Review of Dark Territory by Jerry Hunter

darkterritorySummary: From the Civil War battlefields of England and Ireland to a mystery lost in the forests of North America, this is both a roaring adventure and a timely commentary on the dangers of religious extremism.

Rhisiart Dafydd is a zealous Roundhead who embraces Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army and the violence it entails. But can his convictions survive the atrocities of the English Civil Wars and Parliament’s campaign in Ireland? Called upon by his former commander to voyage to America to seek out a missing group of Welsh Puritans, he must first survive the journey, and then – if he can find the community – see whether they really have created the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.

An epic historical adventure set during one of the most turbulent periods in history, this gripping thriller also poses questions about violence, power, religious extremism and rejection of difference which are chillingly relevant to our world today.

Note: I was given a copy of this novel by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

If history teaches us one thing, it’s that humanity never really changes. We don’t seem to learn from our mistakes. History repeats itself.

Dark Territory is historical fiction and was written in Welsh, originally published under the title Y Fro Dywyll, and was translated by Patrick K. Ford.

The novel opens with a former soldier named Rhisiart Daffyd walking through the noisy, sometimes harrowing, streets of 1656 London. Among the sights and sounds of the living, death stares back through mounted heads on pikes, a stark reminder of where we are all headed. The climate is chilling, despite the children running through the streets, the vendors selling their wares, and life continuing on as a man who has seen his fair share of death walks these cobbled streets. I am right there with Rhisiart, an invisible set of eyes on his shoulder. The description of the streets of London is done so vividly, with such beautiful detailed language, that the reader really gets a sense of what life was like then.

Rhisiart Daffyd served in Oliver Cromwell’s Army of the Saints and has come to London under the summons of his former commanding officer, John Powel. Powel has gotten word of a settlement in America that has drifted from the Calvinist views being upheld in Cromwellian England, and he wishes to send Rhisiart to the new country to investigate and report back to him.

Rhisiart boards the ship Primrose. He is surrounded by Englishmen, the only other Welshman an older man named Owen Lewys. Some of the best dialogue in the book occurs between these two during the voyage. Having witnessed, and taken part in, so much death during the war, Rhisiart questions his beliefs. The faith he once adhered to is no longer true for him. He and Owen, who his a Quaker, discuss passages in the Gospel of John, where the light within every man is written about. Rhisiart dismisses Predestination, believing it ludicrous that God would select some souls for damnation and others for salvation prior to their births. Rather, he believes now that God’s light shines within all people, even though humanity is flawed. He keeps quiet about his views aboard the ship, however, as he and Owen are in the minority.

A storm rages at sea as the ship approaches land. It hits rocks, leaving Rhisiart and a black tom cat named Nicholas the only survivors.

The novel then gives us the backstory of Rhisiart, from the time he was a boy and lost both of his parents, raised by his sister Alys and his uncle, to when he started apprenticing under a blacksmith. There is lovely narrative about Rhisiart working words into the objects he crafts. It is during this time that he develops his belief in what Cromwell professes. He marries the blacksmith’s daughter, Elisabeth, but he soon goes off to war.

When he returns from war a broken man who now questions everything he believed in, having witnessed atrocities, including the Battle of Naseby in 1645, he hopes to settle down. The “little plague” darkens his family’s doorstep, killing Elisabeth and his unborn child.

I was devastated right along with Rhisiart. Despite the atrocities he has participated in, he is still a man who loves and thought he was doing right for his homeland. It’s no wonder he takes on the mission Powel entrusts him with, seeing as he has no one keeping him in England any longer.

The book switches back to 1656. Once Rhisiart comes ashore, he is cared for by some Native Americans. There aren’t many of them at all, and the one who speaks English tells him how many of their tribe died from diseases from the settlers. The kindness of the Native Americans toward Rhisiart shows more of true Christian (or otherwise) charity than any of the characters in the book, despite they aren’t Christian. This truth is resonates with Rhisiart and does with me as well. It is heartbreaking to look back on history and see how the Native Americans were driven from their land, in some cases, and how such things still occurs today, both in America and globally. The refugee crisis in the world today comes to mind. To show kindness and generosity to your fellow person is in the spirit of what is at the heart of Christianity, the whole to do what Jesus did. To show mercy, understanding, love.

I think this is what strikes Rhisiart, both in his discussion aboard the Primrose with Owen Lewys and with the Native Americans. More than ever, he doesn’t believe in the Calvinist doctrine. He sees it for the manmade construct it is, not a divine ordinance…although he still has a mission to see through.

He regains his strength while in the care of the Native Americans. They give him a map to the settlement Powel told him to seek. Rhisiart travels several days through the woods in the dying fall and arrives at New Jerusalem. By the name alone, you can be sure this settlement believes it is God’s kingdom on Earth.

Rhisiart settles there for several months, befriending some (blacksmith Griffith John Griffith and his son, Ifan, and young, pregnant widow Rebecca) and at odds with others (namely the Elder, Rhosier Wyn). He learns some secrets about the corrupted ways the leaders of New Jerusalem carry out what they believe is divine justice. His beliefs are challenged more every passing day, and as Rebecca’s pregnancy nears its end, dread overcomes the reader, wondering how this is all going to end.

We have seen the crimes and wars done in the name of religion over the centuries, including the accurate historical representation in Dark Territory. So much unnecessary violence and death has resulted over disagreements. The whole “I am right, you are wrong” mentality and the pride of believing one’s way is the only true way puts up walls between people, between nations, and it tears down the Golden Rule. In theory, it should be simple to follow the path of love, to treat others as you wish to be treated, even in our human imperfection.

We can look at the serious nature of the English Civil Wars of the seventeenth century and the harsh beliefs of the Puritans in America and believe we have come so far from those ways of thinking, but a quick look around the world today paints a different story.

Dark territory, indeed. This novel shows the journey, the struggle, the life of one man in the midst of religious wars and tyranny. It forces us to look deep within ourselves and examine our hearts, our beliefs, to trod the path today through dark territory.

This novel is one of those rare gems that hooked me from the beginning. The themes are important for anyone to realize and think about. This is one of those masterpieces that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

5 out of 5 stars

Favorite quotes: “He imagined that silence would roll down the corridors like mist on the surface of a river, that quiet would collect in the chambers like water gathers in a fountain’s pool, turning sound to vapour and dulling the ear, keeping secrets secret.”

“He tilts his face to the sun, his eyes closed, and all the sounds of the ship are like a whisper in a dream. This is the world, he thinks, and this is the life I have lived. The heat he feels on his face has the warmth of skin: like another cheek pressing against his own cheek. Living fingers playing with his hair, a hand caressing his skin playfully.”

“Is the way that the most insignificant instincts lead an animal to its death essentially different from the way that most men follow their instincts to the end?”

“‘I do. He knew that I… had lived the life… had believed… had done. And he knew that I now doubt many of the things I used to believe in. And he saw value in that.’”

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Review of River Rising (Carson Chronicles Book 1) by John A. Heldt

riverrisingSummary: Weeks after his parents disappear on a hike, engineer Adam Carson, 27, searches for answers. Then he discovers a secret web site and learns his mom and dad are time travelers stuck in the past. Armed with the information he needs to find them, Adam convinces his younger siblings to join him on a rescue mission to the 1880s.

Note: I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Being a fan of time travel and historical fiction, this novel piqued my interest when the author approached me to ask if I would read and review it.  Adam Carson, the oldest of the Carson siblings, acts as the leader in his parents’ absence.  His younger siblings include Greg (a history teacher), Natalie (a journalist), and twins Cody and Caitlin (still in high school).  Upon receiving news that his parents’ mysterious disappearance a few months earlier was because they went through a time vortex in Sedona, Arizona, Adam decides he and his siblings need to go back in time to find them.

Early on in the book, most of the chapters are devoted to Adam.  Although the narrative is third person, the chapters switch focus on which sibling is in the center of the action.  Adam seems to be making all of the decisions, and his siblings don’t seem to have much in way of voices of their own at first.  The exception to this is his sister, Natalie, who gets her own chapter early on.  She finds her boyfriend cheating on her, and it makes the decision to leave life in 2017 to go to 1888 that much easier.

I would argue that all of the siblings pretty much collectively make this decision too easily.  It’s not that I wouldn’t expect them to want to find their parents, but I would have liked to have seen more character development early on for each of the characters.  It would be a lot to ask anyone to leave everything they know and travel to another time.  The fear of something happening during the unknown process of time traveling or the risks of trying to live in the past are very real fears, not to mention the possibility that the mission might fail.  Adam and his siblings are pretty clueless on how these time vortices work, except that they are active on the equinoxes and the solstices.  I am glad they took the chance to find their parents and do the noble thing, but I would have liked to have seen more struggle with the decision.

The author does a good job of researching the time period.  He gives nice references to Mark Twain, to the technology of the time, and the social conventions.  It is obvious that he researched the 1880s well when writing this novel.

The true excitement for this story begins upon their arrival in 1888.  When they step out of the vortex, they aren’t in Sedona anymore (or Kansas for that matter–ha, ha), but rather in rural Pennsylvania.  They make their way to the nearest town of Johnstown, and after talking with the hotel clerk, find out that their parents just passed through the town.

The Carsons arrive on December 21, 1888 and decide to stay until at least March 20, 1889, when the equinox will be. Greg is sent out west to explore Arizona and California, because a jeweler in Johnstown tells them that the older Carsons told him they would be traveling in that direction. The rest of the siblings remain in Johnstown.

Natalie meets young and handsome reporter Sam Prentiss, who works for the local paper.  She gets a job as a columnist there, also in hopes of getting connections to finding out information on her parents. She knows they met with Mark Twain, so she procures an interview with the man himself.  In the midst of all this, she develops feelings for the wealthy Sam, finding her heart torn between falling in love and knowing she will have to leave in a few short weeks.

The twins attend high school.  Cody quickly falls for pretty Emma, and Caitlin is wrapped up in learning as much as she can about the times.

Adam has his own love interest, the clerk at the hotel where they are staying: Bridget O’Malley. He keeps tabs on the rest of his siblings and on gaining information on his parents.

Greg’s story seems to be the most exciting.  Once in Arizona, he meets up with Clayton Kane, a man who is on the run, although Greg doesn’t know it.  A shootout ensues when traveling with him in the desert!  He has the luck of getting information on his parents’ whereabouts by talking with a local merchant.  Greg manages to make it to San Francisco, where he explores the theatres, as his parents are lovers of the arts and would have likely visited the theatres while in town.  He develops his own love interest with Julia Jamison, an older widow who is an actress.  Little does he know he just crossed paths with his parents, Tim and Caroline Carson, while eating in a restaurant one night!

There are many facts thrown in about the times, such as Groundhog’s Day and Benjamin Harrison becoming President.  Details on what buildings were in San Francisco prior to the 1906 earthquake, what sorts of guns were used in the Wild West, and the fare that was eaten during the time period are nice touches.  The author does a great job with setting.

Despite my earlier concern about character development, I believe Mr. Heldt more than makes up for that as the novel progresses.  This is a long book at over 600 pages, so patience is a virtue when reading.  The divided nature of every character caught with connecting to the 1880s and returning to their own time is believable and understandable for anyone caught in such a plight.  Even if time travel isn’t possible, we can all relate to having to make a tough decision of staying or leaving when we are invested in both places.  I like the subtle romance of a time when public displays of affection were frowned upon, when people were much more formal, despite the tugging of their heartstrings.  

The biggest worry the characters have is whether or not they will actually get to their parents in time, before Tim and Caroline Carson step through another portal to another time (as they have done in the past–this trip wasn’t their first).  The Carson siblings may very well lose their parents forever is that happens.

So, the question hangs: will they succeed or not?  The story only escalates from what I’ve shared so far, but sharing too much would ruin the beauty of this time-travel tale of love, heartache, shootouts, and survival.

4 and of 5 stars

Favorite quote: “From Gurley to Goodwin Street and beyond, he saw saloons, restaurants, and breweries and more false fronts than on the set of a Spaghetti Western. Most were as tightly packed as book on a library shelf, as unique as fingerprints, and as appealing as cancan dancers on a Saturday night.”

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Review of The Austrian: A War Criminal’s Story (Book 1) by Ellie Midwood

theautrianThe title of this book alone is a hook, at least for me.  World War II is, after all, one of the most important events in recent history, filled with some of the greatest atrocities ever committed against our fellow humans.

It’s easy to root for those who were persecuted and the Allies who ended the war, but what about the Axis powers?  They were people, too.

After the fall of the Nazi Reich, many of the former leaders were brought to trial and convicted of war crimes.  What would be going through a war criminal’s head?  Regret for what he’d done to others, regret for getting caught?  Anger and hatred toward those judging him?  Fear that the end of his own life was coming?  Or something more?

The Austrian: A War Criminal’s Story explores such questions with vivid, often heartbreaking detail, so much so that I sympathized with the man who this story is about.  In the end, he is still just a man who has known love and hate, happiness and sadness, good times and bad times.

Ellie Midwood’s well researched, well crafted World War II novel follows the life of Ernst Kaltenbrunner, a high-ranking SS official from Austria. While based on a real historical figure of this name, the character of Ernst is fictionalized. The story swaps effortlessly back and forth between the novel’s current day of 1946 of his imprisonment while he awaits trial for his war crimes and his past–from his boyhood and first love with a Jewish girl to how he would up serving in the Nazi party.

The novel opens with Ernst in Nuremburg Prison on the day of his execution.  We know his life is at the end, so this might seem like a strange place to start, but how did this man wind up in the gallows?  

Ernst comes from a family where he’s the oldest son, so the expectation is that he will follow in his father’s footsteps of becoming a lawyer, marrying, and having a family of his own.  Ernst is also a big, strong boy for his age, and his father encourages him to beat up those who deserve it.  As a young man, Ernst stands up for those who the bullies pick on at school, including Dalia, who is a little older than him and Jewish.

He even has to act as the head of his household when his father is drafted during World War I.  He seems to grow up before his time, even proposing to Dalia when he’s not old enough to marry.  Dalia, however, knows they could never be together because of their backgrounds.  The young Ernst doesn’t understand this, as both of their fathers are lawyers, and if Dalia and he love each other, what’s the problem?

Feeling bitter and heartbroken, Ernst leaves Dalia.  He begins attending secret political meetings with his father, where people get together who oppose the current government.  He meets a young woman named Melita afterward and begins hanging out with some college students, and from there, Ernst’s connections to the “right people” grow.

As he gets older, he moves up in the ranks of the Austrian SS.  He’s a mixture of a man who stands up for the underdog and who can easily beat someone to a pulp, sensitive and aggressive.  Before he knows it, he’s the damned leader, all the while wondering how he got into this position.

The story continues in the second book, including how Ernst falls in love with a woman who is the only beckon of hope he has as he awaits his end in prison.  I look forward to reading the rest of his story.

Ellie Midwood is an expert of World War II history, and it shows in his book. The historical facts check out, yet flow flawlessly with the fictionalized story of Ernst.

Her writing is lovely and at times heart-wrenching. Ernst is a good man who got caught up in the wrong world. His one true love is what gives him hope during his last days in prison, where he is left wondering if he did right by his life.

For anyone who is a fan of historical fiction and a complicated romance, I recommend this novel. It’s top-notch!

5 of out 5 stars!

Purchase The Austrian (Book 1) here.

Like what you’ve read?  Please subscribe to my blog, where I post a new blog every Friday, including book reviews.

My new novel, Lorna versus Laura, is available for only $2.99 here.

My first novel, Hannah’s Rainbow: Every Color Beautiful,  is available for $3.99 here.