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

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

#47: My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time -- Liz Jensen

A time-travel romance as sugar-dusted as the heroine's favourite Danish confections, with a caper stolen straight from generic Scooby Doo and a stock cast -- the tart with a heart, the adorable orphan, the mad professor, the dashing archaeologist -- this is fun and frivolous and a headlong read.

I'm not sure it works as science fiction; the science is just a little too flaky and improbable. But it's an effective fantasy, and maybe (as one Proper Printed Review suggests) it does border on magic realism.

Charlotte is a good-natured prostitute in Copenhagen in the last years of the nineteenth century. Beset by an elderly dependent, Fru Schleswig (whom Charlotte is at pains to stress is not her mother, she finds honest employment at the house of Fru Krak, who's due to be married to a Pastor and who wants the house cleaned top to bottom.

Charlotte discovers from her friends Else (now a florist) and Gudrun (a laundress, dreadfully scarred by something that befell her in the basement of Fru Krak's Gothic mansion) that all is not as it seems. Fru Krak's husband, the Professor, went missing -- as did many others, never to be seen again -- and the secret to his disappearance lies in the cellar.

Accidentally propelled through space and time to Greenwich, just after the millennium (the green laser-beam is still operational, which it wasn't last time I was there), Charlotte -- pausing only to discover Google and the joys of online shopping -- finds herself the Forlorn Hope of a group of Danish refugees. And finds herself falling head over heels in love ...

It's first-person all the way through, in the gossipy and affectionate voice of Charlotte, whose journal is one long letter to her beloved reader (though I'm not sure that reader's ever identified). One nice stylistic touch was the use of '&', rather than 'and'. And of course all the stylistic eccentricities, the constant changes of tense, can be put down to Charlotte's ebullience and her excellent but hard-won grasp of the English language. Though for a woman who staves off boredom by reading dictionaries, I expected better than this:
I am saved by a single word, which you can look up in the dictionary, as I have done, under the letter I. You will find it somewhere between 'importune' and 'imposter' ... IMPOTENCE!

Not in my dictionary, love.

Given the title one might've expected more smut (though, in fact, the title is perfectly accurate): there's just enough to make this a saucy spicy naughty-but-nice novel, and Charlotte knows (who better?) that sex is nothing if not amusing. Great fun, and I shall look out for more by Jensen.

#46: Evil for Evil -- K J Parker

A beautiful design like yours encourages luck to happen: you attract it, like decoying geese.

In the second volume of the Engineer trilogy, the plot becomes more tortuous. Ziani Vaatzes' plan, his Machine that may or may not mean the end of the world, moves into another phase, with the help of his new recruit Daurenja -- a monster of a man to look at, with an impressive CV that enables him to solve engineering problems that baffle Vaatzes.

Meanwhile the Eremian nation is on the run, though there's a creditable resistance (organised by Miel Ducas, who's still driven by duty even while acknowledging it as a form of that monstrous thing called Love) and the Mezentine army is finding occupation a little more troublesome than anticipated.

And Veatriz, plus ineffectual husband Orsea, find themselves thrown on the mercy of Duke Valens (who is sulking about not being able to write long rambling letters to Veatriz now that she's part of his court).

The glory's in the detail, though: the neat understated revelation about the instigator of Vaatzes's original deviation from Specification; the gradual sense that, for all Vaatzes' doomy scheming, there might be a greater plot in motion that he's merely another component of; the exploration of the many and varied ways in which men and women may be made into weapons; and the realisation that, without Duty and all that chivalrous nobility, Miel Ducas (still the most likeable character, for my money) is the very worst sort of weapon, a loose cannon.

Still: Valens gets married (for political reasons) and ends up betrayed by a man whose very name should've indicated he was up to no good (I missed mention of him in the first novel). Vaatzes' wife Ariessa turns out to have some secrets of her own (and I can't help wondering if one of those secrets is a change of name). Horrible things happen to Miel Ducas, not least (possibly, and at the most inappropriate moment possible) Love. Orsea's tale continues just as it ought. A quantity of sulphur is delivered, and the fine art of pottery-glazing revealed in more depth than anyone might expect from an alleged fantasy novel. . And meanwhile in the labyrinthine offices of Mezentine bureaucracy, Psellus is ending up with rather more work than he expected.

... Oh, it's all so bleak. And yet funny, and fascinating, and tragic and epic and convoluted.

(I could nitpick about Parker's overuse of pronouns -- it can be tricky to disentangle a passage such as "there were times she wished she hadn't had to marry him. It had made sense at the time, of course, when he'd [a different 'he'] explained it to her". I could remark upon the occasionally clumsy proofreading -- nobody's eyebrows narrow when they're thinking -- or the hammering-home of one point or another by frequent epigrammatic utterances on same. But through the rose-tinted spectacles of appreciation, admiration and enjoyment, I find these traits appealing.)

I am desperate to read the final volume of the trilogy, even though I suspect it will not end well for any of the characters I like.

Friday, August 24, 2007

#45: Leporello -- William Palmer

What, Leporello, does a man do when he has died and been dragged down to Hell? And then is resurrected again? It's a problem that did not trouble my ancestor in all those wretched plays. He sinned; paid, and satisfied consciences all round.

One of those books that I felt I should have enjoyed more than I actually did. This is the narrative of the infamous Don Giovanni's valet, as told by the aged Leporello himself to an unseen listener, who clearly keeps interrupting with references to the opera. Leporello dismisses these interjections testily: irrelevant, and who cares about some stupid opera? Instead, he tells us what really happened, from his early days as a peasant in an Italian village (suitably bawdy and picaresque) to his first encounter with the Don and his role in the events that spawned the opera. Here are Donna Anna, Don Ottavio, Donna Elvira in their 'true' names and guises: Anna, for instance, is Eleanora, a spoilt rich girl who tricks Leporello into eloping with her, only to reveal that she's in search of a mysterious lover who promised to be with her always ... yes, the Don.

Leporello also tells the story of the moralistic masque which, in the opera, becomes a literal descent to Hell. And he tells what happens, happened, after the opera ends: the prime and decline of Don Giovanni di Tenario, a gradual descent from tragedy to darkest farce that makes us glad that Mozart and Da Ponte stopped where they did.

Leporello is not merely a retelling of the opera: it becomes plain, as the tale progresses, that Leporello and his master are of different worlds. They're divided not just by social class but by a battery of metaphysics: the Don as Enlightenment gentleman, fascinated by microscopes and natural philosophy, and Leporello stubbornly insistent on God's will and workings. There's the underlying issue, too, of whether Leporello is friend or servant; and there's the issue of whether the Don (like the Earl of Rochester as portrayed in The Libertine, of which this strongly reminded me in places) is simply an overgrown adolescent, fighting and whoring and intriguing to stave off the mortal enemy of Boredom.

The setting is magnificent and the detail credible: Leporello comes across as rather less cowardly and more sensible than Mozart's version, but perhaps at the expense of his master, who's not actually a very likeable person.

#44: Devices and Desires -- K J Parker

At the beginning of this ~700-page novel, peace breaks out between the Eremians and the Vadani. Valens, very soon to be Duke of the Vadani, is not best pleased, as he has fallen irrevocably in love with Veatriz, a nobly-born Eremian hostage, who ends up married (for political reasons) to the Eremian Duke, Orsea.

However, this is a K J Parker novel, so there is plenty of time for bloodshed, battle, feuding and treachery.

Off to the east lies the Mezentine Empire, vast and technologically superior. The engineer Ziani Vaatzes is sentenced to death for innovation, for straying from the strict Specifications that govern all Mezentine technology. In an uncharacteristically dashing escape, he evades his sentence and his captors and ends up working for the Eremians, who have just been comprehensively thrashed by the Mezentine army.

Vaatzes is a clever man, and he has a Plan. ("I use the materials available to me," he says to one of his weapons, later. "If I can't use steel, I have to use flesh instead. Not what I'd have chosen, but you do your best with what you've got.") This plan -- not wholly divulged by the end of Devices and Desires, part one of a trilogy -- is designed to return Vaatzes to his home and reunite him with the wife he loves. And the plan, the machine, is ruthless: the inevitable result of engaging the machine would be the end of the world.

Which would all be so much epic-fantasy-by-the-inch if Parker's characters weren't so richly drawn. Valens is a romantic who nevertheless manages to be a resourceful, hardheaded statesman, a skilled huntsman and an astonishingly mundane correspondent. Orsea, thrust into a position of power which he never expected, has a headful of grandiose ideas but lacks the ability to bring them to fruition. Veatriz is half of a marriage that can't provide the intellectual stimulation she requires. Vaatzes is a sympathetic character, as long as you set aside that stuff about the end of the world (and the appalling bodycounts in the battles he instigates): there's more to him, and his crime, than Parker explains in this first volume. Psellus, a Mezentine civil servant seconded to Necessary Evil (the Department of War) is a bumbling fool who'd like a quiet life, but there's a quality to him that indicates he won't get one any time soon. And Miel Ducas, Orsea's chief advisor and best friend (not to mention childhood sweetheart of Veatriz, and former heir apparent to the title of Duke) is an extraordinarily likeable character, a nobleman comfortably aware of his flaws, a good man through and through -- and an unwitting part of Vaatzes' terrible machine. Does it sound odd to say that I was angry on his behalf for what befell him?

The Engineer trilogy looks set to accomplish something rare in epic fantasy: there is, as far as I can tell, no magic. There are no gods (though characters do say 'for God's sake', &co; I take this as an aspect of Parker's way with dialogue). Early on, there's a vague mention of the Ducas family, as old nobility, being prone to prophetic dreams: but none occur. And there are a couple of dreams that might have supernatural provenance, but probably don't.

Another thing I like about K J Parker's writing: the colloquial dialogue, the tone (not exactly light-hearted but certainly not all doom and gloom), the black humour and the wry observations. Parker can make me laugh out loud at a scene where Miel is explaining to Orsea that he'd probably recognise an executed spy, what with his memory for faces, except that unfortunately they've already sent the head off to the spymasters. The humour isn't as thickly applied as in a Pratchett novel, but it's often as funny.

This novel -- purchased because of my great respect for Parker's previous 'Fencer' and 'Scavenger' trilogies -- has been sitting on the shelf since Easter, or possibly before; as soon as I'd finished it (which was in a hotel room in Lille) I ordered the next one, Evil for Evil, from Amazon (isn't web'n'walk wonderful?) because I was desperate to find out what happened to everybody.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

#43: The Secret River -- Kate Grenville

This was a prison whose bars were ten thousand miles of water.

William Thornhill, a waterman on the Thames, is sentenced to death for stealing timber. Through the favour of a patron, his sentence is commuted to transportation, and his wife, Sal, and their young son accompany him to New South Wales. Sal, as a free woman, has the rights of a settler: Thornhill is assigned to labour for his own wife, which gives them something to laugh about after the nine-month voyage.

Thornhill's well-behaved, and lucky besides: within a year he has his 'ticket of leave', making him a free man -- with the single proviso that he can't leave the colony. Sal is determined to get home to England, and she knows that a man who works hard and keeps his nose clean can eventually apply for a pardon, and be free to go. She's been running a grog shop, the Sign of the Pickled Herring (the sign being a slab of London roof-tile that she picked up at Pickled Herring Wharf on her last morning in England) and saving up the profits for the long passage home.

Thornhill, though, has fallen in love. Reluctantly, slowly, without realising it: he's in love with a patch of land, a remote peninsula in the empty land miles up the Hawkesbury River, a week's round trip from Sydney and a million miles from Pickled Herring Wharf. Sal makes a deal: five years and then we'll go home. Thornhill agrees, but his heart's not in it. The freedom of the valley, the equality of the settlers, the virgin earth feel more like home to him. There and only there, a man did not have to drag his stinking past around with him like a dead dog.

But the land only seems empty.

Reports of 'outrages and depradations' are a staple of the local press: the Aborigines trying to stake a recognisable claim what they've held so lightly for so long. Thornhill does his best: he begins to recognise that there are other ways of farming, other methods of husbandry. Instead of hunting kangaroos, the Aborigines burn the scrub and wait til their prey comes to feast on new growth. But it's a precarious equilibrium and matters come to a head when the Aborigines begin to gather ...

And then comes the saddest time of all, the rest of their lives: when Thornhill sits in his mansion at Thornhill Point, his telescope trained on the hills, trying to make figures from tree-branches and shadows. Looking for something that's no longer there. And for the first time in his life, there is something that he cannot speak to Sal about: their lives had slowly grown around it, the way the roots of a river-fig grew around a rock.

The tragedy is slow and almost gentle, the story of a man trying to live a good life and failing not through malevolence or error but through sheer incomprehension. The story of the crime that has to be committed in order for them to stay.

Grenville writes Thornhill as a simple man -- a deep thinker, and not a fool, but a man who tries to create home and family as best he can in a place where there are no rules and no guidance.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

#42: Day by Night -- Tanith Lee

A fairly early Lee novel, SF rather than fantasy, populated with gorgeous characters (many of whom, I have to say, are exceedingly shallow and manipulative).

The novel opens with Vel Thaidis, waiting beneath a burning sun for her brother Velday and his scheming friend Ceedres Yune Thar -- with whom Vel Thaidis is secretly and humiliatingly in love. Ceedres learns her secret, and constructs a humiliating scheme to exile her to the slums and take the family fortune for himself --

-- Cut to the second strand of the story, in which Vitra Klovez, purveyor of entertainments to the huddled masses of the planet's dark side, attempts to weave her cunning plot around her family and friends: in particular, her brother Vyen and his philanthropic friend Casrus.

And so the two strands intertwine: Vitra brought low by her own creation, Vel Thaidis noble in adversity, Velday engagingly feckless, and Casrus profoundly uncertain of the fictionality of the sunlit world that empty-headed, dishonest Vitra claims to have created.

There's enough glaze and glitter over the formal structure, the echoes and mirrorings and harmonies, to make this an engaging read, though I found the twisty ending oddly reminiscent of mid-period Andre Norton.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

#41: Brasyl -- Ian McDonald

The young woman on his sofa is a refugee from another part of the polyverse. Swallow that intellectual wad and everything else follows. Of course they are caught between the ritual assassins of a transdimensional conspiracy, and mysterious saviours. Of course refuge must be offered, though it marks him irrevocably as a player.

Brasyl hits the ground running, peppered with idiomatic street slang and casual references to an unfamiliar world. It's Rio de Janiero, present day, and television producer Marcellina Hoffman is after a tasty new reality show. All does not, however, go according to plan.

Then it's 2032, Sao Paolo, and Edson Jesus Oliviera de Freitas is trying to broker a deal, playing on the typically Brazilian themes of futebol and sex. This time, though, he falls in with the wrong crowd.

And it's 1732, and Father Luis Quinn, S.J., arrives in a Brazil that's ever so slightly skewed from our own. His mission: to track down and Admonish Father Gonçalves, who is suspected of unorthodox methods. Father Quinn does not find anything that he could have expected.

Switching between the very different chase/quest plots of those three timelines -- Marcellina discovers that she has a double who's trying to destroy her life; Edson falls in love with a quantumeira; Luis Quinn becomes oracle to a hostile tribe -- the threads pull slowly together, to reveal the interconnections between the stories. The pace is seldom less than hectic, whether it's that of a canoe expedition up the Amazon, the race to discover an ageing footballer -- the Cursed Barbosa -- before the tabloids do, or the theft of four quantum computers.

And McDonald is not a lazy writer. Some of the themes may have been covered before but his angle, his eye for detail, his knack for the details that reveal a personality and for phrases that hang in the mind (swashing down into sleep like a coin through water) is as overwhelmingly engaging as in River of Gods.

As each thread spins to its climax, the novel begins to resolve, and at points I found myself exhilirated by the ride but wondering what I'd missed: who's on which side? Can any of the timelines affect one another?
there's no heart reality from which everything else diverges. Every part of the multiverse exists, has existed, will exist independently of every other.
Yet echoes of Father Quinn's actions pepper Marcellina's adventures, and time and again some familiar-seeming figure pops up out of context ...

I'm not wholly keen on the ending (though that may be because I was caught up in the rush of the stories, and failed to note key divergences) but I'm utterly beguiled by the whole. A special part of my regard applies to the 1732 timeline, with the French natural philosopher Robert Falcon duelling and plotting and strategising, and resigning himself to 'a world without vistas', with no hope of a return to Paris. If I've a quarrel with any of that part of the story, it's that the author didn't include in his 'Playlist for Brasyl' any of the gorgeously strange Latin American Baroque music that I know he's been listening to ...

Friday, August 03, 2007

#40: Middlesex -- Jeffrey Eugenides

A book I wish I'd written, though I don't think I would have been able to write it. The intimate knowledge of the Greek-American community, the harsh facts of biology ... the voice.

Middlesex is the story of Cal (née Calliope) Stephanides:
Like Tiresias, I was first one thing and then the other. I've been ridiculed by classmates, guinea-pigged by doctors, palpated by specialists, and researched by the March of Dimes. A redheaded girl from Grosse Pointe fell in love with me, not knowing what I was. (Her brother liked me too.) An army tank led me into urban battle once; a swimming pool turned me into myth; I've left my body in order to occupy others -- and all this happened before I turned sixteen.

On one level it's the epic story of three generations of a Greek-American family, from the burning of Smyrna through the Depression and World War II to the mid-seventies (with 'present-day' interludes in which Cal, older and wiser, looks back on the whole story from the vantage point of a diplomatic posting in Berlin).

On another it's a Greek tragedy, full of secrets, consciously and unconsciously dramatic gestures, psychology and mythology: in the late summer of 1923, minotaurs haunted my family. There are Greek plays touched by modern tragedy; nymphs and naiads; monsters found, not in the woods or the psyche, but in Webster's American Dictionary.

On yet another it's a novel about biology and destiny, and whether one is the other. Biology gives you a brain: life turns it into a mind.

And on another it's a (not necessary The) Great American Novel, about the immigrant experience, about coming to America and creating a hybrid life of both Greek and American elements. Cal's father buys a new Cadillac every year, and so we learn about the history of the Cadillac; Cal's uncle is an Orthodox Priest, and so we hear the Mass. The words meant nothing, almost nothing, to me, [but] I felt their weight, the deep groove they made in the air of time. The family settle in Detroit, so there's Prohibition (rum-running across the frozen lake), race riots, industrial decline. Cal's older brother, shaken to his core by the lottery of the Draft, drops out and starts taking acid. Cal's grandmother takes to her bed after her husband's death and stays there for decades. And back in the old country there's the invasion of Cyprus (which divides the family, until tragedy brings them together once more).

Cal is well aware of the shifting balance between Greek and American: at one point near the end of the novel, A real Greek might end on this tragic note. But an American is inclined to stay upbeat.

There's a sense of timelessness to the narrative: secrets that are revealed by their keepers at the end of the book are recounted in their historical place, at the beginning; Chapter Eleven, Cal's brother, sports this nickname throughout though he only earns it after the meat of the story is over.

I love the sensory detail, the precision -- the smell of geraniums that's "somewhere between licorice and aluminium" -- and the richness of the prose; I love Cal's wry humour and the occasional flashes of self-awareness in the narrative: a moment of cheap symbolism, and then I have to bow to the strict rules of realism. But this is magical realism, a realism that allows Cal to inhabit a dying man's last dream -- [He] no longer had any brainwaves, so it was understandable why, hovering in the Cadillac, he might have forgotten that the Zebra Room had burned down long ago -- and to witness the conception of a parent, the seduction of another.

Do you have any idea how difficult it is to write a review without using a personal pronoun to refer to the protagonist?

Because Cal, née Calliope, has more than a little in common with Tiresias, as is clear from the very first sentence:
I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974. Specialised readers may have come across me in Dr. Peter Luce's study, "Gender Identity in 5-Alpha-Reductase Pseudohermaphrodites" ...

Cal's story is of someone becoming themself -- not only discovering themself as all children do, but defining herself, himself, as an individual. It's not a story that starts with Cal's second birth, or even her first (which, as a matter of fact, occurs nearly two-thirds of the way through the book), but in a small Turkish village in 1922. Or possibly long before, with the Minotaur myth. Or possibly, yes, in Petoskey, when Cal (then Calliope, Callie for short: a tall, skinny girl with hair she can hide behind) falls in love with a redheaded girl who's a kind of mother to that second birth.

Not an introspective narrative, either, but one packed with adventure and events: escape from burning Smyrna, from cold New York, to -- and from -- a kind of circus, to a kind of closure in which Cal, male at last, finds himself fitting neatly into the rituals of the old country: guarding the door of a dead man's home during his funeral, so that the spirit might not creep within. It was always a man who did this, and now I qualified.

It's still too fresh in my mind for me to be objective about possible flaws. Are all of the conflicts and dramatic sequences necessary? Does the novel end in the right place? I'd have liked more, but that would be a different story -- not about becoming, but about being.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

#39: The Observations -- Jane Harris

Shortlisted for the Orange Prize, but that doesn't guarantee anything: I found it rather disappointing, a cross between the creative language (well, idiom and dialect) of True History of the Kelly Gang and the tortuous moral windings of The Crimson Petal and the White.

Bessy, the narrator, finds herself employed as a maid at Castle Haivers -- disappointingly, not a castle at all but a mansion house -- on the strength of her literacy: she read the sign and asked where the castle might be. The master of the house is currently absent, and the household is run by Mrs Arabella Reid, who has some strange ideas about maidservants and their place in life. Bessy is asked to keep a journal; to sit and stand, sit and stand, over and over; and, most perplexingly, 'What are you thinking of?' "What a thing to say," says Bessy. "In my entire life, no-body had ever asked me such a question."

Perhaps it's that lack of interest from the outside world that keeps Bessy close-mouthed even in her thoughts. Only gradually -- and via her discovery of Mrs Reid's Observations on the Habits and Nature of the Domestic Class in My Time, a series of psycho-social profiles of the maids who've worked for the Reids before -- does Bessy's past come to light. 'A Low Prostitute', as Mrs Reid has it and as we maybe should have guessed from the yellow silk dress she was wearing on the road, that attracted such attention from the vexingly-dialogued Hector. ("I fwhill be coming with you, hand you can be making me dinner. Hand hafterwards fwhee can be making a baby.")

Anyway, Bessy's not used to the role of maidservant, and when she finds that Mrs Reid's discovered her past, and that she's being unfavourably compared to Nora, a previous maid who died under mysterious circumstances ... well, any girl of spirit would want her revenge. SO Bessy sets out to construct a Victorian ghost story ...

Bessy's past, though she's tried to leave it behind her, creeps insidiously into her present. There are hints of inappropriate attraction, relapses ... and the reappearance of her mother, drawn by a ballad that Bessy composed and which has been published by a local gentleman under his own name. And there's Nora's ghost, not the glove-moving and message-leaving presence that Bessy engineers, but the shadow of a sweet and gentle girl who met an undeserved fate.

All comes out neatly in the end, with reversed roles, innocent crimes, unwed mothers, guilty consciences, disbelieved truths and lies with far-reaching effects. And the prose is very readable: Bessy has a colourful turn of phrase and a distinctive voice. It's hard to say why I didn't enjoy this book as much as I'd expected. Perhaps it's simply that I didn't like any of the characters. Perhaps that neat ending rings a little false, with some loose ends -- mostly the men, who Bessy has little time for and one can see her point -- left to fray.

#38: Paladin of Souls -- Lois McMaster Bujold

This is Mad Ista's story, the story of what happened to a relatively minor character in The Curse of Chalion after the curse was broken. Cazaril (who I liked very much) is off-stage, present only in letters, which at first was a disappointment. I quickly grew to like Ista as a character and as a narrative focus, though. She's prickly and doom-ridden and at odds with the gods, but she's very human and much easier for me to relate to than the empty-headed beauties who people many fantasy epics. Ista is quite unromantically real: on encountering and being saved by a fey swordsman (not bad-looking, either) her first priority -- having been riding, hands bound, all night -- is to request some privacy to relieve herself.

Ista embarks on a pilgrimage, which did set me vaguely in mind of the pilgrimage-anthology (a distinctly Chaucerian echo) that Cazaril was reading in the first book. However, the best-laid plans gang oft awry, and soon Ista is the unwilling heroine of an entirely different story. That story's a direct consequence of the wrongness-thinning-resolution in The Curse of Chalion: it couldn't happen without the previous book, and provides a great deal more context on the workings of the curse and the machinations of the gods. There's a truly epic tale in here, and Ista deals with it pragmatically and effectively.

I was a little disappointed with the ending, I confess: Bujold is a romantic at heart and, major plot threads neatly tied, indulges that aspect of the tale. Reviewing the whole book with rose-tinted spectacles, all the ingredients for a classic romance are there (inexplicable attraction, rivalry, the Other Woman) but I do wonder whether a reader less accustomed to the tropes of the romantic novel would have found the conclusion satisfactory or found it an awkward change of pace and focus.

Lovely clear quiet prose, full of heraldic colours (though there are enough duns and greys and mud-colours to set them off). A couple of clumsy tags -- one character is frequently referred to as 'the riding girl', though she does in fact have a name, a 'nationality' and some other features. On the whole, though, a thoroughly pleasant read.

I was surprised to note that this was a Hugo-winner. I don't know what it was up against, but I suspect it may have won simply by being more likeable than the competition.