Sunday 14 February 2016

'A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent' by Marie Brennan

A Natural History of Dragons is a novel set in a fantasy world that's broadly similar to late Regency / early Victorian era Europe, except all the place names are different. In this world, Lady Trent grows up in Scirland (England), developing an unseemly fascination with nature and critters and especially dragons from a young age. As the only daughter in a house full of boys, is it any wonder she's a tomboy at heart, much to her mother's despair?

This, then, is a memoir covering the tomboy years and early adulthood of a young woman in Regency(ish) times. We know from the outset that she will survive (after all, she is writing these memoirs in her old age), and that she will become a famous naturalist and unconventional, even infamous woman. This might impede the novel's ability to create tension, but curiously, it doesn't prevent it from being engrossing. It achieves a slightly mellow, but joyful reading experience.

In line with the memoir style, there are no villains for much of the tale. The story is driven by a curiosity about its world rather than traditional quests and adventures. The most adversarial element is society, and the expectations of men's and women's roles, during this time. Lady Trent is incredibly fortunate, because even though society would not normally let her flourish, she is very much beloved of those around her, and especially those with some degree of power over her. She is thoroughly unsentimental herself and does not seem to notice just how much certain people love her. Their love gives her freedoms she could never have expected to obtain in any other situation.

The writing voice is pleasant, the novel engrossing despite its mellow pace, the story fairly joyful. I think some of that joy comes from the fact that, as a reader, I may have fallen ever so slightly in love with Lady Trent. An unconventional young woman, a bit of a tomboy, a lover of books and knowledge and exploration? How could I resist the temptations of such a character?


Rating: 4.5/5

Knight's Shadow by Sebastien de Castell

Knight's Shadow is the second book in the Greatcoats series. I read the first, Traitor's Blade, quite a while ago, enjoying it at the time, despite noticing a few flaws / rookie mistakes.

Enough time has passed that I didn't recall details of Traitor's Blade's plot when I picked up Knight's Shadow. I did remember the setting, but little else.

The Greatcoats live in a fantasy world where justice was once dispensed by travelling judges, who were also master combatants. These judges, the Greatcoats, had been put in place by a king who, in turn, had taken the idea from history, reinstating an order of servants to the crown that had been dissolved centuries ago. Wandering from town to town, adjudicating conflicts, investigating crimes, duelling with local champions (if their verdicts were challenged to a trial by sword), carrying out sentences and setting them to tunes and singing their verdicts - these judges are not like any other I have encountered in fantasy literature. Imagine a sort of minstrel order of Judge Dredds, only with an irreverent sense of humour, tongue in cheek, and a lots of swashbuckling gusto.

In the aftermath of the king's deposition and murder, the Greatcoats have been dispersed, each with a final command of the king in his or her ear, to carry on his legacy despite persecution and hostile nobility and knighthoods. Across most of the country, they are deemed traitors for their support of the king's rule.

All of this is the backdrop to book one. Book two picks up where the first left off - but even having forgotten much of the plot, I was able to enjoy it. Falcio, our hero, has discovered an heir to the throne, a young girl named Aline, in the first book, and saved her life. Now, with the aid of the mysterious 'Tailor' - mother of the king and general of an army of sorts - he wants to continue protecting her and work towards putting her on the throne. Their enemies, however, are numerous, with a young witch duchess the most sadistic and ruthless of the lot.

Some things stand out about the Greatcoats books. Our heroes, Falcio, Kest, Brasti, and whoever joins their jolly gang, are quite fun to be around. Irreverent dialogue, banter, built on deep friendship: they're an ensemble that could have been written by Joss Whedon or William Goldman (of The Princess Bride fame). They might live in a world that's partially inspired by the machinations of George R R Martin-esque nobles, but they give the novels much needed levity and a big heart.

Even so, they do live in a twisted world, where those with power are mostly psychopaths or sadists or both. As such, their adventures do take grim turns from time to time. Violence gets gory, gruesome tortures abound.

I did enjoy the Knight's Shadow a lot. There were still a few rookie mistakes: two massive plotholes, in particular. However, it's a confident and fun novel, with plenty of momentum to keep you reading. I get the impression this series might be close to reaching parity with Scott Lynch's Gentlemen Bastards books, in terms of fun and addictiveness.

Rating: 4/5

The Plotholes:
SPOILER ALERT, obviously.
At one point, Falcio and the Greatcoats are in the palace of Luth, where it turns out the Duke has been murdered and the Duchess is dying. They are surrounded by Knights and taken to the Duchess (at her command). She tells them some plot. And then, in the next scene, they are rushing through the country to catch baddies and prevent atrocities. Except, how the heck did they get out of Luth alive? The Duchess was dying and the Knights had promised them death. It's not as if the Duchess would have ordered her Knights to let them go...
And the second spoiler concerns the Dashini assassin who leads them to the monastery. Only successful assassins are allowed an honorable outcome there. The Duke was supposedly his first victim (who hired the assassin, considering this would have had to happen before Falcio killed the two Dashini in book one?), and he had failed to kill the Duke, so, technically, shouldn't he be counted among the Unblooded? His leading Falcio to the monastery would therefore be against their rules...

Tuesday 2 February 2016

Ace, King, Knave by Maria McCann

Ace, King, Knave is a historical novel set in 1760s London. The main protagonists are two women: Betsy-Ann and Sophie. The third viewpoint character is a fifteen year old black slave boy, called Titus / Fortunate.

At the start of the novel, Betsy-Ann is a street peddler, selling second hand goods, fencing the odd stolen knick-knack, while squirrelling away her most valuable and treasured possessions in hidden hidey-holes in the flat she shares with Sam Shiner. Sam is not legally her husband, although she has gotten used to using his surname instead of hers. When Sam tells her that he is getting into business with her brother, she is mortified: her brother is a rough, violent sort, and his business is graverobbing. The work leaves its mark on Sam - he starts to rely heavily on alcohol, and the smell of the dead follows him home. As Betsy-Ann's domestic life becomes more troubled, she recalls the road that led her to that little flat in London.

Sophie, meanwhile, is a young woman of nobility and upper class. Her story starts with romance and courtship and the road to marriage. Sophie initially finds it all so very blissful, but marriage soon starts to be oddly isolating. Her husband, Ned Zedlander, is busy all day (how strange for a nobleman to have so much to do!), and keeps her away from society, peers and family, much to her growing frustration.

Historical novels tends to have a more stately pace than the speculative fiction ones I usually read. Ace, King, Knave is no exception. A lot of energy is invested in worldbuilding and using authentic phrases in dialogue. The characters all seem perfectly convincing. As a piece of writing, Ace, King Knave shows great craftsmanship and attention to detail. It is a very accomplished work.

However, for all its impressive qualities, the story is quite bleak. Not, perhaps, quite as grim as Maria McCann's debut masterpiece As Meat Loves Salt, but neither is it the playful romp that the description and cover of the book led me to expect. Gamblers and graverobbers, women protagonists searching for the truth: I expected something with a bit more of a spring in its step when I bought the book. I also hoped for the plot to be rather more empowering of its women & slave protagonists than it was. I guess I'm too used to fantasy novels imagining better versions of the past, whereas this historical novel takes historical authenticity very, very seriously.

In the end, Ace, King, Knave is an excellent work of literary, historically accurate fiction, but less satisfying as a piece of entertainment. It was never a chore to read, but it left me feeling empty and hollow inside, which wasn't what I had expected.

Rating: 3.5/5