Twelfth Night Secrets, by Jane Feather

Title: Twelfth Night SecretsTwelfthNightSecrets
Author: Jane Feather
Year of Publication: 2012
Length: 257 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 2.25 stars

After Harriet’s brother, an English spy, dies while on assignment in France, the government taps Harriet to find out if his former partner, Julius Forsythe, Earl of Marbury, was the double-agent who killed him. Harriet’s job is made easier since her grandfather invited Marbury to spend Christmas at their country home, along with a flock of relatives. It’s made harder when she starts falling for Julius, who is charming, clever, and good with children.

This book is largely inoffensive, but unfortunately, it’s also not particularly memorable. I also feel like it’s the wrong length. This either needed another hundred pages to be standard romance novel length, so that background information and character developments could have more explanation, or else it needed to be a hundred pages shorter and an entry in a collection rather than a stand-alone, because as-is, it feels like Feather spends a lot of time re-treading material. There’s a lot of reiteration in the middle that doesn’t actually further either the plot or the emotional story.

The book is also mis-sold by its jacket material. This isn’t “spy vs spy”. It’s “spy vs totally inept and inexperienced not-spy”. The back cover tries to sell Harriet as a suave, sophisticated agent of the crown, but she’s… really, really not. She passed on mail from her brother. That was the extent of her involvement. So it beggars belief that the British government would look to her to try and uncover a double agent, and then she pretty well bungles her supposed investigation.

The story is cute enough but the characters lack depth — something else that might’ve been fixed with a longer book and a better use of pages. There is a nice reversal at the end, but mostly, after dragging for a two hundred pages, when things finally do start happening, it all feels rushed. Overall — meh.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews

Cold Magic, by Kate Elliott

Title: Cold Magic (Spiritwalker #1)
Author: Kate ElliottColdMagic
Year of Publication: 2010
Length: 528 pages
Genre: alternate history fantasy/sci fi… oh gods, see below
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 3 stars

This book was… odd.

Cold Magic is, by the author’s description, “an Afro-Celtic post-Roman icepunk Regency novel with airships, Phoenician spies, and the intelligent descendants of troodons”. Catherine Hassi Barahal is an orphan raised by her aunt and uncle, besties with her cousin Beatrice. They live in what is geographically England, except that the Ice Age never fully ended, so it’s still connected by marshy land to the Continent. It’s also super-racially-blended, with bloodlines from Celts and Romans and Africans all mixing together in a complex and interweaving social hierarchy. Cat and Bee are enrolled in college amid a growing conflict between the mages who seem to run Europe and the revolutionary faction that seeks to supplant magic with steam technology. What kind of magic? Well, lots of kinds. There’s cold magic and fire magic and druids and bards and other things. There might be the Fae, by way of seelie and unseelie courts, but their existence is unproven. Cat has a mysterious sort of magic which gives her super-hearing, a certain level of invisibility, and other abilities that reveal themselves through the course of the book. So does Beatrice. Oh and there are “trolls”, who come from North America and have evolved to intelligence and culture. The plot initially looks like it’s going to explore Cat and Beatrice’s lives inside this construct, but then it takes a hard left turn when a cold mage turns up at the Barahal household claiming the eldest daughter as his bride, and Cat gets shoved at him with literally no explanation. The rest of the book is Cat having no more idea than the reader what the hell is going on. It has something to do with her family, who may or may not have been spies two thousand years ago, or twenty years ago, or now. It has something to do with her magic, and something to do with her cousin’s. It has something to do with the escape of a Napolean-figure who’s actually from Spain who tried to conquer Europe a few years earlier. It has something to do with sabertooth tigers. It has something to do with airships. The one thing really driving the plot is that Cat has to get back to Bee before the winter solstice so that the cold mages don’t claim her instead.

That feeling you’re having right now, trying to make sense of that summary? Is what the entire book feels like.

I very much wanted to like this book. I read it on recommendation from a good friend whose taste I trust, and it has a lot of elements that were enticing to me. But the execution was… not what I had hoped. The result of Elliott throwing all of those aforementioned genres in a blender isn’t a well-processed smoothie — it’s a chunky, uneven mess. I spent the entire book trying to figure out if my reading comprehension had suddenly taken a leave of absence, or if the book was really just that confusingly written. Since I’m reasonably certain I’m still in possession of all the wits I started last week with, I have to assume it’s the latter.

What’s so frustrating is that there are a lot of good ideas here. (The three stars I’m giving this book come a lot from just the sheer credit of that). The Afro-Celtic angle? Awesome. I love the route that alternate history has taken here, with Rome and Carthage fighting to a standstill rather than going the Carthago delenda est road. I love the idea that the Mali Empire had a diaspora that caused Africa to colonize Europe, rather than the other way around. The blending of cultures has so much potential, and the fantasy and sci-fi genres in general could do with a lot more of that. I also love the idea of magic and science engaging in a horrible struggle for dominance, and the political and social consequences for each side are such fruitful avenues for exploration. But somehow, all of these elements just totally failed to synthesize — and I rather suspect at least part of the problem is that Elliott tried to do too many things in the same novel. The dinosaur-descendants, for example — a fascinating concept, but thrown into this novel, it’s definitely just one tangent too many. The Regency era angle is underused to the point where it may as well not exist (to anyone wondering why it’s called Regency if the year is supposedly 1837, they’re counting in “Augustan Years”, and he became emperor in 27 BCE — so the equivalent year is really 1810, not 1837. Not that you would know that from reading the book, since Elliott never explains it). The blending of cultures, while super-intriguing, is also poorly explored — it’s hard to get a clear idea of exactly what melded where and with whom and so forth. The world clearly has a shape, but the reader never gets to grasp what it is. There’s also the problem I have with A Song of Ice and Fire, which is that cultural identities wouldn’t stay the same for 2000 years no matter where you are, particularly with the amount of blending that’s apparently gone on — and family identities certainly don’t, so the idea that the Barahals have a reputation that stretches back two millennia stretches credulity.

And I also think a lot of the problem is the first-person narration. Cold Magic does a great job of exemplifying what I find so frustrating about that style — it stymies the author’s ability to explain things. Throughout the book, you get the sense that there’s a lot Cat knows which the reader doesn’t and which she doesn’t bother to explain, a lot of “given circumstances” that you just can’t allow to lie there as assumptions in an alternate history. But at the same time, the first-person narration means that the reader also can’t know anything that Cat doesn’t — and as the plot progresses through the never-unpacked mysteries, that starts to encompass a lot of salient details. I don’t mind the tangents that Cat goes down — The rules of magic are never explained, which in a fantasy novel I just find extraordinarily maddening. It’s several hundred pages in before anything gets explained about the cold mages, and even then, we don’t get a lot. And for all that we get a lot of history about things that happened two thousand years ago, we get a lot less on the recent history that has shaped the culture in which Cat lives — or even the current circumstances.

But what’s so weird is that, while leaving all of that unexplained, Elliott devotes a lot of time to repeating things that the reader already does know, but without giving them any new depth or revelations. She also spends a lot of time talking about what the food is like at inns. I love tangents, I really do. I’m the child who read the encyclopedia for fun, so I will never fault an author for wandering down world-building avenues, even if it is a bit at the expense of the plot. I don’t mind it. But the digressions in this book are just strange. Quite often, they don’t add anything to the plot and they don’t clarify the world-building. They’re either just dull (I hate reading about food) or they only add more confusion (ghost plagues in Africa! a secret codebook! other things!).

I was warned that the book might feel slow, but that definitely isn’t the word I’d use to describe it. I would go with “jerky”. The book jumps between tones so often that the reader’s likely to get whiplash. The first eighty pages aren’t slow, it’s just that you think you’re reading one kind of story, and then it suddenly becomes something completely different — which would not in of itself be a bad thing if that didn’t keep happening. You never spend enough time in any one mode to feel comfortable there before you get yanked out of it and plunged into something else, with very little sinew to connect the different ideas together. This, more than anything else, is why I was questioning my ability to process written information while reading this book, and I must say I’m gratified to see from reviews that other readers had a similar experience.

Another unfortunate thing is that I quite liked several of the characters (and they account for the remainder of the 3 stars this book gets), but, either as a consequence of the chaotic writing or of the unreliable first person narration or both, we never get a clear view of them, either. Cat herself would be interesting if her head was a more coherent place in which to spend 500 pages. She’s clearly smart, thinks on her feet, and has a backbone, but is also impulsive and a little hot-tempered, all qualities I like in a heroine, and then she gets dragged headfirst into a swirling identity crisis, which makes for good internal drama. But once again, that jerky, jarring quality of the narrative makes it difficult to feel comfortable living in her point of view. Cat’s forced-husband, Andrevai, would be such an intriguing person to know better, caught between two worlds as he is, overcompensating for insecurities, experiencing an identity crisis every bit as tormenting as Cat’s — but since Cat doesn’t, the reader doesn’t get to, and the weird semi-romance that’s going on there just ends up feeling awkward and artificial. Bee is charming and a lovely subversion of expectations. And then there’s Roderic, and I won’t explain who he is because it’s a definite spoiler, but he’s just plain delightful, and I want to know him and his entire family better. Many of the side characters are interesting, too — and so many of them are female! And female characters in positions of power! That’s exciting and commendable. I just… wish we actually got to know any of them.

I think I’m going to have to read the rest of the series, mostly in a hope that there are explanations occurring somewhere, and if there are, it will drive me up the wall not to have them. I can tell that, at least in the author’s head, this is a fully-realized and complete world with a lot of nuance and underlying complexities, and I trust that it all makes sense somehow. But if and when I do pick up the next book, it will be with the fervent hope that the writing is a lot more coherent than it was in Cold Fire.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews

The October Horse, by Colleen McCullough

Title: The October HorseOctoberHorse (Masters of Rome #6)
Author: Colleen McCullough
Year of Publication: 2002
Length: 800 pages
Genre: historical fiction
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 3.75 stars

The October Horse is, I would say, the weakest of the series thus far, and it particularly suffers after (er, spoiler alert?) Caesar’s death.

It begins well enough, very nearly where Caesar left off, following Pompey’s death in Egypt. Caesar tracks him there, finds out what happened, and decides that he really doesn’t have any patience for this Ptolemaic nonsense. He determines to set things right in Egypt, mostly to recover some debts another Ptolemy owed to Rome and to secure the grain trade, but also because he’s intrigued by Queen/Pharaoh Cleopatra — who is not, by McCullough’s depiction, the stuff of legend. No, she’s small, profoundly ugly, obsessed with her family’s bloodlines, and a completely impulsive ruler. Caesar tries to impress better form on her, but it doesn’t seem to take. He does, however, stick around long enough to sire a son on her — which Cleopatra credits with ending the Nile’s drought. She sees Caesar as, like herself, a god in human form, and thus worthy of breeding into the Ptolemaic dynasty. Though she knows he has a Roman wife and can never acknowledge her children as his legal heirs, she nonetheless wants to hold onto him so she can produce a daughter for her son Caesarion to marry.

To Cleo’s dismay, however, Caesar doesn’t stick around — not least because he has no desire to be party to producing incest, but also because he just plain needs more to do once he’s set Alexandria back in order. He mops up some of the other Pompeians (one of the best sections of the book actually involves Cato’s march across Africa), and then returns to Rome to set things in order, though he’s desperate to be off again on a campaign to Parthia. Caesar’s arc in this book is the tragedy of having no worthy opponents left. With no opposition, he can do as he pleases — and he doesn’t like it. He still does it, because he knows what’s necessary for his nation, but it brings him no satisfaction. He also spends a great deal of time contemplating who will be his heir (aware, thanks to a Celtic prophecy, that he doesn’t have too many years left). He has more options than are immediately apparent, given his numerous cousins and nephews, but ultimately the choice comes down to Marcus Antonius or Gaius Octavius. The proven commander, a grown man with extensive military experience but a shocking lack of any redeeming moral fiber, or the untried teenager, eerily insightful but asthmatic and militarily deficient? No one knows until after Caesar’s death — but Antony assumes it’s him and acts accordingly.

McCullough decides to make Antony actively complicit in the assassination plot, since he believes that he gets everything once Caesar’s dead. I will say that, for purely personal reasons, I didn’t like this. For all Mark Antony’s faults, I have a historical crush on him, and so I far prefer the versions of history that place him as Caesar’s trusted lieutenant. As for the other conspirators, I wish she’d done some of them better justice. When we last saw Decimus Brutus and Trebonius, they were some of Caesar’s most loyal adherents, with him to the end. The first time they appear in October Horse, they’re already turning against him. While this does seem to be what happens in Plutarch, you’d think McCullough might’ve fleshed it out a bit better. Instead, she just sort of leaves it at “they got jealous” and that’s apparently motivation enough for murder. Decimus does pretty well fall apart afterwards, though, realising that he killed the best man he ever knew, the man to whom he owed everything. Instead of much on them, however, we get a lot of time with Brutus and Cassius — whose characterizations I did appreciate, since she shows Brutus as weak, ineffectual, and cowardly, Cassius as snappily ambitious and hot-tempered, and Porcia as not totally in possession of her wits, especially after her father’s death. It drives home just how pathetic the “Liberator” cause was, how wasteful, how petty. (Yes, I am an unapologetic Caesarian).

McCullough makes an interesting choice with the structure of this book. October Horse divides into more and shorter parts than the rest of the series, and I think it’s to draw attention to the ticking clock, counting down to Caesar’s doom — since presumably, anyone reading this series knows that March of 44 is the fated date. McCullough makes you more aware of the passage of time here than in previous books in the series, so you feel the sand running out of the glass of Caesar’s life — and he seems to hear its whisper as well. For all the lead-up, though, the Ides of March itself passes quickly. McCullough doesn’t dwell on the act, and then she’s on to the aftermath — which is less compelling. Octavian quickly sets himself up as the new Caesar, but he’s not as likable as our dearly departed friend, nor have we spent the time and energy with him to invest us in his cause. The reader ends up seeing him just as the preferable alternative to Antony, but a little alarming — preternaturally observant, scarily intelligent, and utterly ruthless.

As such, it’s hard to see how McCullough will make Antony and Cleopatra particularly engaging. From what I understand, she didn’t want to write it in the first place — the afterword to October Horse flat-out says she’s done, but her publishers or someone convinced her to keep going on through Actium. But with Antony so blatantly unlikeable, Cleopatra an incest-obsessed mouse, and Octavian lacking charisma as an alternative protagonist, it’s easy to imagine the final installment lacking the compelling qualities of the earlier entries. Still, October Horse remains a detailed and engaging epic, and if it’s the weakest of a series like Masters of Rome, it’s still a worthy read.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews

Divergent, by Veronica Roth

Title: DivergentDivergent
Author: Veronica Roth
Year of Publication: 2011
Length: 487 pages
Genre: YA dystopian
New or Re-Read? New!
Rating: 4 stars

This book was super-entertaining.

I’m probably the last person on earth to read this, but I will nonetheless treat this review as though I’m not. I will also confess that it was the movie trailer that finally made me pick it up, though it’s vaguely been on my to-do list for a while — and I’m so glad I did. Divergent is an intriguing and exciting ride, high-octane and full-throttle.

16-year-old heroine Beatrice lives in a future-Chicago that has been isolated from the rest of the world. Its society is split into five factions, each of which espouses a different virtue: Erudite, which values learning; Dauntless, which values courage; Amity, which values friendship; Candor, which values honest; and the faction Beatrice was born to, Abnegation, which values selflessness. At the age of 16, each member of this society can choose to stay with their home faction or to join another — but they only get the chance once, and before they do, they take a psychological test which reveals their aptitude for one or another. When Beatrice takes the test, however, the results are “inconclusive”. She learns that she is something called “Divergent” — and that it is a dangerous thing to be, though no one will explain why, and she’s told to keep it a secret.

When her Choosing Day comes (and this is a spoiler, but I can’t really talk about the rest of the book without it, so, here goes), Beatrice somewhat impulsively decides to leave Abnegation and to join Dauntless. Her initiation process is fraught with peril and terrors. The Dauntless value the conquest of fear, generally through the confrontation of it — and this also includes the confrontation of pain. Beatrice takes on the new name Tris and has to prove herself worthy of inclusion in the faction, or face being tossed out to join the factionless — portrayed as tragic figures without homes, families, or purpose. She quickly earns both friends and rivals, though even her new friendships are far from certain, given the competitive nature of the initiation process. She also discovers a rift between Four, her trainer, and Eric, one of the Dauntless leaders, representing two different versions of the faction’s values — Four, interested more in truly conquering the fears within, and Eric, interested in brute force and the acquisition of power.

The story is interesting both psychologically and sociologically. I like what it has to say both about the human mind and about the nature of societal constructs. As the story progresses, Tris becomes more aware of the moving parts of the adult world that she’s been sheltered from most of her life, and she realizes that none of the five factions are quite what they were in the beginning, or what they claim to be, or what they perhaps wish they were. I also really like the idea that, over however many generations, these virtues have all degraded into vices. The story of the trilogy, I’m sure, is going to be about re-assimilating those disparate parts into a functioning whole — hinging, it would seem, on the Divergent, which is of course why those currently in power are so afraid of them and want to eradicate them. It’s an intriguing dynamic, and I look forward to seeing it play out.

There’s a lot about this book that feels derivative, but I don’t necessarily mean that in a bad way. The Choosing and the factions definitely have echoes of Hogwarts Sorting, and the overall tone of the book definitely feels a lot like The Hunger Games. Katniss and Tris could easily be living in the same universe, just a century or so apart. I was also thinking as I was reading that it had a lot of similarities with The Giver, and then Roth confirms in an interview at the back of the book that that is, in fact, one of her childhood faves. (You can feel that influence particularly in Abnegation and what little we see of Amity, I think). But Divergent doesn’t feel like a rip-off of any of these things — they just seem to be in conversation with each other, which I enjoy.

The romance in this book feels much more natural than in a lot of YA — it has a chance to develop over more time in-world, it’s confused and by turns both hesitant and impulsive, and Roth lets her teenage characters have both sexual desire and sexual reluctance. That’s only one element that makes Divergent rather a more mature YA book than others I’ve read. The violence is another — it’s unrelenting, even moreso, I think, than in The Hunger Games. That might come down to the use of guns — somehow that seems more real than a bow and arrow or a sword. It happens fast and casually at first, then with brutal severity, and Roth seems willing to describe injuries in more graphic detail than Collins.

The book’s biggest weakness is that it, like so much YA fiction, is written in first person present, which I personally just don’t care for. I think it forces authors into a lot of awkwardness, particularly when it comes to exposition — and I’m someone who would always like to see more sides of the story, rather than just one character’s experience. It also means that, since the reader gets spoon-fed certain information that totally gives away a “big reveal” right from the star, it makes Tris seem a little dim for not putting it together.

I’ve seen some other reviewers criticize the book’s pace, and I didn’t have a problem with that — while it does take a while to get to the “main plot”, the rest doesn’t move slowly at all, in my opinion. I was easily caught up in Tris’s dilemmas and her struggle to prove herself. Those challenges drive the first few hundred pages with enough force and energy that I didn’t mind how late the macro plot came in. Tris’s micro plot was plenty captivating. On the whole, Divergent is thoroughly entertaining, start-to-finish. I look forward to reading the rest of the trilogy.

A Coda: What, like I wasn’t going to take the chance to pontificate about what faction I’d be in?

Definitely not Abnegation or Candor. Selfless, I am not. Generous, but not selfless, and I choose the people I want to be generous towards very selectively (because I am, also, a Slytherin). While I am generally honest, I’m not necessarily open all of the time — I’m prone to sins of omission and white lies of a protective nature. So… Amity, Erudite, or Dauntless? What draws me to Amity is that they appear to be the only one of the five factions that still places any value on the arts — but otherwise, I’m pretty sure I’m not happy-go-lucky enough, nor of a pleasant enough disposition, to fit in there. Erudite? I am intellectual and curious, and I like learning, but I’m not always logical, and their intellect certainly seems to focus on maths and sciences, not on verbal or creative intelligence. My academic strengths and the things I like to explore aren’t the ones they value. The question, really, isn’t what I think now, but what I would’ve chosen at the age of 16, and I can say with certainty that it would’ve been Dauntless. The badass aesthetic certainly would have appealed to me, as would the idea of turning myself into a warrior. Those were things I yearned for. I wanted to be both tougher and more exciting than I was. And I think the ethos of facing fears and conquering them has great appeal — a lot of my life has been about clawing my way past one obstacle or another. My attitude has always been that if I want something, of the world or of myself, I’m going to have to tear it out with my teeth. I have a lot of fears, really, and mostly I avoid them, but I can grit my teeth and steel my way through them if necessary — and if I had to do that more often, I suspect I’d be a stronger and better person. No idea whether I would have survived the initiation process (I can imagine all too well what terrors would’ve been in my simulations), but I like to think I would’ve responded well to the challenge.

1 Comment

Filed under Reviews

Shakespeare on Theatre, edited by Nick de Somogyi

Title: Shakespeare on TheatreShakespeareonTheatre
Author: Nick de Somogyi
Year of Publication: 2013
Length: 213 pages
Genre: nonfiction – history
New or Re-Read? new (review reposted from the ASC Education blog)
Rating: 3.25 stars

Shakespeare on Theatre is a good entry-level exploration of how Shakespeare’s plays comment on the conditions of Shakespeare’s theatrical world. From company structure to architecture, from prompters to casting, from prologues to epilogues, de Somogyi provides a compendium of Shakespeare’s commentaries on the theatre. What’s best about this, I think, is that de Somogyi shows that those references don’t only turn up in the expected places — the plays-within-plays in Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Love’s Labour’s Lost, the self-aware prologues of Henry V and Romeo and Juliet, the masque of The Tempest. Rather, the book also explores the subtler and smaller intra-theatrical instances. He reminds us of Cleopatra’s horror of watching a child actor “boy” her greatness on a rudimentary stage, of Macbeth’s metaphor of death as the ultimate exeunt omnes, of Margaret costuming the Duke of York with a paper crown.

De Somogyi also does well to expand his explorations and include  examples from other playwrights, many of them more overt in their self-referential moments, such as Ben Jonson’s various admonishments to the audience, or the appearance of actors Burbage, Condell, and Lowin as themselves at the top of Marston’s The Malcontent. The book includes snippets of poetry and of polemics both pro- and anti-theatrical, giving a broader view of the role of playhouse culture in 16th- and 17th-century London. Throughout, de Somogyi connects the conventions of Shakespeare’s theatrical world to examples of how those conditions have changed — or stayed similar — through to the modern age. It’s also pleasing that he typically off-sets terms like “metatheatrical” or “fourth wall” with quotation marks in recognition of the fact that those concepts, while common to theatre today, would have been alien to Shakespeare’s company and their audience.

Curiously, he seems less interested in that interplay when it comes to characters who “perform,” unless they do so explicitly. In The Taming of the Shrew, for example, he devotes considerable attention to the frame story involving Sly and the Players, but none at all to Petruchio’s various performances within the text. Nor does he consider the theatricality inherent in kings speaking to royal courts or to the commons. The deposition scene in Richard II, the fraught peacemaking of King John and King Philip, Richard III’s pretended reluctance to assume authority — these would all seem to be fruitful for what they have to say about the intertwining and overlapping of performing on the stage and performing in life (and about the blending and manipulation of on-stage and off-stage audiences), yet de Somogyi does not plumb them for their potential.

The overall effect of the book is to remind the audience that, as de Somogyi points out explicitly more than once, a playwriting was “a functional craft”. Shakespeare on Theatre goes a long way towards de-mystifying the idea of theatre as sacrosanct art. Modern culture tends to designate it as an emotional enterprise, but the early modern reality was much different. The book peels back the romantic notions and exposes the business of theatre — and demonstrates clearly that Shakespeare was a man who knew the practical aspects both on the production and the financial sides.

The book’s main flaw, in my opinion, is its freedom of conjecture. De Somogyi does not often enough qualify his pronouncements on Shakespeare’s life with the necessary disclaimers. I worry that someone approaching this book with a less solid grounding in the subject matter might take his narrative constructions as true biography. It’s even more concerning that this trend begins on the very first page of the introduction to the book. De Somogyi begins with the admirable opening statement that Shakespeare “was a working man of the theatre to his core,” but from there slides effortlessly into an imagined sequence of events — a lovely fantasy, of a “stage-struck boy” eventually “talent-spotted by a later touring troupe” who grew from an actor with “precociously impressive skills as a textual fixer” into the greatest playwright of the age. There are perhaps even some probabilities mixed in with the inventions, but they are still only conjectures, not evidenced facts. De Somogyi seems to assert things as truth that we cannot know for sure. More imaginative declarations of this type take place throughout the book, along with other generalizations about early modern theatre that I feel could have used some end-noted explanations.

With that caveat, however, I can generally recommend this book as a solid introduction to the interwoven dialogue between play, playing, and playhouses. Devoted scholars aren’t likely to find anything new here, but the book is accessibly written and a comfortable first step for someone who might then move on to deeper examinations like Gurr, Stern, or McDonald. It also might serve as an interesting source of monologue material for auditioning actors. Many of de Somogyi’s selections are the appropriate length, but a different variety than typical guides provide.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews

The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England, by Dan Jones

PlantagenetsTitle: The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England
Author: Dan Jones
Year of Publication: 2013
Length: 560 pages
Genre: medieval history
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 3.5 stars

This book is a comprehensive political history of England from the early 12th to the end of the 14th century. Jones opens with the wreck of the White Ship and closes with the deposition of Richard II, and in-between, he charts the evolution of the English monarchy, the rise of the cults of St.s George and Edward the Confessor, and the ebb and flow of English fortunes in French territory. While Plantagenet history is something I’m more than passingly familiar with already, I was happy to get a really solid look at some reigns that don’t always warrant a lot of historical attention — John (apart from Magna Carta), Henry III, Edward I. Jones also provides some anecdotes and small details which flesh out the broad strokes. My favorite had to do with the sinking of the White Ship, and how the heir to the throne would’ve been safely away — had he not gone back to rescue his sister, which led to his lifeboat being overwhelmed by other drowning victims.

Jones does an excellent job of chaining cause and effect together, even when those things are complex, balancing the demands of family and feudalism. Jones relies on a lot of primary sources, though he writes in such a way as to keep them from becoming too dense — those who fear footnotes will not need to cringe at this text. Instead, he offers a bibliography of suggested further reading at the end of the book, and most of those sources date from 2000 and forward.

Jones does a nice job of contextualizing the relationship between the king and the barons and how it changes over time, as well as the complex network of ever-shifting alliances on the continent. Reading this book, you do get the sense — as I always felt about Tudor-era politics — that really everyone was out to screw England all the time. No one can seem to hold an alliance for more than twenty minutes. Similarly, the English don’t seem to be able to keep control over the Welsh, Scottish, and Irish any longer than that.

What’s particularly fascinating from my point of view is seeing the aristocracy take shape underneath the king’s rule. As someone who loves family trees, it’s fun to see when different families wax and wane, particularly once it starts getting into the 14th century and the names become those more recognizable to those of us familiar with Shakespeare’s history plays and with Tudor history — de Bohun, de Vere, Howard, Dudley, Neville, Montagu. In so doing, you also see the entire country become more thoroughly English. Slowly, the Norman and Aquitanian influence bleeds out and the nobility comes from England’s own magnates.

There were, though, ways in which the book was disappointing. For something subtitled The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England, there’s precious little on those queens. This is, still, a male history. Queen Matilda and Eleanor of Aquitaine get a little attention, but nothing compared to their men — and really not much to personalize them. Their deeds are mentioned, not themselves. Joan of Kent, somewhat scandalous wife of the Black Prince, is little more than a tabloid feature. As for the other women crucial to the Plantagenet line, all those wives and daughters and sisters — Phillippa of Hainault, Eleanor of Provence, Isabel the She-Wolf of France, Eleanor of Castile, Princess Joan, Princess Isabella — hardly get any attention but for how they affect the reigning king. Once they’re married out or pensioned off, and thus “off-stage”, as it were, they cease to exist. And it’s such a shame, because they have stories in their own rights. They had will and agency. So many of them defied type, or redefined it. Jones does them a discredit, I think, by relegating them only to the reactionary status women have so typically occupied in histories. Based on the book’s title, I was really hoping for much more. (Jones also goes out of his way to dismiss any whisper of homosexuality or bisexuality as attached to the English crown; I’ll give him that claims about Richard I and II still generate a lot of disagreement, but Edward II? Aren’t we pretty sure about that? Yet Jones waves it all off with no examination whatsoever).

It also ends rather strangely. This book covers up to Richard II’s 1399 deposition, and Jones tries rather hard to make this a conscious stylistic choice, rather than an awareness that going on through the rise of the Tudors would produce an 1100-page book. Except that it rings false. While the essence of kingship may change after Richard II’s fall, Jones simultaneously tries to claim that his ascension somehow breaks the line of Plantagenet kings — which is ridiculous. Henry Bolingbroke had every drop as much Plantagenet blood in him as Richard. They were both sons of Edward III’s sons. First cousins. Jones even points out that Henry was Richard’s closest heir in the male line. So it’s a bit hard to claim that the blood line was broken, any more than it was when King John succeeded Richard I.

So, on the whole, this is an easily digestible compendium, and I could recommend it as a good starting point to someone with no real familiarity with the era. Someone with more background in England’s medieval history might not find much new here, though, and if you’re looking for something incisive that treads new ground, this isn’t it. Jones compiles a rather unchallenging view of English history in a simple presentation — perhaps too simple, really.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews

A Natural History of Dragons, by Marie Brennan

Title: A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady TrentNaturalHistoryDragons
Author: Marie Brennan
Year of Publication: 2013
Length: 336 pages
Genre: historical fantasy
New or Re-Read? New!
Rating: 4 stars

I received this book from a friend who has an unerring knack in telling me what it is I want to read. I have him to thank for Catherynne Valente and A Song of Ice and Fire (which we both started before that series began its downhill trudge in A Feast for Crows, but that is neither here nor there). His taste has not erred with A Natural History of Dragons, which I absolutely ate up.

I’m calling this a historical fantasy because, though it quite clearly does not take place in our world — the maps are nothing like — it is still entirely flavoured by our world. The tone is utterly Victorian (never minding that in this universe, a king is regnant over the nation in question) and expertly aped, at that. The cultures are not just approximations but total analogs for the British, the Russians, etc. But the geography is entirely different, and the year is apparently 5658. (Which would be 1897 in the Jewish calendar, so perhaps there’s an analog there?) At any rate, Brennan never explicates clearly the nature of her world, and it’s a bit of an odd thing to wrap one’s head around, but it works well enough. Our heroine, Lady Trent, former Miss Isabella Hendemoore, is by “the present”, an old woman, recognized as a pioneer in her field of dragon studies, anointed with honors, and well-respected. She’s decided this means she can now say whatever she pleases, and has written a memoir to do just that.

It begins with her childhood and the first stirring of her obsession with dragons — thought, in that time, to be a highly improper fixation for a young woman. Science alone is bad enough, but to focus on such terrifying beasts compounds the fault. She has a supportive if wary father to balance out her propriety-determined mama, however, and he tries to temper her less lady-like urges by nudging her onto an “appropriate” path that can still indulge her interests, eventually finding her a husband who will tolerate her passion. Early in their marriage, they join an expedition to the distinctly Slavic-flavored Vystrana, in search of rock-wyrms. Once there, however, they discover that the rock-wyrms have taken to attacking travelers and hunters with far more regularity than they have ever before known. Isabella determines to figure out what’s causing this strange and dangerous behavior — but the recalcitrance of the village folk, the interference of smugglers, and the hotbed of local politics may chase the expedition out of town before they can complete their mission.

This book is really interesting from a few different perspectives. One, as I mentioned, is the odd historical-fantastical world-blending. Another is the heroine. Isabella is refreshing from a feminist perspective: certainly strong-willed, but not a kick-ass Lara Croft type. She’s a scientist above everything else, and I think that’s wonderful. Her brain is analytical and curious, and though she is not possessed of great sentimentality, she also has plenty of distinctly feminine traits. She’s also a well-rounded character, with some flaws that balance out her admirable traits — she’s impulsive, and she very often doesn’t seem to think through how her actions will affect others. On the whole, she reminds me a lot of Evie Carnahan from The Mummy. The book also avoids the temptation to backhandedly put other women down, though. We don’t see a lot of them, but Isabella’s best friend from childhood is a romantic sort, fond of reading novels, a little flirtatious, highly imaginative, and described as “improper in what Amanda thought to be fashionable ways” — and though Isabella acknowledges she’s not like that at all, Manda also never gets painted in a truly unflattering light. Her passions aren’t condemned by the narrative — indeed, more than once Isabella admits that a little more of Manda’s empathy and social grace would do her good. But whatever the in-world society thinks of each of them, the book itself doesn’t suggest that either is inherently better than the other, and I appreciate that.

Then there are the dragons. In the world of this book, they are not fantastic, magical creatures of awe and wonderment — just another predator species, more difficult to study than lions or tigers, but without any mysticism attached to them. Isabella’s fascination is rooted in scientific wonder: why do their carcasses disintegrate so soon after death? What functions of their bones and skin allows them to fly? What creates their horrible breathe (which might be fire, or ice, or poison)? The approach is refreshing, particularly since we see that what are creatures of inspiration and intrigue in Isabella’s native Scirling are seen as nuisances in the places directly affected by them (rather the way a lot of modern apex predators are viewed today, really). I suspect an underlying theme will be one of Isabella’s desire to preserve dragons conflicting with the needs of the modern world. The artwork (by Todd Lockwood) augments the story beautifully, with beautiful sketches of dragons and their component parts, many deconstructed as though part of a medical text, showing bone and sinew (as on the front cover).

Overall, this book is a lot of fun, with a strong voice and a refreshing turn on a mythical creature I think long due for a new approach. I knock a point off because, well, I could’ve done with more dragons, especially in the last third of the book. They sort of become secondary to the mystery plot going on (and the mystery isn’t particularly well-crafted). Somewhere in the last arc, the balance between natural history and adventure story gets thrown off. Honestly, I’d really like to read the books that she refers to throughout — the actual texts on dragons which have, by the time she’s writing the memoir, made her so famous. Or at least pieces of them — I can envision a successful track where the writing moved back and forth between those and the memoir narrative.

According to Brennan’s website, there will be four more entries into this series, and I’m looking forward to picking up the next one, due out in March. I also enjoyed Brennan’s style well enough to consider looking into her prior series.

1 Comment

Filed under Reviews