Wages of Sin

By Kaite Welsh

Rating: 2 stars

Sarah Gilchrist is a female medical student in 1892 Edinburgh, living with relatives after being exiled by her family after a scandal, and struggling to manage her studies and the disdain of both faculty and fellow students. She also spends evenings working in a poor hospital, and when she finds one of the patients on her dissection table the next day, she can’t let it go.

Firstly, I wonder if “Sarah” Gilchrist is a reference to Marion Gilchrist, who was getting her medical doctorate (the first woman to get such a qualification in Scotland), on the other side of the country, in Glasgow, at around the same time as this book is set.

Anyway, aside from possible coincidences of nomenclature, I struggled a bit with this book, although I whizzed through it. It’s not huge, and I got through it in an afternoon off work. Sarah is incredibly impulsive, not hesitating to trail men into the worst parts of the city. And, as we learn, she should really know better. She’s also very mistrustful of men, being quick to see any action in the worst light, and being ready to believe the worst of them. We find out why this is, and what has happened to her is truly awful, but it’s still frustrating to see her making poor decision after poor decision.

And you might expect solidarity from her fellow female students, but they’re under the thumb of class mean girl Julia and keep their distance, at best. I assume that Welsh is isolating Sarah on purpose, to make us empathise more with her, but it’s also exhausting to read.

She doesn’t even really solve the mystery. The mystery solves her, more or less, and it comes completely out of the blue. I know I’m not good at figuring out whodunnit, but I don’t know that there were any clues here at all. And I also don’t really get the murderer’s actions towards the end of the book. The attempt on Sarah’s life seems entirely unnecessary, given how clueless the girl was. There was another person who it would have made more sense to silence, but maybe it was deliberate – the author showing the murderer’s judgement slipping and them making mistakes?

I’m not that familiar with Edinburgh, but enough of the ancient city has survived intact to the modern era that I was able to follow the famous streets and landmarks that Sarah lives amongst (unlike poor Glasgow which had a shovel taken to its heart after WW2). Still, it’s nice to see something set in Scotland, rather than London, which always seems to be where murderers and detectives set up shop.

So, I sympathised a lot with Sarah’s predicament – I can’t imagine the strength of will necessary to recover from what happened to her, and then deal with the scorn of trying to do a medical degree in that period as well. But I found many of her actions bizarre and unreasonable, and I never really saw why she got so obsessed with this murder over any of the others that must be happening in the city at any given time. I’ll not be searching out any more of her adventures, I don’t think.

Book details

ISBN: 9781472239822
Year of publication: 2018

Through a Darkening Glass

By R.S. Maxwell

Rating: 3 stars

Ruth Gladstone is studying at Cambridge University in 1940, but an unexploded bomb persuades her to evacuate, along with her grandmother, Edith, to stay with her great aunt Vera in the tiny village of Martynsborough. There, she makes friends with another evacuee, Malcolm, an injured soldier, and they join forces to investigate the mysterious wraith that seems to be haunting the village.

It took a while for me to get into this book. There were some issues of American English that threw me out of what should be a very English story (“pants”, “first floor = ground” etc) and a few things that didn’t entirely feel right. Once we got to Martynsborough, it did very much have the somewhat caricatured feel of the pub scene from American Werewolf in London or “a local shop for local people” with the locals being comically unfriendly to Ruth. But it settled down, as she started to get to know people, and the mystery of the wraith starts to come to the fore, as well as the separate mystery of Edith and Vera and the “terrible thing that happened that day, long ago” were quite intriguing.

The relationship between Ruth and Malcolm builds slowly, complicated by Malcolm’s wife, who’s withdrawn into a state of “shellshock” and isn’t really communicable any more. I wondered how that would be resolved – and after the end of the book, I’m frankly none the wiser, which is a bit disappointing.

Speaking of the end of the book, the whole interlinked set of mysteries was unravelled very quickly in the last few chapters. I would have liked more time to unpack some of that, especially the revelations that resulted from Edith and Vera’s mystery.

Of the supporting cast, Maude was my favourite. The Cambridge geology post-doc whose room that Ruth ends up staying in after the unexploded bomb meant she had to leave her own, and who comes to stay with them in Martynsborough later. She bucks everybody up and tramps around the countryside in her trousers, looking for interesting rocks. On the opposite end of the scale, we have Warren, Ruth’s fiancĂ©. He’s a wraith himself for the first chunk of the book, haunting Ruth in his absence. Then he turns up, and we get to see this awful character for ourselves. He hangs around for just a chapter or two, whining, and is eventually sent packing. The whole thing is very weird and I’m not entirely sure that it added anything to the story.

An enjoyable enough WW2 thriller, with very mild supernatural trappings. It’s got some enjoyable characters but I’m glad that I got it through the Amazon Prime First Reads programme, since I’ll probably never read it again.

Book details

Year of publication: 2023

Of Noble Family (Glamourist Histories, #5)

By Mary Robinette Kowal

Rating: 4 stars

The final book in the Glamourist Histories series sees Jane and Vincent travelling to Antigua after getting word that Vincent’s father has died, and his elder brother is too ill to travel so he begs the Vincents to go in his stead to wrap up the estate. The situation they find is decidedly not what they expected, and with Jane now pregnant, they find themselves having to stay longer than they anticipated, and with conflict at every turn.

I was somewhat surprised that Kowal turned away from Europe in the Regency period and decided to face the issue of colonisation and slavery head on for the final book in the series but it’s sensitively handled and not nearly as dark as it could have gone, for which I’m profoundly thankful. The liberal Jane and Vincent had been pretty well isolated from the realities of where their nation’s wealth comes from and are brought up short. The realities of life for Miss Sarah, Mr Frank, Louisa and the others are rarely made explicit, but it’s all there, without much in the way of decoding required.

As well as the plot around the estate itself, especially the odious and corrupt estate manager, there’s Jane’s burgeoning friendship with some of the older slave women, as she sees a different way of doing glamour to the European way that she’s familiar with. And then there’s her frustration at not being able to do glamour herself, while she’s pregnant. Unlike the last time though, her relationship with Vincent is in a much stronger place, and she finds a place for herself in design while she can’t do the actual work.

This closes a chapter in the turbulent early part of the Vincents’ marriage. It’s nice to see Vincent get closure after all the travails with his family over the last few books, and for the couple to get, and to cherish, the child they wanted, especially after the events of Glamour in Glass. I’m pleased that Kowal was able to stick the ending to the series.

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Valour and Vanity (Glamourist Histories, #4)

By Mary Robinette Kowal

Rating: 4 stars

Jane and David Vincent are travelling to Venice to try and experiment more with recording glamour in glass, with the famous glassblowers of that city, when they are waylaid by pirates and left destitute. An apparently kindly gentleman takes them in, but they eventually discover that it’s all been a huge ruse, and start plotting the ultimate heist to get back what is theirs.

This is a great fun, fairly lightweight regency story, with a bit of magic. I’ve enjoyed all of Kowal’s Glamourist Histories so far, and this was no exception. Jane’s a great character: determined, loyal and kind, but not above a bit of petty revenge, when given the opportunity – something that makes her more human and relatable.

I was on tenterhooks for the first half of the book, knowing that the Vincents were going to get scammed, and it still took me by surprise. But then we have the pleasure of pulling the heist together for the back half. A heist that involves not just the Vincents, but, in proper heist movie style, they pull together a gang to help them out – a gang that includes nuns, a puppeteer and Lord Byron! Oh, and speaking of, I loved Kowal’s adaptation of some of his poetry to talk about glamour (not that I’ve read the originals, and only knew they were adapted because of the afterword).

I like the very nuanced view that the book takes of motherhood, especially since Jane had suffered a miscarriage in the past. She’s clear that she’s happy, and whether or not she’s able to have them in future, she doesn’t really know within herself if she’d like to have children at all. No simple, false dichotomy here, and I appreciate that. The other thing that I appreciate is the strength of the Vincents’ marriage. They have squabbles and argue, especially after they lose everything and are struggling to put food on the table, but they communicate clearly and honestly with each other (a lack of which is becoming more and more a pet peeve with me these days).

A great fun story and I look forward to getting on to the next, and final, book in the series soon.

Book details

Publisher: Tor Books
Year of publication: 2014

Without A Summer

By Mary Robinette Kowal

Rating: 4 stars

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Kowal’s Glamourist History series to date, and I’m pleased to say that that streak continues with the third in the series. This one is about prejudice, something that you don’t necessarily initially notice because it’s our series heroine and PoV character, Jane, who holds the prejudice.

Jane and Vincent are back from the continent, and after a period staying with her parents, they travel to London for work, and take Jane’s sister, Melody, with them, hoping to introduce her to eligible young gentlemen in the capital. But while there, they get caught up in a plot that goes to the highest echelons of government.

We encounter many forms of prejudice, and now that I think about it, not a small amount of pride as well, and the book clearly lays out the harms that it can do when your view of a person is predisposed to find the worst in their every action. We have the eligible young man that attracts Melody’s eye, eligible in every way except that he’s Irish and Catholic. And we have the distaste that Vincent’s father has for him and his profession. And caught up in all this are the innocent coldmongers, who are unable to ply their trade in the year without a summer, being used as pawns in a larger political game.

One thing I consistently like about these books is the relationship between Jane and Vincent. Much of the romance we see in media relies on the artificial drama of misunderstandings taken out of context and tearful reunions. The Vincents communicate constantly, and even when revelations from Vincent’s past come out, they’re able to talk them through and not let them drive a wedge between them. It’s so nice to see a healthy relationship portrayed here.

The worldbuilding continues to delight, with more details about the different types of glamourists, in particular the coldmongers. There was also a throwaway line referring to George III as the King of the “United Kingdom of Great Britain, Faerie and Ireland”, which is intriguing and I hope is covered more in future books. The magic, however, is mostly set-dressing (ironic, since that’s what the Vincents spend much of their time doing), and it’s the character interactions that are the real draw.

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Glamour in Glass (Glamourist Histories, #2)

By Mary Robinette Kowal

Rating: 4 stars

Jane and David Vincent are newlywed, deeply in love, partners in work as well as life and with the favour of the Prince Regent. Life looks good as they go on honeymoon to Belgium to see one of Vincent’s old friends and colleagues. But this is a Europe only just coming out of war. Napoleon may be conquered but he has many allies on the continent. The Vincents find themselves amongst all this, and worse, when Vincent is captured, leaving Jane as the only one who can save him.

I really enjoyed Shades of Milk and Honey and this continuation of the Vincents’ story was just as enjoyable. The blurb for the book played up the kidnapping, but in actual fact, that was a relatively short section towards the end, with most of it being spent focusing on their life together, Jane finding herself pregnant, and her increasing worry about being cut of of Vincent’s life.

The rules of this world are that women can’t do glamour when they’re pregnant. It’s not clear if that’s a solid rule, or if it’s something with some flexibility (like not drinking alcohol), but Jane sticks to it and starts to fear that because she can’t be her husband’s creative partner any more, he’s stopped valuing her. Kowal does a good job of setting up Jane’s fear and the reasons for it, but I never entirely believed it, seeing Vincent with somewhat clearer vision, even through Jane’s eyes.

The period setting is good. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the last book, but this one had me sucked right in. Kowal’s writing is noticeably improved, even between her first and second novel

I’m now fully invested in Jane and Vincent’s life and can’t wait to dig into the next book.

Book details

Publisher: Corsair
Year of publication: 2013

Shades of Milk and Honey (The Glamourist Histories, #1)

By Mary Robinette Kowal

Rating: 4 stars

Jane Ellsworth is an accomplished, but plain, young woman in Regency England. Her father has put aside enough money to ensure good dowries for her and her sister, but she isn’t sure that she’ll ever find a man to marry her, no matter her dowry, or how good her ability with glamour is.

This book wears its Jane Austen influences on its sleeve. From the very first page, it riffs on Pride and Prejudice, inviting the reader to note the similarities and differences. The biggest difference, of course, is the existence of magic in this world, in the form of glamour – the power of illusion, of drawing it from the ether and forming it into shapes, sounds and even smells. Jane’s ability at glamour incites jelousy in her sister, Melody, as much as Melody’s beauty does with Jane, although Melody, the younger sister, is more willing to show it.

I’m a great fan of Pride and Prejudice, and this homage to that world, while adding its own magical twist delighted me. It captured the spirit of Austen’s work very well, although at times the writing didn’t entirely feel authentic. Although that can be forgiven given that this is Kowal’s debut novel. Although the worldbuilding is broad, it’s done well and gives you the information you need.

We get everything we expect in a Regency novel, and then some – we get a ball, gossip, jealousy, a wayword younger sister and even a duel! Jane is a delightful protagonist (I mean, she’s no Elizabeth Bennett, but then, who is?). It’s fun trying to figure out which of the men in the novel will be the Mr Darcy to her Lizzy. Will it be the charming neighbour? Or the childhood friend? Or maybe the new glamourist hired by their aristocratic neighbour?

This was a lot of fun as a homage to Austen’s work and I’m really curious to see where it goes next. The world is really interesting, so now that we’ve had the homage, I look forward to something more off the beaten track.

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Dark Fire (Shardlake Series)

By C.J. Sansom

Rating: 3 stars

It’s 1540 and Matthew Shardlake finds himself defending a teenage girl accused of the murder of her young cousin. This act brings him back to the attention of Thomas Cromwell, who commissions Shardlake to find two missing men, who claim to have the secret of Greek Fire (an ancient incendiary weapon used by the Byzantines; something like napalm), before a promised demonstration before the king in a fortnight. As Shardlake delves into the matter, he finds himself getting tangled deeper into a conspiracy that leads to the highest levels of society.

When we first met Matthew Shardlake, in Dissolution, he was fervent reformer (sorry, Reformer), with the zeal of breaking away from the Catholic church running through him. The events of that book got shot of that and while he doesn’t wish for a return to Rome, he sees the terrible things that Cromwell has done in the name of Reform and finds it wanting.

I was hoping that the theological arguments would have been left behind in the first book, but they weren’t. For all that the theology is conjoined with politics (when is it not?), I find it a fundamentally uninteresting discussion – the more so when it so deeply affects people. Shardlake’s friend and fellow barrister loses his job because he disagrees with the currently ascendant Duke of Norfolk on the matter, and he got off lightly: others are burned at the stake.

I kept wondering why I didn’t find this as annoying when I read the Baroque Cycle a few months ago, and although the faith of the monarch was pivotal to events there, it didn’t drive the rest of the plot. Also, at that point, state killing over theology was mostly done. It was pure politics and machinations, whereas in this period, a hundred years before the Enlightenment, a difference of theology leads directly to barbaric deaths. I just find that distasteful, and not something I want to read about, even indirectly.

The plot regarding Greek Fire is quite interesting although since we know that Europeans didn’t have it, we know it’s somehow going to not be a thing. The solution to that is pretty neat and works well. The other plot, with the accused girl, is also pretty interesting. Once again, we’re reminded about how bad prison conditions were, and how badly people with mental health problems were treated in the period.

After being abandoned by his assistant in the last book, this time Shardlake is saddled with one – Cromwell has Jack Barak work on the case with Shardlake. And Barak is not an easy character to like. He’s rude, opinionated and often ill-informed. But the author goes to lengths to soften those edges, pointing out that his bluster is often to hide his feelings. Maybe, but he’s still very often, as he likes to call almost everyone he meets, an arsehole.

So an overall good mystery, and I did learn something I hadn’t known before about the Duke of Norfolk and his manipulation of the king into marrying Catherine Howard. Since I was finding myself checking how much more book I still had to go, I still don’t think I’ll read any more of the series though.

Book details

ISBN: 9781743030875

The System of the World (The Baroque Cycle, #3)

By Neal Stephenson

Rating: 4 stars

I never thought he’d pull it off, but in The System of the World, Neal Stephenson actually manages to craft a satisfying and enjoyable conclusion to the largest, most rambling work of fiction I’ve read in a very long time. Daniel Waterhouse had been summoned back to England in the first book by Princess Caroline, who we first meet when she’s a penniless refugee, and is helped out by Eliza. By this time, she’s about to become the Princess of Wales and the future queen of of the United Kingdom. This book tells the story of what Daniel gets up to upon his return.

Stephenson continues to be fascinated by economics, as much of this tale is the battle of wits between Sir Isaac Newton, master of the Royal Mint, and Jack Shaftoe, the most notorious forger in the kingdom. But thrust into that is also the Solomonic gold – an alchemical mystery that Newton is desperate to get his hands on. And this tension between modernity, in the shape of the new economics and technologies that are starting to come into the realm, and the ancient ideas will define the new system of the world that is being forged.

As The Confusion was Jack and Eliza’s book, so this is Daniel’s. The former do appear, but we mostly follow Daniel as he, much to his own bewilderment, grows to become a respected and powerful man, while trying to find out who’s trying to kill natural philosophers with time bombs and also to continue Leibniz and Wilkins’ work on a thinking engine.

To be honest, even after three very big books (the first of which really feels like a [very] extended prologue to the other two, since really not much happened but you needed to read it to be able to understand and enjoy the other two) I’m not sure how well I can describe, or, indeed, understand the themes of the book. Characters are a bit easier. I found Daniel and Jack very annoying in the first book, for different reasons. Over the next two, I’ve come to like and root for both of them, and Jack’s audacious heist against the Tower of London had some great moments in it. He’s grown and matured. The “imp of the perverse” that dogged him so much in the first book has been tamed, to some degree, by age and wisdom. Daniel mostly just wants to be left alone to get on with his research, but he keeps getting caught up in the plans of the great and powerful.

Eliza, by this stage, is widow, a duchess twice over and up to her elbows in matters of finance. She steps in to help finance some of the work that Daniel is involved with, and, indirectly this leads her to cross paths with Jack again, which leads to one of the more surreal epilogues. And yes, of course you didn’t think you were going to get just one epilogue, did you? There are, in fact, five of them, tying up various loose ends.

While pretty readable, the book isn’t free of bloat. While exciting in bits, for example, the heist went on too long and was a bit too complex for my taste. Stephenson certainly doesn’t skimp on his world-building (although I did mostly skim the descriptions of London).

This book finally has something in it to earn the label of speculative fiction that Stephenson claims for the trilogy. To say what would be a spoiler, but it’s a minor element and for the most part the book can be read as pure historical fiction..

So a challenging series, but ultimately rewarding in the end.

Book details

ISBN: 9780099463368
Publisher: Arrow
Year of publication: 2005

The Confusion (The Baroque Cycle, #2)

By Neal Stephenson

Rating: 4 stars

It feels like Quicksilver, the first book in this series, was just an (extended!) prologue, establishing the setting and characters, as we finally start getting some plot in this one. This one interleaves the stories of Jack Shaftoe, last seen being taken as a slave on the high seas, and Eliza, the woman he rescued, ironically enough, from slavery. After Jack somehow gets better from syphilis, he joins with a diverse group of fellow slaves, escapes, steals a vast horde of treasure and goes on the lam. Eliza, meanwhile, loses and regains her own fortune, becomes a duchess twice over, has a child kidnapped, gets her revenge, takes several lovers, as well as helping free a young woman from slavery (and the scene with Bob and Abigail is among my highlights of the book).

We occasionally drop in on Daniel Waterhouse and other characters from the first book, but not very often or for very long. This is very much Jack and Eliza’s book. I’ve always liked Eliza, right from the moment we met her in the last volume, and nothing here changes that. She continues to show the strength of character and flexibility of mind that’s a joy to read. I was never hugely fond of Jack, meanwhile, in the last book, but he’s grown on me here. He still makes awful decisions, but he’s charming and genuinely wants to do the right thing, when he can.

Stephenson still piles in the words. He gleefully discusses, in great detail, various complex financial machinations and how they can be used for mischief, most of which I still don’t understand, and don’t think it’s worth the hours of my life to go back and reread in greater detail. But for all that, it’s remarkably readable. Although part of me wonders how much that’s through being inured to it by reading Quicksilver first.

I definitely want to know where the story is going next, but I think I’ll take a break and read something a bit lighter (and shorter) before tackling the conclusion to the series. I still don’t think it’s science fiction though.

Book details

ISBN: 9780099410690
Publisher: Arrow Books Ltd
Year of publication: 2005

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