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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.

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The Serpent and the Rose, by Kathleen Bryan

Title: The Serpent and the Rose (War of the Rose #1)TheSerpentandtheRose
Author: Kathleen Bryan
Year of Publication: 2007
Length:  320 pages
Genre: high fantasy
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 2.5 stars

I liked the idea of this book, and yet there are also a lot of fundamental ways in which I feel cheated by it. Bryan starts to create a pretty fascinating world (it’s yet another spin on Ye Olde Medieval Europe, but I’m perfectly willing to forgive that in a book if it’s handled with enough creativity) — but she never allows the reader to do more than dip a toe into the universe. The same goes for the characters. We learn about them, but we never get to experience deep emotions along with them. As a result, the whole endeavour just feels critically lacking in some fundamental ways.

Okay. So. Lys (fantasy-France) is governed by a king, but since the realm is so de-centralized into numerous duchies, the real power seems to rest with various magical orders. The most powerful and prestigious of these is the Order of the Rose, which uses glasswork to form and shape magic. There’s a potentially cool mythology behind all of this — it’s pseudo-Christian, but slanted. The Young God defeated and bound the Serpent, with the help of the Magdalen and his Paladins, but somehow also died in the process (it’s a little unclear how exactly all of that went). The Paladins go on to found the aristocracy and also the Order of the Rose; the Magdalen is the first of the Ladies of the Isle (who seem to also be Order of the Rose, but not within its hierarchical structure). The book opens with Averil, who has been studying on the Isle, recalled to her duchy by her dying father. This happens amid rumors that King Clodovic has basically gone off the deep end and is making power-grabs, possibly using dark magic. Along the way, her path crosses with that of Gereint, a boy with unpredictable magical powers, raised in obscurity because his mother didn’t want to surrender him to any order. Their magic blends together really well, in ways that are apparently new and unheard of to the Order.

Averil and Gereint both ought to be interesting characters. They fall into the typical fantasy trope of the princess and the farmboy, but that does not, in of itself, have to be a bad thing. Averil takes pride in her discipline and her learning, but there is wild magic surging up inside her, and so she gets a lot of conflict out of that. Or should. It’s more glanced at than really explored. Meanwhile, Gereint is so ridiculously powerful that he keeps accidentally blowing things up, so clearly something needs to be done to take him in hand. Unfortunately… no one ever really does anything. Members of the Order of the Rose just keep shuffling him off to each other, swearing up and down it’s because they know he has potential. We also learn a lot through observation rather than experience — Gereint will tell us what he’s learned about Averil by watching her, or guess at her moods, or just know something for no readily explainable reason. There’s a lot of telling rather than showing going on, which always disengages me from a book.

The book also kept looking like it was going to do subversive things, so far as being part of the high fantasy genre is concerned, but then it shied away from them. The villain, for example — there’s actually opportunity for him to be really interesting. We get this chapter early on from his point of view, and it’s clear that he has some justification for his thought patterns. Because, yeah, it does seem like the status quo was stifling and stagnated, and in his own mind, he could really easily be a freedom fighter. “Serpent” doesn’t have to automatically equal “evil”, after all — and so when Bryan started down that road, I was thinking we were going to get a more nuanced allegory, where the Serpent side of things isn’t Evil, just Chaotic, and so naturally opposed to Lawful/Order, and the story would be about finding balance between the two. But, no, all of that drops away, we never get to see things from his perspective again, and he ends up just being a generic Big Bad who’s throwing his power around because he can.

And then there’s Averil and Gereint. I so wanted their story to be subversive, too, because they’re clearly thrust into this “our powers complement each other therefore we must be soulmates, but oh no, we are star-crossed because how can a duchess wed a lowly farmboy, woe is us!” thing. I kept waiting for them to, I dunno, not be in love with each other — to realise that, yeah, our powers work together really well, but that doesn’t mean we have to go all One True Love on each other, maybe we’re just destined to be really excellent coworkers. But no. Nothing unexpected there, which was a pity. It’s also a shame that, despite opening on an isle run entirely by female ages, it’s not very far into the book before Bryan removes from sight or just plain kills off all the other women, leaving Averil as The Chick. I’m growing really weary of the idea that there can only be one woman of consequence in a fantasy story.

Overall, what I would say is that this book lacks depth. And in high fantasy, that’s a pretty big sin. Swords and sorcery alone doesn’t cut it any more. You need detailed world-building and complex characters. The Serpent and the Rose falls short on all accounts. It’s not bad — it’s just not particularly good, either. I might finish out the trilogy at some point, because I am afflicted with pretty acute curiosity when it comes to needing to know how a story ends, but I’m won’t be in a real rush.

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Jinx High, by Mercedes Lackey

Title: Jinx High (Diana Tregarde #3)JinxHigh
Author: Mercedes Lackey
Year of Publication: 1991
Length: 336 pages
Genre: urban fantasy (more suburban fantasy, really)
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 3.5 stars

The third and final Diana Tregarde novel, Jinx High sees Tregarde visiting suburban sprawl in the Midwest at the behest of an old friend who senses something going terribly wrong in his town, but can’t place his finger on what it is. Strange accidents keep happening, claiming the lives of teenagers — and they all seem to center around blond, beautiful, perfect Fay Harper, queen bee of her high school. She’s hellbent on eliminating rivals, like newcomer Monica Carlin, and she’s sinking her claws into a series of boys, including Deke Kestral — whose parents happen to be ex-members of the Spook Squad Diana Tregarde ran in college. She comes in under the pretense of assistant-teaching a creative writing class at Deke’s high school, where she also becomes a mentor to Monica, an aspiring writer.

What’s interesting here is that we get a lot more of Diana from an outside viewpoint than in the other novels, with both Deke and Monica providing an external perspective. Even in the other two books, when we do see Diana from someone else’s eyes, it’s somebody who already knew her, like Mark in Burning Water. Here, we see how she’s interpreted by two teenagers who don’t know her and who have no reason to trust her, which makes for some interesting tension. Monica, under magical attack from an unknown source (which the reader knows to be Fay), eventually decides she has no choice but to trust Diana — but she’s still wary, worried that Diana could be the source of her troubles, luring her into a false sense of security. Deke, on the other hand, has no idea his parents have magical talents, and so when his dad asks Diana to come stay to sort things out in town while Deke’s mom happens to be out of town, Deke assumes the worst. He’s psychic, too, but has been powerfully shielded by his parents to protect him, but that also means he’s been kept ignorant and thus has never learned to manage his potential power himself.

Thanks to its setting, Jinx High is way more of a teen novel than the other two books in the series — which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because Lackey writes incredibly convincing teeangers. Monica and Deke are among the “good guys”, but they’re not perfect, and they have some very teenage flaws — they’re pushing boundaries, willing to be a little petty, a little snippy, a little ungrateful. And Fay uses the social tensions swirling about to build her own power in an interesting way. When she realizes that someone’s pushing back against her, she initially thinks it’s Monica and redoubles her efforts. Diana’s ready for her, though, even though it takes her a long time to figure out where the magic is coming from, thanks to some sophisticated misdirection on Faye’s part. There’s also an under-developed side plot involving an ancient Native American spirit sleeping beneath the city who must not be awoken at any cost. It serves to raise the stakes a bit, but isn’t used for much else. This novel almost escapes Lackey’s perpetual issue with abrupt climaxes. There’s a really great magical battle between Diana and Fay, with great energy, high stakes, and prolonged tension. Unfortunately… that’s the penultimate confrontation. The final bit goes by as fast as ever, and with half of the pertinent characters in another location. And the wrap-up, as is typical, happens in about a page and a half. I will confess, however, that Lackey got me with Fay. I totally guessed wrong what she was all about and where her power came from, so I was pleased to encounter a thoroughly unexpected plot twist.

I would say I liked this book better than Children of the Night but not as well as Burning Water. Definitely worth a read for fans of urban fantasy. It’s sad that Lackey stopped writing these due to poor sales back in the early ’90s, because I think the market would eat them up now. Despite her flaws, Tregarde’s a far better heroine than Kim Harrison’s Rachel. It could also be great to re-invent the idea of her Spook Squad, hinted at throughout this trilogy but, since it apparently existed in the late-60s and early-70s, never actually seen, for the modern age.

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Two Graves, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Title: Two Graves (Pendergast #12, Helen Trilogy #3)TwoGraves
Authors: Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
Year of Publication: 2012
Length: 578 pages
Genre: thriller
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 4 stars
Spoiler Warning: It’s going to be very hard to discuss this book without significant spoilers. I will begin with a spoiler-free section (for this book, at least; it would be absolutely impossible to try and talk about this book without spoiling Cold Vengeance, so if you haven’t read that and intend to, turn around now), and then will have a clearly-marked spoilerful section beneath a cut. Read at your own risk.

This book picks up immediately where Cold Vengeance left off, as Helen Esterhazy Pendergast gets kidnapped mere moments after being reunited with our beloved Aloysius. Despite a bullet wound, he takes off after her, following a trail south to Mexico — but when things take a turn for the worse, his quest eventually leads him all the way to South America, hunting down the neo-Nazi organization Der Bund.

As I said in my Cold Vengeance review, Nazi themes really do nothing for me. P&C handle it fairly well, at least creating a somewhat plausible reason for a Nazi cell to have survived for decades without any intervention or investigation. And I did learn a few things about early German colonization in Brazil (which happened long, long before the Nazis — Brazil apparently wanted to attract new settlers so much that they were offering cash). Our familiar friends are out of the way pretty early, present for the New York half of the book, but absent when Pendergast goes abroad. His allies in Brazil, a local honest colonel and a cohort of hand-picked men eager to root out the shadowy Nazi organization lurking in their district, don’t offer much in the way of supporting characters, which is a shame. P&C are capable of creating really great secondary characters, but these guys ultimately felt a lot like Ned Betterton — superfluous and under-drawn.

The pacing of this book is great, though. There’s no real lull in the action, and Pendergast’s emotional journey is as twisted as ever.For all that he’s brilliant and knows how to manipulate the feelings of others to get what he wants, he’s clearly never learnt to deal with his own all that well, but rather to bury them or dismiss them as illogical (there’s something a little Vulcan-esque about A.X.L.P. sometimes, really). It’s once again taking him far, far out of his comfort zone, into a place where his preternatural detective skills can’t actually fix everything, and I appreciate that P&C are willing to do that to their character. We also get to see more of Corrie Swanson in this book, which thrills me (it also reveals that, in-universe, it’s only been four years since the events of Still Life with Crows). I can see her going in a really exciting direction, now that she’s studying criminal justice. I wonder if — and hope that — P&C are grooming her and their readers to set her up as the next primary protagonist for the series. There’s also further development of Constance’s story (which is, if possible, even stranger than Pendergast’s). Two Graves is engaging and well-rounded without ever feeling over-stuffed.

Spoiler Territory: From here on out, consider yourself warned. The significant spoilers start really early in this book, so some of this is discussing things that happen within the first 100 pages — but are still, I think, worth warning about. The rest, however, will go all the way through the end of the book and will discuss the trilogy as a whole.

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Children of the Night, by Mercedes Lackey

Title: Children of the Night (Diana Tregarde #2)ChildrenoftheNight
Author: Mercedes Lackey
Year of Publication: 1990
Length: 320 pages
Genre: urban fantasy
New or Re-Read? Re-Read
Rating: 3 stars

My first problem with this book is figuring out when it’s set relative to Burning Water. Though the second book in the series, published later, it seems to take place earlier. Much earlier, perhaps. 10-15 years earlier, possibly, given that Burning Water is explicitly set in the late ’80s, but Children of the Night has all these weird references to Watergate. But that’s never made exactly clear, and that sort of thing will bother me for an entire book.

Sometime in the 1970s-ish, Diana Tregarde is living in New York, helping out a friend by keeping an eye on her occult store while the friend is out of town. A lot of her days there involve protecting wanna-bes from themselves, protecting dabblers from . As a Guardian, she has to help anyone who asks for it, so when a young Romany boy shows up looking for sanctuary, she helps to cover his tracks — but she can’t move fast enough to save him from the predatory “Master” Jeffries, an elusive creeper who sets off Diana’s alarms the first time she sees him. Unfortunately, Diana’s also dealing with psychic blowback from a mysterious earlier encounter with a damaging paranormal creature, which Lackey dangles over the reader’s head for most of the book and then only sort of explains to any satisfaction.

By twist of fate, Jeffries is also the new de facto manager of Wanderlust, a rock band for which Dave, one of Diana’s ex-boyfriends, currently plays. Jeffries exerts some strange control over Dave and his bandmates, transforming them into the super-successful Children of the Night — but at a high price. Dave finds himself constantly tired except when he’s playing music, hardly able to function during daylight hours, and ravenously hungry all the time. And then his bandmates start turning seriously sadistic. Dave has to decide whether to get with their game or to find some way to retain his sanity and morality despite Jeffries’s influence. Eventually, Diana traces some weird deaths to Jeffries, and the plots collide.

Children of the Night is a weaker book in many ways than Burning Water, and that combined with the earlier setting makes me wonder if this wasn’t written first but published later. Diana Tregarde is a less compelling character, more waffly, less capable. The secondary “protagonist” (a term I’m using pretty loosely here) isn’t terribly sympathetic. And the writing itself just isn’t as strong. There’s a heavy over-reliance on italics, both for emphasis and for internal monologues. Lackey has her usual problem with the rapidity of the climax and denouement (and I really look forward to the day when I can review one of her books without noting that), but through the rest of the book, the tension builds at a good pace.

I do enjoy this book’s approach to vampires (never a favorite theme of mine in general). The antagonists are two different types of non-traditional vampires: psychic vampires, who feed off of energy rather than blood, and the gaki, a hungry spirit which can take the form of smoke or mist. Tregarde draws from Japanese tradition for the gaki, though the creature actually seems to originate in Indian folklore. And then there’s the actual vampire, the traditional blood-sucking kind, who undermines the stereotypes in satisfying ways. If more modern paranormal followed the same lines as Lackey’s early entries into the urban-fantasy genre, I might be more interested in them on the whole. From back in 1990, she puts Meyer and Harrison utterly to shame.

So, overall, I think this is the weakest Diana Tregarde novel, but it’s still a fine investment of a few hours. The plot is captivating enough, the psychic vampires are a nice modern twist on an ancient concept, and Lackey’s exploration of magical concepts is always entertaining.

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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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Burning Water, by Mercedes Lackey

Title: Burning Water (Diana Tregarde #1)BurningWater
Author: Mercedes Lackey
Year of Publication: 1989
Length: 336 pages
Genre: urban fantasy
New or Re-Read? Re-Read
Rating: 4 stars

Something strange is going on in Dallas: a series of animal mutilations, grouped in threes and spaced about three weeks apart, growing in intensity and in general gruesomeness with each new cycle. When the crimes turn from animal slaughter to murder of Dallas residents, detective Mark Valdez calls in the cavalry in the form of his old friend Diana Tregarde, a Guardian with considerable magical powers. Mark’s psychically sensitive, himself, and has gotten the whiff of something supernatural around these murders. He brings Di on as a “cult specialist”, so far as the DFW PD is concerned, to cover for the occult matters they begin investigating.

The culprits, Mark and Diana learn (and the reader knows from the beginning, so I’m not giving anything away here) are reincarnations of the Aztec deity Tezcatlipoca and his handmaidens, in the bodies of a fashion photographer and his four native-blooded muses. Driven by the deities inhabiting them, they set out on a crusade to rid their America of the invaders who stole it from the Aztec people a few centuries ago. (Exactly why they move up out of Mexico and into Dallas to do this is never 100% explained, but never mind). Their ritual sacrifices are ratcheting up to something big, and it’s up to Mark and Diana to figure out what and to stop them.

This is not just urban fantasy, but also a great thriller. Mark and Diana have to put the pieces of the puzzle together, and while the reader does get to see behind the villains’ scenes as well, that doesn’t answer all of the questions from the start, so there’s still a lot to discover along with the protagonists. Lackey doesn’t shy away from the gore: the descriptions of what happens to Tezcatlipoca’s victims are unsparing, and it really helps to drive the sense of urgency to the novel. As with most of her books, Lackey demonstrates a firm grasp of how the magic in her world works, which I always appreciate. Magic has to have rules, and fantasy novels that ignore that tend to piss me off. Lackey knows what she’s doing in that regard: Diana operates in certain ways based on her own internal power, whereas the Aztecans are stealing power from those that they sacrifice, and then the power manifests in ways that make sense. I don’t know enough about Aztec mythology or culture to know how accurately she portrays any of it, but it doesn’t seem wildly out of line, and it’s definitely a refreshing change from the usual Old World representations of magic.

What I find really cool is that — this book feels more modern than it is. Ignoring a few fashion references, the limitations of computers, and the lack of cell phones, it has the energy and edginess I associate with more recent entries in the urban fantasy genre. It was also one of the first books to treat with modern paganism as something, well, normal. I mean, overlooking the resurrected Aztec gods and things. But for a book written in 1989 and set in 1986, it does a lot to normalize paganism as a religion, and I enjoyed seeing the view of it from that far back.

This book does have the somewhat typical Lackey problem of rushed climax, but it does at least allow a little room for denouement. I actually find the penultimate incident, just before Mark and Diana go to the final confrontation, super-interesting and inventive. Lackey also does get somewhat heavy-handed with the metaphysical explanations at a few points. I don’t really mind it, since I enjoy reading about those things and contemplating them, but to someone with less investment in them, I can see where it could start to grate. I also wonder how much of that has to be attributed to its publication date, when less of the reading public was likely to be familiar with the concepts she’s describing.

However, despite those drawbacks, I can cheerfully recommend Burning Water to urban fantasy fans of all stripes, especially if you’re interested in getting a somewhat earlier look at the genre. I think particularly anyone who enjoys Kim Harrison’s work or the Sookie Stackhouse novels would find a lot to appreciate in Diana Tregarde. I personally like it much, much better than I liked the few Hollows novels I managed to get through, not least because it has a more sensible heroine and a world with better internal consistency. I’d also recommend it to someone who enjoys the Pendergast novels but also enjoys fantasy, because these have a similar tone to Preston & Child’s work, particularly to some of the earlier books in the series — just that where P&C use speculative science as their prime motivator, Lackey uses magic. Similar feel, but different forces at work.

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Utopia, by Lincoln Child

Title: UtopiaUtopia
Author: Lincoln Child
Year of Publication: 2003
Length: 464 pages
Genre: thriller
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 3.75 stars

I’m terrified of roller coasters. It isn’t the speed or the height or the drops — it’s that I don’t trust them. Whenever I board one, I cannot get past the suspicion that it’s going to break and kill me. I’m someone who doesn’t like being out of control, and so I don’t get a thrill from consigning my body to a contraption of steel and electronics for the sole purpose of having the living daylights scared out of me. I just plain don’t find roller coasters fun.

This book is certainly not going to help my opinion of them. The incident in the first chapter of the book, where a child comes loose of the safety bar thanks to an electronic engineering failure, is literally the stuff of my nightmares. But that exploration of worst case scenarios was, bizarrely, part of what made this book so fascinating for me (even if it will make it even more challenging to board “The Mummy Ride” the next time I’m in Orlando).

Utopia takes place in an imagined theme park in Nevada — and, roller coasters aside, it’s a theme park I’d love to go to. It envisions the sort of immersive experience that many theme parks (such as the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and WDW’s New Fantasyland) are moving towards, integrating total environmental details, committed cast members, and, most critically for the book, new technology in robotics and holograms. Divided into four sections — medieval Camelot, foggily romantic Victorian Gaslight, the cheery seaside Boardwalk, and the futuristic Callisto, with waterpark Atlantis in development — Utopia aims to dissociate its guests from reality for the length of a day.

This is a really fun book to read if you know a lot about theme parks. For all that I hate roller coasters, I love Busch Gardens, Disney World, and Universal Studios, and I have friends who’ve worked at those parks, which means I know more than the average visitor about how they work. Reading Utopia is sort of like playing catch-the-reference: many of its secrets are based on those of Disney World. Child spends a lot of time detailing the parks themselves, and honestly, those were my favourite parts of the book. I like knowing how things like that work, so when he discusses the decompression methods that the park uses to transition guests into each of the park’s worlds, or talks about the cast members moving in the “subterranean” layers, or about the interactive elements of the parks’ environment, I was totally engaged and fascinated.

The conflict of the book comes from a gang of criminals determined to incite mayhem and, by doing so, milk the park for its technological secrets and quite a bit of cash. A network of specialists, largely unknown to each other, works to infiltrate the park’s computer and security systems. Their hacking causes a few “warning signals” at first — initially harmless though annoying shutdowns and malfunctions, and then the first real calamity, the coaster accident in the first chapter of the book. Initially believing it to be a problem with the robotics, the park calls in Andrew Warne, a genius computer engineer who designed the system — he thinks he’s being solicited to help with the Atlantis expansion, but really they want him to take his systems off-line for repairs. He happens to arrive on the same day that the criminals make their presence known, issuing a threat to the park administration that if their demands are met, no one gets hurt — but that if they aren’t met, all of the park’s 65,000 guests are in potential jeopardy. Unfortunately, his presence spooks the gang, who weren’t counting on the park having someone who could possibly root them out — and who make a target not only of Warne, but of his daughter Georgia, whom he brought to the park with him.

There’s a sub-conflict, too, and one which I sort of wish had gotten more attention: the idea that, by focusing so much attention on the roller coasters and thrill rides rather than on the immersive world experience, the park has drifted away from the vision of its creator, who died before he could see his dream fulfilled. That fuels a lot of the inner turmoil for Warne, who was a friend of the creator and who got edged out of the park after his death. Warne also had a relationship with the current park manager, Sarah Boatwright, which influences the dynamics on the personal side of the story.

My biggest complaint about the book is that I felt like it rather pulled its punches. I’ve gotten used to the unflinching horror of P&C’s Pendergast series, and Preston’s stand-alones are pretty gruesome, too. Almost every incident in Utopia, however, turns out to be not quite as bad as Child initially leads the reader to believe. As a result, the stakes don’t feel quite as high as they ought to. Logically, you know that disaster could be imminent — but for most of the book, the heat and the tension just isn’t there. Coming into this straight after re-reading Relic and Reliquary may not have been the best idea, in retrospect, because it caused a dissociation between what I was expecting and what the book ended up giving me.

I also feel like there were some missed opportunities with the technology. Child spends a lot of time talking about how the park uses technology to manipulate emotions as well as to entertain — scents and sounds that create “good vibes”. It led me to expect that part of the villains’ scheme would be to use the emotions of the park guests against them — to change those sensory input systems to trigger fear, panic, violence rather than joy and contentment. By contrast, what the villains actually ended up doing with bombs, weaponry, and electronics just seemed crude. (It’s also really, really easy to figure out who one of the criminals is, if you’re someone who can pick up on the right sort of information — I don’t want to give it away, since it’s meant to be an element of suspense and confusion, but… well, for me, because of a very particular skill set I have, it was almost ridiculously obvious).

Child clearly did his research when it comes to amusement parks, though, and his skill at keeping a plot tripping along is as good as ever. Utopia makes me wonder if he’s often responsible for the victim-viewpoint chapters in the Pendergast novels, since that’s a trope we get here that I don’t recall seeing much in Preston’s solo work. It’s something I enjoy in a book, and a testament to a writer’s skill, to draw a realistic character than a reader will care about in just an introductory page or two.

On the whole, Utopia is an engaging and creative thriller, even if I feel like it missed a few opportunities. I can cheerfully recommend it to anyone who likes P&C’s work, to lovers of thrillers and suspense, and to those fascinated by theme parks and their operations.

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World Without End, by Ken Follett

Title: World Without EndWorldWithoutEnd (Kingsbridge)
Author: Ken Follett
Year of Publication: 2007
Length: 1025 pages
Genre: historical fiction
New or Re-Read? Re-Read
Rating: 4 stars

Kingsbridge of the 14th century is a different place than Kingsbridge of the 12th. Two hundred years does a lot for England, and the sense that you get in World Without End is that it’s more advanced yet less imaginative in some ways, more dogmatic but less truly spiritual. Politics are no more stable than ever, but at least they more or less confine themselves to the nobles, rather than tearing apart the countryside in civil war like in Stephen and Maud’s time. There’s a sense of stagnation. Things are the way they are because that’s the way they’ve been, and few people think to question it. Life is more orderly, and less free.

And then the plague hits, and everything changes.

The book starts about twenty years before the plague, when Merthin and Ralph, sons of a knight who’s fallen on hard times, join up with Caris, daughter of the richest wool merchant in town, and Gwenda, daughter of a landless labourer, playing in the woods on a festival day. They oversee an altercation between several knights. The survivor, Thomas, makes Merthin help him to hide a letter, with the promise to deliver it if he should hear of Thomas’s death. The mystery clearly has dangerous political origins, but Merthin can’t learn anything more about it, and Thomas enters the monastery, determined to live a quiet life from now on.

Ten years later, Caris and Merthin are in love, Ralph is struggling to win acclaim as a squire, and Gwenda is pursuing the serf Wulfric. Their trials are, as you can imagine, many. Caris can’t figure out what her place in the world should be, as a clever woman who would like to be a physician but clearly can’t be, and Merthin is finishing an apprenticeship under a master who is jealous of his talent (a descendant of Jack Builder, Merthin has clearly inherited that genius). Unlike in Pillars of the Earth, the enemies are inside the walls here. The prior, Godwyn, is no righteous protector of the city, but a greedy abuser of it, and he has help from Gwenda’s brother Philemon, a sycophantic kleptomaniac. The townspeople and the nuns both find themselves at odds with the monastery under his leadership, and Merthin and Caris in particular have to battle him for the good of Kingsbridge — particularly when it comes to rebuilding the bridge into town following its collapse. From Gwenda, we see the point of view of the lowest of the low — and the main villain in her piece is Merthin’s brother Ralph, no noble knight, but a raping and murdering brute whose shame over his own failures leads him to oppress his tenants.

It’s hard to talk about a lot of this book without giving away major plot points, but suffice it to say that World Without End does a nice job examining the major social changes happening in England in the early- to mid-fourteenth century. Years of famine and poor weather start the trickle, racheting up the tensions between the peasantry and the nobility, and then the plague turns the tables entirely. For the first time, the lower classes have power, in the form of a labour shortage — with fields going untilled and harvests going unreaped, landless labourers can demand higher wages, and even serfs try to negotiate new terms for their tenancies. The plague also up-ends religion in some major ways, making some people doubt the power of God, leading others to give themselves over to fanaticism. I remember how astonished I was back in high school, when my AP Euro teacher explained to us (with the backing of Simon Schama) that without the Black Death, the Renaissance likely could not have happened. This book doesn’t cover enough of a span of time to really see that happen, but you can see the first snowballs of the avalanche.

I enjoy this book, but I feel like it falls down in a lot of places that Pillars of the Earth doesn’t. For one thing, its villains don’t have the sort of sweeping power that the original’s do. There’s no one with the sort of broad scope and vaulting ambition that Bishop Waleran had. Godwyn and Philemon don’t demonstrate any larger aims — they’re confined to Kingsbridge, and the things they choose to care about are so much more petty, so small, so pedestrian. They’re middle managers, not evil overlords. Even Ralph’s sadism pales next to that of his opposite number from Pillars, William Hamleigh. William at least had drive as an antagonist. He was a brute, no intellectual and no planner, but he had naked hunger and a lust for revenge in him, which made him a more interesting opponent. Ralph is just a thug. His villainy is almost casual.

Caris feels anachronistic in ways that Aliena doesn’t. I don’t know if Follett was attempting to write a heroine that would more strongly appeal to modern female readers, but mostly it just ends up ringing falsely. Her desire for such complete and total independence just isn’t rational inside the world she lives in — but even more than that, it also comes off more as selfishness than as some sort of proto-feminism. I do appreciate that she comes to find satisfaction in her work, as it demonstrates that she’s not totally irreconcilable with her reality, but still, there is so much in her attitude that seems peevish rather than autonomous. She wants people to do as she wishes, but she doesn’t want to give anything back, and she’s hellbent on the idea that forming any sort of attachment to anyone will jeopardize her own sense of self. The secondary female characters — Lady Phillippa, Mattie, Madge — actually give a more realistic view of how a woman could be successful and as independent as possible in the Middle Ages while still being part of her family and community. Unfortunately, as in Pillars of the Earth, we never get any other female POVs, so we don’t get to experience a lot from that angle. I also end up finding the romantic drama between Caris and Merthin tedious, rather than inspiring. Their conflict never really changes, and it takes them rather longer than seems sensible to arrive at the logical solution to their problems.

The book’s views on medicine are also somewhat anachronistic, but I’m more willing to forgive that as cast in the same light as the exceptionalism in Pillars of the Earth. Such wholesale rejection of the theories of Galen wouldn’t start happening in Europe for about another century, though, and it wouldn’t really catch on in the general populace until much later on. The same goes for some of the religious notions that creep in towards the end of the book.

Despite all of that, World Without End is still a cut above a lot of historical fiction. I appreciate how much Follett deals with those outside the aristocratic sphere — townspeople, merchants, nuns, priors, and serfs. Gwenda in particular is a great character: tough as nails, pragmatic, hard-working, and sharp-tongued. Caris’s cleverness is great fun when she’s not being too cantankerous, and through Merthin we get more insights into architecture and principles of building. The world is well-drawn and detailed, breathing in a way that makes it easy to visualise life in a village of the fourteenth century. The book also deals, without much obliqueness, with the idea of homosexual relationships in the medieval period, a topic which gets little treatment, either in non-fiction or fiction. I appreciate Follett’s willingness to combat the erasure. Really it only suffers by comparison to its exemplary predecessor, which is perhaps an unfair mark to hold it against. If you enjoy historical fiction, and if you like a good long epic as much as I do, you’ll enjoy World Without End.

Follett has announced that he intends to write a third Kingsbridge novel, which he will probably begin writing in 2014. I can’t express how fervently I hope that it’s going to take place another two hundred years later, during the dissolution of the monasteries. It would be a perfect way to round out the trilogy — watching how the town deals with the Reformation, factions on each side, trying to protect the books and artwork belonging to the cathedral and the monastery when so many across England were destroyed — there’s just so much potential! I’ll be eagerly awaiting further word.

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The Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett

Title: The Pillars of the Earth PillarsoftheEarth(Kingsbridge #1)
Author: Ken Follett
Year of Publication: 1989
Length: 983 pages
Genre: historical fiction
New or Re-Read? Re-Read
Rating: 4.5 stars

I love an epic. I particularly love a historical epic. And The Pillars of the Earth, set primarily during the 12th century civil war between Stephen and Maud, is about as good as they come.

A monk named Philip, who believes God has a mission for him, sets out to reform a tiny monastic cell in the woods, but ends up prior of the Kingsbridge monastery, seat of the Kingsbridge bishopric. He initially thinks of Archdeacon Waleran as an ally, but when he realises that Waleran shamelessly manipulated him in order to get himself appointed Bishop of Kingsbridge, Philip vows never to be blindsided like that again. Though an extremely clever man and a capable organizer, Philip begins the book with almost astonishing naivete — not even in general ignorance, but because he, a man whose intentions are always good and peaceful, has trouble conceiving that not everyone is as honest as he is. Just as he’s taking control of the monastery, his path crosses with that of Tom Builder, a genius architect and master mason. Unfortunate circumstances have left Tom out of work: he had been building a mansion for a local knight’s son, William Hamleigh, who was meant to marry an earl’s daughter, Aliena, but Aliena refuses to have the boorish oaf, and with the wedding off, William cancels the house as well. Tom and his family wander in the woods looking for work, but when his wife died in childbirth in the wilderness, Tom decides to expose the infant they cannot care for. (This infant will later end up in the care of the Kingsbridge monks). In the woods, he encounters the outlaw Ellen and her son Jack. Ellen has been living in the forest for over a decade, after she cursed a monk, a priest, and a knight for unjustly hanging Jack’s father, but she falls in love with Tom and decides to accompany him, also believing that Jack needs exposure to civilization. In order to assure Tom of work and their family of stability, Jack starts a fire in the Kingsbridge cathedral, bringing it to the ground — and Philip gives Tom the job of master builder to design him a new and more glorious building. Meanwhile, Aliena’s father gets involved with the first phase of the rebellion against King Stephen, but the Hamleighs get wind of it and seize his castle. William brutally rapes Aliena and disfigures her brother Richard; Aliena later escapes and finds her father in prison. He makes her swear an oath to help Richard recover the earldom from the Hamleighs — but first she has to keep from starving to death. After several failed attempts at other jobs, she takes to purchasing wool fleeces from peasants to sell to the markets — but immediately finds that she’ll be cheated simply because no one will pay a girl what they’d pay a man. Prior Philip comes to her rescue, buying her wool at a fair price and allowing her to get herself and her brother back on their feet.

And this is all only in the first section of the book. Throughout the novel, Philip and the rest have to contend with the scheming Waleran, the murdering brute William, and his insidious mother Regan, among other petty enemies, all of whom want to see the Kingsbridge Cathedral fail. They find themselves in a delicate balance during the civil war and the Anarchy, when Stephen and Maud trade power, and when, more often than not, the rule of law means next to nothing. And for a lot of the book, the good guys lose. It’s hard to get through at points, because it just seems so damned unfair — but there’s always a glimmer of hope, always some way that the clever, resourceful, loyal people will win out over the vicious and mean-spirited, and so, as a reader, you plunge along with them.

Follett is a masterful storyteller. He nimbly balances the need to convey information about the time period with his character building, something that’s not easy to do. The technical explanations can easily drown the human story if you’re not careful. And make no mistake, a reader of Pillars of the Earth will learn a lot, not just about the Anarchy, but about the social history of the Middle Ages, about the ecclesiastical hierarchy and monastic daily life, about masonry and geometry, about fulling and parish guilds and medieval war tactics. Yet somehow, it all feels naturally conveyed, not like a lecture, because all of those details are integral to the characters’ lives. The cathedral is, appropriately, a framework, but the story is about how people live with each other. 

Philip is incredibly clever and generous of heart, but he’s also somewhat dogmatic and more than a little prideful. He struggles with that, knowing he should learn better humility, but finding it incredibly difficult — which, as any gifted student can attest, is a real challenge when you know you’re a mile smarter than anyone around you. By contrast, Tom Builder is quietly confident and incredibly smart, while being completely illiterate. He yearns to build something beautiful, something to last the ages, but he struggles with the secret of having abandoned his infant son in the woods — and as the boy grows up in the monastery, Tom has to try not to give himself away. He also has a blind spot where his older son is concerned, as Alfred is an unabashed bully, and moreover, not remotely talented. He’s a competent workman, but not intelligent or imaginative; all that he is comes from brute strength, which he has no compunction about using on those smaller and weaker than him — including his sister Martha and stepbrother Jack. That leads to conflict in the family, as Ellen tries to call Tom out on his favoritism. Jack is a strange boy at first, poorly socialized, but he soon proves himself a genius as well, who quickly takes to the intellectual challenges of building. And then there’s Aliena, an incredible woman who pretty much everyone falls in love with, but who rejects all advances. Follett does a nice job conveying the psychological reality of a rape survivor in a world with even less sympathy for that condition than our own. Aliena builds a tough shell around her, but triggers still leap up to surprise her, and they definitely continue to affect her life for years afterwards. Aliena is a Scarlett O’Hara figure in a lot of ways. She comes from privilege but suffers incredible trauma, then has to claw her way back to some semblance of stability, and every time she thinks she’s making advances, something slaps her back down. She keeps going, though, putting her shoulder to the wind and braving her way through every challenge. She also has the misfortune of being a supremely intelligent woman in a world that doesn’t reward that: her brother Richard, while not a fundamentally bad person, is listless and lazy, suited for nothing but soldiership, ungrateful for the assistance he receives and embarrassed to have to take it. The last POV character, interestingly enough, is William — and I do find it interesting that Follett gives us so much insight into his head. He’s not even the prime mover among the villains — that would be Waleran. He’s all muscle, brute force, and senseless violence, a pustule of indignant fury and irrational resentment. I suspect a lot of the reason for making him a POV is to heighten the tension for the heroes. The reader frequently knows that something terrible is about to happen, and the terror of wondering how the Kingsbridge set will defend themselves drives much of the novel.

The book sometimes falls prey to accusations of historical inaccuracy, and there are a few — a very few, and they’re pretty nit-picky details (the name Francis would have been unlikely for a Welsh peasant; sugar was not yet widely available; British squirrels don’t hibernate; etc). Many of the things I suspect most people would take as inaccuracies are actually the result of common misconceptions about the medieval period. Many of the characters have attributes which in the 12th century would have been extraordinary, but not impossible. There was more of a middle class than high school history classes let on. The economic power which Aliena wrests from her society would not have been the norm, but it would not have been even particularly uncommon. Many women took over businesses after husbands, brothers, or fathers died. What makes Aliena more unusual is that she managed it at such a young age without having married first. And we do see that it’s a struggle for her, and we see the traps that religion and economy lay for her — but still, there were women who did as she did. The brilliance of Tom and Jack is likewise unusual, but clearly there were men of such prodigious intelligence and talent. Even Ellen isn’t impossible, and I do thank Follett for not attaching any overt pagan religion to her. She’s anti-Christian and makes oaths “by all the gods”, but there’s no pretense of making her a Druidess or anything. Her curses are firmly grounded in folk superstition. It’s unusual that as many characters in the book would be bilingual as they are, but Follett at least gives plausible explanations in each case. On the whole, this book offers more authenticity than it doesn’t.

There are only a couple of things that ding this book down from being a solid 5 stars, for me. One is is that the delineation between good and bad is a little too neat. While the POV characters are fabulously complex people, they and their opposite numbers still come down very solidly on either side of the morality line. Philip, Tom, Aliena, Jack good; William, Waleran, Alfred, Regan bad. While Follett does a lot to explore various psychological and emotional realities, no one’s really presented as morally grey. I also think that more female characters could use detailed attention. Aliena is, as I’ve said, fantastic, but she’s really the only woman whose head we get a look into — and she’s the POV for fewer pages than any of the other main characters. Ellen, also fantastic, is off-screen for too much of the book, and she’s never a POV character. Regan is barely more than a stock villainess, Martha is broadly overlooked, and no other female characters rank higher than tertiary status.

Overall, The Pillars of the Earth is just flat-out a masterpiece. It’s beyond engaging, it’s absorbing. Follett makes England of 900 years ago seem real and vital, full of believable people, relatable despite its differences from the world we live in now (and, in some cases, he makes it apparent how little people have changed in nearly a millennium). Reading a thousand-page book is always an investment, but it’s one I very seriously recommend that any fan of historical fiction make for The Pillars of the Earth.

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