I just finished Karen Witemeyer’s newest release: At Love’s Command. It is book one in her new Hanger’s Horsemen series.
This book opens with a very intense scene. Matthew Hanger is a member of the US Cavalry assigned to confiscate weapons from the Nez Perce tribe at Wounded Knee. Yes - that wounded knee. Even though you know the tragedy soon to unfold, Witemeyer writes it in such a way that you feel you’ve never heard the story before. And in some ways, I don’t think I ever really did until I read this book. After reading the way she described the massacre at Wounded Knee, I went and looked it up myself. I found legitimate sources - The Encyclopedia Britannica and a scholarly book published by a historian who did her dissertation on Wounded Knee. (I’m a nerd like that.) What I discovered is that Witemeyer gave a pretty historically accurate portrayal of the massacre. However, Matt is knocked unconscious and that fact, combined with Witemeyer’s delicate handling of the material, means it isn’t graphic or disturbing. It is, however, still tragic and incredibly sad. This is important because the event is Matthew Hanger’s motivation for the rest of the novel.
Several years later, we find Matt as the leader of what has come to be known as the Hanger’s Horsemen. It’s four men: Matt, Luke (whom everyone calls Preach), Jonas, and Mark. Preach and Jonas were with Matt at Wounded Knee. They formed the Horsemen to try and atone for their sins at Wounded Knee. (Even though we find out that the three of them testified against the US army before congress and refused their medals of honor). Jonas is a black man who was a member of the Buffalo Soldiers, a black cavalry of the US Army sent as “peacekeepers” to the Native Americans. I learned that some of them were, in fact, at Wounded Knee! I don’t know much about the Buffalo Soldiers, but I want to. Therefore, I hope Jonas is the main focus of a future book. There was also something in the novel about his father’s watch and how important it was to him, so I feel that was a set up for a future story maybe
But back to Matt and the Horsemen . . . Hanger’s Horsemen are hired by those who are facing injustice. In other words, they come to the aid of the weak being oppressed by the strong. They fight by a code, one of them being that they will not kill. They will only shoot in defense, and even then only non-fatal wounds. During one job, Mark, their young new recruit, gets shot and severely injured. Matt rushes him to the nearest doctor: Joe Burkett. Turns out, though that it’s Dr. Josephine Burkett - a woman.
Matt and Josephine have each vowed to use their lives in service of others, realizing that it most likely means never marrying. But almost as soon as they meet, their hearts begin to long for more. They manage to keep their walls up, knowing they will part ways as soon as Mark is on the mend. However, Josephine ends up needing the services of the Horsemen, and that forces her and Matthew to wrestle with their feelings for one another.
Naturally, I don’t want to give anything else away! The rest of the novel is as action packed as you would expect a western to be. The romance is also well done, with two well rounded, complex characters. Matt believes himself to be unworthy of any woman’s love, least of all Josephine’s, because of the things he has seen and done. The theme of atonement is a big one in the story as Matt wrestles with the realization all Christians face: we can never fully atone for our sins on our own. And Josephine must face her prejudices towards men whom she judges for “living by the sword.”
I love that for the first time a Witemeyer novel features the male lead on the cover. And not just because it’s a swoon-worthy picture! Matthew Hanger is the true main character of this story, and he might just be my favorite hero that Witemeyer has created. Strong, yet tender; masculine yet supportive of Josephine’s ambitions; a man of few words, yet full of conviction. What woman wouldn’t fall for this guy? However, he isn’t perfect. He wrestles with demons from his past (what we would now call PTSD), and confesses that hatred motivated him to join the army in the first place. It’s overall a beautiful story of a man’s redemption. Not because of a woman’s love but because of God’s love.
For my final review of best young adult series, I am actually not technically reviewing a series but an author. However, she does have two YA series that I am going to focus on: Fairy Tale Romance and A Medieval Fairy Tale series.
Both of these series have one thing in common: they are all fairy tale retellings. However, Dickerson re-tells them as historical romances instead of attempting to retain the fantasy elements of the stories. So instead of witches, there are abusive stepmothers. Instead of evil fairies like Maleficent, there is spiritual warfare. Instead of curses, there are plots of rebellion and political intrigue. Through it all, Dickerson’s heroines learn to put their trust in God alone.
Yes, these are faith based stories. One thing that makes these stand out in my opinion is how important the word of God is in these tales. One of the books, The Merchant’s Daughter, made me so thankful that we have Bibles translated into English and other common languages instead of having to know Latin. It also made me thankful that priests are no longer cautioning young women not to read the Bible for themselves. To think that my spiritual leaders would tell me I am sinning simply by hungering for God’s word! Characters throughout the books also rely on verses they have memorized to help them through difficulties. Some reviewers on Amazon complain about this, calling it “preachy.” However, to me, Dickerson always does it in such a natural way, the same way I remind myself of God’s truths continually. All Christians should, so this should never seem strange to us! And what an example for young women who read these!
The romances in all of these books are also swoon-worthy. I could honestly go on and on about every single one. And the male leads are not all cut from the same cloth, either. Sometimes they are traditionally handsome, but other times they aren’t. Some of the male leads are charming, while others are reserved or even gruff at first. There are two books in which the male leads are “the beast” with scars or deformities that people have judged them by.
The Fairy Tale Romance series follows a particular family in Hagenheim, Germany. The Merchant’s Daughter will seem out of place, until its characters in England intersect with the characters in Germany. The Medieval Fairy Tale series, instead of being straight fairy tale retellings are fairy tale mashups. For instance, the first book in the series, The Huntress of Thornbeck forest is a mash-up of Robin Hood and Swan Lake. Both series are equally fantastic!
Though you can read the series out of order and not be confused for the most part, I recommend reading them in order to fully enjoy the relationships between all the characters. It can be difficult to figure out what order to read, so here is a handy list:
The Fairy Tale Romance Series
So far in this series, I haven’t reviewed a faith-based series. That isn’t for lack of content, however. There are plenty of Christian YA authors. However, to be honest, there aren’t many contemporary YA novels written by Christian authors that I would recommend. Now that I think of it, I don’t really have any YA series to recommend that don’t have an element of fantasy to them. If you think about it, Ally Carter’s teenage spies and thieves are more fantasy than reality. I haven’t given this much thought before, but I think I have avoided realistic YA lit because it tends to be so incredibly depressing, even faith-based content. I get that, believe me I do. Being a teenager isn’t easy, and these books address the struggles teens go through. They definitely have their place, but in this series of reviews I’m leaning more towards reading that’s fun. Call it an escape if you want, but at the end of the day, I’m a firm believer that reading should be fun.
Having said all of that, the two faith-based YA series I will be reviewing are set in medieval times. I know, that isn’t fantasy, but the books are still a way to escape to another time and place. And because of the ancient ideas of chivalry and modesty, they are clean reads.
First up is Jody Hedlund’s Noble Knights series. There are five novels in the series: An Uncertain Choice, A Daring Sacrifice, For Love & Honor, A Loyal Heart, and A Worthy Rebel. There is also a prequel novella called The Vow, which I have not read (I’ll explain why in a bit).
These novels are written in first person going back and forth between the female lead and the male lead. I mention this right off the bat because it has come to my attention that some people don’t like to read books in first person. This floors me, to be honest, especially since first person narrative is extremely common in YA lit (Hunger Games and Percy Jackson, just to name two extremely popular ones). Ally Carter’s books are also written in first person, now that I think about it. Yet on Amazon, I noticed review after review pointing out Hedlund writing in first person and complaining about it. Maybe it's not as common in faith based lit? Maybe these books have more adult readers? At any rate, you have two characters in the Noble Knights series telling the story in their own voice. Two different fonts are used for each character. I actually liked this because it let you know right away what each character was thinking.
I actually didn’t know this was a series when I started, so I read For Love & Honor first. While it’s not confusing reading them out of order, characters do appear in multiple books, and I think you get more out of it if you read them in order. I also wouldn’t read the prequel first. It would just be depressing, in my opinion. I downloaded it on my e-reader because it was on sale for 99 cents, but then never read it. It’s about Rosemarie from book one, and since I already knew it would have an unhappy ending, I couldn’t bring myself to read it.
Speaking of the characters, that was my favorite thing about these books. Each one was so different from the last. You have traditionally handsome heroes like Sir Bennet and Cole Warwick, you have heroes who we are told aren’t obviously attractive like Sir Derrick and Sir Aldric, and then finally you have Sir Colin who uses humor and charm. The women are just as varied. There are the strong and courageous Julianna and Olivia, the intelligent Sabine, the devout Rosemarie, and then the tender-hearted Izzy. I especially loved that not all of these women were running around swinging swords and shooting arrows. I feel like our culture is so obsessed with - forgive my language - “bad-ass women,” that we women who are more quiet and reserved wonder if we are weak. There are so many ways to be strong, however, and I nearly wept as I read about Izzy’s insecurities. She thought her tender heart made her weak, but over the course of the story, she realized what kind of strength it actually gave her. For that reason, I related to her, Rosemarie, and Sabine the most.
Since I read Sabine and Sir Bennet’s story first, I want to take a minute to sing its praises. Lady Sabine was born with a skin blemish that she hides with long gloves. If this blemish is ever discovered, she would be branded as a witch, and her chances of marriage forever dashed. Lady Sabine is also unattractive. The entire premise of the story is so rare in fiction, that it moved me deeply. The belief that birthmarks were “marks of the devil” was also a real thing in the middle ages, so it was fascinating to read about Sabine’s struggles.
Speaking of the historical setting, Hedlund portrays it accurately with its arranged marriages, rigid social structures, and faith mixed with ancient superstition. As such, there is violence in these books that sort of reminded me of Kevin Costners’s version of Robin Hood - Prince of Thieves. You know that cage thing that they hung his dad in at the beginning of the movie? The little boy being sent to the gallows? Well, that kind of stuff happens in these books too. So if you’re considering these for a teen in your life, take into account their personality. If they're incredibly tender-hearted (like Izzy!) these books may not be right for them. On the other hand, it could be a wonderful way for your teen to learn more about this historical period.
And speaking of the middle ages, next time I’ll be reviewing an author who takes more of a fairy tale approach to things. Until then, happy reading!
I am a former English teacher turned homeschool mom of three who writes Christian romance novels on the side. You know, in my huge amount of spare time.