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South Carolina

REVIEW:  Under the Same Sky by Genevieve Graham

REVIEW: Under the Same Sky by Genevieve Graham

 

Dear Ms. Graham,

I’ve been trying to read more historical romance lately, so when I was offered your book and I saw that it was a departure from the usual England as Regencylandia fare, I was happy to accept. The unusual premise (Outlander meets Last of the Mohicans) sounded promising and it looked like a modern incarnation of the epic romances that some of us really miss from the olden days. Unfortunately, there were a number of issues that made this a less than satisfying read. It straddles the romance/fiction boundary, but not always in a way that works.

The novels opens in the 1730s, when our narrator, Maggie is a child. Maggie has vivid dreams in which she sees the future, and she forms empathic connections with other people, most notably with Andrew McDonnell, a young teenage boy who lives in the Highlands of Scotland. She feels a strong bond with him, but at that point she knows nothing about him.

When Maggie is seventeen, her life of terrible experiences begins. First, her abusive, alcoholic father dies, leaving her mother and three sisters to scratch out a living on their farm. Then, when she is seventeen, white men come to their farm, shoot her mother dead and kidnap Maggie and her fifteen- and ten-year-old sisters and gang-rape them. Her youngest sister, Ruth, dies from the assault and fifteen-year-old Adelaide is severely traumatized. Maggie and Adelaide are able to escape with the psychic help of Andrew and the real-world help of some sympathetic Cherokee men, who take the girls to their village. As Maggie and Adelaide are nursed back to physical health, Maggie is befriended by Waw-Li, an old woman who also has psychic abilities, and she and her sister are incorporated into the Cherokee community. Things are relatively not-horrible for a while, but the reader should not get too comfortable.

Meanwhile, Andrew and his father and brothers are, as McDonnells, loyal to the Stuart cause and wind up at Culloden on the losing side. Andrew is separated from the others in the battle and assumes they have been killed; he is saved only because Maggie psychically assists him. He makes his way back to the family property, only to find that the English have burned the buildings and killed his mother. Andrew leaves his home and hikes through the Highlands for two months before he meets a fellow Scot, Iain McKenzie, who was also at Culloden and whose wife and children were also killed in the aftermath. Iain and Andrew join forces, walking past abandoned houses, until they find the McLeod property, untouched, where they are welcomed by the family. Andrew has decided to leave Scotland, and Iain joins him. The McLeod’s seventeen-year-old daughter, Janet, wants Andrew to marry her and take her with him, but he is committed to his vision of Maggie.

All this happens before the reader is halfway through the book.

The grimness of the stories is almost unremitting. Children are brutally assaulted and killed, as are women. White men in the Colonies and the English in Scotland are uniformly evil (although the English inexplicably fail to ransack every home they come across, leaving food and even honey in the cupboards of some Scots they kill). The Cherokee are uniformly good. Unfortunately, we don’t really get to know the Cherokee except through Maggie’s perspective. They aren’t quite ciphers, but they’re far from rounded characters, considering we spend a fair amount of time with them, and there’s a lot of exposition about Cherokee ways and beliefs. And oh yes, the one Irish character plays the fiddle.

There is a strong sense of historical place in the novel. The Scottish countryside is well described, as are the scenes in colonial America. There is a lot of Gaelic and brogue, but it didn’t bother me as much as it has in many historical romances (The “dinna fash” count is 2). Inexplicably, however, the historical verisimilitude falls apart in the last quarter of the book. Andrew, Iain, and the others accompanying them make their way to the Scottish coast, where they easily gain passage on a ship bound for Virginia. They have plenty of money to pay the fare for five people, and Andrew even gets paid for working on board the ship on the journey. Then, once they reach Virginia, they make their way to Cross Creek, North Carolina without difficulty, and from there to Charleston. Which in this book is in North Carolina. And Andrew, Iain, and Seamus (the Irish fiddler) are able to gain title to 100 acres of land in the “province of North Carolina” on the same day they arrive in Charleston (the biggest town in the South at that point) because:

the magistrate was going over petitions and, being in a cheerful mood, was handing them out like candy. The royal officials granted the land free, subject only to a small surveying and transfer fee: four shillings proclamation money per hundred acres.

And the group soon runs into Maggie, even though she has been in South Carolina for the entire book and not moved from that area.

No, no, no. North and South Carolina were different colonies (not provinces) in 1747. Charleston is in South Carolina. And even “free” land cost a lot more than four shillings in conveyance and other fees. I felt as if I’d been dumped into another book. It was so disappointing, because the historical context was the best thing about the novel up to that point.

Maggie is the most interesting character, perhaps because we spend a lot of time in her head and she is written in first person POV. Andrew is next, written in third person POV. The rest of the characters are kind of stock. The writing is serviceable but there is a lot of exposition and the dialogue is predictable. Here’s an example:

“Your dreams, your magic, your gift from the spirit world. Pah! You can make them say whatever you want. You do not want me, you blame the dreams. You are wrong about something, and you blame them, too. If you do not want to marry me, Ma-kee, you should be strong enough to say it. And if that is so, why do you kiss me and hold my hand? Why do you look at me the way you do?”

“I—” I said in a tiny voice, but stopped, having no idea where to start.

“This is what I mean,” he fumed. “You cannot answer a question without consulting your dreams. You do not know what you want. I waited for you, Ma-kee. I trusted your eyes. Do not tell me some story about your dreams. Do not treat me like an idiot. The others may listen to every word you say, but I know you.”

He disappeared into the trees, crackling twigs under his feet. I didn’t watch him go, but stared at the dead tree beside me, feeling wretched.

He was right and he was wrong. To be fair, I did listen to my dreams, and paid close attention to them. But they didn’t rule my every decision. I thought for myself and always had. The dreams only provided insight and guidance. What hurt was when he had said I didn’t know what I wanted. It hurt because in many ways he was right. I didn’t know why I allowed myself to grow close to Soquili when my heart already belonged to Wolf. I liked being with Soquili, doing what we’d been doing. Before he came along, I had never felt protected or cared for by anyone other than Wolf. I had never expected to want to touch a man after what had happened to me in the woods. I hated that I had hurt him. That he’d felt the need to strike out the way he did. I liked Soquili very much. But he had to understand I was never going to be his wife.

Maggie has been snogging poor Soquili, so it’s not surprising he’s confused. But after a while he comes around and becomes Just A Friend, indeed, such a good friend that he saves Maggie later in the story.

I’m really not sure who the audience is for this book. The hero and heroine do not meet in person until the very end, and the HEA is a given, so romance readers are likely to feel unsatisfied. If the audience is readers of historical fiction, the Carolina problems are pretty glaring, the immigration journey is something out of a pirate romance, and I’m not altogether sure about some of the bits set in Scotland (Andrew walks for months without seeing a soul, which seems unlikely to me, but I could be wrong). While the writing is perfectly adequate, it’s not a book you read for the lyrical prose. And finally, the storyline is grim, grim, grim, I’m all for gritty, but this goes way past that. Grade: C

~ Sunita

 

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REVIEW: The Kingdom by Amanda Stevens

REVIEW: The Kingdom by Amanda Stevens

Dear Ms. Stevens,

I enjoyed your previous novel, The Restorer, about the self-styled Graveyard Queen, Amelia Gray. It’s a morbid name but a fitting one. Amelia is a cemetery restorer, as well as the owner of a niche, but popular, blog. What few people know, however, is that she can also see ghosts. Because I liked reading about this character with such opposing traits, I was looking forward to picking up the rest of the trilogy. But having finished the follow-up, The Kingdom, I can’t help but wonder if I got on the wrong bus.

The-Kingdom-Stevens
Set after the events of The Restorer, Amelia leaves Charleston and travels to Asher Falls, South Carolina where she’s been commissioned to restore a cemetery. She appreciates the work. Anything to put space between her and Devlin, the man who encouraged her to break the rules that’s kept her safe from the supernatural her entire life.

But once she arrives in Asher Falls, she senses things are not right. It’s not just that there’s a sunken graveyard at the bottom of the lake — though not the one she was hired to restore, thankfully. The town of Asher Falls is in decline. It’s obviously seen better days. The people who live there are secretive, more so than you’d expect in a small town environment. A lingering ghost that Amelia does her best to ignore keeps telling her to leave. It’s never a good sign when a ghost is telling you to get out of town. The longer Amelia stays, the more she begins to wonder if she was brought there for a purpose other than restoring a cemetery.

Initially, The Kingdom had many of the elements I enjoyed in The Restorer. Its opening pages were atmospheric and creepy. A graveyard at the bottom of a lake that you have to cross via ferry to reach town? With ghostly faces looking back up at you? Brr. From the beginning, we immediately wonder if choosing this as the place to seek refuge from Devlin is a good idea.

This continues as she begins to meet the town’s denizens. Most of them are a little strange. They all obviously have things they’d rather not share with the outsider. The book is strongest when Amelia is trying to get a feel for her surroundings: the place, the people, the cemetery and, of course, the ghosts.

Where the book falls apart is when we get to the actual story. The more Amelia learns about Asher Falls and the true reason for why she was brought there, the less it made sense for her to stay. And yet stay she did. I know some readers thought Amelia made some foolish, even TSTL choices in The Restorer. While I saw where they were coming from, I didn’t have these same complaints. With The Kingdom, however, I do. At multiple points throughout the book, I seriously wondered why Amelia stayed and why she made the choices she did. The degree to which she relied on intuition and “feelings” struck me as inconsistent with her character, let alone the severity of the situation around her. Someone broke into her house, stole and drugged her recently adopted dog, and then set bear traps for her when she went to retrieve the poor thing. Something is clearly not right with this town.

Maybe her motivations just didn’t seem clear to me. The argument that she had to stay in town to finish the cemetery restoration breaks down quickly because while that is the reason she came, it’s certainly not the focus of her attention. Even when she’s doing tasks related to the restoration, her mind is always elsewhere. Most of the time, she seemed to be doing other things — especially after she discovers the hidden, solitary grave.

Amelia also finds a new love interest in the form of Thane Asher, the heir to the powerful family after whom the town is named. I couldn’t have cared less. It’s difficult to buy into a romantic subplot when as a reader, I was well aware of the reason Amelia came to Asher Falls in the first place: Devlin. She’s still torn up about him and admits she’s not ready for a new relationship. I couldn’t see how a relationship between Amelia and Thane would end anywhere good and as a result, failed to become invested in the outcome.

In the second half of the novel, we learn more about the reasons for Amelia being hired and how they tie into her background. My thoughts can be summed up in one word: Really? It was at this point in the novel that my suspension of disbelief snapped. I don’t want to go into detailed spoilers but let’s just say I found the reasons rather contrived and ridiculous. Yes, the Graveyard Queen books revolve around a woman who can see and interact with ghosts. But to then introduce [spoiler]witches, demons, and pacts with the devil[/spoiler] with no build-up was asking a bit too much.

As a fantasy reader, I can accept all sorts of developments but only if those things are in line with the world being built up until that point. I was introduced to a certain type of world in The Restorer and for the first part of The Kingdom. In the latter parts of the novel, however, I felt like I’d suddenly dropped into another book, telling a different story. It did not read as consistent to me at all.

In short, consistency was the main problem for me with The Kingdom. It wasn’t just the worldbuilding; it was Amelia. After the events of The Restorer, she wanted to go back to following the rules because breaking them had given such disastrous results. What happens instead? She breaks them again, and the repercussions are even more severe.

I thought The Kingdom was a weak installment to this trilogy. While it cleared up some mysteries about Amelia’s background, there were serious flaws in the plot. The entire story was really just a convenient vehicle to tell us the source of Amelia’s powers. Maybe I would have felt differently had I found the Asher family sufficiently ominous and dangerous. Instead they reminded me more of a bunch of inbred alcoholics who don’t get out much. I probably will read the next Graveyard Queen book in the hopes that we’ll get back on track from this awful detour, but I’m not as enamored as I once was. C-

My regards,
Jia

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