The King’s Daughter by Stephanie Churchill

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Some Queens are content with being the Royal Consort/breeder of heirs/alliance maker, some refuse to accept the situation as nothing more than duty, and some welcome all facets of the job including the role of a ruling Queen; a seat of power and influence.  Irisa, daughter of a scribe, or so she has always thought, is suddenly thrust into a world she does not understand; the world of princes and kings.  The irony of her situation (which I will not divulge) is cunningly wrought, and the solution Irisa arrives at is… well, you’ll have to read the book.  🙂  In masterful storytelling fashion, the author brings to life a fantasy world, brings to life the inhabitants of that world, and brings to the reader a tale of discovery, a tale of power seeking skulduggery, a tale of loyalty and love.  A tale replete with surprises, as well as a few hints about book three – yes, my peeps and fellow travelers, book three is in the works.  4.7 stars

 

Stephanie was gracious enough to submit to being interviewed by yours truly.  Thank you, Stephanie, for braving the unknown. So, without further ado:

What is it that prompted you to start writing?

That’s a really great question, and one I’ve been forced to think a lot about in the last several years.  As I’ve pondered the question, I’ve come to realize that the desire has always been there.  I just didn’t recognize it.  It’s kind of embarrassing, really, to think that I had been so oblivious to my abilities my entire life!

I was a consummate daydreamer as a child.  I’d spend hours wandering the countryside around my grandparents’ Nebraska farm, daydreaming and telling myself stories or pretending I was the protagonist in a live-action adventure.  Didn’t every kid do that?  My freshman year of college, my creative writing professor used to use my stories as examples for the other students of what to do.  I’d shrug my shoulders and wonder why it was a big deal.  Early in my adult life my sister and I would swap story writing, adding the next chapter to the other sister’s story then passing it along for the other to add the next chapter.   These were just things I did without thought, purely out of enjoyment.  Everyone does that, right?  It never occurred to me that I was any good at it or that it was an unusual hobby.

The signs were all there.  It just took someone with the weight of “authority” behind their name to point it out to me.  Enter historical fiction novelist Sharon Kay Penman.  To this day she minimizes her impact on my writing career, saying that I’d have come to it on my own eventually.  I vehemently disagree.  Clearly I’d been woefully oblivious throughout my whole life already, why would I suddenly change course?  I had been a rabid fan of her novels so wrote a review of one of her books for her.  It was something about that review that caught her attention, causing her to pen the fated question in an email: “Have you ever thought about writing?”

It was that question that prompted me to start writing with a goal towards publishing.  It also started a mentoring relationship with my favorite author as well as a lifelong friendship.

Why this particular genre?

Another question I’ve had to think long and hard about in the last several years.  I didn’t really start off considering genre when I began my first novel.  It just sort of wrote itself organically — the settings, characters, and plot, all taking shape on the page of their own accord.  I simply wanted to tell a story, and I didn’t need any history to do it.  My focus was on characters and their motivations, their pains, their passions, their circumstances.  Because I have read so much historical fiction, the world of historical places and people is so seeped into my consciousness that it couldn’t help but come out.  Ms. Penman urged me early on to write what I love, not what I thought readers, publishers, or the market might want.  The idea being that if you don’t love what you are writing, why write it?

Looking back at things, I chose a hard route.  My books are not truly historical fiction and they aren’t truly fantasy.  Not in the traditional senses anyway.  They are kind of a hybrid that echo elements of each genre without being true to either.  This makes marketing quite difficult, and it’s hard to target a particular reading audience.  I have been told that readers of historical fiction should find enough familiar in my books to make them feel at home, thus prompting me to adopt a sort of tagline of “fantasy that reads like historical fiction.”

Were there any influences that helped you create the world of Kassia and Irisa?

The first scene I wrote in The Scribe’s Daughter came about because I re-imagined a scene from the animated Disney movie Aladdin.  In this particular scene, Aladdin’s monkey friend Abu steals an apple from a market merchant.  So as not to get caught, Aladdin runs away to escape the pursuit of the local authorities who want to cut off his hand for stealing.  I simply eliminated the monkey and made my protagonist a girl.  That was my first glimpse of Kassia, and the more I got to know her, the more intrigued I became.  Her spunky reckless nature and her caustically sharp tongue were hard to ignore.  So she got her own book!

Part way through writing the first book, Kassia’s older sister, Irisa, began to tap me on the shoulder.  “Excuse me, scribe?” she asked very politely.  She is like that.  “I don’t mean to interrupt, but I have some really important things to share.  Kassia wasn’t the only one to go on an adventure.  And since my experiences will have a significant impact on my sister, I’d like to share what has happened to me.”  And so The King’s Daughter was born.

I can think of several authors who very specifically influenced my writing of these books, primarily for style, but some for plot and mood: Sharon Kay Penman (of course), Stephen Lawhead, Juliet Marillier, and Bernard Cornwell.  The authors that have proven to be the most helpful to me in terms of mentorship are Sharon Kay Penman (of course), Elizabeth Chadwick, and Michael Jecks.  Each of these are fabulous writers in their own way, but each of them is humble and extremely helpful to other authors.

 

What books, genres, authors do you read when you’re not writing?

Lately I’ve been reading multiple books simultaneously, one non-fiction and one fiction.  The non-fiction is all history, particularly 13th century British history.  In the fiction world, I made a decision about a year ago to read primarily from within the world of indie authors.  It has been FABULOUS, and I am utterly amazed at the amount of talent, particularly from within my circle of author friends.  I’ve still got a long, long way to go to get through their lists!  I know some very prolific authors, apparently!  There are a few mainstream authors whose books I’ll buy sight unseen as they come out: Sharon Kay Penman (of course), Elizabeth Chadwick, Bernard Cornwell, and Stephen Lawhead.  I also enjoy a break from history and historical fiction now and then so will read murder mysteries, black ops political thrillers (Brad Thor, Vince Flynn); and now and then a literary work that has been recommended.  The most recent was A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, a Swedish comedy-drama that a friend of mine recommended.

 

Who do you turn to for advice or encouragement when the Muse is a bit reticent in supplying inspiration?

Am I one of the few who has never experienced the dreaded writer’s block?  Because honestly I can’t say I’ve ever been so stuck I’d felt I lost my muse.  There have been times in plotting when I am not quite sure what the next step will be for my characters, but usually I just need to keep pondering.  And it’s usually when I am not thinking too hard about it that ideas come to me.  My best ideas always seem to come in the shower or when I’m out in nature walking my dog.  In those moments I’m not really “working” but just allowing my mind to wander, engaging in free association.  I find that my mind tends to solve its own problems without me trying to help too much.  If I do need outside help, I’ll go to my mentor Sharon every time.  She has been an amazing source of wisdom because her experience is so long and deep.

 

I know from my own experience as an author how frustrating it is knowing you have written a good book, are getting positive feedback and reviews and yet sales are slow.  Does that ever make you question why you do it?

Absolutely!  Weekly!  Sometimes daily.  If something specific has prompted my despair, I’ll allow myself time to wallow, but at a certain point I tell myself enough is enough.  Then I just get on with it.  I am not writing to become rich or famous, but it certainly is easy to get caught up in the desire without realizing it’s happened.  Success looks different for every author.  I will constantly pursue perfection, or at least improvement.  So as long as I’m making progress as an author, I’m heading in the right direction.  Learning contentment with where I am right now is a good lesson, and one I learn every day.  My husband and I constantly remind one another to “compare down” rather than look at those who have more than we do.  We’ve done it all 20 years of our marriage.  This philosophy basically means that it’s easy to think you don’t have enough.  It’s when you look at those with less than you that you realize how much you have to be grateful for.  The same applies to writing.  There are many other authors who struggle more than I do, either because of certain challenges or because they are newer to it than I am.  Rather than make me arrogant, it humbles me.  I’ve been given a lot, and I’m grateful for all of it.  I’m not on this earth to live a selfish life, so if things don’t seem to be going as well for me as I’d want, I look outward and see how, if at all, I can help other authors.  Why not make the load lighter for others?

What is next for Stephanie Churchill?

Until I am able to install a shark infested moat around my house, I am struggling to write book three, as of yet untitled.  Life is continuing to get in the way, so it’s been quite a fight.  This book will combine the stories of both Kassia and Irisa and their respective families, tying in loose threads from both previous books.  I had finished off The King’s Daughter alluding to the story of Irisa and Kassia’s mother, intending to write a prequel next.  I got a fair way into planning that book but hit some walls for various reasons.  And then the whispering began again, this time from Casmir, one of my main characters from The King’s Daughter.  He said his unresolved issues take much more precedence.  Many readers of The King’s Daughter were fascinated by him, he argued.  Give the reading public what they want, he said.  A bit of an ego, huh?  He is a king.  What was I supposed to do?

About Stephanie

I used to live my life as an unsuspecting part of the reading public.  Spending my days in a Georgetown law firm just outside downtown Washington, D.C., by all outward appearances I was a paralegal working in international trade and then antitrust law.  I liked books, and I read them often, but that’s all I was: a reader of books.
When my husband and I got married, I moved to the Minneapolis metro area and found work as a corporate paralegal, specializing in corporate formation, mergers & acquisitions, and corporate finance.  Again, by all outward appearances, I was a paralegal and a reader of books.
And then one day, while on my lunch break, I visited the neighboring Barnes & Noble and happened upon a book by author Sharon Kay Penman, and while I’d never heard of her before, I took a chance and bought the book.  That day I became a reader of historical fiction.

Fast forward a dozen years or so, and I had become a rabid fan of Sharon Kay Penman’s books as well as historical fiction in general.  Because of a casual comment she’d made on social media, I wrote Ms. Penman a ridiculously long review of her latest book, Lionheart.  As a result of that review, she asked me what would become the most life-changing question: “Have you ever thought about writing?”  And The Scribe’s Daughter was born.
When I’m not writing or taxiing my two children to school or other activities, I’m likely walking Cozmo, our dog or reading another book to review.  The rest of my time is spent trying to survive the murderous intentions of Minnesota’s weather.

Books can be purchased at Amazon, iBooks, Google, Kobo, along with other online retailers.  Here are the Amazon links:

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Jade Empire – Tales of the Empire 6 by S.J.A. Turney

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The 6th and final book in this fantasy/real world series has the author not only telling tall tales, but also a cautionary tale reflecting the cyclical nature of history – and an uncanny reflection of modern day political madness.  The theme of East versus West with the battleground in the middle is prevalent as the Jade Emperor and the Western Emperor decide they both want to stretch their boundaries, with the land of Inda being the prize.  It is a story filled with irony as the three sons of a minor Inda rajah choose different paths for their lives as the Jade Empire begins it’s conquest.  The irony doesn’t stop there, but I will not say more about that, I will let the reader enjoy the unfolding tension and unexpected developments without any spoilers from me.

In the many books I have read by Mr. Turney, I was always blown away with his mastery of description, and he doesn’t disappoint in this one.  An example is the telling of the monsoon season and the effects it has on the land and on the two armies facing each other across a vast plain they cannot cross.  The differences in the three cultures, the differing approaches to the military; the differences in religion; the differences in the ruling hierarchies – all are exquisitely told.

This has been an exciting and thoroughly entertaining ride through The Tales of the Empire, and I highly recommend it.  4.8 stars

Strategos – The Complete Trilogy by Gordon Doherty

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Below are my reviews for the three books in this series – SPOILER ALERT – I loved all of them.

Strategos 1 – Born in the Borderlands

Apion is a lost soul, doomed to a life of servitude and mockery.  Losing his family to a band of mysterious raiders and horribly wounded himself he is rescued from his slavery by an unlikely source, a Seljuk farmer.  Unlikely because he is a Christian and tensions are high between the proponents of Islam and the proponents of Christ in the borderlands of the Byzantine Empire.  This is a story of how Apion overcomes his physical limitations and rises up through the ranks of the borderland garrison in the face of the invasion by Tugrul – The Falcon – and the Seljuk horde bent on the destruction of anything Byzantine.

The author, Gordon Doherty, has crafted a marvelous telling of the period when The East meets The West in the throes of Constantinople’s decline.  You can feel the heat, hear the cicadas and experience the ironies of the many conflicted emotions in this saga of redemption, reward and revenge.    As with any good book, the main protagonist needs an enemy, someone to focus his attention, someone to keep him going no matter the pain and the author does not disappoint.  Not only does Apion have to deal with Seljuk warriors but also with elements within the garrison, a couple of real nasty specimens who just so happen  work for The Emperor.

I really enjoyed this journey.   It brings home the fact that we too live in a time of turmoil, that East vs. West is continuing to create uncertainty and fear. It is also a wonderful story in itself but also leaves you wanting more so strap on your scimitar and head to Anatolia for this excellent tale but leave room for the sequel.

Strategos 2 –  Rise of the Golden Heart

I have read three of Mr. Doherty’s books and liked them a lot.  Given that his track record is superb I expected nothing less than that same excellence from Strategos: Rise of the Golden Heart.  If I was previously enthralled with his work, and not just a little jealous, I am even more so now.

It has been twelve years since the end of book 1 and Apion is now a Strategos and his reputation as The Haga grows after every battle or skirmish with his Seljuk enemies.  His development as a strong, decisive leader of men is countered somewhat by the soul sickening events of his past.  We find him not only having to cope with his turmoil on an emotional level but physically as well given that his most obdurate foe, once his best friend, has sworn vengeance and death to The Haga.  Mr. Doherty plays this sub-plot beautifully and adds some unforeseen results…(no spoilers  J ).

Once again, the author has put together a story line with abundant twists, turns and surprises.  One in particular had my mind screaming OMG or was it WTF when, no wait, no spoilers here boys and girls, suffice to know that the author has not lost his touch for mystery and intrigue.  Neither has the author neglected to do his homework.  The battles are first rate, the geography is well described and the everyday events of 11th century Byzantium are evidence of the research.

Relentless action, political intrigue, betrayal, bitter foes and steadfast friends – the list goes on and on and I’m pretty sure will carry over to book 3.  Well done Mr. Doherty.   I rate this book at 4.8.

Strategos 3 – Island in the Storm

First off let me say that I have a major beef with Mr. Doherty and I am sure that all of you who read the words of this humble scribe will agree once you finish Island in the Storm.  This series has been among the best I’ve read and now it is over and that my friends is the cause of my discontent.  However, the sheer brilliance in this third volume does tend to soften the blow.  This is storytelling at it’s finest, the drama, the emotion, the horrors of war, the loss of friends; in all these and more the author is at the top of his game.  Throughout the book we are part of the struggle not only between Byzantium-Diogenes Romanus and the Seljuk Turk Alp Arslan but also to the powers seeking to supplant Romanus and too, Alp Arslan.  The plots and twists are the ever present backdrop to the building climatic battle at Manzikert on August 26, 1071.  As a describer of battle scenes Mr. Doherty has always brought the sights, sounds and smells to the readers senses but in this battle, one that covers so much time and space and has so many ebbs and flows coupled with the ferocity and emotional trauma, the author delivers a coup de grace.  As expected Apion, The Haga, has a destiny to fulfill and is faced with making choices that will determine not only his future but the future of much more.  The characters be they likable(Sha, Blastares, et. al.) or be they repulsive(Psellos, John Doukas, et. al.) are done beautifully and imbue the story with the realities of the time and situation.  In short, this series may be over but it is certainly going out on a very high note.  5 stars

 

The Scribe’s Daughter by Stephanie Churchill

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When I first saw this book popping up in discussion via a Facebook group I belong to, I decided that I wanted to read it even though it is not historical fiction but rather a historical fantasy tale.  So, I put it on my radar to be read when time allowed.  However, the forces of the universe deemed it was time when I won a copy of the book, and so as to not disrupt those forces, I disrupted my schedule instead; gladly as it turned out.  It is a gripping tale that held my interest from the beginning and kept me thoroughly entertained.  The main character, Kassia is struggling just to survive day to day living with no real prospects for the future.  Then a stranger appears and offers her a job that will pay enough to see her and her sister Irisa through for quite a while.  What she doesn’t realize is that this sets off a chain of events that changes her life forever.  The story is compelling, the characters are well written, the imaginative settings and differing cultures the author conjures up make this a truly excellent read.  Part of the blurb for the book states that Kassia is a thief. That is certainly true as she stole my heart along the way.  4.3 stars  I am looking forward to the sequel.

Half Sick of Shadows by Richard Abbott

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First, a confession; my only exposure to the famous ballad, The Lady of Shalott by Alfred Lord Tennyson, is the musical adaptation by Loreena McKennitt.  Perhaps I once had to read it for a class in school, but since my reading preference has always been prose, it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility that I have simply forgotten.  Anyroad, this adaptation takes the Arthurian legend and adds the author’s own personal touch; an adaptation that, while remaining true to the original’s basic story line, is reminiscent of the science fiction episodes I used to watch on Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone.  The progression of The Lady through the various stages of her existence, and the descriptions of the eras in which she awakes are masterfully told by the author.  The inner turmoil of The Lady, as she struggles with the Mirror to gain access to the people she comes in contact with, drives the tale as the Mirror cautions her time and again about the dangers involved.  The conclusion of the tale, though a heart rending scene, is also one of hope as The Lady finally finds out who she is.  Kudos to the author for a most interesting slant on this well known ballad.  4.7 stars

The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay

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Let me just state from the get-go…I fancy myself as an author given that I have written and published a novel (with more to come) but when I read someone like Guy Gavriel Kay, I ache to have just a little of his talent; just a little more ability to draw word pictures in his manner.  Lions is a complex story of love, loyalty, and devotion during a period of great upheaval; a period reminiscent of the Moorish-Christian competition to see whose God is best(sadly, still going on.)  If I get anything out of reading this tale it is this, that the genocidal insanity of religious domination in political affairs is quite possibly the saddest concept in human history.

Another aspect of Lions is the almost impossible situations some of the characters find themselves in; especially when it comes to love and loyalty…so many lines are crossed and in such a way that the differences between Jaddite-Asharite-Kindath pale in significance to the individuals involved.  The Kindath physician Jehane, the poet/warrior Ammar, the Jaddite warrior Rodrigo and many others, provide the reader with characters so fully developed as to make the story seem historical rather than a fantasy account.

So, my peeps and fellow travelers, prepare for an emotion filled, heart tugging tale from a master at his craft.  5 stars…or maybe two moons…or maybe just the Sun..read the book, you’ll get what I mean.  🙂

 

 

Legionary – Empire of Shades by Gordon Doherty

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The Legionary series, has become one of my favorites over the years, and am happy to report that Empire of Shades carries on the tradition of crafty storytelling that we’ve grown to expect from Mr. Doherty.  The masterful interweaving of the multiple plot lines throughout the tale are sure to keep the reader engaged and turning pages.  Pavo and the rest of his gang are really put to the test in many ways and many times in this many layered thriller.  Pavo reaches a new depth of character as he pursues a promise made to his friend and mentor, Gallus.  He also finds love again and that experience leaves it’s mark.  Set against the backdrop of Theodosius taking the mantle of Emperor of the East and the unsettling shenanigans of Gratian, the Emperor of the West, Mr. Doherty leads us on a brutal adventure during a time of great migrations and a changing world.  4.7 stars