alternate history

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 10.15.2012
Book from: Borrowed from cousin

or, The Purloined Coronation Regalia: being a revelation of matters of High Confidentiality and Greatest Importance, including extracts from the intimate diary of a Noblewoman and the sworn testimony of a Lady of Quality

Dear Reader,
We are having the most wonderful time on our tour of Europe with our new husbands, Thomas and James. We’ve been shopping in Paris, sightseeing in the Alps, and riding gondolas in Venice – there’s nothing like exploring the Continent!

However, there have been some troublesome moments. There was the midnight intruder who left behind a fashionable Turkish slipper. We also always seem to be running into the same peculiar people on our visits to ancient sites. And, oh yes, there was our discovery of the mysterious parcel that hints at a murderously magical plot of international importance!

Clearly, this isn’t quite the calm and relaxing journey we were expecting. But this Grand Tour is turning out to be the best adventure of our lives!

Love,
Cecy and Kate

The Grand Tour is an equally witty and fun sequel to the classic Regency fantasy Sorcery and Cecelia (my review). Plotwise, it’s over-reliant on convenient coincidences to move things along – the first half of the book verges on tiresome in this respect, as the girls and their husbands meander from attraction to attraction and just keep on bumping into those “peculiar people.” Eventually, though, the protagonists do go on the offensive and start trying to think one step ahead of the evil conspirators, as the extent of their plot becomes increasingly clear. But even before then, the affectionately combative dialogue, occasional brushes with danger (thieves! highwaymen! societal embarrassment!), and opportunities for secondhand touristry (there’s plenty of amusing and curious detail on 19th-century European travel, with the bonus of magical conveniences like anti-flea charms) kept me trundling on through the pages.

One of my only disappointments with Sorcery and Cecelia was the authors’ exceedingly light touch when it comes to fantastical worldbuilding, so I was gratified that The Grand Tour, with its international stakes and post-Napoleonic anxieties about war and rulership, goes a bit further in weaving magic into the world’s political and historical fabric. Its climax, especially, hints intriguingly at the depth of ancient magical practice.

Mostly, though, The Grand Tour is happy to remain a character-driven romp. The epistolary form rarely generates any real plot tension, since dramatic events are necessarily recounted after the fact, so I found that more tension arises from any distress the characters might be feeling during the events, than from the events themselves. This is especially so since the universe is a quite moral one, and threats to life and limb of the main characters are rarely serious and never permanent. Very comforting.

I did previously also complain about it being difficult to distinguish the personalities of the main characters; it turns out the nearly 500 pages’ worth of sequel is an effective cure for that, especially when one of the major subplots is Kate’s continued efforts to overcome her nervousness at all social obligations. This is resolved in a heavy-handed but still charming way.

The last page of the book suggests, of course, the possibility of another sequel, which I’ve only just realized was released in 2006: The Mislaid Magician, or, Ten Years After, which I’ll have to keep in mind for the next time I’m looking for the bookish equivalent of a frothy cup of hot chocolate. All three books have recently been released as ebooks with beautifully designed covers (link includes an interview with Stevermer on the trilogy).

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Patricia C. Wrede: bio and works reviewed
Caroline Stevermer: bio and works reviewed
Sorcery and Cecelia, by Patricia C. Wrede & Caroline Stevermer (1988): review by Emera

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 7.22.2012
Book from: Personal collection

I know the universe loves me because there’s a new comic called The New Deadwardians, and it’s about vampires, zombies, and class conflicts in alternate Edwardian England. I saw the first issue (from March of this year; there are to be 8 issues total) still hanging around in a comic store, picked it up, read it as soon as I got home, and wished I had bought the rest.

The cover art gives away the punchline, though the first issue never says it outright: the English aristocracy have embraced vampirism – “the cure” – in order to escape the zombified lower classes. (It’s not clear yet what’s happened to the rest of the world.) As Twilight literalized class (and race) conflict via Bella’s choice between sleek, chilly, uber-white vampires vs. rough-n-tumble, blue-collar, Native American werewolves, so Deadwardians does with poker-faced pish-posh vampires vs. sloppy Cockney zombies. Caught in between are living servants, police officers, and other members of the working class, who also appear distantly as angry unionists demonstrating against the military zoning of London. The undead – and presumably some living survivors – have been pushed back beyond “Zone B,” and hence are referred to as Zone-B’s. Har de har. I also winced at the use of “Deadwardian” in the comic itself – it’s too cutesy to be believable in-universe. Luckily, it’s the only false note struck in this issue.

The protagonist is George Suttle, a vampirized detective afflicted with some degree of existential angst, and a pruny mum who should appeal to fans of Maggie Smith as the dowager duchess in Downton Abbey. The end of the issue sees Suttle confronted with a puzzling mystery: the murder of an already undead man.

Most of the issue is devoted to building up atmosphere and setting. Artist I. N. J. Culbard and colorist Patricia Mulvihill work gorgeously together in the ligne clair/clear-line style, with smooth inking and planes of muted color that emphasize the setting’s eerie placidity and the script’s deliberate, brooding pace. A scene of Suttle walking into his almost entirely deserted office building, its many untenanted desks draped over with white sheets, and numerous shots of meticulously rendered architecture looming over sparse inhabitants, recall the trademark scenes of deserted London streets that opened 28 Days Later – this is just a century earlier.

Gloomy atmosphere, sociopolitical satire, a burgeoning mystery, immersive art: I’m hooked. I can’t wait to see what Abnett and Culbard do with the rest of the series; I’m particularly excited to see how hard they’ll play the alternate history angle. The Edwardian era was characterized by both great economic disparity, and increasing social mobility and political activism – I can’t imagine the latter two will do very well against an immortal and literally parasitic upper class…

You can see a free 6-page preview of The New Deadwardians and a brief interview with Culbard here (source: L. A. Times – did you know they covered comics? I didn’t).

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Dan Abnett: bio and works reviewed

 

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Date read: 8.1.11
Book from: Personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

This is one of my most treasured finds from Readercon, picked up from the fantastic Somewhere in Time Books: Tanith Lee‘s 1988 limited-edition novella, with illustrations by Tom Canty. From the title and pastel cover I expected a tale of genteel swashbuckling, possibly YA; should have remembered that Lee never goes in for gentility. Elegance, yes – Lee is manically elegant – but never gentility.

Madame Two Swords starts in a familiar place for Lee: a sensitive, fearful, recently orphaned young woman in an early 20th-century alternate France is treated cruelly by both circumstances and humanity; her only spiritual sustainment comes from a book of poetry discovered in a secondhand shop:

“The blue cloth binding was quite pristine under its dust. It was a slender book, without lettering. I opened it out of curiosity.”

“The book was my talisman. Other girls wore crosses or medallions.”

The narrator is unemployed and evicted, and finds herself in dire straits, chased from one end of the socioeconomic spectrum to the other: too middle-class for hard labor, too unskilled to be a seamstress, too unwilling to accede to customers’ advances to be a waitress in the seedier cafés. At the extremity of her despair – enter Madame Two Swords, a black-eyed old woman of terrifying intensity, in whose museum-like house the narrator comes to some strange realizations.

In this France, the Revolution was sparked by the poet-demagogue Lucien de Ceppays in the city of Troies. This Revolution culminated in the execution of the original revolutionaries, including de Ceppays, by the fickle mob, and the occupation of France by a fearful British monarchy. Inhabitants now speak “Frenish” as often as French, and labor in a depressed economy overseen by a puppet government. The narrator’s talisman-book is, of course, a volume of de Ceppays’ work, and contains besides a haunting watercolor portrait of him. The story quickly sees her devotion to his image and memory moving beyond girlish fantasy.

The final supernatural twist, when it comes, is powerful in effect, in large part because of the supreme delicacy with which Lee constructs the fleeting image central to the revelation. There’s an also-delicate but definite touch of gender-bending, which I wish I could discuss in more detail without being spoilery, but suffice it to say that I liked how Lee addressed its implications, a lot. This is a story that makes use of deeply Gothic-Romantic tropes (duh, Tanith Lee) yet resists being just romantic; it’s fierce and intelligent and ultimately insists on the dignity of all of its characters.

And so my love affair with Tanith Lee continues! If you like Revolutionary France and cross-lingual puns and intelligent Gothic fantasy, if you love Tanith Lee and beautiful books, you might consider treating yourself to a copy of Madame Two Swords.

Two more photos (can’t help showing it off!) under the cut:
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Date read: 7.26.10
Book from: Borrowed from a cousin
Reviewer: Emera

Incomplete read – one of those books that you start to get a bad feeling about as soon as you notice the back-cover blurbs are all by third-rate authors and obscure newspapers. The Arcanum is a supernatural thriller that attempts to gather together Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Harry Houdini, renowned voodoo practitioner Marie Laveau (who died 38 years before the book is set, but oh well), and H. P. Lovecraft on the trail of some mystery involving the Cthulhu mythos. Blah blah blah, all been done before.

I skimmed about three chapters, and it reads like mediocre fanfiction or The Da Vinci Code, full of dun dun DUN chapter breaks and phrases like “carnal treasures” and “In a swirl of a black topcoat he was gone.” It does make a lot of sense if you consider that Wheeler is primarily a screenwriter, not a novelist.

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Thomas Wheeler

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Date read: 8?.09
Read from: Clarkesworld #20
Reviewer: Emera

I had previously mentioned “A Buyer’s Guide to Maps of Antarctica” as being one of my favorite short stories read in 2009, yet had never gotten around to posting a review.

I don’t want to spoil a single bit of it, so I’ll just say that it’s like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell except with Antarctican cartography (yes, duh – seriously, I refuse to reveal any of it, please just go read it if you’ve got the chance), and that it’s funny, delightfully imagined, and ravishingly beautiful. I rather wish it had won the 2009 World Fantasy Award that it was nominated for, but clearly that’s not up to me. So instead I’ll just flail about it here.

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Catherynne M. Valente
“Urchins, While Swimming,” by Catherynne M. Valente (2006) [E]

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Date read: 10.04.09
Read from: Infinity Plus
Reviewer: Emera

Will I ever tire of vampires? It seems unlikely, at this rate. Kim Newman‘s novella “Coppola’s Dracula” was my first foray into his post-vampire-epidemic alternate history. Here he reenvisions Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Dracula-style.

Protagonist Kate Reed is an Irish vampire – a contemporary of Bram Stoker, in fact – who’s been brought on the set of Coppola’s bloated, luckless production as a consultant, and bears witness to disaster after near-disaster as filming staggers onward. Interspersed with her coolly amused observations are excerpts of key scenes from the script, all paralleling Apocalypse Now (and Dracula, of course) and sharply rendered in Newman’s clipped, punchy, darkly humorous style.

I would probably have appreciated the central conceit more had I been more of a film buff, but I still found the parallels clever and entertaining, and Newman is deeply meticulous in imagining his alternate universe. However, the novella left me rather cold beyond that – though Kate is well-developed as a character, she’s so dispassionate that the story lacks emotional effect, other than conveying a lingeringly tragic kind of Cold-War disaffection. Well, that’s probably deliberate, so count that as another stylistic success for the story.

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Kim Newman

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Date read: 12.30.07
Read from: Personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

In The Historian, the titular scholar reminisces about the quest that she, her father, and her father’s mentor pursued several decades ago. All three became determined to discover the origins, deeds, and whereabouts of the true Dracula, the now-immortal Romanian warlord Vlad Tepes.

It should probably be evident to anyone following this blog for a certain length of time that I have a huge vampire problem, which very often leads me to read things that, well, aren’t really worth the time. This includes The Historian. I discovered only after the fact of attempting to read it that it has been sarcastically and very appropriately dubbed “The Dracula Code.” (Although to Kostova’s credit [?], she began writing it 10 years before Dan Brown began work on his ticket to fame.) The formula is indeed the same: flimsy historical detective work pursued among various scenic European locations, wedded to page after page of cheap cliffhangers achieved by conveniently dicing the narrative into chunks digestible enough for the attention-span-impaired.

Likewise, the “startling” or “creative” revelations she makes about the Dracula myth are only startling or creative if you don’t know all of them already, which I inevitably did. However, I do have to assume that people who pursue more useful hobbies than endlessly reading vampire mythology might still find the book an amusingly presented tour through various bits of folklore and theory. Overall, though, Kostova’s writing is pretty limp and insubstantial, if not quite on the level of a Dan Brown novel. I ended up ploughing through a total of 70ish pages out of a sense of obligation (having unfortunately purchased the novel), glanced at the ~600 left, and said “screw it.” Add Kostova to the list of presumably smart people (she’s a Yale graduate) who can’t actually write novels.

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Elizabeth Kostova

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