Book Review: Timeless

TimelessI waited anxiously for the final book of the Parasol Protectorate series by Gail Carriger to be released, and then made myself wait a little longer to actually buy it until my book budget was available and my time budget opened a sliver.

Carriger has created such a unique voice with this series I almost have to read it in a posh, British accent, which alone brings a smile to my face. The fact that Alexia Tarabotti is such an unapologetic iconoclast who navigates her way through life with the characteristic stiff upper lip and punctilious approach makes the series feel witty on a profoundly intellectual plane. Not to say there isn’t slapstick in there, but it comes off as unintentional humor in the face of the always-exciting existence of one of the very few preternaturals in the world.

After the ending of Heartless, I wondered how Carriger would carry the story forward. The blurb says:

Alexia Tarabotti, Lady Maccon, has settled into domestic bliss. Of course, being Alexia, such bliss involves integrating werewolves into London High Society, living in a vampire’s second best closet, and coping with a precocious toddler who is prone to turning supernatural willy-nilly.

Until, that is, she receives a summons that cannot be ignored. With husband, child, and Tunstells in tow, Alexia boards a steamer to cross the Mediterranean. But Egypt may hold more mysteries than even the indomitable Lady Maccon can handle. What does the vampire Queen of Alexandria Hive really want from her? Why is the God-Breaker Plague suddenly expanding? And how has Ivy suddenly become the most popular actress in all the British Empire?

To carry over the metaphor from the book: The Alexia Tarabotti books are appeasement for me along the lines of treacle tarts for Alexia. I gobbled this one down in an afternoon, and wished there were more to come.

The emotional range of this book took me by surprise, starting as it did with the fully ridiculous:

Ivy Tunstell, Alexia’s dear friend, played the vampire queen. She did so with much sweeping about the stage and fainting, her own fangs larger than anyone else’s, which made it so difficult for her to articulate that many of her speeches were reduced to mere spitting hisses. She wore a hat that was part bonnet, part crown, driving home the queen theme, in colors of yellow, red, and gold. Her husband, playing the enamored werewolf, pranced about in a comic interpretation of lupine leaps, barked a lot, and got into several splendid stage fights.

The oddest moment, Alexia felt, was a dreamlike sequence just prior to the break, wherein Tunstell wore bumblebee-striped drawers with attached vest and performed a small ballet before his vampire queen. The queen was dressed in a voluminous black chiffon gown with a high Shakespearian collar and an exterior corset of green with matching fan. Her hair was done up on either side of her head in round puffs, looking like bear ears, and her arms were bare. Bare!

Conall, at this juncture, began to shake uncontrollably.

What’s fascinating is that even here, there is foreshadowing, and the book’s structure neatly closes out both the story arc introduced in this final novel as well as the mystery of Alexia’s father and the nature of the impact preturnaturals can continue to have even in their death.

I was glad that in this series the final book didn’t lose any of the verve and originality that drew me to the story in the first place, and finished on the kind of strong note that really makes me hope there will be a book about Alexia’s offspring sometime down the road. In the meantime, I will reiterate my earlier, strong recommendations: This book is a lot of fun and absolutely worth reading for anyone who likes vampires, werewolves, steampunk ethos, or low fantasy/alternate history.

Book Review: The Buried Pyramid

The Buried PyramidI started reading Jane Lindskold‘s novels when we lived in New Mexico, and I was all enamored with the fact that I lived palpably close to a bestselling author–who was as enamored of wolves as I was. I thoroughly enjoyed her Wolf series, and have both reread it and loaned it out a few times. (In fact, I’m still waiting for the first book to come back from the last loan… <hint, hint, you know who you are!>)

I found this book buried on a shelf at the local second-hand shop while I was looking to see whether there were any other cheap Lindskold books available, and was intrigued by the blurb:

Intrepid young Jenny Benet, a recently orphaned American girl who was raised on the Wild West frontier and educated at a Boston finishing school, has come to Egypt in company with her uncle Neville Hawthorne, a British archaeologist. They’re part of a team hunting for the legendary Buried Pyramid, the tomb of the pharaoh Neferankhotep–who may also have been Moses the Lawgiver.

But another party, led by the opulent and treacherous Lady Audrey Cheshire, is shadowing theirs. Someone who signs himself “The Sphinx” has been sending them threatening letters–written in hieroglyphs. Evidently, an ancient and shadowy organization is determined to keep the tomb from being discovered.

And mortal antagonists may not be all that stands in their way…

Since ancient Egypt is one of my perennially favorite topics, I was already inclined to enjoy this story. The inclusion of a headstrong young woman as the lead character made it all the more enticing. The setting, just prior to the turn to the 20th century, only hints at the American elements, and barely touches on London, before launching into the details of travel to Egypt when it was a British protectorate.

The historical details seem accurate to me (as someone whose hobby it is to read all kinds of different historical fiction to flesh out what I learned of history in school), and lead to such ironic, anachronistic conversations as:

“A lady’s dress is like a cage, no?” he said. “They wall in the ribs with something tight. These days they give you a fat tail of heavy cloth that drags behind. Not so long ago, I recall that the ladies surrounded themselves with great hoops of whalebone and wire–very real cages, indeed, that made their skirts stand out like sails on a ship. I think you don’t like these cages at all, no?”

“Not one bit!” Jenny replied firmly. “They’re stuffy and they’re uncomfortable. I can’t see how making a woman into some sort of funny shape makes her prettier, either. A man gets to be shaped like a man. Why can’t a woman be shaped like a woman?”

Papa Antonio chuckled comfortably.

“Perhaps because not all women have such a pretty shape as you do,” he said gallantly, “and they are happy to hide under petticoats and layers of skirts.”

Jenny snorted, but she couldn’t help but share his laughter, imagining some stout matron wearing trousers that exposed the breadth of her backside for all to see.

In fact, given how long the rather mundane travelogue continues, it seems at first much more historical fiction with a touch of mystery thrown in, than anything related to the fantastic. And that’s when Lindskold turns the dial to 11. Something of the magic Lindskold ascribes to Egypt reminds me of what the Stargate series made of Egypt’s antiquities, and it made me truly appreciate her ability to commingle the supernal with the commonplace.

So. For anyone who’s interested in a different view of ancient Egypt, told with the spice of a to-the-story present-day mystery, this is a meaty book that will involve you in a fascinating quest–not only for the artifact represented on the surface of the story, but also for the path to wisdom that underlies it. Because of that, it would also be good reading for anyone who likes a coming of age tale that helps focus the issues women face in seeking their independence in such a way that others might also benefit.

Book Review: The Twelfth Transforming

The Twelfth TransformingI read this book the first time in the late 80s, and have read it many times since then as well as loaned my copy to friends. This book is a compelling presentation of of ancient Egypt and fueled my fascination with that epoch to a great degree.

From the Amazon description:

Part of a popular line of historical thrillers set in Egypt, this second volume in Gedge’s bestselling series reconstructs the court of Akhenaten, one of ancient Egypt’s most controversial and colorful rulers, whose reign lead to the near-collapse of his empire some 2,500 years ago.

As someone who, at the time, didn’t know a great deal of the specifics of that era, but had been through any number of museum exhibits sharing elements of Egyptian archeology, the story sucked me in from the very beginning with its evocative language and intricate plotting. I had seen the bust of Nefertiti on display at the Egyptian Museum of Charlottenburg only a few years earlier, so it was my first experience of reading a fictionalized account of a figure from antiquity, and ignited my yen for the historical fiction genre generally.

When I get nostalgic about Egyptian history, this is the book I go back to again and again, for passages like:

When they had backed down the expanse of tessellated floor and the doors had closed silently behind them, Amunhotep sobered. “Well, my Tiye, what is on your mind? You did not come here to make love to a fat old god with rotting teeth.”

She quickly suppressed the moment of anxiety such talk from him always brought to her. He was shrewd and cold,this man, extracting a pitiless amusement out of every human failing, even his own, and he better than any other knew the irony in his description of himself. For at Soleb, in Nubia, his priest worshipped him with incense and song night and day, and a thousand candles burned before a colossal statue of Amunhotep, the living god, a likeness that neither aged nor sickened.

Gedge doesn’t gloss over the excesses of the royal court, and no less shies away from the infidelities nor incest and other elements distasteful to modern moralists. Yet she does it without judgement in such a way that every element of the story is supported and pushed forward by the logical weight of the momentum of action and reaction.

Picking up this book is always an invitation to lose myself in ancient Egypt for a few hours, and tonight was no different. Once again I am moved by the compelling (and cut-throat) politics depicted and the at once broad sweep of history that still conveys the deeply personal relationships between the primary players. I highly recommend this book to anyone with even a passing interest in Egyptology or Machiavellian-style politics.