The year is 1917, and the Russian Empire is on verge of collapse. Florence Cavell—codename Geist—takes her special forces team of sorcerers into allied territory in an effort to hunt down spies and keep the Russian royals alive. If the Russian Empire falls, the Germans and Austro-Hungarians will turn their full attention to France and Britain. That can't be allowed to happen. Unfortunately for Geist, the enemy has sent the Eyes of the Kaiser, specialists who hunt and destroy sorcerers. And they came prepared to eliminate not only the Russian royalty, but the Ethereal Squadron as well. Praise for Ethereal Squadron: "In tense, precise prose that skillfully conveys detailed descriptions, Stovall delivers this engrossing story of fantasy adventure with utmost precision. The Ethereal Squadron's riveting fantasy world will fuel readers' imaginations and leave them crave for the next book in the sequel." - The Prairies Book Review
Blick turned to Geist with a coy smile. “The grand duchess wants to see you alone? You’re a real charmer.”
She shook her head. “Now isn’t the time for games.”
“I bet the duchess asks you for a dance.”
“For both our sakes, I hope she doesn’t,” Geist quipped.
Battery turned to her, his brows knitted together. “Wait, you don’t know how to dance?”
Everyone in the room stopped what they were doing and stared. The collective silence bothered Geist more than the question. Of course she knew how to dance! It had been one of the many lessons taught to her by tutors from all around the world. That wasn’t the problem.
“I’m sure the grand duchess will want a man to dance with her,” Geist drawled. “I was taught the steps for a woman. You can see how this will go poorly.”
“Oh,” Battery muttered. “I hadn’t thought of that.” He tapped his chin for a moment before smiling. Then he stood and held out his hand. “Well, it should be a simple task to teach you the opposite steps. I can help.”
Tempted by his offer, Geist got to her feet, though her whole body felt cold and distant. She didn’t want to risk exposing herself for some recognition from the tsar. She just wanted to complete the operation and leave.
Battery kept his hand out, but Vergess pushed it aside. He stepped in front of Geist and held out his hands.
“I’ll do it,” he stated.
Of the two options, Geist preferred Vergess’s instruction. Then again, she didn’t want to learn how to dance in front of her squad. Stumbling around like a drunkard wasn’t high on her list of team bonding.
Geist hesitantly placed her hands on top of Vergess’s. He turned them around. “You hold the woman’s hands,” he said. “You control what’s going on.” Then he nudged her, as if urging her to start the dance.
The others got out of their seats, moved the furniture to the edge of the room, and then leaned against the wall. They watched with amused half-smiles—even Defiant, who squinted the entire time. It was enough to twist Geist’s stomach into knots.
Please, God. What have I done to deserve this?
She started with a few slow steps. Vergess urged Geist to go faster, even though they had no music to work with.
Which meant everything happened in painful silence.
While Geist enjoyed her close proximity to Vergess—especially since no one could complain—she couldn’t enjoy a second of the event. She stutter-stepped around, hesitated for a few seconds, and pulled Vergess along by the hands, knowing full well she looked like a childish amateur. I’m such a fool, she thought, unable to look Vergess in the eye for fear of ridicule and mockery. Why am I even doing this?
For the past few years, she had trained, killed, and fought in a bloody war, yet the thought of playing the man in a ballroom dance was the thing that crippled her confidence. She had no idea what she was supposed to do, and half the time she continued to slip back into the role of the woman, secretly hoping Vergess would just take over so she could be done with the “lesson.”
“Relax,” Vergess whispered.
So damn easy to say.
And it didn’t make things better that the others were muttering amongst themselves.
Then Blick snorted. “You’re terrible.”
Geist ripped her hands away from Vergess and turned away. “Yes. I agree. We should stop this.”
“What?” Blick said. “We don’t want to risk offending the tsar and his family, remember?”
Victory wheeled on his younger brother, a scowl that could wilt plants. Blick chortled, in no way intimidated.
“You should practice,” Vergess said. “Just try again.”
“Why don’t you try explaining what she’s doing wrong?” Dreamer interjected.
“She can learn by doing.”
“A proper teacher uses every tool to teach a student.”
“Yes, well, perhaps explaining the dance isn’t my forte,” Vergess barked. “Why don’t you tell her?”
Dreamer shook his head. “I don’t know how to dance. That wasn’t a skill taught to eunuchs.”
“Then perhaps you shouldn’t offer advice on matters you know nothing of.”
The odd argument got the others tense. Vergess and Dreamer stared for a long moment, but after exhaling, both men turned away. Vergess returned his attention to Geist and held out his hand, ready to practice again.
“Why don’t I try?” Victory said.
He walked around his chair, one arm still in a sling, but he held himself like only a gentleman could. Then he offered his good hand and smiled.
With his aristocratic upbringing, Geist figured Victory would know best. She exhaled and took his hand. The look Vergess gave her when she passed—it was fleeting—was like he wanted to object, but couldn’t.
“You don’t need to worry about the grand duchess discovering your secret,” Victory said. “She won’t have her hands all over you. That’s improper.” He motioned to his hip. “You place your hand here. She will place a hand on your shoulder. And while you may come together in the dance, I doubt she will notice anything through the layers of formal clothing.”
“Th-thanks,” Geist muttered. The simple explanation did put her at ease.
Victory continued, “The key to leading a dance is to control everything from your torso—the core momentum coming from your center of gravity. The woman may be holding one of your hands, but she’ll feel the way you shift from your torso first.”
When Victory swayed side to side, Geist felt the movement. It dawned on her then, like someone pulling back the curtains to reveal the truth. Dancing did come from the torso. Why had she been trying to pull Vergess by the hands? It seemed so foolish now.
“You try,” Victory said.
Although she still felt ridiculous, Geist attempted to lead Victory around the room. To her surprise, he began humming. Although she had never considered his voice soothing or lyrical, the pleasant melody he provided for their faux dance reminded her of a quiet evening in London she once shared with her mother and younger brother, Dietrich. It made it easy to keep pace and focus on the footwork. Much easier than silence.
The others whispered among themselves, but Geist didn’t feel as ridiculous as before. At least I’m actually dancing.
Halfway around the room, Geist stared up at Victory, closer than she had ever been with him before. He had a slight scar over his right eye—one that altered the way his eyebrow grew and affected his eyelashes. He had gotten the scar when they fought the German U-boat. A decision Geist had made. During the fight, a piece of glass had dug its way into his face, and Cross didn’t get a chance to heal Victory until weeks later.
Then Geist glanced down at Victory’s arm resting in the sling.
That was my fault, too.
Victory paused his humming to say, “And if the lady makes a misstep, you apologize.”
“Really?” Geist asked as she returned her attention to him.
“Of course. As the gentleman, and the lead, you take responsibility for all mistakes. Always.”
Shaken by Victory’s words, and the scars on his body—all due to her mistakes—Geist continued to keep his gaze. It took her a moment, even while they danced, to whisper, “I’m sorry, Victory.”
She didn’t say anything else, but the look Victory offered in reply told her everything. He knew what she meant.
Instead of saying something cutting or hurtful, he gave her smile. “A gracious lady will always accept the apology. Everyone makes mistakes.”
4 out of 5 (very good)
A Company of Monsters is the second book in The Sorcerers of Verdun series, and it takes you right back to Geist and WWI. I would definitely recommend reading these as a series as the story does follow on from book one.
In this book, however, Geist and her squadron are sent to Russia as Houses of Sorcerers are being obliterated. Not a simple task being as WWI is happening and Russia is also going through a turbulent time. Not only that, but Amalgam shows up, together with Geist's family and the Eyes of the Kaiser which adds a whole new level to the story.
Just as with book one, Ms. Stovall has done an exceptional job with this story. The events flow from one to the other, ringing true with every word. The only reason for not giving it 5-stars this time is because of Geist herself. She seemed more... fragmented... disjointed than in book one. Which may well be how it is supposed to be but I found it slightly distracting. The relationship between her and Vergess is also confusing as, on the one hand, they have special 'intimate' names for each other, and Vergess is definitely more intense, but then we are also told that they have no chemistry between them.
On the whole, I loved this book, just not quite as much as book one. That doesn't mean this book is no good, not by a long shot. I will be continuing this series and seeing where Geist and her crew go next, AND seeing how Amalgam fits in!
Definitely recommended by me.
* A copy of this book was provided to me with no requirements for a review. I voluntarily read this book, and the comments here are my honest opinion. *
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Shami Stovall grew up in California’s central valley with a single mother and little brother. Despite no one in her family earning a degree higher than a GED, she put herself through college (earning a BA in History), and then continued on to law school where she obtained her Juris Doctorate.
As a child, Stovall’s favorite novel was Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell. The adventure on a deserted island opened her mind to ideas and realities she had never given thought before—and it was at that moment Stovall realized story telling (specifically fiction) became her passion. Anything that told a story, be it a movie, book, video game or comic, she had to experience. Now, as a professor and author, Stovall wants to add her voice to the myriad of stories in the world and she hopes you enjoy.
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