just out from the little port town of Pencarron.”
“A tidal island?” I asked. “Like St. Michael’s Mount?” The Mount was one of Cornwall’s most famous attractions, rising out of the sea in a shaft of grey stone, reaching ever upwards from its narrow foundation. On sunny days it was overrun with parties of picnickers and seaside tourists and other undesirables.
The viscount shook his head. “Not precisely. St. Michael’s is accessible on foot via a causeway whilst St. Maddern’s Isle is a little further out to sea and significantly larger than the Mount. There are extensive gardens as well as a village, farms, a few shops, a quarry, even an inn for the occasional traveler seeking solitude and peace. It is a unique place, with all sorts of legends and faery stories, none of which interest me in the slightest, so I cannot recall them. What I do recall is that the Romilly Glasswing makes its home upon this island, and nowhere else in the world. And this has been an excellent year for them. They have appeared in record numbers, I am told, and they dot the island like so many flowers.”
I caught my breath, my lips parted as if anticipating a kiss. Nothing left me in such a heightened state of expectancy than the thought of finding a butterfly I had never before seen in the wild. And glasswings! The most unique of all the butterflies, they traveled on wings as transparent as Cinderella’s slipper. Ordinary butterflies derive their color from scales, infinitesimally small and carrying all the colors of the rainbow within them, reflecting back the jewel tones associated with the most magnificent butterflies. Moths and more restrained specimens of butterfly have scales with softly powdered hues, but the most arresting sight is by far the butterfly without any scales at all. The wings of these butterflies are crystalline in their clearness, patterned only with narrow black veins like the leaded glass of a cathedral window, the thinnest of membranes stretching between them. It seems impossible that they can fly, but they do, like shards of glass borne upon the wind. Their unique wings make them delicate and elusive, and the Romilly Glasswing was the most delicate and elusive of all. The largest of the glasswings, an adult Romilly could span a man’s hand if he were lucky enough to catch one. I lusted for them as I had lusted for little else in my life. But it was no use to me.
I forced a smile to my lips. “How kind of you to share this information,” I said in a toneless voice. “But I no longer hunt, my lord. My specimens from Madeira were all gathered after their natural demise. I have lost the drive to thrust a pin into the heart of a living creature. My efforts are directed towards the vivarium that Lord Rosemorran is graciously permitting me to develop on the estate.”
Once the derelict wreck of a grand freestanding glasshouse, the vivarium had been my own pet project, undertaken at Stoker’s suggestion. While he tinkered happily with bits of fur and bone and sawdust, I had been permitted to stock the restored structure with exotic trees and the larvae of a number of specimens. I had nurtured them carefully as any mother, bringing several species to life in my bejeweled little world.
“You should know that better than anyone,” I reminded the viscount. “You were kind enough to send me a grove of hornbeams and luna moths to feast upon them.”
The viscount crossed one long leg over the other, smoothing the crease in his trousers. “I remember it well. You gave me quite the education upon the subject of the luna moth. What was it you said? That they have no mouths because they exist only to reproduce? One is not certain whether to regard them with envy or pity.”
He arched a brow at me and I gave him a quelling look. “Precisely,” I told him, my voice crisp. “And while I am glad to hear the Romilly Glasswing is not extinct, I must leave its pursuit to others.”
The words pained me. I had only within the last year discovered in myself a reluctance to carry on my life’s work as I had always known it. The pursuit of the butterfly had given my existence meaning and pleasure, but it had dried up for reasons I did not entirely understand. Madeira had been an experiment after a fashion, a short expedition to test my mettle. And I had failed to conquer my reluctance to kill. The few inadequate specimens I had brought back had made the entire affair pointless and I could not justify further expeditions if I had no better expectations than the results I had achieved there. It chilled me to think that I might never strike out again, net in hand, for foreign climes and exotic lands. The notion of being forever immured in Britain, this too-often grey and sodden isle, was more than I could bear. So I did not think of it. I pushed the thought away whenever it occurred, but it had crept back over and over again as our ship had neared England, returning me to the complacent little life I had built within these walls. It teased the edge of my consciousness as I drifted off to sleep each night, that little demanding voice from a place that longed for adventure. What if this is all there is?
Stoker grasped his lordship’s meaning before I did. “Tiberius does not mean you to hunt them,” he said quietly. “He has found you larvae. For the vivarium.”
I smothered a moan of longing. “Have you?” I demanded.
His lordship laughed, a low and throaty chuckle of pure amusement. “My dear Miss Speedwell, how you delight me. I have indeed secured permission from the current owner of St. Maddern’s Isle, Malcolm Romilly, for you to take a certain number of larvae for your collection. While not a lepidopterist himself, he is an ardent protector of every bit of flora and fauna unique to his island, and he believes that if the glasswing is to survive, there must be a population elsewhere as a sort of insurance policy.”
My mind raced with the possibilities. “What do they eat?”
The viscount shrugged. “Some shrub whose name escapes me, but Malcolm did say that you might take a number of the plants with you in order to make the transition to London as painless as possible for the little devils. Now, I am bound for St. Maddern’s Isle for a house party to which Malcolm has invited me. It seems only natural that we should combine our purposes and I should escort you to the castle.”
“What a splendid notion,” Stoker put in smoothly. “We should love to go.”
“Stoker,” the viscount said firmly, “you are not invited to the castle.”
“Castle!” I exclaimed. “Is it really so grand as that?”
His lordship favored me with one of his enigmatic smiles. “It is small, as castles go, but it is at least interesting. Lots of hidden passages and dungeons and that sort of thing.”
“What of ghosts?” I demanded archly. “I won’t go unless there is a proper ghost.”
The viscount’s eyes widened in a flash of something like alarm before he recovered himself. “I can promise you all manner of adventures,” he said.
I could scarcely breathe for excitement. Stoker gave me a long look as he drained the last of his whisky, put down his glass, and walked silently back to his buffalo.
His brother leaned closer, pitching his voice low. “Someone is not very pleased with us.”
“Someone can mind his own business,” I said fiercely. “I am going to St. Maddern’s Isle.”
“Excellent,” said Lord Templeton-Vane, his feline smile firmly in place. “Most excellent indeed.”

Chapter Two
“He means to seduce you, you know,” Stoker said after the viscount had left. He was removing rotten sawdust from the badly mounted water buffalo, punctuating his words with vigorous gestures and showering the floor and himself with the smelly tendrils of moldering wood. He had stripped off his shirt as was his custom when he worked, but the nasty stuff had stuck to his tumbled black curls and the sweat streaking the long, hard muscles of his back and arms. I paused for a moment, as I always did when Stoker was in a state of undress, to admire the view. I had given him the better part of an hour to master his temper, but it seemed it had not been enough. I adopted a tone of generally cheerful reasonability.
“Of course he does,” I agreed.
He stopped and fixed me with a disbelieving stare. “You know that?”
I sighed. “Stoker, I am twenty-six years of age. I have traveled around the world three times, and I have met scores of men, some of whom I have known far more intimately than you can imagine. I promise you, I can smell a burgeoning seduction from across the room. I am no fainting virgin,” I reminded him.
“Then why in the name of bleeding Jesus are you going with him?”
“He promised me Romilly Glasswings,” I said simply.
“And that is all it takes? Bought with a butterfly?” he said in a particularly harsh tone.
“Oooh, how nasty you can be when you are sulking,” I observed.
He turned to his buffalo, wrenching out the sawdust in great, choking clouds. The original taxidermist had thrown in whatever he could to absorb moisture—sawdust, newspaper, bits of cloth. The stuffing had made cozy nest material for all manner of rodents. Tiny bones flew through the air with horrifying regularity as Stoker worked in a frenzy. After a few moments, he stopped.
“I am not sulking. I am concerned,” he told me, his voice soft and gentle now, but the words clipped at the end, as if admitting them caused him pain.
“I can take care of myself.”
“That is what I am afraid of.”
“I will not be gone long. His lordship and I settled the details before he left—a fortnight at most.”
He nodded, his witch black hair gleaming in the lamplight. I waited for him to rouse himself to temper again, waited for the inevitable repetitious clash of wills, but it did not come. When Stoker and I disagreed, a frequent occurrence if I am honest, it was a thing of beauty—volcanic and ferocious. I took it as a mark of the highest affection and respect that he fought with me as he would a man, and I gave him no quarter either. Our rows were legendary on the Marylebone estate, with frequent wagers amongst the staff as to which of us would prevail. (The safest bet, I need not reveal, was always upon me.)
But this time Stoker simply refused to rise to the occasion. I knew he was angry at his brother’s presumption. Any invitation or gift that had come from the viscount in the past had been met with rage on Stoker’s part. The skeletons in their cupboard of childhood troubles danced vigorously. The viscount’s overtures were intrusions, Stoker believed, encroachments on something he held dear and that belonged to him—me. Even though our relationship had not progressed past a firm friendship and perfect companionship, he resented any attempt by the viscount to win me to his side. I anticipated our quarrels on these occasions. I enjoyed them. But this time, Stoker merely worked at his buffalo, his jaw set and his gaze averted.
“Well, I suppose I ought to pack,” I said finally. “We leave in the morning. His lordship wants to take the early train from Waterloo.”
“Don’t forget your hot-water bottle,” he said, baring his teeth in a ghastly impression of his brother’s smile. “I should hate for you to get cold in the night.”
I returned the smile. “Do not worry on that account,” I told him. “I know well enough how to keep warm.”
I rose in good time the next morning, fairly fizzing with anticipation as I washed and dressed and gulped a hasty breakfast. Is there any feeling as delicious as the beginning of a new adventure? To be perched upon the precipice of a fresh endeavor, poised for flight, the winds of change ruffling the feathers, ah, that is what it means to be alive! I glanced around my quarters, but to me they had assumed an air of emptiness. Everything I truly cared about was packed into my carpetbag; the rest was merely trappings. I gathered two last items for the journey—the latest installment of the adventures of Arcadia Brown, Lady Detective, and the tiny grey velvet mouse I had carried since infancy. Wherever I had ventured in the world, from the misty foothills of the Andean mountains to the lush islands of the South Pacific, Chester had been my constant companion. He was a little the worse for wear these days, his velvet thinning in some places and one of his black-bead eyes a trifle loose. But I would have sooner traveled without my head than without my stalwart little companion.
I stepped outside and drew in great breaths of morning air, but not even the choking soot of London could stifle my elation. At my feet, the dogs—Stoker’s bulldog, Huxley, and Lord Rosemorran’s Caucasian sheepdog, Betony—romped along as I made my way to the Belvedere to take my leave of Stoker. He was already there, immured once more in his buffalo. To my acute disappointment, he wore a shirt, and his usually disordered locks were rather neater than was their habit.
“Good morning,” I said in a cordial tone as I rummaged in a biscuit barrel for a few scraps to throw the dogs. They quarreled over the largest—a bit of moose antler from the Canadian wilderness—before Huxley surrendered it as a courtship gift to Bet. She rolled ecstatically on the ground, waving her enormous paws in the air and upsetting a model of the Golden Hind made out of walnuts as Huxley watched, his deep chest puffed out proudly.
Stoker merely grunted by way of reply.
“I am leaving, then.”
He withdrew his head from the buffalo. He appeared tired, and he was wearing his eye patch, a certain sign that he had fatigued himself. It was a reminder of an accident he had suffered in the Amazon that had nearly taken his eye and his life. He still bore a slender silver scar that ran from brow to cheek, and from time to time, he had recourse to the black patch to rest his weaker eye. I never minded as—coupled with the golden rings in his lobes—it gave him the look of a buccaneer. A rather bored buccaneer at present. His expression was bland as he gave me a casual glance. “Oh? Pleasant journey.”
He resumed his task and I stared at him, slack-jawed. I had expected an argument. I had depended upon it. There were few things I enjoyed more, and a set-to with Stoker was just the thing to cap my ebullient mood. The fact that the past few days had seen us somewhat at odds with one another made me all the keener to resume our usual banter. After six months with no word from him, I had anticipated a row to shake the rafters upon my return. Instead he had been blandly cordial, unreachable even, and his apathy goaded me far more effectively than any display of temper might have done.
“Is that it?” I demanded. “No dire warnings about your brother’s wandering hands? No glowering silences or raging tantrums?”
He backed out of the buffalo again, his expression inscrutable. “My dear Veronica, you must make up your mind. Do you want silence or savagery? You cannot have both.”
Ordinarily such a remark would be heavily larded with sarcasm, his rage barely held in check. But this time there was only that maddening calm, a newfound self-possession I could not prick. If he meant to wound me he could have chosen no sharper blade than indifference.
“You are quite right,” I remarked acidly. “Do forgive the interruption. I’ll let you get on with your buffalo. I expect to be back in a fortnight. If I am not it’s because I eloped with your brother to Gretna Green.”
His sangfroid never slipped. He merely smiled and returned to his specimen, calling over his shoulder, “Mind you ask for separate lodgings. He snores like a fiend.”
Silence dropped between us with all the finality of a stage curtain. That was it, then. I turned on my heel and left him without a backwards look. Carpetbag firmly in hand, I strode to the front of Bishop’s Folly, admiring the unholy muddle of architectural styles that had been assembled courtesy of several generations of Rosemorran earls. The Folly was well-named, for there was not a builder’s fancy that had been omitted—buttresses, vaults, towers, crenelations, the Folly boasted them all.
Just as I rounded the corner, the great front door swung back and Lady Wellingtonia Beauclerk, the present earl’s great-aunt, emerged, calling a greeting. I paused to give her a smile.
“I am so glad you happened to come out,” I told her. “I had no chance to say good-bye.”
“It was not happenstance,” she said as she came down the short flight of stone steps to the drive of loose chipping. “I was looking for you. I’ve not yet welcomed you back from Madeira and here you are off again, like one of your pretty butterflies.” Her tone was light but her eyes were shrewd. “One might even think you were running away from something.”
I gave an involuntary glance back at the Belvedere, where Stoker still labored. “Don’t be absurd, Lady Wellie.”
“Are you certain there is nothing you would like to share with an old woman?” she prodded, lifting her walking stick to gesture vaguely in the direction of my person.
“Absolutely not,” I returned.
She did not bridle at the sharpness of my tone. She was obviously preoccupied as she brandished a newspaper at me. I could not quite read the headlines, but the text was enormous and the story clearly lurid.
“Have you seen the newspapers? This Whitechapel murderer business is whipping up hysteria.”
“I’m afraid I have heard nothing.”
Her brows raised. “Lucky you. Prostitutes in the East End, child. Someone has been ripping them up and all of Scotland Yard has been thrown into tumult.”
I thought of our previous involvement with the Yard[2] and the head of Special Branch in particular. “Poor Sir Hugo,” I said lightly. “He must be keeping busy.”
She gave me a narrow look. “It is not just on Hugo to solve these atrocities,” she replied with a firmness that belied her eighty-plus years. “It is a national disgrace to have this monster stalking our streets and our police force unable to apprehend him. England ought to be better than this.”
In Lady Wellie’s estimation, the Empire was the center of the universe and England the center of the Empire. Nothing else mattered but this blessed isle. The whole of her father’s life and hers had been devoted to its service, secretly, as each had fulfilled the function of an éminence grise, the power behind the royal family, always guiding, protecting, shielding, not for love of the family themselves but for love of the land and people they governed. Her blood was red as St. George’s Cross. She was, without doubt, the most patriotic individual I had ever known, and she was not above using anyone or anything in order to serve her goals. She was ruthless and hard-edged, and when she smiled, it was a crocodile’s smile, full of guile. I quite liked her, if I am honest, but that morning I was eager to be on my way.
Her shrewd dark eyes missed nothing. “I know you want to be off. I’ll not keep you. But tell me where you mean to be in case I should like to write to you.”
I rattled off the castle’s address, watching as she pursed her lips. “Malcolm Romilly’s place. I knew his grandfather. Waltzed with him at Victoria’s coronation ball. He trod on my toes, but he was a very good kisser. Quite a skillful tongue,” she said with a dreamy look.
I smiled in spite of myself and pressed her hand. “Good day, Lady Wellie.”
She lifted a withered hand. “Godspeed, child.”
His lordship and I had arranged to meet at Waterloo Station, and I very nearly missed him in the teeming throng of travelers that balmy late September morning. The platforms were heaving with people of every description, starched nannies with their screaming charges, turbaned gentlemen making their way with courtly elegance past nut sellers, and pale, thin girls selling the last of the summer flowers, bawling out their wares in harsh cries to make themselves heard above the plump matrons offering meat pies for the journey. Through them all strode City men of business in their pinstriped rectitude, discreetly ogling the aristocratic ladies gliding past without glancing to the left or right, little dogs and ladies’ maids trotting in their wake.
The viscount found me at last. “Miss Speedwell,” he said, coming to my side with long strides that earned the admiration of more than one passing lady. “I was beginning to despair of ever finding you in this melee. Come, I have secured our compartment and the porter will see to your bags.”
A very upright porter with the posture of a broom handle took my bag from my hand and gave me a searching look. “Shall I wait for the lady’s maid, my lord?” he asked the viscount.
Lord Templeton-Vane waved him off. “Miss Speedwell is a modern lady. She does not travel with a maid.”
If his lordship had told the man I intended to travel stark naked with a pumpkin on my head, he could not have looked more appalled. He swallowed hard and gave a half bow that was both respectful and condescending. “Very good, my lord.”
“And I will carry my own bag, thank you,” I said, retrieving my carpetbag with a gesture that brooked no argument.
He gave a little sniff—offended either at my intransigence or the fact that he would see no tip from me—before drawing himself up to his full height and turning to the viscount. “In that case I will bid you a happy journey, my lord. The hamper and your small case are in the compartment and your larger bags are marked for Pencarron and stowed in the luggage van. Good day, sir,” he finished with a hopeful look at the viscount. His lordship obliged him with a substantial coin and the fellow gave me a dismissive look as he strode away.
The viscount turned to me. “My dear Miss Speedwell, two minutes in and already you are causing a scandal. Whatever shall I do with you?”
I did not trouble myself to reply. He offered his arm and we were soon comfortably established in our private compartment. As the train drew from the station in great gusts of steam, he settled back against his seat, regarding me thoughtfully. “I suppose I ought to have considered better the impropriety of our traveling together,” he said.
I shrugged. “I am no stranger to impropriety. It troubles me not in the slightest,” I assured him. “After all, I work for a living. I am hardly a lady.”
His handsome upper lip quirked into an effort at a smile. “And yet you speak with such distinction and your manner and gestures are thoroughly elegant. Tell me, Miss Speedwell, how did you come to be?”
The tone was casual but the gaze that fell upon me was watchful. It occurred to me then that his lordship might have penetrated the truth about my identity. It was an imperfectly kept secret at best. Stoker knew, as did their second brother, Sir Rupert, along with an assortment of government officials, a few Irish malcontents, and our own royal family. Being the semi-legitimate daughter of the Prince of Wales came with a few drawbacks, not least the lack of recognition from my own blood relations. I had made my own way in the world, no thanks to them, but I concealed my birth from prying eyes. Permitting my story to become publicly known would rock the monarchy, I had been warned, although they needn’t have bothered. I had as little desire to be pestered and fussed over as they had of being deposed. The fact that one villain had already attempted to put a crown upon my head was enough to convince me that the life of royalty was not for me.
But the question I pondered now was how much of this Lord Templeton-Vane knew. I gave him a noncommittal smile. “It is a dreadfully dull story, I’m afraid. My mother died when I was a year old and I never knew my father.” That much was true, strictly speaking. “I was brought up by two of my mother’s friends, a pair of spinster sisters who were like aunts. One of them encouraged my interest in lepidoptery, and I discovered that I could make a comfortable living with my net as well as see the world,” I finished lightly.
His lordship said nothing for a long moment. “I think you underestimate how interesting a person you are,” he remarked finally.
“I have always said that it is interesting people who find others interesting.”
“And how neatly you turn my observation to a compliment! That takes real skill.”
“I am merely observant—as are you, my lord.”
He canted his head, a gesture I had seen Stoker perform a thousand times. “I think that we have progressed beyond ‘Miss Speedwell’ and ‘my lord.’ I would take it as a mark of generosity on your part if you would address me as Tiberius.”
“Very well. If you wish.”
“I do. Veronica,” he replied, drawing out the syllables as if reciting an incantation. Without warning, his expression darkened.
“Is there something wrong?”
He shook his head. “Not precisely. But I have taken a liberty of which you might not approve. You see, I remembered only this morning that Malcolm Romilly is a Roman Catholic, rather a fussy one. He would not approve of my traveling with a young lady unchaperoned.”
“I am hardly a young lady!” I protested.
“Young enough,” the viscount corrected with a wry twist of the lips. “And delectable to boot. No, I’m afraid Malcolm’s sensibilities might be offended and we can’t have that. But I realized a little polite fiction might smooth the path. He could hardly think it amiss if we travel together as an affianced couple.”
I blinked. “You want me to pose as your fiancée?”
“Yes,” he said, obviously relishing the idea. “That small pretense will serve us quite nicely.”
“I hardly think it necessary,” I protested.
“Oh, but it is,” he told me with an unmistakable air of satisfaction. “Malcolm can be a stickler about such things. What if he took offense and decided to withdraw his offer of the glasswing larvae? How dreadfully disappointing that would be.” His voice trailed off suggestively, letting the insinuation do its work.
I had, as he had known, no choice. “I will not lose the glasswings,” I said forcefully.
“Then we are in agreement,” he said, settling back with a broad smile. “And you will naturally forgive me for taking the precaution of sending a wire to our host with that information just before we departed.” Before I could respond, he gestured with an elegant hand, imperious as Jove. “Now, if you will reach into the hamper beside you, you will find a bottle of rather good champagne. I think a toast is in order.”
The next hours passed in a haze of succulent food and drink and amiable company as the viscount and I talked and laughed and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. The champagne was not the only delight to be found in the hamper. His lordship—or Tiberius as I had been instructed to think of him—had laid in a supply of delicacies to last the better part of a week.
“I thought the journey was to be completed by nightfall,” I told him as I helped myself to a tiny pie with a featherlight crust and a filling of herbed chicken.
“And so it should be, but there is no reason for us to deny ourselves as much pleasure as possible along the way,” he remarked. I might have taken that for a proposition, but he merely selected a sandwich of the thinnest, whitest bread filled with slivers of perfectly roasted beef and lashings of horseradish sauce. “Divine,” he pronounced.
“You have a crumb upon your lip,” I told him. He put out his tongue in search of it and missed. Laughing, I moved forward and touched my fingertip to the corner of his mouth. I had not considered the intimacy of such an action. It was the sort of thing I might have done to Stoker, and I had come to enjoy a similar although less intense rapport with the viscount.
But if I was slow to appreciate the familiarity of the gesture, Tiberius was not. He held my gaze with his, all mockery fallen away as he leant forward. He parted his lips, taking my finger into his mouth as he removed the crumb. His eyes locked with mine, he gave a gentle suck, and I felt the blood beat in my veins.
He released my finger and sat back with a slow, deliberate smile. “Delicious. As I suspected it would be,” he told me. And I knew he did not mean the crumb.
For the rest of the journey—and make no mistake, to travel from London to the tip of Cornwall takes hours—the viscount behaved with almost perfect decorum. He still made the odd remark that might have been construed as inappropriate by Society’s standards, but nothing that imperiled my virtue, slight as it was. And he did not touch me again. Instead he applied himself to my comfort, insisting upon opening the window when the compartment grew stuffy and asking intelligent and penetrating questions about lepidoptery. I was no fool. I was familiar enough with the machinations of men to know when I was being catechized simply so that a gentleman might appear to marvel at my accomplishments thereby endearing himself to me. But Tiberius was more skilled than most. I almost believed that he was sincerely impressed with the breadth of my knowledge.
Almost. To test him, I spent the better part of an hour describing the Gypsy moth in exhaustive detail. If I am honest, which I have sworn to be within these pages, I will admit that I embroidered most of the facts and invented some out of whole cloth. Throughout my recitation, he kept his expression attentive and even offered thoughtful comments from time to time.
“You don’t say,” he remarked at one point. “The Gypsy moth has a furry tail and feeds solely on Madagascar lizards. How frightfully interesting.”
“No, it isn’t,” I corrected. “Because I made it up. Lymantria dispar do not have furry tails, nor do they eat lizards. No moth does. I was merely testing your ability to pretend to be interested. It is a prodigious skill, my lord. You lasted fifty-seven minutes.”
He looked aggrieved, then smiled. “You were supposed to call me Tiberius,” he reminded me.
“And you have no need for this pretense. Why play at being interested in moths, of all things?” I asked.
“I am not interested in moths,” he admitted. “But I am interested in you.”
“That,” I told him without a blush, “is entirely apparent.”
He sat forward, hands resting upon his knees. They were good hands, like Stoker’s, beautifully shaped, although Tiberius’ were unstained by chemicals and glues and the various other nasty things that habitually fouled Stoker’s. These hands were strong and clean, the nails trimmed and the moons stark white.
“You have never done a day’s work with those hands,” I told him.
“No, but I’ve done many a night’s,” he said, reaching one out to cup my cheek.
“My lord,” I began.
“Tiberius,” he reminded me, leaning forward still further until his name was a breath across my lips. I was just trying to make up my mind whether to let him kiss me—the viscount was after all a very handsome man—or to give him a polite shove, when the train jerked to a stop, flinging him backwards onto his seat.
“Oh, look. We’ve arrived in Exeter,” I said brightly.