Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Book Review: "Under These Restless Skies" by Lissa Bryan

In Lissa Bryan’s Under These Restless Skies, the court of Henry VIII is a fascinating, dangerous place where intrigue and insinuations lurk in every jot and tittle. Amid this swirling cacophony of royals and rascals are two unlikely participants—Will Somers, a humpbacked performer whose jokes and honesty make him a favorite of the king, and his wife Emma, a magical Selkie with otherworldly power in her touch.

This novel has everything—romance, suspense, drama, humor, and traces of the supernatural—masterfully blended by Bryan’s hand to create a compelling story you never want to put down. I could write my own book about how much I enjoyed this one, but in the interest of brevity--and promoting the awesome Guest Post she'll be doing here tomorrow!--I shall instead highlight my favorite features of this captivating novel.

**No spoilers, so no worries**

History’s opinion notwithstanding, Under These Restless Skies reveals Anne Boleyn to be a flesh-and-blood, empathetic woman with relatable fears, nuances, and feelings. She is neither saint nor slut in Bryan’s novel but a woman who makes a series of decisions—some wiser than others—which ultimately decide her fate. And who among us cannot relate to that?

For all the drama inherent in a life at court, the underlying question on every page is “What will Henry do next?” Bryan gives a holistic view of his extreme humors, permitting us to see him ever unsettled and never satisfied. Though Will’s ability to calm and control those emotions is admirable, we know it is but a matter of time before even the beloved jester loses his tenuous grip. Despite this, we also find “Uncle Hal” occasionally likeable and worthy of some pity. Though the inclusion of these latter moments are to Bryan’s credit, their infrequency renders them insufficient to altogether change the king’s overall—and well-deserved—negative characterization.

One of the things I admire most about Bryan’s prose is its subtlety. Sometimes historical romances employ excessively poetic or old-fashioned prose as if to say, “See? This is a historical romance—the similes and flowery words prove it!” but Bryan has no need for such tactics. Not merely because she’s done her research—and lots of it, let me tell you—but because she has a gift for getting her words out of the way. The seamless diction is rich enough to sweep you away from the first sentence, and you are caught before you even know what’s happening, held captive by the love between Will and Emma.

And it is their love, woven through the narrative like a silken thread, which anchors you and gives you rest when everything around them can be shattered with an ill-timed whisper, their love giving you hope that something precious remains amid the precarious.

Even had I not relished the story as a reader—which would be impossible—from a writing standpoint, I am positively in awe. From details to dialogue, pacing and plot, the story is a tour de force and the total package. And as Bryan’s third novel, it could very well be the charm.

Lissa Bryan will be here tomorrow! Come join us!

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