This RITA® Reader Challenge 2017 review was written by Leeane H. This story was nominated for the RITA® in the Paranormal Romance category.
An ancient evil rises. An ancient warrior awakens.
In an age clouded by legend, Gawain was one of King Arthur’s greatest knights. When he awakens centuries after the fall of Camelot, he faces his most daunting quest yet—the search for his missing companions. His hope is that Tamsin Greene, the alluring historian at Medievaland Theme Park, can help him. Then he senses the magic within her… Gawain will now have to trust a witch—and his own heart—to rouse the knights of the Round Table and save humanity from a faery onslaught.
Here is Leeane H.’s review:
This book reads like the R-rated cousin of a BBC Merlin episode. Some cheesy writing and slightly rushed plot points: check. Knights of the Round Table making questionable decisions: check. A badass sorcerer who takes no shit and saves literally everyone, all the time: check and mate.
As a huge Merlin fan, overall, I enjoyed myself.
The reasons why:
Tamsin Greene, healer, witch, and historian extraordinaire. Tamsin is following in her
missing they-never-found-the-body dead father’s footsteps by leaving her small town coven to track down Merlin’s missing books. Since she is a trained medieval historian, she’s using a job as a tour guide at Medievaland fun park as a cover. (Every time Medievaland was mentioned, I thought of this video, by the way. You’re welcome.)
Enter Gawain, of “Gawain and the Green Knight” Round Table fame.
Earlier this year I attended an Afghan-American conference in DC. I was in the crowded gender bias workshop, leaning against the wall behind Bilal Askaryar, the moderator of the LGBTQ workshop, when he glanced at my name tag and reached his hand gently to mine, “I think we’re related, let’s talk after.” I waited for the room to empty and we did the whole ancestry.com lite “Who are your relatives? I think my grandparents are related to your uncle” thing. I never thought I’d meet another queer muslim in my own family, and there we were, in a room full of over 50 receptive Afghans, learning about and how to be an ally.
This past weekend we celebrated Pride on a global scale. It was also Eid, the holy days of celebration after a month long Ramadan fast for the Muslim community. Identifying with both communities has been a long personal journey for me, and for the two holidays to fall on the exact same weekend (Ramadan following a lunar calendar), was a confluence of ideas I needed help processing.
Around midnight the first night of Eid, I texted Bilal asking if we could chat on the phone about what it means for both the Pride and Eid holiday to fall on the exact same day. How did it make him feel? I felt an energy, did he sense the same? We hopped on a call the next morning.
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Hawa: So I have this group chat called “messy moozlems,” and we were all lit when we realized Pride and Eid fall on the same day, how have you processed this as a phenomenon?
Bilal: That’s amazing, I love that chat name! It’s interesting because the past couple years I thought of it as like a separate thing, there’s Ramadan and Pride, and I can’t celebrate Pride because it’s Ramadan. I have to be good. It brings up all the juxtapositions and contrasts and dichotomies within myself. What’s the definition of a good Muslim? Can you be a messy Muslim and do you still get to celebrate Eid too?
There’s an aspect of my queer identity where I want to celebrate how far we’ve come and how far we have to go. But it’s hard to march when you’re fasting and it’s going to be 92 degree sweltering humid weather. The immediate thought—which part of you do you listen to that day?
But this year it’s extra special because it coincides perfectly with Pride and Eid, especially with the context of everything that’s going on in the world. The supreme court announced they will see parts of the travel ban through. So what’s our role as queer Muslims and brown people in the US who have a voice, when our contemporaries elsewhere don’t really?
Hawa: For me, there has been so much to process in terms of not only what this means personally, but as a global citizen.
Bilal: Right, here’s a time where both aspects of our identity are more under attack than ever. Immigrant people, brown people, Muslim people, queer people, given the rise of the xenophobia in the political climate, it’s scary. The killing of Nabra Hassanen, Philando Castile. Every aspect of our identity is under attack, and yet here we are, celebrating the two most joyous days in our calendar—Eid and Pride. Pride is all about not listening to those inner demons and the rest of the world telling you you’re not good enough. And with Eid in the context of rampant Islamophobia, it’s a giant merging of resistance. You better believe we’re under attack but we’re still going to be proud of who we are.
Hawa: So you’re out to immediate family and are public with how you identify, how did they react to your celebration of Pride and Eid?
Bilal: Well my parents see pride peripherally. “There he is again in front of a rainbow flag,” and they maybe wish I wouldn’t do that. Then there’s day-to-day family like my cousins, you know how it is, we have a big family namekhuda (in the name of God). They are more than supportive, and they’ve taken it own as their own cause. My non-queer cousins are posting Pride Mubarak and happy Ramadan. They came to the pride march when I was in it even though they were fasting.
Hawa: What are assumptions or misrepresentations about being Muslim and queer?
Bilal: I was at the inauguration day protest with a sign that said “Gay, Muslim, Unafraid” sign. I heard people yell “go back to Saudi Arabia, they throw you off buildings there” and stuff like that. This tells me that, 1. People like that don’t want me to be here in the US and 2. There’s a perception that you can’t be queer and Muslim. But that’s ridiculous, here I am. You and I both can name dozens of queer Muslim friends. In some ways the misconceptions amongst the Muslim community can be more harmful to our well being. Like “oh you can be queer but you should try not to be.” We do exist, yet we feel bad about ourselves for existing because of that. If you deny us, that is denying a part of yourself, because we are part of the same family. Queer people are the vanguard of every community.
Hawa: I felt that sense of family when I was in the LGBT workshop at the Afghan American conference—like a visibility I never thought was possible within our specific community.
Bilal: I had that same moment as a moderator. I thought during the session maybe 5 or 10 people would show up, and maybe some hecklers who were just coming to see what this crazy guy is saying and report back to their families. Did I want to spend my Sunday morning talking to 50+ Afghans about being gay? Especially all the buff guys with the axe cologne…that was intimidating to me. So often because we have to be closeted, we think there are so few others but then to see you and others in one room. I never imagined 7 of us coming out in one room, that we could have that. We made that space for ourselves just by coming out and being honest with each other. This is why coming out matters and why being brave and not denying an aspect of yourself matters.
Hawa: I always struggled with denying a part of oneself for survival, or the perception of what it means to survive, versus the survival of the greater community.
Bilal: That’s what it means to have privilege. We can do this because we are relatively safe compared to other parts of the world or even the US. Growing up there’s that constant calculation of can I be honest with myself and others or will that bring irreparable harm? Can I tell this person who I am? I was afraid to open up to my parents in any way. I knew one of the biggest aspects of my identity would hurt them. I also feared for my safety, but they love me and wouldn’t do physical harm to me. When I knew I would still have a family and a safety net, I began to start telling cousins and others. We all know there are people in our communities and other communities that can’t come out. They can’t come out because it’s not safe or maybe they haven’t accepted themselves yet. That’s why we have to make sure everyone in our communities are safe and that they belong no matter what. Growing up we thought we were the only ones, that’s why we were so quiet. But now with increased visibility thanks to events like Pride and queer Muslim organizations, we can start to make stronger support networks.
Hawa: Is there a context where that privilege doesn’t exist?
Bilal: Some people are living in contexts where the idea of living authentically just isn’t an option. It’s a question of physical safety, mental health, and possible ostracization from family. I once had someone queer ask a straight family member of mine “Can you imagine living your whole life not being able to be with the person you love?” and she said “Yeah I can.” She was talking about the pressure many of us feel to marry someone to make our families happy. In some ways the challenges we face are universal, we are fighting for modern ideas like picking the person you love. But, in our cultures, we are used to sacrificing for the greater good of the family. So in one very real way that is a challenge we face that other’s don’t: explaining to well-meaning family members why we can’t sacrifice our queer identity.
Hawa: What’s a beautiful moment you’ve had with these two intersecting celebrations?
Bilal: In DC there’s a LGBTQ Muslim group and they’re hosting an Eid brunch in a week, and I can’t wait to go. Here are all these queer Muslims celebrating Eid while every corner of the city is decorated with rainbow flags for Pride. Muslims love colorful stuff so it totally works. They won’t have mimosas but that’s ok.
Hawa: Some of us are messy Muslims.
Bilal: I really love that group, like that’s me! I’ll fast but it’s ok to be that kind of Muslim too. I remember growing up if I didn’t pray five times a day they’d tell us “Shaitan (The Devil) is gonna crawl in your mouth when you’re asleep” they were so obsessed with orthodoxy. But it’s ok, there is room for all of us to practice Islam in our own way.
Hawa: Ahhh that always was so scary! That’s what I love about my messy moozlems—we all reinforce each other’s interpretations of spirituality and religiosity.
Bilal: What about you, did you have a nice confluence moment?
Hawa: I felt like I was…internally….like blasting starlight energy through every corner of my body.
Bilal: YES, yes. I get exactly what you’re saying. And that’s enough, just to be able to have your insides shine because two of these really important parts of yourself are just about being happy and celebrating.
Hawa: Yeah. And in my reflective moment thinking of what this all means, of course I thought of you. That’s probably been one of the most important moments for me in my recent history navigating identity. That moment you reached over to me and told me we might be related hahaha. When I found out you were moderating the workshop, I realized why I was there. You helped me be brave. That whole conference actually, I felt so seen and validated. I have a new sense of pride for being Afghan because of how my peers showed up.
Bilal: Aw, I’m so happy to hear that. That’s cool, because you helped me be brave too. This is what we’re here for, to help each other.
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Oh, Gawain. You strong, hunky, loyal, chivalrous . . . doofus. Okay, that’s harsh. He’s a skilled warrior and a gifted strategist. He’s dedicated, hardworking, and extremely loyal. He can be a bit possessive and definitely falls on the alpha end of the hero spectrum. But he’s also . . . a little bit . . . blah?
Their meet-cute tells you everything you need to know:
He made a noise of amusement. “Historians are meant to be old men in robes and soup-stained beards. A golden-haired sylph is a pleasant surprise.”
“Hey, that’s sexist–”
“You may call me Gawain,” he interrupted, as if he had no time to waste.
This is where I had to give Gawain a bit of a break. After all, he’s been sleeping in stone for thousands of years, only to wake up and find that the world had changed juuuust a little. Add to that the urgency of finding Arthur’s tomb in order to waken the former king and defeat the nefarious Mordred, and Gawain is in a *bit* of a tight spot. On the whole, his adjustment period goes pretty well.
Then he finds out Tamsin is a witch.
Yeah, he’s not really into that.
Turns out Gawain has a . . . history . . . with witches. No pun intended.
Despite his misgivings, especially since she’s HAWT, Gawain accepts Tamsin as a reluctant ally in his quest to retrieve Merlin’s books and, using the books, find Arthur’s tomb. Gawain gets to reunite with his king. Tamsin gets to return triumphant to her coven and rise above coven politics. No animals, fae, humans, or witches are hurt in the making of this adventure.
See, as a virtual non-reader of paranormal and a generally squeamish person, there were some torture sequences that didn’t exactly thrill me. On the whole, I felt like we spent too much time following Mordred et al and their villainous deeds, instead of leaning into the emotional development of Gawain and Tamsin. And then when there WERE emotional revelations, the characters either moved on from them far too quickly or prioritized them over, I don’t know, life-threatening situations. For example:
After encountering some pushback from a mysterious magic user and falling into a magic-induced coma, Tamsin has to be warmed back to life by Gawain’s shirtless body (natch).
When she awakens, this is their exchange:
“I want to kiss you,” he repeated.
“Oh.” She hesitated so long he was certain she would push away. But then she gave a slow blink that changed the knot in his gut to a liquid heat lower down. “If you’re sure you want to.” The statement was half a tease, but there was a painful honesty in it, too.
“I am.” He brushed her cheek with the backs of his fingers. “I can think of nothing more pleasant right now.”
When most people think of the Long Island emo/hardcore scene, the bands that typically come to mind are Brand New, Taking Back Sunday, and Glassjaw — because all those groups hit at just about the exact same time, and two of them had an insanely complicated “Layla”-esque narrative that spilled from the artists’ private lives into their songs and beyond. All three of those bands were massive. However, when you ask people who came up in that scene to identify the pivotal acts, they’ll almost always name Mind Over Matter and Silent Majority, because those were the groups who built the community from nothing and laid the groundwork for the bands who broke big. Those bands never really graduated past coverage in local zines, which is just how it goes. But if you lived through it — and I did — you know the story isn’t complete without mention of the Movielife, who kind of bridged the gap between the progenitors and the stars. The Movielife were great, and they were supposed to be huge, and for whatever reason, it just didn’t happen for them. But they left behind three excellent albums, most notably 2003’s 40 Hour Train Back To Penn, a minor classic of the genre that holds up today. Not long after 40 Hour Train, the Movielife broke up.
The band’s two primary creative forces — singer Vinnie Caruana and guitarist Brandon Reilly — formed new groups: I Am The Avalanche and Nightmare Of You, respectively, both of which were pretty good, but never as good as the Movielife. And while there were calls for the old band to reunite over the past decade and a half, they only did so for occasional nostalgia shows. Better than nothing, right?
But man, life is short, and if you can create magic, it’s kinda dumb to waste time doing otherwise. I dunno what the circumstances were, but Caruana and Reilly reconnected, started writing songs, and what do ya know, they recorded a fourth Movielife LP — their first in 14 years — whose first single drops today.
The album’s title is Cities In Search Of A Heart, and the new track is called “Mercy Is Asleep At The Wheel,” and as someone who followed the Movielife back in the day and fully expected them to blow up to superstar proportions, I can honestly say this is as good as anything they’ve ever done, and frankly, it’s probably actually like 35% better than anything they’ve ever done. It’s catchy as hell, it’s got a hard bite and a sharp edge, Caruana’s vocals sound incredible, and it builds to a roaring climax. I kinda wish they didn’t have all this history, because it might overshadow the music they’re creating in this moment. It absolutely shouldn’t. I’d be stoked on this song regardless of its authors. Whether you know or care about the Movielife’s backstory, you should listen, because you should get stoked on this, too.
Cities In Search Of A Heart is out 9/22 via Rise Records, and you can for pre-order it here.
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Maybe it’s because I’m a generally anxious person, but if I were involved with someone who’d almost just died, my priority would be 1) finding out why, 2) finding out how to stop it, 3) making a plan so it doesn’t come back to bite us in the ass. THEN you can make out. Why is this so hard?
Overall, the book diverges from my favorite Merlin episodes in one key way: it never quite convinces me of its emotional core. Yes, I love Tamsin and her ass-kicking. There are even some awesome moments wherein she saves herself, no Gawain required. I’m definitely here for that, which is why I made it through the book. 100% Tamsin fangirl fo’ lyfe.
If you enjoy a little bit of Arthurian legend mixed with your plot and romance, and you want an entertaining good time that probably won’t end up on your keeper shelf, this is the book for you. Especially if you can overlook certain little disappointments. And possibly a big one:
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Enchanted Warrior by Sharon Ashwood
February 1, 2016
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