REVIEW: The Balkan Legends, Book 1: Beneath a Crescent Shadow by A. L. Sowards

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Niamh Kavanagh
Niamh Kavanagh
Niamh Kavanagh is a social media and digital marketing expert, CMO of Dream Machine Foundation, and storyteller with a purpose. She grew Dream Machine to 8M followers and edited videos that raised $750K for charity, earning attention from Oprah, Steve Harvey, and Khloe Kardashian.

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After an arranged marriage, Konstantin and Suzana must find a way to meet the demands of a conquering Ottoman sultan amid a torrent of setbacks and dangers much closer to their Balkan home.

The Balkans, 1373

A devastating battle claimed the lives of Konstantin’s father, uncle, and most of their Serb army, leaving Konstantin to rule as a vassal of the Ottoman sultan, a role he is wholly unprepared for. Between war, famine, and a persistent band of brigands, this young, new ruler is nearly bankrupt. He will need to find a wealthy bride if he is to have any hope of saving his lands and securing his future.

A betrothal to Suzana, the daughter of a prosperous merchant, is soon arranged, and upon meeting her, Konstantin immediately feels hope that their marriage could someday grow into love. Yet from the moment of Konstantin and Suzana’s betrothal, enemies threaten their lives, outlaws prey on their lands, and the terrors of Suzana’s abusive past haunt their fragile new relationship. As this onslaught of threats closes in, the two face challenges that will test their love, their faith, and their hope of saving their people from the heavy weight of Ottoman oppression.

CW/TW – heroine PTSD from a past sexual assault (not described on page); hero PTSD from battle; miscarriage; death/injury of warhorses in battle; past parental (not sexual) abuse of the heroine.

Dear Ms. Sowards,

From the past books of yours I’ve read, I know that you don’t pull any punches. You write about tough times and tough people who face danger and death. And while things aren’t described graphically, nonetheless bad things can and do happen. I hesitated about requesting this arc but in the end, I enjoyed “A Waltz with Traitors” and “Of Sword and Shadow” so much and was so intrigued with this book’s time frame that I couldn’t resist. I finished it glad that I read it.

1373 Serbia is not a book setting I’ve read before so the glossary was handy but honestly, the terms were used so well in the narrative that the meanings were plain anyway. This is a place and people still reeling from the horrific outcome of a battle against the Ottoman Sultan Murad two years ago. Dangerously weakened by the loss of so many fighting men, on the hook for yearly tribute and military duty to the Sultan, the individual rulers of the Serbian zupas ought to be pulling together.

One young leader can’t seem to catch a break. Many of his family have died either in battle or from the diseases sweeping through Europe at the time. Konstantin has been Zupan for two years but is still learning. With the weight of his people on his shoulders and a recent attack by bandits having ruined much of the crops, he listens when his grandfather gives him an option to meet his obligations – marriage to the daughter of a wealthy merchant.

Suzana knows she doesn’t have any say in her marriage and can only hope that this betrothal will come to fruition. Her past is against her but escaping from her father and his fists makes it worth the risk. But first she and Konstantin have to make it safely to his home in the face of determined efforts to kill them both. And then they have to start working out a relationship and marriage in the face of further strife, personal demons, and enemies.

There are things about this book which will probably make some readers rule it out but which I appreciated being included. “Beneath a Crescent Shadow” is an inspirational story but it’s not a preachy one. The characters are religious and turn to religion and prayer a lot. They also act and believe as some Christians did then in that there was a feeling that if you sinned (or thought you sinned) that God could punish you or others for this. Usually I’m not a fan of modern day sentiments and beliefs being forced onto historical people so I’m actually okay with Konstantin’s feelings. They are honest for the time and lead to a “third act breakup” that, again for the time, makes sense.

Booyah that Konstantin has been raised in a family of love. Many of those he loves have been lost to disease or battle but he believes in love and that people can have happy marriages even if those are arranged ones. He’s initially a bit baffled by Suzana’s reserve and moments of flinching around him. Suzana opens up a bit to his Aunt in her questions about how often a “good husband” beats his wife and luckily that good woman gives her nephew some hints and tips about why Suzana acts as she does. After a lifetime of one parent who uses his fists to enforce his will, I would have been surprised if Suzana had instantly melted into love. Yay that they talk honestly and begin to build a solid marriage.

The bulk of the conflict in the story is external to the romantic relationship. I like how Konstantin and Suzana use their strengths to work together for the good of the zupa. TImes are hard enough but with the tribute that must be paid, the military service that will take Konstantin and most of his men away for a summer campaign in Anatolia, and continued “incidents” that plague them, there’s a lot of upheaval and unrest to fill the story and keep things moving.

Konstantin and Suzana act in ways that feel authentic to the times and place. These were people used to death and struggles but also ready to reach for joy when they could. Both MCs grow and develop over the course of the book. They face obstacles and crises of faith but keep going. Konstantin’s duty as leader of his people is something he constantly thinks about and he tries his utmost even if a few times he still has some things to learn. Suzana offers her skills to her new people as well as faces her worst fears. When they emerge on the other side of what they’ve fought, they are hardened steel and rock solid in their love. I’m looking forward to the next book in the series. B+

~Jayne

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Jayne

Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 25 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there’s no TSTL characters and is currently reading more fantasy and SciFi.

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