A Radical Act of Free Magic, by H.G. Parry

H.G. Parry draws her sprawling historical fantasy to an abrupt close in A Radical Act of Free Magic. The first half of the duology, A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians, created a world of suppressed magic that erupted into the French and Haitian Revolutions. Now we see a magically boosted Napoleon attempting to steamroll across Europe. With a kraken. And a dragon.

Where A Declaration had plots running in tandem, connected by a character it would be a spoiler to talk too much about, the plots coalesce geographically in A Radical Act. Fina makes the long journey from Haiti to Great Britain so that most of the action takes place in London or William Pitt’s various residences. There are some amazing set pieces in Egypt and Trafalgar that people who know Regency history will know the significance of. (Sadly, there isn’t one for Waterloo.)

The battles liven up an awful lot of dialogue about what kind of world the various characters want to create. William Wilberforce and Fina cross verbal swords with Pitt about abolition, who keeps putting it off to focus on fighting a war and maintaining power against idiots who would muck it all up. Meanwhile, Napoleon and his (supposed) magical ally are sparring over who will eventually rule over continental Europe. Will there ever be meaningful progress? Or will Fina and Wilberforce have to grudgingly content themselves with gradualism? Will their enemies win and push Great Britain and Europe back into the dark ages? How on earth will our heroes defeat that dragon?

A Declaration gave me high hopes for this duology. I love a solid historical fantasy that blends magic with actual historical events. A Radical Act of Free Magic, however, felt more like a middle book than the second half of a two-book series. Characters are shuffled around so that they’ll be in place for showdowns or whatever the plot cooks up for them. Plans are discussed. Philosophies are delved into. It happens at a fairly leisurely pace that made me think that there was going to be another book after this one for a great big resolution. Also, who brings Napoleon into a book and doesn’t include the Battle of Waterloo? I had fun during parts of this book, but the rushed ending killed a lot of my enjoyment of this book.

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

The Captain’s Daughter: Essential Stories, by Alexander Pushkin

Why did no one tell me Alexander Pushkin was funny? Before I read this collection, The Captain’s Daughter: Essential Stories (solidly translated by Anthony Briggs), my only knowledge of Pushkin was that he wrote the epic tragic poem Eugene Onegin and that he died at a young age in a duel. The Captain’s Daughter revealed to me that Pushkin also had a fine eye for satire. All three of the stories in this collection—”The Captain’s Daughter,” “The Queen of Spades,” and “The Postmaster”—all have moments of tragedy or near-tragedy, but it’s all balanced with light touches of absurdity and satire.

“The Captain’s Daughter” is the longest story in the collection. Its plot is so compressed that it could easily have been turned into a picaresque novel. This novella opens with some Tristram Shandy-like phrases: “Mama was still pregnant with me when I was enrolled as a sergeant in the Semyonovsky Regiment,” (ARC Kindle edition). Pyotr Andreyvich’s father is very disappointed with his spoiled son and has him transferred from his St. Petersburg regiment to one out in the wild east of Russia to toughen him up. The plan works a little bit better intended when Yamelyan Pugachov launches his rebellion against Catherine the Great. Pyotr has a knack for being kind to people who later feel beholden to him, including Pugachov. This bare summary doesn’t capture Pytor’s madcap adventures on the front. Nor does it capture Pushkin’s pointed digs at pompous officers who don’t know how to fight a war, at weasel-y officers who switch sides at the drop of a hat, and aristocrats who spend money like water. I really enjoyed this satirical slice-of-life look at life where high society crosses with serfs and rebels.

The next two stories are shorter, but also skewer high society and the ways that the high abuse the low. In “The Queen of Spades,” we see into the world of wild gambling, in which aristocrats gamble away estates or win millions of rubles at the turn of a card. The Queen of Spades is an old countess who claims to have a secret to always win. Unfortunately, it’s a secret that ultimately causes her death when another aristocrat with a lot of debt hounds her to give it up. The last story, “The Postmaster,” begins with a lament to the ways that couriers and travelers abuse the postmaster for never having horses ready, not having comfortable enough waiting places, and so on. But the narrator urges us to try and put ourselves in the postmaster’s shoes before launching into the most tragic tale of the three. In this story, the postmaster’s kind, lovely daughter is kidnapped by an aristocrat. In the end, she chooses a life of luxury instead of coming home to her poor, harried father.

I enjoyed reading this collection and would definitely recommend it, not just to fans of Russian literature, but to anyone who likes stories that can transport them to an era. Pushkin very much captures his time and place, and he does it with an unexpected sense of humor. This is one of the best republished classics I’ve read yet.

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

The Lost Apothecary, by Sarah Penner

There are so many novels that have been published in the last ten years that have plots set in different centuries, linked by some historical artifact or location or family, that I would’ve thought there would be a name for this structure by now. If anyone knows, please clue me in. In The Lost Apothecary, by Sarah Penner, the centuries are the eighteenth and the twenty-first. The link is a small glass bottle with a bear etched into it. The little bottle is discovered by Caroline, on an impromptu mudlarking expedition on what is supposed to be a second honeymoon. Little does she know that the bottle once belonged to a woman who used her knowledge to make troublesome husbands disappear permanently.

In Caroline’s chapters, we see a woman who has set much of her life and personality aside to make room for her husband’s very modest ambitions. The last straw for her is discovering that this husband has had a cliché-riddled affair with a co-worker. She decides to go on their trip to London alone, taking time to think about their relationship. After throwing out a couples-centric agenda and going mudlarking, Caroline goes to the British Library to learn where it might have come from. In chapters set at the end of the eighteenth century, narrated by the ailing apothecary Nella and the sprightly twelve-year-old Eliza, we get an intriguing look into a clandestine apothecary’s shop where only women can come to ask for a special remedy to give to a man in their life who needs (the client things) to be gotten rid of. Just as in Caroline’s chapters, we learn how Nella and Eliza came to be in Nella’s cramped, dusty room, surrounded by an awful lot of toxic substances. Both plot lines reflect on guilt, betrayal, and sacrifice—and how far someone is willing to go to “fix” a problem.

The biggest challenge, I think, in writing a split-time novel (best I can do for a name at the moment) is making sure that both halves are equally engaging. I’ve read books in the past where I was much more interested in one half and ended up skimming the other. Equally engaging doesn’t mean that the halves have to be the same; too much similarity can be a narrative trap. After a somewhat heavy-handed beginning, I settled nicely into both halves of The Lost Apothecary. Nella and Eliza’s half gave me a wonderful ethical dilemma to ponder as well as some nicely thrilling moments. Caroline’s half gave me a meditative rediscovery of the self and some nicely thrilling (to me) moments of research. This might sound mismatched, but the combo absolutely worked for me.

I think book clubs will like this one. Once the plots get rolling, it’s hard to put The Lost Apothecary down and there is plenty of food for thought here. I also think that Caroline’s plotline will leave some women cheering the protagonist’s decisions.

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

A World Beneath the Sands, by Toby Wilkinson

In A World Beneath the Sands, by Toby Wilkerson, we see the sordid, exciting, criminal, exhilarating history of the first 130-ish years of Egyptology. Wilkinson begins with Napoleon Bonaparte’s Egyptian expedition in 1798 and ends with Howard Carter’s opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922. In that time period, Wilkinson takes us from days in which European knowledge of ancient Egypt was entirely informed by the bible and semi-accurate accounts from Greek and Roman historians to modern regulations and regimented archaeology. This might sound bland and more academic than most people would want, but I was highly entertained by the anecdotes Wilkinson found to punctuate discussions of translation and digging. I was also highly infuriated at the high-handed and sticky-fingered ways of the early European Egyptologists. I expect most readers will finish this book with the same feelings I did: wonder and irritation in equal measure.

When I think of archaeology, I think of a dirt field with grids stretched across it with string. Brushes, tools, and bits of pottery or stone are strewn around, lying in situ to be photographed and documented before it is whisked away to the labs at a museum. Early archaeology was…very much not that. The earliest Egyptologists were a cross between scholars and graverobbers. Wilkinson’s recounting of their activities often looks like this: European arrives, hires a bunch of local workers, frantically digs up anything that looks interesting, grabbing anything that looks good, and hauling it off to the British Museum, the Louvre, or the Berlin Museum. (It was decades after Napoleon’s expedition that the Cairo Museum was founded and even later that Egyptians were in charge of granting digging concessions.)

There are a few heroes in A World Beneath the Sands, all of them flawed. Jean-François Champollion, who is given credit for translating ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, was an obsessive who deeply resented anyone stealing his limelight. William Flinders Petrie was one of the first people whose work looked like modern archaeology, but he often worked naked and required everyone to eat tins of more-or-less spoiled food. (In one excerpt from a person who worked with Flinders Petrie, it was rumored that cans were thrown and only eaten if they didn’t explode on contact.) Muhammad Ali was the first independent ruler of Egypt in centuries and did much to modernize Egypt, but he was also a ruthless dictator who instituted the hated corvée system—which took abled bodied men away from their homes to work on labor-intensive, dangerous jobs. There were also quite a few men out there in the sands who were more graverobber than anything else.

I’ve always been interested in the history of different sciences for a lot of reasons. A World Beneath the Sands hit a lot of those reasons. First, ethics always lag behind practice. A lot of crimes can be committed before laws are created to actually make things illegal. Second, everyone is making things up as they go along. The early Egyptologists didn’t have photography; they relied on their own notes and drawings to document their finds—assuming they even bothered to make notes or drawings. Because some of those things are now standard practice, I wonder if there are better ways of doing things or if there are things we’re doing now are causing unforeseen problems. Third, I love getting the context around the big discoveries. We take so many of these discoveries for granted—being able to read hieroglyphics, knowing all the monarchs and dynasties, being able to see Tutankhamun’s funerary mask or Nefertiti’s bust—has me looking at Egyptology in a new light. I knew that a lot of the Egyptian collections in European museums were stolen, but I was astounded at how casual Europeans were about packing things up and shipping them home. On the other hand, I marveled at how Champollion, Thomas Young, and others were able to translate something as challenging as Egyptian languages mostly through sheer determination.

There are some places in A World Beneath the Sands that drag, but I found it to be engaging and terrifically researched. Wilkinson’s history of Egyptology is a fantastic read, partly because the test is full of well-chosen quotes that let the early Egyptologists speak for themselves (only sometimes shoving their sandy shoes in their mouths). Wilkinson also does an excellent job of putting Egyptology into its political context. All of this philology and science and art theft plays out against a constantly shifting background of alliances, betrayals, nationalist sentiments, rebellions, and oppression. I really appreciated that Wilkinson kept reminding me of the plight of ordinary Egyptians, the ones who were doing all the heavy lifting with very little (if any) pay only to see the bulk of what they dug up shipped off to Europe. A World Beneath the Sands was everything that I could have hoped for in a work of historical nonfiction.

The unbroken seal on the door to Tutankhamun’s tomb, 1922 (Image via Wikicommons)

The Candlelit Menagerie, by Caraline Brown

About thirty years after the events of Caraline Brown’s The Candlelit Menagerie, the London Zoo would be founded as one of the first scientific zoological parks. As I learned in Isobel Charman’s The Zoo, animals were frequently brought to England for centuries before zoos. The royal and the wealthy would import exotic animals to live in cages or small enclosures on their property, to show off to other royals and rich people. Life for the animals was brutal and short. No one knew—or cared to learn—how to care for these animals. Not only were their accommodations inadequate, they were poorly fed and veterinary (and human) medicine were still in a highly experimental phase. The Candlelit Menagerie takes place in those early days. This is a hard read for animal lovers, but I found it fascinating to watch a woman’s romp through the world of animal menageries and emporia at the end of the eighteenth century.

Lillian is out of place among her fellow humans. She’s far too tall for a woman, so she’s always drawing stares. She also feels a lot more comfortable in breeches and shorn hair. When we meet her, Lillian is working as a ladies’ maid to a madam who took pity on the tall gawk. A small piece of paper with an advertisement for Grady’s Emporium—and the fact that she can hear Grady’s lion every morning—change Lillian’s life forever. Lillian visits on her afternoon off and never goes back to her old life. Lillian has an amazing ability to calm and commune with animals. That lion she heard roaring every morning, in fact, becomes one of her greatest animal friends.

The Candlelit Menagerie takes place over a jam-packed eighteen months. The pacing is picaresque-level, but the plot beats are tragic as often as they are happy or comic. Through it all, I was thankful that Lillian is our protagonist. Her employer, Grady, is always looking to maximize profits by acquiring new attractions…but rarely making sure that there’s enough room for the new animals. Lillian’s husband, John, was another animal lover until overexposure to scalpel-loving surgeons turn him into an eager devotee of new medicine. (This sounds like a good idea but this is decades before anesthetic and antisepsis.)

The end of The Candlelit Menagerie, although tragic, left me feeling hopeful for the future of animal rights and zoos. It felt strange to feel that hope when I knew that it would be a long time before things would get better for the menagerie animals. Lillian’s stubborn insistence that her charges be taken care of to the best of their abilities—and the fact that she and some of those charges are able to relocate to an early zoological park—are a great tonic to the book’s primary tone of gritty hustle.

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

The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne, by Elsa Hart

In the history of modern science, the decades that bridge the medieval era, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment were a wild time. The way that Americans are taught about this time makes the medieval era seem like, as Justin McElroy of Sawbones* once said, “everyone got stupid for a while.” Ancient science was suppressed in favor of Catholicism and alchemy, until the Renaissance kicked off in Italy and the march of Science resumed. Like I said, this is what we’re pretty much taught over here. When we get to college, we might learn about the geniuses of the Islamic Middle Ages or about weirdos like Paracelsus**. This is a huge oversimplification of a lot of history, but it does partly explain the phenomenon at the heart of The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne, by Elsa Hart. In the early years of what we now call science, natural philosophy was all the rage as wealthy European men (mostly men) who were curious about the world around them started to study—and collect—specimens from around the expanding world.

Lady Cecily Kay was, until shortly before the opening of the novel, semi-happily collecting plants near Smyrna. When she inadvertently shows up her husband, Cecily is shipped home to England. But she has plans to make the best of it by taking the opportunity to visit the “cabinets” of Sir Barnaby Mayne. Mayne’s collection contains thousands of objects including, but not limited to, fossils, bones, stones, statues, preserved animals, gems, feathers, shells, weapons, books, and occult objects. Mayne’s London mansion is filled to brim and the man has no plans to ever stop acquiring. Cecily wants to use Mayne’s botanical collection to identify her own specimens but, on the very day that she arrives and less than an hour into a group tour of the collection, Mayne is apparently murdered by his assistant.

“The Bookworm,” by Carl Spitzweg, c. 1850 (Image via Wikicommons)

Cecily, being the inquiring soul that she is, starts asking questions when she realizes that Mayne’s murder is not as simple as it appears. She also has a friend in Mayne’s house to help her find the answers to those annoying questions, childhood friend Meacan Barlow, who is now working as a scientific illustrator. Together, Cecily and Meacan pursue all of the possible suspects to find out who really did it. It was hard to tell if they were investigating because they wanted to free an innocent man, or if they’re just really, really curious and want their questions answered. One after another, Cecily and Meacan look into the possible motives and alibis of thieves, frauds, maniacs, a group of possible warlocks, lovers, and more.

While all this is happening, Hart treats us to a lively portrait of the world of collecting. Members of this society obsessively hunt, acquire, and study all sorts of objects that catch their interest. Because the boundaries between the occult and the natural world are still forming, it’s not unusual for things we would recognize as ordinary scientific specimens to share shelf space with grimoires, holy relics, or objects with outlandish origin stories. Characters who live on the peripheries of the collectors—like Meacan and one Signore Covo, a fixer for the collectors—tend to watch all their antics with a raised, judgmental eyebrow. The funny thing to me is that we still have collectors, although the things that get collected is a lot broader these days. (I have a nephew who used to be able to give me chapter and verse on all his Pokemon cards before he moved on to something else.) On the other hand, some of those collectors went on to become some of the biggest names in early science in Europe.

There are some places in The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne where the plot threatens to get overstuffed or where Cecily and Meacan’s adventures strain credulity a bit. While there is some clumsiness here, I was very entertained by this book. I really enjoyed Cecily as a woman who, when thwarted, quietly finds another way to get to her objectives. Most of all, I loved the descriptions of Mayne’s collection and the world of collectors. I don’t have the collecting bug myself***, I could easily imagine myself as one of the people who turned up at Mayne’s doorstep for a tour. I recommend this book for fans of historical mysteries.

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

* One of my favorite podcasts. Highly recommended.
** Who has the best name in the history of ever.
*** As I’ve been told, it’s not hoarding if it’s books.

A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians, by H.G. Parry

The Enlightenment, but make it magicians. That little phrase made frequent appearances in my brain as I read H.G. Parry’s delightful historical fantasy, A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians. The cast of characters included real historical figures such as William Pitt the Younger, William Wilberforce, Maximilien Robespierre, Camille Desmoulins, and Toussaint Louverture, and three countries in a re-imagined version of our world. The fight for liberty is very similar, except in this version the poor and oppressed are fighting for liberté, égalité, fraternité, and the right to practice magic. Knowledge of the actual history isn’t necessary, but those who remember from high school and college will get a kick out of how close Parry hews to real events while still writing an enchanting tale.

A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians opens with one character, an African woman renamed Fina by her captors, in a slave ship on her way to Saint-Domingue (now Haiti). Her harrowing opening offers one view of the stakes characters are fighting for. We slowly learn that, centuries before the events of this novel, vampire kings ruled Europe. They were removed at great cost, but remnants of their harsh rule remain. No one but aristocrats and royalty are allowed to practice magic. Commoners and enslaved people are subject to harsh magics and penalties if they use their natural talents. By the time the 1780s roll around, enslaved people on Saint-Domingue and the poor in France and England have had enough.

After Fina’s introduction to the harsh world of the 1780s, the novel splits into three parts. In Fina’s third of the story, we see a revolution erupt as the enslaved people break free of their magical and physical restraints and seize their freedom. In France, Maximilien Robespierre rises from obscure rural lawyer to revolutionary leader who overthrows the ancien régime—with the help of a shadowy figure who promises power in exchange for “favors.” In England, William Pitt the Younger and William Wilberforce are taking a more gradual approach to change by trying to nudge parliament into expanding the rights of common magicians and banning the slave trade and slavery (respectively). Two of the revolutions (Haiti and France) are nightmares of fear, blood, and fire but, in contrast, Britain’s slow progress feels painfully slow.

The role of rhetoric, surprisingly enough, plays a bigger role in A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians than magic itself. The walls of the House of Commons are even enchanted to respond to particularly great oratory. Thus, there are many conversations where characters discuss how far they need to go and how they should proceed. I daresay the conversations depicted here mirror historical conversations had by their historical counterparts (you know, minus the details about magic) as they plotted their revolutions and political maneuvers. These conversations thankfully don’t bog down the narrative. Rather, they had me thinking about how far I might go to win my rights if they had been stripped away or entirely suppressed by an unjust government. The book also had me wondering what kind of magical ability I might want if I lived in Parry’s world. There are also plenty of battles—notably the storming of the Bastille—to keep things interesting.

I had a great time reading A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians and would definitely recommend it to fans of historical fantasy and alternate histories. Parry is absolutely brilliant at blending fact and fiction. The characters jump right off the page (Desmoulins is a particular favorite of mine and Wilberforce is a goddamned hero here and in actual history) as Parry brings them back to life, with the added twist of sometimes being able to do magic. Even the fact that the book ends on a cliffhanger wasn’t that much of a problem for me. I normally hate cliffhangers but this book would probably have been another 500 pages long if Parry had tried to resolve everything in one volume. I will definitely stay tuned for the next installment of Parry’s fantastical history of revolutions.

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

Frontispiece of Saint-Domingue, ou Histoire de Ses Révolutions, c. 1815 (Image via Wikicommons)

The Anarchy, by William Dalrymple

As I read The Anarchy, a history of how the East India Company came to take over most of India in the eighteenth century, I kept having the same thought: they can’t do that! This heavily researched yet highly entertaining history reveals that, when there are no laws to stop you and no authority strong enough to stop you, it is entirely possible for a business to boldly disrupt and then conquer the empires of India. The Anarchy is wall to wall audacity.

Originally founded in 1660, the East India Company was started to compete with French and Portuguese traders who were starting to make a lot of money in India from their small trading posts. But, where other nations moved slowly with the various emperors, nawabs, and other rulers of India’s empire and kingdoms, the men who the EIC sent to India were more likely to start fights. These fights escalated over the years from skirmishes in the 1600s to full-on wars in the 1800s. Battles like the ones at Plassey and Assaye were so devastating to indigenous powers that the EIC was able to push right into the power vacuum. The EIC’s aggressive expansion and their rapacious money making were so inhumane that even members of Parliament (the ones whose finances weren’t dependent on the Company) were appalled enough to start regulating what the Company could and could not do.

Dalrymple recounts the battles and fights with the kind of blow-by-blow commentary that reminds me of the first history lessons I ever got, ones that focused on the movements of armies and the bold (or foolish) actions of the Indian and British leaders. Dalrymple’s commentary is balanced in two ways (for those who don’t want histories that are all about fighting and politicking). First, Dalrymple frequently discusses how all of the EIC’s actions affected the daily life of ordinary Indians, from changing their farming practices to disrupting the entire artisan class to destroying the military class up to so aggravating a famine that up to a fifth to one-third of all the people in Bengal died in 1770. Second, Dalrymple does outstanding work letting historical figures speak for themselves. Dalrymple used materials from the British and Indian Company archives, contemporary letters and diaries, and accounts from Indian historians to bring figures like Shah Alam II, Tipu Sultan, Robert Clive, Warren Hastings, and dozens of other to life. Reading the words of all these contemporaries brought immediacy to The Anarchy; this is one of the most gripping histories I’ve read.

After reading The Anarchy, I know what happened and a lot of the why. That said, I continue to be astounded by the rise of the East India Company and its actions in India. I tried to imagine if, say, Apple or Walmart decided to set up shop in another country and then decide to start fighting with that country’s army before eventually just taking over. It seems unthinkable now, even though I know that it’s happened since then in Hawaii and Guatemala. The powers of capitalism and colonialism are stronger than a nation’s right to sovereignty, says The Anarchy (and a lot of history).

Mir Jafar meets Robert Clive after the Battle of Plassey, in a painting by Francis Hayman (Image via Wikicommons)

The Anatomist’s Tale, by Tauno Biltsted

All the narrator of The Anatomist’s Tale, by Tauno Biltsted, wants is have a career as a doctor in mid-1700s London. His lack of money and connections makes that modest dream impossible. So, like many young men of his place and time, the narrator signs on with a merchant ship to make his fortune on the seas. We learn right from the start that things do not go well for the young doctor because he tells us that he has ended up in the Marshalsea, one of the most notorious prisons in British history. In every chapter, the narrator unspools his tale to anyone who will listen, from a charwoman in the prison to the judges of the Admiralty. How did such good intentions go so wrong?

The unnamed narrator (most people call him Surgeon) signs on with an apparently charming captain to sail on The Royal Fortune. Surgeon will get a share of the profits after the voyage and, unlike the Navy, he has the chance to leave if he doesn’t like shipboard life once the trip is over. It seems like a good plan. Under a different captain, it might have been. But as Surgeon reveals to his various audiences, the captain’s brutality towards the crew leads the men to mutiny…which leads to Surgeon’s becoming a reluctant pirate-doctor.

I don’t know if the Admiralty will agree that Surgeon is innocent of the charges of piracy, but I was certainly convinced. As Surgeon’s tale rollicks along on the high seas and the deep South American jungle, we see a man who really didn’t have a choice. Circumstances were against Surgeon right from the beginning. When he was a child, enclosure meant that his father was no longer able to make a living from farming. The only good part of his life was his apprenticeship to a butcher and his years working his way through medical school. Once at sea, among the pirates, Surgeon has nowhere to go. He literally can’t get away from them. Worse, he’s tainted by association with the pirates. If caught, Surgeon faces a cruel execution. This theme of hopelessness and powerlessness is repeated in the stories Surgeon shares. Men are pressed into service on British ships. Africans are enslaved. One African even loses her identity as a woman to live more safely as a man. (The character of Jalil is fascinating.)

To cap it all off, The Anatomist’s Tale is written in beautiful, period-accurate prose. I loved the long sentences and the broad vocabulary. I really felt like I was listening to Surgeon, like I was listening to someone who lived in the 1700s. Surgeon’s words brought to life what it might have been like to sail with an international crew from London, to the Caribbean, to a place somewhere on the northern coast of South America called New Madagascar. This book is brilliant, on all counts. It’s an amazing work of historical fiction.

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

The Imperial Wife, by Irina Reyn

I supposed that most women will come off the worse when compared to Catherine the Great, as Irina Reyn’s novel The Imperial Wife does by telling the empress’s story alongside the story of a young art specialist in modern New York. To be fair, Tanya Kagan Vandermotter holds her own for much of the novel. I genuinely thought that I was reading twin tales of women realizing their own power over their destinies. Catherine obviously did. Tanya, however, makes a decision at the very end of the book that infuriated me. The ending of this novel made me so angry that I’ve needed almost an entire day before I felt like I could write this post. In an effort to not spoil this book to other readers who may have a different opinion of Tanya’s actions, all I will say about the ending is that I think it undercuts her entire plotline.

Catherine the Great’s rise to power is one of the most remarkable in European history. Catherine was born an obscure German princess who, though a lot of wheeling and dealing above her head, was married to Tsarevich Peter, the heir to Russia’s Empress Elizabeth, in 1745. By 1762, Catherine had overthrown her husband and become empress in her own right. She would rule for more than 30 years. Tanya Kagan Vandermotter has much less lofty goals. She just wants to, first, save her job as Russian art specialist for Worthington’s auction house, and, second, save her marriage to her moody New York-blue blood husband. The two women are connect by two chance occurrences. Tanya’s husband happens to have written a novel of Catherine’s early life. The second occurrence is more important for the plot. Against all odds, it appears that Catherine’s own Order of St. Catherine medal has been found after being lost for more than 200 years.

As the novel progresses, we see Catherine’s rise to power and growing confidence as a future autocrat. There are a few moments where Catherine doubts, but they are quickly overcome. For Tanya, finding her confidence is a more difficult task. She’s intimidated by Americans and Russians alike. As a Russian Jewish immigrant, Tanya doesn’t feel like she belongs to either group. She imagines how people are judging her otherness whenever she finds herself in a group of people. Imposter Syndrome doesn’t listen to reason and this is definitely true for Tanya. Although she is clearly very good at her job—buying and selling Russian art—she constantly frets that her world will come crashing down.

A 1762 portrait of Catherine the Great, by Vigilius Eriksen (Image via Wikicommons)

Tanya’s Imposter Syndrome is not helped by the fact that her husband is going through something (something we don’t understand until much later). Carl Vandermotter is giving off signs that he is unhappy. He accuses Tanya of judging him and of feeling superior to him. Carl, to be blunt, bugged the shit out of me. Even when I realized what Carl was wrestling with, I still didn’t feel much sympathy for him. Throughout The Imperial Wife, Tanya says that she wants a relationship that is a partnership. Everyone she tells this to scoffs, but I understand. For a woman who spends so much time taking care of everything and everyone, it would be nice to have a partner who is strong enough to take charge for a while. Carl’s lack of initiative and waffling always prompt Tanya to act. Even when Tanya stresses about her tenuous position at work (the Russian art department might not be profitable enough to maintain), Carl only seems to care about himself. He never offers any kind of support to the overworked Tanya.

For most of The Imperial Wife, as I said, I thought I was watching two women discovering their own power and independence. Catherine seizes power in Russia. Tanya labors mightily to save the Russian art department and keep her integrity in the face of oligarchs asking for favors. Tanya finds her power. It’s the independence part where she falls down, I think. But! I am in danger of spoiling the end of The Imperial Wife again. To close before I totally blow it, I will say that reading this novel was a curious experience. I really enjoyed 95% of this book. I would recommend that 95% in a heartbeat to people who like books with parallel narratives in different time periods. That last 5%, though, is so troubling, aggravating, and puzzling that it makes me question whether or not I can recommend the book. How can I tell someone, “Read this! You’ll like it until the ending pisses you off”?