BooksOfTheMoon

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.

Book details

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

Quicksilver: Volume One of the Baroque Cycle

By Neal Stephenson

Rating: 3 stars

I was wondering as I was reading this, how I was going to review it. Even as I’m typing this, I have no idea. Quicksilver is a meandering labyrinth of a novel, covering the early years of the Royal Society, the aftermath of the English civil war and turmoil in Europe.

It took me a long time to get into it. I really only persevered because I had read and enjoyed Cryponomicon (albeit many years ago) and wanted to give Stephenson the benefit of the doubt. It was really only after the end of the first “book” when Eliza turned up, that I finally sat up and found a character that I cared about, which is nearly four hundred pages in!

The first book covers the early years of the Royal Society, with our (fictional) protagonist Daniel Waterhouse hanging around such luminaries as Newton (with whom he shares an apartment), Hooke, Wilkins, Leibniz and Oldenburg. We see the Society grow along with Daniel, but we also have a separate timeline that sees an older Daniel being persuaded back to England from the New World (where he appears to be working on something like a difference engine, or possibly analytical engine). We see Daniel get on the boat and have a few adventures, but never see the end of that voyage (presumably being held back for later volumes?).

Book two follows the Vagabond Jack Shaftoe and Eliza, the young woman he rescues from Turkish slavery (who’s from an imaginary set of islands near Scotland). Jack isn’t very interesting to me, but Eliza is. She soon discovers the concept of money markets and investment, and establishes herself, first in Amsterdam, then in France as what we could call an investment banker. Oh, and she’s spying for William of Orange.

There’s a lot here about the antagonism between Catholicism and Protestantism. Daniel is a puritan and after admitting to himself that he’s never going to shine in the Royal Society alongside Newton, Hooke et al, he dives into court politics and ousting the Catholic Stuarts. William of Orange is a major player, as is Louis XIV, and their manoeuvring decimates Europe. As a non-believer and someone not brought up in the Christian tradition, I find all the energy spent over that split to be wasteful and tedious. The intrigue can be interesting in its own right (and Stephenson is good at writing that intrigue), but knowing its driving force just makes me sigh.

Stephenson calls the Baroque Cycle (of which this is the first volume) science fiction, but if it is, it’s incredibly subtle. Yes, the book has a lot of (proto-) science, maybe a prototype computing engine of some kind, and (if you read other, related works) possibly an immortal, but just reading this on its own, it’s pretty solid historical fiction.

For most of the way through, I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to pick up the sequels, but, gods help me, I got sucked in towards the end, and it’s pretty likely now that I will read them.

Book details

ISBN: 9780099410683
Publisher: Arrow Books
Year of publication: 2014

Dissolution (Matthew Shardlake, #1)

By C.J. Sansom

Rating: 3 stars

It’s a time of turmoil in England, as Henry VIII has declared himself absolute head of the Church, and his minister Thomas Cromwell wields much power. One of his commissioners, sent to a monastery, is murdered and Cromwell sends the lawyer Matthew Shardlake to investigate.

The author has impeccable historical credentials, and the world that he creates is very believable. The people live in fear as Reform is in full swing and they are afraid of saying the wrong thing in sight of the wrong person. Matthew is an idealist, and a bit of a zealot, believing full well in the new ways. His investigations, however, reveal more than he would like, and his journey is very much the core of the book. The murder mystery is interesting; in many ways a classic format, as the monastery is isolated, and it’s midwinter, meaning that it must have been someone from the inside that carried it out, and Shardlake has to investigate the histories of all the senior monks, many of whom have their own secrets to hide. Shardlake’s assistant, the young Mark Poer, is as idealistic as his master, but in a different way. He sees the corruption at the heart of the regime, and despises it, leading to conflict between the two men.

The weakest part of the book for me were the religious aspects. As someone who isn’t a believer, and who never grew up in the Christian tradition, the question around the English Reformation has always seemed to me to be more about Henry’s desire to chase some flesh than anything substantial in doctrine. I found the arguments between Shardlake and the monks tedious, and the former mostly seemed to use his position as Cromwell’s commissioner to bully and harass the monks with, not that I had much sympathy for many of them – the corruption of the monasteries was no myth.

The most sympathetic of the inhabitants of the monastery are the outsiders: Brother Guy, the Spanish Moor who is their physician; his assistant Alice, a young women among men whose vow of chastity isn’t as always strong as it should be; and Brother Gabriel, a gay man who finds his passions hard to control. I was also surprised by how accepting the others were about that last. Don’t get me wrong, they thought it was awful, but also that it was something that just happened, sometimes.

So overall, a well-written, and well-researched historical crime story. The resolution to the mystery did depend on knowledge that was hidden from the reader, I’m not sure if we could have guessed it before the reveal, or if that’s just my inability to spot a twist coming. I wasn’t a fan of the religious aspects, but I liked both the history and the crime aspects of it.

Book details

ISBN: 9780330450799
Publisher: Pan Books
Year of publication: 2007

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

By Mary Ann Shaffer

Rating: 5 stars

My sister recommended this short epistolary novel to me, and while I’m not usually a reader of historical fiction, I absolutely devoured it. Set just after the end of the Second World War, author Juliet Ashton has just finished a tour for her last book and is now casting about for what to do next. Serendipitously, she gets a letter from a stranger on the Isle of Guernsey, which leads to a correspondence and an introduction to the eponymous Society.

Guernsey was the only part of the UK that was occupied by the Germans during the war, and the correspondence between Juliet and the members of the Society teases out the complexities of the occupation and the relationship. It was a terrible time, and there were many atrocities, but there were kindnesses and love as well, and the book balances that well.

The members of the Society are well-drawn, and, interestingly, one of the clearest is someone who doesn’t write any letters of their own but is a prominent figure in many of the others. To say any more would be a spoiler. Possibly my favourite character is Isole, a hedge witch and keen practitioner of phrenology. She’s an awful lot of fun and I love her voice when she’s writing. A delightful romance also develops later in the book which is lovely to read.

The epistolary form through an entire novel is unusual and, I imagine, hard work to do. I did enjoy it though. The voice for the period is mostly well done as well.

I had all the feels while reading this book, I loved it.

Book details

Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
Year of publication: 2009

Pied Piper

By Nevil Shute

Rating: 4 stars

I probably wouldn’t have found this book on my own, but a friend recommended it to me and it sounded delightful: an old man goes on a fishing holiday to France in the middle of the Second World War. While he’s there, France is invaded by the Nazis, and he has to make his way home, except that a British couple also out there ask if he’ll take their children back to Britain as they can’t leave. He agrees, and spends the book acquiring more children to bring safely to Britain.

This is a charming and sweet book. Our protagonist, Mr Howard, shows boundless patience towards his charges and a determination to get them out of danger and to safety, whether in England, or to send them to his married daughter in America.

Howard’s decision to go to France on holiday perhaps shows poor judgement, but there are mitigating factors, revealed later in the book. But it also perhaps shows how little the war had impacted gentlemen of a certain age and class at this point, that he felt that a fishing holiday was safe. Although I imagine nobody expected France to fall. Certainly not a quickly and completely as she did. The book is also contemporary to events: it was written in 1942, only two years after the fall of France, when the book is set. At this point, the outcome of the war is far from certain, and to write such a positive book in the midst of it is quite the achievement.

Spoiler
I really loved the relationship that built up between Howard and Nicole, the French girl whose father he knew, and who, it turns out was the lover of his dead son, John. This is something that surprised me in a book written at this time – that such a relationship, with heavy implications that it was a physical one – outwith marriage was not only written about, but in a positive, non-judgemental way. Howard even accepts and describes Nicole as his daughter-in-law, despite the fact that John died before they could marry.

An enjoyable, slow-paced book, albeit with added danger towards the end. But even Nazis want to see their children kept safe.

Book details

ISBN: 9780099530220
Publisher: Vintage Classics
Year of publication: 2009

The Glass Woman

By Caroline Lea

Rating: 2 stars

In 17th century Iceland Rósa marries the wealthy Jon, a chief in a distant village, so that her elderly and ill mother will get the food and warmth she needs. In her new husband’s home, she finds no love, only fear and distrust, and something lurking in the attic.

The comparisons in this book to Jane Eyre (the locked attic) and Rebecca (the mysterious first wife) are clear, but I didn’t find The Glass Woman nearly as compelling as the other two. There’s a relentless misery to Rósa’s life with Jon, and her fear, rising to terror at times, of him is painful to read. His isolation of her and his insistence that she be an obedient wife just make make angry. It may be accurate for the period, but it’s still infuriating.

What’s also really infuriating, is that so much of that could have been resolved simply through trust and conversation. Not all of it, perhaps. Jon’s apprentice Pétur is a troubled young man, and Egill, the priest, is greedy and small-minded. Trouble would be inevitable, but it needn’t have been so between Jon and Rósa, if he’d been able to trust her enough that she felt able to come to him with her fears. And that’s frustrating.

Also, from the time that she marries Jon, Rósa’s life is unrelentingly grim. There’s no bright points in their marriage at all, which makes it unpleasant to read, for my taste, at least. In saying that, it’s a very readable book, with the mystery drawing me ever onwards.

The Icelandic landscape and climate is very vividly drawn, becoming a character in its own right, as it draws the characters in, ever more claustrophobic. The clash between the new religion of Christianity and the old, Nordic, gods is interesting and feels real. The new religion needs to stamp itself to the land and so any reference to the old is forbidden, on pain of exclusion or death, but the roots aren’t so easily expunged.

I was promised a modern gothic novel and I suppose I got one. But one that felt too unrelenting to my taste.

Book details

ISBN: 9781405934619
Publisher: Penguin
Year of publication: 2019

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