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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: Shield of Three Lions

Shield of Three LionsI have to admit to being a little overbooked (no pun intended!) these past few weeks. I’ve missed reading for review as I’ve been focused on reading for editing–both my own and freelance assignments. So I’m back to digging in my shelves for old favorites that deserve yet another bit of publicity. For this installment, I offer Shield of Three Lions, by Pamela Kaufman.

My mom gave me this book as a hard-cover first edition for my birthday back in 1983. It is looking a little dog-eared these days, but back then this was one of my first introductions to historical fiction–to say nothing of being an adult-sized hard-cover with its own dust jacket. (I had previously been all about the Scholastic paperbacks and whatever library books struck my fancy, so caring for a dust jacket that wasn’t either permanently attached to its book or otherwise wrapped for posterity was a new experience.) I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of it (I had barely graduated from Nancy Drew and the Bobbsey Twins at that point), but willingly dove in. And was transported. From the flyleaf:

Shield of Three Lions is breathtaking and exciting–a panoramic tapestry of a novel set in the Middle Ages that weaves the sights, the sounds, the smells and the pageantry of a magical age with the story of Alix, an extraordinary young heroine. Bawdy, earthy and full of fascinating detail, Shield of Three Lions heralds a new talent who has a spectacular ability to entertain readers royally.

Nubile Alix is as appealing a heroine as ever graced the pages of a novel. Resourceful, inventive and irrepressibly inquisitive, the violently orphaned Alix disguises herself as a boy to seek an audience with King Richard the Lionhearted so that she may regain her plundered estate.

I don’t know if it was because I was barely out of 6th grade and this was my first truly adult book (including a very adult scene at the end of it), or if it was because I was approximately the same age as the heroine who traipses from the edge of Scotland through France, Italy, and Jerusalem, but this book has always held a special spot in my heart. I feel like I learned as much about the Crusades from the vivid descriptions Kaufman offers as I did about women’s issues and war, rape, pillage, and plunder. There really wasn’t anything that was glossed over, including the dread arrival of Alix’s first menstrual cycle deep in enemy territory.

To get that far, though, the reader is first introduced to the strange Scot who agrees to stand in as Alix’s brother and make sure she, disguised as a he even before Enoch first meets her, and his even stranger rites and beliefs:

“From this day forward, Enoch Angus Boggs and me be blud brothers. And I recognize that brotherhood and loyalty to the clan be the most sacred tie in the whole wide world. By bogle and houlets sent by Nick, by gannets from witches in the west, by the soul in my body, by the ghosts of my parents, by the Holy God and His Son, I swear that Enoch be my brother and I’ll ne’er deceive him by word or by deed on pain of death. Amen.”

Still choking, I gasped out the words.

“Wait, there’s more. We shall e’er be together unto death and–list to this well–we shall ne’er hinder each other in love. But we will help each other advance, and in our case that means land. Sae let’s hear namore of yer land or my land: it’s our land. And let’s hear namore of the demon Scots since one drop of Scottish blood makes ye as Scottish as me. We be brothers in all things. Now let me tell ye exactly quhat my plan be, fer I’ve had the long day to work out details.”

He then proposed a most astonishing course. He would keep to his original plan of going to Paris to study law, only now I, too, would go to study with him, leaving my wolf with Jasper Peterfee. Together we would explore every legal means of recovering “our land” at the same time that we learned King Henry’s whereabouts and made arrangements to meet with him. Once the land was ours, by whichever means came first, we would hurry back to claim it, share and share alike. …

I thought of the terrible events of the day. The very worst was drinking Scottish blood, for while I knew the vow of brotherhood didn’t hold since I wasn’t a boy and could be no one’s brother, I wasn’t sure that I wasn’t a Scot. A fate worse than death.

The range of details, large and small, that Kaufman wove into this book kept me enraptured as a 12-year-old and has enticed me to re-read the book every few years since then. I’ve since learned that there is a second and third installment to this story, and despite my normal inclination to read everything a well-loved author has produced, I have to admit some trepidation about how she could possibly have ever topped a story that includes everything from the Sack of Acre to references to Robin Hood and his band. The strange concept that Scots, another English-speaking group on the same island as the English would be so culturally different and Alix persist in supporting her early indoctrination against them until very nearly the end of the book, was actually one of my first literary introductions to the concepts of discrimination and prejudice. And the idea that an author could explore topics that could cause shouting matches among adults really fired me up.

So I’m happy to recommend this oldie but goodie one more time, publicly. For anyone who likes historical fiction placed firmly in the midst of historical fact, with a dash of romance and a whole lot of adventure… This one’s for you.

Book Review: My Father Had A Daughter

My Father Had A DaughterI ran across a hard-cover version of this on the clearance table of a local book store, and decided that a speculative fiction novel about Shakespeare’s daughter by a woman who is an English professor who teaches about Shakespeare might be an illuminating view of the bard. Particularly since I’ve read quite a few of his plays and enjoyed the multi-layered language he used but never had any real sense of the time and place that generated those works.

Naturally, this book would also touch on the strange dichotomy of being a female in an age and area where that was commonly a hindrance to any career achievement–saving, of course, the queen, who herself was not keen on changing that status quo for her subjects. As the flap text in my edition reads:

Growing up in Stratford-upon-Avon, Judith and her twin borther, Hamnet, see little of their father. His visits are infrequent, and they know him only as “the scribbling one.” Bit by bit, however, he begins to share with them his poetry of star-crossed lovers, a jailed English king, a murderous moneylender, a fairy queen. By the edge of the River Avon, the twins devise games based on their father’s wondrous poetry to entertain each other whenever he is away.

The way Judith is written in this story, she has inherited a full measure of her father’s imagination. But where it earns him his living, it gets her in trouble. In fact, it loses her her twin.

I lowered my hand. “And now,” I said, “we must join the river god in his element.”

“What be that?” asked Hamnet.

I did not truly know, but I thought it should have something to do with water, and so I told Hamnet we must duck our heads three times beneath the surface. “One,” I said, and we ducked. “Two,” I said, and we ducked again. But when I came to the surface the second time I did not see Hamnet’s head.

Instead I felt his legs scrape against mine as the current carried him downriver.

From beginning with hero worship and moving to a desperate hatred of how her father portrays her mourning of her brother, Judith’s journey reflects the extreme of what a parent-child relationship can be. And it gives a broad-strokes view of what life was like for common English women in Shakespearean times. The whole idea that it was against the law for women to become actors, and what that meant for intelligent, imaginative women becomes the focus of the second half of the book.

I enjoyed the book for exactly that perspective: A woman who has researched that period extensively and is sharing some of that perspective through an accessible story–even if some historical purists argue that actual documents paint Shakespeare’s daughter as both illiterate and simple. This is fiction, after all, and I trust the emotionally evocative journey to adulthood as much as the stage dressing discussions that lend a clear background to the tale. So I can happily recommend this book to anyone without even a basic background in Shakespeare’s plays or writing, since his words are ably introduced as part of the framework of the story. Better, I can recommend this to anyone else who wondered about Shakespeare’s designation of his “second-best” bed to his wife in his will, and considered that he might not be as enlightened an individual in his daily life as he conveys in his work.

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