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The Wages of Sin by Kaite Welsh

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It is 1892, and the backstreets of Edinburgh are rife with disease. Sarah’s journey into medicine has been chequered: she’s left London and scandal behind her, and embarked on a career that neither her family, nor the male students she encounters in the bastions of Edinburgh’s university is happy about. But what Sarah hasn’t anticipated is the hostility of her fellow female doctors. No one is accepting of a fallen woman.

Then Sarah discovers the battered corpse of one of her own patients in the dissecting rooms, and she is drawn into a murky underworld of bribery, brothels and body snatchers – and a confrontation with her own past. Even in medicine, Sarah realises, success comes at a price.
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Medical crime mystery isn’t a new genre; Kathy Reichs’ Temperance Brennan series focus on a forensic scientist, and Patricia Cornwell has been writing about medical examiner Kay Scarpetta for over two decades now. Welsh’s innovation is to reset this same kind of story into a past when both medical and crime-solving knowledge were rather behind their present state…

Wages of Sin is centred on Sarah Gilchrist, who has been sent to Edinburgh to escape some disgrace in London whose nature is hinted at from the start of the novel but only revealed later on. Welsh writes her as something of a snob, and very driven; but she’s also an engaging character, with an absolute desire to be an independent woman engaging in the work of medicine. Those kinds of contradictions drive many of the other characters as well; Welsh shows women attacking other women not as a manifestation of misogyny, but as a self-defence mechanism. However, the male characters tend to be a bit flat, whether heroes or villains; they feel rather cardboard, as does everyone a little beside the fleshed out complexity of Sarah herself.

The plot of Wages of Sin is an interesting one, combining as it does a murder mystery with Sarah’s struggle to get through medical school. The medical side of things takes an increasing back seat as the novel progresses, which is rather frustrating, since it’s well researched and fascinating to see the obstacles Sarah faces as well as what she’s learning. The murder plot is where Welsh’s great strength lies; it takes us across the dark underbelly of Edinburgh as well as into some of its higher houses, and looks at conceptions of gender as an explicit element of the murders. The suspects change and shift, and so much of the chase is affected by Sarah’s preconceptions, which Welsh plays with very well. It’s unfortunate that Wages of Sin includes the developing romantic subplot that it does, given how poorly written that element is an how steeped it is in obvious cliche, and the way the novel ends is a little too convenient and trite, but overall the plot works and the clues are properly placed.

One thing that must be discussed is the way that Wages of Sin is an explicitly feminist novel. Welsh engages with the way women in the late 19th century were patronised and locked out of public life, by other women as well as by men; the way the legal system and social attitudes discriminated against them; and with homophobia. One of the things running through the whole novel is the attitude of 19th century Britain to rape, especially in the upper middle classes; Welsh deals with the topic sensitively, but doesn’t let the reader escape without realising how much some of those harmful attitudes persist.

The place where Welsh’s feminism falls down is in its engagement with sex work; Wages of Sin engages strongly in whorephobic language and models of sex work; this is partly due to its protagonist’s views, but the narrative never challenges those views, and indeed consistently upholds them as true. Given the engagement with sex work that is present in the novel, it would have been nice to have Welsh challenge the views of the society about which she is writing – which tend to be the views of our modern society, too.

In the end, Wages of Sin is a fun novel with a good crime caper at its heart, and a great medical student drama; the romance is overwritten and the ending is trite, but I look forward to seeing where Welsh goes next.

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Spectred Isle by K. J. Charles

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Archaeologist Saul Lazenby has been all but unemployable since his disgrace during the War. Now he scrapes a living working for a rich eccentric who believes in magic. Saul knows it’s a lot of nonsense…except that he begins to find himself in increasingly strange and frightening situations. And at every turn he runs into the sardonic, mysterious Randolph Glyde.

Randolph is the last of an ancient line of arcanists, commanding deep secrets and extraordinary powers as he struggles to fulfil his family duties in a war-torn world. He knows there’s something odd going on with the haunted-looking man who keeps turning up in all the wrong places. The only question for Randolph is whether Saul is victim or villain.

Saul hasn’t trusted anyone in a long time. But as the supernatural threat grows, along with the desire between them, he’ll need to believe in evasive, enraging, devastatingly attractive Randolph. Because he may be the only man who can save Saul’s life—or his soul.
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At Eastercon, Juliet Kemp recommended I read K. J. Charles’ historical romance novels; she extended the same recommendation at Nineworlds, where Charles happened to be appearing, selling copies of her latest novel, the first in a new stand-alone series. So I picked up Spectred Isle and read it on the flight from London to Helsinki…

Spectred Isle is set in the wake of the First World War, in 1920s Britain; a society divided by class but united by the terrible experience of the war and following pneumonia, which wiped out so much of the population. Into this society are dropped Saul Lazenby, disgraced discharged soldier now working for an eccentric lord, and Randolph Glyde, a member of Britain’s magical and temporal aristocracies. This is a romance, so the end result is inevitable; what we read Charles for is to see how she’ll get there, and what obstacles will appear in the characters’ ways.

The biggest obstacle is themselves. Spectred Isle does a great job at writing the two romantic partners as opposites who bounce off each other hard even as they find the other incredibly attractive; the dynamic of their developing relationship is written sympathetically and powerfully, although at times with a bit of a knowing wink to the reader at the inevitability of them getting together. Each carries their own, different wounds, as well as their different experiences of being gay in 1920s Britain; Charles draws them together in a tender and beautiful emotional net built out of their different characters.

Aside from that, there is also the external obstacle of the supernatural. Spectred Isle is a book as much about supernatural sleuthing as it is about burgeoning romance; something or someone is attacking Britain’s magical defences, weakened by the slaughter of the occult war that underlay the physical one, and Randolph has to stop it. Saul seems to keep blundering in his way, until eventually, he’s drawn into the strange web being woven around the occult sites of England; and transitions from a sceptic to a believer in magic himself. Charles builds this plot slowly and carefully, placing clues as to what’s going on the way a crime writer does; putting the pieces together gives rise to a bigger picture that will, the reader presumes, continue in the later installments in the series.

Spectred Isle is interesting in the way Charles uses her setting. In 1920s Britain, homosexual sex was a criminal act, but also one that was, in the upper classes at least, often tacitly accepted; Randolph and Saul thus have very different attitudes to their sexualities, although there are interesting commonalities. What Charles never does is let either become a tragic figure, or the only queers in the world; this is a setting which has background queers of all kinds, and while both have tragedy in their past, in neither case is it solely because of their homosexuality. It’s a hard balance to strike, but an important one.

Finally, but very worth note, this is a romance novel that goes straight into erotica. Charles is very willing to put sex on the page, and explicit, slightly kinky sex at that; Spectred Isle has a few sex scenes, and each is different, well-imagined, and hot. They are sex scenes which reveal a lot about the characters, and grow organically out of the interactions between their personality types; made all the more sexy by the way Charles doesn’t shy away from being explicit, or having her characters be so.

Spectred Isle was my first taste of Charles’ period gay romance, but it definitely won’t be my last; this is a hot and brilliant book and I look forward to the rest of the series.

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A Song for Quiet by Cassandra Khaw

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Deacon James is a rambling bluesman straight from Georgia, a black man with troubles that he can’t escape, and music that won’t let him go. On a train to Arkham, he meets trouble — visions of nightmares, gaping mouths and grasping tendrils, and a madman who calls himself John Persons. According to the stranger, Deacon is carrying a seed in his head, a thing that will destroy the world if he lets it hatch.

The mad ravings chase Deacon to his next gig. His saxophone doesn’t call up his audience from their seats, it calls up monstrosities from across dimensions. As Deacon flees, chased by horrors and cultists, he stumbles upon a runaway girl, who is trying to escape the destiny awaiting her. Like Deacon, she carries something deep inside her, something twisted and dangerous. Together, they seek to leave Arkham, only to find the Thousand Young lurking in the woods.

The song in Deacon’s head is growing stronger, and soon he won’t be able to ignore it any more.
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Khaw has written, over the last year or so, weird noir, in the first Persons Non Grata novella Hammers on Bone; culinary horror in the form of Rupert Wong, Cannibal Chef; and supernatural romance, in Bearly A Lady. So coming to the second Persons Non Grata novella, one might expect to get another slice of weird noir… one would have to think again, though.

Instead, A Song For Quiet is much closer in kind to Victor LaValle’s Hugo-nominated A Ballad For Black Tom; historically set, Khaw engages with the racial background against which much of the early weird fiction was written, and takes the side of the oppressed against the oppressor. Much of the narrative is driven by the way oppression and violence have manifested in the life of Deacon James, and Khaw doesn’t pull punches there. Not only is segregation in full effect in the South, subtler racisms in the North also affect Deacon, and the fear he had to live in in the South isn’t easy to escape.

Khaw uses that to drive the plot; like LaValle in A Ballad for Black Tom, she is concerned with why oppressed and marginalised people might be driven to think the destruction of the world might not be so bad. A Song For Quiet combines the alienness of a Lovecraft story with the everyday horror of man’s inhumanity to man to make the reader, as much as the characters, rethink what would otherwise seem obvious; saving the world is a less easy choice when that world is determined to break you and destroy you. Khaw balances different perspectives and attitudes on this brilliantly, and the final resolution of A Song For Quiet is brilliant, sad, and lyrical all at once.

This is a very intense and personal story, and as such, would not work without strong characters to really make the reader feel the complexity. A Song For Quiet once again demonstrates that Khaw’s greatest strength is very quickly creating a character, and then making them complex and whole; Deacon is brilliantly realised as a black man with the tragedy of grief in his immediate past and permanently confronted by racism, while Ana’s scarred past of abuse and horror at distinctly human hands shows us a different view of hell. The relationship between the two is brilliantly realised and burns slowly into a mutual respect and understanding that Khaw writes with an excellently delicate touch.

Finally, we need to talk about plot. Khaw’s weakness in the past has been carrying a single plot through a whole work of this length, rather than making it feel bitty. In the case of A Song For Quiet, much like Hammers on Bone, though, this weakness is something she has wholeheartedly overcome. Different elements of the plot at first can look a little disparate but she draws them together with an amazing confidence and skill, to come to a very sharp point at the conclusion of the story, one aimed right at the heart with perfect skill.

I hope we continue to see this level of plotting from Khaw moving forward, just as we continue to see excellent characterisation from her; A Song For Quiet is yet another level up from one of this generation’s great new writers.

Disclaimer: This review was based on an ARC provided by the publisher, Tor.com. Cassandra Khaw is a friend.

If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write by contributing to my Patreon.

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New Boy by Tracy Chevalier

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Arriving at his fourth school in six years, diplomat’s son Osei Kokote knows he needs an ally if he is to survive his first day – so he’s lucky to hit it off with Dee, the most popular girl in school. But one student can’t stand to witness this budding relationship: Ian decides to destroy the friendship between the black boy and the golden girl. By the end of the day, the school and its key players – teachers and pupils alike – will never be the same again.

The tragedy of Othello is transposed to a 1970s’ suburban Washington schoolyard, where kids fall in and out of love with each other before lunchtime, and practise a casual racism picked up from their parents and teachers. Watching over the shoulders of four 11-year-olds – Osei, Dee, Ian and his reluctant girlfriend Mimi – Tracy Chevalier’s powerful drama of friends torn apart by jealousy, bullying and betrayal will leave you reeling.
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Hogarth have been, since 2015, putting out retellings of some of Shakespeare’s plays by notable modern authors; they started with Jeanette Winterson’s Gap of Time, a retelling of The Winter’s Tale; and have also published the magnificent Hagseed by Margaret Atwood, a truly great Tempest reworking; Vinegar Girl, Ann Tyler’s terrible Taming of the Shrew that doubles down on the misogyny of the original; and Howard Jacobson’s Merchant of Venice retelling, Shylock Is My Name, which I’ve not read. Their latest is Tracy Chevalier’s reworking of Othello into a 1970s grade school…

Othello is a hard play to rework in a modern setting. It relies so much on what is not very obviously racist stereotyping, and also on racist attitudes towards its titular character; Chevalier, unlike Atwood, has therefore chosen a period setting, in this case 1970s affluent Washington, D.C., that makes the racism easy to portray – and a little more distant from the present. Osei is a new student in the school, son of a Ghanaian diplomat, and Chevalier uses the intensity of grade school – where relationships are made and broken in an hour, where feelings are raw and immature – to restage her Othello in the course of a single day.

There are drawbacks to this approach. Primarily, New Boy seems perpetually unsure how mature its sixth graders are; their claims to have had sex are obviously intended as overstatement, and yet the way Ian, in particular, is presented as sexually predatory, and the way the girls are presented as fully pubescent, seems to belong to somewhat older children. This tangles the plot, and drags the reader out repeatedly; setting the book with even slightly older children, by a few years, would have worked rather better. There is also an unexpected homophobic sideswipe; Chevalier isn’t wrong that these were the attitudes of the period but, since this is literally the only time queerness appears in New Boy, a half page of reported homophobia feels, to say the least, excessive.

The hardest part of New Boy to discuss is the plot. After all, it’s the plot of Othello. We know the plot; Chevalier didn’t invent the plot; she only translated it. So the question is, I suppose, is that translation good? And the answer is, it’s mixed. The sense of drama is incredibly strong, despite knowing how the story ends; the stakes feel high, even on a grade school playground, where duels to the death are reduced to fist fights. But incongruities – like Mimi’s silent compliance – feel more strained, and the credulity of Osei to Ian feels stranger and much less in character.

There’s also one significant flaw common to most approaches to Othello, and nothing to do with New Boy‘s setting: the characterisation of Ian, Chevalier’s Iago stand-in. Or, more accurately, the lack thereof. Ian is simply a bully; Chevalier doesn’t really go into it more than that, and even the sections from Ian’s perspective make one feel like he’s simply doing harm for the sake of doing harm, rather than for any more explicable or understandable reason, something that originates in the play but is painfully obvious when we get multiple pages of his point of view of events at a time here.

This is in marked contrast with Chevalier’s treatment with the rest of the cast of New Boy. Each of her other characters is treated sympathetically, from Osei and Dee, through Ian’s unwilling accomplice Mimi, to Casper, the golden boy who Ian uses to enact his plan to ruin Osei; they’re interesting, with compactly told but very full back stories and rich inner lives, that animate the story and plot such that we’re actually affected, anew, by a story we all know. Osei’s story is especially interesting, and serves as a hook for all sorts of other stories – his radical Black Panther-sympathising sister Sisi I would especially like to learn more about, but also what his father actually does as a diplomat moving around so much.

In the end, New Boy is a rather good retelling of Othello, suffering some of the flaws of the original and adding in more beside, while enhancing the characterisation of a number of backgrounded characters in Shakespeare’s work and with Chevalier much more sympathetic to the titular character. This isn’t at the Hagseed end of Hogarth’s set, but it’s much nearer it than the Vinegar Girl end.

Disclaimer: This review was based on an ARC received on request from the publisher, Hogarth, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write these reviews by contributing to my Patreon.

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Talus and the Frozen King by Graham Edwards

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Meet Talus – the world’s first detective.

A dead warrior king frozen in winter ice. Six grieving sons, each with his own reason to kill. Two weary travellers caught up in a web of suspicion and deceit.

In a time long before our own, wandering bard Talus and his companion Bran journey to the island realm of Creyak, where the king has been murdered.

From clues scattered among the island’s mysterious barrows and stone circles, they begin their search for his killer. Nobody is above suspicion, from the king’s heir to the tribal shaman, from the woman steeped in herb-lore to the visiting warlord. And when death strikes again, Talus and Bran realise nothing is what it seems.

Creyak is a place of secrets and spirits, mystery and myth. It will take a clever man indeed to unravel the truth. The kind of man this ancient world has not seen before.
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Talus is a novel with undeniable potential for excellence; prehistoric detective, ancient geopolitics, a chance to explore the social world of a purely oral culture. Unfortunately, it lets an awful lot of that potential slip through its fingers.

Talus is peopled by a central pairing we’ve seen before all too often; from the BBC’s Sherlock to CBS’s Elementary, these characters – the effective, human companion who keeps their overly-intellectual companion on the straight and narrow, reminding them of the importance of the human element in explaining crime, and the cut-off, driven, hypervigilant and extremely intelligent but very strange man they accompany. Talus, in Edwards’ novel, fulfills the role of Sherlock very precisely, needing Bran (his Watson) but unable to tell him so. The rest of the cast are equally uncompelling, with two exceptions; thankfully, these are the (two) female characters, who – with some frustrating exceptions – are painted not only well but sympathetically; unfortunately, we also run into occasional moments where these two are characterised based on their gender – not by the cast, but by the author. The characters are almost all simply one-dimensional, uncompelling motivations for plot advancement.

That plot itself is, essentially, an equally Doylian contrivance. Talus begins with the arrival of its main pair at Creyak as the king’s dead body is found; the whole plot of the novel is Edwards’ drawn out homage to unfolding multiple-murder drama. If you’ve seen shows like Criminal Minds, Midsomer Murders, and so on, you’ll know how this works; the detectives slowly close in as the bodycount rises, until the action-filled denoument, with the detective grandstanding and declaring the truth and how he (it’s almost always, as in Talus, a he) worked out the events. Transplanting this into the prehistoric era should make it more interesting, but that Edwards completely fails to actually change societal dynamics or intercharacter reactions from their modern equivalents takes away even that superficial interest; it’s almost as if a modern community, albeit one with a specific set of animistic/ancestor-spirit beliefs, has been dropped into the past. That avoidance of psychological understanding really lets down the novel, unfortunately.

It is characteristic, however, of the worldbuilding of Talus; superficially there’s some great work put in on the construction of the prehistoric world, but this isn’t carried through to any depth. Belief in the spirits is referenced frequently but, in reality, only seems to affect Bran’s actions; this goes for an awful lot of the novel, which doesn’t seem to look into the consequences of prehistoric societies on their members, including things like the prevalence of diseases, the lack of effective medicine and more; indeed, Talus is almost completely unaffected, in most ways, by the lack of 21st century technology. It’s a bizarre piece of writing that even manages to include a British traveller going to, and returning from, not only Egypt, but also MesoAmerica; all this in a society that has barely advanced beyond dugouts in its naval technology.

In the end, whilst Talus and the Frozen King had great potential to prove both interesting and incisive, Edwards failed on both counts. A real shame.

DoI: This review was written based on a free review copy offered actively by Solaris, the publisher.