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My Name is Will, by Jess Winfield

Title: My Name is Will: A Novel of Sex, Drugs, and ShakespeareMyNameisWill
Author: Jess Winfield
Year of Publication: 2008
Length: 304 pages
Genre: historical fiction / modern fiction
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 2 stars. Maybe.

I have conflicted feelings about this book. I wanted to like it, somewhat enjoyed half of it, and could’ve entirely done without the other half.

My Name is Will tells two stories in parallel. The William section, set in 1582, follows William Shakespeare through a tumultuous few months of his life, where he woos women, gets entangled in a Catholic conspiracy, becomes a man, and winds up accidentally married to Anne Hathaway. The Willie section of the book, set in the 1980s, follows a lackluster graduate student through a weekend where he tries to defend an indefensible thesis topic, bangs a lot of women, gets stoned a lot, and winds up accidentally smuggling drugs to a Renaissance faire.

The William section of the book is pretty fun — though a total fantasy hinging on a highly inventive narrative. But whatever, I can deal with that. The writing here occasionally soars, because Winfield has a good grip on rhetoric. For someone who knows what syllepsis looks like and can spot anthimeria at fifty paces, these chapters can be a real treat. Unfortunately, it can never sustain that high quality for very long. There are plenty of bits that drag. Winfield occasionally belabors his history to cram in the backstory that not everyone will have when it comes to Shakespeare’s life, conditions in mid-16th century Warwickshire, or the politics of Elizabeth’s reign. And then it sort of unravels at the end. Events collide into each other with bizarre pacing, and there are a few tangents that most definitely come out of nowhere.

The Willie section of the book… if that were all the book was, it would’ve been a DNF for me. I found Willie to be 3000% unsympathetic. I mean, really, I’m supposed to feel bad for this entitled, lazy-ass grad student, who can’t be bothered to finish the thesis and get the degree his father has paid his way for, because he’s too busy trying to figure out how to nail PhD candidates and spends all his father’s money on weed and mushrooms? Seriously? That is not a protagonist to me. That is someone I want to kick in the shins. I am thoroughly unimpressed by druggie culture, and even more unimpressed by crappy students who give academia a bad name. This made it impossible for me to connect with the character or to care about his story. I didn’t care if he managed to make his drug deal to get the money he so desperately needed because his father (sort of) (finally) cut him off, except insofar as I wanted the arrogant little snot to get arrested.

There were also times in both sections when it felt like Winfield was trying to be gritty for grittiness’s sake. I’m not someone who enjoys crudeness. I know some people appreciate that in their fiction, but I’m not one of them. I don’t need to be reminded every other page that people piss, shit, fart, and are full of pus. I just don’t. Maybe that makes me squeamish or something, but it just puts me off.

And then there were the female characters. Between both storylines, there was exactly one female character who had a purpose beyond being a receptacle for sperm — Shakespeare’s mother, Mary Arden. And we don’t even see that much from her until the last quarter of the book. Every other women in the book, no matter her station, her purported intellect, whatever, just seems to fall flat on her back with her legs spread for William or Willie. It’s beyond ridiculous. Willie’s section in particular is just the pornographic fantasy of an emotionally stunted twenty-something male. Lord knows I don’t mind sex in a book — as I’m sure y’all can tell from the number of romance novels I review — but in My Name is Will, it’s just pathetic and tawdry. I have exactly no interest in the erectile state of some spoiled, entitled loser, but by God will you hear about it in this book. Over and over and over again.

Overall, I think this book is a really big case of YMMV. I’m sure there are a lot of people who would find appeal in the very things that repelled me. The 1582 chapters kept me reading, but this book was very nearly something I could not even get through. There were a few worthwhile moments, and those, I imagine, will stick with me. But this is not one I’ll ever feel the compulsion to re-read.

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Curtsies & Conspiracies, by Gail Carriger

Title: Curtsies & ConspiraciesCurtsiesConspiracies (Finishing School #2)
Author: Gail Carriger
Year of Publication: 2013
Length: 320 pages
Genre: YA steampunk paranormal
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 4 stars

The second installment in Carriger’s Finishing School Series is every bit as good as the first. Which is to say, not flawless, but thoroughly entertaining.

Returning to the floating school for female spies, we find Sophronia and her peers receiving their first evaluations. Each young lady is tested individually, but the results are given en masse. Sophronia’s ludicrously high marks make her a target for ostracization, even from her nearest and dearest — Dimity, Sidhaeg, and Agatha. Even stranger, the school is planning a trip to London — and stops on the way to pick up boys from their rival university. Suspecting that this trip is much more than meets the eye, Sophronia puts all her skills to use to get to the bottom of a scheme with major implications for the scientific and the supernatural communities alike, and to keep her friend Dimity safe from what she’s sure is an imminent kidnapping attempt.

As ever, Carriger writes with considerable felicity. The tone of the book is conscious, but not cloyingly so, as was occasionally the case in the Parasol Protectorate books. They’re over-the-top, utterly ridiculous at points, but there’s also a lot about them that feels quite real, particularly when it comes to her depiction of teenage girl social dynamics. Sophronia and her peers act like reasonable approximations of teenage girls — but not like idiots. Everything is life or death — but at Mademoiselle Geraldine’s, that’s occasionally literally true as well. Your friends don’t always behave in the ways you wish they would. Signals get mixed, sometimes someone thinks she’s telegraphing one emotion but you’re interpreting another and everyone’s confused. Some people hurt each other intentionally, and some do it by accident. Despite the strange setting of a floating school, the vampires, the mechanimal pet, the intrigues, the kidnappings, and of course the fact that fourteen year old girls are being trained on how to recognize arsenic-laced tea cookies at the same time they’re learning to flirt, there’s also a lot here that’s just very… normal.

And I really appreciate the way this book handles potential romance. They’re curious about boys, but still a little hesitant about them, too. There’s a wonderful frisson of “Not yet… but soon” about it all. Sophronia discovers that she likes the attention of flirting and wants to enjoy that, but she sometimes feels discomfited by the tangle of emotions and hormones that come along with it, too. I hope that Carriger’s taking us someplace more than a standard love triangle, though, because if she’s headed in that direction, I will have to shake my head. Right now, it’s just sort of fun to watch a heroine be allowed to feel things without the pressure of making a lifelong decision based on them.

Carriger also does a lovely job weaving together her two timelines. It isn’t a strict progression, but enough of the characters interweave (and yes, there are a few more lovely cameos here) to make it a real treat. Even better, though, is the way the world itself interweaves, particularly with regard to scientific and political developments. It makes the Parasol Protectorate world more complete unto itself. It’s also unfolding further, both for the reader and for Sophronia. Alliances and sympathies aren’t always as clear-cut as they seem at first glance.

There are, as I said, a few flaws. Though the sense of character is improved from the first book, the POV bobbles a bit in some places, wandering from third-limited into third-omniscient with no real justification. And the moral lesson of the book is a bit obvious — that, as in the first book, Sophronia’s greatest strength is in her friends and allies (friendship is magic, y’all). This despite the fact that the school still seems to encourage competition, resulting in something of a mixed message for Sophronia. I’m hoping to see that play out further, especially since Sophronia does such a good job of yoking together disparate talents from very different individuals. Altogether, I thoroughly enjoyed this installment and I look forward to the next.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Caesar, by Colleen McCullough

Title: Caesar (Masters of Rome #5)Caesar
Author: Colleen McCullough
Year of Publication: 1997
Length: 928 pages
Genre: historical fiction
New or Re-Read? New!
Rating: 4+ stars

Finally! I’ve been waiting to get my hands on this one for ages, and I’m so pleased to have finally been able to advance my progression through the Masters of Rome series.

Caesar opens during the first Roman campaign in Britain — an interesting place to start, considering its weird place in history. More than reconnaissance, less than a full-scale invasion. Rome doesn’t take over any territory, but gets far enough in to show the British tribes what they can do, then restores an ally to his throne. But from another point of view, it was kind of a hot mess. Everyone was wet and miserable and just wanted to get the hell back across the Channel. What makes it a fitting point to start this novel is that it illustrates Caesar’s determination, as well as setting the stage for the complex network of alliances that will be crucial to the Gallic Wars. Caesar couldn’t have done anything in Britain without some of the Celtic tribes behind him — but that presumption is precisely what will ignite the flames of discontent in Gaul.

The account of the Gallic Wars is magnificent. The reader really gets to see Caesar’s genius at work. Though the tribes have a more inspired way of organizing themselves than they ever had in the past, they still consistently underestimate Caesar — how fast he can move his troops, how well he can organise, how brilliant his strategy is, and what lengths he’s willing to go to in order to succeed. Caesar’s greatest advantage, though, is in his charisma — in his ability to command the hearts of other men. His soldiers cheerfully go along with whatever he tells them to do, however brutal the circumstances: march a thousand miles, sure; build seventeen miles of siege works, no problem; eat weeds rather than abandon territory, with a smile. It bewilders his opponents both in Gaul and in Rome. His legates, too, adore him. Caesar demonstrates a knack for picking the right men — and for getting the wrong ones out of his way. No plague of useless tribunes for him. (It is heartbreaking, though, to know what I know about history, and to see how many of his staunchest advocates in this book will be among those to betray him. I’m looking forward to seeing how McCullough handles it in October Horse, though, particularly with regards to Trebonius and Decimus Brutus). None of these are talents the Gallic tribes have. They squabble amongst themselves, half of them want to be king even as they’re proclaiming loyalty to Vercingetorix, a few tribes aren’t really sure they want to rebel against Rome in the first place, plenty of them can’t be kept from falling to spoil at the first opportunity — and so they lack the impenetrable solidarity of Caesar’s legions. Caesar, inevitably, conquers.

McCullough does a great job rendering the military history interesting and easy to follow. She has a great talent for slipping in the lecture portions in such a way that, at least to me, it doesn’t feel like a drag. (Then again I always liked history lectures, so your mileage may vary). The book gets bogged down quite a bit after that, though, in the machinations of the boni to impede Caesar’s pathway to greatness. And perhaps it’s appropriate that this section of the book slogs and seems a bit impenetrable, since that certainly reflects the Optimates pretty well. I could’ve done with more time spent with Caesar during this portion, though — perhaps McCullough just should’ve switched back and forth between the two settings a bit more, rather than exhausting the Gallic front first.

The book is certainly unapologetically Caesarian in its sympathies. McCullough has about as much of a historical crush on him as I do. Masters of Rome portrays Caesar as a natural leader, a natural ruler, in all respects, but one with no intentional designs on a throne. The boni, by contrast, are narrow-minded, jealous little ankle-biters, intent on bringing Caesar down simply because they cannot stand bearing witness to someone so much greater than themselves. This may be lopsided, but… given my crush, I don’t much care. There is one quote, though, that resonated with me for its similarities to our modern political climate. This is Scribonius Curio, writing to Caesar to offer his support in the Senate:

I’m sick to death of the boni. I used to think that any group of men with the interests of the mos maiorum so much at heart had to have right on their side, even when they made appalling political errors. But of late years I’ve seen through them, I suppose. They prate of things they know nothing about, and that is the truth. It’s a mere disguise for their own negativity, for their own utter lakc of gumption. If Rome began to crumble around them physically, they’d simply stand there and call it a part of the mos maiorum to be squashed flat by a pillar.

So, yeah, McCullough’s writing this with a fair amount of historical bias, but I’m hard-pressed to fault her for that. The worst you can really say about her Caesar is that he’s aware of how extraordinary he is. And I’m a Slytherin through and through. That, to me, is not a fault if you’ve actually got the goods to back it up, and Caesar demonstrates over and over again that he does.

The final third of the book concerns Caesar’s war with Pompey, once the boni finally manage to provoke Caesar into taking unconstitutional action. A decision they regret almost immediately. What follows is a pretty epic series of blunders and miscommunications that contribute more to their downfall than anything Caesar could have done to them. In many ways, you see the same problems happening with the boni as you saw with the Celts — no one wants to listen to the purported leader, everyone has their own best idea, and everyone underestimates Caesar. It makes for a nice little diptych.

On the whole, Caesar is another excellent entry into the series. It shows him at what I believe will prove to be his height. My guess is that October Horse will give us his time with Cleopatra, and then he’s back to Rome — but his heart isn’t in it anymore. Even in Caesar, he’s thinking about it, how much he prefers the life of military conquest to political life, however good he might be at both. I’m interested to see how McCullough deals with his final years, particularly with regards to his Dictatorship, as well as the rise of Antony and Octavian.

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The Lord Meren Mysteries, #1-3, by Lynda S. Robinson

MurderAnubisTitles: Murder at the Place of Anubis, Murder at the God’s Gate, Murder at the Feast of Rejoicing
Author: Lynda S. Robinson
Years of Publication: 1994 / 1995 / 1997
Length: 224 / 288 / 258 pages
Genre: historical mystery
New or Re-Read? Re-Read
Rating: 3.75 stars

MurderGodsGateI’ve decided to review the first trilogy of this series all together, since the books are sort of too short to treat with individually. (Not that you couldn’t. It would just make for very short posts, and I’m more likely to complete one long one than three short ones).

The Lord Meren mysteries are set in ancient Egypt, taking place during the reign of Tutankhamun. Each book has its own murders to solve, but they weave together into a larger political plot regarding the tensions of the time. These books posit Tutankhamun as the younger brother of the heretic Pharaoh Akhenaten (DNA tests in 2010 revealed him to be most probably Akhenaten’s son, but these books work from a different dynastic theory, popular and viable in the 1990s). MurderRejoicingAkhenaten had tried to turn Egypt into a monotheistic society, going so far as to construct a new capital for his sun god; though the kingdom reverted after his death, old tensions between the two factions persist in Robinson’s version of Tut’s Egypt. Lord Meren is “the Eyes and Ears of Pharaoh”, his chief investigator, who also bears the coveted title Friend of the King. Along with advisers Ay, Horemheb, and Maya, he works to keep peace between the court and the still-resentful priests of Amun, protecting the young king until he can grow into himself and govern Egypt with wisdom and strength. This is all, of course, very sad, since everyone knows that Tutankhamun dies at 19 — and if you know what happens between Ay and Horemheb afterwards, it’s even worse. That shadow hangs over the series, but not so heavily as to be a distraction.

Robinson does a great job of evoking her setting. She has clearly done her research when it comes to Egyptology — there are so many wonderful cultural nuances, everything from dressing rituals to furniture to food. It’s both alien and familiar, as is entirely appropriate for a world removed from ours by several thousand years. People are people, on the whole, motivated by more or less the same desires throughout history — but the dressings change. The morality is different. The etiquette is foreign. But Robinson brings the reader through it deftly. Only occasionally do her explanations get a little too heavy-handed, and she does have a habit of repeating herself. For the most part, however, she illustrates the world of the 18th Dynasty beautifully. She also handles the detective work nicely — an interesting feat without the benefits of modern science. A lot of what Meren does is simple deduction, or the sort of science that they had available to them (the Egyptians were, for example, experts on many poisons), but there’s also superstition and religion mixed up in it. For instance, when there’s a suspicious death, Meren brings in a priest to check for signs of magical interference. In this way, Robinson makes sure that the mystery-solving never feels anachronistic. Meren is a brilliant and capable man of his time, truly exceptional — but he remains a man of his time, not apart from it, which I appreciate.

All three books have snappy, quick-moving plots. In Place of Anubis, a man is killed in the sacred place of embalming, and his wife, sons, concubine, and coworkers all seem to have reason to have done it. In God’s Gate, one death, made to look like an accident, sets of a chain of murders pointing at a conspiracy among the priests. In Feast of Rejoicing, Meren’s cousin-by-marriage dies at his house, forcing him to examine his own relatives as potential suspects, all the while trying to protect his teenaged daughters from harm. Throughout all three, another mystery surfaces: the fate of Queen Nefertiti, assumed to have died of plague — but Meren comes to suspect it may not have been so simple a tragedy. He also has to work to keep the young king Tutankhamun sheltered, but without hobbling his growth as a ruler — and he has to help the king protect the mummified remains of Akhenaten, the very pharaoh who caused so many problems for Meren.

Lord Meren, his adopted son Kysen, and his daughter Bener (introduced only in the third book) are the best things about this series. They’re wonderful characters. Meren is haunted by the past, both by his own capitulation to the blasphemy of the Aten and to his role in Akhenaten’s death (a sin of omission more than anything else, but still a source of guilt for the honorable Meren). Akhenaten had Meren’s father killed, then imprisoned and tortured Meren into accepting his new god; during Akhenaten’s reign, Meren had to bear witness to all sorts of fits of madness, blasphemies, and desecrations, and he has never been able to forgive himself for being party to it. Akhenaten was also responsible for the murders of the wife and child of Meren’s cousin Ebana, a priest of Amun, causing lasting tension between them. Meren also has a jealous younger brother who was spoiled by their abusive father, a sly former friend and potential lover called Bentanta, a host of meddling relatives, and three daughters growing up too quickly for him to handle. Bener, the middle daughter, is fiendishly clever, with a tendency to buck proper gender roles in an attempt to help her father. Kysen was adopted by Meren as a child, plucked from his own abusive father, lifted from a commoner’s life to the glories of the court, and never quite comfortable there. He follows in Meren’s footsteps, learning the methods of detective work and interrogation, helping Meren to piece together the puzzles. Together, they make an intriguing and complex family.

I can happily recommend these books to fans of murder mysteries and historicals. I read them first when I was about 12, and I return to them every few years, just as light, easily digestible summer reads. They aren’t particularly deep or complex, but they are well-rendered, engaging, and well worth spending a few hours with. I would also recommend them to anyone who enjoys the Pendergast novels (as many of my followers do). There are some similarities between Meren and our beloved Aloysius, and the tangled family dynamics twisting into the murders has a similar appeal.

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