The Sleeping Prince – Melinda Salisbury

26625494This sequel to The Sin-Eater’s Daughter features a new narrator in close, single-POV first, so it actually feels like book one of a series, until the new characters meet up with the old ones about two thirds of the way through. This neatly avoids a lot of middle-book-of-the-trilogy problems, or at least postpones them to the last third of the book.

Where The Sin-Eater’s Daughter took place in the gilded cage of a royal palace, The Sleeping Prince starts in a tiny, impoverished border town in the neighboring democratic country. Errin is just trying to get by and take care of her cursed and dangerous mother after her father died and her brother (Lief from book one) disappeared. When war approaches with the titular Sleeping Prince, a figure from the distant past returning to wreak havoc, Errin’s village is evacuated and soldiers arrive. Errin soon learns about the dark side of her country as refugees are abused and the border closed.

Desperate for a mysterious potion that keeps her mother’s curse at bay, Errin blackmails her only friend–and when she relents, he seemingly betrays her. Alone, Errin sets out on a cross-country journey that sees her meet up with Twylla, the previous book’s heroine, and find out about her brother’s true fate.

517qzv8wvzl-_sy344_bo1204203200_One thing I really liked about this book is that Errin is ordinary, heroic, and specific all at once. She’s a skilled apothecary, this interest rounding out her character and providing her a way to make a living, but she can’t create the potion that cures her mother. She survives a cross-country flight on horseback, but it’s clear to everyone she meets that she’s barely holding it together and that she’d do better to ask others for help. She’s also prone to attacks of anxiety, though somewhat too conveniently, she never freezes up when it would be inconvenient for the plot. When she does things like blackmail her friend, it’s clear she’s acting out of desperation, and she does relent. It feels like a real case of a good person brought to doing bad things, rather than an attempt to make the protagonist edgy.

I also love the darkness of Salisbury’s world. The villainous queen of book one is missing here, but there’s the chilling, sadistic Sleeping Prince instead. The epilogue, in particular, is nightmare-dark before it offers the reader some hope for the next book.

It was also great to see a realistic democratic country in a fantasy world, with all the same injustices we see in real democracies, but still better than monarchy.
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On the negative side, the Sin-Eater’s backstory as revealed in this book is too exculpatory–it makes her a bit boring compared to her earlier ambiguity. Also, a lot of information is crowded into the final third of the book, which I felt was not, until the very end, as strong as the first two thirds.

I can’t wait to see how it all ends in The Scarecrow Queen, due out next year.

 

 

 

The Rose Grower – Michelle de Kretser

You may not know this, as I haven’t blogged about the nonfiction books I’ve read about it here, but I’m fascinated by the French Revolution. Two of my favorite fictional portrayals of that event are Victor Hugo’s Quatrevingt-treize and Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety. Now I can add Sri Lankan-Australian author Michelle de Kretser’s The Rose Grower to that list.

The Rose Grower takes place in a small town in Gascony, where a liberal aristocratic family, an American artist, and a doctor active in the revolution interact with unexpected consequences. It’s written in a beautiful omniscient, like both of the other novels I mentioned, though closer in tone to the intimacy and complicity of A Place of Greater Safety than to the grandeur of Quatrevingt-treize. It sometimes directly addresses the reader, saying of one character, “Think carefully before you dismiss him as wrong or foolish.” Which is a good bit of advice about the period generally.

My favorite parts of the book focused on the doctor, Joseph Morel, who is a deeply good person without being overly perfect, a difficult balancing act for the author (she doesn’t quite manage the same trick with his love interest and co-protagonist, Sophie). He’s snaps at people unfairly, gets lost in his own happiness to the point of losing track of others, and is easily manipulated by the offer of friendship. Nevertheless, he’s honorable and selfless. When, following a provincial equivalent of the September Massacres, he’s on the point of falling out with his fellow revolutionaries, who don’t seem terribly upset about the murders, they offer him a chance to improve the local hospital. “They knew better than to offer him the world,” as the narrator puts it, “So they offered him the chance to improve it.” Unfortunately, easily manipulated as he is, he doesn’t realize he’s been used until tragedy strikes.

Setting the story in a small provincial town rather than Paris allows for the worst aspects of the revolution to be the work of a single villain, a total sociopath whom no one sees for who he really is until it’s far too late. This would be totally implausible as an explanation of what went wrong generally, and the author does show a larger problem as the tribunal’s jurors condemn people for minor acts of dissent, but it works as a compelling and believable plot in the environment of a single town, and makes for a tense lead-up to the climax.

Kretser also has a realistic way of showing the hypocrisies of the time even in her sympathetic characters–the artist Stephen and his lover end up living on a plantation as slave-owners despite Stephen’s liberalism. This isn’t because they’re evil or uncaring people, but it’s a refusal to make the characters completely modern or even the best examples of their time. Joseph Morel by the end seems to have abandoned, for understandable reasons, the efforts at large-scale improvement of conditions that he undertook earlier. In his new town, the narrator notes from his point of vie1228025w, “People starve here,” and it’s not clear what he’s doing about it beyond being a good doctor. Despite this, the characters are loveable.

I had a few bones to pick with minor historical details– the position of nuns during the revolution, the portrayal of women’s revolutionary societies, the description of why the Girondins fell–but the historical background is basically accurate despite relying on Simon Schama’s flawed Citizens (I should note that I never actually made it through Citizens, but a variety of sources lead me to believe that it is not exactly a great work of history).

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the period, or anyone just looking for a well-written, heartbreaking story.

Heroine Complex – Sarah Kuhn

Years after a portal opened in San Francisco, giving some of its residents superpowers, Evie Tanaka is raising her little sister and working for her best friend, a superhero. It’s not all sunshine, though–Aveda Jupiter, the superhero, is increasingly tyrannical and demanding, and it’s all Evie can do to put up with her mood swings. When Aveda is injured and demands Evie masquerade as her until she’s recovered, and Evie agrees against her better judgement, their relationship comes to a crisis, just as the demons from the other side of the portal begin to evolve and prepare for a potential takeover.

screen-shot-2016-11-28-at-3-17-19-amBefore I even get into the book, I have to compliment the cover by Jason Chan. It accurately depicts a scene from the book (with some small artistic license), right down to the clothes the characters are wearing. It portrays the two women, both East Asian, distinctly–Evie in particular actually looks mixed-race as she is in the text, which I appreciated. The cupcake demons on the cover give a good idea of the tone of the book–frothy but with a bite.

I found it the perfect book to read in easily digestible, bite-size segments. However, it’s not a fluffy read–under the lampshaded ridiculousness of the premise, Kuhn digs deep into the dysfunctional relationships between the characters. So convincing was the toxic-yet-loving relationship between Evie and Aveda that I was actually slightly dissatisfied when it’s basically solved through open communication and intervention–Aveda’s self-centeredness might be something she just wasn’t aware of, but her outsize mood swings made me feel awful for her, and hope she gets some psychological help in the sequels.

There’s plenty of romance in addition to the friendship–Evie suddenly finds herself attracted to a scientist/doctor who studies demons and tries to fit life into spreadsheets, dismissing Evie’s way of looking at the world. They both come to see the value in each others’ perspective, and while initially the emotionally-repressed Evie wants sex with no strings attached (an interesting reversal of gender roles), she eventually falls in love. Nate, the love interest, is a hot tortured-hero type, but this is livened up by a) Evie’s own propensity to play the self-sacrificing, repressed hero and b) his genuine interest in science and the scientific method. Plus, it’s an archetype I enjoy anyway.

The one character I didn’t really buy was Evie’s little sister Bea, who is both effortlessly hypercompetent in a way that doesn’t make sense for a sixteen-year-old, even a sixteen-year-old genius, and also prone to making plot-necessary but unbelievably stupid decisions. And I will believe in a lot of stupid decisions. This was over-the-top. I will put the spoilery details under a read more.

Continue reading

The Dispossessed – Ursula K. Le Guin

51ob3ljckjl-_sx300_bo1204203200_This is the first Le Guin that I’ve read cover to cover– I tried The Left Hand of Darkness but couldn’t get into it. Here, however, I was hooked from page one.

The Dispossessed tells the story Shevek, a physicist from an anarchist planet, Anarres, and his journey to a wealthier “archist” planet as he seeks to expand the horizons of his self-limited society. But he soon discovers there were very good reasons why his ancestors left the rich world of Urras behind.

I found the anarchist world of Anarres more convincing and interesting than the capitalist society Shevek explores on Urras. Because the country he lives in on Urras is basically an exaggerated version of our own capitalist society (this was written in the seventies, the era of Nixon, Vietnam, and Kent State), it was simultaneously less new and exciting and harder to believe. At the really bad parts (when the government turns helicopter gunships on strikers), I could tell myself, “But we’d never do that!” rather than taking the whole society as it is presented. Anarres, on the other hand, was totally different from anything I’ve ever experienced, and absolutely fascinating. It’s not a perfect society; in fact it’s stagnating and becoming conformist. This just makes it more convincing. I did wonder why the rebels in Anarres always were pure anarchists trying to go back to the original ideology–we didn’t see anyone having a completely different ideology, only contrasting takes on the same ideas–but this made for a more complex exploration of anarchism in its different forms.

One small section that I thought was very well-observed was when the Anarresti children, having just learned that other societies have prisons, play at prisoners and guards and end up going too far. This section really got to the heart of power exchange games and dynamics, while also being convincing as the actions of children.

The interactions between men and women were very odd from my 21st century perspective. There was a lot of emphasis on sexual difference and the frisson this leads to, which perhaps as a bisexual, I cannot understand.

The physics, which works differently from our physics, was nonetheless both convincing and easy to follow. Shevek’s theories of simultaneity and sequency were mirrored in the nonlinear structure of the book, which alternates between Shevek’s past on Anarres and his present on Urras, each chapter following an internal sequence while happening, from the reader’s perspective, simultaneously with the other narrative.

The quotations within the book from the fictional anarchist leader Odo were beautifully written, though the prose of the rest of the book alternated between lovely and overly plain and direct. However, as I was reading another book at the same time which was very densely written, the directness was a bit of a relief. Anyway, I now want to read the short story focusing on Odo, “The Day Before the Revolution.”

UK Cover for Elizabeth Wein’s The Pearl Thief

screen-shot-2016-11-12-at-1-14-26-pmElizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity prequel, The Pearl Thief, has a UK cover! And you can get this edition from The Book Depository with free shipping. It’s a paperback, cheaper than the US edition, but comes out two days later.

I love the elegant Thirties style of the cover, particularly Julie’s hairpiece! Can’t wait to see what the US cover looks like. In the meantime, here’s the UK description:

From the internationally acclaimed bestselling author of Code Name Verity comes a stunning new story of pearls, love and murder – a mystery with all the suspense of an Agatha Christie and the intrigue of Downton Abbey.

Sixteen-year-old Julie Beaufort-Stuart is returning to her family’s ancestral home in Perthshire for one last summer. It is not an idyllic return to childhood. Her grandfather’s death has forced the sale of the house and estate and this will be a summer of goodbyes. Not least to the McEwen family – Highland travellers who have been part of the landscape for as long as anyone can remember – loved by the family, loathed by the authorities. Tensions are already high when a respected London archivist goes missing, presumed murdered. Suspicion quickly falls on the McEwens but Julie knows not one of them would do such a thing and is determined to prove everyone wrong. And then she notices the family’s treasure trove of pearls is missing.

This beautiful and evocative novel is the story of the irrepressible and unforgettable Julie, set in the year before the Second World War and the events of Code Name Verity. It is also a powerful portrayal of a community under pressure and one girl’s determination for justice.

The Prime Minister- Anthony Trollope

Before I get into The Prime Minister, I want to link to Tom at Wuthering Expectations’s Trollope posts, which inspired me to go back and read this book all the way through– I had read all the other Parliamentary novels years ago, but never done more than skim this one.

I would like to withdraw a comment I’ve made on twitter and elsewhere, that I dislike the final romance between Emily Lopez nee Wharton and Arthur Fletcher on the grounds that it takes place against Emily’s own judgement and that she isn’t in love with him. It’s quite clear early on in the book that Emily is not in love with Arthur, and when she marries Ferdinand Lopez against the wishes of her family (who despise him as being of Portuguese descent, and make anti-Semitic remarks assuming he must be Jewish), it distressed me that her prejudiced relatives are essentially proven right when he turns out to be a dishonest and abusive man. Thought Trollope is for a change subtle about this (as opposed to the blatant anti-Semitism in Phineas Redux), and hints that if Emily’s father had not been so preoccupied by his future son-in-law’s ethnicity, he might  have picked up on his financial dishonesty sooner.

But in regard to the endgame romance, Trollope breaks out of the pattern he has established in earlier books, where a woman whose heart has been given away completely cannot really fall in love again (even in the case of Marie Goesler, who remarries in Phineas Redux, he is careful to establish that she was not truly romantically in love with her first husband). This pattern is critiqued in Jo Walton’s Trollope-based novel Tooth and Claw (it was Walton’s discussions of Trollope that first introduced me to him, though I have not read Tooth and Claw). Emily is truly in love with Ferdinand Lopez, but she falls out of love with him and into love with Arthur Fletcher, who has been pursuing her for years without her loving him other than platonically. In an interesting and shocking scene, the dutiful and proud Emily even defends Arthur to her husband after he kisses her on the lips while she is married. By the end of the novel, though she marries Arthur against her own judgement, she is clearly in love with him and holding back for unrelated reasons. It was really interesting to see, in a Victorian novel, a woman actually fall in love with another man while married and then end up with him (there’s Middlemarch, of course, but Will Ladislaw certainly doesn’t kiss Dorothea prior to her husband’s death).

The other thread of the book follows Plantagenet Palliser, the duke, and his duchess Glencora, as he becomes Prime Minister of a coalition government. Their relationship is quite different from Emily and Ferdinand’s, or Emily and Arthur’s. It is established in Can You Forgive Her? that Glencora was in love with another man prior to her arranged marriage to the future duke. She continued to be in love with him during the early part of her marriage, before her husband won her over. Yet it’s not a perfect relationship even after that–they complement each other and care for each other deeply, but aren’t necessarily a good match, and frequently argue and even hurt each other with their words and actions. It’s not even clear that Glencora is in love with her husband as a person, though she “worships him” when he becomes Prime Minister. She notes to her best friend that she hasn’t had any real fun since she was in love and that she only liked that “because it was wicked”.

The Emily thread of the story is in some ways a rerun of Can You Forgive Her?, in which both Glencora and her cousin Alice face a choice between a dashing scoundrel and dull good man. But where Alice and Emily are left by the narrator in love with the good man and about to live happily ever after, for Glencora it’s not so simple. The whole series traces her and Plantagenet’s struggles in their marriage and looks at what happens after the presumed happily ever after at the end of Can You Forgive Her?. This makes their partnership the most real and interesting marriage of the series.

The Duke, with his devotion to his work and his strong sense of honor, is my favorite character in the series, particularly in Phineas Redux and The Prime Minister (he goes downhill in The Duke’s Children), and in this book my favorite chapter focused on him: “The Prime Minister’s Political Creed”, in which he discusses with Phineas his own political beliefs, his ideas of liberalism and conservatism, and the complexities of being wealthy, privileged, and liberal. He frankly admits, “I doubt whether I could bear the test [of equality] that has been attempted in other countries.”

At any rate, I shall end this post with a quote from that chapter and character:

“You are a Liberal because you know that it is all not as it ought to be, and because you would still march on to some nearer approach to equality; though the thing itself is so great, so glorious, so godlike,–nay, so absolutely divine,–that you have been disgusted by the very promise of it, because its perfection is unattainable.”