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Review – Grasping for the Crowns

Alma Boykin returns with the second installment in her “The Powers” alternate history series: Race for the Crowns.

In 1916, war has swept the entire world, along with famine and riot tearing countries apart from within and without.

István Eszterházy, now the Head of Hungary’s House Sárkány, struggles to lead its men, women, and True-dragons alike through the shifting tides of fortune, even as the Habsburg Empire is staggered by England’s treachery. While hunger and defeat stalk the streets, the Powers beneath the land grow poisoned and maddened.

When the spirits of the land attack each other, and rebels plot to destroy his House, István must fight not just for his own survival, but for his entire family!

Boykin’s style is easy to read, and her historical and cultural research are spot-on.  I found myself unable to put Race for the Crowns down, even though it is not a thriller or an action story.  The characters introduced in the first book blossom in the second, and I kept turning pages trying to learn more about Istvan and his family.

The author does an excellent job painting a picture of an empire in flux.  Boykin illustrates this as the main character navigates through the hardships, heartbreak, and frustrations of an old world transforming into something new.  I found it very easy to envision the places and people that populate her work.

If you like gentle alternate history, historical fantasy, and well-paced, character-driven stories, Race for the Crowns will be a great choice for you.

Idea

I thought I’d get this one out of my head before it slipped away.
—————————–
A badly tuned guitar played with more enthusiasm than talent split the night as I crept through the shadows of the gravel parking lot. I found my quarry’s car, a meticulously restored sedan from the Kennedy administration, complete with a vanity plate that read “MRBIG” on it. I put my ear to the trunk, but didn’t hear anyone bumping or thumping around in there.  
 
I crouched in the big car’s shadow and tried to figure out what I was going to do next. I wasn’t part of the crowd that would normally be welcome in the Hawg Shed, and I didn’t think I’d get far if I just walked in and ordered a beer.   Best case scenario would be that I’d arouse suspicion and get tossed out or spook the man I was looking for.  Worst case, well, I didn’t want to think about worst case.  A couple of big guys stood at the door, lengths of pipe or something like that in their hands.  I doubted they were there to enforce the dress code.
 
Maybe there’s a back door, I thought as I looked around the compound. Off to one side, a dilapidated old farmhouse, its spine broken by several wet winters with no windows, squatted at the very edge of the glare from the floodlights. I slipped from one shadow to the next, finally making a quick dash up the cracked and uneven walk to crouch at the top of the rotten porch stairs.
 
Now to find a way in there, I thought as I tried to get my breathing to slow down.  
 
The guitar gave way to someone banging away on what sounded like a pretty impressive drum set, then the almost inhuman growl of the lyrics drowned even that out.
 
“Wish they’d turn that crap down.”
 
I tensed at the voice, deep and powerful, but not loud. I slowly turned to find myself face to face with an older man sitting in an old kitchen chair next to the front door. His eyes twinkled and he smiled underneath a heavy handlebar mustache that might have been black at one time, but was now shot through with gray. He was wearing an old pair of jeans and a white shirt under a battered bomber jacket, complete with sheepskin at the collar.  A pair of heavy work boots were tapping to the band’s rhythm, so he couldn’t have disliked it that much.
 
“Uh, sorry,” I stammered. “Didn’t know anyone was home.”
 
“Nah,” he replied with a dismissive shrug. “Just wish they’d shut that place down. It’s hard to get any rest with all that going on.”
 
“I guess they’re just blowing off some steam.”
 
“Son, we were just blowing off some steam when all of us got together after the war and started riding together. This is just,” he waved at the pole barn dismissively, “well, it’s just not right.”
 
“All of you?”
 
“Yeah, a bunch of us raised a little hell on weekends, but it weren’t nothing like what those assholes do.” He looked over to the edge of a porch, where a scrawny orange cat had silently jumped up from the overgrown bushes. At a gesture from the old man, it padded over and jumped into his lap.
 
The hair on the back of my neck stood up when I noticed that the cat didn’t stop at his lap, though. Its paws sank through the denim of his jeans until the cat stood on the chair’s seat.
 
He reached up and started scratching at its ears. I could hear it purring, but when it started kneading its claws, they sank into old wood instead of his leg.
“Nah, we never did anything like what they’ve got going on over there.”  He shook his hear ruefully.  “Worst we ever did was get drunk and see how fast we could race up Dixie Highway.  Those boys, well, I don’t want to think about what they do after the crowd goes home.
 
“I was trying to have a look, but I don’t think they’ll let me in the front door.”  I had to fight hard to keep my voice even.
 
“Yeah, you better go around back and go in through the old storm cellar.” He moved his hand to scratch under the cat’s chin. “Just, be careful, boy. Devil’s business going on in Elmer’s old barn these days.”
 
I heard the crowd in the bar across the parking lot roar when the band stopped playing and glanced over to make sure nobody was taking an opportunity to come out. When I looked back, the old man was gone. In his place, the cat had curled up on the kitchen chair, still buzzing with contentment.
 
Well, I thought, guess I’ll see what’s going on around back.

Escort Duty – Part 16

A few minutes later, Erika and Greta were ensconced in their room and were busily taking advantage of the washbasin and pitcher of cold, clear water the innkeeper’s wife had brought for them. The two men took seats at the bar and sipped on mugs of beer while they talked.

Simon put down his empty mug, but shook his head when the barman raised a hand to him.

“After a month alone with those two,” Hollo said, signaling for a refill, “you deserve another beer.”

“I’ve had worse times,” Simon said, “Although I believe our charges are sick of my face and voice by now.”

A smirk came to his lips as he said, “But another drink would be good.” Hollo chuckled as he raised his hand a second time.

Simon took a sip from the earthenware mug the barman laid at his elbow, then sighed contentedly. “Ah, that’s good. We must take some to the ladies once they’ve freshened up.”

Hollo also took a pull from his beer. Wiping the foam from his lip, he said, “The plague hasn’t spread to this side of the river, but the news is that it’s ravaging Pesht worse than any army could do. It’ll be a wasteland by winter at this rate.”

“From what we saw, no horde could do better,” Simon replied, “We can let the ladies rest here for a few days, then we’ll continue moving west. The sooner this job is over, the better.”

“Going to have to steal some horses if you don’t intend to walk.”

“No, we’re not going to steal anything, my friend. We’re going back and getting our things from that bastard at the border.”

“Seems a lot of trouble for a few nags and the princess’….” Hollo started to say.

Simon gave him a hard look and brought a finger to his lips.

“Quiet, fool. We’re not among friends,” he muttered.

Hollo nodded, but said nothing further. The barman, who had been walking past, seemed to have heard nothing. Simon watched him go, his eyes slitted, then he shrugged and faced his companion.

“We’ll leave after dark and be back by morning,” he said, “Rest up tomorrow, then leave the next day.” He lifted his mug and took another drink. “You’ll have to get us some horses for tonight.”

~~~

Simon and Hollo finished their drinks, then took a clay pitcher of beer and some food up to the women. They were both freshly scrubbed as well as plain water could do, and had found a hairbrush somewhere. Greta had helped her mistress take off her dress, and after the princess wrapped up in a sheet, hung her dress out the window to air out.  Their moods were improving with their appearance, and the sight of a pitcher of beer, a few bowls of stew, and fresh-baked buns made Erika squeal like a little girl.

As they ate, Simon told the princess of his plans while they ate.

“We’ll be back tomorrow morning, but you’ll have to watch over yourselves tonight. Stay here, and don’t go out for anything or let anyone in.”

“Yes, yes, we’ll stay here in our cage, Simon,” she replied dismissively.

Simon gave her a measured look, then stood and walked to the door. Hollo followed.

“Simon, be careful,” Greta said as he opened the door to leave.

“I will, my lady,” Simon replied with an easy smile, “Please take care of your mistress.”

Once the two men were outside, Hollo walked to the stable, a couple of bronze coins jingling in his hand, while Simon waited in the courtyard. A few minutes later, Hollo rounded the corner, leading two horses. The two men mounted without a word, and turning their noses toward the east, were soon making their way back toward the bridge and its garrison.

~~~

Erika watched them go from her window. Behind her, Greta was preparing her bed for the night. Both of their stomachs gurgled at the same time, and they exchanged a look before both laughed at the sound.

“Greta, do you think they’d give you something more to eat downstairs?”

“But, my lady, Simon said…”

“I know what he said, Greta. I also know that the smell of that stew the innkeeper is serving downstairs is driving me mad. Go and fetch some. Oh, and see if you can get another bucket of beer. Might as well celebrate our freedom a bit more.”

Greta bowed her head resignedly, then walked down into the tavern. She spied the barman, who was speaking to two men in black leather breeches and jerkins. Spying the maid as she came down the stairs, he pointed to her. The two men pushed themselves away from the bar and walked toward her with grim looks upon their faces. Greta retreated to a corner at their approach, raising her arms in front of her face as if she expected to be struck.

“Where is your mistress?” one hissed in her ear as he grabbed her by the arm and twisted it behind her back, “Where is Princess Erika?”


Other episodes can be found here.  The entire anthology can be purchased at Amazon.

Musings

  • I never knew that bowling could be a contact sport until today.
  • Before today, I’d never seen anyone take a running start at bowling, either.
  • Twenty-three third graders, times two pieces of pizza apiece, equals two pepperoni pizzas, two sausage pizzas, and a cheese pizza.  In addition, it equals four pitchers of water, three of cola, and two of lemon-lime soda.
    • Add in chocolate and vanilla cupcakes, and I’m pretty sure some of those kids were ready to shot put their bowling balls down the alley.
  • Speaking of which, whatever they use to protect the wood on bowling alleys is what I want used the next time we refinish our floors.  I’ve seen armor plate that didn’t stand up to the impacts they took without a mark.
  • The bowling alley threw in a used bowling pin as a momento of Boo’s party.  I have been informed that it is neither a pistol target or a small club.

Escort Duty – Part 15

As the first dawn after the new moon exploded over the eastern horizon, the door to the hut creaked open. The officer, his uniform just as dirty as it had been when he had locked them away, called from the yard.

“Happy day!” he cried, “Time to leave!”

Simon led Erika and Greta from the hut. The maid blinked in the bright sunlight, while Erika looked angrily at the half-circle of soldiers arrayed around the hut.

“I’d thank you for your hospitality, sir,” she said haughtily, “if I could call it that.”

“No need to be rude, my lady,” the officer said, “You and your servants are free to go.”

Simon looked about, his mouth turning down into a frown for once.

“Where are our horses?” he asked, “I had hoped to get them back.”

“You have no horses, nor anything other than what you have on your backs. That was the deal, remember?” the officer said, “The things you brought with you are now the property of the Duchy of Booda, in repayment for our hospitality these past four weeks,” the officer answered with a smile.

“My sword is a dear gift from my family. I would consider it a service to be repaid to get it back,” Simon said, locking eyes with the officer.

“And am I to walk? Is that how you treat a noblewoman in these parts?” Erika said, her harsh voice rising to fill the yard.

“You have what you have,” the officer said, his smile disappearing, “Now, be gone, or my patience will wear even more thin than it has become.”

Erika looked to Simon, who shook his head. He gave a half bow to the officer, then led the ladies back to the road. Behind him, he could hear the soldiers following them to the edge of their post, then felt their eyes on his back until they had crested the first low rise in the road.

Once they were out of earshot of the soldiers, Erika laid into Simon.

“So we walk all the way across Booda, is that it?” she hissed.

“My lady, there is nothing to do now but to walk, for now. We cannot stop. We either walk forward, or we walk back.”

The trio trudged along the road the rest of the morning. At mid-day, they stopped at a small bridge and rested in its cool shade. Simon was able to gather some water plants for them to eat, which was not much better than an empty stomach.

Finally, just as the sun was beginning to dip toward the horizon in front of them, they spied the smoke from the cooking fires of a village. Their stomachs rumbling a tune for them as they went, they hurried forward.

Soon, they were on the village’s outskirts, and the sounds and smells of that little bit of civilization almost overwhelmed them after a month of near-silence and hunger. Simon led them toward a building with a sign, which bore a picture of an armored knight riding a shaggy dog, hanging above its door. As they drew closer, they made out the name of the tavern, “Ambrosius and the Knight”.

“Hopefully I will be able to bargain some labor in exchange for a meal or two,” he said as they went.

“Am I to muck out stalls now?” the princess snapped. Hunger and fatigue had not improved her mood.

“No, my lady, I’m sure they’ll need a scullery for the night,” Simon said drily, a half smile on his tired face. Greta flushed at this, but all Erika could manage was to stick her tongue out at him.

As they trudged up the lane toward the tavern, they were surprised to see a familiar face.

“Hello, Hollo,” Simon said as his friend pushed himself off from where he had been leaning against the tavern’s wall.

“Simon, how goes it?” Hollo said with a nod. The guide looked the same as ever, while the three travelers were thin, worn, and dusty from the road.

“Where in the name of the seven sisters have you been?” Erika demanded shrilly. Even Greta looked shocked at the reappearance of their guide.

“Oh, here and there, my lady,” Hollo answered, nodding toward the inn, “I’ve gotten us rooms here, if you’d prefer them to sleeping in the woods.”

Erika’s face flushed a deep red, and her hands trembled as she clenched them into fists. Then, like a thundercloud that dissipates after darkening the sky, she lifted her head and said simply, “That will do, my man. Show me to my chamber.”


Other episodes can be found here.  The entire anthology can be purchased at Amazon.

Musings

  • Sometimes, after a long day, it’s nice to park the truck in the driveway, shut off the engine, and just sit and listen to the sweet ringing of the tinnitus.
  • We told the dog that she’s not allowed on the new couch. Apparently we forgot to tell her that she’s not allowed to rub her flanks against its entire length to scratch her fuzzy self.
  • The good news is that Irish Woman and I have gotten hooked on the same television series that is absolutely not appropriate for Boo, so we have something to enjoy together.  The bad news is that there is probably not enough time between Boo going to sleep at night and us passing out from pure exhaustion for us to ever watch the whole thing together.
  • I made the mistake of promising my wife that I would only have to work for a few hours yesterday.  Ten hours later, she was waiting for me in the living room wearing The Look.

Movie Thoughts

So, we’ve been watching some of the Marvel movies this week. (1st Iron Man, 1st Captain America, 1st Thor, 1st Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy 1 and 2, Doctor Strange)
 
Some thoughts:
 
  • Agent Carter > Natasha Romanov
  • How are Hawkeye and Ms. Romanov superheroes?
  • I need to send a resume to Stark Industries
  • If Disney can make these movies so enjoyable and still have meaningful plots about honor, family, and duty, what in the heck is going on in their Star Wars division?
  • Incredibles is still the best super hero movie ever made.

 

Also, I’d like to reach out to the Hollywood marketing types and mention that having a couple of movies appropriate for school-age children in the theaters during March and April would probably do a lot for their bottom line.  Just saying.

 

Finally, the three Narnia movies were better than the three Hobbit movies, hands down.  In the former instance, the movie makers took three distinct children’s novels and did an excellent job of bringing the settings, plot, and characters to life.  In the latter instance, Peter Jackson stretched a short children’s novel into 8 or 9 hours of drivel punctuated by about an hour of fine story-telling by several of the individual actors.

 

How to know if you grew up in the Upper Midwest:  Minnesota,Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota, or Iowa.

This one comes from my uncle, who is probably one of the few folks who can still talk through my stubbornness.

  1. You know how to polka, but never tried it sober….
  2. You know what knee-high by the Fourth of July means.
  3. You know it is traditional for the bride and groom to go bar hopping between the reception and wedding dance.
  4. You know the difference between ‘Green’ and ‘Red’ farm machinery, and would fight with your friends on the playground over which was better!
  5. You buy Christmas presents at Fleet Farm or Tractor Supply Co.
  6. You spent more on beer & liquor than you did on food at your wedding.
  7. You hear someone use the word ‘oof-dah’ or ‘Holy Buckets’ and you don’t break into uncontrollable laughter.
  8. You or someone you know was a ‘Beef Queen or Dairy Princess’ at the county fair.
  9. You know that ‘combine’ is a noun.
  10. You let your older siblings talk you into putting your tongue on a steel post in the middle of winter, or peeing on an electric fence.
  11. You think Lutheran and Catholic are THE major religions.
  12. You know that ‘creek’ rhymes with ‘pick’
  13. Football schedules, branding calves and weaning, hunting season and harvest are all taken into consideration before wedding dates are set.
  14. If the sun is out, it’s really windy, and you’re getting wet… better get on upwind side of the livestock.
  15. A Friday night date is getting a six-pack and taking your girlfriend shining for deer.
  16. Saturday you go to your local bowling alley.
  17. Cruising ‘main’ lasts for 6 blocks.
  18. There was at least one kid in your class who had to help milk cows in the morning… phew!
  19. You have driven your car on a lake.
  20. You can make sense of ‘upnort’ and ‘batree’.
  21. Every wedding dance you have ever been to has the hokey pokey and the chicken dance.
  22. Your definition of a small town is one that only has one bar.
  23. If a road you’re driving on has more than 3 curves to a mile… you are nearing or in the Badlands.
  24. Your vocabulary still includes, ‘Yes, Ma’am’ and ‘No, Sir’
  25. The local gas station sells live bait, next to the local jerked beef and homemade jam.
  26. At least twice a year some part of your home doubles as a meat processing plant.
  27. You understand that brakes on silage trucks are considered a luxury.
  28. ‘Bulldoggin” is an event.
  29. As the American flag passes, you are on your feet and have removed your hat, your hand is over your heart, or someone behind you gives you a slap on the head as a reminder to do so.
  30. You grow up thinking that the opening day of deer & pheasant seasons are national holidays.
  31. You understand the true meaning to ‘snipe’ hunting.
  32. Pop is the only name used for a soft drink.
  33. The trip into town for school, takes longer than your lunch period.
  34. ‘Crown Royal’ has nothing to do with nobility.
  35. Someone in your family has the complete Lawrence Welk LP collection.
  36. Lime Jell-O salad is a part of special dinners.
  37. Most of the kids in your school had German, Scandinavian, or Russian last names.
  38. Generals U.S. Grant, George A. Custer, and Douglas MacArthur are considered national heroes.

 

 

Musings

  • Took the week off to spend spring break with Boo.
    • So far, the weather has batted .500, so we’ve spent two days out in the sunshine going for walks and talking, and two days inside watching super hero and Disney movies.
  • I’ve been letting Boo listen to “The LawDog Files: African Adventures” lately.  If stories are so well written and narrated that both he and I are on the ground laughing, then you can definitely say it’s well done.
  • The chicks in the horse troughs at the farm store were very fluffy and cute, but I know what they grow into – miniature dinosaurs.
  • You know what you get when you take a six-year-old and a ten-year-old to the park to play and go for a hike on a pretty spring day?
    • That’s right, tired.  You get tired
  • Ford got two car payments out of me this month.  The first was to pay on my truck, the second was the amount it cost to get a serpentine belt and tensioner replaced on Irish Woman’s car.
    • I’ve gotten old enough that I look at the problem, consult the manual, and just say “Forget it.  My time’s worth more than that” before driving to the dealership.
    • Both the F-150 Raptor and the Mustang GT were whispering sultry promises to me when I took Irish Woman back to pick up her mom-mobile.
    • My suggestion to Irish Woman that she look at the new Transit van or a station wagon were answered with “The Look.”
  • There is a special feeling of satisfaction you get when you schedule the final two payments for your student loans.
  • The other night, there was a thunderstorm powerful enough to set off the motion sensors on the outside lights.  Didn’t know it could rain that hard outside the tropics.
    • By the way, if you consider calling the television station to complain (OK, chew out some poor intern on phone duty) because the weather folks interrupted televised karaoke to make sure people knew about rough weather, do us all a favor and go stand outside during said weather while carrying a long aluminum pole upright.
  • I’ve gotten so many “Sorry, but we did stupid crap with your personal information” letters lately, I’m about ready to just paint my social security number and birth date on the side of my truck and cut out the middle man.

Recipe – Lemon Seed Cake

So, Boo is re-reading The Hobbit, and wanted me to make ‘seed cake’ like Bilbo served the dwarves. I looked up a few recipes, and it looks like it’s supposed to be a scone with caraway seeds.  Knowing that my sprog wouldn’t eat that, I winged it.  This is basically a pound cake with a little something added.  It came out dense, but with a good texture and flavor.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

Ingredients:

1/2 cup soft butter
1 cup white sugar
3 eggs
1/2 cup cold milk
The zest and juice of 2 fresh lemons

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp baking powder
1/8 tsp baking soda

1/2 cup sunflower seeds
1/2 cup flax seeds
1/4 cup poppy seeds

Cream the butter and sugar together, then stir in eggs and milk.  Add in lemon zest and juice and mix thoroughly.

Sift flour, baking powder, and baking soda together.  Add 1/3 at a time to wet ingredients.  Scrape bowl as necessary. Add in seeds, then mix just until just moistened.

Pour into greased loaf pan.  Bake on center rack of pre-heated oven for 50 to 60 minutes.  A knife inserted into the center of the loaf will come out clean when done.  Turn out onto wire rack to cool.

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