Review: Hammer of Witches

hammer

Title: Hammer of Witches
Author: Shana Mlawski
Genre: Historical Fiction/Fantasy
Pages: 400
Publisher: Lee and Low Books/Tu Books
Review Copy: NetGalley Digital Arc
Availability: April 9, 2013 (but may already be on shelves since the hardcover arrived early)

Summary: Baltasar Infante, a bookmaker’s apprentice living in 1492 Spain, can weasel out of any problem with a good story. But when he awakes one night to find a monster straight out of the stories peering at him through his window, he’s in trouble that even he can’t talk his way out of. Soon Baltasar is captured by a mysterious arm of the Spanish Inquisition, the Malleus Malificarum, that demands he reveal the whereabouts of Amir al-Katib, a legendary Moorish sorcerer who can bring myths and the creatures within them to life. Baltasar, of course, doesn’t know where the man is—or that Bal himself has the power to summon genies and golems.

Now Baltasar must escape the Malleus Malificarum so he can find al-Katib and help him defeat a dreadful power that may destroy the world as they know it. As Bal’s journey leads him into uncharted lands on Columbus’s voyage westward, Baltasar learns that stories are much more powerful than he once believed them to be—and much more dangerous. (Image and Summary via IndieBound)

Review:  “My uncle Diego always said there was magic in a story. Of course, I never really believed him when he said it.” So begins this tale filled to the brim with stories. They are most often magical and overflowing with mystical creatures, adventure, and hidden, but simple truths.

Baltasar has grown up with amazing stories swirling around him. Fortunately, the stories continue throughout his adventures. They are the jewels that bring sparkle and life to this book. The plot line runs in a relatively straight line, but is peppered with all kinds of tales. The stories feature murder, revenge, demons, golems, a unicorn, and quite a few ferocious creatures that are the stuff of nightmares. Stories are powerful here regardless of their truthfulness. As Baltasar learns to his surprise– perception is often more important than fact.

Characters were also a bright spot in this tale. Baltasar, our storyteller extraordinaire, meets many friends along his journey. A few of them are female  characters who definitely add depth to the story. One in particular refuses to be locked into the roles other people choose for her and she schools Baltasar quite thoroughly.

From the title and cover, I was expecting a fantasy and possibly some history, but had no idea how MUCH history. I appreciated learning about this time period and came to the realization that I have not read much about the Spanish Inquisition in the past.

The title had me puzzled initially, but that is because I had never heard of the document before. The Malleus Malificarum, or Hammer of Witches, was written in the 1400s and led to the persecution of witches or people thought to be witches. Without that base of historical knowledge, I had to read and re-read some things, but most readers will likely be able to follow the events regardless. In addition, Shana provides a great author’s note at the conclusion which points out the relative historical accuracy of the book and where she took artistic license. She also offers many links to primary and secondary sources on her website. I find that I am always craving a bit of non-fiction with historical fiction, so this fit the bill perfectly.

Recommendation: Get it soon particularly if historical fiction is one of your favorites. This is a unique book blending fantasy and history with a diverse cast of characters.

Extras:

Sneak Peek of Hammer of Witches

National Geographic Channel video about the original Malleus Malificarum

 

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Review: Orleans

Orleans
Title: Orleans
Author: Sherri L. Smith
Genre: Science Fiction/Dystopia
Pages: 324
Publisher: Putnam Juvenile
Review Copy: Purchased
Available: March 7, 2013 (On Shelves Now!)

Summary: After a string of devastating hurricanes and a severe outbreak of Delta Fever, the Gulf Coast has been quarantined. Years later, residents of the Outer States are under the assumption that life in the Delta is all but extinct… but in reality, a new primitive society has been born.

Fen de la Guerre is living with the O-Positive blood tribe in the Delta when they are ambushed. Left with her tribe leader’s newborn, Fen is determined to get the baby to a better life over the wall before her blood becomes tainted. Fen meets Daniel, a scientist from the Outer States who has snuck into the Delta illegally. Brought together by chance, kept together by danger, Fen and Daniel navigate the wasteland of Orleans. In the end, they are each other’s last hope for survival.

Sherri L. Smith delivers an expertly crafted story about a fierce heroine whose powerful voice and firm determination will stay with you long after you’ve turned the last page. –summary and cover image from Goodreads.

Review: “In the early days, before the sky got so angry at the sea and went to war, there was a piece of land between them, and they called her New Orleans. She was a beautiful place, a city that sparkled like diamonds, sang like songbirds, and danced a two-step to stop men’s hearts” (p 35). Through a storyteller, Sherrie L. Smith gives us a glimpse of the past beauty of New Orleans. Then, with exquisite skill, she proceeds to show us what time, floods, sickness and nature has wrought on this city. The world-building in this novel is amazing. We see “…the Garden District, where the city, had gone to seed, a cancerous jungle. Lush garden courtyards had burst like tumors, swallowing their outer buildings whole” (p 162). Debris from floods rests  high in the trees or under the mud, mold creeps up on buildings throughout the city and the forest seems to be a living breathing creature. There is more to this world than the surroundings though.

Smith also slowly reveals the new rules and ways people have learned to survive within their new world. Survival is seldom anything but gritty, messy, and dangerous and that is definitely the case here. Fen, the main character, has led a hard life and it has left its mark on her in more ways than one. She is described as the fierce one and there is no doubt she has learned to fight and protect herself and those she loves. As part of her protection, she keeps herself closed off from most people. This is one of the only drawbacks to this book. It is easy to admire Fen for her intelligence, strength and courage, but it is also very hard to get to know her personally. In spite of this, Smith manages to allow the reader just close enough to care for Fen through the use of her first person accounts. Fen’s voice is clear and almost poetic. Her dialect may be distracting initially, but most readers will likely adjust to it fairly quickly.

Early on, Daniel, a scientist from the Outer States, gets pushed into Fen’s life. The author used third person for his storyline and this seemed to help keep the focus solidly on Fen. Her story remains the main thread though there are many throughout. Smith stopped just short of having too many threads going, but they do weave together well.

There were many layers to the story including trust, racial issues, economic inequality and respect for life. After devastating floods and illness, society has adjusted, but there are still people who do not have what they need and others who have more than their fair share. In Orleans, Smith has created a frighteningly believable world where people must fight for their lives every single day.

Recommendation: Get it soon. The world-building in this novel lifts it above many others in the genre and Fen will be a character you won’t soon forget.

Extras: Blog interview with the author and giveaway
Blog Tour post on Author’s blog
Orleans: Carnivale – a short story prequel to Orleans

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