Monthly Archives: April 2012

Empress of the Seven Hills, by Kate Quinn

Title: Empress of the Seven Hills
Author: Kate Quinn
Year of Publication: 2012
Length: 512 pages
Genre: historical fiction
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 3.75 stars
Spoilers: Mild for Mistress of Rome; there are also some things which are not spoilers if you know your Roman history, but which would be spoilers if you don’t, say, know what Emperors come in what order.

A sequel to Mistress of Rome (and, less directly, Daughters of Rome), Empress of the Seven Hills follows the fortunes of Vibia Sabina, daughter of a noble senator and a selfish spoiled aristocrat, and Vix, son of a barbarian chieftain and a Jewish slave, as their lives intersect and become inextricably entangled with the Emperors Trajan and Hadrian. Vix, feeling stifled by the smallness of life in Brigantia, heads back to Rome, initially taking work in the household of Marcus Norbanus, whom he knows for a good man. The little daughter of the household that he remembered has grown up into a complex and fascinating woman, forthright and unyielding, determined to take charge of her own destiny. They have an affair, but when she decides to marry Hadrian — the Emperor Trajan’s ward, though not yet his heir — trouble arises and they part ways. Vix joins the legions, aiming to be a great general someday. Sabina uses Hadrian as a way to get out and see the world.

The reader then follows Vix on campaign, where he becomes more acquainted with another of Sabina’s suitors, a young bookworm named Titus (a treat of a character if you know your history, but I’ll keep mum for those who may not). Vix takes up with a local girl in their fort town, who has a young son named Antinous (more historical foreshadowing), and the reader gets to enjoy a lot of the ins and outs of life in the Roman legion. Vix and Sabina collide again when Hadrian comes to serve as legate for Vix’s legion, and their interactions (and the repercussions of those actions) drive a lot of the story as it moves from Germania to Dacia to Parthia. Vix’s and Hadrian’s competing ambitions also fuel conflict; Emperor Trajan thinks highly of Vix and starts pushing him up the ranks, which Hadrian (and his ambitious sort-of-adoptive-mother Plotina) resent.

There are some problems in this book. Quinn continues to use shifting points-of-view in odd and somewhat inexplicable ways. I couldn’t tell you why Vix is written in the first person and everyone else is in the third; it makes very little difference, as we get plenty of introspection from the other characters whose narratives are in third-person. There’s also a gender issue with the viewpoints that it took me a day or so to figure out why it was troubling me: Quinn only ever lets us see Sabina, her heroine, when she’s in the same vicinity as the primary male characters. We almost never get Sabina on her own, really. She tells us that she travels, that she sees amazing things, that she works hard to better the lives of common people… but Quinn never lets us see that. We just hear about it after the fact. Whereas she trusts her male characters to hold our attention on their own: we see Vix with the legions and Titus on campaign and in Rome, but we never see Sabina having those adventures that we’re told are so critical to her. It’s a little troubling. I would have loved to have followed Sabina on her travels, to have experienced the broadening world along with her. Instead, I feel cheated.

There are also, as there were in the other two books, issues of historical inaccuracy. This still sort of bewilders me; Quinn has clearly Done The Research in so many aspects, and yet there are things she states as facts which just plain aren’t. These aren’t the items of authorial license — I’m not talking about shifting timelines around or condensing families. That sort of thing, I have no trouble with; authors have to do things like that in service of the story. I have trouble when people get social history blatantly wrong. It’s her perennial insistence that a gladiator died in every match (nonsense; they were too expensive to waste like that). Or when she claims that patricians and plebeians couldn’t intermarry (true in the earliest days of the Republic; false after 445 BC — almost 600 years before this book takes place). Probably these things wouldn’t be jarring to everyone, but since I’m sure a substantial part of her audience consists of classicists, it’s also probably not just me.

This book, though a sequel, doesn’t seem as strongly connected to the previous book as it ought to be. I didn’t read Mistress of Rome that terribly long ago, but details were escaping me, and Quinn never retreads that ground quite thoroughly enough. I think anyone coming to this book without having read Mistress of Rome at all would be a little lost, particularly with regards to Sabina’s and Vix’s parentage and why it matters. She also withholds the character list until the end of the book, which seems a bit odd to me (though that may, I credit, have been an editor’s or publisher’s choice).

And yet, despite those problems… it’s compelling. Quinn does something that’s actually pretty difficult: she gets you tremendously engaged with characters who are not always (or even often) likeable people. Sabina is a little too cool and calculating, and while it makes her fascinating, it also makes her difficult to empathise with. Vix is exactly the opposite: hot-headed and impulsive past the point where it would be charming, and borderline abusive at times. But I got wrapped up in them anyway. It’s part plot and part dialogue, I think; Quinn definitely has the knack for crafting voices, and that can go a long ways towards enlivening a character. The plot clips along through interesting times and political complexities. I want to know how they’re going to end up where they’re obviously going, and how they feel about it along the way.

Similar to Marcella in Daughters of Rome, Sabina strikes out for what she thinks she wants, and then finds out that the reality is less malleable to her will. Still, there’s something charming about her unconventional affectations, and something pitiable as she gets in over her head. Vix is a little bit tougher for me. I can tell I’m meant to love him, despite his all-too-obvious flaws — and yet there’s always something that gets in the way of it. His fury with Sabina is entirely disproportional to her supposed crimes against him, and it underscores his narrow ability to comprehend the world outside of his own head — not a trait I find attractive. He makes no attempt even to understand where Sabina’s coming from; he mostly just throws temper tantrums and storms out when she tries to explain that she’s acting in, really, the only way she can. She pushes the parameters of what her society allows in a woman, but that’s still not good enough for him, and he behaves pretty poorly as a result. He starts getting better (read: less of a total jerk) towards the end of the book, however, and I’ll be interested to see if his arc continues in that fashion, even as circumstances turn against him, as they seem sure to. He’s certainly an interesting character, but I can’t quite fall in love with him the way the book seems to expect me to (and I’m generally quite well-inclined towards the brash soldier archetype). And there is something compelling in their love story which goes beyond the mere attraction of opposites, in the way that they keep colliding into each other, even when they don’t mean to, even when they deliberately try not to. There’s a force behind it all, something tinging of destiny, and that does lend them some star-cross’d appeal.

There are quite likeable characters, though they get less screen time: Emperor Trajan is a personality you just can’t help but smile at, and then Titus and Sabina’s baby sister Faustina are both pretty great. For all Titus’s protestations that he’s a dull plodder, he’s a character with wonderful insight into the situations and people around him, and his steadiness is a necessary balance between the other extremes. Another thoroughly unlikeable character isn’t meant to be likeable: Plotina is a terrific villainess, particularly as Quinn draws us along as she progresses from just a typical overbearing mother-in-law type to a truly corrupt tyrant descending into real madness. Her son-in-law Hadrian, definitely an antagonist, is complex: he wants to be well-regarded and to be a popular and effective leader, but he is all too aware that he is just plain not a good person. He’s violent, selfish, and cruel — but also desperate for approval. Watching him keep all of that in check is an interesting ride, and I sometimes wish saw him through less biased perspectives — Vix and Sabina, who hate him, and Plotina, who idolises him, don’t precisely give the reader the fullest view of the character, as they are all unreliable narrators where he is concerned.

Overall, Empress of the Seven Hills is a solid entry into the genre of Roman historical fiction. Quinn paints a thorough picture of an under-examined period of history, and tackling it from characters of varying status and background allows her the room to really explore the details and nuances. I anticipate a sequel; the book ends with Vix literally informing the reader “But I’ll tell you that later,” so I can’t imagine Quinn isn’t going to continue the story. These books lack the epic scope and deft hand of the Masters of Rome series, but they’re still perfectly enjoyable.

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Everything and the Moon, by Julia Quinn

Title: Everything and the Moon
Author: Julia Quinn
Year of Publication: 1997
Length: 384 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 5 stars

This is my favourite romance novel of all time. And, I’ll freely confess, not for any really good reason. It has some of the flaws typical of Quinn’s earliest books (mostly down to historical vagueness or just plain inaccuracy), the plot occasionally bounces around a little inexplicably, the writing isn’t always spectacular, but… it’s still just plain my favourite.

Robert Kemble, Earl of Macclesfield, meets Victoria Lyndon, the new vicar’s daughter, when he stumbles on her in the woods one day. They’re both young — 24 and 17, respectively — and they fall in love at first sight. Due to the differences in their stations, however, their fathers oppose the match. Robert’s father fears she’s only after his money; Victoria’s father fears he’s just out to ruin her. The lovers plan to elope, but Victoria’s father catches her sneaking out and ties her to the bed to keep her from leaving. Robert, wondering where she is, goes to her window, sees her in bed and hunched up, misunderstands, thinks she’s decided against him, leaves for London immediately. Victoria rushes to him to explain the next morning, finds he’s not there, and his father tells her he’s gone in search of a proper wife. Sadness and heartbreak abound.

Seven years pass. Victoria, unable to stay in her father’s household any longer, has been working as a governess, and lo and behold, Robert ends up as a houseguest at the manor where she’s working. They’re both still hurting and each lashes out at the other, but they’re still very obviously attracted to each other. Robert makes some headway by being sweet and useful — and then promptly undoes it by asking Victoria to be his mistress. She takes off again and takes up as a seamstress in London, and finds that she really enjoys the work; it gives her money of her own, she makes friends, and the work is fulfilling. Then Robert shows up asking her to be his wife. And then he, well, kidnaps her when he finds out she’s living in a dangerous neighborhood. Victoria is understandably pretty upset about this, and I enjoy that she actually calls Robert out on his high-handed and disrespectful behaviour. He once again finds himself with ground to make up, and he has to work pretty hard to regain her trust.

So what is it I love about this book? Well, for one thing, Quinn’s sense of humour is in fine form here. When Robert, particularly, is on an upswing, he’s warm and witty and a little bit random, which is really entertaining. Consider the following:

“Today,” he announced with great cheer, “is a superb day to be married.”

Victoria was certain she’d misheard him. “I beg your pardon?”

“Married. Man and wife.”

“You and me?”

“No, actually I think that the hedgehogs out in the garden need to be joined in holy matrimony. They have been living in sin for years. I can no longer stand for it.”

“Robert,” Victoria said, giggling despite herself.

“And all those little illegitimate hedgehogs. Think of the stigma. Their parents have been breeding like rabbits. Or like hedgehogs, as the case may be.”

There are little nuggets of delight like that sprinkled throughout the entire book, and that makes it, on one level, a joy to read. But this is also a book about recovering from pain. It’s about regaining trust, and the bravery that takes. Victoria expresses the pain of loss, of finding out you put your faith in someone unworthy:

“You gave me the moon, Robert.  No, you did more than that.  You picked me up and put me right on it.”  There was a long, painful pause.  “And then I fell.  And it hurt so much when I landed.  I don’t want that again.”

“It won’t happen again. I am older and wiser now. We are both older and wiser.”

“Don’t you see? It has already happened twice.”

“Twice?” he echoed, thinking that he very much didn’t want to hear what she had to say.

“At the Hollingwoods,” she said, her voice oddly flat. “When you asked me to be your—”

“Don’t say it.” His voice was curt.

“Don’t say what? ‘Mistress’? It’s a fine time for you to suddenly develop scruples.”

He paled. “I never knew you could be so vindictive.”

“I’m not being vindictive, I’m being honest.  And I didn’t just fall off that time.  You pushed me.”

She also gives voice to the fear that comes with opening yourself up again:

“Life isn’t about crawling under a rock and watching the world go by, desperately hoping it won’t touch us.  Life is about taking chances, about reaching for the moon.”

“I took chances,” she said flatly.  “I lost.”

If you’ve ever been in a similar situation, Victoria really doesn’t have to say more than that. Lose faith enough times, take the wrong chances, trust the wrong people, and eventually it just wearies you. It drains you of emotional energy. And it’s a long, long road back.

There’s also a lot of negotiation that has to happen in this book. Victoria actually enacts a lot more agency than your typical Regency heroine. She discovers that she likes working and likes the freedom that it gives her, and so she and Robert actually talk through that, and talk about how she’ll be able to still have that usefulness, that source of pride, and that liberty as a Countess. She forces him to see her as a person with her own needs and desires, not just as the object of his love, and Robert proves himself worthy by coming to understand that.

So, on top of Quinn’s typical quality writing, I enjoy that she addresses some tough issues in this book. The drama is entirely inside the characters, not because of a melodramatic plot, and that makes it very real and easy to relate to. She upends a lot of the stereotypes of love at first sight, and she shows how much work love can be. I appreciate the emotional honesty.

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Someone to Watch Over Me, by Lisa Kleypas

Title: Someone to Watch Over Me (Bow Street Runners #1)
Author: Lisa Kleypas
Year of Publication: 1999
Length: 362 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 3 stars

This book starts with an interesting conceit, combining and altering a few more typical plot devices to create an unusual situation. Grant Morgan is a Bow Street Runner — the intermediate stage in the development of London’s law enforcement between the constabulary system and the Metropolitan police. This alone is a fairly unusual choice for hero material, but Kleypas is really great at that. She never shies from venturing outside the typical ranks of the aristocracy for her material, and the Bow Street Runners are interesting material to draw from. They provide a grounds for not only a new view on late-Hanoverian/early-Victorian society, (it’s hard to tell precisely when this book is set, for what it’s worth, and that is always something that will bother me. I would generally put it somewhere in the 1830s, however, so either William IV or Victoria is on the throne), but also for professional life and the underworld.

So. Our story begins when Grant arrives on the scene of an attempted murder; a woman was strangled and thrown in the Thames, but she didn’t quite die. He recognises her as Vivien Duvall, a notorious courtesan who had embarrassed him at some time in the past. Except, when she wakes up, she has amnesia, with no idea who she is or how she ended up in the river — and the personality she displays is entirely at odds with what he knows about Vivien. Far from being the brazen, caustic gold-digger, she is sweet, modest, and compassionate. Attempts to jar her memory by exposing her to her past — including a rather lurid diary, scandalous clothing, and a nude painting of herself — only result in embarrassing her. And then we learn that Vivien was visibly pregnant not long before she disappeared — but definitely is not now.

This might be a spoiler, but, honestly, I think you’d have to be pretty dense not to figure it out quickly, so I’m going to go ahead with it: Vivien is not, in fact, Vivien. When Grant seduces her, they find out — whoops! — she’s a virgin. Eventually, as her memory trickles back in, she pieces together that she’s been mistaken for her (gasp!) twin sister. Her name is actually Victoria, and she’s been living in genteel poverty out in the country somewhere. Vivien told her that she was in a spot of trouble, and she came to London to try to help, at the same time that Vivien fled London for the country; someone else mistook her for her sister and tried to kill her.

There are some logic-holes in this story. The “secret twin” thing is a little cliched, though at least spiced up with the courtesan angle. That a respectable man would just up and decide to keep a notorious woman in his house under the guise of figuring out her near-murder case is a little odd. (I mean, even if you were keeping a courtesan, you don’t bring them home, you get them their own apartments). But, then, Kleypas rarely lets things like good sense stand in the way of her plots. Vivien is a little too good to be true, and that makes her, honestly, a little bland as a heroine. The book doesn’t have as much quick wit and humour as I like from my romances. But, it is serviceable as a story, and it opens a nice trilogy on the Bow Street Runners.

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Sandman, Volume 8: Worlds’ End, by Neil Gaiman

Title: Sandman, Volume 8: Worlds’ End
Author: Neil Gaiman
Year of Publication: 1994
Length: 168 pages
Genre: graphic novel – magical realism
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 4.5 stars

This is a wonderfully imaginative volume of Sandman — and considering that the entire series is a celebration of imagination, that’s really saying something.

A series of nested stories, reminiscent of Boccaccio’s Decameron and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Worlds’ End introduces us to a mismatched set of characters who meet by happenstance, during what we learn is a reality storm. Something tremendous has caused the walls between the worlds to bend and quake and crack, and some hapless souls caught in the shivering have ended up at the Worlds’ End Inn, telling tales until the ripples settle. This collection is somewhat like Dream Country and Fables and Reflections, in that it takes place outside of what continuum of the larger story arc exists; there are discrete stories, but, unlike in the other two volumes, they are connected through the frame device.

The frame focuses on one man, Brant, and his traveling companion, Charlene, who had just been driving home from a business trip when a fabulous creature runs into the road, causing Brant to wreck the car; they wake in the Inn. As they accustom themselves to their new surroundings, they begin to hear tales. The first, of a sleeping city that traps its inhabitants in its dreams, isn’t one of my favourites, but it is told in a rather interesting way, both in its words and its images. There are no outlines; everything is blocks and shadows and and shapes, and there are no word balloons, only plain text narrative. It creates a very stark sensation. The second story is about as far in contrast from the first as it could be; our old friend Cluracan of the Fae tells it, about a diplomatic mission of his that turns into a political intrigue and tale of vengeance. Because it belongs to the Fae, it overflows with colour and details and whimsy. We meet another Queen of the Fae — Mab, this time, rather than Titania — and we get to see another imagined world, entirely apart from our earth. In The Sandman Companion, Gaiman states that he thinks this story fell flat, that it needed to be much longer to work well; I actually rather like it. I think the pace, which clips along with a rather casual shrug at cause and effect, suits Cluracan well.

The third story is one of the more fantastic in the series, among the best illustrated, and also revisits some old friends. A sailor lad names Jim decides to tell a true story here, in the Inn, where it might be believed, or if it isn’t, it won’t matter — a story he could never tell back at home, about an amazing voyage. This starts out, in many ways, like a classic eighteenth- or nineteenth-century sea tale; there are flavours of Treasure Island, Moby Dick, and Kipling. Jim takes to sea, and the boat he ends up on is chartered by none other than Hob Gadling — now a respectable businessman. They travel and talk and Hob passes on some wisdom. I love this for getting to see more of one of my favourite characters in the entire series; it’s magnificent to see Hob in-between his meetings with Dream, and it’s wonderful to see him look back at lessons learned with a touch of regret. He remembers the slave trade, which he took part in, because, at the onset, no one thought to question it as wrong; but now he feels ashamed for it, resolving to do better in the future — but with an awareness that, in the moment, you may not ever be able to tell right from wrong, and that he possesses hindsight on a near-unique scope. We learn at the end of the story that Jim is, in fact, a girl, approaching the age when she won’t be able to hide her gender anymore. Both her time on the sea and the era of the tall ships are ending, and the reader definitely gets a sense of mournfulness. So, too, a sense of romanticism; not everything is as pretty as a wistful memory makes it — as Hob Gadling is always swift to point out to us.

Next, an alternate history of America, where a remarkable young boy named Prez becomes President at the age of 18. Through this story, Gaiman explores politics from point of view that is both a fairy tale and semi-religious, a tale of promises made and hopes fulfilled — as they almost never are in our version of reality. It’s ideal and idyllic, a world where everything goes right in the 1970s and America enters a Golden Age more true and magnificent than any Golden Age has probably ever been. It ends as swiftly as any Golden Age must; Prez declines the calls to run for more than two terms and retires quietly. Things don’t suddenly become bad, but the shine’s gone off. And one day, Prez dies — though no one knows how or where, there’s a mythic awareness that it happens. The readers witness his conversation with Death and his choice to move on, through the worlds, to find more things to fix. There’s definitely a messianic quality to Prez, an implication that he comes when needed and never overstays his welcome, never falls prey to the downfalls of normal humans, never fades in the hearts of those who love him.

The next story is one of the most complex, exploring the lives of interdimensional undertakers, who live in the Necropolis, a City of the Dead tasked with maintaining the funereal customs of various worlds. This one, like many of the story in the Decameron or Canterbury Tales, nests within itself. A young apprentice speaks of his experiences; someone in his story tells about his mistress’s youth; the apprentice eventually has to tell his own tale within his tale. They twist and intertwine, spreading outward to the Inn, as well, as we’ve seen the apprentice wandering around and having conversations in the framework.

Through that framework, we learn, bit by bit, more about the Inn. It is a “free house”, a clever bit of play on Gaiman’s part. In Britain, a free house is a pub unattached to any brewery; for Worlds’ End, it means that it exists outside reality, attached to the bounds and rules of no world, entirely its own place. There is an implication that the current hostess may be a Hindu Goddess (Lakshmi, perhaps, or a version of her?). And people can come, and go, and pass through to worlds not their own. Towards the end of the collection, Charlene is asked for a story — and she replies that she has none. Except, in saying so, she does tell her own tale, a female story (the only one in the collection, really), and one of futility and frustration. Ultimately, she decides to stay, to work at the Inn, determining that she has nothing really worth returning to in her version of reality. When the storm ends and Brant wakes back up, he discovers that it is not as if Charlene has died, but as if she had never existed; her car is in his name, no one remembers her. And then the reader learns that everything in this volume has been told by Brant (who never had to share a story in the Inn) to a bartender.

The art in this volume may be the best in the series — at least it’s among the best. Evocative, enormously detailed, full of colour and nuance — it’s an absolute visual feast. One of the best centerfold splashes ever features a phenomenal sea monster, bursting up out of the ocean to dwarf the tall ship observing it. Perhaps the most spectacular series of images, however, comes towards the end of the issue, when the denizens of the Worlds’ End look out the windows and witness what they suppose to be the cause of the reality storm — a funeral procession of truly incredible proportions. It lasts over three full two-page splashes — a circumstance unique in the entire series. We see many, many familiar faces — Destiny, leading the way; Titania, Odin, Bast, Emperor Norton, Mervin, an angel, a raven. But whose funeral is it? We may make an educated guess, based on the attendees, but we have no confirmation. And when is this happening? Where? Is it even real? And, most important of all, how did it come to be? We don’t know yet — but we will.

Worlds’ End is fantastic and imaginative and explorative, but through it all, you feel an ebb. Things are receding, failing, ending. The energy at the end of Brief Lives, where you first sense that the greater story of the Sandman is nearing its close, continues here, though we hardly see Dream at all. The mood carries over. The reader approaches The Kindly Ones with trepidation, both wanting and not-wanting to know what’s going to happen, reluctant to confirm suspicions, but inexorably drawn to the story’s climax.

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