Book Reviews

Book Review: City of Tranquil Light by Bo Caldwell

City of Tranquil Light: A Novel     City of Tranquil Light is a novel based on the lives of the author’s maternal Aunt and Uncle. The fictional story of Will and Katherine Kiehn is so moving that I devoured the first 111 pages in a single sitting. After that, I continued to read, but many times with the greatest agony.
     Not because the writing turned to a lesser quality, but because the characters’ little girl dies. As the couple work through their grief, there are questions raised with such honest poignancy that I could not read more than one paragraph at a time because I wept so hard. Anyone who has ever grieved deeply will feel the depth of Katherine’s despair in her talk with God:
     “We buried our daughter yesterday, and I am brought up short by the harshness of Your ways. I have given my all for You and in return you have taken the gift I love most – my sweet child. But perhaps I loved her too much I am mistaken; perhaps I haven’t given my all, but have held something back. Did I love her more than You? I know you are a jealous God, but are You that jealous, that You would take the other object of my devotion? I feel broken, as though there is a great gash inside of me, and my only prayer is a question: ‘What have You done?’ I ask not from anger, but from confusion, for I truly do not understand.
     Perhaps You are a flawed God, imperfect as we are. We are, after all, made in your image. Perhaps it was not Your intention to take Lily, but your inattention. Did You look away for a moment?  Was your mind elsewhere? Many times a day I ask myself what else I could have done and search for some mistake I made.  But perhaps You are at fault, not I. It seems there is so much You could have done.”
     Who among us who has met with loss hasn’t asked these questions?  It is the first of many tragedies they live through, but Mrs. Caldwell allows us to see the glory and wonder of how God can work. The man who stole the medicine that might have saved Lily’s life comes to Will Kiehn and demands – at gun point – that Will treat his son.
     Will knows what this man’s banditry has cost him and I’m sure many of us might tell this bandit where he and his murderous son could go. Will doesn’t. He heals the son and the bandit’s men and earns their trust and gratitude before he’s allowed to return to his wife. Before he does so, he shares the Lord’s Good News with his captors both through the bible and through his actions, but Will’s forgiveness is a long way away.
     Time continues and the bandit’s son goes on a murderous rampage, after which he is captured, tortured and executed. The bandit returns to Will and in an amazing scene filled with the bereft father’s sorrow and humiliation, the bandit chief turns himself in as justice for having raised a shameful son. He is beaten and awaiting trial when Will brings him food and medical treatment. Neither man expects the bandit to survive, but God’s ways are mysterious and wonderful.
     Their lives intertwine throughout the novel, which is a must read for anyone interested in China, missional history or the mission field. If the tremendous losses and beauty in City of Tranquil Light kept me by my tissue box, the heroism, faith and selflessness displayed by Caldwell’s characters kept me reading. 

Genghis: Birth of an Empire by Conn Iggulden

Genghis: Birth of an EmpireThis is the first book of a trilogy and all I can say is, bring the rest of it! (Please see last month’s review of “Bones of the Hills” by Lisa Yarde for a review of a book later in the series.)

“Birth of an Empire” starts with the birth of Temujin, the first Genghis of the Mongolian people. We then rejoin the very young Temujin when his father is murdered and the tribe abandons Temujin and his family.

Expected to die on the steppes, the boy Temujin saves his family from starvation and the cold of winter and eventually, they discover a small portion of safety among the wandering herdsman of Mongolia. Had Temujin’s tribe and its new leader assumed his death, history might have had a different outcome, but the tribe’s new Khan fears vengeance for the family’s abandonment. He hunts Temujin’s family, captures Temujin and tries to kill him.

This launches Temujin into a life-long battle, first for survival and eventually for revenge against his father’s murderers and unification for his people.

Birth of a Empire has a little bit of a slow start, but the setting and time frame is epic, so the slow build is appropriate. Mr. Iggulden’s use of historical facts has been questioned by others, but personally, I’m not bothered if he changed things here and there to suit his story. It’s fiction. If I wanted historical facts, I’d go researching. I will say, the characterizations and settings’ realism are unrelenting. If you like your historical fiction with a bit of blood and a lot of emotional zest, don’t be intimidated. It’s only the Mongolian Horde, after all.

Genghis: Bones of the Hill by Conn Iggulden

The following review was published with the permission of the reviewer, Lisa Yarde. The review was originally published on the Historical Novel Review site.
Any novel that takes on the life of the Mongolian conqueror Genghis Khan has to be dramatic and sweeping in its scale, to do justice to the enigmatic life of its subject. Conn Iggulden’s Genghis: Bones of the Hill was my first Kindle purchase and a great introduction into the author’s view of Mongolian steppe life. I’m late to the Khan series and reading the books out of sequence, but Iggulden completely immerses his reader in the storyline, so that I had a good feeling for the character development from the two earlier novels.
Genghis’ sons, brothers, and generals have completed bloody military campaigns against the Khan’s enemies. On the southern steppes, the great general Tsubodai has defeated Russians in battle with the support of Jochi, Genghis’ eldest son. In the kingdom of Koryo, the second son Chagatai and General Jelme await the full submission of the Koryon emperor. On the outskirts of Chin lands, Genghis’ brother Khasar with the Khan’s third son Ogedai plans the final destruction of Kaifeng. All receive the summons to return home at Genghis’ command because he plans to make war on the Islamic dynasty of Khwarezmia.  
The relationships in the novel bear a tremendous strain, the most obvious being the conflicts between Genghis and Jochi, and in turn, Jochi and Chagatai. The divisions stem from Jochi’s conception. Early in Genghis’ first marriage, his wife was stolen and given away to another man. He rescued her and within a year, she gave birth to Jochi. Genghis cannot forgive his son for the circumstances of his conception, and Chagatai as his brother’s rival refuses to follow “the rape-born whelp,” his favorite term for Jochi. He even goes so far as goading Jochi into fighting a tiger, and nearly deserting him in a key moment of battle. Jochi’s resentment is painfully laid bare on the pages, and his plight is sympathetic.
When Genghis sends his family and generals against the Khwarezmia Dynasty, Iggulden also provides the viewpoint of the enemy, the Shah Alaudin and his eldest son, Jelaudin. Iggulden shows great skill in portraying equally sympathetic antagonists and protagonists. The Shah and his son begin with the intent of destroying the Mongol invaders, but soon Alaudin dies and Jelaudin must struggle to assume his father’s power.
Everything about life on the steppes is hard for the characters, whether in the daily struggle to survive brutal weather or fierce conflicts, or in the punishments they mete out to various enemies. Each character is fully fleshed out, their emotions deftly sketched. Iggulden makes the reader feel Genghis’ righteous fury against the Shah for the deaths of his men, his general Tsubodai’s sadness when the Khan asks him to commit a murder that goes against his principles, and Jelaudin’s religious fervor, in equal parts. While Amazon reviews are sharply divided over the merits of Iggulden’s writing (one reviewer claimed “the author has raped historical facts…”), I loved Genghis: Bones of the Hill, even for its bittersweet ending. I look forward to reading an advance copy of the next title from Iggulden, Khan: Empire of Silver. 

The Taming of Mei Lin – Outtakes

Last post I promised to share one of the many points in this story that had me chuckling, so without further ado, I’ve chosen a scene that follows closely on the last one. Mei Lin comes to see Shen Leung, but she doesn’t have a strong plan in mind:
     The scent of her hair assailed him. Orange blossoms mixed with something mysterious and feminine.
     “You smell nice,” he said dully.
     She said nothing. All he did was turn his face the slightest bit and his cheek brushed inadvertently against hers. Smooth, cool skin.
     He inhaled. “You wore perfume to come and kill me?”
     A ribbon of tension rippled through her, but nothing for him to be alarmed at. Yet. She took a long, shuddering breath before she spoke.
     “I wasn’t coming here to kill you at first.”
     “No?” He couldn’t help himself. He burrowed into the space above her shoulder.  His lips brushed her neck. Just enough to still be accidental. He hoped.
     “I first thought I would…I came her to…” She let out a sigh, defeated. “I thought I would seduce you.”
     Fierce, hot lust slammed into him. He stiffened and hoped that the quilt was strategically wedged between them.
     “But when I saw you, I realized I had no idea how to seduce a man. So I thought it would just be easier to kill you.”
     Laughter erupted out of him.

Me, too.

The Taming of Mei Lin Review

A local corrupt magistrate has proposed marriage to Wu Mei Lin and it’s not an honorable proposal, but an offer to make her his second concubine. Though it will buy her family a certain amount of freedom, Mei Lin can’t do it. She promises she will marry the man who can best her in a sword fight, never foreseeing the number of brutes her estranged suitor will send against her and her family. Then one day a handsome stranger comes to town….

I really enjoyed this story, but not just because of the quality of writing or plotting or anything “writerly,” and not because the author is a friend. My enjoyment was for personal reasons.

Like Mei Lin, I have the same problem with my hair never staying out of my face. Neither Mei Lin nor I have ever felt particularly pretty, either.  And then there was the following scene. It comes at the end of the hero and heroine’s sword fight:

     “You’re good” he said.
     She parried and twisted his blade aside. “I don’t need you to tell me.”
     He grinned and pushed her further until she had to fight for balance. She wasn’t done yet. Boldly she ventured closer to where his longer blade would be less effective. Most practitioners weren’t comfortable there, but Shen Leung found her rhythm and flowed with her. The edge of his weapon broke through her guard.She stepped back, knowing it was too late.
     But he missed.
     The blade whistled past her ear. She stared at him in shock while he regained his stance and prepared for another advance.
     She had him. It had nothing to do with skill. They were closely matched in training, but there was so much more that went into a fight. The honorable Shen Leung was unwilling to hurt her. He didn’t realize it yet, but the battle was hers if she wanted it.
     With her new confidence, she could see all the openings. A warrior had to be ruthless and strategic. That was what she had been taught. He became a series of targets in her eyes. All she needed to do was catch another moment of hesitation and she would break through.
     And once she won… what then?
     Someone else would come. Another one of Zhou’s henchmen now that he was bent on revenge. Or maybe no one would ever defeat her or care to approach her with a serious marriage proposal. She’d have nothing but this speck of a town and the noodle stand. Shen Leung’s arrival had broken through the clouds. She might never feel this way again about anyone.
     They said he was a good man, a just and courageous one.
     She decided then. She met his attack edge on edge, loosening her grip slightly with the impact of their blades and the strength of his next attempt wrenched the hilt from her grasp. A collective murmur went through the crowd when her sword fell to the dirt. For a second, it almost seemed they had been cheering for her. Supporting the local madwoman.
     Shen Leung’s sword darted forward to stop just shy of her throat. She grew still beneath his gaze. He regarded her with admiration and something else, a fire she’d never seen before.
     He rested the tip of the blade gently against her collarbone, almost like a caress. “Do I need to draw blood, my lady?” he asked softly.
     He had already pierced her, deeper than he knew.
     It was Wang who broke the standoff. “Claim your prize, Master Shen!”
     The blade fell back. The exertion of the battle began to sink into her along with the oppressive heat of the afternoon. She wanted to wipe the perspiration from her face, but she didn’t dare move. She didn’t dare breathe as she watched Shen Leung’s reaction.
     “Take your bride,” Wang said. “From your battle, we can see your wedding night will be quite an adventure.”
     His cronies hooted with laughter. She considered blackening both of Wang’s eyes and perhaps breaking his nose as well.
     “Don’t be ridiculous, brother Wang,” Shen Leung looked embarrassed when he glanced back at her. “There will be no wedding.”
     Her chest squeezed tight. Heat rushed up her neck and flooded her face while he bowed once more. The noble swordsman didn’t want her.
     “Thank you for the match. Lady Wu is a formidable opponent.” He turned to leave. The cronies chanted their congratulations and ushered him toward the taverns to celebrate.
     Mei Lin was left alone, her sword fallen in the dust. The curious eyes of the townspeople bore into her while the cruel sun beat down upon her back.
It’s one thing to be sought after without wanting the attention. It’s quite another to make your choice as to where you will go and with whom, only to find out you’re unwanted. I’ve been in that situation and wouldn’t wish it on anyone. At the end of this scene which is also the end of Chapter One, I had wet cheeks. In short, I had a strong character identification within a few paragraphs. And isn’t that one definition of quality writing?

The fight scenes are filled with realistic action and the love scenes are tastefully done, but after the opening scene, what grabbed me most unexpectedly about this story was the humor. I noticed I smiled a lot while reading, which is always something I cherish. Making me smile or laugh aloud is a far more difficult trick than making me cry and Jeannie Lin accomplished both. I’ll share one of the fun situations tomorrow, so make sure you tune in. (I typed it up today and ended up re-reading the entire scene because it still makes me laugh.)

In closing, I wish more time had been given over toward character development and showing us the world these characters live in. Not because the story lacked those things, but because I could have happily lived there far longer.  Fortunately, this was the first of at least two Jeannie Lin adventures set in the Tang Dynasty. “The Taming of Mei Lin” is the romance of a character who also appears in Jeannie Lin’s “Butterfly Swords,” but you don’t have to read Mei Lin’s story first; just make sure you do read them both. “The Taming of Mei Lin” is available from (via kindle), E-Harlequin, and on the Nook. “Butterfly Swords” will be in bookstores on October 1st, but you can order it from now.

Finally, make sure you head over to Jeannie Lin’s blog for other book and story coverage and to her contest page (select the linked picture to the right) for upcoming opportunities to win all sorts of prizes including twin butterfly swords!

Coming later this week, a guest blog from Jeannie Lin, author of “The Taming of Mei Lin” and “Butterfly Swords.”