Monthly Archives: October 2011

Carpe Jugulum, by Terry Pratchett

Title: Carpe Jugulum
Author: Terry Pratchett
Year of Publication: 1998
Length: 378 pages
Genre: fantasy / humour
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 3.75 stars

This felt appropriate to review on Halloween.

King Verence II, in a fit of naive goodwill, issues an invitation to some neighboring vampires from Uberwald to attend the christening of his newborn daughter. Trouble is, since he’s king, that means he’s basically invited the vampires into take over the whole kingdom — which they intend to do. These are modern vampires, and the Count de Magpyr has trained his wife and children not to be susceptible to the usual pitfalls. They can eat garlic, aren’t fussed by holy water, have had religious symbols as mobiles, and barely flinch when caught in the sunlight. They subdue populations, not by sheer reigns of Gothic terror, but with a bureaucratic efficiency that’s much more frightening. Agnes Nitt discovers that she has a near-unique ability to resist their hypnotic power, thanks to her increasingly-assertive alter ego, Perdita. When Granny Weatherwax, initially absent due to sulking over having not been invited to the christening (she was, and in fact the baby was named for her, but the message went mythically astray), appears to lose her first confrontation with the vampires, it’s up to Agnes/Perdita, Nanny, and Magrat (recommissioned as a mother) to rid Lancre of its latest trouble.

This is a book that I always feel like I should like better than I do. It has the right ingredients — the Lancre Witches, mythical creatures, general snarkiness — and yet something about it always falls flat for me. I suspect in some ways it’s because this book bears too many resemblances to Lords and Ladies — which I love, but I’d rather read something with new themes than a re-hashing. There are a lot of similarities: invasive paranormal force, humanity has to remember why it fought these things to begin with and not just roll over for them, Granny ends up out of commission for a while but is preserved and triumphs via her Borrowing skill, the youngest of the three (here Agnes instead of Magrat) has to pluck up the nerve to defend the kingdom, etc. Nothing’s wrong with any of it, but you do get a bit of a feeling of having been there before.

The book picks up once Granny comes out of her sulk, and then out of her coma, and spends some time wandering about with Omnian preacher Mightily Oats. The entire dynamic between Mightily Oats and the witches is pretty great, actually, largely because of how Esme’s and Gytha’s respective prejudices bounce off of milquetoasty Mightily. The Omnian church, we can believe, once enthusiastically burned whoever it disagreed with, but has lots a lot of its fire in recent decades, not least because it schisms about three times a week, and none of the sects can even agree on who they should be burning anymore. Usually-tolerant Nanny has strong feelings about the Omnians:

“But you’ve never objected to the Gloomy Brethren, Nanny. Or to the Wonderers. And the Balancing Monks come through here all the time.”

“But none of them object to me,” said Nanny.

Esme’s a bit cannier in how she deals with Mightily, who ends up helping her back to the fight (only because he needed her guidance, of course, you understand. Under any other circumstances, she wouldn’t be having with his association). Esme senses what the readers get to see through Mightily’s eyes as well: that, like Agnes, he suffers from always being in two minds about things. “Good Oats” wants desperately to be a devout believer… but “Bad Oats” is the name he gives to the voice that questions, that’s skeptical, that isn’t quite sure about all of the dogma and trappings.

“You strong in your faith, then?” she asked, as if she couldn’t leave things alone.

Oats sighed. “I try to be.”

“But you read a lot of books, I’m thinking. Hard to have faith, ain’t it, when you read too many books.”

The story picks up even further when the citizens of Uberwald finally steel themselves to revolt against their vampire masters (with a little inspiration from Agnes/Perdita). The re-emergence of the old Count, a classic vampire who’ll have none of this modern nonsense, is one of the best scenes in the book. Ultimately, Carpe Jugulum is enjoyable, if not particularly exhilarating. I could have done with better exploration of new paths — the only new introduction, the Nac mac Feegle, just feels out of place against the backdrop of the vampires. They serve to get Verence out of the way and… not much else. It’s a strange diversion, to say the least.

So, overall, I don’t find Carpe Jugulum to be as strong as it might’ve been. It’s still a good read, though, and Pratchett’s humour is, as ever, quite engaging. There’s a lot of lovely satire in there about the vampires, and it’s somehow even more relevant now than it was back in 1998 when Pratchett first wrote it, considering the recent surfeit of vampire fiction. If you’re looking for non-standard vampire fare, where the arrogant toffs get what’s coming to them, then I can highly recommend Carpe Jugulum.

Post Script: I apologize for the two-week dearth of reviews. I have been first at an educational residency in Shaker Heights, OH, and second helping to run the 6th Blackfriars Conference here in Staunton. Information about those events is up on the ASC’s Education Blog, if anyone is interested.

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Lily of the Nile, by Stephanie Dray

Title: Lily of the Nile
Author: Stephanie Dray
Year of Publication: 2011
Length: 351 pages
Genre: historical fiction
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 3.25 stars

It’s difficult to read this book and not draw comparisons to Michelle Moran’s Cleopatra’s Daughter, which I reviewed back in March. Not only do they cover the same subject matter, they do so for almost exactly the same timeframe — from the death of the famous Cleopatra to just before her daughter’s wedding. Cleopatra Selene is taken to Rome, paraded in Augustus’s triumph, and forcibly adopted into the imperial family. She has to deal with adjusting to her new life and status, with her rebelliously inclined brother, with political threats and personal trials, and with the dubious legacy left to her by her parents. The story has the same basic shape in both books.

Dray definitely gives the story a new angle, though; she positions the life of Cleopatra Selene in relationship to the Cult of Isis. For most of the book, this is fascinating. It gives Selene a wonderful sense of mystery, something that marks her out from her surroundings and from the Roman attitudes she’s pressured to adopt, and I like that it’s a little bit brutal. Isis’s messages to Selene appear as bloody hieroglyphs, literally carved into Selene’s skin in moments of emotional distress. Faith isn’t easy or painless, and that’s definitely part of the message behind what Selene has to learn. The connection also has political implications, as Augustus accuses the Isiacs of plotting sedition against him, intending to make Selene and her less-compliant twin Helios the figureheads of a new rebellion. Selene learns how to plot and how to negotiate, striking deals with the loathed emperor in order to keep her people safe, even if it means personal sacrifice. The magic in the book is tangibly real, in a very religious way, and treated as such, which keeps the book from wandering into fantasy territory, and it definitely adds a new and exciting element to the story.

On the other hand, there are times when it definitely wanders into preachy territory. When Selene starts educating anyone else about the Isiac cult and sacred femininity, it sort of grinds the story to a halt, because the reader is then, too, getting lectured. It feels, at times, a lot like Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon, only not quite as deftly handled (and MoA is itself far from flawless in that regard). Probably it makes me a bad pagan, but I have trouble enjoying those explications, especially when they stick out so awkwardly from the rest of the story.

Lily of the Nile is an inventive tale, and Dray fills out the gaps in Selene’s story admirably, expanding her life past the scraps that history hands down to us. She also makes some different choices regarding interpreting the historical record. The twins’ younger brother, Philadelphus, lives long past when most historians seem to think he probably died. One of Antony’s other sons, Iullus, gets a bit of stage time, and Antyllus gets a mention. Julia starts her love affairs early, and Octavia and Agrippa suffer unfulfilled passion for each other (and I have to wonder if HBO’s Rome inspired that bit of invention). I’m glad that Dray felt the freedom to play around with some of the historical question marks and ellipses. And yet, there was something that didn’t quite grab me as strongly as I’d hoped it would. I think it was that so many characters felt glanced at, rather than fully fleshed out. The imperial household had so many great personalities in it, but quite a few of them get rather short shrift, hardly mentioned at all, or downgraded to pretty two-dimensional characters. This is often a trouble in first person narratives, and it’s why I’ll take a good strong shifting-third any day of the week — but that’s down to personal preference. Since we only see what Selene sees and know what she knows, there’s a lot left missing from the rest of the story.

On that note, I have to make a confession of bias. Since I read the first few books Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series (and would finish it if the last three would just come back into print), I sort of judge all books of ancient Rome by that standard — which is unfortunate, because next to that, most others tend to fall short of the mark. McCullough is not, I freely admit, to everyone’s taste, but she is to mine. I love a good panoptic — dozens of characters fleshed out, the history so vivid and vital you can feel it come to life around you, richly embroidered down to the last detail. Lily of the Nile, as with Moran’s books, is definitely lighter fare.

I did enjoy the read, despite some mixed feelings, and I’ll definitely be picking up the sequel, which will actually follow Selene through her adult life as Queen of Mauretania. I’ve felt cheated out of that before, so it’s nice to know we’ll be getting the rest of the story from Dray.

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The Serpent’s Shadow, by Mercedes Lackey

Title: The Serpent’s Shadow (Elemental Masters #2)
Author: Mercedes Lackey
Year of Publication: 2001
Length: 400 pages
Genre: historical fantasy
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 3.5 stars

One of the best things about Lackey, I think, is her ability to take a fairy-tale inspiration and then tell a story that goes so immensely far beyond that origin. The Serpent’s Shadow is loosely based on Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. And boy, do I mean loosely.

To start with, the heroine has anything but “skin as white as snow”. Maya Witherspoon is a half-Indian aspiring doctor, the daughter of a British army doctor and his mystically-inclined Indian wife. She’s had to flee from India to London for reasons she doesn’t even fully understand at first, but which she will later learn have to do with her mother’s dark twin, Shivani, a priestess of Kali Durga. Shivani has been hellbent for years on punishing her sister for marrying an Englishman. She managed to murder Maya’s parents and thought she got Maya as well. Instead of seven dwarves, Maya has seven “pets” for companionship, inherited from her mother: an owl, a falcon, a peacock, a parrot, a gray langur, and a pair of mongooses.

Much of the story follows Maya’s twin ambitions of gaining acceptance as a doctor and of learning to wield English magic — the Elemental Magic introduced in The Fire Rose. She faces challenges on both fronts because of her sex and her ancestry. The former plot ties in with some nice details about the suffragette movement in Edwardian England, as Maya’s friend Amelia, a medical student, is deeply involved with the cause. The latter introduces us to the socio-political structure of magic users in this version of England — the White Lodge, a group of men, mostly wealthy and aristocratic, based in London, who keep tabs on all magic-users in the country. They’re at first puzzled by Maya, who uses a form of magic they don’t quite understand — she’s applying western magic, inherited from her father, with eastern methods, learned in her homeland. It confuses them tremendously, so they send a member to investigate — Water Master Peter Scott, who only barely makes the grade of “gentleman” by virtue of having been a ship’s captain, and who’s been begging the Lodge to bring some women and more Earth Masters (usually country yeomen, not city aristocrats) into the fold. Finding out that Maya has phenomenal talent to become an Earth Master, he sets about teaching her to use her talents.

As with most of Lackey’s books, the endgame plays out a bit quickly, but (as usual) I’m willing to forgive that. What’s great about this book is that, more fully than The Fire Rose, it integrates magic with normal life. In The Fire Rose, the main characters exist in such isolation that you don’t get to fully see how magic users live and work and deal with the rest of humanity. In The Serpent’s Shadow, it’s a central concern — how to perform magic without freaking anyone out, how to use it to help without being obvious about it, and how to stop someone who’s using it to harm the unwary. Maya is particularly clever, blending her Earth Magic together with her skills as a doctor (and later in the book, we see Water and Fire work together towards the same purpose, in an intriguing example of how the different disciplines can compliment each other). She uses magic sometimes to help with her diagnoses, as illness can show itself to her. We also get to see her using magic as protection, and the concept gets a more thorough explanation here than it did in the vagueness of The Fire Rose. I appreciate the “nuts and bolts” look at how the magic actually works.

So, overall, I enjoy this installment in the Elemental Masters series, not only for its plot and characters, but for the further exploration of how magic in this world operates. It’s nothing outstanding, but it’s worth the read if you like the idea of magical realism, particularly in a historical setting. It’s a great twist on a fairy tale, a thoroughly inventive re-imagining.

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Daughters of Rome, by Kate Quinn

Title: Daughters of Rome
Author: Kate Quinn
Year of Publication: 2011
Length: 388 pages
Genre: historical fiction
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 4 stars

I’ve been wanting to immerse myself in some delightful Roman fiction lately, and Daughters of Rome was just what I’d been hoping for. It’s a prequel, sort of, to Quinn’s Mistress of Rome, which I read last year and which made only a mediocre impression on me. Daughters of Rome is a big, big improvement. Quinn has figured out how to wrangle multiple viewpoints without jarring the reader.

Daughters of Rome tells the story of the Year of the Four Emperors (69 AD) from the viewpoint of the four Corneliae women — officially Cornelia Prima, Secunda, Tertia, and Quarta, but informally Cornelia, Marcella, Lollia, and Diana. Cornelia is married to Piso, a Senator that all of Rome assumes will be tapped as heir to the imperial throne — and she’s excited about that. She has her eye on being Empress, but her joy in that possibility is troubled by her apparent inability to conceive a child, even after 8 years of marriage. Marcella, Cornelia’s younger sister, is stuck in a completely loveless marriage with Lucius Aelius Lamia, a politician who spends most of his time abroad. Marcella fills her hours with writing histories of Rome, much to the dismay of her relatives. Their cousin Lollia is on her third husband at the beginning of the book, as her slave-born grandfather whirls her around for political advantage. She bears up cheerfully, however, taking lovers as it suits her and generally making the best of circumstances. Diana, another cousin and youngest of the four, has no time for men or politics; she’s horse-mad and has no thoughts for anything but the chariot races and the victory of her precious Reds. They’re four completely different women, but devoted to each other.

The book whirls through the Four Emperors, but keeps its focus tightly on the four women. We see the change from Galba to Otho to Vitellius to Vespasian through their eyes, and even if you know the history of the politics, the twists and turns of the book remain surprising, because it’s not really about the political facts — it’s entirely about the four female lives. Of the four, only Cornelia and Marcella are real historical characters (though all of Lollia’s husbands were real, and Diana serves as a perfect representative for all Romans who were obsessed with the races), and Cornelia doesn’t make much of a mark on history, disappearing into domestic obscurity. Quinn grafts historical fact and imaginative speculation together beautifully, immersing the reader in life in Imperial Rome. There are still just a couple of small inaccuracies, fewer and smaller than in Mistress of Rome, but which still perplex me, since Quinn clearly Has Done the Research. Overall, though, the experience is entirely transporting.

What I really enjoyed about this book was the way that Quinn subverted my expectations about the characters. When I began, I thought I knew who our protagonist was. Among the prude, the flibbertigibbet, and the sports fan, of course my sympathies would lie with the writer — with clever, subtle Marcella. After all, that’s the sort of character who’s usually the reader avatar in any historical novel. Just ask any romance fan — we like bluestockings, women who challenge ideas about literacy and intelligence. That’s who we’re supposed to glom onto.

Except, in Daughters of Rome, the characters are all dynamic, and wonderfully so. The turmoil of the year transforms Cornelia from a straight-laced, ice-cold matron to a warm, exuberant woman. Lollia, troubled when life becomes too serious for her liking, learns to value real love and her family over fleeting pleasures and casual affairs. Even Diana, who is the flattest of the four characters (Marcella at one point thinks of her as the least interesting girl in Rome, and I’m not sure she’d be wrong), grows into herself by the end, proving her worth and demonstrating that she’s not quite as thick as everyone assumes. Marcella, though, becomes so much less sympathetic as the book goes on — and I find that fascinating. She’s smug and secretive, and as a reader, you share Cornelia’s and Lollia’s frustration with her increasing self-absorption. It’s hard to feel sorry for her at the end (and it took me a while to realize just who she was and what would become of her, since Quinn changes her name from the historical record), because she brings it entirely on herself with her scheming.

Daughters of Rome is thoroughly enjoyable historical fiction, especially for anyone looking for something a little non-standard within that genre. The turmoil of this time period is prime fodder for political and personal intrigues, and Quinn plays them to the hilt. Highly recommended.

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Sandman, Volume 3: Dream Country, by Neil Gaiman

Title: Sandman, Vol. 3: Dream Country
Author: Neil Gaiman
Year of Publication: 1991
Length: 160 pages
Genre: graphic novel – fantasy/historical
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 4.5 stars

Dream Country is, for my money, where the Sandman series goes from good to genius.

The third volume isn’t an arc, but rather a series of one-shots. These one-shots beautifully illustrate the real advantage of the graphic novel medium — the freedom to take these side tracks, which are linked thematically, perhaps tangentially tied in to the main story, by the thinnest of threads, but which mostly just flesh out the author’s world. Gaiman explores themes, indulges in experiments, and it’s gorgeous.

The first story, “Calliope”, explores a captured muse. Calliope, a bonafide Greek remnant, was caught decades ago by a writer, enslaved, and forced to inspire him to greatness. But the man is old now, soon to die, and so he sells his muse to a Richard Madoc, a young man plagued by writer’s block. He’s written one great book, and his publishers are hounding him for a sequel he doesn’t have — until he trades a trichinobezoar for Calliope. Her suffering is palpable and harrowing; she appears nude, in a way (as Gaiman indicates in the script, which is included at the back of this volume) that is anything but titillating, and when Madoc rapes her “on a musty camp bed,” it’s profoundly uncomfortable for the reader, because we’ve become, somehow, complicit in his crime. As the story progresses, Madoc becomes, of course, fabulously successful — and Calliope, profoundly miserable, calls out first to the Fates, then to Morpheus, who we learn was once her lover. This is the point where the story intersects with the main plot, though we don’t yet know just how much it will — but the first hint is here, where Morpheus helps her to freedom, taking pity now where once he might not have, softened to her plight by his own recent captivity. I like “Calliope” because it’s an interesting twist on a muse story, and it attacks the question, terrifyingly present in so many writers’ hearts, about just how far we would go for success — not just for the fame and money, but for that glorious feeling of knowing what you’ve created is right. Morpheus’s punishment is apt: first he floods Madoc’s head with stories, too many stories, the blessing turned into a curse. Then, when Calliope asks that Madoc be shown mercy, Morpheus withdraws everything — Madoc ends as he began, with no ideas at all.

The second story, “Dream of a Thousand Cats”, is interesting in large part for the artwork. A small kitten goes out in the middle of the night to listen to a traveling evangelist Siamese tell a story. After her owners callously drowned kittens she bore to a stray tomcat, she begged for justice, and during a dream, traveled through a wasteland to see the Dream Lord — Morpheus again, but who here takes the form of a giant black cat (intimating that Morpheus’s form depends, in large part, upon the viewer). He tells her (and here we see the classic frame structure used quite well) that once upon a time, cats ruled the world, and humans were their playthings, until one day a prophetic human got all mankind to dream the same dream — a dream that changed the world, not just into what it is today, but so that it had always been that way. The Siamese is now traveling the world trying to accomplish the same goal, to get as many cats as she can to dream the same dream and turn things back. The story is simple, if elegantly woven, but as I said, what I love here is the artwork. The artist of this story really knows cats, the difference in build between breeds and ages and lifestyles, the expression in the faces.

The third story in the collection isn’t just my favourite in this volume, it’s one of my favourites overall. If I ever get the chance to get Neil Gaiman to sign something for me, it’ll be “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

One of my grad school professors, and now my professional mentor, has a great lecture about Shakespeare’s Dream. He talks about its flawless construction, how it opens up and up, then narrows back down again, layering fantasy and reality together. Our players sleep, dream, wake — and then enter the theatrical world, a different kind of dream, and at the very end, Puck releases us all from the impossibility we so willingly bought into for two hours’ time. It’s a thing of beauty, and Gaiman builds on this structure gorgeously. In “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (which, incidentally, was the first comic book to win a World Fantasy Award), we return to the bargain that Will made with the Dream Lord, and learn its details — in exchange for the power to write the way he does, Shakespeare will write two plays for Morpheus, one at the beginning of his career, and one at the end. Midsummer isn’t quite at the beginning of his career, but it’s close enough to fudge, and it’s certainly one of his first truly great plays. He wrote it the same year (probably) that he wrote Romeo and Juliet and Richard II, and you can tell that he’s really starting to hit his stride in those three plays — so this narrative makes sense. But Morpheus doesn’t just have him write the play; he wants Shakespeare’s troupe to travel out to the countryside to perform it for a very particular and peculiar audience: the Fae themselves. And so, as the book progresses, the story opens and closes again and again like a blossoming flower, moving from the microcosm of the world of the play, out to the world of the players, alternately bickering about craft matters and trying to contain their astonishment at their audience, to an in-between place, where Titania tempts Shakespeare’s young son Hamnet with promises of glory in her realm, all the way out the entirely Other world of the immortals, where Morpheus converses with Titania and Auberon, and where the lesser fairies show themselves every bit as petty and quarreling as the mortals. They are all echoes of each other, and the framing structure of the play helps crystallize the reflections.

The thing is, I can talk all I want about the structure and the references and the cleverness, but none of that is why I adore that story so much. It’s just magic. There’s something intangible to it that just makes it such a joy to wander through. Every page is a delight, crammed with nuances, details, and clever jokes. Charles Vess illustrates — who else, to do justice to the subject matter? — and his wonderful balance of ethereal grandeur with cheeky whimsy fits the story perfectly. And then there’s the dialogue, the meanderings of truth flitting in and out of the fiction:

MORPHEUS: You have asked me why I asked you back to this plane, to see this entertainment. I… During your stay on this Earth the faerie have afforded me much diversion, and entertainment. Now you have left, for your own haunts. and I would repay you all for the amusement. And more: They shall not forget you. That was important to me: that King Auberon and Queen Titania will be remembered by mortals, until this age is gone.

AUBERON: We thank you, shaper. But this diversion, although pleasant, is not true. Things never happened thus.

MORPHEUS: Oh, but it is true. Things need not have happened to be true. Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes, and forgot.

There’s so much brilliant in that little snippet of conversation. First, the idea of the Fae leaving our mortal realm, and taking some of the magic of it with them when they go — perhaps for the better. Our world is less wild, less dangerous now, for certain, but the departure of the Fae is part of the relentless march of Progress, and it leaves something wanting in its wake. Then there’s the statement, which could so well cover the entire series, really: “Things need not have happened to be true.” It’s a guiding principle of my life, really, as I think it is for any writer who really loves the stories she tells — and as it is for children. Stories endure where facts disintegrate, because there’s just something stronger, more sinewy and resilient, about the tale (which Shakespeare knew better than anyone, judging by what he did to the narrative of English history). The magic of this issue is just entrancing, and that’s why it’s one of my favourites.

The last story in the collection is actually the one I don’t at all care for. “Facade” is, I think, a little weak — perhaps because its claustrophobic nature makes it hard for the expansive exploration I so enjoy in the other stories, perhaps because the main character is obviously a reference, pulled from DC stock, but not one I’m familiar with, so it’s hard to make any sort of connections. Urania is a former superhero of some sort, pensioned off now that she’s no longer needed and sort of deteriorating — the government forced her to magically irradiate herself in an Egyptian temple, and the Power of Ra transformed her into Elemental Girl (or something). She’s no longer organic matter; she’s indestructible. And that means she can’t die, even though she wants to. She’s become a reclusive agoraphobe, terrified of revealing what she’s become to anyone. Death shows up and eventually gives her the secret of ending her existence. It’s not much of a story, for my preferences, and it’s the one I always forget is in this collection. I take it that folk of other sensibilities have received it better, though.

Overall, this is a beautiful piece of work, a jewel in an amazing series. The four different explorations of storytelling all come at the overarching themes of the series from different angles, and they all illuminate something different about the nature of dreaming and its relationship to the waking world.

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The Book of the Dead, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Title: The Book of the Dead (Pendergast #7)
Author: Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
Year of Publication: 2007
Length: 597 pages
Genre: thriller
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 4.5 stars
Spoiler Warning: Spoilers for Dance with Death

This is probably my favourite Pendergast novel. Perhaps coincidentally, it’s also the first Pendergast novel I read.

Like Brimstone, this book has a lot going on, a lot of different threads that weave in and out of each other. To begin with, Aloysius Pendergast is in a maximum security prison, awaiting trial for several murders and for the theft of the jewel collection of the Museum of Natural History — all crimes perpetrated by his brother, Diogenes, during the last book. Diogenes’s frame job was masterful, near-perfect — but there are just enough holes to be holding up the trial, and Laura Heyward finds herself investigating them despite herself. Vincent D’Agosta is taking a much more active role in clearing Pendergast’s name, risking his own career and his relationship with Laura in order to break Aloysius out of prison. He’s working with Eli Glinn, a forensic psychologist introduced to the Pendergast series in Dance with Death to analyse Diogenes, and who apparently appears first in Ice Limit, another P&C novel that I haven’t read.

Meanwhile, Diogenes is taking advantage of Aloysius’s incarceration to set his real ultimate crime into motion. His planned apotheosis wasn’t stealing the Museum’s jewels, nor was it framing Aloysius for the murders. His true goal is on a much larger scale, and he uses his alter ego’s position at the Museum to set it into motion. He’s also somehow managed to find Constance Greene, sequestered in Aloysius’s Riverside mansion; he wants to win her loyalty away from Pendergast, and slowly attempts to befriend her and turn her against her guardian.

At the Museum, Nora Kelly is back, tapped to organise the Museum’s next big exhibit: an authentic Egyptian tomb, first installed in the 1930s, which closed and was walled off after a series of strange accidents happened in connection with it. Inevitably, rumours of a curse grew — but now a mysterious Baron is fronting the money to re-open it. Everyone shrugs off the old superstitions, until more tragic “accidents” start to occur. A lighting technician is found disemboweled, apparently by the computer programmer. A notable British Egyptologist, brought over to help Nora, goes mad and attacks her, forcing a security guard to shoot and kill him. When his replacement turns out to be the lovely Lady Viola Maskalene, a woman with a profound connection to Pendergast, more people start to suspect that something is up — but all attempts to stall or cancel the exhibit’s opening fail. I don’t want to say too much about the nature of Diogenes’s plan, or how Pendergast figures it out, because there’s so much rich character work that goes on in both of those revelations. Like many elements of the Pendergast series, it dances right on that edge of implausibility.

I like this book best of the series because it handles all the disparate threads so well. None of the plotlines ever feel like it’s gotten subsumed by the others (as the subplots in Brimstone did). The action clips along throughout the book, and the double-climax carries the last 200 pages of the book along superbly. We get to see Pendergast at his best and at his worst, navigating his way through obstacles yet unable to face his own personal history. This book also wraps up the Diogenes trilogy, though not all the threads tie off precisely — there’s plenty to continue carrying through the next books in the series.

As always, P&C do a great job with atmosphere. From the detail of the extremely regulated world of Herkmoor Correctional Facility, to the eerie, gilded claustrophobia of the Tomb of Senef, to the various locations visited in the last 100 pages of the novel, as the story turns from crime to chase, the authors know how to make the reader feel the full effect of where the story is happening. It’s a wonderful way of giving you intimacy with a place you may never have been, and it makes the story that much more real — a necessary quality when other aspects of it may strain credulity.

I highly recommend this book, though I would recommend that you at least read Dance with Death first. The Book of the Dead is one of the most tightly-plotted and best-paced of the Pendergast series, with the added benefits of giving the characters some real, tangible depth.

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