TBR Challenge April 2023 – Unusual Historical

It’s undeniable that the historical market has for years been flooded with plenty of choices for those who love Regency or Victorian England settings. And we’ve both certainly read (and enjoyed) plenty. However, there’s a LOT of history to be explored outside of 19th century England and having “unusual historicals” for a TBR prompt gave us the chance to explore. Thankfully, both of our picks were mostly successful. Caz went for a m/m alternate world based on Ancient Greece, and Lynn decided to pick up a Viking novel after going several years without one. What are some of your favorite historical settings?

Sword Dance by A.J. Demas

A.J. Demas’ Sword Dance is the first book in a trilogy set in an imaginary/alternate ancient world that reads rather like Ancient Greece, so I thought it would be a good fit for this month’s “unusual historical” prompt. There’s mystery and a slow-burn romance, lots of wry humour and a superbly realised setting to enjoy, together with some very poignant observations about trauma and grief, and discussions about power and privilege, gender and sex – but none of it overwhelms the main storyline or reads like the author ‘soapboxing’.

Damiskos Temnon was one of Pheme’s most respected warriors, but his career was ended by injury five years earlier, leaving him with a permanent disability and scars that aren’t all visible ones. Now he works for the army in a very different capacity, in the Quartermasters Office, and when the book opens, is on his way to the remote seaside villa of an old friend with a view to negotiating a supply contract. (For fish sauce of all things!) It’s very clear this isn’t a job he particularly enjoys, but it’s a necessity if he’s to keep body and soul together and to continue to send money to his parents, who are incapable of living within their means.

When Damiskos arrives, he finds Nione has guests, a party of philosophers from Boukos, mostly students and former students of Nione’s kinsman, Eurydemos, together with a merchant by the name of Aristokles Phoskos and his Zashian slave – a eunuch, Damiskos guesses, given his richly decorated clothing, and delicate, painted features. Damiskos finds the discourse of the students and philosophers distinctly distasteful in its blatant bigotry – far from enlightened free-thinkers, this bunch reads like a group of white-supremacist homophobes in pursuance of their aim of restoring Pheme to greatness. Damiskos has no time for them or their ideas, and can’t help wondering just how many of their sneering remarks about “unnatural half-men” the slave is able to understand.

The next day, when Damiskos encounters the slave – who he has learned is called Pharastes, or Varazda in his own language – he finds himself reassessing the feelings of pity he’d had the previous evening. The man may be enticingly beautiful, but he’s prickly and defensive, responding to Damiskos’ attempt at conversation with thinly disguised rudeness, and Damiskos finds himself disliking him.

Most of their encounters over the next few days follow a similar pattern – Varazda misinterprets everything Damiskos says and his frosty reaction puts Damiskos’ back up because he’s just trying to help. Varazda seems determined to keep Damiskos at a distance – until Aristokles disappears in suspicious circumstances, and the two of them team up to try to find out what is going on. Varazda explains that Aristokles was sent to investigate Eurydemos and his students following some anti-Zashian riots that took place in Boukos a few weeks earlier, and to retrieve some sensitive documents that were stolen from the Zashian embassy. Damiskos is surprised to learn that Aristokles is a spy – he’d seemed far too inept (and it doesn’t take him long to work out who the spy really is!) – but as he puts together some of the things he’s heard over the past few days, he realises what’s going on. In their fanatical desire to Make Pheme Great Again (#sorrynotsorry!), the students want to bring about a war with Zash. With Aristokles gone, Varazda suggests Damiskos should put about the story that he now owns Varazda so he has an excuse to remain at the villa, and let it be believed they are lovers, so nobody will question their spending time together.

I enjoyed everything about this book; the characters, the setting and the romance – although there’s no HEA here, just a tentative HFN with the promise of more. Even though the events of the story take place in around a week, there’s the definite feel of a slow-burn, but I think because there’s so much else going on, the romance seems to take its time – and that worked pretty well for me.

The two leads are superbly characterised, opposites in just about every way who somehow find their perfect fit. Damiskos – who is the sole PoV character here – is kind and understanding with a natural air of authority, but he is grieving the loss of the military life he’d loved and been good at and is still coming to terms with the traumatic event that caused it. He’s world-weary and trying to work out where he fits in, but is determined to be a good and decent person, no matter that life has ground him down. Watching him become completely smitten with Varazda and not even realising it at first is really sweet, and I loved seeing him fall just that little bit more under his spell every time they’re together.

Varazda is perceptive, smart and mercurial, a former slave – now freed – and sword dancer with a three-year-old daughter back home in Boukos. He presents himself with both masculine and feminine qualities and features, and talks to Damiskos about how he feels about it, sometimes feeling like a man, sometimes like a woman and the balance he gets from it. He’s a eunuch, but the author makes it clear that being non-binary isn’t something Varazda has ‘become’ because of what was done to him; he is what and who he is regardless of what is (or isn’t) between his legs. The sex scenes are handled in a sensitive manner – being a slave means Varazda was often used for sex, but being with Damiskos is his first experience of choosing a lover for himself. Their attraction is unexpected and outside both their experience, but they talk and there is no silly miscommunication; their uncertainties and hesitation are the result of who they are and what they’ve been through, and their backstories are skilfully woven into the story. The author does a great job of showing us Varazda through Damiskos’ eyes, and I loved getting to see the depth of his affection and care for Varazda.

Sword Dance is an entertaining read with great characters, an interesting plot and a wonderfully realised setting. I enjoyed Damiskos and Varazda’s romance a great deal, and I’m definitely going to be picking up the next book in the series as soon as I can.

Grade: B+             Sensuality: Warm

~ Caz Owens

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To Wed a Viking Warrior by Michelle Styles

When I saw this month’s TBR prompt, I immediately went looking through my Harlequin Historicals. Harlequin is one of the few publishers who reliably explores the world outside of Regency society.  I’d been toying with the idea of doing a Helen Kirkman reread for a while, so I definitely had Vikings on the mind when I made my pick. Michelle Styles is a Harlequin author I’ve enjoyed in the past, so I chose To Wed a Viking Warrior.

It turns out that this novel is third in a trilogy. While the leads from the first two books are mentioned and make a few appearances, this story stands on its own quite well. The heroine, Elene, is the youngest of three daughters of a Mercian aeldorman. Her older sisters have married Vikings who settled on nearby lands, and Elene’s father wants her married to someone that will meet the approval of the Mercian king so as to cement the family’s hold on its lands. Because of the politics in play, Elene’s father is vulnerable to machinations of his steward, who leads him to a candidate that Elene loathes – and who has issues, as one will see in the book.

As the novel opens, Elene is fleeing. She is discovered by a neighboring lord, Hafual. Hafual is also a Viking, but has been in the employ of the Mercian king. After having been widowed, Hafual simply wants to raise his young son and frankly, otherwise be left alone. He takes pity on Elene, though, and when he hears of her plight, he promises rescue.

At a banquet that evening, Elene’s father does something even worse than anticipated. He doesn’t just attempt to force a betrothal on her; he insists she be married at once. Elene and Hafual convincingly claim that they have been trysting in secret and have pledged to one another. And so, surprise wedding!

It’s quite a set-up and I’ll admit I had my doubts as I read the opening chapters. However, as the book moved along, I found myself getting drawn into it. Part of it was because I could empathize with the characters. Elene’s father may seem tyrannical in some ways, but the book makes it clear that he both loves his daughter but also needs to secure the family’s future. And in that time, setting up a political marriage was pretty commonplace.

I also liked that Elene and Hafual actually talked to one another and seemed to want to learn more about each other. There’s chemistry between them, but they also seemed curious about one another. For instance, it’s well-known that Elene had been involved with someone before Hafual. Unlike some alphahole heroes I’ve seen, he doesn’t shame her for it. However, he does get curious about what went on, whether she still has feelings for this guy, etc.. We also figure out early on that Hafual’s marriage wasn’t entirely happy, and some of the discussion of how he failed his first wife gets very emotional.

Speaking of emotional, anyone reading this should be aware of some very big triggers. Throughout the story, we hear about post partum depression/psychosis, and references to past death and injury of children. These scenes are going to be very disturbing for some readers, so I wanted to make that caution. In some ways, these issues are handled with sensitivity as it’s obvious that Elene cared about the mother who went through these things and is sad for what happened. However, there are also times in which this character’s illness is described in ways that make her sound like a monster. It’s probably a plot point that would have made me pass on this book if I’d known it was there before I got into the story.

However, aside from that and a somewhat overly wordy setup to the story, I did end up enjoying Elene and Hafual’s story. If you can get past a clunky opening chapter and handle the triggery plot point mentioned above, then I would give this a qualified recommendation. There’s some sweet romance and interesting history woven into this story, but also some issues of which readers should be aware.


Grade:   B-         Sensuality: Warm

~ Lynn Spencer

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