selenak: (Default)
For once, I manage to write my book reviews on a Wednesday.

Sam Bourne: To Kill the President

It was to be expected: the first Donald Trump era thriller (that I've read). Which takes full advantage of the fact that when previously any critic worth their salt would have complained about the one dimensional characterisation of the villains and the lack of realism in the US voting someone like that into power and then the Republican Party falling in line, followed by no checks and balances from any institution after even the Supreme Court caves due to the stolen seat being filled by the new President's choice, now all this looks like, well, realism.

Spoilers from an age where reality beggars caricature )


Philip Kerr: March Violets.

This is the first novel of a mystery series which I heard/read about via The New Yorker. The article in question was enthusiastic enought to overcome my instinctive squick at the premise, to wit: hard-boiled/noir detective novel set in the Third Reich. Basically, what if Philip Marlowe was German? Wandering those mean streets as a cynic with an ethical core takes a whole new meaning if the authories aren't just corrupt but a dictatorship preparing for war and genocide. Our hero is Bernie Gunther, former policeman who quit the force in 1933 for the obvious reason given that the novel positions he has ethics, and became a private investigator instead. Kerr serves up all the usual hard boiled/ noir tropes - untrustworthy millionaire clients, corrupt cops, shady dames -, complete with Chandleresque language, and he did his research - the novel's setting is Berlin in 1936, around the Olympic Games, and in addition to the well drawn Berlin geography, there are some great nods to Fritz Lang's movie M via some of the supporting cast, gangsters (given that Bernie Gunther originally gets hired to recover some diamonds, though of course it turns out it's far more complicated and what everyone is after is something else altogether. The brief appearances by historic figures (Göring and Heydrich, to be precise) are drawn credibly, which is to say their vileness comes across without Kerr employing sledge-hammery moustache twirling; in fact, he uses Göring's bonhommie manners to make him chilling.

As opposed to To Kill a President, this actually is a good novel. But. I still struggle somewhat with the basic premise. This is the first novel of what according ot the New Yorker article I'd read are twelve so far, and already I'm having to suspend disbelief about Bernie's continued survival. There's no reason why Heydrich at the end of this first novel shouldn't have gotten him killed, for example. And since we're in 1936, Bernie would still have the possibility to leave the country, and given what happens to him in this novel, it's hard to wonder why he doesn't, given he has no dependants who'd suffer for it. Yes, the decision to emigrate wasn't as easy as hindsight would have it if you weren't rich and didn't have friends abroad, but again, some truly harrowing things happen to Bernie in this novel which would serve as an incentive to get the hell out of Germany if ever there was one beyond the general situation of the country.

With this caveat, I'll keep reading.
selenak: (Bayeux)
I have no idea whether any of this applies anymore; probably not. But: If, for a century or so until my generation, you were a German child and enjoyed reading, chances were you were presented with "Greek and Roman Myths" by Gustav Schwab for your fist Communion (if you were Catholic) or presumably at some other occasion applying to Lutherans & other religions (or no religion at all). I was, and a life long fascination with myths was born. I didn't discover until later when I got around to reading the Iliad, Ovid etc. that Gustav Schwab, Wilhelminian that he was, had definitely bowdlerized the myths in his retelling at some places, usually to make the Gods look a bit better. But still: Schwab's Myths, the shorthand designation, was an incredibly popular follow up present to the Grimms' Fairy Tales by well meaning relations for generations of children. (Speaking of the Grimms, Jacob G. also edited a collection of "German Heroic Myths", and I did read that one later, too, but the Greeks and Gustav Schwab definitely got there first.

Why do I bring this up? Because when reading Neil Gaiman's Norse Myths, it struck me that this is the ideal new First-Communion-gift. It's a good introduction to the 16 or so stories told in the Edda, witty and well written. A retelling of the Edda-version myths themselves, not a novella or novel using the myths as a basis, and not one assuming you know the stories or versions of them already. (As opposed to, say, the way Gaiman uses myths in the Sandman saga, or of course in American Gods.) There's a playful narrative voice that definitely seems to be a adressing a younger audience, without, however, patronizing it, as in delightfully creepy touch:

Look up in the sky: you're looking at the inside of Ymir's skull. The stars you see at night, the planets, all the comets and the shooting stars, these are the sparks that flew at the fires of Muspell. And the clouds you see by day? These were once Ymir's brains, and who knows what thoughts they are thinking, even now.

(As opposed to Gustav Schwab, Gaiman isn't interested in making the Gods look less dastardly.)

If you're a reader already familiar with Norse myths and/or Gaiman's other works, you get the occasional cross referencing kick, as in:

He had done as his dreams had told him, but dreams know more than they reveal, even to the wisest of the gods.


And are amused and things like this summing up of Loki:

That was the thing about Loki. You resented him even if you were at your most grateful, and you were grateful to him even when you hated him the most.,

or at this dialogue between a giant and his wife (in one of the stories where Thor and Loki are undercover)

"He's our son's friend, and an enemy to your enemies, so you have to be nice to him."
"I am grim of mind and wrathful of spirit and I have no desire to be nice to anyone" (...).


At the same time, despite my fondness for myths and general fondness for most writings of Neil Gaiman, I can't say this book accessed my emotions the way some other retellings of myths I already know did (say, as when I first read Ted Hughes' Tales from Ovid, which I think is a fair comparison, as comparisons to novels etc. would not be). Except for one occasion. When Neil Gaiman retells the binding of Fenrir, I was jolted out of being amused and entertained into being fascinated, horrified and feeling sympathy where I had never done before. Poor Fenrir. And also, Tyr! Spoilery to this book thoughts follow. )

In conclusion: liked it very much indeed without loving it, will know what to present Young People of Aquaintance with on next possible occasion.
selenak: (Clone Wars by Jade Blue Eyes)
Kieron Gillen: Darth Vader IV: End of Games (Aka issues 20 – 25, the end of Gillen’s Vader story bridging the time between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back): A good conclusion. Any story which has to handle the prequel and continuity fixed points, i.e. your intended readership already knows exactly how your main character will end up, and nothing he does or experiences in your story can change that, and pulls off an interesting narrative regardless, proves the skill of the writer, and Gillen maintains his momentum till the end. He also finds a satisfying conclusion (for now) for his OC, Aphra, whose fate wasn’t pre-ordained by existing canon and thereby provided suspense – which it wouldn’t have if Gillen hadn’t made me (and presumably a lot of other readers) care about Aphra as much as for many of the old characters.

spoilery details ensure )

In conclusion: a much appreciated by me story. I’ll see Rogue One tomorrow.

Neil Gaiman: Sandman: Overture.

Another prequel that pulls off the art of telling an interesting story despite the fact the main character’s fate is fixed. Did we need to find out what Dream (and other Sandman characters ) had been up to before Roderick Burgess captured him, and what kind of struggle it had been that had weakened him enough for Burgess to do so? No. But was it great for me to read it regardless? You bet. Also, the art by J.H. Williams III is drop dead gorgeous. Sandman always kept changing its artists, and sometimes that was confusing - Seasons of Mist - and sometimes the merging of visual art with narration was just perfect - The Kindly Ones and The Wake - very different visually, but a perfect match for the story in question.

Overture is another such case in point. Outstanding visuals include the panels where we meet additions to the Sandman myth - spoilery beings named ) -, the set piece where Morpheus encounters a lot of other different aspects of Dream, then later his confrontation with the mad star -, and of course the neat visual giveaways (but never too blatant!) to the true identity of a key character.

There’s just one appearance by a fan favourite character which I thought was there for the sake of it, not organic to the story Overture told, and that was the original Corinthian. Then again, the Corinthian being unmade and remade in the course of the Sandman saga foreshadows what will happen to Morpheus, so maybe that’s the narrative justification for the guy showing up in Overture. Otherwise, everyone’s appearances have a point to them. Case in question: when we find out, via a story Dream tells, who the Alienora we briefly see at the end of Game of You was, why he created that world for her, and what happened between them. At first you think, well, Dream = Worst Romantic Prospect in a Gaiman story, plus ca change, we knew that, but then later you realize the point of the story was something else altogether, and aha!

Part of the appeal of Sandman was always the mixture between myths, pop culture, dysfunctional family soap (the Endless) and whimsy, and all aspects are present in this prequel. That, and Neil Gaiman indulges his things for cats in the best way, which, since I also have a thing for cats, was very pleasing to me. (Also, hooray for making the issue Dream of a Thousand Cats into the key for cut just in case though the spoiler is very general ).

In conclusion: loved it, will reread as soon as time (ha!) permits.
selenak: (DuncanAmanda - Kathyh)
One of the many reasons why I'm curious about the tv show Versailles and hope it will show up either in dvd form or on Netflix in my part of the worlds is that the audience favourite is Philippe d'Orleans, aka Monsieur, brother to Louis XIV. This surprised me, to put it mildly, until I realised that a) played by Alexander "Mordred" Vlahos, and b) openly gay male relation of powerful person striving to be with his (male) true love = audience favourite, of course.

The reason why I was at first surprised at first is that Monsieur has had a terrible press, as far as historical novels I've read are concerned, and a not much better one in non-fiction I've read. (The only positive film depiction of him I can recall is as a minor supporting character in Alan Rickman's last movie, A Little Chaos, where there's a lovely little scene between the middle aged royal brothers as played by Alan Rickman as Louis and Stanley Tucci as Philippe.) Not because he was gay, though of course one can never discount homophobia in older sources, but because he was a terrible husband, and that is the context in which I mostly encountered him. When I say "terrible", I don't mean "cheating because arranged marriage and gay", I mean "using his social power over his wives to humiliate them on a regular basis, strip wife I. of all her friends in their household, act incredibly jealous of every man (including her brothers and nephew) who comes near her while simultanously making it clear he despises her and loves only his favourite" and "unable to stand the idea of the children loving either wife I or wife II better, tries to get the kids to hate their mothers at various points".

Wife II was Liselotte von der Pfalz, aka Charlotte Elisabeth of the Palatine, whose thousands of letters to her German relations through the decades of her life at Versailles provide a tremendously entertaining glimpse at the era and the people. Wife I , the first Madame, was Henriette Anne, aka Minette, Charles II.'s favourite sister. I'd read Liselotte's letters before (where Monsieur mellows down somewhat as they grow old together, and the last three years of their marriage are downright harmonious, and also the only ones she later describes as happy), but I hadn't read Minette's, other than what gets quoted in Antonia Fraser's biographies of Charles II. and of Louis XIV. This I've now rectified:

Ruth Norrington (editor): My Dearest Minette: Charles II to the Duchess of Orleans.

Despite the subtitle, it collects all of Minette's stille existing letters as well and isn't a one sided correspondance. Technical notes on the editing: Ruth Norrington provides context not with footnotes but with explaining texts in between letters, which is sometimes very helpful even if you're familiar with the era (like yours truly, though not an expert), and sometimes feels redundant, as when she's essentially just repeating what then gets said in the next letter. She's also unabashedly partisan in her descriptions: both Charles and Minette often get described as "charming" and "delightful", the Chevalier de Lorraine (Philippe's favourite boyfriend) hardly shows up without the moniker "evil". (To be fair, I haven't yet found any one, either in memoirs or letters, who had anything good to say about the Chevalier aside from his looks, and he comes across as both obnoxious and vile, as when he's boasting of having gotten rid of Minette's governess and confessor and being powerful enough to get Philippe to divorce her as welll; not surprisingly, this was when Minette and the English ambassador did their level by lobbying with Louis XIV to get rid of the Chevalier instead.) Occassionally, you wish that Norrington when stating something as fact that's actually still hotly debated would at least indicate with a footnote that hers is not the only interpretation out there, as with the question as to whether or not Charles II. actually meant to convert to Catholicism in the Treaty of Dover. Norrington taking it as granted that Charles meant to and totally would have announced it, too, had Minette not died made me raise my eyebrows in scepticism because given what actually happened (Charles pocketing the money Louis XIV provided him with for that promised conversion but not actually converting & announcing it until he was on his death bed, which is how he technically fulfilled the terms of the Treaty but certainly not the spirit) and given Charles II.'s life long pragmatism and dislike of dogma and clear awareness that the country wouldn't stomach a Catholic monarch ("I'll not go on my travels again"), I very much doubt that had Minette lived, he'd have done anything else than what he did. (I.e always arguing that he'd love to, sure, but the political situation right now won't allow it, in the meantime, how about some more cash?)

Despite her open dislike for Philippe ("a vainglourious narcisisst and bully"), Norrington actually provides a more interesting interpretation for his jealousy re: Minette than I've seen so far, which makes it about more than ego, by pointing out that Philippe's relationship with his brother was other than the one with the Chevalier the central one in his life, and both the supposed Louis/Minette affair early on (whether or not they actually had sex or just engaged in an intense flirtation, it was serious and public enough to make both their mothers remonstrate with them) and the fact that Louis took Minette later seriously as a politician in a way he never did Philppe (who wasn't privy to the secret negotiations between Louis, Minette and Charles about the Treaty of Dover, presumably because he wasn't trusted to keep it secret) were interfering with that relationship. Hence Phiippe retaliating by using his status as Minette's husband to delay her journey to England as much as he could, then forbid her to stay longer than three days etc.

Another technical observation: as Norrington says, most of Charles' letters are written in English, not least because he wanted Minette, who'd lived in France since she was two years old, to practise the language, while all of Minette's letters but one were written in French and thus are translated in the present volume, and come across as a bit more formal due to this fact. The one exception is a letter not directed at Charles but at Sir Thomas Clifford, written just a few days before her death, and its conclusion gets across what people, not just Norrington, mean when they talk about Minette's charm:

This is the ferste letter I Have ever write in english. you will eselay see it bi the stile and tograf. prai see in the same time that i expose mi self to be thought a foulle in looking to make you know how much I am your frind.

re: the correspondance in general in terms of content, even given the more emotional language of the time, it's very affectionate on both parts, with the siblings clearly adoring each other, which doesn't mean they always agree. Minette doesn't hesitate to chide her older brother when she thinks he's in the wrong, as when he made his mistress, Barbara Palmer, Lady Castlemain, a lady of the bedchamber to his wife Catherine of Braganza over the later's understandable anger and hurt:

But to speak seriously, I beg you to tell me how the Queen has taken this. Here people say that she is in the deepest distress and to speak frankly I think she has only too good reason for her grief.

(After this, Charles made a point of mentioning spending time with his wife in his letters to Minette, though he's a bit defensive on the subject of his mistresses: If you were as well acquainted with a little fantastical gentleman called Cupide as I am, you would neither wonder, nor take ill, any sudden changes which do happen in the affaires of his conducting.) They also confide some pretty intimate details to each other; in a sadly lost letter Minette seems to have told Charles that on her wedding night she had her period and hence there was no sex until a few nights later (and then it wasn't , because he references both when telling her that Catherine, too, had had her period on their wedding night:

"(A)and though I am not as furious as Monsieur was but I am content to let those pass over before I go to bed to my wife, yet I hope I shall entertain her at least better the first night than he did you.

The letters are usually a mixture of family and friends gossip, state affairs - Charles talked politicis to Minette long before the Treaty of Dover was in anyone's min; he basically treated her as the inofficial English ambassador to France, which was a good thing because his first two official ambassadors were lousy at the job - and the occasional interesting oddity, like the meteor which fascinated Charles. He more often than not ends his letters by remarking he's off to the theatre. His irreverent sense of humor also often comes through, as in this reply to Minette's swearing that her newborn daughter resembles her uncle:

I hope it is but a compliment to me, when you say my niece is so like me, for I never thought my face as even so much as intended for a beauty.

("Oddsfish", he famously said on another occasion, "I am an ugly fellow." You wouldn't have caught Louis XIV. allowing anyone to think that.)

As for religion: "I am of those bigotts," writes Charles to Minette, "who thinke that malice is a much greater sinn than a poor frailety of nature." Minette, otoh, was a passionate Catholic, with one of her main childhood memories being when her mother, Henrietta Maria, threw out her brother Henry (who was to die young, not long after Charles was crowned) for not converting. But she doesn't talk dogma often in her letters (even the Treaty of Dover letters are mainly concerned with possible political percussions of Charles converting).

An interlude with contemporary resonances comes when early in the Dutch-English war Minette to her horror hears about French sailors getting tortured by the crew of an English frigate (France at this point was peripherally involved in the war, though with opposite alliances to those it would have later): It is also reported that your people have made some Frenchmen prisoners, and tortured them cruelly, to make them confess they were going to Holland, but I maintain that this cannot be true, or at least that it is done without your approval, and that so generous a soul as yours would never allow such treatment of your enemies, far less of Frenchmen who are your friends. Write me word, I beg, of what has happened and whether, if this is true, you have taken care it should not happen again, since nothing is more worthy of you than to use your power to make yourself at once beloved and feared, and to provent all the horrors which too often accompany war.

Sadly, Charles found the story to be true, but promised Minette the perpetrators would be punished: "I do assure you I am extreamly troubled at it, there shall be very seveare justice done."

Having read the biography of Charles' oldest illegitimate son, James, the Duke of Monmouth, recently, I was struck by how many loving (and funny) references to him there are in the letters (he visited Versailles repeatedly, which Monsieur took offense to; one of his conditions for finally letting Minette visit England was that she was not to meet Monmouth on that occasion, which Charles promptly ignored). He's invariably referenced as "James", which made me wonder what they called his uncle James, the Duke of York, when talking about him, other than "brother", which is the designation from the letters. Anyway, some typical Monmouth references: "Your kindnesse to him obliges me as much as tis possible, for I do confesse I love him very well", "I (...) only desire you to have the same goodnesse for James you had the last time, and to chide him soundly when he does not that he should do. He intendes to put on a perriwig againe, when he comes to Paris, but I beleeve you will thinke him better farr, as I do, with his short haire, and so I am intierly yours".

The letters Charles sent by way of his son are also more detailed than the ones by courtier couriers (which could presumably be intercepted). When Minette's marriage goes from bad to worse, the siblings at first alludes to it only indirectly and discreetly, but then there's one letter which discusses it in detail:

I take the occasion of this bearer to say some thinges t you which I would not send by the post, and to tell you that I am ver glad that Monsieur beings to be ashamed of his ridiculous fancyes; you ought undoutedly to oversee what is past, so that, for the future, he will leave being of those fantasticall humours, and I thinke the less eclairecissement there is upon such kind of matters, the better for his friend the Chevalier. I thinke you have taken a very good resolution not to live so with him, but that, when there offers a good occasion, you may ease your selfe of such a rival, and by the character I have of him, there is hopes he will find out the occasion himselfe, which, for Monsieur's sake, I wish may be quickly.

That turned out to be wishful thinking on both Charles' and Minette's part. Instead, it was the Chevalier who got rid of Minette's allies in the Orleans household. Because the correspondance between Charles and Minette from the last year of her life is not preserved, it's paradoxically a good thing the Chevalier caused the governess of Minette's children to be replaced, because Minette then kept up a correspondance with her old governess and confidant, Madame de Saint-Chaumont, and Ruth Norrington includes these letters near the end of her book. At this point, the English ambassador (not one of the two incompetent ones mentioned earlier, but the first good one, Montagu), had already written an alarmed letter to Charles about how bad things truly were, Charles had remonstrated with Louis, and the Chevalier finally overreached himself when Philippe asked for the income from two abbeys being given to him, which Louis refused to do, which caused the Chevalier to speak out against the King. Cue banishment to Italy, for which Philippe blamed Minette, at first refusing to let her travel to England at all, hoping to blackmail both Kings into letting the Chevalier return. Writes Minette to her governess:

The King has worked hard to bring him to reason, but all in vain, for his only object in treatin gme so ill is to force me to ask favours for the CHevalier, and I am determined not to give in to blows. This state of things does not admit of any reconciliation, and Monsieur now refuses to come near me, and hardly ever speaks to me, which, in all the quarrels we hae had, has never happened before. But the gift of some traditional revenues from the King has now osftened his anger a little, and I hope that by Easter, all may yet be well. (...)

Fat chance. For:

I have indeed wished to see the King my brother, but there has been no question of the Chevalier's return in all Monsieurs opposition to my journey. Only he still declares he cannot love me, unless his favourite is allowed to form a third in our union. Since then, I have made him understand that, however much I might desire the Chevalier's return, it would be impossible to obtain it, and he has given up the idea, but, by making a noise about my journey to England, he hopes to show that he is master, and can treat me as ill in the Chevalier's absence as in his presence. This being his policy, he began to speak openly of our quarrels, refused to enter my room, and pretended to show that he could revenge himself for having been left in ignorance of these affairs, and make me suffer for what he calls the faults of the two Kings.

Charles tried to help by offering to give the Chevalier an honored place at his court in England, but again, no such luck. (Otoh he refused to invite Philippe himself along with Minette, using the excuse of protocol - the King of France's brother couldn't visit England without the King of England's brother visiting France, and since his brother the Duke of York was absolutely needed elsewhere. Writes Minette to her friend the governess:

This refusal has renewed Monsieur's irritation. He complains that all the honour will be mine, and consents to my journey with a very bad grace. At present, his chief friends are M. de Marsan, the Marquis de Villeroy and the Chevalier de Beuvron. The Marquis d'Effiat is the only one of the troop who is perhaps a little less of a rogue, but he is not clever enough to manage Monsieur, and the three others do all they can to make me miserable until the Chevalier returns. Although Monsieur is somewhat softened, he still tells me there is only one way in which I can show my love for him. Such a remedy, you know, would be followed by certain death!

This line took on an entire new meaning when after her return from England Minette died after drinking some chicory water. She believed herself poisoned; Philippe said if that was what she suspected, they should give some of the water to the dog to test it (in one version of the story, he also offered to drink himself), and today historians largely think Minette died of natural causes, but either way, she died in horrible agony which lasted for hours. She had asked for the banished (thanks to the Chevalier) Bossuet to give her the last rights, and he was sent for, but before he arrived, the bigoted M. Feuillet even added spiritual agony to the physical one. When she cried out "My God, will not these fearful pains be over soon", he said "What, Madame, you are forgetting yourself; you have offended God twenty-six years, and your penitence has but lasted six hours; rather say with St. Augustine, cut, tear, destroy, let my heart ache, let all my limbs thrill with anguish, let dung flow in the marrow of my bones, let worms revel in my breast!"

Minette even in this state still had the gift of irony she shared with her brother Charles, and replied: "Yes, sir, I hope so; in case God were to restore me to health, and I were so wretched as not to practise them, I entreat you to remind me of them."

When the English ambassador asked her, in English, whether she had been poisoned, Feuillet interrupted and warned her not to think of recriminations but the plight of her soul. Minette told the ambassador: "If this is true you must never let the King, my brother, know of it. Spare him the grief at all events and do not let him take revenge on the King here for he is at least not guilty."

"The King here", Louis, later told the second Madame, Liselotte, that Minette had been poisoned but not by his brother, otherwise he'd never have let Philippe marry again. Otoh he also ordered an autopsy of Minette's corpse, where the doctors found no traces of poison. Charles when the news reached him had no doubt she was poisoned. He cried out "Monsieur is a villain! at the unfortunate messenger", retreated in his bedchamber and didn't leave for five days. All in all, it had taken Minette eight hours to die, and only at the end when Bossuet had arrived and replaced the odious Feuillet was she comforted. To read about it makes for a harrowing ending to what is mostly a very endearing book about a brother-sister relationship.
selenak: (Partners in Crime by Monanotlisa)
Which is a not-really-memoir, a collection of autobiographical stories, several of which have been earlier published, here arranged not in linear order but thematically, in a way. Le Carré puts himself in the observer role in most of the stories, which are focused on the various people, famous or not, he encounters. For all that he's a superb raconteur about them, he keeps his own emotions about the people he describes mostly in check; understatement is the name of the game. The big exception, and unsurprisingly the chapter that got the most attention in reviews when this book was published, comes near the end, in the tale of his dastardly conman of a father, Ronnie, a born life ruiner (and occasional beater, but the devastating damage Ronnie does both to marks and to his family is usually non-physical in nature), and his absent mother Olive, who left him and his brother with Ronnie when our author was five and whom when reencountering her as an adult he never quite managed to form a relationship with, not least due to her habit of addressing him as Ronnie. Lé Carré is far too self aware not to realise the connection between spying, being a conman, and being a writer, and thus warns the reader early on, re: veracity of the stories he's about to tell:


““I’m a liar . . .Born to lying, bred to it, trained to it by an industry that lies for a living, practised in it as novelist. As a maker of fictions, I invent versions of myself, never the real thing, if it exists.”


Ronnie and Olive remind me a lot of Charles Dickens' parents, for all that Dickens and Le Carré aren't really much alike as writers; the parallel extends to adult Dickens' senior embarassing his son by writing out cheques in his name till Charles had to publish an advertisement in the papers to say he wasn't countenancing this, while Ronnie uses his son's novelist successs in a similar manner (and even signs the novels), to the novelist sons putting their fathers in more bearable form in novels while in rl living in an uneasy tension between trying to avoid their fathers and being unable to let them go. While carrying a less obvious but as deep-seated grudge against their mothers due to what they see as an utter lack of affection. Le Carré's terse description of Olive as the mother without a scent (he can't remember what she smelled like because she never hugged him) says it all.

But the Ronnie (and Olive) chapter comes, as mentioned, near the end of the book; Le Carré knew of course it was the most emotional and the climax. Earlier, we're treated wrily and drolly to such gems as lunch with Rupert Murdoch (who wanted to know who killed Robert Maxwell) being his over the top tycoon self, Alec Guinness, whom Le Carré befriended due to Smiley, being as gentlemanly and enigmatic as you want him to have been, with the occasional one liner to his fellow actors when they go over the top, Yassir Arafat putting on a show (in more senses than one) while Le Carré is busy roleplaying himself as Charlie, the herone of Litlte Drummer Girl, and so forth. Of particular interest to me and a red thread through the book is Le Carré's life long fascination with all things German. He was stationed in Bonn in the 50s, is fluent in the language (and says these days he can't focus on a book for longer than an hour, except if it's in German), keeps coming back here and provides German locations as guest spots in many of his novels. His descriptions of the many, many old Nazis on all levels of the administration in the 50s and 60s is dead-on, I'm afraid. (Just recently, our justice department published a study on how many former Nazis were there in the post war justice system until the 70s. Over 77 percent, I kid you not. Even allowing for the usual argument (which is: well, non-Nazi German lawyers and judges were hard to come by in the 1950s; not untrue, but there were the emigrés, who found it harder, not easier, than the Nazis to get those kind of jobs if they were willing to return, plus there was no encouragement of the younger, less tainted generation), that's devastatingly high. As for the reformed spy network, you probably had to search for a non-former Nazi with a flashlight. Le Carré's description of Gehlen, who founded it and got the US licence for it is wickedly on point. He also can't resist some sarcasm re: the US and British attitude, which was as he sums up that as a Nazi, you were per definition not a Communist, and so okay in the Cold War era CIA's book. (Ignoring that Gehlen was a fantasist and that having a dark past makes you easily availablef or blackmail,with the end result that according to Le Carré 90 % of the German agents working in Eastern Europe were really working for the Stasi. Which I'm completely ready to believe. Competence isn't something the BND was ever famous for, even after the Nazis died out. In an account of a more recent German episode, he maks me cringe because that one concerns the German citizen tortured at Guantanamo, and I remember the (non-)reaction from our governments all too well.

Like Le Carré's novels, The Pigeon Tunnel features far more men than women, though the occasional memorable woman makes it through, like Yvonne, the original for Tessa in The Constant Gardener. Someone I'd like to have read about more is his younger half sister Charlotte Cornwell, who inspired Charlie in The Little Drummer Girl and who, since she's an actress, he wanted to play the character in the movie version, which didn't happen. (Not a fan of Diane Keaton he.) Unfortunately with the exception of saying this about Charlie, he doesn't talk about her, or his other siblings really, other than saying his brother Tony was basically his only source of affection in his childhood (Ronnie and Olive weren't). Various ladies with the designation "my wife" are spotted at the edges of these stories, but as I said, for the most part, Le Carré manages to remain deepy private in this collection, taking the not unreasonable position that describing all these other people is where his and the readers' interests allign.

All in all: highly readable, and no, you don't have to be into his novels to enjoy it.
selenak: (Clone Wars by Jade Blue Eyes)
Third volume, collecting issues 16-19 of Gillen's Vader comic. This one, despite the connection to the ongoing storyline (i.e. Vader after being demoted post A New Hope working his way back to the not quite top of the Empire past rivals and Palpatine playing mind games), feels like a self contained adventure, which has its plus side (there's a clear beginning and end of the story this volume tells) and its downside (no Aphra! She's off stage, err, page, for the entire volume!).

The ostensible charge Vader's been given by the Emperor is to deal with an ore producing planet in revolt (though the revolt happens more for inner scheming than for freedom fighting reasons). The true interest of the story lies in new character Trios, at the start youngest daughter of the Shu-Torin ruler and deemed expendable by same, and by the end something spoilery ), her learning arc, and her interaction with Vader. If R2 and CPO have their evil (and hilarious) counterparts, and Aphra echoes in various ways both Han and Ahsoka in a dark manner, Trios strikes me as a dark counterpart to Padme (Leia, too, but mostly Padme). Specifically Phantom Menace era Padme Amidala. And when I say "dark", I don't mean in a Mirrorverse way, i.e Trios isn't evil. It's just that the narrative she's in isn't one that favors heroic defiance, the force user sent to her isn't Qui-Gon but Darth Vader, and there isn't really a good option for her to take. Spoilery talk again. )

I complained in my review of the last volume that the Vader-Leia encounter felt so unsatisfying while acknowledging that given continuity, there isn't much Gillen can do. Avatar/counterpoint characters seem to be a good solution here, since Trios works both as a might have been for young Queen Amidala, had she lived in the Empire not the Republic, and for Leia, if Tarkin hadn't blown up Alderan but used it as extended leverage. (Though of course Leia IS in a narrative where heroic defiance is always rewarded.) Incidentally, just to clarify and avoid possible misunderstandings, when I say Trios is a Padme counterpart, I don't mean it romantically. There is never even the slightest sense of that. The one compliment Vader pays Trios early on is a paternal one (he says her father should be proud of her), and it's later revealed to have been part of his (Imperial) agenda (when it's paralleled to what Trios does by the end of the story). Otoh the fact that here is a brunette royal, hailing from a formal culture fond of elaborate getups and rituals, defying the odds in a desperate situation can't have been lost on him.

In terms of Gillen's ongoing storylines: Spoilers are speculating. )

In conclusion: a good installment, but now I want Aphra to return to the on page storyline more than ever!
selenak: (Claudius by Pixelbee)
Connie Palmen: Du sagst es. (Original title "Jij zegt het", thank you, [personal profile] ratcreature). This is a new novel about the marriage between Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, written in first person from Hughes' pov, and right there you have a basic problem. Not that it's a fictional take on people who lived and died within many readers' living memory (Hughes as late as 1998); there have been others, and fiction at least doesn't declare itself to be THE TRUTH, but the author's imaginative speculation on same; it's more honest than many a non-fiction in this regard. No, it's that both Plath and Hughes were fantastic writers who wrote about their relationship, and sorry, but that's a very high standard to aim for if you're going for first person.

(First person is tricky in general to believe for me as a reader and to do as a writer. I've done it occasionally, but rarely, and as a reader first person more often breaks the suspension of disbelief for me than not. Especially if the narrator is supposed to be someone whose voice has been preserved in written or audio form.)

Connie Palmen doesn't really manage, but that's not the only problem I have with her book. Another, related: there's a lot of prose paraphrasing of Hughes' Birthday Letters poems, which means something real Ted Hughes expressed in a few concise sentences is expressed by fictional Hughes rambling on for several pages. This isn't helping with the comparisons to the detriment of the novel. Then there's the question as to which type of readers this book is aiming for: can't be people either unfamiliar with the Plath and Hughes saga, or just casually aware of both poets' existence, because the novel rarely bothers with explanations and settings; for example, it starts at their first meeting at the St. Bodolph's Review party in Cambridge but doesn't bother explaining what Hughes was doing there, what Plath was doing there, and expects the readers to know all this already. Otoh, if the book is for readers who know their Lucas Myers (American poet, friend of Hughes) from their Richard Sassoon (on-off boyfriend of Plath's pre Ted), then it feels a bit like the kind of fanfiction that solely describes with a bit more dialogue or inner monologue scenes in broadcast episodes which fans are already familiar with with, you know what I mean? I've read Plath's breathless account of her first meeting with Hughes in her journal, written a day or two after the fact. I've read Hughes' elegic take on it, written decades later in his poem "St. Bodolph's" in "Birthday Letters". Palmen trying to match either writer's command of language by paraphrasing them, and not adding something uniquely hers, just feels - well, second rate, sorry to say.

Then there's the way no one but Plath, and maybe her mother Aurelia, is really fleshed out as a character. His siblings, Olwyn and Gerald, were enormously important to Hughes (see next review), but while that's said in a tell not show way by Palmen's narrator, she doesn't bother with the show not tell, actual scenes (other than Olwyn vs Sylvia arguments) that would show us who they are. Again, I can understand some of the why - both died only this year, which means when this novel was written they were still alive, and one feels more inhibited because of this. But it's still for me a narrative failure.

(Also irritating: Palmen's Hughes repeatedly describing Plath's eyes as "black", when real Hughes described Plath's brown eyes in some of the most memorable passages of Birthday Letters. What is up with that? Maybe a Dutch-German translation error, and the original novel means something like "dark gaze"?)

Lastly: having read a lot of Hughes - poetry, drama, letters, some essays - I don't think he comes across as self-pitying in his published voice. IMO, and that doesn't mean he wasn't, just that his own texts, either due to command of language or editing, don't feel like he was. But Palmen's Hughes feels extremely sorry for himself, as if the author wants to make absolutely sure we do, too, and thus paradoxically prevents it.

Jonathan Bate: Ted Hughes.: Subtitled "The Unauthorized Life", because while the author originally had the cooperation of the Hughes estate and thus access to Hughes' unpublished journals, poem drafts etc., he inevitably (if you know something of the long saga of the Plath biographies and Olwyn Hughes) clashed with them, authorization was withdrawn, and thus the subtitle. This being said, Bate clearly has a lot of respect for the tough as nails Olwyn; when she died in January this year, he wrote her obituary, and if you read it, you'll see what I mean.

As biographies go, this is a good one. Bate takes Hughes seriously as a poet, which doesn't mean he praises all his work, but it means we get a lot of Hughes' development as a writer - this includes some quotes from early drafts, and to me at least, it's fascinating to see how various alternatives of a later classic phrase were considered before the final one happened - , a strong presence of his Yorkshire background and his love of nature, detailed accounts of his threatre work with Peter Brook etc. - instead of just accounts of his love affairs. Which are, of course, present as well. If there's anything to critisize, it's that brief relationships like the one with Emma Tennant get more in terms of quotes from the lady in question than second Mrs. Hughes, Carol, gets about her decades long marriage, but since this is also because Carol Hughes still won't go on the record for journalists or biographers, I see Bate's problem.

Anyway, Carol aside, Bate is great with bringing the supporting cast of his biography to life. Definitely the siblings, Gerald and Olwyn, and other long lasting relationships, part ally, part adversary Al Alvarez, but also people hardly noticed even by all the Plath biographers before, like Shirley, Hughes' pre-Sylvia girlfriend who was with him during that fateful first encounter, or Susan Alliston, whose affair and breakup with Hughes turned into a long term friendship and who died of cancer the same year Assia Wevill committed murder-suicide with their daughter and Hughes' mother died (supporting Bate's argument that 1969 beat out 1963, the year of Plath's death, as Worst Year Ever for Hughes). His narrative voice is generally non-judgmental, literary judgments aside (I'm with him on "Shakespeare and the Great Goddess" as Hughes at his prose worst, btw, and also that the Ovid translations work as something of a poetical rebirth), and he comes across as trying to be fair to everyone in the big dramas of Hughes' life: case in point, the last but one of the stormy Olwyn versus Sylvia encounters, where they both thought the other was rude, Bate points out Olwyn smoked non-stop despite Sylvia asking her not to and yours truly entirely sympathizes with Sylvia until Bate also points out that Sylvia's other complaint, that Olwyn stayed so long on this particular visit, overlooks that Olwyn lived in Paris at this time and hadn't seen Ted in more than a year, so had a lot of catching up to do.

Bate declares right at the start he wants to write a complete life, not just another take on the Plath and Hughes relationship, and points the reader to Diane Middlebrook's "Her Husband" for one of the most recent and thorough, but inevitably, though her suicide happens on page 216 of 556, Sylvia Plath is the strongest non-Hughes presence in the book. There's a good argument to be made that dead Sylvia had a stronger grip on Hughes - both as a poet and as a woman - than any of the other living women he became subsequently entangled with, and certainly more than poor doomed Assia. (Another plausible argument can be made that if Sylvia had lived, so would Assia have; both Assia and Ted Hughes despite their affair were anything but sure they wanted to have a permanent relationship before Sylvia died, they both still had other relationships - Assia with her husband David plus a brief fling with, of all the people, Al Alvarez, Ted with the aforementioned Susan, and if Sylvia had lived, the Ted/Assia affair probably would have burned itself out quickly, and they'd have moved on, whether or not they would have re-committed to their respective spouses. But being known as The Other Woman after Sylvia Plath had killed herself trapped Assia in a competition she could no longer win, and in a relationship she and Hughes thought they HAD to make work now which went on to ensure it didn't.)

Bate shows that the poems addressed to Plath collected in Birthday Letters were indeed written (and redrafted a lot) during decades, not a last outburst before Hughes' death (the decades long process had been mentioned at the time Birthday Letters was published, but was met with scepticism), and again, the early drafts are interesting to me both in terms of how a poem is written and as an endlessly attempted dialogue with a woman who is gone. (Ditto for Hughes' comments on her poetry and prose, be it in private letters or, rarely, in public.) His version of Euripides' Alcestis, the last complete Hughes work to be published within his life time, wasn't something comissioned or otherwise inspired by an outside source, he chose to write about a woman dying and then returning to her husband as he felt himself dying, and since I thought there were repeated Sylvia echoes in ALCESTIS, I was gratified that so does Bate. (He found a Wuthering Heights allusion Hughes has smuggled into Alcestis which I missed, though, and which has no equivalent in the original Greek text. In Hughes' Alcestis, Admetos after Alcestis death imagines his own death:

"I think of cool soil
A mask over my face,
A weight of stillness over my body,
A darkness
In which she lies next to me - her lips
Maybe only an inch from my lips,
Forever."

This, Bates speculates, is Hughescliff, imagining himself in the moorland graveyard at Heptonstall, and goes to quote the relevant Wuthering Heights passage:

"You were very wicked, Mr. Heathcliff!" I exclaimed, "were you not ashamed to disturb the dead?"
"I disturbed nobody, Nelly," he replied, and "I gave some ease to myself. I shall be a great deal more comfortable now, and you'll have a better chance of keeping me underground when I get there. Disturbed her? No! She has disturbed me, night and day, through eighteen years - incessantly - remorselessly - till yesternight, and yesternight I was tranquil. I dreamt I was sleeping the last sleep by that sleeper, with my heart stopped and my cheek frozen against hers."

Wuthering Heights was of great significance to both Plath and Hughes (who grew up almost next door, well next village, in Yorkshire), and there are poems about it and Emily Bronte by both of them, but that parallel had still eluded me before.

After describing Hughes' death and giving a brief overview of the lives (and in one tragic case death) of his surviving family in the subsequent years, Bate returns once more to the tale of Ted and Sylvia, and after 500 pages of trying to keep up a matter-of-fact, occasionally ironic tone, at last throws caution into the wind and goes for the bloody passion, and does it better in half a page than Palmen does in an entire novel:

Sylvia Plath's death was the central fact of Ted Hughes's life. However he tried to get away from it, he could not; however the biographer broadens the picture, it is her image that returns. In the letters of his final months, even after the expiation that came with Birthday Letters, Plath remains the most vivid presence in his mental world. So, for example in a simple sentence of luminous poetic prose in a long letter to his German translators who had sought advice on the meaning of various phrases in such poems as 'The Bee God', Ted explains how the image ' Your page a dark swarm':

"brings together SP bending over the bees (pending over the beehive with its roof off), SP bending over her page (where the letters as she composed writhed and twisted, superimposed on each other, displacing each other), her page, as a seething mass and depth and compound of living ideas - carrying, somewhere in the heart of it, in the heart of the words, of the phrases, of the poetic whole struggling to form itself, the vital nuclei of her poetic operation - her 'self' and her 'Daddy' - and finally, her poem (in process of composition there on her page as she bends over it) as a warm of bees clinging under a blossoming bough."

"The lit blossom", he writes, "is also Sp's face." It is as if Sylvia instead of the thought-fox has entered the room and is bending over Ted as he writes. Her face is radiant. Her ghost has returned in recognition of the knowledge that he loved her until the day he died. Before him stands yesterday.
selenak: (James Boswell)
Two biographies of people on the different ends of the social scale, a century apart.

The Fortunes of Francis Barber by Michael Bundock deals with one of the few black inhabitants of Georgian London we know something about: Francis Barber. The reason why we know about Francis is in the subtitle: "The true story of the Jamaican slave who became Samuel Johnson's heir". Francis Barber started life on a Jamaica plantation as the property of his maybe biological father, Colonel Bathurst, who took him with him when the plantation ran into financial trouble and Bathurst returned (or came, he was actually born on Jamaica) to England to die. (Which he did a few years later, Francis was officially freed in his will.) The child Francis, who in Jamaica wasn't called Francis yet but had the generic slave name Quashey, was then baptized and, at the instigation of Colonel Bathurst's son Dr. Bathurst, who was anti slavery, given to Dr. Samuel Johnson (recently widowed, in the throws of very deep depression and in need of cheering up) as a servant. And thus began an association that lasted for the rest of Johnson's life; Johnson being one of the most famous men in England, it meant that Francis Barber shows up in a lot of people's memoirs and letters as well. Becoming Johnson's main heir also meant he was involved in a very nasty inheritance struggle, since several white friends thought they'd have been far more deserving. He did get his inheritance, and a novelist would end the story here, with Francis, his wife and children moving to Johnson's hometown Lichfield to start a new life, with Francis becoming England's first black school master. But real life unfortunately allowed for no happy ending. The school wasn't a success, the money was gone, and Francis was dependent on help from old time friends like my guy Boswell when he died in poverty.

Michael Bundock has the problem familiar to biographers of servants, that very few first hand source material is available; a very few letters of Francis survive, and he also told Boswell about his life when Boswell was researching his biography of Johnson; Boswell's notes are the best we have on Francis' own view of his life, which was a bit different from how Johnson saw it, and much different from the view anti-Francis folk from Johnson's circle like John Hawkins or Hester Thrale took. (Hawkins, who published the very first Johnson biography two years before Boswell finished his, concludes it with a five page rant on how much he hates Francis Barber, and that includes some racist stuff on how Francis' white wife was a) disgusting for having married him in the first place, and b) how she surely cheats on him, since their kids are light skinned.) With these obstacles in mind, it's not surprising that the book at times is less of a classic biography and more an analysis of the story of slavery in Britain during Francis' life time, the general situation of free black people there, etc. I don't mean this as a criticism: all of it is tremendously interesting to read. (And often both chilling and infuriating, as in the opening chapters describing the situation in Jamaica during Francis' early childhood; Bundock quotes from the diary of Thomas Thistlewood, who started out as the overseer of a large sugar estate and then became the owner of a smallholding, noting down the floggings of both male and female slaves and the constant sexual abuse of female ones just as matter of factly as the details of the weather or the books he read.) Just that Francis himself, as a person, remains more a sketch than a portrait. He and Dr. Johnson developed what was very much a father-son relationship, but that doesn't mean Francis always agreed with what Johnson (who was very much anti slavery, but also very much the type To Know Best What's Good For You) had in mind for him, not to mention that if you're a teenager in a house where all the other residents are over 50 and prone to be either depressed or argumentative, you could be forgiven for wanting to leave, which is what Francis did for a while, first working for an apothecary and then joining the navy, before returning to Johnson. He also was social and independently minded enough to find his own circle of friends (there's a letter excerpt from a visitor's at Johnson's who describes Francis sitting with some "of his fellow Africans", "their sooty faces all looking up" when the man entered, for example), not just relying on Johnson's, and, as Hester Thrale, who diidn't like him, grudgingly admitted "not bad looking for a blackamoor". But all too often, there's a limit on what a biographer can speculate if there is no first hand testimony. How did Francis and his later wife Elizabeth Ball meet, for example? What was their relationship really like? Thrale and Hawkins accuse him simultanously of being jealous (Mrs. Thrale makes the obvious allusion when calling his wife "his Desdemona") and of being stupid for thinking his wife's children were his; otoh, Dr. Johnson fully accepted Elizabeth as a sort of daughter in law, gave her his dead wife's Common Prayer book (it survives, and has inscriptions by both), and the couple remained with each other through thick and thin, so you can make educated guesses, but you can't know for sure because there are no letters surviving to each other.

Similarly, we can make educated guesses what Francis thought of the big trials involving slaves seeking their freedom that took place in London while he was there, like the Somerset case, but we simply don't know (as opposed to knowing what Johnson thought). And so forth. One wishes for a novel, because a novelist, not bound to what can be proven, could fill in Francis' thoughts and feelings.

Like many a biography, this one also works a an analysis of biographies and how narrative bias works. To quote from a passage dealing with quotes.

In her "Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson" (1786), (Hester Thrale) recounted that when Johnson's cat Hodge had grown old,

Mr. Johnson always went out himself to buy Hodge's dinner, that Francis the Black's delicacy might not be hurt, as seeing himself employed for the convencience of a quadruped.

The story is intended to be comical in its use of the pseudo-Johnsonian vocabulary "The convenience of a quadruped." It is also intended to show Johnson in a good light, willing to stoop to menial tasks rather than give offence to his employee. On both these accounts, it succeeds. But is is impossible to miss the sneer at Barber in the phrase "that Francis the black's delicacy might not be hurt" - there is clearly an implication that he is getting above himself. There were other servants in the household (as (Hester Thrale) knew), so Barber was not the only one to benefit from Johnson's action, but he alone is the object of Mrs. Thrale's jibe. It is not just any servant who is giving himself airs; it is a particular black servant. Boswell's version of the same story, published in his "Life of Johnson", provides a revealing contrast:

I shall never forget the indulgence with which he treated Hodge, his cat: for whom he himself used to go out and buy oysters, lest the servants having the trouble should take a dislike to the poor creature.

In this account the dig at Barber does not appear, and Johnson's actions are for the benefit of all the servants, not just Barber.


(Boswell in general fares well in this book, which you wouldn't think given that Boswell, as opposed to Johnson, was pro slavery and the subject is a former slave. But Boswell truly liked Francis Barber, and Michael Bundock makes a good case that he did so in a non-patronising manner, writing to and about Barber not different than to his white friends, and was there for him when Barber fell on hard times.)

All in all, I found the book very much worth reading, and the frustrations I have are not the author's fault, but that of the source material availability.

The Last Royal Rebel by Anna Keay, subtitle, "The Life and Death of James, Duke of Monmouth", has no such source material difficulties. Her main character has had a lot of bad press in his time (unsuccessfully rebelling with the victor writing your story will do that), but not only is he prominent in a lot of people's letters, memoirs, etc., but we have his own letters as well, and plenty accounts from both friends and enemies to provide a three dimensional picture. Our hero is the oldest and favourite illegitimate son of Charles II., and while I've read a novel about him which I've reviewed here and of course came across numerous references in biographies of other people, notably his father, but this is the first non-fictional biography about Monmouth himself I've read.

First of all, I was surprised that some of what I had assumed novelist Jude Morgan to have invented in his novel was actually historical fact, such as Monmouth's closeness to his aunt (though only five years older than him), Charles II.' favourite sister Henriette Anne (Minette), and how much her husband, Philippe d'Orleans (Monsieur, famously homosexual but no less petty and authoritarian with his wife for that) resented it. Also, the central father-son relationship between Charles and Monmouth comes across as very similar in both novel and biography, with biographer Anna Keay making a good case against the depiction of Monmouth as an empty headed greedy idiot prone to be used by every opposition politician, or, alternatively, wanting the crown from the start (both of which his enemies said about him), and for the disastrous fallout between father and son being as much Charles' fault as Monmouth's. Even the unofficial reconciliation between them near the end of Charles' life, and Charles' intentions of calling his son back from exile, is actually backed up with chapter and verse, and I thought Morgan the novelist had made that one up for sure so the central relationship doesn't end on a bad note.

Otoh Keay the biographer is harsher on the younger Monmouth than Morgan the novelist while being more admiring of the older. Mind you, she's not condemning; but she does provide the numbers of how much money young James spends on clothing alone, and that's just part of the inevitable result of giving a teenager after a somewhat poor childhood unrestricted access to every worldly indulgence at a court that made all the preceding ones seem tame by comparision in licenteousness. For Keay, the key shift that turned Monmouth from young Restoration rake to responsible human being happens at age 22 when he's part of the French-Dutch war and experiences the realities of battle after knowing just the fun of dressing up as a soldier. What's remarkable then isn't that he turns out to be capable of physical bravery but that ever subsequently, he shows caring about his men (keeping pushing for them to get paid, the lack of paying of soldiers being all too common vice of the era, and lobbying with his father for hospitals for veterans being built), and also distaste for needless death (when he had the job of crushing a Scottish rebellion and found part of the army continued killing even after the battle had ended, he put an end to it and when word came from London that there shouldn't have been any prisoners, he wrote back that killing prisoners was what butchers did, not soldiers, and he wouldn't).

She also makes a good case for Monmouth not seeking the crown for himself until late in the game (i.e. after his father had died), arguing his support from and friendship with his cousins William of Orange and Mary depended on that, as they were in fact the legitimate Protestant claimants (and would turn out to claim the throne from Mary's father, James II., contender for the "most disastrous Stuart king ever" title despite such rivals as Mary Queen of Scots and Charles I., after Monmouth's death). What's truly appalling to read is the account of Monmouth's death and the aftermath. His followers were butchered in the "Bloody Assisses" (meaning they got the full hanged, drawn and quartered treatment), and while Monmouth himself was beheaded, the executioner bungled the job badly, resorting after five ineffective strokes with the axe and a still twitching Monmouth to hacking off the head with a knife, and when he finally held it up, no one cheered but many cried.

Charles II. was generally fond of his illegitimate children (and provided for them, which wasn't self evident), and Keay's speculation as to why the relationship with Monmouth was extra intense rings plausible: she points out all the others had living mothers who fought and sometimes schemed for them, but Monmouth didn't, and even when his mother HAD been alive, Charles, who'd been 18 when this first child was born, had tried to kidnap him from her, not once but three times (the last time successful), meaning Charles really was everything to this particular son, and the jealousy this inspired would contribute to dooming him in the end. It's a compelling and tragic story to read, and it's hard to disagree with the physician James Welwood, who wrote to Mary of Orange about her cousin:

"Monmouth seem'd to be born for a better Fate; for the first part of his life was all Sunshine, though the rest was clouded. He was Brave, Generous, Affable, and extremely Handsome: Constant in his Friendships, just to His Word, and an utter enemy to all sorts of Cruelty. He was easy in his Nature, and fond of popular Applause which led him insensibly into all his Misfortunes; But wherever might be the hidden Designs of some working Heads he embark'd with, his own were noble, and chiefly aim'd at the Good of his Country."
selenak: (Black Sails by Violateraindrop)
Still the result from my London expedition at the beginning of August. I didn't watch any of these plays, I just bought them in bookstores.

Pitcairn: play by Richard Bean. Flippantly described, it's an Age of Sails Lord of the Flies, featuring the most prominent mutineers of them all. More precisely: after the famous mutiny on the Bounty, some of the mutineers risked staying in Tahiti, and nine went on with Fletcher Christian, and 20 Polynesians, 14 of whom were women (and only three of these women were on board voluntarily, Christian and the other mutineers had simply kidnapped the rest) and ended up on Pitcairn. If you're read Caroline Alexander's The Bounty, for my money by far the best book both on the mutiny and its aftermath, you knew the Pitcairn story ended rather bloodily, with the question as to who killed whom and why depending on the various changing accounts the one European survivor, John Adams, gave when Pitcairn was finally found by the navy decades later. (For years after that, it never seems to have occurrred to any of the curious and Bounty-romantisizing people to interview any of the surviving Polynesian women, until one, nicknamed Jenny, who took the first chance she got to finally leave Pitcairn told her story, and it was anything but complimentary to the European mutineers.)

Now I've watched the three most famous movies on the Bounty mutiny (Laughton/Gable, Howard/Brando and Hopkins/Gibson as Bligh and Christian respectively, with the last movie the only one reflecting newer research and taking a pro Bligh approach, with the earlier two being all evil Captain versus heroic mutineers), and I've read some novels, but Bean's play is the first depiction focusing exclusively on the mutineers and Polynesians who ended up on Pitcairn, and my Lord of the Flies comparison is no hyperbole. Bean is also the first author who makes the Polynesians, both female and male, into characters, instead of presenting him as pretty, available and mostly silent and catalysts for the mutiny. He's also trying very hard to avoid the "noble savage" stereotype, not least by presenting them in their own context, where the Polynesians have their own social hierarchy (which the Europeans utterly ignore) and prejudices. Even though, they come across far more sympathetically than the Europeans, whose first idea on how to live their new Utopia is to enslave the Polynesian males, and whose falling out over the women never bothers with their choices. Bean's solution to what to make of the various contradictory accounts (Adams at various points said Christian had committed suicide, that he was killed by another Polynesian, or by another mutineer, that he became quickly hated or that he remained beloved till the end (the last story being told after Adams had gotten back into contact with people in England and had found out that the story of the mutiny was now firmly pro Christian, anti Bligh in the public consciousness; "Jenny" said all the Polynesians turned against the mutineers and that the women tried to escape Pitcairn by attempting to build a boat, which failed, something that's confirmed in the surviving writings of mutineer Edward Young who also mentions the women were punished for this) is to come up with a twist that I thought was unique to him until rereading Caroline Alexander's book, which mentioned that the very first dramatization of the discovery of Pitcairn had the very same twist. The twist in question, and more. )

The question of what exactly happened to cause the mutiny is never addressed, as it's not the point of the play. It's a story where everyone gets a fresh new start but due to the baggage they bring with them - the Europeans ideas of racial superiority, and the confusion of the fact that the women are sexually liberated with the idea that they don't care whom they have sex with, the Polynesians their own hierarchy which divides them from each other and stops them banding together until it is too late - it ends in a far worse state than the one they ran away from. One third into the play, when the Bounty is burned, both mutineers and Polynesians realise they are now in prison, locked together with each other when half of them wants to kill the other half, worse than a prison sentence in England would have been. As Utopia turns Dystopia stories go, this one is told viciously and efficiently. In a can't-turn-my-eyes-away manner; if it's ever staged where I can see it, I will.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child: first of all, let me address something that annoys me in plenty of both negative and positive reviews of this play: said reviews treating JKR as the author. She's not. I repeat: she did not write this play, and never claimed she had. The credit on the cover is pretty clear: a two part stage play written by Jack Thorne based on an original new story by Thorne, J.K. Rowling and John Tiffany. Which makes Thorne the author, with input by JKR as well as John Tiffany as far as the storyline is concerned.

Maybe a comparison: The Empire Strikes Back. Script by Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett. George Lucas did not write it. Of course he had imput in the storyline, and he approved of the final result. But I can't count the number of criticisms of Lucas as a scriptwriter which sooner or later bring up the fact the ESB script was written by two solid veterans as an explanation why that movie is the favourite of most fans, who point to Leigh Brackett's Bogart-Bacall-Hawks past as having influenced the Han and Leia scenes, etc. By the same measure, it might be more useful to compare HP and the Cursed Child to earlier work by Thorne for the tv series Skins or his plays than it is to compare it to JKR's novels.

All of this being said, here we go: I enjoyed reading this two part play tremendously. I haven't read much Next Generation fanfiction to compare it too, but it should surprise me if previous takes on Scorpius Malfoy resemble this one, who is an adorable geek and very much his own character, not Draco or Sirius revisited. Now the last two HP novels had made me have some pity and sympathy for Draco and the Malfoys in general (with the caveat that joining a genocidal bastard voluntarily not being a good idea should have been kind of obvious), but this play finally made me like Draco, without negating or prettifying his previous history in the slightest. The adult interaction between him, Harry, Hermione and Ginny feels both plausible and satisfying to me. Harry with the best of intentions struggling with fatherhood and this textually explicitly being tied back to his being raised by the Dursleys on the one hand and having Albus Dumbledore for a mentor on the other also makes character sense to me. And while "son of famous man struggles with expectations, developes massive issues" is anything but new as a concept, I thought Albus Potter was a good variation of the theme. I also liked the Albus-Ginny parallels; they have a scene together that brings up Ginny's Tom Riddle experience just rightly.

Being a genre fan, I'm of course familiar with the central plot device - which is spoilery ) - with Star Trek, Farscape and Buffy all having done memorable episodes using it. Cursed Child offers Spoilers. ) It also fits with the fact that all ensemble characters, past and present, dead and alive, contribute to saving the world: hooray for team work!

Complaints: not really. I mean, Spoilery New Character is more of a plot device than a character, but otoh New Character triggers both the aforementioned Ginny and Albus scene, and has one with Harry which is totally my kind of messed up: in spoilery ways. ) I'm really looking forward to seeing this scene acted out on stage in a year or so when tickets become reasonably available.
selenak: (Clone Wars by Jade Blue Eyes)
This one is a crossover between Kieron Gillan's Darth Vader comics (issues 13 - 15), which I've reviewed here, and Jason Aaron's main Star Wars comics, which I haven't read at all, though still easy enough to follow what's going on. Still, the crossover aspect makes it less satisfying than the previous issues, to me, mainly for two reasons:

Vaguely spoilery talk ensues )

Now I'm looking forward to the next installment when we're back to non-crossover territory, because I want more Aphra (aka the character whose fate isn't predetermined by the movies) than could be provided when our OT heroes take the spotlight.
selenak: (Black Sails by Violateraindrop)
Kieron Gillan's current comic Darth Vader has been reccommended to me from multiple sides, and since I saw there are two trade collections available already (i.e. something I can actually get my hands on), I went for it. (Also, I really liked Kieron Gillan's sadly cancelled Abigail Brand centric comic back in the day.)

Vaguely spoilery talk about Star Wars: Darth Vader, Issues 1-12 ensues. )


In conclusion: I'll definitely keep reading.

In another fandom, have a Black Sails fanfic rec:

Pieces of Silver: which is a wonderful missing scene set in late season 2 in which we see Silver interact with Miranda Barlow (and Abigail Ashe) while everyone is en route to Charleston. Great character voices for all three of them.
selenak: (Emily by Lotesse)
Now I have a thing about the Brontes , I like clever meta fiction, especially with a sense of humor, and I loved A.S. Byatt's novel Possession (one reason why I disliked the movie version), which imprinted me on literary scavenger hunts. Which is why I expected to feel more for this book than I did. My reasons for not going from "like" to "love" are mostly nitpicky in nature, so I will discuss them beneath a spoiler cut.

But first, some above cut impressions: the book's premise quickly summed up: Samantha Whipple (love the name), fictional American last living descendant of the Bronte family (via one of Patrick Bronte's Irish siblings), comes to Oxford still traumatized by her beloved father's death, in between snark sessions with her new tutor gets mysterious messages via her father's supposedly burned copies of the Bronte novels being dropped off in her room by parties unknown, and has to figure out how it's all connected while dodging obsessed Bronte collectors and the press alike. It's a first person narrated novel (of course it is), playing with a lot of Bronte motives but completely accessible if you're not familiar with the novels, offers some refreshing twists to the expected heroine characterisation which are spoilery ), and by picking Anne in particular as the Bronte sister to champion does its bit for Anne's by far not as neglected anymore as she used to be decades ago but still not as entrenched in the popular consciousness as the the others cause. I laughed at the in text digs at literary criticism and a certain type of collector and was very amused by Samantha's worthy-of-Victorian-sensation-novels theory about Anne and Charlotte. Samantha's final conclusion in that regard is progress for her within the novel's world, and the ending is - imo, though looking at reviews they seem to have taken it as literary true, which surprised me given all the in text discussions about unreliable narrators before - a clever twist on just that.

But here's what my inner nitpicker complaining throughout the book: Put unspoilery, some at least a century old conclusions sold as unheard of. )

In conclusion: nitpicks aside, I had fun, but don't think I'll reread this the way I did Possession.
selenak: (Default)
Very enjoyable, but not quite what I'd hoped for, by which I mean I wanted to love it and didn't, though that might partly been to having had wrong expectations.

What I thought I would get: first of a series of detective novels starring Harper Lee and Truman Capote as children.

What this is: one off novel about Harper Lee's and Truman Capote's childhood friendship. In the course of which they also play detectives (this, btw, was a rl thing, complete with cosplaying Holmes and Watson), but in the way children do, i.e they're looking for a mystery but when they eventually hit on a "mystery", it isn't really one, more of a shaggy dog story their imagination makes into more, though they come up with a few correct conclusions in between. At any rate, it's not the main plot of the novel, which is very reminiscent of, say, Tom Sawyer in the way it's structured, i.e loosely connected anecdotes and a few lingering plot threads.

I should add that it takes enormous guts to tackle the childhood of these two writers, since they've milked it for their own fiction. Which means at least part of your readers will have fictionalized alter egos of two masters of their art in their heads, though this book definitely is written primarily for children as readers. (Who presumably wouldn't have read Capote, even if they should have watched the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird.) Neri wisely doesn't try to imitate either of their narrative voices, and sticks to third person, sometimes in Nelle's and sometimes in Tru's perspective, though as an appendix he has fun with some Capote and Harper Lee pastiches in the form of first person narrated short stories his child heroes have supposedly written during the course of the novel. (As he mentions, the real short stories were lost, so he gives his versions, which are fun to read, and good natured stylistic exercises to boot.)

Purely taken as a novel for children, it provides them with a pair of misfit heroes, with Tru the more unusual of the two, because tomboy heroines have been popular since decades, but as far as I recall, defiantly "sissy" boy heroes are not. If I were Neri, I'd have trusted my youthful audience more to get the point, because he repeats at least three times that part of what makes the Nelle and Tru friendship is that neither of them fits into gender roles (i.e she's seen as too much of a boy for a girl, he's seen as too much like a girl for a boy), but that doesn't take away from the charm of the combination. (Especially since neither does Nelle get more "feminine" nor Tru ore "masculine" in the course of the narrative; that's not how they influence each other.) Other than not fitting gender roles, our young heroes are also united by passion for books, a wild imagination and having living but absent mothers (Nelle's has mental health problems, Truman's is Holly Golightly a narcissist who can't stand having a child when she yearns to make it in the big city, and specifically can't stand this particular child - as Capote's biographer Gerald Clarke once wryly noted, at least his mother ensured he'd never have a "am I gay?" Identity crisis as a teenager, because she told him he was way earlier than that.) Their fathers, otoh, couldn't be more different - Nelle's is her later model for Atticus Finch, Tru's is a charming conman who never pulls off a succesful con. (And isn't much around.)

The 1930s US South setting means the novel has to deal with race as well. There are two poc characters with lines and personality, a boy a bit older than our heroes, and the cook at Truman's aunts' house where he lives. The boy is the occasion for an early scene where Tru and Nelle face the local bullies; note that Nelle is incensed by the unfairness of the situation because she knows the black boy can't fight back (it's unthinkable), and that's why she intervenes, which I think as a way to signal both institutional racism and that Nelle, with the best of intentions and bravery, isn't free from some assumptions herself, it works. As for the cook, Neri tries his best to avoid the "Mammy" cliché, but of course she is an older black woman being roped into helping two white kids in an endeavor (and knowing she'll be held responsible if it goes wrong), and we're in the kids' pov, so while there's enough narrative information to make it clear she has her own life going on and doesn't live for young Truman, we still don't see her outside of how he relates to her. The Ku Klux Klan shows up twice in the novel, the second time in what I automatically assumed was an invented occasion in order to pay homage to To Kill a Mockingbird, because Nelle's father gets to face them down, but no, upon checking, the second occasion actually happened: when eight years old Truman was called to New York to live with his mother for a while, he threw himself a big Halloween farewell party (of course he did), and the Klan, objecting to the presence of the earlier mentioned poc characters among the guests, showed up. (KKK, Monroeville edition, deciding to crash eight years old farewell party is the type of thing that would be called hopelessly over the top if invented, so I should have known it really happened before googling.)

Sidenote: Because I read Go Set a Watchman last year (and of course To Kill a Mockingbird ages ago), I couldn't help but notice that the depiction of racism in Monroeville is markedly different in the prequel/rough draft compared to the other two. In Tru and Nelle, it's there, it's unfair, but most townspeople are benevolent, and the KKK are bumbling bullies and fools whom the good people naturally oppose. There's nothing like the creeping horror when in GSAW, in the adult Jean Louise's pov, she realises that it's everywhere and far from limited to unpleasant brutes.

Back on reviewing track, technical details: Neri gives the child Nelle a Southern accent to be phonetically transcribed, but not the child Truman (though Nelle's has disappeared by the end of the novel from her dialogue) - no idea how accurate that is. Some of the other characters talk in it, too, which is always a bit tricky for me as a foreigner to read. I couldn't help but notice that when they play out their Sherlock Holmes scenarios, Nelle is Watson while Truman is not Holmes but Sherlock, and here I cried foul and clear influence of not one but two more recent tv incarnations. :) (She would have called him Holmes!) This being said, it only made me wish more for the child detective series I had imagined this to be the start of, because I could have read tons more about these two fighting crime.

In conclusion: I liked but didn't love, and now hope for fanfiction providing more and going deeper. This is such a delightful friendship through the decades before the two lost each other in the wake of In Cold Blood and Truman's alcoholism-fueled assholery and self destruction. And in addition to the fighting crime tales, I want the superheroes AU. Because clearly Nelle would have made a great superheroine (complete with shock realisation about mentor) and her withdrawal from the public eye was so she could superhero undetected. Truman provided the intelligence in their investigations by befriending every supervillain ever and making them spill the beans.
selenak: (City - KathyH)
The latest (splendid) volume in what is definitely my favourite still ongoing book series. It takes place in January 1936, in Alexandria (which resonated extra deeply with me due to my Yuletide story ), Palermo and Ethiopia, features the series trademark mixture of flying and archaeology mixed with a bit of the occult, and has our heroes encounter what strikes me as the largest number of real life historical figures so far, with the two authors doing an admirable job of not going for the obvious and avoiding clichés which almost every movie, tv series or book trying to do the same fall into.

It gets spoilery from here )
In conclusion: when is the next volume due again? I want moooore.
selenak: (Orson Welles by Moonxpoints5)
The third volume of Simon Callow’s monumental Orson Welles biography, which carries our hero from 1947, when he left the US behind and became a permanent globetrotter, to 1965, when he made Chimes at Midnight, which Callow with some justification, both artistic and biographical, sees as his opus magnum and all things coming full circle. (And of course it was the last movie (minus the mockumentaries like F for Fake) he actually got to finish, while living on another twenty years desperately trying to finish over projects.) The article which alerted me to the publication of One Man Band assumes Callow will present volume IV , covering the last twenty years, but I could understand it if Callow leaves it here; artistically, it’s just so tempting, not to mention that the theatre and film projects description are a great part of the appeal of the biographies, and without these, with “just” the life to describe, part of the motivation must be lost.

(Mind you: if The Other Side of the Wind, aka the nearly finished Welles movie with copies slumbering in archives of money men for decades and then fought over by heirs, actually finally gets released in the next few years, as has been announced there should be a LOT of new material to analyze.)

Meanwhile, here are the impression of Welles: The European Years )
selenak: (Sternennacht - Lefaym)
All this Star Wars talk everywhere reminded me of two things:

1) I still unashamedly love the prequels and shall do a prequel marathon.

2) My favourite Star Wars inspired fiction, other than [profile] fernwithy's Father's Heart, remains a series of novels which are what modern fandom calls id fic these days - i.e. you know objectively that this fiction can be critisized for oh so many good reasons, that it won't ever win any awards, but they push fannish buttons/hit so many tropes you're fond of the right (for you) way that you don't care. What am I talking about? Margaret Weis' Star of the Guardians series, of course.

So, Margaret Weis. Probably most famous for writing Dragonlance together with Tracy Hickman. They also wrote some other series (which btw I prefer to Dragonlance) together, like the Deathgate Cycle and my favourite of theirs, the Rose of the Prophet trilogy. And they wrote separately. Star of the Guardians, which is arguably either a trilogy and an epilogue or a quarted, however, Margaret Weis wrote on her own. And I strongly suspect it originated as Star Wars fanfiction written after the original SW, aka A New Hope, hit the cinemas but before The Empire Strikes Back did, starting out as an AU wherein Leia is Vader's age and shares some of Obi-Wan Kenobi's narrative role. And then goes into a completely different direction from there.

The four books in question:

a) The trilogy: The Last King, King's Test, King's Sacrifice
b) The aftermath: Ghost Legion.

It never bothers to disguise its origins, btw: "Her mother was a princess from the Leia system" is said about Lady Maigrey, our heroine, in the first volume, and well, yes. Also we get lightsabers blood swords, psi powers by those yielding them, a Dark Lord War Lord who used to be a Jedi Guardian and was crucial in the fall of the previous political system and the hunting down of the other Jedi Guardians, a seemingly cynical mercenary and terrific pilot with a heart of gold, a naive young boy who at the start of the tale has no idea about who his parents really were and who seems to have the obligatory savior role, a vile old man who is the true villain behind it all, and AIs as the main comic relief. And yet, as I said, all these familiar balls are spun off in different directions.

For starters, and this is something why if you object to the books for it you have my complete understanding, instead of an Evil Empire, we have an Evil Republic which toppled the previous Well Intentioned But Weak Monarchy, and the endgame is a Good Monarchy. Said Evil Republic is pretty much your Anglosaxon cliché, mainly based on the French Revolution As Envisioned By Dickens And Baroness Orczy (people adress each other was "Citizen), with a dash of the Russian Revolution as perceived in Western Pop Culture (executed Royal Family! Secretly spirited away royal heir!) but also, more surprisingly, present day (as of time of publication, i.e. the 1990s) USA. (Less and less people vote, people are cynical about Congress, tv shows - or rather their sci fi equivalent - are key for political campaigns, and the talk show host is definitely a late 20th century USian one.) Also, there's the religion. If you've read anything by Margaret Weis, you may have noticed that she loves her religious tropes. There are either both true and false gods around (the false ones have fanatical adherents who get to embody all the evil religious tropes and are prone to cry "heresy!", but the good, true gods get only the sympathetic religious tropes - persecuted believers, compassion, healing, you get the idea), or officially decreed atheism versus suppressed religion (which is the case in Star of the Guardians). Again, if this puts you off for real life reasons, I completely understand.

(I also understand when you object to the books because Margaret Weis quotes Latin repeatedly but evidently can't speak it. Seriously, "et cum spiritu tuo" doesn't mean "and may his spirit be with you", it means "and with your spirit/mind" (it's the reply given in mass: "Peace be with you." "And with your mind.") She keeps reusing that phrase in the wrong translation, and it just irks me.)

With all those disclaimers in place, here's why I love those four novels anyway: first of all, Maigrey and Derek Sagan (that would be the Dark Lord Warlord), who embody one of my favourite tropes, and do it so well: friends/lovers turned enemies turning allies again. They have this history of incredible closeness and terrible betrayal, a push-pull dynamic, and because Maigrey is a Jedi Guardian, they're equally matched in every regard. They're also one of the few examples I know where "two characters having a telepathic bond" is pulled off as something that works with the characters, instead of providing a narrative short cut. (Being able to talk in their minds doesn't solve any of their problems with each other.) And they're both not youngsters anymore but in their 40s. I'm all for non-teenaged space opera best enemies!

There's also no denying that no matter their origin, all the characters are their own people. Tusk aka Mendaharin Tusca, the seemingly cynical pilot with whom Dion escapes early in the first novel after, you guessed it, Sagan has tracked down his guardian who raised him with lethal intentions, stops evoking Han Solo pretty early on. That his partner isn't a Wookie but his sarcastic flight computer XJ helps, as does Tusk quickly gaining a fellow mercenary, down-to-earth space trucker Nola, as a love interest. (Told you this all goes in very different directions than Star Wars did.) There are also characters with no equivalent in Star Wars (leaving the EU aside), like John Dixter (the fatherly general type, only in the day of the Evil Republic he's heading a troup of mercenaries). Some characters I side eyed at first (the Andonians are introduced as a camp, gay-coded bunch apparantly destined for cheap villainhood) only to be relieved and charmed later (the Andonian we see the most of, Raoul, is fabulously camp and very sympathetic). And for all that there's the amount of fighting you expect from a space opera, one of the heroes (introduced in a cameo in the second novel, graduating to a key character in the third) is a pacifist who is nonetheless in the thick of things, and not via suddenly learning to fight. And there's the way Margaret Weis can just mix a rolicking adventure, humor and tragedy. Plots and counter plots, duels, mind games, space battles, lots of conflicted feelings (not just between Maigrey and Derek Sagan, but also between Dion and the two of them), a dastardly main villain (Abdiel, who, to put it in a simplified way, can make people into zombies)...and of course there's a prophecy. Which gets fulffilled in a truly evil way, reminding me of Londo & G'Kar of Babylon 5 fame way, to put it cryptically.

Not every trope works for me. Dion experiences Love At First Sight in volume III, and I'm never sold on that particular relationship, which has consequences because it's important in volume IV. On the other hand, volume IV also features too spoilerly even as a trope ) So there is balance.

Speaking of balance: that's why I wouldn't stop - if you DO decide to read the books in spite of all the above mentioned problems - with King's Sacrifice. You could; the first three novels form a trilogy and its main plot ends there. But Ghost Legion not only wraps up the fate of a major character in a way King's Sacrifice didn't, it also provides some direly needed comfort (sort of) after the (necessary) hurt of one storyline, and it, as mentioned, introduces a very likeable character, Astarte, who also balances out the religious factor somewhat, since she's, among other things, High Priestess of a matriarchal religion centred around a Goddess, which isn't treated as lesser by the narration than the sci fi Christianity of the previous volumes. Oh, and after he got sidelined somewhat in volume III, Tusk gets a central role in Ghost Legion, which is also an example of "characters who never worked together before now doing so which proves unexectedly entertaining" because spoiler alert! ) One more thing re: Tusk: he's black, and the merceneries have female as well as male pilots (Maigrey isn't the only woman who gets to fight, nor are only warrior women featured), which puts them a step ahead of certain rebels in the movie that began it all.

In conclusion: it's derivative as hell (and not just of Star Wars - Margaret Weis evidently likes The Magnificent Seven, too, so they show up in volumes III and IV) - . it makes me laugh, it makes me cry, and I love it while being entirely aware of all the reasons why I shouldn't. And it's my favourite owing-its-origin-to-Star Wars fiction, no contest.
selenak: (AmandaRebecca by Kathyh)
Recently, I finished rereading the six historical novels by the sadly dead Judith Merkle Riley. I first read them back when they were published, in the late 80s and early 90s, and enjoyed them a lot, though not all in the same degree. Going back, I find at least half of them hold up well, and all have lots to offer. Mind you, there's the drawback, especially if you read them all in a row, that Judith Merkle Riley has a few character types and plot points she keeps repeating and reusing. Sometimes it grates. Sometimes she doesn't get (imo, as always) the balance right. But she also has wit, on display in all six, and manages to narrate with a sense of irony but without condescending to whichever period she describes. Also: all of the novels are female-centric and manage to avoid the "one special girl" trap, i.e. women other than our heroine are valued by the narrative and get to be competent, with their own emotional lives.

Here are the novels in question, their plusses and downsides in the opinion of your humble reviewer:

The Margaret of Ashbury trilogy:

1. A Vision of Light: introducing our heroine, Margaret, who dictates her memoirs to a monk and lives in the time of Edward III., but is totally not Margery Kempe, honest. Mostly not, I suspect, because Judith Merkle Riley wanted Margaret to enjoy sex more and be a bit more down to earth. But Margaret does have visions and chats with the Almighty, in between going through a vivid medieval life, including an encounter with the plague, becoming a midwife, marrying twice (spoiler: in this volume), and having the ability to befriend tremendously interesting people. Margaret is a delightful heroine, and like I said, not the novel's sole carefully drawn woman. You get a sense of how clichés are avoided/twisted around early on when he drunken father remarries, a not-attractive-anymore widow with two sons of her own who at first glance doesn't seem to care for Margaret. But no, we're not going the Cinderella/Evil Stepmother route; instead, Margaret due to an incident starts to see her stepmother as a human being and bonds with her (not to mention that Mother Anne teaches her the highly useful skill of brewing excellent beer). Later, when Margaret's mentor, the midwife Hilde, shows up, you think: mentor figure! Midwife in novel set in the late middle ages! She'll die! But no. Hilde is still happily alive and living with her trickster type companion at the end of the trilogy. And so forth.

If A Vision of Light has a downside, it's that the ending, the last 50 pages or so, are basically a set up for the next volume rather than a conclusion to this one. If there had been no more novels, I would gone "Hang on! Am I to believe this abrupt shift in their relationship will make either of them happy? But - but..." Knowing what will come, I'm fine with the twist.

2.) In Pursuit of the Green Lion: perhaps my favourite of the trilogy. Margaret and SPOILER have to deal with the fallout of that set up, and Judith Merkle Riley executes one trope I enjoy if well done - Spoilery trope named ) - in a convincing way. Also there's lots of sarcasm at the expense of the nobility, and two bickering ghosts. (In future books, Merkle Riley sometimes lets the supernatural elements go overboard, but here it's just in the right doses, plus one of the ghosts is someone Margaret loved and lost in the past, and the book makes the point that loving someone in the present doesn't mean all that came before wasn't as important, or, conversely, that having loved someone truly means you can no longer love anyone else. In short, it's the anti One True Love No One Else Counts trope I still wish was more common. Yay! This is also the first book set in France for a considerable part when Margaret & friends are undercover as pilgrims, giving us a wry and amused look at the Avignon era of the Church. Oh, and it features the first bunch of Merkle Rileys satanists; there's a Gilles de Rais type around...who has it in for Margaret's love interest because said love interest satirized the count's poems. Which is a very Merkle Riley twist.

3.) The Water Devil: a bit of a let down compared to the first two. Not that it's a bad book per se; by itself, it's a perfectly entertaining adventure novel, Margaret & friends are still a captivating lot. But the villainess is a paper thin cliché, and the story itself doesn't really add anything new to Margaret's development, as opposed to the first two. Ah well.

Standalone novels:

The Serpent Garden: set during the early reign of Henry VIII., and highly unusual already because it has nothing to do with his marriages. The most prominent Tudor in it is his sister Mary, since her brief marriage to the French king and subsequent one with Charles Brandon form part of the plot, but Mary is only a supporting character. Our heroine here is Susanna, soon widow of a morally no good painter and an accomplished painter of miniature portraits herself, who first becomes a part of Wolsey's entourage and then a part of Mary's. This novel has both a third act and a supernatural problem; for two thirds of it, Susanna is a fine plucky heroine using her talent in world that keeps underestimating her, plus the book offers a take on Wolsey during the height of his power. (No Cromwell in sight, though Cavendish shows up as a flatterer and Anne Boleyn as a teenage girl in France.) But Susanna's no good husband who dies at the beginning has been involved in supernatural treasure-hunting, and during the last third, the book gets dominated by an angel versus demon struggle with Susanna only playing a small part, and it's just not what I signed up for.

The Oracle Glass: My favourite of the standalones! Set in Paris during the Reign of Louis XIV, with the famous "Affair of the Poisons" playing a central role. Our heroine is Genevieve, clever, a book worm, but also handicapped, which is why her mother hates her. Genevieve gets thrown out after her father's death and gets picked up in the streets by Catherine La Voisin, the most (in)famous "witch" of Paris, soothsayer, abortionist, master poisoner, con woman and head of a whole network of women who have at least one of said skills as well. Genevieve gets a new identity as the 150 years old Madame de Morville and becomes a successful soothsayer, which works out well for her for a while, but if you know at least a bit of French history, you know La Voisin has a date with destiny. She, btw, is perhaps Merkle Riley's most successsful female villain/ambiguous character (sometimes one, sometimes the other), practical, ruthless, and basically a female Don Corleone, seeing herself as simply a very successful business woman with marketable skills. (Which she is, and has the business folders to prove it.) Genevieve's attitude towards her is a mixture of respect, (justified) distrust and some awe.

Meanwhile, Genevieve's blood family is dastardly rotten, except for her grandmother (whom she models her Madame de Morville persona after) and her sister, Marie-Angelique, who is another great cliché refuter, because she's the pretty blonde one to Genevieve's intellectual brunette, but she is also Genevieve's one good family member and consistently loving towards her, instead of being a mean girl (tm). Then there's Genevieve's maid Sylvie (who gets paid a lot to spy on her by various parties and cheerfully admits to it every time to Genevieve while keeping the cash), and the other ladies of La Voisin's network. This novel is just bursting with women who are interesting and have interesting relationships with each other. And I'm okay with the romance, too. Highly reccommended.

The Master of All Desires: alas. This one has the dullest heroine of the lost, Sibille, despite her being a writer (a poet). She gets completely overshadowed by two other ladies, Catherine de Medici and Diane de Poitiers, since this novel is set in France, 1556. The title refers to the novel's McGuffin, a mummified head who can fulfill wishes but specializes in fulfilling them in a way that ruins everything for the wishing person. Catherine and Diane both want it, Sibille by accident has it, and Nostradamus tries to deal with the head in a way that avoids bringing on the apocalypse. This is a novel with a good premise, but it can't quite decide who the main character is - Catherine, Nostradamus or Sibille -, and Sibille, alas, is the most colourless of Judith Merkle Riley's OCs. Also Nostradamus having issues with poetry in general gets repetitive. Worth reading for the way Merkle Riley twists events at the end of Henri II.'s reign and after to be the result of ill-considered wishes by Diane and Catherine (let's just say wishing crowns for all your children is a baaaaad idea if you don't clarify three of them aren't supposed to get the same one), and for a take on Catherine de Medici which is traditional but also avoids the monster cliché (this Catherine has the potential but doesn't go there yet). Also if you enjoy twists on the "evil wish fulfiller: how to outthink them?" trope. But as a novell, it belongs with the "Serpent Garden" to those I think could have used a complete redrafting and/or different focus.
selenak: (John Silver by Violateraindrop)
I hadn’t reread this book since my childhood, and due to my Black Sails fannishness, I thought it was time. It held up pretty well: you can see why it became an instant classic. Incidentally, given Stevenson originally thought it up to amuse his stepson, and given the tragic fate of other child muses of children's classics, I checked what became of the stepson, and lo, he seems to have had a good life, and also later collaborated with his stepfather on three different books.

In the decades since I've read Treasure Island first, I had forgotten some parts: I hadn't recalled that Jim's father is still alive (if sick and then dying) at the start of the book. Probably because his mother in her one big scene (returning to the inn despite the pirates because damm it, her property is there) makes a far more vivid impression. Incidentally, current day children and YA books tend to kill off mothers if they don't kill off both parents, so Stevenson killing off Hawkins Senior (and not making a big deal of him later in the book in Jim's memories) is unusual. Not that Jim & father figures isn't a big issue: Doctor Livesey and Captain Smollett are the good, if remote ones, while John Silver is the very present, seductive and bad one.

The first part is great with setting up atmosphere, mystery and suspense, and it's fast paced, while the narration then slows down a bit until Jim discovers the mutiny plans, but the story never feels slow. Incidentally, Billy Bones drinking himself to death (and the information that so did Flint in the past) feels sad now to me in a way it didn't for child![personal profile] selenak due to Black Sails. Actually Silver is the only pirate in the book who doesn't have an alcohol problem, but while I remembered Billy Bones dying of rum and fear at the start of the novel clearly, I had forgotten the part much later where Jim is alone on the Hispaniola with the dying Israel Hands, which in terms of creepy intense set pieces is as effective as the first chapter and Jim in the apple barrel overhearing the mutineers.

Something else I had forgotten was that there's much hostility between the Squire and Captain Smollett at the start, and that even Jim doesn't like Smollett much in the beginning. Squire Trelawney constantly misjudging everyone is a running joke (the Squire really is basically Prince George from the third season of Blackadder in this book), but it's interesting that Stevenson doesn't go with the children's book habit of making a child's judgment of character instinctively right, and spotting villainy and virtue by heart. It makes Jim a more realistic boy. As does the fact that when he does find out the truth about Silver, the fact Silver uses the same line of praise he used for Jim to the next youngest crew member outrages him almost more than the fact Silver is planning a mutiny ("You may imagine how I felt when I heard this abominable old rogue addressing another in the very same words of flattery as he had used to myself. I think, if I had been able, that I would have killed him through the barrel ").

Something else I hadn't known was that Stevenson later wrote a hilarious meta fiction, a debate between Silver and Smollett as to which of them their author likes best. You can find the entire text here. But I can't resist quoting the entire opening, because, well, you'll see, plus it's a good example of Stevenson's style:

“Good-morning, Cap’n,” said the first, with a man-o’-war salute, and a beaming countenance.

“Ah, Silver!” grunted the other. “You’re in a bad way, Silver.”

“Now, Cap’n Smollett,” remonstrated Silver, “dooty is dooty, as I knows, and none better; but we’re off dooty now; and I can’t see no call to keep up the morality business.”

“You’re a damned rogue, my man,” said the Captain.

“Come, come, Cap’n, be just,” returned the other. “There’s no call to be angry with me in earnest. I’m on’y a chara’ter in a sea story. I don’t really exist.”

“Well, I don’t really exist either,” says the Captain, “which seems to meet that.”

“I wouldn’t set no limits to what a virtuous chara’ter might consider argument,” responded Silver. “But I’m the villain of this tale, I am; and speaking as one sea-faring man to another, what I want to know is, what’s the odds?”

“Were you never taught your catechism?” said the Captain. “Don’t you know there’s such a thing as an Author?”

“Such a thing as a Author?” returned John, derisively. “And who better’n me? And the p’int is, if the Author made you, he made Long John, and he made Hands, and Pew, and George Merry - not that George is up to much, for he’s little more’n a name; and he made Flint, what there is of him; and he made this here mutiny, you keep such a work about; and he had Tom Redruth shot; and - well, if that’s a Author, give me Pew!”

“Don’t you believe in a future state?” said Smollett. “Do you think there’s nothing but the present story-paper?”

“I don’t rightly know for that,” said Silver; “and I don’t see what it’s got to do with it, anyway. What I know is this: if there is sich a thing as a Author, I’m his favourite chara’ter. He does me fathoms better’n he does you - fathoms, he does. And he likes doing me. He keeps me on deck mostly all the time, crutch and all; and he leaves you measling in the hold, where nobody can’t see you, nor wants to, and you may lay to that! If there is a Author, by thunder, but he’s on my side, and you may lay to it!”

“I see he’s giving you a long rope,” said the Captain. “But that can’t change a man’s convictions. I know the Author respects me; I feel it in my bones; when you and I had that talk at the blockhouse door, who do you think he was for, my man?”

“And don’t he respect me?” cried Silver. “Ah, you should ’a’ heard me putting down my mutiny, George Merry and Morgan and that lot, no longer ago’n last chapter; you’d heard something then! You’d ’a’ seen what the Author thinks o’ me! But come now, do you consider yourself a virtuous chara’ter clean through?”

“God forbid!” said Captain Smollett, solemnly. “I am a man that tries to do his duty, and makes a mess of it as often as not. I’m not a very popular man at home, Silver, I’m afraid!” and the Captain sighed.


Fandom ,you couldn't do better with your meta fiction. :) Anyway, as you see here, Stevenson does the Victorian novel thing of writing out accents and dialect. All the pirates have one (though Silver's is flexible depending on whom he talks to), none of the heroes do, except for ex pirates Ben Gunn and Gray (the existence of Gray was another thing I had forgotten). The most upper class person of the book, Squire Trelawney, is also characterized as the most foolish one, though, and the one who gets to display all the -isms when he writes to Doctor Livesey, re: Silver:

I forgot to tell you that Silver is a man of substance; I know of my own knowledge that he has a banker's account, which has never been overdrawn. He leaves his wife to manage the inn; and as she is a woman of colour, a pair of old bachelors like you and I may be excused for guessing that it is the wife, quite as much as the health, that sends him back to roving.

(Something that hadn't occured to me before was to wonder what Silver's plan re: that account was if everything had happened according to scheme; after all, he couldn't have returned to Bristol either way. However, Stevenson has that covered:

"Well," said the other, "but all the other money's gone now, ain't it? You daren't show face in Bristol after this."

"Why, where might you suppose it was?" asked Silver derisively.

"At Bristol, in banks and places," answered his companion.

"It were," said the cook; "it were when we weighed anchor. But my old missis has it all by now. And the Spy-glass is sold, lease and goodwill and rigging; and the old girl's off to meet me."


There are no women in the book other than Jim's mother who at least gets one scene of action, and Mrs. Silver, who only gets mentioned, but intrigues me a lot, especially this does sound like a partnership. Says Jim at the end: Of Silver we have heard no more. That formidable seafaring man with one leg has at last gone clean out of my life; but I dare say he met his old Negress, and perhaps still lives in comfort with her and Captain Flint. It is to be hoped so, I suppose, for his chances of comfort in another world are very small.

(Your headcanon is my headcanon, Jim. And this story is my headcanon for Mrs. Silver, at least until we find out whether or not a certain character in Black Sails will become her.)

Letting Silver get away with it at the end is about the most un-cliché-Victorian thing you can imagine, and I love Stevenson did this, which is why I was disappointed to learn a recent theatre production kills him off under a pile of gold. That's just wrong. Silver is the archetype from which all later fictional pirates derive, and the fact he stays free and alive, instead of being morally punished, that's just essential.

(BTW: in Peter Pan, Barrie, who loved Treasure Island, claims that Hook bested "Barbecue" - which is a nickname Silver has in the book which never quite made it into pop culture and the movies - and was feared by him, to which I say: pull the other one, James Barrie. Hook's far too emo to be a match for Long John.)

Not that Stevenson soft sells Silver as a villain, or makes him too smart. Silver, like everyone else, underestimates Ben Gunn. And the scene on the beach where Silver in no time flat kills two crewmen is chilling, and told as extensively as his showcases of bravery and cleverness, which is why Jim is in no doubt Silver would have killed him, too, if it became more convenient. The tension of distrust, unwilling admiration and lingering affection is what makes the relationship, and the first person narration ensures the readers are in the same position of Jim - they simply don't know whether or not he's right re: Silver.

In conclusion: still a highly enjoyable yarn, that book. Thank you, Mr. Stevenson, Sir.
selenak: (Young Elizabeth by Misbegotten)
In subject matter. It might also be in marketing, I don't know, I read three of these novels because [profile] sonetka's reviews had made me curious, but what they have in common, other than the era they're set in, is the first person narration and the fact they are about and narrated by teenage girls.

Detour rambling: mind you, authors who are definitely billed as Weighty Bestseller Writers employ first person narrators as well, independent from whether their main character is male or female. Mika Waltari did it all those decades ago, Philippa Gregory can't stop doing it right now. Mostly, and there are always exceptions, I prefer third person in my historical narrative. This is because few authors can pull off a first person voice which strikes me as plausibly that of a character from era X. Also if you've read more than one novel from a first person addicted author, the voices in question usually resemble each other too much, independent from which time the characters hail from. (Which is, btw, why I think Waltari pulled it off in The Egyptian, but then his narrators from Neronian Rome or the Finnish middle ages also sound very much like aged Sinuhe, and my suspension of disbelief is broken. Otoh Jo Graham gets away with it regularly, not least because her first person narrators actually are meant to be the same character, born into different eras. Someone who for my taste created a plausible first person narrator in the Tudor era is C.J. Sansom in the Shardlake series, but maybe if I would read a novel of his set in another era and it would also be first person, I would feel differently.

Anyway: Katherine Longshore, who wrote the trilogy (of sorts) I'm about to review, isn't a writer in the Sansom class who manages to give you a strong sense of era through the various levels of Tudor society, or of the ideological clashes. Her novels all take place in the claustrophic court world, and her narrators don't hold values or positions which completely clash with a present day reader. Romance and self realisation are the two main red threads. But I enjoyed reading all three books, though in varying degrees. They're vividly written - süffig, we'd say in German, for which there is no adequate English translation, but the word associates a good drink -, and even within the overcrowded (by novels) Tudor era, they manage to feel individual, not derivative of the dozens of predecessors. They manage to bring the characters they feature to life. While they're losely connected, you can read each on its own. They also don't take place in chronological order. On the contrary, the first one is the last one in terms of Tudor chronology. Which finally brings me to the actual books.

1.) Gilt: Our first person narrator is Katherine "Kitty" Tilney, who grows up with Catherine "Cat" Howard (given the overabundance of Katherines, a historical novelist always has to come up with short versions and nicknames; these are Longshore's) and ends up witnessing her execution. This is the book I liked least of the three, for one particular reason: structure-wise, it reminded me too much of The Other Boleyn Girl - goodnatured, kind female narrator is endlessly exploited by ruthless ambitious other female main character, who rises and then falls mostly due to own deeds. Our heroine, as opposed to our villainess able to see the shallowness and destructiveness of ambition and court life, at the end finally is free of same and can have a self determined existence.

This is definitely one of the most negative takes on Katherine Howard I've come across. (Most fictional takes on Henry VIII.'s fifth queen have her as a good natured, if somewhat stupid teenager, with the exception of Ford Maddox Ford who made her into a Catholic saint.) She's basically a High School mean girl: manipulative, shallow, cruel, demanding loyalty without ever giving it. Even when she does something historically seen as generous (pleading for the incarcarated Thomas Wyatt, who is at the point of her wedding enjoying another stint in the Tower), she does so for self aggrandizement. Now the mean girl characterisation is just as possible as the goodnatured one in terms of the historical foundation (i.e. we don't know; certainly the mutual blaming each other once Katherine Howard, her servants, and her former and current lover were arrested could be due to understandable panic in the face of a gruesome death, or it could say something about their characters - who are we to tell?), but the problem is that the Kitty and Cat relationship is the central one in the novel. Everyone keeps telling Kitty that Cat is just using her, but it takes her eons to catch on. And we're still supposed to buy into a deep bond between them after Cat's fall, which makes Kitty be there for her in the night before her death, when all the previous novel has shown Cat in such a relentlessly negative light. This just doesn't work for me. More ambiguity in Cat and some truly positive actions which make it understandable why Kitty still loves her, and I'd been sold.

Why do I still think the novel is worth reading instead of skipping over? Because it (and the subsequent novels) have the most fleshed out, interesting Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford, of any Tudor era novel so far. We're definitely talking post Julia Fox Jane characterisation, without Jane suddenly becoming a saint (impossible anyway in a novel dealing with the Katherine Howard era). Seen through Kitty Tilney's eyes, Jane is basically a Tudor noir character, an enigmatic woman with a past who is a riddle Kitty can't quite solve. She clearly had strong feelings for the dead Anne, and Kitty at one point speculates that Jane in her relationship with Cat and the other young girls is trying to recapture her youth, but then again, after the fall, Jane at one point says to Kitty "What makes you think this (death) isn't exactly what I deserve?" In the end, Jane comes across as better than Cat who immediately tries to use her as a scapegoat once all is discovered, and Kitty's sympathies are with her. The hints about Jane's and Anne's relationship are enough to make one very curious about the next novel, which is:

2.) Tarnish: this one has a young Anne Boleyn, just returned from France and new at the English Court, as the narrator. And because it's Anne Boleyn in her late teenage years, the arc of the other two, with our heroines realising the destructiveness of ambition and court life, is unthinkable. Also, the romance outcome is the exact reverse from what it would be in your avarage YA novel. Anne in this novel has two main love interests, King Henry, whom she has a long term so far unrequited crush on, and Thomas Wyatt, whom she developes the verbal-sparring-of-equals relationship with, which in a novel dealing with not rl characters would lead to Anne leaving her crush on the King behind and embracing true love in the form of Wyatt. Not here, of course, though she gets out of the crush stage with Henry and does realize she's in love with Wyatt, but Anne, with an YA unusual form of ambition, concludes that with two married suitors and one of them the King hinting that he's willing to do the hitherto unthinkable and separate from his Queen, she's going to go with the more powerful option.

(The novel's Henry VIII., btw, is a neat exercise in reader foreshadowing, leaving aside that Longshore already presented us with the bloated, more quickly lethal version in the previous novel, as well as the assumption your avarage reader has avarage historical knowledge. You can see why Anne, especially given she's grown up in a society glorifying him, has her original crush, while at the same time the way he's paralleled with his sister Mary, who in her casual cruelty is the closest thing the novel has to a villain, foreshadows what will happen.)

(Another unusual thing for romance-heavy novels: Anne's relationship with Henry Percy, which in this version isn't youthful True Love but both of them wanting to escape an unwanted marriage and seeing each other as the solution to this - and in Anne's case seeing Henry Percy as a social climbing -, rushing into a relationship and then realising there's no there there. Which comes with awkward first time sex. Usually romantic heroines either have blissful sex with their true love, or unwanted painful sex with an arranged husband. Awkward wanted sex with not-really-true-love makes for a refreshing change.)

The novel also has a strong emphasis on the relationships between the Boleyn siblings, and here you can see the author improving in terms of the previous novel. Anne, who hasn't seen her sister and brother for years, makes some basic assumptions about them which turn out to be mistaken (or only scratching the surface), but she doesn't come across as blind the way Kitty does in the previous novel re: Cat, not least because neither Mary nor George are presented as villains. (Though this is one of the darker Georges; one of the things Anne at the start is puzzled and hurt is why their early childhood closeness before she went to France can't be recaptured and George behaves in a jerkish way to her. There is an explanation - and no, it's not incest -, and misunderstandings are cleared up, but George still is one of the edgier versions around, though miles from the Tudors rapist or Mantel's spineless fool.)

And, as mentioned: Jane (Parker) as she is then. Longshore uses Fox' research re: Jane Parker being present and involved in the early court life of Anne Boleyn to great effect; her version is a nail-biting, intense girl who forms a loners' friendship with pre-popularity Anne, but with more than one reason (and Anne is blind to the obvious other one at first), and there's also a basis for both Jane's capacity for passionate attachment and her fear of being at odds with power. She's plausible as a younger version of the woman from Gilt and goes some ways to explain the enigma without explaining it all.

Anne going from newcomer and somewhat ridiculed outsider at court to trendsetting new favourite comes with the usual finding-yourself-arc of a young heroine but also with historical irony, due to the reader's awareness what her triumph at the end will result in. It also comes with strengthened relationships to her siblings and to Jane, though, and a wistful road-not-taken one with Wyatt, and all in all, it makes Tarnish my favourite of the three novels.

Brazen: features an older Anne a few years later, just after Elizabeth's birth, as a supporting character, but our first person narrator is another teenage girl: Anne's first cousin Mary Howard, daughter of the Duke of Norfolk, who gets married to Henry VIII.'s illegitimate son, the Duke of Richmond. Another Henry, as viewers and readers of Blood Ties know. Here, he's Fitz. They're not, however, allowed to consume their marriage just yet, supposedly because Henry VIII. thought teenage sex was responsible for his brother Arthur's early demise. I kid you not. This is so preposterous that I looked it up, and yes, Henry VIII. actually gave that as a reason. Mind you, the novel allows characters to point a far more likely reason for the royal non-consummation order: this way, the marriage could easily be dissolved, should Henry VIII. want or need to marry his illegitimate son to someone else. If he had legitimized him - not impossible, given he had made both his daughters illegitimate -, then, for example, it would have been very likely that he'd sought a royal bride for Fitz.

Anyway, being forbidden to have sex of course makes for the obvious arranged-couple-falling-in-love-and-yearning-for-each-other plot. But Mary also has other things going on her life; as ever, Longshore is good with the friendships (Mary with Madge Shelton and Margaret Douglass; together, they create the Devonshire Manuscript) and the family relationships, which with the Howards are even more dysfunctional than they are with their Boleyn relations. (Mary's parents have a marriage to spectacularly bad - historical fact, btw, we have the Duchess' of Norfolk's letters to prove it - that it arguably outdoes Henry VIII.'s marriages in that department, minus the part where he killed two wives.) Mary's brother and Fitz' best friend, Hal (Earl of Surrey, poet, destined to be executed a few years after this novel) is another important supporting character.

Early on, Mary has a romantic view on the Henry VIII. and Anne marriage but gets rapidly disillusioned. One of the novels twists is that while remamining an Anne supporter, Mary inadvertendly contributes to her fall when she thinks Cromwell is interrogating her about her friend Margaret Douglass' secret marriage (Margaret being the King's niece, this one was illegal and did indeed earn Margaret a stint in the Tower later) and tries to distract him with in itself harmless talk which Cromwell later uses fatally against Anne. Btw, this Cromwell is certainly of the villanous kind, though the uncontested prize for main male villain (other than Henry VIII.) in this novel goes to Mary's father, the Duke of Norfolk. (I've yet to read a positive characterisation of him in any novel, no matter whom the author prefers. Which isn't surprising. He scorned books and new ideas, abandoned the nieces he first pimped at the first sight of trouble and abused his wife.) (Mind you, somewhere I'm sure there is a Misunderstood Woobie!version of Norfolk. There is of everyone else...) Who ends the novel frustrated when a grown up, sadder and wiser Mary who after Fitz has become a vampire has died young refuses to be his instrument and continues her own life at her own conditions. (Which as a Duke's widow she can now afford.) But he swears he'll find another Howard girl to bring to the King, and thus the circle to the first novel is closed. It is also for Jane, who in this novel makes only a few appearances but at the end as opposed to Mary returns to court because she can't imagine another existence but serving a queen, and thus dooms herself. The relative lack of Jane after her two strong and intriguing appearances in earlier novels is a let down only if you've read the other two, but it makes sense given Mary would have had only limited contact with her.

All in all: not must reads, but if you feel like consuming three novels about women in the Tudor age which offer interesting non-romantic relationships along with the romances, these would be a good choice.
selenak: (Claudius by Pixelbee)
Aka, I read my way through the rest of the Rivers of London series. Now some commenters to my review of the first volume had an "even/uneven numbers" theory similar to the Star Trek movies. My own experience was that the degree to which I liked an individual entry was directly related to the Lesley content of same. Much Lesley in 3 and 4 meant these were my favourites.

More spoilerly observations below the cut. ) So I hear the sixth volume is due this autumn? Excellent. *pre-orders*

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