Thornbound (The Harwood Spellbook #2) by Stephanie Burgis

ThornboundI will start this review by saying outright that I loved Thornbound.  This is the second in the Harwood Spellbook series and brings to us the exploits of Cassandra Harwood.  I have to say that posting this on Valentine’s Day feels particularly appropriate because there is an element of romance to this book – although not enough to put me off reading, just enough to pique my interest and not overrun the story.

Be aware that as a review for the second book in series this may contain spoilers so you might want to stop reading now if you haven’t yet read the first book (although I will of course endeavour to avoid spoilers).

Cassandra is something of a rebel.  She was the first woman to study magic and when her magic failed (as we found out in Snowspelled) she found another peg to hang her hat on with the notion of opening up a school for women with magical ability.  Of course, the country, and more to the point the Boudiccate, a group made up of stalwart matriachs who run the politics of Angland with a firm hand, were up in arms.  It’s just unheard of, teaching women magic – magic is the realm of men for goodness sake. Whatever next – men will be wanting to govern the country and all will swiftly go to hell in a handcart if that ever happens.

The story picks up shortly after the conclusion of Spellbound.  Cassandra is almost ready to open her new school.  Set within Thornfell, the family’s ancestral home, all has been made ready for the arrival of the new students.  The future seems rosy, although we soon learn that everything isn’t quite as picture perfect as it may seem.  Amy, Cassandra’s sister-in-law has all but given up any hopes of her political career – the Boudiccate are outraged by the support she has given to Cassandra in developing her plans.  Hiring staff to work in the school has been all but impossible and it seems Cassandra will be running all the lessons herself – bar the weather lessons, for which she has an unexpected appointment, and on top of this the Boudiccate have dropped a surprise audit on Casandra to coincide with the opening.

I won’t elaborate further on the plot other than to say this is very entertaining and also a little darker than the first  Thornfell backs directly onto a dense forest and the family have always recognised the agreements in place between humans and the fae.  Of course, these things can go wrong and when an altar that indicates a pact with the fae appears on school property things swiftly start to spiral out of control.  We’re talking disappearances and creepy encroaching vines.

Okay, so this instalment has a darker feel than the previous book as mentioned above and this is pleasantly unexpected.  Plus, I think Burgis pulls an absolute blinder by keeping Cassandra’s husband out of the pages for the majority of the story – wait!  I will explain.  I think if Wrexham had been present it would have resulted in a lot of agency being taken from Cassandra because she would naturally rely on him and he would also want to step in – also this keeps the chemistry between the two very much alive, and, on top of that it enables a remarkable bond to develop between the females in the story – which is just great.

I’m loving this series, it got off to a good start with Snowspelled but Thornbound is even better.  I’m getting a good feeling for this parallel world and the gender reversals.  There’s a great diverse cast of characters, the magic is gently explored and it’s all set in a regency style Angland.  What’s not to enjoy really.

On top of that the writing is excellent.  I already know, of course, having read a couple of other books by this author, that her writing was really good and this series is no exception.

This series has so much potential that it actually makes me really quite excited.  Seriously, I hope that there are plenty more instalments planned because I will definitely be there to pick them up.  If you fancy your bonnets and petticoats with a bit of sass and an alternate universe where females have some real say in what goes on, if you want a dash of romance that is more a lovely side dish than the whole hog, plus, come on – fae – then here you go, and, you’re welcome.

I really enjoyed Thornbound and can’t wait for more.

I received a copy courtesy of the author, for which my thanks.  The above is my own opinion.



Weekly Wrap Up : 10/2/19

I’m finally getting round to reinstating my weekly wrap ups.  I need to do these posts as they keep a log of the books I’ve read and also help to keep me focused on upcoming books and outstanding reviews.  So, this week I’ve read two books and for the moment I’m keeping on top of my reviews.  I do have four more SPFBO reviews still outstanding but I’m slowly making progress.

My books:

  1. The Ruin of Kings (A Chorus of Dragons #1) by Jenn Lyons
  2. Thornbound (The Harwood Spellbook #2) by Stephanie Burgis

Next week’s reads:

  1. The Taking of Annie Thorne C. J. Tudor
  2. White Stag by Kara Barbieri
  3. The Orphanage of Gods by Helena Coggan

Upcoming reviews:

  1. The Ruin of Kings (A Chorus of Dragons #1) by Jenn Lyons
  2. Thornbound (The Harwood Spellbook #2) by Stephanie Burgis

I’d love to know what you’re reading this week.

Snowspelled (The Harwood Spellbook) by Stephanie Burgis

snowspelledSnowspelled is the latest book that I’ve read and enjoyed by the wonderful Stephanie Burgis and I can say in all sincerity that I hope that there are more adventures from the plucky new heroine from within these pages.

This is an entertaining, Austen style, Regency period set in an alternate country known as Angland.  Mr Bennett would surely run for his inner sanctum if he was magically transported to this universe where women are the politicians and men deal with the magical elements.  The countryside is a place where trolls hide in the snow and elves appear mysteriously and silently along secret paths.

As the story begins we make the acquaintance of Cassandra Harwood.  Accompanied by her brother and sister-in-law Cassandra has foolishly accepted an invitation to a party and now deeply regrets that decision.  Her ex-fiancee will be present and whilst the stubborn part of her wishes to attend to prove to everyone else, and perhaps herself most of all, that she is over the relationship, you can immediately detect that her emotions are still running deep.  On top of that a strange snow storm has broken out, many of the invitees have found the roads impassable and it seems that one particular group of young females has gone missing in the storm.  Always a bit of a rule breaker Cassandra is determined to be part of the search party, even though she no longer has the ability to wield magic and so begins a string of events that see Cassandra making an unlikely agreement with a rather devious elf Lord – and the clock is ticking.

The world here is one in which a tentative pact exists between humans and elves, a pact that requires a renewal and show of faith at certain times of the year – for example the Solstice.  It would be considered incredibly rude and a massive slight if things didn’t run to plan, the elf King would be affronted and some of his subjects, the ones who maybe don’t like having their hunting enjoyment curtailed, would be only to happy to see the pact fail and so Cassandra is under incredible pressure to solve the mystery of the snow storm.

Being an alternate history this gives the author the freedom to turn things on their head and Burgis takes great enjoyment in doing so and thereby creating a witty and charming story of manners with a difference.  The ladies retire to the drawing room after dinner and the gentleman await a call to inform them that they may now enter – the important political matters having been dealt with.  I loved the world created here, there’s so much to explore and I truly hope that there will be further series.

In terms of the characters.  I liked Cassandra, she’s certainly an easy character to read and I was definitely curious about her story – being the first woman to enter the all male world of magic and actually becoming one of the foremost magicians of the period.  I feel that there is plenty more from this aspect of the story and that the author is simply whetting our appetites here.

Now, as you may know, I don’t tend to read a lot of books that focus on romance and there is undoubtedly a romance that plays a fairly central theme here, but, this has such a lovely period feel that I simply couldn’t resist, plus it isn’t the main thread of the story, just an aspect that helps to create chemistry and build tension.

This is undoubtedly a step away from the grimdark blood filled books that I quite often read but it was a lovely and welcome respite.  It brought back fond memories of some of my earlier classical reads and succeeded in bringing back to light a Regency style story with a more modern twist.  I had fun reading this, it was light and charming and a book that I devoured in one helping.  In (almost) the words of Oliver Twist – please Miss, I want  some more.

In terms of criticisms – my usual refrain, as a novella I wanted much much more but I guess that’s not a bad criticism really, after all, if I wasn’t enjoying it I would have wanted a much quicker end to the story.

I received a copy courtesy of the author for which my sincere thanks.  The above is my own opinion.

I would also quickly give a little shout out for that cover which I think is just lovely.


Congress of Secrets by Stephanie Burgis

congressHaving fairly recently read and enjoyed Masks and Shadows by Stephanie Burgis I had no hesitation at all in putting in a request for Congress of Secrets.  This book definitely does not disappoint and in fact I personally enjoyed it even more than Masks and Shadows.  Using real historical events and people Burgis once again brings to us a story that weaves together magic and mystery in a most compelling way.

The year is 1814, Napoleon has fallen and the Congress of Vienna is being hosted by Emperor Francis.  A meeting of nobles, ambassadors and royalty with all the ensuing pomp and ceremony that such an occasion would herald.  Negotiations for territory are the main order of the day while behind the scenes Vienna is held in the grip of fear, political speech is restricted, secret police maintain strict control over the general populace and dark alchemy is being practiced in the most unexpected places.

This really was a good read.  I love this author’s style of writing.  She really can set a scene and make it appear effortless.  I like how she builds her characters and I think she hits the nail spot on in terms of cutting back and forth between characters to create the maximum tension.

At the heart of this story there are two main protagonists.

Caroline Wyndham is a British noble, intent on meeting the Emperor and offering financial assistance to help him make this Congress an overwhelming success.  In reality Caroline was actually born Karolina Vogl.  Years before her life was torn apart when her father was arrested by the secret police for sedition and though she was herself taken into captivity at a very young age she subsequently escaped and managed to establish a new life for herself.  Twenty years later she has returned, desperate for news about her father.

Prince Kalishnikoff of Kenova is attending the Congress to seek reparation for the loss of his lands during the recent conflicts.  In truth he is a charming con artist named Michael Steinhüller.  In a strange quirk Michael was perviously a young apprentice to Karolina’s father and the two have not seen each other since the night of the arrest.

The two of them are about to once again meet and they’ll need to keep their heads and their minds focused as their incredibly risky plans become inextricably entwined.

I really enjoyed this story.  It’s a wonderful period drama with an intriguing plot, dark magic and a very subtle romance.

Firstly to the characters.  Karolina and Michael are very well developed, probably Karolina a little moreso than Michael.  Their back stories are only slowly revealed and make for very interesting reading – I won’t go into the ins and outs of them here other than to mention that Karolina seems to have suffered a rather horrible childhood of captivity and torture until her eventual escape.  Michael has spent his time going from one con job to the next, relying on his charm but always in the realisation that he can only continue in this vein for so long and becoming desperate to find the perfect job that will enable him to quit.  The other key players are the Emperor, an ambitious man who seeks power and wealth and doesn’t mind how low he needs to sink in order to achieve it.  His head of Secret Police is Count Pergen, a dark and twisted character who has practiced such dark alchemy that his very soul seems to have been consumed.  We also have the involvement of a travelling theatrical company led by the young Peter Riesenbeck – another character who longs for success and hopes to stage his next show at the Congress.  Unfortunately Peter unwittingly falls foul of the secret police and becomes embroiled himself in a desperate situation of life and death.  My favourite of the piece was probably the wily Prince de Ligne.  He doesn’t play one of the main roles but nonetheless he’s a great character.  An older man of notoriety, now fallen on slightly harder times due to a disagreement with the new Emperor.  I liked him, he’s one of those characters that feels trustworthy and fatherly and I couldn’t help thinking that he would come to the rescue somehow.

In terms of plot.  There’s plenty going on here.  Political intrigues, two people trying to pull their own perfect con job.  A travelling troupe with an ambitious manager and an Emperor who desires power.

In terms of criticisms – well, only a couple of small ones, observations really more than criticisms.  Being the second book I’ve read by Burgis I would say that she is great at writing historical novels that twist the real and the fictional into a compelling read.  I’m not quite sure that this particular story needed the dark alchemy although it did add the notes of fear and tension – I just wonder if the thought of capture, arrest and torture might have stood just as well – that being said, I do love reading a bit about alchemy and it certainly seems to fit well in a period novel.  The other point that I did struggle a little bit with was Karolina’s reason for the visit – I found it difficult to believe  in but I can’t really elaborate on why without spoilers.

Other than two very small quibbles I thought this was a thoroughly enjoyable read.  A fast paced story with likeable characters and a good deal of tension as their risky cons start to unfold.  I do love a good con story and this one is very cleverly done with a great ending.

I would definitely recommend Congress of Secrets.  The romance is very subtle and doesn’t overwhelm the story and the fantasy elements similarly don’t take over the plot.  Well written with lots of tension and the sort of book that once I finish it I want to go and explore the history of the period a little more – which is exactly what I’ve done now with both books by this author.

I will definitely pick up future books by Burgis and eagerly await her next book.

I received a copy of this from the publishers for which my thanks.  The above is my own opinion.

Masks and Shadows by Stephanie Burgis

masks and shadowsMasks and Shadows is an enjoyable and fast paced read that succeeds in combining historical facts and fantasy fiction into a carefully woven story of espionage and dark magic.

Charlotte von Steinbeck is a visitor at the Eszterháza Palace.  Still in mourning following her husband’s death Charlotte accepted an invitation to the Palace from her sister Sophie, mistress to Prince Nikolaus.  Charlotte isn’t the only visitor. She’s joined by a famous singer called Carlo Morelli, a Prussian spy and an alchemist!  In spite of the wealth and opulence of the palace however it appears that dark plans are being plotted, blackmail is being wrought and occult style magic is creating a sinister atmosphere that fortunately most of the privileged guests are blissfully unaware of.

The story gets off to a very quick start with the death of two opera singers who have eloped together only to be quite viciously murdered.  This certainly arouses the curiosity and fear around the Palace as people speculate about how the two met their untimely and grisly end. Meanwhile, this leaves the Kapellmeister, Haydn, short of two singers for his forthcoming performance for the Prince and in this respect we get to also follow in the footsteps of Anna, previously maid to Charlotte now elevated to singer following the discovery of her own musical ability.

What I enjoyed about Masks and Shadows was the combination of intrigue, dark and hidden corridors, mysterious secret societies and occult like magic blended with plenty of characters that it was easy to either like, suspect or dislike.  To be honest the story feels almost like an elaborate production which fits perfectly with the musical theme that runs throughout.  There is a strong cast of characters each with their own particular sequence of events and motives.  Charlotte, whilst the older sister, is also the more sheltered of the two.  Her younger sister Sophie is something of a spoilt brat to be honest and on more than one occasion I wished that Charlotte had used a firmer tone with her (or just slapped her!).  I really couldn’t like Sophie at all – or the Prince for that matter – so in that respect the two of them were perfectly matched and deserving of each other.  Charlotte  and Carlo on the other hand, after a rather disastrous first meeting during which both of them manage to display an equal amount of pride and prejudice, eventually begin to develop more romantic feelings towards each other.  I wouldn’t class this as a romantic story at all but there is definitely a love story taking place in the wings.  Carlo is a famous singer – a castrato to be precise.  I can’t profess to have known what a castrato is to be honest although the name is a little bit of a giveaway.  Basically a few hundred years ago, and until the practice was outlawed, certain young men, who displayed a talent for singing and were yet to go through puberty, were castrated in order to retain a high singing voice.  Of course this had other side effects and castratos, although in one respect were revered for their singing abilities were also the subject of much prejudice and ridicule.

So, what else.  Well, this is a sumptuous production and yet Burgis manages to rein in the prose which leaves us with just enough detail to tantalise without being overburdened with weighty descriptions.  The setting is of course the Eszterháza Palace which is actually one of the residences owned by the Eszterhazy family.  Actually built by Prince Nikolaus it was incredibly isolated – a fact that adds to the fear factor in this particular story.  Labyrinth style corridors make it easy for the characters to become lost and secret passageways make it even easier for those that would plot to hide away.

On the whole a very enjoyable read.  Well written, fast paced, characters that you can like and dislike in fairly equal measure.  No quick fix solutions or instantaneous attractions and a dark plot with creepy ghostlike manifestations.

I would certainly read more.

I received a copy courtesy of the publisher through Edelweiss for which my thanks.  The above is my own opinion.




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