historical fiction

The Orphan of Salt Winds, by Elizabeth Brooks

Somewhere on an English marsh near the southern coast, an old woman is preparing for the end of her life. From our very first introduction to Virginia Wrathmell as she is waiting for a sign that its time to make her exit, the protagonist of Elizabeth Brooks’ disturbing The Orphan of Salt Winds*, we know that something is very wrong and that it has been wrong for a very long time. The rest of the book quickly unspools to reveal what Virginia has been hiding for more than eighty years and why she thinks she needs to walk out into the marsh for the last time. 

Virginia was an unhappy orphan when she was adopted by Clem and Lorna Wrathmell. Her good luck at been adopted is severely tempered by her bad luck to be scooped up by a couple who think that maybe having a child will fix their relationship. Virginia, at age 11, is trust into the middle of an emotionally fraught household. The couple snipe at each other when they think Virginia can’t hear them. Still, Virginia bonds with Clem over the local birds and the marsh surrounding their house, Salt Winds. 

If it hadn’t been for the German crash-landing out in the marsh and Virgina’s emotional immaturity, The Orphan of Salt Wind would have been a very different—possibly less harrowing—story. Without the crash and with less of Virginia’s terrible mistakes, Virginia and her adopted mother still have to contend with the lecherous Mr. Deering. Deering was a one-time suitor for Lorna and it appears that he still hasn’t gotten the message that Lorna can’t stand the sight of him. Deering is the kind of man that women fear. He’s so reasonable all the time that it’s hard for Lorna and Virginia to get him out of their lives. After all, how can they object to a nice picnic or his insistence that they welcome him when he drops by for a friendly cuppa? Even the little touches could be explained away. The ones that can’t weren’t witnessed by anyone. Who’s to say they even happened? Before long, I dreaded Deering’s arrivals at Salt Winds almost as much as Virginia or Lorna. Throwing a German pilot and an 11-year-old who has no idea how to deal with adults and it isn’t long before everything heads straight to emotional hell.

The Orphan of Salt Winds moves back and forth in time, from the early 1940s to 2015. We’re tangled up in Virginia’s past and present, drawn in to her twisted desire for a bit of revenge before she makes her exit from the world and into her long suppressed memories. Tangle is the right word for this book. It’s messily constructed and I don’t think that all of it makes sense. The ending is also a bit rushed. That said, this book is pitch perfect when it comes to harassment from a man who has plausible deniability (and possibly sociopathy) on his side.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 15 January 2019.

For some reason, this book has a different title for the US edition. It’s original (and I think better) title is Call of the Curlew.

historical fiction · mystery · review

Innocents to the Slaughter, by H.P. Maskew

In their first outing, journalist Ambrose Hudson and Edgar Lawes tackled a corrupt workhouse. In this novel, set in 1839, Innocents to the Slaughter, Hudson and Lawes take on new evils of the Victorian era. This time, it’s child labor and baby farming. Child labor at this time was illegal. Children under the age of nine could not be employed in factories, mines, etc. But because poverty is endemic and large employers want every scrap of profit, there are a lot of blind eyes turned to the practice. On the other hand, baby farming is perfectly legal. There’s no law against paying someone to care for one’s child. But again, poverty tends to relax some people’s inhibitions and it isn’t long before the practice is turned to brutal profit. The two crusaders certainly have their plates full in this episode—especially when an old enemy turns up. 

At the beginning of Innocents to the Slaughter, Hudson and Lawes seem a bit bored with their day jobs. Hudson is eager to go undercover again to dig up material for a new exposé. Lawes isn’t far behind in his enthusiasm to set aside running his estate for a bit and return to being a detective. A letter sent from the north of England to Hudson—one detailing the abusive practices at a textile mill and hinting at possible infanticide—is like a bugle call for the pair. 

Unfortunately for us readers, Hudson and Lawes take a frustratingly long time answering that bugle call. Long chapters are devoted to planning. We are treated to descriptions of travel routes, cover stories, and the like and it’s only in the last third of the novel that things start to get exciting. I suppose, for a journalist and a lawyer, all that groundwork is necessary. After all, Lawes needs to be able to make a case in court if there really is something illegal afoot and Hudson needs to be scrupulous in his research if he wants to affect real change. There were several places were I skimmed over the dialogue because I was getting a bit bored. 

Even though this book isn’t a barnstormer from cover to cover, Innocents to the Slaughter does sterling work in re-creating the grinding poverty of the Industrial Revolution. The descriptions of miserable, cold, dangerous labor; degrading housing conditions; and despair of the working poor seem to come straight from the pen of Henry Mayhew himself. Like Hudson, I was outraged on the behalf of the people who have no recourse to unfair working conditions and no way out of their terrible situations. I was so relieved when Hudson and Lawes were able to get a little bit of justice for the wronged, even if they did have to pay a dreadful (really, really dreadful) price for it. 

Innocents to the Slaughter is, barring some of its slower passages, a rewarding read for people who want historical fiction that brings a time and a place back to life. Maskew is a deft hand at doling out research in such a way that it doesn’t feel like attending a seminar, even if she could have moved things along a little faster than she did. 

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.


Putting Words in People’s Mouths; Or, Thoughts about Dialogue

I’ve been thinking about dialogue lately, since I dinged The Hangman’s Secret for putting anachronistic and American-flavored English into its British characters’ mouths. Dialogue is such a critical part of a work of fiction that it really can ruin a story if the author gets it wrong. But if the author gets it right, well, great dialogue can make a book a joy to read. In text, a wrong word or two isn’t such a big deal; it tends to get drowned out by the rest of the text unless it’s a real howler. In dialogue, however, every word has to be the perfect word. It’s almost like poetry. Dialogue has to convey meaning, express character, keep things moving in the book, and support the overall plausibility of the book. See how much can go wrong?

Marguerite Gérard

Here are some of the danger zones I’ve thought of, reflecting on the books I’ve read:

  • Dialect. Obviously, this one is first on the list for me. I know that authors agonize over dialect. Should they recreate dialect phonetically? What if it sounds racist, as can happen when authors don’t use African-American Vernacular English with sensitivity? This is part of the reason why a lot of authors these days hire sensitivity readers. 
  • Too much explication. When a knowledgeable character launches into a history of something another character (and the reader) needs to understand, I tense up. Am I going to get a lecture? Am I going to get an undigestible helping of jargon? Is this long speech going to go on so long I forget what’s going on with the plot? 
  • Class. Related to dialect, if an author doesn’t nail how people of various classes speak, then characters can end up sounding either completely bland or as caricatures. How often have we run across criminals who sound like Prison Mike?
  • Too much banter. It pains me a bit to write this because I love banter. Most of my own dialogue in real life is an attempt at banter, to my boss’s occasional annoyance. But if the characters fall to bantering for too long, it can derail a plot almost as badly as having a character launch into a lecture. Also, too much and too funny banter starts to sound stage-y. Only people in Oscar Wilde’s plays are that witty all the time.
  • Too much meandering.  Meandering dialogue has subtext, sometimes so much that it sinks the dialogue under its own weight. I think of this type of dialogue when I see long conversations, usually in literary novels, when two characters just blether on about the weather or something seemingly innocuous. If you’re clued in to the subtext, all is well. If not, it’s like hanging out with a relative you don’t know very well at a family reunion and there’s no escape in sight. 
  • Unnatural dialogue. All of us readers have come across dialogue that makes us think, “No one actually talks like that!” It might be because of something I’ve already mentioned. It might also be because the dialogue is too concise, too erudite, too full of curse words, too something. I’m sure authors agonize over this, because they have to make characters sound natural for their age, gender, class, background, and so many other things that I’m surprised any of them managed to write a word at all, considering how easy it would be to fall into research rabbit holes. 

What about you out there, bookish internet people? Are there other things that annoy you in dialogue? Things that can go wrong that I didn’t mention here? 

historical fantasy · review

The Winter of the Witch, by Katherine Arden

Katherine Arden’s amazing Winternight trilogy comes to a satisfying close in The Winter of the Witch. This novel begins in the immediate aftermath of the conclusion to the previous volume and readers should read this series in order so that they don’t get lost right off the bat. Everything in the first two books has been building towards the events in this concluding installment. 

Our protagonist, the beaten and weary Vasilisa Petrovna, is not allow to rest after the night when Moscow was almost destroyed by an angry firebird. There was so much destruction and confusion that the people of Moscow want someone to pay. Vasya is only just barely able to escape when an old enemy whips up a mob to try and burn her as a witch. The first chapters made me ache for Vasya. She was only trying to help. Of course, a lot of protagonists were only trying to help when they inadvertently caused all hell to break loose. Still, there’s no excuse for trying to burn someone alive. 

Her escape leads her on a series of episodic adventures that end up putting the Rus’ to rights after years of conflict between the supernatural chyerti and the Orthodox church; the warring Medved the Bear and his brother the winter king, Morozko; and the Rus’ and their Tatar overlords. Everywhere Vasya goes, she has to extract promises and strike bargains in an effort to save lives and find a measure of peace for everyone. Her tasks seem so impossible that, even though I knew things had to come out right because this was the last book in the series, I worried. Vasya has so much on her shoulders in this book between all of these struggles on top of her worries over her own sanity and for her family. The fact that she bears up under all of this had me marveling over her strength and ingenuity. 

Readers who have been following the series will be more than satisfied with this conclusion, I think. Each episode in the book is tense, with high stakes if Vasya should falter. All the loose ends are tied up. Nothing is easy and the ending is more than earned. Arden treats us to plenty of magic and headstrong characters drawn from Russian history and folklore, with new creatures we haven’t seen before. I savored every page of The Winter of the Witch. 

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 8 January 2019.

historical fiction · mystery · review

The Hangman’s Secret, by Laura Joh Rowland

I arrived late to the party for this series. The Hangman’s Secret is the third book in Laura Joh Roland’s Victorian Mysteries series. Fortunately, there are enough callbacks and exposition for me to feel like I wasn’t missing too much to understand the characters in this fair to middling mystery. There are problems with the writing in this book that almost put me off (discussed below), but the mystery itself was interesting enough that I just had to keep reading. 

Protagonist Sarah Bain, with her partners Lord Hugh Staunton and the very-much-ragtag Mick O’Reilly have become semi-official investigators by The Hangman’s Secret. Sarah has been hired to provide crime scene photos for the ambitious owner of a London newspaper, Sir Gerald. Hugh helps as bodyguard and investigative partner, while Mick keeps his ear to the street to sniff out gristly murders and useful information. Neither Sarah nor Hugh is very happy with this arrangement, but it does pay the bills. As The Hangman’s Secret kicks off, Sarah and Hugh have been summoned to the particularly messy death of a local pub owner and hangman. It might look like the man hanged himself if not for the fact that everyone knows that he was a consummate professional who would never have botched his own hanging. (The details of the botching are definitely not for the squeamish.) 

Sarah et al. are not allowed to treat the hangman’s death as just another job. Sir Gerald, in a fit of inspiration, declares that Sarah’s team and his new hire, a sexist reporter, will solve the mystery before the Metropolitan police. Sarah doesn’t want to be a detective. Her policeman lover definitely doesn’t want her to be a detective, either. But when the man with the purse strings gives an order, it has to be obeyed. Fortunately for Sarah and her partners, the people she interviews are generally willing to cough up all kinds of useful information. The ones who don’t go straight to the top of the list of suspects. 

The way witnesses repeatedly give up information so easily was one of the things that bothered me about this book. It didn’t seem realistic to me the way that characters in late 1880s London would trust Sarah or that they all had such good memories. I was also bothered by Rowland’s missteps in the dialogue. There are a lot of too-modern phrases and sentences that a British English speaker would not say. The wrong notes irritated me. I stuck around because I had my own theories about what happened that I wanted to see confirmed. If nothing else, after reading the complicated Vita NostraThe Hangman’s Secret was a chance for my brain to cool off. 

I’m not interested enough to go back and read the first two books in the series and I doubt I will be keeping an eye out for future entries. I feel let down by The Hangman’s Secret because I know Rowland is a better writer and researcher than this. I really enjoyed her Sano Ichiro series, which is set in Shogunate Japan. 

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 8 January 2019.

contemporary fantasy · review

Vita Nostra, by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko

There are some research topics that are perennial at the library. Most of the time, I don’t mind these. One of the ones that I regularly struggle with is the value of a liberal arts education. I struggle with this because I don’t understand why students don’t just naturally see the point of it; it’s hard to rhapsodize about critical thinking skills, adaptability, and so on to someone who isn’t getting it. But when I read Marina and Sergey Dyachenko’s wrenching contemporary fantasy novel, Vita Nostra (translated by Julia Meitov Hersey), I suddenly saw why they had a hard time understanding why their professors had them slave over obscure, difficult texts for hours. Sasha Samokhina, our protagonist, has absolutely no idea why she’s been coerced into attending Institute of Special Technologies in a remote Russian town. And, until near the end when the purpose of it all is spectacularly revealed, neither do we.

Sasha’s plans for college are vague when the unsettling Farit Kozhennikov finds her while on vacation at the beach with her mother. Using the threat that “something terrible will happen” if she doesn’t comply, Farit gives her a series of tasks to complete before informing her that she will attend the Institute of Special Technologies instead of a normal university. Once at the Institute, Sasha is set to studying incomprehensible texts and trying to perform seemingly impossible mental exercises. It’s only after a full year of this rough education that Sasha starts to see its possibilities. We, like Sasha, have to trust that there really is a point to it all. 

But even though there is an objective—which her professors repeatedly tell her that she has to learn on her own and that they can’t just tell her—I had to wonder if it worth the struggle and the transformation Sasha experiences. Sasha has to content with her bizarre and rigorous education in addition to figuring out her feelings for Kostya Kozhennikov (the son of her “advisor,” Farit) and the scorn of girls who bully her. In that sense, Vita Nostra shares some of the tropes of the growing genre of magic school novels. Vita Nostra strongly reminded me of Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy because these mundane concerns are given just as much time as the magical elements; the fiendishly complicated curriculum heightened the similarities. This book had so much emotional weight that there were times I didn’t think I could bear it. I shouldn’t be surprised that this is what happens when Russian language writers got their hands on the genre.

Vita Nostra felt like a paradox while I was reading it. On the one hand it’s a slow burn that encompasses the first three years of Sasha’s career at the Institute. I wrestled with the strange texts and exercises along with Sasha, eventually achieving an awareness of what the school is teaching its coerced student body. It really is an extraordinary course of study. I know I wouldn’t be able to hack it, but I am a little bit tempted because of what the students might be able to do once they graduate. On the other hand, I felt like I was racing along with Sasha as she devoured her magical training. The curriculum at the Institute is just as much about transformation (literally) as it is about training young minds to see the world for what it really is and Sasha wants as much as she can handle and more—to the frequent exasperation and occasional horror of her professors.

Which brings me back around to the question of whether or not a rigorous, bewildering education is worth the struggle, especially when students can’t see the end point. The things Sasha learns are firmly in the territory of things we shouldn’t mess with. To say that this kind of knowledge is worth having and using seems like something Faust would argue and look at what happened to him. But Vita Nostra responds to this question by having Sasha’s professors repeatedly stress restraint, warning Sasha that she’s not mature enough to exercise her new abilities. The question at the end of Vita Nostra is not why; the question is should. We have a lot to look forward to in the next books in the series because I strongly suspect that, even at the end, Sasha still hasn’t learned caution. 

I hope that Hersey keeps translating these books. Her work seems perfectly faithful and imperceptible. Her translation never gives things away too soon, just like Sasha’s professors.

bookish links

This fortnight on the bookish internet

I missed last week’s bookish update due to a monstrous cold. So this Saturday you get a double-barreled bookish internet roundup.