Monthly Archives: May 2012

Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

Title: Good Omens
Author: Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
Year of Publication: 1990
Length: 367 pages
Genre: well, I shelve it at the end of my historical fiction section, but that’s because I’ve got a somewhat warped sense of humour
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read, many, many times
Rating: 5 brilliant, glittering stars

When I’m reading a book and come across a passage I really like, some quote I want to write down later or remember forever, I have a terrible habit of dog-earing the bottom corner of the page.

The bottom of Good Omens looks like a particularly jagged comb.

Apart from being one of my all-time favourite novels, Good Omens just has so many of my all-time favourite passages in it, and I attribute that to the combination of genius you get by mixing up Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett — two of my all-time favourite authors. Pratchett’s irreverence and Gaiman’s ethereal qualities, with the sense of the ludicrous profundity that they both possess, together make for a fantastic book, capable of being laugh-out-loud funny and spiritually transformative in the same paragraph.

So what is this book about? Well, the Apocalypse. Happening on a Saturday (in 1990). Eleven years earlier, the demon Crowley manages to misplace the Antichrist (with some help from a Satanic nun), so that while the powers of Heaven and Hell think they’re focusing their efforts on influencing him towards Good or Evil, they are in fact just confusing a normal child, while the Antichrist, alias Adam Young, grows up as normal as you could please in an idyllic English country village. He’s a good-natured troublemaker, the leader of his gang, the Them, and has astonishing powers of imagination and a limitless capacity for belief in the incredible. When he turns eleven, gears start moving to start the Apocalypse — but Crowley and his angel friend Aziraphale, who have been on Earth for six thousand years and rather gotten to like the human race, decide to try and put a stop to it. Swept up in this mess are Anathema Device, professional descendent, whose ancestress Agnes Nutter wrote the only truly accurate book of prophecy in the history of the world; Newton Pulsifer, a would-be computer engineer who breaks everything electronic he touches; and a whole host of villagers, Atlanteans, Tibetans, and other phenomena.

I never can decide what my favourite aspect of this book is. The moral center, as it were, is obviously Adam, who starts to get caught up in the idea of remaking the world in a more favourable image, the ichor in his soul tugging at him, and has to decide what would really be best. He and the Them are pretty amazing. The description of Pepper (and the explication of her name) is a dog-eared page; sensible Wensleydale and grungy Brian fill out the quartet in excellent balance, and through them, the reader experiences the awe of an idealised childhood. This certainly doesn’t mean that everything is perfect and flawless — do you remember being a kid? The best days were the messy adventures, the ridiculous schemes, the trouble you got into but had had too good a time to care. Adam makes sure his friends have that damn near every day — until Armageddon starts spinning things out of control. So that’s a lot of fun to watch happen. (Though I do wonder if it will resonate quite as strongly for this generation’s kids, who are less used to taking off on their bikes, taking over the quarries and ravines that adults won’t go near, scaling trees, skinning knees, finding impossible messes, tangling in nettles, staying out until the last possible minute you could get away with, and all the other things that used to be de rigeur for an active childhood. I remember that from my early years; I don’t know that all modern kids have the same experience — which is sad).

But then there are Aziraphale and Crowley, who, while not the center of the story itself, are nonetheless the impetus behind the narrative. For six thousand years, they’ve organised a careful neutrality between them; when Crowley does something evil, Aziraphale balances it with something good, and vice versa. Neither side gets an advantage, but everyone can demonstrate what brilliant progress they’re making. Aziraphale currently runs a used book store, mostly as a place to store rare books where no one will take them from him; Crowley wears sunglasses at night, drives a classic car, and practises horticulture by means of terrorism. But they’ve realised they actually have more in common with each other than with their ostensible colleagues and immediate superiors. They’re a classic odd couple, and it’s a brilliant pairing. As they put it, towards the end of the book:

“I’d just like to say,” [Aziraphale] said, “if we don’t get out of this, that… I’ll have known, deep down inside, that there was a spark of goodness in you.”
“That’s right,” said Crowley bitterly. “Make my day.”
Aziraphale held out his hand.
“Nice knowing you.”
Crowley took it.
“Here’s to the next time,” he said. “And… Aziraphale?”
“Just remember I’ll have known that, deep down inside, you were just enough of a bastard to be worth liking.”

Aziraphale and Crowley are probably the ultimate fan favourites of the entire book. When fancastings get discussed, it’s usually about them (and I’m all for Jude Law and Tom Hiddleston, respectively, for what it’s worth). But then you get some of the other humans. Anathema Device is a witch in the same cast as Discworld’s, practical and quick-thinking. Poor Newt is sort of charmingly pathetic. The history of the Witchfinders’ Army is entirely ridiculous. Andthen there are the Four Horsemen, riding inexorably towards Adam (on motorcycles), who are some of the most evocatively drawn characters I’ve ever experienced. From them, I get what might be my favourite passage in the entire book, if only because I have so often found it applied to myself. And it is, well, rather perfect.

The men in the room suddenly realized they didn’t want to know her better. She was beautiful, but she was beautiful in the way a forest fire was beautiful: something to be admired from a distance, but not up close.

And that’s sort of the way the whole book is written — the language isn’t but so sophisticated, it’s not a difficult read, but it’s nonetheless complexly woven, layered and nuanced, and capable of striking you right to the core. Gaiman and Pratchett both have an ability to make the reader know exactly what they mean, to pull memories and feelings out of you.

So I don’t know what my favourite part of this book is, or even who my favourite cast members are, because the whole thing works together as a single organic unit, breathing and pulsing, as a truly excellent book should. My real favourite thing about it, then, is probably what it has to say about being human — about making mistakes, about how we create the world we live in, what our brains can cope with and how they slide around the things they can’t. The last two pages of this book may be the most incredible commentary on the grace of the human condition I’ve ever read.

The book is also hilarious. It’s fantastically witty, and broadly comic, and delightfully absurd. It’s crammed with sly references, as is so often the case with both Gaiman’s and Pratchett’s works, little nuggets of brilliance for an avid reader to discover (individually or with the help of annotations). But none of that is what makes it great. What makes this a five-star book for me is that incisive quality, that ability the words have to cut straight through me and expose my soul. Only the very best books have that magic. Good Omens possesses it in spades. And that’s why I’ve read it so many times, why I can return to it again and again and always feel the book in a new way.

At the end of this re-read, I find myself suddenly dying for — not a sequel, precisely, but just some sort of follow-up short story. And wouldn’t this be the year for it? 2012, with all the histrionics that entails? And Adam Young, I realised, would be 33 this year, and how perfect is that? I just want to know they’re all doing — him, and the Them (but especially Pepper), and Anathema and Newt, and Aziraphale and Crowley. What does the world look like for them, 22 years on?

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Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell

Title: Gone with the Wind
Author: Margaret Mitchell
Year of Publication: 1936
Length: 1024
Genre: historical fiction
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 4.75 stars

This is a book I read when I need a moral lesson.

Scarlett O’Hara is, for me, a cautionary tale — and probably not for the reasons you’d assume. I adore Scarlett, and I see so much of myself in her — and so she is a cautionary tale about the high cost of pride, about wanting the wrong things, about not appreciating what has real value. But she also has a lot of traits I admire — and most of what she gets vilified for as a woman wouldn’t be blinked at in a man. I would love to say they wouldn’t be blinked at now, in the 21st century, but, well, women are still held to far different standards than men. She’d get further now than she got in the 1860s, though, and she’d have a lot more company. She’s ruthless and intelligent, and once she gets a taste for where that can take her, once she gets to liking independence, who can blame her for wanting to cling to it? She has charm and knows how to use it. She’s passionate and high-spirited and makes no excuses for herself. She has an iron core. She acts with plenty of self-interest, but she’s not nearly as selfish as she gets painted; if she were, she’d never take on the burdens that she does, she would never do the things she does for the people who are dependent on her. All of that, I adore her for.

I used to say the one thing I couldn’t forgive her for was the was she treats her children, but I’m softening even on that — it’s clear she’d be childfree by choice if that was, y’know, an option in the 1860s. She never wanted children, but at least hers are cared for and looked after — there’s always Melly and Mammy and others to give them love and affection, so it isn’t as though they’re growing up entirely bereft. And, she’s an idiot about Ashley and no mistake — but she’s also still very young, and what’s interesting is that you can see throughout the book where the cracks in her adoration begin to form. It’s just hard for her to admit that. I have a lot of sympathy for her there, and Ashley never does her the favour — as she points out at the very end — of setting her free from her own imaginative construction of him. The entire situation is one big tragic error, the consequence of people not looking deeply enough into themselves, or doing so but lacking the courage to face up to it.

I both love and hate Rhett Butler. He’s a magnificent character, and there’s no denying that. But the one thing I can’t get past, and that pisses me off a little more each time I read this book, is this: he’s the one who coaxes Scarlett into throwing away her reputation. He opens that door and practically shoves her through it. And then he blames her for following his lead. When he changes his mind, when he decides he’d rather be respectable, he doesn’t just change his own stripes — he shames her for having left that behind and not wanting to go back, once she realises how sweet freedom tastes. He absolutely throws her under the bus the first chance he gets. So too, he seems to blame her for not realising that he really loved her all along — and while, yes, it is pretty obvious, he also denies it at every turn. He outright refuses to say that to her, tells her doesn’t and couldn’t and won’t. So she’s to be blamed for taking him at his word? He demands honesty from her, but offers none in return. And I really can’t countenance that.

This book is billed as one of the greatest romances of all time, but the more I return to it, the central relationship is actually less and less about Scarlett and Rhett, and more and more about Scarlett and Melanie. The biggest shame of the story is that Scarlett realises too late what a tremendous friend she has in Melanie — but I think it’s in her subconscious. Scarlett’s biggest problem, in many ways, is that she is not reflective by nature, that she never examines anyone’s feelings, including her own, beyond the surface of what they present. And so she doesn’t really consciously notice when she starts to genuinely care for Melly — which is, I believe, in the final days of her pregnancy — or when she starts to genuinely think better of her — which is, I believe, when Melly takes up the sword with the intention of helping Scarlett kill the Yankee. Melanie really is a brilliant character — unfailingly good, but not stupid for it, nor even as impractical as her husband Ashley. And so loyal, so undyingly, wonderfully, defiantly loyal. Who doesn’t yearn for a friend like that, who will loop her arm through yours and dare the world to challenge her for it?

I feel as though I have to say something about the historical perspective this book provides, which is pretty interesting on a number of levels. You’re getting a view of the 1860s from the 1930s; we’re now further removed from Mitchell’s world than Mitchell was from the Civil War (weird thought). So, obviously, there are a lot of issues, mostly related to race but also related to class and education, that would never pass muster in a book today. It is, absolutely, a romanticised view of the Old South, and the tvtropes page sums up all of that fairly well. It glosses over the uglier aspects of slavery (in places outright attributing them to Yankee hysteria), implying that blacks were better off in slavery because they were taken care of. You get just about every Magical Negro/Mammy/Sassy Black Woman/White Man’s Burden/etc trope you can think of.  This is all true, all morally unacceptable, and all a product of the book’s time — which is not an excuse, but an explanation. I don’t see these as reasons not to read the book; they are things to be aware of, especially reading it as a white girl from an upper-middle-class Virginian background. There are some ways, though, in which the book does have a few redemptive points on that score as well. Scarlett, for all her faults, treats the black characters better than just about anyone else in the book does (and better than she treats most whites); it comes from a position of condescension, but — well, she could be worse, so there’s that. She’s also the only character to call the KKK out for being a damned stupid idea. The book also touches, if briefly, on some of the other prejudices of the era — like how the women from New York don’t seem to register the Irish as full-fledged humans any more than the Southerners do the black population. So it is, if nothing else, instructive on the viewpoint from the 1930s.

I’ve read this book several times since I was fifteen, and different things stick out to me each time. There was some little stuff in this re-read — like remembering how some of my favourite characters (Granny Fontaine, Will Benteen) didn’t make it into the movie. But there are bigger things, too. I started out this review by saying that I return to Gone with the Wind when I need a moral lesson — but I wasn’t quite sure what it was this time. Sometimes it’s been about enduring hardships. Sometimes it’s been about thumbing my nose at the rest of the world. Sometimes it’s been about appreciating what I have. This time… I’m still not sure. What I’ve come away with most is the sense of unfairness in how so many of the characters treat Scarlett. The shame and scandal that gets heaped on her for doing what needed to be done is just monumentally unjust. Melanie alone, I think, actually sees Scarlett for what she is, for all so many characters talk about her blindness; she sees the iron core and does not judge for it. And both Melanie and Ashley give Scarlett more credit for goodness than the narration gives her, or honestly than I think she gives herself. I read her as someone whose better nature sneaks up on her, so stealthy that she’s hardly aware of it. But most people in the book, Rhett who loves her included, demand impossible things of her, and then shame her for the egregious fault of succeeding. That’s what’s sticking with me. I don’t know what moral lesson that gives me, but — being far more introspective than Scarlett — I’ll be contemplating it.

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I, Iago, by Nicole Galland

Title: I, Iago
Author: Nicole Galland
Year of Publication: 2012
Length: 370 pages
Genre: historical fiction
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 4 stars

I, Iago skillfully retells Shakespeare’s Othello as the Tragedy of Iago, following the famous villain through the course of his career and explaining just how he came to be the mastermind orchestrating the downfall of a proud general and all those connected to him. In doing so, Galland fills in some of the gaps of Shakespeare’s narrative, showing us how Iago came to be who he is and chronicling the circumstances that change him from a loyal friend and subordinate to a scheming, vindictive meddler.

The book divides into “Before” and “After,” meaning before and after the point where the play Othello begins, and each half is quite interesting in its own way. In “Before,” we get the development of Iago as a person. Galland’s research serves her well here — early modern Venice springs to life in vivid detail, particularly with regards to its military and political matters. We meet Iago as a young man, and he explains that he has always been known as “honest Iago” — not a compliment in Venice, where the ability to quibble, to flatter, and to evade has far more value than blunt truth. Iago lacks subtlety, always speaking his mind, and taking decisive action rather than weighing the consequences beforehand. He is boyhood friends with Roderigo, though he disdain’s the other boy’s weakness and lack of gumption; they grow apart as they grow older, with Roderigo following his family’s mercantile endeavors. Though Iago has scholarly leanings, his family’s prerogative forces him into the military, where he excels, first in the artillery, then in the army. Along the way, he woos and wins Emilia, the only woman he’s ever met with whom he can tolerate much conversation, and their marriage is a blissfully happy one. When Iago meets Othello, there is instant camaraderie; they meet at a masked ball during Carnival, and the circumstances echo their characters. Neither man can hide what he is, though Othello more obviously, thanks to his skin tone. Iago, on the other hand, suffers that inability in his character. Throughout the book, we see him incapable of wearing a mask, both literally and figuratively — in every Carnival scene, he ends up discarding his vizor, and his ungoverned tongue and open expression display his blunt opinions at every turn. The two men sense a commonality between them, a lack of patience with the artifice and genteel dishonesty of Venice. Iago comes to think so highly of Othello that there’s nothing he wouldn’t do for him, including helping to conceal his epileptic fits from the Venetian Senate. He follows Othello to war, to disastrous ruin on Rhodes, and to the altogether different battleground of patrician dinner tables and courtly galas. There, in the household of Brabantio, Othello meets his undoing: a girl named Desdemona, enraptured with the idea of him. Iago counsels him against the courtship, explaining that no Venetian patrician would ever let his daughter marry outside of that narrow caste; Othello pretends to give up the infatuation, but in fact corresponds with Desdemona in secret and eventually planning an elopement — and since Othello has little more talent for deceit than Iago, Iago has little trouble uncovering the scheme.

In the “After” section, we watch this character, whom Galland has rendered quite likeable, fall. Othello betrays Iago’s trust, giving a coveted lieutenancy to the less-qualified Michele Cassio as a reward for assisting in his covert courtship of Desdemona. Emilia is, to Iago’s eyes, inexplicably supportive of the deceitful romance, and therefore complicit. Feeling wounded and discarded by those he most loved and trusted, Iago’s bitter hurt prompts his plans for revenge.

I call this book the Tragedy of Iago because it tracks his rise and at least partially self-constructed fall in a way that renders him both likeable and pitiable. Galland makes a wise choice, spending the first half of the book on events we never see in the play, because it gives the character a more solid background, particularly in regard to his relationship with Othello. In Shakespeare’s play, the audience hears of their association and implied friendship, but we never truly get to see it; we know from the start that Iago is working to ill ends, because he tells the audience so in barest terms. In I, Iago, the friendship is palpable, heart-warming — and so Othello’s betrayal of Iago has a real emotional effect. When Othello begins to shut Iago out in favor of Cassio, the reader is privilege to Iago’s pain and bewilderment. We also get new motivation for Iago’s actions — jealousy and revenge play their parts, and no mistake, and Iago freely admits that he wants to hurt his friend for hurting him, to disgrace the usurper Cassio, and to remove Desdemona from the picture (though he does not intend to do so through her death). That isn’t the total of what’s going on in Iago’s head, however; when he sees how easily Othello can be roused to dangerous passions, he starts to harbour deep concerns about the general’s ability to serve in the position of honour and responsibility with which the Venetian Senate has placed him. He worries, too, about Othello’s judgment; a man who will pass over more qualified men in order to hand positions to panderers, after all, demonstrates an ethical lapse. Iago never claims to be operating only for the common good, in removing a potentially dangerous commander from his post — but since that lines up neatly with his desire for revenge, why not work for both?

The dual nature of the tragedy is most obvious in the moment when things spin past Iago’s ability to control them. His words have an effect far greater than he expected, as Othello proves so easily inflamed where his wife is concerned.  The subtler tragedy is that turning Iago from honesty to deceit. He has to learn that trait, a talent foreign to him from birth, and it’s terrible to see him do so — to see a good man corrupted by an unfair world. Iago becomes almost drunk on it, overindulging, swept up by his newfound power, pushing limits to see how far he can take his lies before they become too improbable — and astonished when that barrier never seems to impede him. He learns deceit from those who deceived him, and since we have the juxtaposition of his stalwart honesty in the “Before” section, the transformation is all the more calamitous.

The book is best when it’s not trying to out-clever itself. The moments where I grimaced were when Galland was cramming in bits from other Shakespeare plays that didn’t quite belong — having Iago banter with whores and his military comrades by using lines from Measure for Measure and As You Like It, much of his courtship with Emilia coming straight out of Much Ado about Nothing— because they were jarring, discordant. The tenor was so different from the story she’d been telling that it seemed an odd digression. Initially, this made me nervous for the second half of the book, which covers the plot of Othello, but Galland actually handled the dialogue there quite smoothly. We hit the major points and get the biggest quotes without much interference, but most of the conversations are taken out of verse and into more natural prose in a way that doesn’t seem forced or awkward. The story does rather hurtle itself through the climax and denouement, however, and while that is perhaps appropriate, given how circumstances spiral out of Iago’s control, I could have done with a little more fulfillment, since we had so much build-up to the crucial moments.

This book leaves me wanting the story from yet more angles — Emilia’s, for instance. We only ever see her through Iago’s eyes, and though it’s clear she’s an intelligent and independent woman, she remains only an object throughout this novel. Because everything is first-person narrative, we lose her in the moments when Iago’s not there — which are some of her finest moments in the play. We never really get to know what she’s thinking, and as Iago begins on his plot of vengeance, he distances himself from her, both because he wants to protect her and because he no longer quite trusts her — which has the effect of removing her from the reader as well as from himself. This book is definitely the story of men; Emilia and Desdemona are intriguing, but peripheral, and since Iago never understands either of them, the reader doesn’t get that opportunity, either.

Overall, I, Iago is an entertaining and thoughtful adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello. The prose is well-constructed, the historical research thorough, and the characters well-drawn. Galland explores the story from an intriguing angle and creates a more three-dimensional world, situating Venice and its characters in the larger world. Whereas Shakespeare narrows in, focusing his scope tighter and tighter until it fits in a single bedroom, Galland allows us to see how this tragedy ripples outward. I think most Shakespeare enthusiasts will find a lot to like about this book, and if there are also some points to criticize — well, most of us enjoy that, too. Galland deserves commendation for getting me interested in this story when Othello is definitely among my least-favourite of Shakespeare’s plays; she tells a compelling tale, and it’s definitely worth a read.


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Caesar’s Women, by Colleen McCullough

Title: Caesar’s Women (Masters of Rome #4)
Author: Colleen McCullough
Year of Publication: 1996
Length: 928 pages
Genre: historical fiction
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 4.5 stars

The fourth book in McCullough’s Masters of Rome series follows the early political career of Julius Caesar. In some ways, this narrows the scope of the series — or at least, it compresses the locations. Most of the book takes place in Rome itself, not out in the provinces. During this book, we see Caesar’s rise to true prominence in Roman society, finally achieving the age and status in the cursus honorum that heralds his position as one of the greatest figures in all of history. He marries Pompeia, continues his tempestuous affair with Servilia, arranges his daughter Julia’s marriage (twice), gets elected curule aedile, staves off his creditors, puts down the Catiline Conspiracy in somewhat reluctant partnership with Marcus Tullius Cicero, arranges the First Triumvirate as the fulcrum holding Pompey Magnus and Marcus Crassus in balance, and gets elected to his first consulship. At every turn, he has to battle the machinations of the so-called boni, the “good men”, conservatives who oppose his meteoric rise almost as much as they oppose Pompey’s impetuous upstart nature and Crassus’s economic success.

When the book opens, the boni, led by Porcius Cato (Servilia’s half-brother), move to block the triumphal parade to which he is entitled, returning as he is from the governorship of Spain where his troops hailed him imperator on the field. They do this by refusing to let him stand for election in absentia, and he cannot enter the city without losing the imperium, and without imperium, he cannot triumph. (Roman politics are full of these sorts of complex nuances and bizarre strictures, and it’s to McCullough’s credit that she renders them in a way that readers can follow — though not necessarily easily; careful attention must be paid). Caesar surprises them all by foregoing the triumph so that he can stand for election. It’s near-unbelievable. A triumph was one of the highest honours a Roman man could claim, and no more than a handful ever managed to (at least up to this point; they became rather more common in the following decades and centuries). That he would forfeit it utterly bewilders his opponents, but it’s a masterful stroke, and shows, right from the start of the book, not only how formidable Caesar is, but that he sees the big picture. Caesar will make the immediate sacrifice for the greater gain; he sees more and recognises far more than his peers, and that makes him dangerous.

As befitting the title, the women of the story play a greater role in this novel than they have in the past, and so too does the world of women, the domestic counterpart to the men’s machinations in the Forum and on campaign. One of the best examples of this is in the Bona Dea scandal. The rituals of Bona Dea were one of the most fiercely female spheres of Roman society, a strictly women-only religious event on which hinged the very equinoctial balance of the universe. In 62 BC, the young renegade Clodius Pulcher dressed in drag and sneaked in while the rites were being hosted, as they always were, by the wife of the senior magistrate in the city — at that time, Pompeia, second wife of Julius Caesar. The scandal not only shocked but terrified the entire city, who worried that the desecration would so offend the gods as to cause natural catastrophe. McCullough does a great job of making this esoteric bit of history seem quite relevant, particularly in light of how much it hinges on what many people would now consider “superstition”.

One of the most noticeable changes in Caesar’s Women is how McCullough’s cast of characters is evolving. Most everyone we started out with back in First Man in Rome is dead (I think, honestly, Aurelia might be the only character from Book 1 still hanging on). The people who were young in the early books are now middle-aged or older, at the height of their power, having finally succeeded the previous generation. Everyone’s hoping that, after decades of civil wars and near-invasions, they’ll get a chance at some peace. And they will, at least for a very little while, thanks to the thinly-yoked Triumvirate. And behind these men stands a new generation of up-and-comers, young men who seem far more reckless and openly liberal than their immediate forebears. Clodius Pulcher and Mark Antony stand prominent in this crowd, and one of the interesting things in this book, which I hope McCullough takes through to Caesar, is watching Julius Caesar decide to take his cousin Antony in hand, to rescue him from himself, in a way, by pointing out that youthful indiscretions can mar a man’s dignitas for life.

Though the cast of characters remains as large as ever, this really is where everything becomes about Caesar. His dominance over Rome asserts itself over the text as well, inexorable. What’s magnificent is seeing such a larger-than-life figure rendered with the mix of awe and realism that McCullough offers. She’s a little in love with her subject, and no mistake (and I don’t blame her; Julius Caesar is one of my huge historical crushes), but that doesn’t stop her from showing Caesar’s foibles. As he gets older and more powerful, arrogance starts to take hold; he demands much, and continues to demand it because he usually gets it. It’s an oddly magnetic arrogance, really — his certainty in himself is so rock-solid that failure is truly inconceivable for him. We might hate him for his presumption, as the boni do, if the gods didn’t reward his perseverance and high-handedness at every turn. He always comes out on top. If you’re opposing him, that would be unimaginably frustrating (as we see through Cato and Cicero and the rest); for a reader, it’s bewilderingly enchanting. Caesar wraps us around his finger just as he does Rome, and there’s no resisting.

Overall, Caesar’s Women is another exemplary entry into both the genre and the series. McCullough manages to render the twists and turns of Roman politics — not the most accessible of topics — in a way that a reader can not only follow them, but understand why they mattered so much. It feels very much like watching our modern political debates — it’s just that the values and considerations are somewhat different. No doubt our congressional battles will seem nigh-inscrutable to readers two thousand years from now — but the basic motions of people seeking power, seeking revenge, seeking glory will always be the same. McCullough captures that brilliantly. As I’ve said about the whole series, she really drives home that these were real people, living real lives, with the same petty concerns and daily frustrations as all of us. In some ways, expanding her world to such breadth and depth, exposing so many details of life in the period, going beyond the outline of events that most people know just through cultural osmosis — all of that epic scale actually makes the characters more realistic and less like the towering figures in our history books. Seeing them in situ, as it were, in their culture, without the magnificence of centuries’ worth of reputation puffing them up — it brings them back down to a relatable level. And that is McCullough’s real triumph with this series.

And now — I’m not sure what to do. Caesar is still out-of-print, and even if I get my hands on an old copy, it will make me a little crazy to have a mismatched set, since my first four copies are all from the most recent reprint. But I’ll figure something out. I have to seethe saga through to the end, somehow.

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Lady Sophia’s Lover, by Lisa Kleypas

Title: Lady Sophia’s Lover (Bow Street Runners #2)
Author: Lisa Kleypas
Year of Publication: 2002
Length: 377 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 4 stars

I remember being seventeen years old and recommending this book to a friend because “it has lots of different kinds of sex in it”. This is probably something of an odd trait to tout, and yet, it’s a lot of what sticks with me out of Lady Sophia’s Lover. That’s not to say that the plot and characters aren’t engaging — they are — but Kleypas somewhat pushes the norm for eroticism in historical romances here, and I say, bless her for it.

Sophia is a woman fallen both from grace and circumstance, and she’s looking for revenge. Born the daughter of a viscount and orphaned in her youth, Sophia only barely managed to keep her head above water by entering the household of a distant relative. Her brother wasn’t so fortunate, and got trapped in a life of crime in London, eventually sentenced to a prison hulk for his part in a highway robbery. The man responsible for his sentence and thus, in Sophia’s eyes, his death? Sir Ross Cannon, head of the Bow Street Runners. Sophia concocts a plan to bring the famously virtuous magistrate down, which hinges on seducing him and then embroiling him in scandal. She presents herself as an employee, and against his better judgment, he agrees to let her work as his assistant. Heat smoulders between them from their first meeting — but, as is the case when you’re headed for a HEA, Sophia’s heart gets overinvolved. She discovers that Ross is not at all the heartless tyrant she’d imagined, that he’s done a lot of work as a reformer, and it rather dampens her desire for vengeance. For his part, Ross is utterly entranced by the charming woman who has stepped in and rather ruthlessly organised his life, adding all the little domestic touches that he’d been missing. A widower, Ross rediscovers love and newly discovers real passion with Sophia.

I don’t know that I’ve felt this way about this book in the past, but on this re-read, I was sort of wishing for more of the revenge angle. Kleypas drops it pretty quickly. Honestly, Sophia’s heart never really seems in it, even at the beginning. There’s always a hesitation, and it rather lowers the stakes. This is one case, however, where I can at least believe the oddity of a woman choosing to insinuate herself into a man’s house in order to ruin him (unlike, say, The Rake, where it strains credulity) — Sophia clearly has nothing left to lose, so it’s not quite such a strange step for her to take. The twists that come later in the book are handled deftly and are definitely out of the norm as well.

This is a solid historical romance. If the circumstances of Sophia and Ross’s situation are improbable, the emotions are portrayed quite believably, and the sex sizzles. As always, I appreciate Kleypas’s willingness to step outside the usual class boundaries for historical romance. Lady Sophia’s Lover isn’t an all-time favourite, but it’s a book I always enjoy coming back to.

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