bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
The last book I read in 2015 was the fourth installment of the Outlander franchise, Drums of Autumn by Diana Gabaldon. At this point, Jamie and Claire have arrived in the semiwilderness of the colony of North Carolina, ten years or so before the American Revolution. There are a lot of Scotsmen in North Carolina. Some of them fled impoverishment and persecution to set themselves up as plantation and slave owners, following the grand American tradition of fleeing persecution to engage in a little persecution of one's own. Other Scots have come over via indenture, either voluntary or involuntary. (Hell, I think some of the came over via involuntary indenture and bought slaves once their indenture was over; people can be shitty like that.)
In contrast to the last book, which I call "Highlanders of the Caribbean" even though that's not actually its name, Claire and Jamie mostly stay in North Carolina through this one. They meet another one of Jamie's unnumerable relatives, a badass, blind old lady named Jocasta Cameron, who welcomes them and immediately starts scheming to put Jamie in charge of her plantation so that other people stop trying to marry it out from under her. This doesn't sit too well with either Jamie or Claire, since the plantation comes with a great number of slaves and can't be maintained without them, and, since Claire and Jamie are our heroes, they can't possibly countenance slave ownership. Instead, Jamie runs off and starts rustically homesteading a nearby patch of woodland he calls Fraser's Ridge, and it's all very Little House on the Prairie for a bit, except for being woodland instead of prairie.
It's Claire's daughter Brianna, it turns out, and Geilis Duncan's descendant Roger Wakefield who do the bulk of the traveling in this book. After finding a death notice for Claire and Jamie Fraser for 1776, Brianna travels back through the stones at Inverness to warn them. Roger follows once he figures out what's going on, and they each make their way to North Carolina, miraculously not dying, although they certainly meet up with their share of terrible and slightly cliche adventures, including Roger getting kidnapped by Mohawks and Brianna getting raped by a pirate. Honestly, if the plot weren't buried under such a great amount of detail and strong characterization, it would probably be awful -- most of the plot points in this book are pretty overdone in either romances or historical fiction. A huge chunk of the adventuring in the second half of the book comes from the sort of idiotic miscommunication that could have been easily cleared up by conversing like normal humans instead of romance novel twerps. Jamie is all Jealous Father about Roger, and Brianna of course gets pregnant immediately upon becoming sexually active. Some people think the book might need a bit of editing down, since it is rather enormous, but I think that would be a mistake. It's the huge amounts of ridiculous research, tiny details, wacky secondary characters, and psychological meanderings through the minds of the main characters that really make the book something worth reading, at least if you're a history nerd looking for some exciting and slightly trashy melodrama that doesn't insult your intelligence.
I'm definitely going to keep up with this series, probably no matter how overblown it gets. It's just too much fun.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
I'd heard of Hild a few times before Nicole Griffith came to this year's Readercon as Guest of Honor, and it definitely sounded like the sort of thing that was right up my alley: A coming-of-age story about a badass lady warrior in the early Middle Ages; in this case, Saint Hilda of Whitby, about whom I knew basically nothing. So I bought a (signed; my life is awesome) copy at Readercon, admired the gorgeous blue cover with its stern portrait of a calm, chain-mail-wearing young woman, smelled its new book smell, and finally actually started reading the damn thing this October, when the weather started to turn and drove me inside away from the gorgeous Boston fall foliage to curl up on the couch with tea or beer and get lost in seventh-century Northumbria.
Hild delivered everything it promised and more. The language is vivid and rich and poetic, bringing out the feel of the story's time and place without falling into the sort of stilted faux-archaicness that a lot of fantasy and historical fiction is prone to. Hild herself is our viewpoint character, starting from when she's about three years old and running up through her late teens, I think Griffith nails the development of her thoughts and voice through the years, always compelling and somehow relatable despite the fact that (a) Hild's entire society and worldview is very, very different from a modern person's and (b) Hild has many skills and powers of understanding that I do not possess at all and, in fact, barely understand what she's talking about and (c) Hild is demonstrably a very strange person, although largely she knows that and is less strange when seen from her own perspective.
The book isn't really fantasy, I don't think, although the role of prophesy and "seeing" and wyrd in it makes it a little hard to tell sometimes. Ideas about magic and gods are baked into the various cultures' worldview--Anglisc and Briton and Irish alike--and even conversion to Christianity can't change that. It's not entirely clear if Hild's seeing powers are completely or only mostly the result of learning, observation, political canniness, and her carefully cultivated loyal network of informers.
There is a lot of very dense political history stuff going on here, and while I was happy to jump into what I consider a new area for me--I know nothing about the seventh-century unification of Northumbria--I do think my amateur background in general British Isles nerdery helped me out a bit, since I know a lot of other readers have been driven nuts by the names of all the characters and tribes and such. Probably the most important thing anyone who's not the sort of dork who has voluntarily taken a class in Anglo-Saxon translation needs to know is: our modern habit of using "British" and "English" more or less interchangeably is VERY MODERN. "Anglisc" is the root of "English" and supposedly the English are more or less descended from the Angles and Saxons, at least in part, but "British" at its root refers to the Welsh. (Arthur, King of the Britons? He was Welsh too.)
If you can pick out which is the Welsh name among "Breguswith," "Gwladus" and "Wuscfrea," you are 110% good to go and probably the exact sort of dork this book was written for. I am the exact sort of dork this book was written for. (It's Gwladus, and it's the "w" as a vowel that gives it away you're welcome I'll stop showing off now.)
This is a book about social change, and specifically the sorts of things that constituted change in this particular time and place--war is one of them, but war is basically well-established; it obscures the things that really matter, which are trade and the perception of religious favor. The big thing shakin' up this corner of the world at this time is the introduction of Christianity, which contains a lot of concepts quite foreign to northwestern European pagans, and which brings with it other interesting things, like writing and choral music and brown people.
(I like that this is a large book because it makes it an excellent thing to whack people with when they claim that there's really any point at all when there were totes no black people in Britain and/or that if there were they must have been slaves. In the seventh century, the Romans--who controlled an empire that extended well into Africa and the Middle East and who were excellent at moving people around--had been gone barely two or three centuries; they were well within memory and their buildings were everywhere. This book makes it clear that it's not like the Romans left and poof, they immediately became Ancient History and everyone forgot about them. The POC that are in this book are generally traders and priests; slavery exists but slaves are generally taken from other tribes/kingdoms in the Isles that people are fighting with--the two most important slave characters in this book are from Munster (in Ireland) and Dyfeint (in Wales). We also get a decent look at some of the ways in which "old world" slavery at this time and place works differently than the plantation chattel slavery that (some) Americans learn (a miserably tiny bit) about in schools.)
But as much as I liked all the historical stuff and all the political intrigue and social change and other stuff that I usually like in books, I think one of the most truly impressive feats of Literature in this this book was the fact that Griffith somehow got me sort of on board with the main romantic plotline. Sort of. With many reservations and at least one almost-throwing-the-book-across-the-room. But I still sort of found myself wanting it to work out? There are many things in this romantic plotline that I am generally not OK with. First of all, I rarely get invested in romantic plotlines anyway; I tend to very impressed when the dude does not annoy the shit out of me and I don't find myself thinking that the main character is clearly way too good for this twerp. That is not what happened here--I think Cian is a big meathead idiot who mostly thinks with either his dick or his sword arm but doesn't do anything with his head except grow hair, apparently. Also, I'm still not comfortable with the twincest microtrend that seems to be popping up in like everything these days. In this one they are only half-siblings BUT STILL. WHY IS THIS A THING. To top it off, Hild knows they're siblings, but Cian doesn't because he is an oblivious twit, and nobody can tell him because he is too dumb to keep a secret so if he knows then EVERYONE WILL KNOW, so... they basically hit upon the ingenious idea of keeping it secret by having them get married because they totally can't possibly be siblings if they got married, that'd be weird! So Cian ends up in a marriage where he has married his own sister and she knows that perfectly well but is keeping it from him. I think this might be the single most twisted love story I have ever seen in an ostensibly YA book. But while I was reading it it was like the part of my brain immersed in the story was going "D'aw what a heartwarming love story and what a lot of sexual tension between these two" and then my rational mind was like... banging on the door to the cockpit where reading-brain is piloting yelling "NO WAIT THAT'S REALLY FUCKED UP, TURN BACK CAPTAIN" and seriously you guys marrying your siblings and lying to them about it is bad. So, well played, Griffith. The Sexy Twincest Plotline Game has been officially won, so can we all knock it off now?
On a different note, I genuinely and gleefully liked that Hild and a lot of the other new Christian converts seem to... not really grok Christianity very well. I grew up Catholic so all the stories and memes used in Catholicism make intuitive sense to me, but I adore seeing all the pagans take it all a bit too literally and misunderstand basically everything, rather than being real orthodox true believers. I also like that Christianity is portrayed in a very factious, non-unified manner--many of the priests are perfectly nice, and then there's Paulinus. Paulinus is basically the personification of Churchy Assholery in the story. He's also sort of a shadow Hild character at times, which is very interesting, especially since Hild knows it and Paulinus doesn't seem to.
Recommended for: history dorks, people who aren't scared by big names (seriously, my fellow reviewers, are you all trying to record the fucking audiobook for this or something?), people who want to get dug deep into a world and are willing to do a bit of work to get there. Excellent winter reading. Not beach reading at all, not even by my standards.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Well, I am on a roll with reading books wrong. In the case of Diana Gabaldon's Voyager, the third book in the Outlander series, it's because I got it out of the library, only read 25% of it before I had to return it about two months ago, got back in line, and read the rest of it last week when it finally cycled back to me.
While Outlander took place almost entirely in Scotland, and Dragonfly in Amber brought us as far as France, the aptly named Voyager brings us basically everywhere. Acting on news from the research project she, Brianna, and Roger started in 1968, Claire moves from Boston back to Scotland, travels back through the stone circles at Craigh na Dun to sometime in the 1760s, tracks down Jamie in Edinburgh, and from there a relentless flood of shenanigans takes them all around Scotland, then to France, and then back over the Atlantic to the Caribbean. And that's just the main plotline, from Claire's perspective. We also get POVs from Jamie, as he does all sorts of dramatic Highlander things like hide in a cave for seven years and escape from an English prison; from Roger; and from one Lord John Grey, who seems to have a bunch of his own spinoff novels now.
The book is also kind of all over the place in other ways, too. Some of it is very serious--Jamie's time in Ardsmuir, for example, is pretty dark, treated with all seriousness and mostly not filled with highly improbable action-hero hijinks. Other bits are, uh, not--once they get on a boat everything basically becomes "Highlanders of the Caribbean" and it's all very colorful and almost absurdly action-packed, and develops a serious case of Les Mis-level small world syndrome (you know how in Les Mis, Paris has like twenty people and one policeman and one apartment to rent? In Voyager, the entire British Empire has about twenty people, one ship, and two military officers).
One of the big effects of leaving the rural Scottish highlands is that there are a lot more people of color in this book, which is a thing that can obviously go very wrong very quickly, especially considering the time period is really the height of British colonial power in the New World (it's like, 10 years before the American Revolution starts, I think) and the slave trade is in full swing. I have... mixed feelings about how this is handled. It's clearly well researched, which certainly helps it avoid some of the more common myths and pitfalls about the time (most notably, Gabaldon knows what involuntary indenture is and the ways in which it is similar to and different from chattel slavery; this shouldn't be noteworthy but it is). But the general approach she takes to characterizing pretty much all ethnicities--which is not so much to avoid stereotypes, but to deliberately walk straight into them and then try to build up more perspective/characterization on top of it--works slightly less well with, for example, the one Chinese character--a short, frequently drunk man with very bad English whose skillset is basically a grab bag of Chinese Things, including Chinese herbal medicine, acrobatics, calligraphy, acupuncture, and, of course, magic--than it does with any one of the ten billion Scots that populate the series. (Granted, one of the things I do kind of like about the books is that every culture the characters come into contact with has its own magical traditions and they all appear to work equally well, but the execution can still feel a bit clumsy--like, this random English lady keeps finding herself in situations where every time she meets new people she gets to witness their magic in action. Every single time.) The one Chinese dude is an especially interesting case of both being an interesting character and giving me wincy feelings because he's a fairly major secondary character and he gets a good amount of page time. He's known throughout the book as Mr. Willoughby, which is obviously not his name but was bestowed upon him in a well-meaning but ultimately worse-than-useless attempt to help him blend in. He's sometimes a comic character but other times a very tragic one, especially when you finally learn his backstory--something I found particularly interesting was that a major part of his backstory is that he is actually kind of a sexist dillweed, in the hopeless-romantic-with-ludicrously-unrealistic-views-of-women method that made me like him a bit less as a reader but is clearly a huge point of commonality between him and a lot of the white dudes in the book. By the end of the story I actually did like him, but there were a couple of cringeworthy scenes to get to that point.
Also cringeworthy is an appearance of one of my least favorite tropes EVER, actually I don't really know if it's a trope but I have seen it in one other book at least, which makes two too many--where a nice white lady who is very opposed to slavery gets so upset about it that she winds up owning one, because that is totally a thing that happens, and it is very upsetting, because clearly the important thing about slavery is how hard it would be on anti-slavery white people to be landed with one, and now she has to decide how best to go about being a good white savior, which in both cases I've read have inexplicably involved steps other than "ask person what they want and do it." I partly don't like this trope because it smacks very strongly of "author's personal self-examination and thought exercises leaking onto the paper"; in this case, many of the compounding issues that cropped up in the Jackie Faber book where this happens are thankfully avoided, but at least in the series so far, I can't help but think that the entire subplot with Temeraire could have been completely excised with no harm done to the rest of the book whatsoever.
These are the low points. There are many, many other things going on in this book (these books tend to be pretty densely packed with a wide assortment of Things), including the reappearance of Geillis Duncan (who is a major creeper), our first gay character who isn't predatory and terrible, hints of family backstory and things for Claire's Boston doctor friend Joe Abernathy (JOE ABERNATHY IS GREAT), lots of ladies with lots of agency in different ways all along the moral spectrum, and, as usual, a lot of sex, although kilts have been sadly outlawed at this point so Jamie is reduced to constantly wearing breeches. And have I mentioned the MELODRAMATIC ADVENTURES ON THE HIGH SEAS? It is everything you could want out of a melodramatic adventure on the high seas; I think Gabaldon had a checklist of Stuff That Happens When Adventure On the High Seas and made sure every point got in there somewhere--there is kidnapping, espionage, shipwrecks, slave revolts, an outbreak of plague, naval battles, pirate attacks, smuggling, big storms, seasickness, hardtack with weevils, a Portuguese pirate with too much jewelry and a cutlass, stowaways, a parentally disapproved-of romance, and even a dude with a hook for a hand, although the said dude is Fergus, who we actually met in the last book and who lost his hand long before becoming a sailor. At one point there is even a big hat. (Note: People for whom melodramatic pirate adventures are NOT catnip might find this half of the book frustrating, the way I find cartoon physics in non-cartoon movies frustrating, because it kind of pushes against one's suspension of disbelief sometimes. I'm just willing to overlook this because for me, melodramatic pirate adventures are SUPER CATNIP.)
On a more serious note, the looks we get into the British penal and colonial systems, in Scotland and elsewhere, are really, really well done, I think--they're very informative but also very emotionally engaging, and involve a lot of heavy stuff about power and identity, which is especially apt since the British relied even more heavily on eradicating people's identity to conquer them than they did on brute force (not like brute force wasn't a major component, of course). I particularly appreciate the looks at the basically decent English people who were still complicit in and perpetrators of these colonial systems that very definitely weren't at all about "helping" or "civilizing" any of the people in the lands the British took over and who the English definitely never saw as their fellow countrymen, even the sort of nice ones, no matter what the official imperialist rhetoric was.
This book's story arc never particularly wraps up--it just leads right into the next book, which I have dutifully added to my library queue. The line is shorter than it was for the last few books, so with luck I will have it within a few weeks.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Occasionally, I pick up books in odd places.

It's not necessarily odd that I got a book from my Dad--he's not a huge reader (we think he's dyslexic) but he does read--but it's a bit odd that I got this book from my dad, since he rarely reads fiction. In fact, the last time my Dad really bothered to read fiction, he tells me, is when he was working in London shortly before I was born, and for a while had to work the graveyard shift so he could be on the same time frame as his colleagues on the U.S. eastern seaboard. This is how, when Dad was cleaning his house out last year, I ended up with his rather yellowed mass market paperbacks of Walter Macken's historical fiction trilogy about "the dark periods in Irish history," which isn't very specific if you know much about Irish history. The three dark periods covered in the trilogy are the Cromwellian conquest, the Famine, and the War of Independence/Civil War (in Irish history, those two wars happened right on top of each other). One famous dark period not represented in this trilogy is the Troubles, because these books are older than I am, and the Troubles were still going on around the time my Dad was working in the U.K., at least according to the stories he tells of being Randomly Selected for extra scrutiny every time he got on a plane out of there, being a young 6'4'' ginger man with a name like "Fitzgerald." (I think being Randomly Selected back then was not as invasive as getting Randomly Selected is now though.)

Anyway, I digress. So far I've only read the first book in the trilogy, the Cromwellian one, titled Seek the Fair Land, a reference to the main characters' quest to flee the ever-encroaching Puritan English and eke out a more-or-less independent existence in the mountains of Connacht.

Our protagonist is Dominick McMahon, a merchant in the city of Drogheda, a bit north of Dublin. (If I recall correctly, he was originally from Ulster and displaced sometime during the Plantation or the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. Dominick really can't catch a break.) When Drogheda is razed and his wife dies in the attack, Dominick takes his daughter Mary Anne, his son Peter--now mute as the result of a head injury sustained in the invasion--and the kindly priest Sebastian and flees west, on the advice of a big Gaelic warrior named Murdoc who he'd saved and befriended in another invasion of Drogheda a few years earlier, when the Gaelic Irish took the city from an earlier wave of English.

The book takes place over several years, during which a specific antagonist appears: Coote, who is made Governor of Galway City. Coote is fanatically supportive of Cromwell's goals of either converting or exterminating the Irish, using a combination of political promises, economic pressure, and sheer brutality to subdue all resistance from a people he sees as being heathens and therefore basically not human. His job is to be Cromwell's arm in Galway, and his characterization is basically that he is, indeed, Cromwell's arm in Connacht, which is more characterization than you'd expect. The Cromwellian invasion was pretty fucked up. Coote was a real person who eventually died of smallpox in Dublin, but this version of him is better because Murdoc stabs him in Galway City, which is quite satisfying for the reader, after spending 200 pages reading about people being starved and tortured and hanged and imprisoned and sold to the sugar plantations in Barbados (something like 40% of the Irish population was killed or displaced during the Eleven Years' War, so there was quite an ugly variety of things that could happen to them).

Murdoc and Sebastian essentially represent two different and often conflicting ideals of native Irish manhood, with Murdoc being the paganistic, man-of-the-land brehon warrior sort and Sebastian embodying the importance of Catholic identity as a basis for Irish identity. Dominick spends much of his emotional and mental energy navigating between the two and their equally strong, if often opposing, convictions, wrestling with despair, self-doubt, self-interest, compassion, hatred, and all the other emotions that those of us whose sense of self is somehow damaged or underdeveloped have to deal with. (Most of his physical energy, obviously, goes into fighting, hiding, tracking, hunting, digging graves, and rescuing people).

This book was written in the mid-twentieth century and bears some of the stylistic flaws of genre fiction in the time before word processors, namely, clunky sentences that really could have used a few more rounds of line editing; relatively flat female characters with limited roles who could have used a few more rounds of beta-reading by a female beta reader; and an annoying affinity for using the word "rape" when discussing ravages of towns, cities, the land, and other things that are places rather than people.

As far as my limited research will allow, the historical aspects of this book seem pretty accurate, at least in terms of places and dates and people and things that happened in the war. Culturally, I dunno! One thing that I noticed that I am now really intrigued about is that this book still portrays a fairly sharp distinction between Gaelic Irish (Os and Macs) and the Anglo-Normal families as late as 1650, whereas I had thought they had pretty well assimilated by then ("more Irish than the Irish themselves and all that.) But it turns out that may have been exaggerated later for nationalism reasons (although as a Fitz I want to be like NO DEFINITELY THEY'RE IRISH!) (Note: Wikipedia calls the Fitzgeralds a "notable Hiberno-Norman family" and lists Hiberno-Normans as distinct from both Normans and Gaelic Irish) and it was really the Protestant suppression the beginning of which this book chronicles that led to the "Old English" becoming considered actually regular Irish people.

Um, anyway. If you like lots of history nerdery and you want some Game of Thrones-level violent fuckery but only 200 pages of it instead of 2 million, you could do worse than following Dominick on his starving-in-the-mountains adventures.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
I read Lyndsay Faye's The Fatal Flame in about a day, which is pretty much the exact same thing I did with both of the first two books in this series, The Gods of Gotham and Seven for a Secret.

The title of this one is a bit more literal than the first two--the book is about fire. Much of the series has already been about fire: Timothy Wilde's parents died in one; his larger-than-life older brother Valentine is a firefighter; and, of course, he got half his face burned off at the beginning of Book 1. As a predictable consequence, Timothy Wilde is terrified of fire.

So it's only fitting that the final mystery in the series would be an arson case.

At least one thread in the plot seems deceptively simple: When sleazy robber baron industrialist and hella corrupt Democratic Party alderman Robert Symmes reports the arson to Timothy and Valentine, he also hands them a convincing suspect pretty immediately: a women's labor rights activist whom he had fired after an unsuccessful strike. He also seems to have proof in the form of creepy threatening letters that Sally Woods, the activist in question (who lives in a greenhouse with a printing press and wears pants and is generally awesome) had sent him.

Obviously, it's not going to be that simple.

For starters, when Robert Symmes asks Valentine to investigate the arson, he pisses Valentine off so badly that Valentine decides to run against him for Alderman, which upsets nearly everybody because of a long-ass list of Tammany Hall-related Reasons. Like, Timothy isn't even the person who is the most pissed off about this--that would be Gentle Jim, Valentine's boyfriend. The circumstances under which Symmes pissed Valentine off are also ones that intersect with both Timothy's detective work and a lot of long-running personal and family issues for Valentine, who honestly seems to be in competition with Tim for which one of them can be the most messed up. (Or more likely, it is Tim that is in competition with Valentine.)

The resulting plotlines draw Tim--and us--deeper into the world of corrupt Tammany politics, and into the horrifically exploitative world of women's industrial labor in the mid-nineteenth century, including the prejudices endured by the white in-house factory girls, the abuses heaped upon the out-of-house freelance seamstresses (mostly immigrants), and the even more horrific abuses employed to divert immigrant/refugee women into the sex trade (this story takes place at the height of the Hunger, so: lots of very destitute Irish washing up in New York). There are good cops and bad cops and good corrupt politicians and bad corrupt politicians, and while I usually found it pretty easy to slate characters into Awesome Characters and Characters I Want To Punch Up The Bracket, in the actual situations on the ground Timothy doesn't always know who's a "good guy" and who's a "bad guy" (except Alderman Symmes, where the only question is just HOW reprehensible is he really) (answer: TOTALLY REPREHENSIBLE), and winds up in all sorts of awkward situations like "working with his nemesis Silkie Marsh" and, as previously mentioned, "trying to solve a crime on behalf of Alderman Symmes."

Some readers have apparently complained that there is not enough Valentine, probably because they want the book to be all Valentine all the time, which is understandable enough. Valentine Wilde is both the hero this version of New York City needs and that it deserves. Timothy is not very good at heroing, which is what makes him such an excellent actual protagonist. But Valentine is totally big on heroing, doing ALL THE DRUGS and banging ALL THE LADIES (AND SOME OF THE DUDES TOO) (MOSTLY JIM) and speechifying ALL THE RABBLE-ROUSING SPEECHES and dressing ridiculously and running into fires and slamming rapists' heads through walls and basically being a Big Damn Hero and also entertainingly batshit. His and Timothy's relationship continues to be a thing of beauty to read, meaning they fight even worse than me and my brother Timothy ever did--which is sayin' something, but I don't think Tim and I have ever devolved into a giant screaming match about how much we hate each other in front of extremely important political personages, at least not as adults. This Tim and Valentine will have giant I-hate-you screaming matches at any time in front of any person, about literally anything, from Valentine's sex life to why Timothy is short. All these topics eventually end up illuminating something about their extremely complicated relationship, because fiction is supposed to have less pointlessness in it than real life.

Anyway, if the book were all Valentine all the time, we also wouldn't get as much of everyone else--not Bird Daly, on her way to becoming a teenager; Elena Boehm, whose accent gets more pronounced every book for some reason I still haven't figured out; Dunla Duffy, an immigrant seamstress whose half-simple Gaelic poeticism makes getting information out of her a whole new mystery plotline in itself; Mercy Underhill, back in New York and with something unidentifiably wrong going on; Tim's squad of Irish roundsmen buddies, including the one who falls in love with a police-hating immigrant woman because she nearly shot him; Gentle Jim Playfair, with whom Tim begins building a real friendship independent of Valentine; pants-wearing activist Sally Woods; the fictionalized version of George Washington Matsell, first head of the NYPD; or spectacles-wearing wannabe-dandy newsboy Ninepin and his crew (but mostly Ninepin)--even the bad guys, like Grand Bitch Silkie Marsh and Alderman Robert "That Guy" Symmes, are worth every minute of their time on the page. Usually in a book this big there's something that I figure could have been edited down, even if I don't personally mind, but with Faye's stuff I need every single interaction between every single character that takes place. All I need is for someone to have an asshole cat and I might have actually died of awesome casting.

Despite all the screaming and arson and oppressed laborers (and an ACTUAL TARRING AND FEATHERING OMG), much of this book is still funny. Partly this is due to Timothy's entertaining internal narration -- he is very clever when he is not being dense as a brick--and a big chunk of it is due to his wacky pseudodetective sidekick, Mr. Jakob Piest, a Dutch policeman with a talent for "finding things." But the funniest part of the book is Timothy voting for the first time in his life, which doesn't sound all that exciting until you get up close and personal with just how absurdistly corrupt the Tammany Hall voting machine was at that time. And how terribly loud the "dandy" fashions of the era were. Apparently, an orange cravat and getting completely shitfaced were mandatory for voting in this time period.

As always, the flash patter remains one of my singularly favorite aspects of the book, but I really have to take a step back and admire how seamlessly this thieves' cant fits into the rest of the worldbuilding, with different characters' use of and reactions to it informing their already rich characterization. This New York is pretty hardcore awful, but it's not a one-dimensional pseudo-deep grimdark -- it's as rich and thrilling and satisfyingly devourable as a Guinness chocolate cake.
bloodygranuaile: (plague)
Do you know what book cycled REALLY QUICKLY through the BPL system? The second Outlander book, Diana Gabaldon's Dragonfly in Amber. When I put it on hold after finishing Outlander in April, I was like number 70-something in the queue. I got the book from the library in sort-of-late May and finished it June 2. (Yeah, so I'm behind on reviews.)

In this one, Claire and Jamie go to France to try and stop Charles Stuart's disastrously ill-conceived rebellion against the British crown from ever happening. Obviously, all does not go according to plan, although it might be going according to fate. They take over Jamie's cousin's wine business while he is away on a business trip and ingratiate themselves with the Jacobite factions in France, basically trying to get them to write off Bonnie Prince Charlie as a bad bet and not finance his rebellion.

In addition, Black Jack Randall keeps showing up to be an antagonist, continually finding new and inventive ways to be completely awful to Claire, Jamie, and anyone else who's around. Much of the conflict that crops up between Claire and Jamie is related to Claire's desire that Black Jack not be killed until his child is conceived, so that Frank doesn't get disappeared from the future, and Jamie's quite understandable desire to kill Black Jack immediately before he can ruin anybody else's life.

Around this story there's a fun frame mostly from the POV of Reverend Wakefield's adopted nephew, Roger MacKenzie, who meets a now much-older Claire and her twenty-year-old daughter Brianna in 1968 and begins to piece together what happened to Claire back in 1948. And Roger turns out to have some of his own connections to Claire's story, too.

The first thing that really struck me about this book is that it's bleeding enormous, and I say this as someone who likes bleeding enormous books. But this series is really shaping up to be a big, sprawling, hardcore-everything saga. Major, major upheavals occur a few times per book, and this one seems like at least four books in one--the first 1968 section, the France section, the back in Scotland for the uprising section, and the second 1968 section with its plotline about Geillis Duncan.

I like 'em all, though! And I particularly like Claire as a character, although I still think book-Jamie is much more of a jerk than TV-Jamie. But while book-Jamie is less perfect as a romantic object to me, he's still a very, very interesting character, and I think the book does a solid job of examining the aftermath of what happened to him at the end of Outlander and his attempts to reestablish his sense of self.

While there's definitely bits of this book that could have stood to have been edited down a bit, for the most part I think that there's a hell of a lot going on in these 800 pages. One of the major themes is power--both society-wide and individual--and the effects of having power and being put under the power of others has on people. Another major theme, obviously, is whether or not they can influence history, and while I probably could write a whole review just about the How Does Time Work In This Universe question, I basically refuse to have that conversation ever again, so I'm pretty cool with the fact that nobody in the series so far knows anything about it either. There's court intrigue; there's a lot of medical stuff; there's some weird stuff about magic and occultism; there's a lot of people conflating medical stuff and occultism, as usual. Babies and pregnancy also feature heavily in this one, and not in a sugar-coated way--the book explores issues of reproductive choice and coercion, what lineage/heritage do and don't mean, what it means to be a "real" parent, the emotional toll of miscarriage.

Despite my general inability to care about the sex scenes--of which there are a LOT--I've found myself pretty invested in Claire and Jamie's relationship, and not just as a cross-temporal study. I'm freakin' hooked on this series. It feeds my history dorkery, my morbid cravings for horrendously hardcore-everything drama, my "kickass ladies" comfort zone, basically everything. Hopefully one of these books I'll have the time and drive to sit down and do a full proper review that is pages and pages long and is full of my opinions about specific bits of it, but for right now, that just seems too daunting! It's so daunting it's actually been three weeks since I finished the book and I've been putting off writing a review for it. Bad self.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
A whole bunch of people told me that Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus would be right up my alley. They have been telling me this for a good couple of years now. I have finally gotten around to reading it and am pleased to report that my friends know me very well. Or perhaps I should be less pleased to report that I am apparently very, very predictable?

The Night Circus is a lush, vaguely steampunky-Gothic, dark-romantic Victorian fantasy. It is ostensibly about two young magicians forced into a bizarre competition of skill by their teachers—both entirely dislikeable characters in their own ways—in the arena of a mysterious, magical black-and-white circus. Mostly it is about the circus, really, and although obviously the challenge that started it is quite important and provides the plot, the circus becomes a lot more than that—which I think is the point. There are many people involved in the circus besides the two magicians and their insufferable teachers, and the circus is very, very important to them. There are, therefore, a lot of vignettes and subplots and backstories and whatnot. A lot of readers, even ones who like that it takes place in the Victorian era and is full of pretty Victorian things, may not be as OK with the structure and pacing of the novel, which also tends to resemble a lot of Victorian lit in that it begins quite at the beginning and rolls along slowly and descriptively like a big sluggish river of words until it washes gently up upon the plot. The regular parts of the story are interspersed with little second-person interludes simply exploring the circus, which will probably strike some readers as pretentious and bore them, but which I enjoyed as pure one-thousand percent escapism, probably because the Night Circus is the type of place that I would love to attend. (Its fans, the rêveurs, have a dress code that just so happens to be what I wear half the time anyway. Like, it is my kinda place.)

I think my biggest complaint is that some of the magical stuff was a bit vague—I don’t know if actually explaining the mechanics of it any more would have made it better (actually, I’m 99% sure it would have ruined the atmosphere) but sometimes it didn’t have enough emotional force to really keep it all together—there’s a number of mentions at the end of how much effort it is for Celia to keep the circus running but I think if that’s the case—and if it’s been a longstanding case—the Celia POV parts of the book needed a bigger infusion of sensation-novel-ness, a stronger sense of the weight and strain of maintaining control.

This book does, however, go firmly on my “I want a movie/miniseries” list, even though it is not particularly action-packed, because it is so hugely visual and I want to see all these illusions animated! I also want an excuse for a more social experience of it, like going to a midnight showing in full rêveur wear or having a premiere party with all black-and-white food. Please tell me I can get this! Marketing to Goths is like, so hot right now, right?
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
I didn’t get much of anything done today, because I spent basically the whole day on the couch with a cup of coffee and Lyndsay Faye’s Seven for a Secret, the sequel to her awesome historical mystery The Gods of Gotham.

Set in New York City in the 1840s, both books follow bartender-turned-reluctant-police-officer Timothy Wilde, younger brother of the larger-than-life Democratic machine member Valentine Wilde, as he deals with the psychological fallout of having half his face burned off in a fire and solves extremely sordid crimes. These crimes are not particularly “set against a backdrop” of mid-nineteenth-century New York as they are thoroughly woven within it. Where the first book’s plotlines grew out of the lurid, sordid contemporary social problems of child prostitution, body-stealing, and anti-Irish sentiment, the plots of Seven for a Secret grow directly out of the odious practice of Southern “fugitive slave catchers” kidnapping free blacks and selling them down South. (There was a certain Oscar-winning movie made about this two years ago, and excerpts from Solomon Northup’s memoir make up a good portion of the epigraphs in this book.) Chimney-sweeping, which was a thoroughly horrific industry, also makes several appearances. And we get to see a lot more of the corrupt Tammany Hall machine, as Timothy’s investigations into the murder of one Lucy Adams—the secret colored wife of a prominent Democratic politician—bring him closer and closer into Party politics.

Timothy Wilde continues to be a great first-person narrator—emotionally volatile, smart in some ways but amusingly dense in others (and therefore sometimes a bit unreliable), well-read with a poetic streak and fluent in “flash patter,” and good at meeting really interesting people. He’s got a bit of a savior complex that is mostly used to explore how complicated and awful the social issues plaguing New York are—there aren’t any easy answers here, despite Tim’s boundless bleeding-heartedness and the mostly-ineffectual savior complex it gives him.  While I’m probably not the right person to give a definitive opinion on all the issues raised with a book with a white protagonist written by a white author that is mostly straight-up about saving black people from slavery, I do think it well avoided most of the common white-saviorey pitfalls, in that Tim certainly doesn’t sweep in and save the day—he screws up a lot, he’s the main player in only one issue of a fairly expansive web of interlocking Things Going On (his job is to find out who killed Lucy Adams), he works closely with a number of well-characterized people of color who often know more than he does, have more resources than he does, and generally have better things to do sit around and be grateful to Tim for his help. Even in the scene where Tim is literally dragged in to be a white savior—namely in Julius Carpenter’s identity trial, where only white people can give testimony—there’s minimal grateful carping, and it’s heavily subordinated to discussing actual issues of plot and observing the ways in which racist laws and restrictions eat away at the people who have to constantly live under them.

Faye also continues to give both an unflinching look at the absolute misery the Irish famine immigrants suffered through, both on their way to New York and the prejudice they faced when they got there—something that tends to get soft-pedaled in a lot of American History courses—and an equally unflinching look at what utter bigoted, nasty thugs some of the Irish could be when it benefitted them, including an interesting portrayal of the NYPD’s first thoroughly crooked cop, an Irishman in league with the slave-catchers. Unfortunately, the degree to which the Irish in the U.S. “earned” respectability through corruption and attacking other immigrant and minority groups is something that’s also frequently ignored in our popular understanding of history.

On a more fun note, we get to see a lot of fun old faces again, and often learn more about them. Bird Daly makes some reappearances, as does the deplorable brothel madam Silkie Marsh. Gentle Jim plays a bigger part, and we get to see a bit farther past Mrs. Boehm’s respectable German landlady face. Julius Carpenter, unsurprisingly, becomes a very major character and brings with him a host of interesting connections involved in the Vigilance Committee and the Underground Railroad. Also, there continues to be lots and lots of Valentine Wilde, who continues to absolutely steal the show on every page that he’s on and several that he isn’t, because he’s just that over-the-top about everything.

Two minor things did bug me: There is a lot of people “snapping” their heads around when something catches their attention, which is the sort of authorial tic that you don’t notice until you notice it and then it bothered me every single time and made my neck hurt. Also, for some reason all the Irish are either redheads or “black Irish,” which is a specific type of coloring, and like… many, many Irish people are neither of these. Many, many Irish people are “fair” (blonde) or sort of lighter brunette, but I don’t know if we’ve met any “fair” Irish in the whole series thus far. It’s a little weird? Especially since the rest of the series is ridiculously researched right down to the ground.
But those are nitpicks. Overall, I just want the next book to be out ASAP!
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Man, I have fallen behind on my reviews. These are gonna be a bit short.

About two weeks ago I read Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, because I had been a bad book nerd and watched the television show first, and the television show was awesome. It is about a World War II combat nurse named Claire who accidentally time travels back to eighteenth-century Scotland and drinks a lot and has a romance with a slightly silly, very handsome young Highlander warrior named Jamie. There is a lot of politics and a lot of sex and a lot of drinking and a lot of weird gross medical stuff and very little magic except for the time travel, which, interestingly, seems to be an established thing in that universe, in that there are a lot of stories of women (always women) time-traveling two hundred years away and eventually returning.

The first half of the book I basically knew what was happening, because the TV show thus far has covered it. The second half was all new material, since the second half of the first season of the show doesn’t start for another few weeks. I’m really curious if they’ll keep quite everything the same, since Jamie in the show is a bit nicer and dorkier than Jamie in the books, who is a bit of a jerk, but definitely is more of a jerk in the second half now that he is an eighteenth-century husband. Much of the second half of the book deals at great length with the ethics of beating people, especially dependents, in the context of But It’s The Eighteenth Century. It’s a bit disturbing, not even in the ways that I’m used to romance novel-y crap being disturbing—it’s not glamorized or handwaved away as OK Because It’s Love, but it makes it look reasonable by actually discussing it thoughtfully and with a lot of analysis of responsibilities, power dynamics, and what it is that is supposedly being accomplished. It’s so creepy.

Additionally, the stuff that is supposed to be creepy succeeds spectacularly at being creepy too! Mainly, Black Jack Randall. I can’t actually discuss anything about him here because everything is a giant trigger warning. I will say I am very curious about how a certain thing that happens to him at the end of the book affects the future.

While the book has strong elements of being a romance novel, it’s definitely a good romance novel for people who are me, because it’s packed full of high-intensity stuff-besides-romance, interspersed with actual humor. (God save me from romance that insists upon being dead serious all the time.) This is not to say that the book was without its things-I-experience-as-flaws; it is a very stuff-packed book and it does not skimp on anything, including stuff I’d rather it skimped on. I am the worst at reviewing romances. I’m just like “Ugh, OK, I guess Claire really loves Jamie or whatever, I guess that’s as good a motivation as any… for DARING PRISON BREAKS AND WRESTLING WOLVES WOOO” and then once the wolves are wrestled I’m like “Heartfelt reunion blah blah, is there anything in the world more boring than other people’s boobs, who’s gonna get kidnapped next?” which means my standards for judging a romance are like “How daring were the prison breaks?” I will say, this book has some astoundingly intense prison breaks; they are not for the faint of heart.

I definitely want to read the sequels, but I may reserve them for beach reading.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
I was a bit worried that the third installment of Robin LaFevers’ His Fair Assassin trilogy, Mortal Heart, would be boring after the deep fuckedupness of Dark Triumph, especially since it follows the angelic Annith rather than the madness-prone Sybella. But it turns out that Annith’s secrets are just as screwed up as either of our previous protagonists’.

Annith was brought to the convent as a baby, and she doesn’t have some of the things the other daughters of Mortain have—namely a birth story, or any sign of the various gifts that each of his daughters usually display one of. What she does have is secrets, and more skill at every task the young assassins are taught than any of the other girls, in part due to starting so early, and in part because of her treatment at the hands of the Dragonette, the former Abbess.

In addition to the ongoing war with France, which has formed the main source of conflict through this series, most of the conflict in this book comes from Annith’s being denied the opportunity to go out and actually serve as an assassin—the only thing she’s ever wanted, and the thing she’s been trained for. Instead, the current Abbess declares that Annith, because she is so biddable and obedient, will stay at the convent and train as its new Seeress. Biddable obedient Annith—who has deliberately done her best to be the perfect novice so that she will be entrusted with an off-island assignment—promptly runs the hell away. Or not that promptly, really, but quite shortly afterwards, after doing some snooping around.

The dual threads of war with France and Annith’s uncovering of her own family secrets—and they are some seriously messed-up secrets—are woven together tightly, bound with a lot of mythology about Brittany’s nine pagan gods. Up until now we’ve mostly only known about Mortain, the god of death, but here we meet followers of Arduinna, protector of innocents, and hear a  lot of different versions of the story of Mortain and his ill-fated marriage with Arduinna’s sister Amourna. We also meet the hellequin, Death’s riders, earning penance for their misdeeds in life by escorting lost ghosts to the Underworld and hunting down malevolent ones. Annith’s romance with the lead hellequin, Balthazaar, seems somewhat obligatory and tacked-on for the first half of the book or so, but then plot twists happened and I changed my mind. Balthazaar has secrets too! Everyone in this book has secrets!

But this book doesn’t just use secrets for shock value—the whole book, at its core, is a surprisingly thorough exploration of how people can be bent to one another’s will—through secrets and lies, through promises and praise, through coaxing and tricking and teaching them into effacing their own wills voluntarily. Though Annith certainly has enough reasons to complain on her own—she’s been treated abominably and robbed of the expected payoff that had been her reason for putting up with it—it’s her concern for the other girls being lied to and manipulated in the same way that allows her to really become a powerful moral force.

I also love that (and here there be spoilers) in this book about assassins, the final climactic “assassination” that saves Brittany involves shooting someone—with love! Love saves the day, huzzah! But also shooting by a teenaged assassin nun! Idunno, I thought it was great.

Putting all three of the together, this trilogy is one of the strongest YA trilogies I’ve read in years—and you know how much I love YA and how many trilogies there are! Usually one of them is weak; either the middle book has Middle Book Syndrome or the last one is rushed and just falls apart. But this series, along with Sarah Rees Brennan’s The Lynburn Legacy, is really just stellar all the way through. With some surprisingly thoughtful themes lurking behind the main action of war, mayhem, and glorious medieval nonsense, it’s really everything I want in a YA fantasy.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
I started reading Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamourist Histories series pretty much just to get to the newest book, Valour and Vanity, which was advertised as The One Where They Get Kidnapped By Pirates. This is not entirely false advertising (or… well), but it does form the basis of my biggest critique of the book: NOT ENOUGH PIRATES. I thought it was going to be a pirates book! But I suppose that is on me.

What it is instead is a heist novel, which is pretty freakin’ awesome, and it is a heist novel that is also a Regency romance and a fantasy novel and a psychological novel about dealing with stress, poverty, and self-blame (in this case, for being the victim of a con job). It’s also a solid continuation of Jane and Vincent’s character developments as they build and maintain their life together and deal with each other’s issues, and also build their artistic partnership and invent funky new ways to work with glamour.

I have to say, Kowal has really done a great job on building the magic system for glamour in a believable, internally consistent, natural-seeming way, so that parts of the plot that hinge on glamour technique are understandable to follow and can keep good narrative tension and all that kind of stuff—there’s no bouncing the graviton particle beam reverse-the-polarity technobabble going on here. You get what’s going on and why it’s important.

I was also impressed by the practical, sensitive way in which Kowal handled Jane’s sudden change from (professional glamourist, but otherwise) useless two-bit country gentry with no housekeeping skills to someone who actually had to take care of herself. I think she did a really good job of showing how stressful being broke and feeling stuck can be, both materially and psychologically, without going the route of sensationalized “I will just lie around and be Tragically Ruined because being poor is something other people live with but I can’t possibly” bullshit that a lot of fallen-beneath-her-station stories fall into. The psychological toll it takes on Vincent and his ideas about his role as a husband (i.e., to be the “provider”) are also heartbreaking to read.

But especially as we near the end, all this thoughtful sensitive stuff about social issues gets largely displaced with HEISTY GOODNESS, although for me to say much about the heist at all would be massive spoilers, including who they are heisting and what they are heisting about. Let us just say that it is a wonderfully complex heist with much running about and setting things on fire, even if it is a little short on pirates.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
In a most timely boon from the library gods, Dark Triumph, the second book in Robin LaFevers’ His Fair Assassin trilogy, became available just in time for a weekend bookended by four-hour bus rides between Boston and New York, where me and some of my lovely friendesses were going to check out some awesome Gothy New York things, like the “Death Becomes Her” Victorian mourning fashion exhibit at the Met, and a trendy foofy cocktail bar called Death & Co.

Dark Triumph is considerably darker than Grave Mercy, and Grave Mercy was already about assassins, betrayal, and threat of sexual violence. To this, Dark Triumph adds heaping helpings of child abuse, incest, infanticide, spousal murder… you know, basically everything.

The protagonist of this book is Sybella, a secondary character in the first book, who arrives at the convent in the middle of a full-fledged psychotic breakdown from the goings-on of her previous life. In this book, she’s been sent to infiltrate the family of the sadistic Count d’Albret, a man who already has six dead wives to his name and has repeatedly threatened—and in one case, attempted—to rape thirteen-year-old Duchess Anne if she doesn’t keep the marriage contract that was made on her behalf when she was very young (one of many such contracts). Sybella’s ability to infiltrate this family and spy for the convent is made easier, from the convent’s perspective, but harder, from Sybella’s, by the fact that Sybella is the daughter of Count d’Albret’s fourth wife. And Sybella’s family makes the Lannisters look like the Brady Bunch. Sybella spends a good deal of the book, particularly at the beginning, being near-suicidal, kept going only by the hope of getting permission to kill her supposed father (as an assassin of this particular convent, Sybella’s actual father is Death).

Things start to look up, for a pretty messed-up definition of looking up, when Sybella springs the injured Beast of Waroch from d’Albret’s jail. Beast is a big ugly berserker dude who is nevertheless super friendly and awesome when he is not in the grip of battle rage, and who is a staunch ally of the Duchess. Additionally, the Beast’s sister was d’Albret’s sixth wife, leading to many feelings and much tragic backstory for everybody. Their romance, though of necessity pretty angsty, especially on Sybella’s part, is pretty sweet, in a dark sort of way, with both of them coming to terms with their own darkness and tragic pasts and all that stuff and supporting each other, and generally being heartwarmingly messed up.

Despite all the deeply disturbing stuff, which is really quite disturbing indeed, Dark Triumph still manages to be fun in a way that a story about medieval teenage assassin nuns cannot help but be fun. It’s action-packed, vivid, twisty, fast-paced, sometimes witty, and full of rich characterization and richer intrigues. I highly recommend the bejesus out of it.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
While recovering from the NaNoWriMo madness, I checked out the third book in Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamourist Histories series, Without a Summer. This book takes place during the actual historical event of the Year Without a Summer, 1816, a period of global cold weather following the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia.

In this version of history, however, there’s magic, and so many of the less scientifically literate members of the population blame the cold on a different source: the coldmongers, a subset of glamourists with a talent for manipulating temperature rather than the usual light and sound. Coldmongering is dangerous, meaning that manipulating anything as big as the weather would be pretty fatal pretty quickly—and even regular coldmongering is dangerous enough that most coldmongers are very young, dead before thirty. Being nice people, Jane and Vincent, our protagonists—a pair of professional and highly-sought-after glamourists—get themselves involved when they rescue Chill Will, a young coldmonger who is attacked by an angry, ill-informed mob on the street.

Jane and Vincent have their own problems in addition to the civil unrest—they have gone to London to do a glamural for an Irish Catholic couple, which Jane has provincial bigoted Protestant feelings about that she has to get over (in an appropriately awkward, shame-inducing way), and Jane has brought her pretty younger sister Melody with her, since there is a dearth of eligible young men in the country after the war with Napoleon had gotten a lot of them killed. Being in London has also brought them into contact with Vincent’s family, who are as odious a lot of backstabbing, sniping, catty aristocrats as you could wish for. The central aristocat of this family is Vincent’s father, the Earl of Verbury, who is manipulative, cruel, smug, classist, racist, probably every other –ist too, power-grubbing, and never happy with anything, on principle (he LITERALLY explains that it is one of his principles to never be happy with anything, I am not kidding you)—in short, he’s the kind of asshole who takes it for granted that he’s the boss of everyone and everything, and thinks chilling the fuck out for half a second or enjoying your damn dinner are signs of weak character. He’s a huge missing stair and he should have been shunned by all humans long before we get to this story, even if he is an Earl.

Anyway, Jane and Vincent’s family issues get all tied up in the civil unrest when Melody seems to be falling for Catholic young Mr. O’Brien, who is involved in helping the coldmongers, who are planning a march on Parliament demanding a relief bill and to not be blamed for the weather, said march being probably instigated by the Earl of Verbury in order to oust the current Lord Chancellor or some callous bullshit like that. Jane has to overcome her own prejudices and misconceptions in order to navigate a thick web of lies, conspiracies, and bogus treason charges to save herself, Vincent, and the man who might become her brother-in-law—if he isn’t hanged.

I’m really liking the continued worldbuilding in this series, and the cast of characters and slate of social issues that country-bred Jane confronts in London are awesome (Jane doesn’t always appreciate how awesome they are at first, and has to learn). While the first book was sort of a domestic romance in the style of Jane Austen and the second book was more action-y, this book is mostly a plotting-and-intrigue book, with a lot of spying and telling stories and a big courtroom drama at the end. This book also gives us a lot of character development for Jane and Melody, in which they both uncomfortably discover that Jane is not as nice and Melody not as shallow as each initially seems.

I have the fourth book, which I hear involves pirates, on hold at the library. *taps foot impatiently*
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
People give and recommend books to me at a rate faster than I can read them, because I know many awesome people who are way nicer to me than I deserve, and the result is that it often takes me much longer than I would like to actually read books I acquire.

And then occasionally, someone gives me a book and it looks so awesome and timely and Relevant To My Interests that I actually drop everything and read it next. This is what happened when a friend gave me a paperback copy of Lyndsay Faye’s The Gods of Gotham, a historical fiction police procedural murder mystery set in 1845 New York. Two very important things happened in New York in 1845: one, the NYPD was formed, and two, the Irish potato famine  started, sending waves of destitute Irish flooding into the city, bringing all the misery and social upheaval of rural Ireland with them, and also typhus.

Our protagonist is a young guy named Timothy Wilde, who at the beginning of the story is doing well enough for himself as a bartender, saving up nearly enough money to ask Mercy Underhill to marry him and trying to not get too tangled up with his morphine-addicted firefighter brother Val, who is heavily involved in the Democratic Party machine. Tim and Val are orphans, as their parents had died in a house fire when they were kids, leaving both kids with all sorts of issues and the need to become independent very quickly. Unfortunately for Timothy, another fire incinerates his bar, his house, and all his money, which is how he ends up assigned to Ward Six—the slummiest ward, obviously—as one of the first “copper stars” of the NYPD.

Timothy spends some time breaking up fights and generally feeling miserable until he meets Bird Daly, a ten-year-old “kinchin-mab” (you’ll have to read to find out what that is) who leads him to a horrifying series of crimes involving dismembered children. Timothy, who cares about children more than a lot of people in the mid-nineteenth century, insists upon investigating, and follows a dangerous and convoluted path to the truth, uncovering a lot of sordid secrets about a lot of people along the way—including himself, his brother, and his beloved Mercy Underhill.

The aforementioned sordid secrets are all pulled off really well, both believable and shocking (and not repetitive), in part because the characterization in this book is brilliant. Timothy Wilde is very smart but he is often clueless about certain things that turn out to be rather important, and he’s often—but understandably—misled by his own misunderstandings of people. Valentine is a larger-than-life figure in every way, as you’d hope a guy with a name like “Valentine Wilde” would be, but is surprisingly complex. The secondary characters are hugely colorful, from the sickly children’s doctor Palsgrave to the brash, grown-up-too-fast newsboys. There is literally nobody in this book who is boring, not even Mercy Underhill.

To be frank, I expected Mercy to be boring, because she is the Designated Female Love Interest and they usually are. More so when they are dedicated charitable types—they always come off as squishy, bland, selfless constructs of idealized feminine nurturing whatever. Mercy is none of this. Mercy is a more fully realized character than our narrator has any idea of until about three-quarters of the way through the book. I would love to read a book that was entirely about Mercy Underhill.

One cool thing this book does is that each chapter starts off with a quotation—a standard enough practice these days, and one that I usually enjoy—but instead of being quotes from works of great literature or whatever, they’re all excerpts from letters and news reports and other “nonfiction” pieces of the time. A lot of them are really nasty anti-Catholic propaganda, which I think does a good job of underscoring the degree to which Catholics were considered Definitely Not Christians and to which the Irish were considered Definitely Not White People, which are both things that I think are hard for modern audiences to really grasp—I remember learning in school that yes, every new wave of European immigrants was met with fear and suspicion, but I always kind of assumed that it was only middling-level xenophobia, because the Irish and Italians and other “white ethnic” groups have since become so well-established. But no, the stuff people in the 1840s were saying about Catholics and about the Irish in particular reads today like complete batshit-crazy tin-hattery. Some of the other quotes are about things like the sanitary conditions of New York at the time and newspaper reports on the potato famine. Overall, they’re very well-chosen and really do manage to provide some background, and don’t seem tacked-on at all.

Since this is a big scary sprawling Gothic that took place at an extremely volatile time in New York’s history, I would issue a content/trigger warning for probably every single thing that could warrant a content warning, including graphic murder, child abuse, infanticide, child prostitution, attempted lynching, racism, use of the n-word, fire, gross medical stuff, and probably other things. It’s all handled well, I think, but this is definitely a book for morbid individuals with strong stomachs.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
One of the many, many book clubs I am (at this point, rather half-assedly) in is Gail Carriger’s online book club. I haven’t participated since reading Blood and Chocolate, a YA werewolf novel that, despite being about werewolves, brought me back to my adolescence in the worst way. But I’d already bought a copy of Robin LaFevers’ Grave Mercy, the first installment of the His Fair Assassin trilogy, in one of those Kindle Daily Deal things a while ago, so I figured I might as well read it. It did, after all, have a lot of things about it that seemed right up my alley, like teenage girl assassins and medieval Brittany.

Grave Mercy is the story of Ismae Rienne, a novice at the convent of St. Mortain, patron saint/old god of Death. Like everyone at the convent, Ismae is supposedly one of Mortain’s actual children, and therefore has a number of odd death-related gifts, including the ability to see the “marques” of Death on her targets.  She also has a couple of gifts that are less common among the convent’s occupants, such as immunity to poison.

Despite many misgivings by many parties on a number of subjects, Ismae is sent off to the court of the young Duchess Anne of Brittany, in the guise of the cousin-but-probably-mistress to Anne’s half-brother, Gavriel Duval. Her actual role is to spy, and to assassinate anyone who needs assassinating. But there are layers and layers of plots afoot, and Ismae develops suspicions that maybe the people she’s assigned to spy on might not be the people she really needs to be spying on. As the threats to Brittany’s independence build and the young but awesome Duchess is betrayed by various power-grubbing nobles, Ismae’s doubts grow and she has to set herself to some serious learning—about the plots surrounding her, about the nature of Mortain and her service to him, and about her pesky feelings for Duval.

Duval is pretty much not an asshole, even though they do the classic romantic comedy bit of getting off on the wrong foot and getting mad at each other a lot, so that’s pretty good for a romance. The romance subplot is at least actually tied in pretty closely with all the fun stuff, since the main plots are dependent on questions of people’s loyalties and principles, that sort of thing, so it doesn’t feel tacked on, even if it is pretty obvious right from the beginning.

There’s a lot of historical detail here, and fairly little magic—all the magic that we see is deeply religious in nature, having to do with Ismae’s service of her god and her relationship with him as his daughter. But much of it is historical-fiction sort of stuff, and pretty heavily researched, which is completely OK by me. I like all the snooping around and trying to untangle plots and remember everybody’s family history, and am also 100 percent OK with there only being a couple of major action scenes. This book also doesn’t dick around with how limited women’s roles were in the late middle ages/early Renaissance, especially when there’s nobody to put any sort of check on the most power-hungry men.

My biggest issue with the book is that there is one small plot hole that I made into a much bigger OH NO than I think most people would. At one point, Ismae makes plans to meet with her convent sister Sybella, who may have News about Betrayal and Shenanigans and all the general badness that’s going on. On her way to meet Sybella, Ismae is interrupted by having to have a scene with the Duchess and one of the villains. And then… there is no follow-up to her missing her meeting! Sybella does show back up, but there is no acknowledgement that they had a meeting and missed it, and Ismae doesn’t go to any effort to make contact with Sybella again or wonder what information Sybella was going to give her that she now doesn’t have or freaking anything, like she completely forgot she had ever been supposed to meet with Sybella at all. I kept waiting for this to come back up because I thought missing the meeting was going to be important, and it just… didn’t.

The second book in the series is from Sybella’s point of view, and I think I’d like to read it, since Sybella was one of the best characters despite having little screen time.

This is the sort of book that would make a really fun movie if it was done properly and had any sort of budget, but if it were adapted, would probably be done improperly and with many stupid budgeting decisions and would at best end up as bad trashy fun like the Queen of the Damned movie or something.

Profile

bloodygranuaile: (Default)
bloodygranuaile

September 2017

S M T W T F S
     1 2
3456789
10 11121314 1516
1718 1920212223
24252627282930

Syndicate

RSS Atom

Most Popular Tags

Style Credit

Expand Cut Tags

No cut tags
Page generated Sep. 21st, 2017 03:47 pm
Powered by Dreamwidth Studios