No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Friday, May 18, 2018

2018/21: The Henchmen of Zenda -- KJ Charles

"[Rudolph Rassendyll's account] gives us a beautiful, passionate princess, a man who renounces love and crown for the sake of a greater and purer cause, and a villain -- such a villain. Rupert of Hentzau: reckless and wary, graceful and graceless, handsome, debonair, vile, and unconquered. Rupert flees the pages of Rassendyll's story a thwarted monster, never to be seen again; Rassendyll retires from the field with honour unstained; and the true King of Ruritania reigns in Strelsau.
What a pile of shit.
My name is Jasper Detchard, and according to Rassendyll's narrative I am dead. This should give you some idea of his accuracy ..." [p. 1]
KJ Charles' witty, swashbuckling and cynical take on Anthony Hope's A Prisoner of Zenda, as told by professional henchman Jasper Detchard ('I had not lived the life I had to be called proper'), and featuring the dashing young Rupert of Hentzau, who has previously confined his amorous exploits to women but can, it turns out, be persuaded to diversify.

Charles' pastiche of Hope's style is commendable, though Jasper's narrative lends itself to more insalubrious language and innuendo than the original ('unless you feel there might be any chance of unlawful entry tonight?' [loc. 870]). More to the point, she turns Hope's story inside out and examines each character's actions, motivations, loyalties and affections -- discovering, or illuminating, quite a different tale that's considerably less high-minded. Charles' women have agency and intelligence: they are, indeed, the drivers of the story, and their roles are correspondingly more complex. Rassendyll is a pompous fraud (so, pretty much exactly like the original) and neither Rudolph nor his black-haired brother Michael are especially fit to be king. Rupert of Hentzau is, as advertised, dashing and melodramatic, and good with a blade. And Jasper ... I like Jasper a great deal. He is cool, detached, often exasperated: he sets more store in good manners than in passionate avowals. I think he could be described as aromantic, though I find the ending (which isn't the traditional monogamous till-death, etc) remarkably happy and wholly in character for Jasper and his lover.

I interviewed Charles last year and she swore that she'd manage to insert a reference to the better-known, more Christmassy Rudolph. I am happy to confirm her success.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

2018/20: The Prisoner of Zenda -- Anthony Hope

If you say that I ought to have spent my time in useful labour, I am out of Court and have nothing to say, save that my parents had no business to leave me two thousand pounds a year and a roving disposition. [p. 6]

I'm sure I've read this classic of swashbuckling pseudohistorical romance before, yet little seemed familiar.
Englishman Rudolf Rassendyll decides to visit Ruritania, to which he has tenous (wrong side of the blanket) family ties. How fortuitous! He bears a striking resemblance to King Rudolph V, who is due to be crowned the very next day -- and whose dastardly brother Black Michael has abducted and drugged him. Can Rudolf Rassendyll help the true king by impersonating him? Of course he can.

Meanwhile, Black Michael's villainous but dashing henchman, Rupert of Hentzau, steals every scene he's in -- unlike the female characters (King Rudolph's fiancee Flavia, with whom Rudolf Rassendyll falls violently but chastely in love; Black Michael's scheming mistress Antoinette de Mauban, who makes some unpleasant discoveries about her lover) who are, period-typically, somewhat feeble and ruled by their hearts, rather than their heads.

Rudolf Rassendyll is not an especially likeable character, I have to say. But I'm glad I (re)read this, so that I could fully enjoy the delightful reimagining of KJ Charles' 'queered classic' version, The Henchmen of Zenda. Watch this space...

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

2018/19: Tremontaine: The Complete Season 3 -- Ellen Kushner, Tessa Gratton, Karen Lord, Joel Derfner, Racheline Maltese, and Paul Witcover

Micah began to feel more and more uneasy. It was as if their words made one pattern while their bodies made completely different ones — discordant, inelegant, nothing like the perfect logic of geometry and equations. The game of Social Graces as Diane's guests played it was frustrating and jangling and somehow, she felt, dangerous. It was like looking at the stars' patterns and realizing that they weren't moving in a way that explained everything but just the opposite, an order of confusion. [loc. 4084]
After the events at the end of Season 2, I devoured Season 3 in search of resolutions -- some of which were granted -- and came away with further convolutions of plot. And Season 4 is mere rumour at present ...

Various characters bade permanent farewells to others at the end of Season 2: some of them are bearing their losses better than others. Kaab is steely, fearsome and haunted; Rafe is ill-advised and impetuous; and Micah, jarringly, is resident in Tremontaine House. More new characters are introduced, and characters who've been part of the cast since the beginning change and evolve, sometimes in unexpected directions. There are new romances, new ventures, and rising tension between the City and Riverside. And threats from outside the City, too: the arrival of an inspector from Kinwiinik, who has reason to hate Kaab; the continued presence of a military expert who has made an exhaustive study of the City's and the Land's defences; and the Land itself, which still has a taste for blood.

Delightfully complex, with a diverse cast (not just racially or culturally diverse, though they're that too) and a maze of motives, grudges, feuds and affairs: it can become overwhelming, but then we are not Diane, Duchess Tremontaine, whose hand is on all the threads, who plays games with everyone she knows. Only a few are clever and perceptive enough to provide much of a challenge. I'm looking forward to seeing their next moves.

Sunday, May 06, 2018

2018/18: Tremontaine: The Complete Season 2 -- Ellen Kushner, Tessa Gratton, Mary Anne Mohanraj, Joel Derfner, Racheline Maltese, and Paul Witcover

If hubris had effected the downfall of some of history's most famous charlatans, Diane comforted herself with the fact that history would never, of course, record the lies and outrageous dares of its more successful players. [loc. 2644]
The cast of Tremontaine reassembles, configurations and allegiances still shifting. In the City -- whether Hill, University or Riverside -- nothing is safe: nothing stays the same.

Rafe Fenton is desperate to find his lover William, who is imprisoned at Highcombe by his loving wife Diane. The family ledgers, which Rafe is examining in an excess of filial duty, are distractingly perplexing: the figures never seem to add up quite right. Perhaps he could engage Micah's help? But Micah (who is delightfully unaware that several of her closest acquaintances think she's a boy) has thrown herself with gusto into the life of a mathematics student.

Ixkaab, meanwhile, is still deeply in love with Tess (whose fair skin is likened by Kaab to ant eggs). But Tess is increasingly alienated by Kaab's devotion to her family, and Kaab's habit of secrecy -- also a family trait.

New characters are introduced, too: an exotic courtesan who is in no way demeaned by her liaisons; a charming ambassador who secretly mourns his lost lover; and the differently-charming Florian, whose lover Shade is very much present, homicidal and prone to theft, scheming and backstabbing.

And as ever at the heart of everything is Diane, who has ambitions to become Duchess Tremontaine in her own right rather than simply because her ailing husband is Duke. No woman has ever held such a high position. Place your bets.

There are a number of startling developments at the end of Season 2: luckily, I was able to embarque instantly upon Season 3 ...

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

2018/17: Time Was -- Ian McDonald

"That's them," Thorn said. "I'm sure of it. But ..."
I have never been able to resist the word "but." It's the ragged edge of the photograph, the texture of a provenance disturbing the flat perfection of a book. [loc. 275]
Book dealer Emmett Leigh, skimming stock at a closing-down Spitalfields bookshop, finds a slim volume of poetry entitled 'Time Was'. The author is anonymous, identified only by initials: more intriguingly, the book contains a letter from one soldier, Tom, to his lover Ben. Emmett (whose own romantic record is nothing to write home about) is fascinated by the letter and eager to find out more about Tom and Ben: his researches lead him to other copies of 'Time Was', and to photographs of the two men together. They always look more or less the same age, but the photos and letters date from different eras, different wars: Norfolk in 1915, Alexandria in 1942, the Crimea in 1856, Bosnia in 1993 ...

Ian McDonald's novella encompasses the Shingle Street mystery (rumours of a failed German invasion in 1940, and burned bodies washing up on the beach of this small Suffolk village) with the Rendlesham incident (UFO sightings in a Suffolk forest in the winter of 1980). It's a love story -- actually, it's two love stories, though Emmett's affair with the redoubtable Thorn is somewhat derailed by his growing obsession -- and a story about identity. (I did wonder why Emmett didn't make an obvious connection.)

Beautifully written with a cracking sense of place -- whether Shingle Street, Spitalfields or Rome -- and a real poignancy. This could have been fleshed out to novel-length (perhaps with more from Tom, and especially from Ben), but it says all that needs saying in novella form.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

2018/16: The Portable Veblen -- Elizabeth McKenzie

... the work of maintaining your life with your own skills was never counted in hours. The days were long and arduous, but there was no wishing them to go by. The very word "weekend" was a monstrous little propaganda of modernity. Of gladness that time had passed, your very life! [p. 190]
Veblen Amundsen-Hovda ('experienced cheerer-upper, and freelance self', or alternatively something of a slacker) falls in love with Paul, a research neurologist (inventor of the Pneumatic Turbo Skull Punch) who's grown up in a hippie, marijuana-scented family home, and wants a normal life. Spoiler: he is not going to get that with Veblen, who is delighted by the squirrel that clatters around in her loft, who hasn't got around to mentioning the antidepressants, whose general good cheer at once charms and vexes Paul.

And of course, having agreed to marry, they must meet one another's families.

Paul's parents are pretty much devoted to his disabled brother Justin (the nature of the disability is never discussed by Paul). Veblen's father is in a psychiatric hospital. Veblen's mother Melanie -- possibly the star of this novel: certainly the most vivid character -- is a narcissistic hypochondriac who seizes on Paul as a representative of the American medical profession, and proceeds to relate her impressive catalogue of symptoms. It is to Paul's credit that he does not immediately run screaming from the house.

Veblen's relationship with her mother rang nauseatingly, claustrophobically true. (Possibly the reason it's taken me so long to write this review: Melanie, though nothing like my mother in most respects, nevertheless felt very familiar.) It's the kind of relationship that flavours every aspect of life: no wonder Veblen thinks of Paul as 'a human safe house from her mother', though he turns out to be more of a bridge. Each helps the other grow up, in a sense; both Veblen and Paul have to let go of their families -- or at least learn how to become an adult, rather than a child, within those families -- before they can truly commit to one another.

I think this is the first novel I've ever read that features a love triangle where one of the three is a squirrel. (And there are tantalising hints that there is rather more to the squirrel than Paul, at least, would ever suspect.)

Often very funny; frequently philosophical; sometimes almost painfully raw. And there is plenty of plot to fit around the familial interactions -- a whole black comedy of the American pharmaceutical industry. An entertaining and unsettling read.

Monday, April 16, 2018

2018/15: The Mysteries -- Lisa Tuttle

Nobody wanted to be merely human these days. Kids imagined being Harry Potter or Buffy or Sabrina the teenage witch, with magical powers their birthright. But Etain wasn't a person at all, certainly not a role model. Unlike a modern girl, she was merely a possession. She could be bought or sold, won back or stolen. [p. 105]
Ian Kennedy is a private detective who specialises in finding missing people -- specifically, those who have vanished without trace. His profession is rooted in his past: his father disappeared when he was a child, and his girlfriend Jenny left him. Since then, he's tried to track down those who have vanished. He is engaged by Laura Lensky to find her missing daughter Peri, who seems to have vanished off the face of the earth. Laura's friend Polly -- why can't he place the name? -- recommended Ian, and Laura, along with Peri's boyfriend Hugh, is desperate to find a sensible and rational explanation for Peri's disappearance.

Ian's first-person narrative jumps from present to past (his investigation into the disappearance of Amy Schneider, which seems to have been the case that made his name) as well as from personal to historical: the chapters of his narrative are interspersed with accounts of historical disappearances, some of them well-documented (the Flannan Isles lighthousekeepers, the British Ambassador to the Austrian Empire) and some more like folklore.

And Ian, unlike Laura, is perfectly willing to consider the possibility of some supernatural agency. He's familiar with Celtic myths -- primarily the story of Midir and Etain -- and has, during the Amy case, met at least one young woman whose need to escape the mundane world seems to Ian a kind of suicidal impulse.

Hugh, Laura and Ian all have their own motivations for finding Peri -- and their own reasons for being reluctant to face the facts. Ian, for me, was not a likeable character: he's prone to sexist generalisations, he's arrogant, and by his own account of Jenny's disappearance he refused to accept that she wanted to leave. On the other hand, his memories and perceptions are not always reliable ...

This is a gradual novel: it starts slow, and picks up the pace -- and the strangeness -- to the denouement. Midir and Etain are't the only mythological resonances here: there are also echoes of Demeter and Persephone, and perhaps of Orpheus and Eurydice. I'm still not sure if Ian gets what he wants: I'm not sure if he knows what he wants. But he knows enough to realise that he's missing something, excluded from something, mysterious.