Alan Melville: Weekend at Thrackley

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Jim Henderson is one of six guests summoned by the mysterious Edwin Carson, a collector of precious stones, to a weekend party at his country house, Thrackley. The house is gloomy and forbidding but the party is warm and hospitable – except for the presence of Jacobson, the sinister butler. The other guests are wealthy people draped in jewels; Jim cannot imagine why he belongs in such company.

After a weekend of adventure – with attempted robbery and a vanishing guest – secrets come to light and Jim unravels a mystery from his past.

Rating: D

“If it weren’t for the fact that we were just starting lunch, I should kill you quite cheerfully, Brampton.”
“Well, we are just starting lunch, so that’s quite out of the question,” said Lady Stone.

Weekend at Thrackley isn’t a whodunit; that is clear from very early on. And not just because the person in question gets described as sinister-looking and ugly as soon as he appears. We also know that he is the bad guy because there are chapters from his POV.

In the first of those he is standing in his evil lair.
That is filled with the jewels he has stolen.
And that has an elaborate hiding/locking mechanism that means only he himself or people he wants to enter can get in.
And from which he can listen to everything that is going on every room in the house because he had microphones installed there.

Dear Reader, this is a very silly book. But not in the charming over-the-top way Edgar Wallace movies are. Or Farjeon’s Seven Dead. Apart from a handful of genuinly witty pieces of dialogue it’s quite stupid and dull. The plot relies mostly on coincidences: the hero just happens to be at the right place at the right time to overhear the right thing/stumble over the right thing/find the hidden microphone in his room.

Meanwhile, the villain just happens to overhear the right things and the right time as well. Mind you his elaborate surveillance machinery doesn’t include recording devices so he just jumps from one room to the next, listening in and hears just the thing that stops the book from being over after 100 pages.

It’s just too much. The coincidences don’t just make things harder or easier for the characters. All major developments in the story just happen because of ridiculous coincidences.

Part of that can certainly be blamed on the fact that the story is meant to be somewhat humorous/a parody. There is the already mentioned witty banter and there are funny scenes: before the hero leaves, his landlady tells him to be careful because weekends in the countryside frequently end in murder. And I could deal with a mostly coincidence-driven plot in a full-blown parody but for that the rest isn’t funny enough. There is one character who is an over-the-top caricature but all others – including the hero – are just bland and forgettable. So it’s too dull for a parody and to ridiculous for a good mystery.

David Stuart Davies: Sherlock Holmes and the Hentzau Affair

David Stuart Davies: Sherlock Holmes and the Hentzau Affair

Author: David Stuart Davies
Title: Sherlock Holmes and the Hentzau Affair

Colonel Sapt of the Ruritanian Court journeys to England on a secret mission to save his country from anarchy. He is to engage the services of Rudolf Rassendyll once more to impersonate the King while the monarch recovers from a serious illness. But Rassendyll had mysteriously disappeared. In desperation, Sapt consults Sherlock Holmes who with Watson travels to the Kingdom of Ruritania in an effort to thwart the plans of the scheming Rupert of Hentzau in his bid for the throne.

Rating: D-

It was one of Holmes’s most annoying treats that he would keep vital information to himself until it suited him to reveal it, usually at a moment when he could create the most dramatic effect.

Davies does a good job imitating Doyle’s writing style. Die-hard Holmesians might be able to tell the difference but casuals enthusiast will have a hard time telling if a paragraph has been written by Doyle or Davies. Holmes’ manners and his relationship with Watson is also well described (especially the latter is something pastiche authors often fail to do).

However, this isn’t everything because the story as a whole feels everything but Holmesian. It’s more like a Victorian James Bond with a hero who rushes from one dangerous situation into the next and then has to shoot/punch his way out of it. And Davies’ Holmes has no qualms about this. I genuinely don’t know how many people get killed in this 120-page story but I think it’s somewhere around 10. And only one of those gets murdered by the bad guys, the rest are killed in fights with Holmes and his associates. But don’t worry. They are all –gasp– traitors and anarchists.

I don’t object to a bit more action in Holmes-stories. And after all The Prisoner of Zenda is quite a swashbuckling novel full of fights (and also with quite a high body count which only bothers the heroes tangentially) so you can’t fault the book for taking some inspiration from there. But the reason Holmes (and Watson) get in half of these fights is their incredible stupidity:

Just imagine: You are on a very dangerous case. You know your opponents don’t shy away from anything and have already tried to kill you twice. Now you meet someone new. You feel there is something fishy about him but you can’t quite put your finger on it, yet. He offers you a drink. Do you

a) Drink it
b) Wait a moment and try to figure out why you have such a bad feeling

If you answered b) congratulations! You are cleverer than Holmes is in this book!

Gif: Russian Watson is judging you

Then there’s the fact that this is also a sequel to The Prisoner of Zenda and…it’s not a good one. In the original Rupert Hentzau works for the Black Michael, the main villain but while they get Michael, Rupert gets away at the end. As a reader, you can’t help but feel happy about it because Rupert is such a fun villain. He’s definitely bad: he has no issues with killing unarmed men if they stand in his way, and he has no sad backstory as a reason for it (not that sad backstories excuse murder…but there are people who think that) and his ulterior motive is power and money. But he has glorious one-liners, is charming and dashing (even the narrator says so) and gets played by Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in the movie.

I mean:

Once again he turned to wave his hand, and then the gloom of thickets swallowed him and he was lost from our sight. Thus he vanished–reckless and wary, graceful and graceless, handsome, debonair, vile, and unconquered.

Is an actual quote from the actual Prisoner of Zenda. Even Rudolf loves him. Sort of.

In other words: Rupert is a bit of a magnificent bastard.

In The Hentzau Affair, he’s a mustache-twirling villain who abducts children to blackmail their relatives into helping him and has the rhetoric talent of a playground bully.

And then there is the end. The Prisoner of Zenda does not have a very happy ending and it seems the author wants to ‘fix’ this with his book. Now that in itself isn’t wrong but in doing that he ignores all the reasons why there wasn’t a happy end in the original. He seems to think there was only one obstacle and by getting rid of that everything will be fine but there were more reasons.

What now follows are ramblings that spoil this book, The Prisoner of Zenda and its actual sequel Rupert of Hentzau so proceed at your own risk.

Continue reading “David Stuart Davies: Sherlock Holmes and the Hentzau Affair”

The Rivals: Tales of Sherlock Holmes’ Rival Detectives

The Rivals: Tales of Sherlock Holmes' Rival Detectives

Title: The Rivals: Tales of Sherlock Holmes’ Rival Detectives

Lucy Coleman is a journalist who is supposed to write an article about the great Sherlock Holmes. Hoping that somebody who worked together with him several times can share some insight she seeks out Inspector Lestrade. But Inspector Lestrade is sick of Sherlock Holmes (and not only because he is described as rat-faced in these stories). Why is everybody talking about him when there were so many other detectives who solved cases that were just as impressive or even more so than those of Holmes? It doesn’t take Lucy long to persuade Lestrade to tell her about these Rivals.

Rating: D+

The framing of these stories is a bit odd: Lestrade doesn’t only tell the stories, he was involved in some of them. Sometimes only as a bystander who happens to be near the plot and sometimes replacing the character who was the assistant in the original stories. The actual work is still done by Dupin, van Dusen & Co.

The Murders on the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allan Poe

A brutal double-murder in a locked room. How could it have happened? And who would have the motive to murder an unassuming mother and her daughter? Not that detective Dupin is looking for a motive…he has a very unique idea about who the killer might be…(oh come on. Is there anybody left who doesn’t know what’s going on?)

I am not 100% sure if I’ve read that story before. I think I did but my dislike for Poe might also stem from any of his other works I had to read at some point. I did know the twist but that might as well be because so many mysteries make references to it. In any case, listening to the story did not change my opinion on it. It’s stupid. I’ll take any of the weaker Holmes stories over The Murders on the Rue Morgue any day.

The Problem of Cell 13 by Jacques Futrelle

S. F. X. van Dusen makes a bet: in just one week he will escape from a prison cell that is considered inescapable. The director of the prison is, of course, convinced that this is impossible.

But surprisingly it is not! All van Dusen needs is a friend who is in on his plan and willing to help. Well, and he has to hope that the wardens agree to fulfill his strange requests. But then it’s easy…well as long as the cell has the right architectural features. Which honestly makes it a lot less impressive. It’s also all very theoretical: there is no actual crime, nothing is really at stake, it’s just a story to show off how clever van Dusen is.

Murder By Proxy by Matthias McDonnell Bodkin

Jonathan’s uncle Tilley is hell-bent on stopping him from marrying Julia, the woman he loves. He can’t take away Jonathan’s inheritance since it’s entailed but he can refuse to support Jonathan as long as he lives.
When Tilley is murdered and Jonathan is the only one with an opportunity, h
is desperate brother calls on Paul Beck to save Jonathan from the gallows.

Unlike the previous stories, this is very much a classic mystery: an evil uncle, an upright young man who gets caught up in a horrible crime…and it needs a genius detective to discover the ingenious method the true killer used. It’s nothing new but Paul Beck (with his love for gardening) is a nice character. Though I might be slightly biased because in the audio play he is voiced by Anton Lesser, whom I love since Endeavour. A great show by the way and you should all watch it. There was a tiger, once.

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Mystery of Redstone Manor by Catherine Louisa Pirkis

Loveday Brooke only wanted to visit St. Paul’s cathedral before she returns home to America but when she finds a dying man there she is drawn into a web of secrets and spies. Fortunately, Loveday is no damsel in distress and knows exactly what to do (even if she has to make it up as she goes along).

On the one hand, it’s very cool to have a female main character who really does things instead of fainting at the first vague sign of danger. But on the other, she has more in common with someone like Richard Hannay than with Sherlock Holmes and I’m just not that much into spy-stories. So my only basis for comparison is the movie The 39 Steps and unlike that Mystery of Redstone Manor does not make me wonder if the writer has ever met a woman so that’s definitely a plus.

The Problem of the Superfluous Finger by Jacques Futrelle

A woman storms into a physician’s practice and demands he should amputate part of her perfectly healthy finger. When he refuses she takes drastic measures. Only a genius like van Dusen can discover the reasoning behind her actions.

Because everyone else is an idiot. Including the bad guys who could have easily gotten away with it if they had had more than one brain cell between them. But as it is van Dusen only appears clever because everyone else is an idiot.

The Clue of the Silver Spoons by Robert Barr

Sophia Gibb asks Eugène Valmont for help. She has hosted a number of dinner parties, always with the same guests. Every time an item from one of the guests was stolen: a watch, some letters or money. The thief could only have been one of the guests but she trusts all of them. So who committed these thefts? And why?

The mystery is nice and has everything I want from that kind of story but Valmont got on my nerves approximately two seconds after he appeared for the first time. I have occasionally complained that many of Holmes’ rivals are just devices who move the plot forward at the right time but have no characteristics of any kind.
Valmont has characteristics: he likes food. Like really. Not any food, good food. He will literally not shut up about food. We first meet him in a restaurant where he eats and talks about eating. When Sophia Gibb asks for his help he immediately mentions the cook she employs who is apparently pretty famous…that’s not really a good characterisation.

The Intangible Clue by Anna Katherine Green

Lady Violet investigates the brutal murder of an old woman. The woman lived alone, the houses beside her own are empty so no neighbor could have seen or heard anything. The murder left nothing behind. So how should she solve this case?

This is the first story where the whole set-up of the framing-device goes badly wrong. Because at the beginning of The Intangible Clue, Lestrade announces that Holmes could solve a case where the only clue where five orange pips but that he never solved a case where there were no clues at all.
The no clues Lady Violet has are: footprints in the dust, a teakettle and an eyewitness who conveniently turns up. The way she reads these clues is still clever and impressive but not cleverer than anything Holmes does.

Apart from that (spoiler. Highlight to show) there is a strange scene at the end where they imply that Violet murdered her own husband. I don’t think that it is part of the original stories (but I only glanced over them) and I don’t see the point of it.

The Game Played in the Dark by Ernest Bramah

Max Carrados works on a case involving missing compromising letters which could derail an upcoming royal wedding. But in the middle of that investigation, he is asked to investigate the theft of valuable coins, and events take a surprising turn.

Max Carrados is a blind detective. And having a disabled main character in a story from that era does make for interesting reading. But it feels like Carrados has to ‘make up’ for his blindness by being even more of a genius than all the other genius Victorian detectives. Not only can he distinguish smells and sounds in an instant, he also makes his deductions in record-speed, and never worries about anything.
Many of Holmes’s contemporaries are dull because they have no character. Carrados is boring because he’s an absolute superhuman.

The Knight’s Cross Signal Problem by Ernest Bramah

A train-crash leaves more than 30 people dead. The cause seems to be a human error: the train-driver swears the signal light was green, the signalman swears it was red. While trying to figure out who is lying Carrados soon discovers that much more sinister forces are at play.

In my review for Foreign Bodies I mentioned that I know I have to expect problematic content in old stories but that I also wonder why modern editors can’t take some care when selecting stories for new anthologies. And this is again the case here. The bad guy in this story objects to the actions of the British Empire in India…but since we can’t have a criminal with actually reasonable motives he’s actually just in it for the money because really all these Indians shouldn’t complain…or something.

And because that isn’t enough the audio play adds some Fenians that weren’t even part of the original story. The only reason for this is too add some more problematic elements to the story…tumblr_nb05e9Wl3H1tiqwkoo1_500

A Snapshot by Matthias McDonnell Bodkin

When old Carmondy is murdered the culprit seems to be clear. After all, he has done everything to stop his niece Margaret from marrying Gore even though he and Margaret love each other. Carmondy even threatens to expose a dark secret from Gore’s past. But as it turns out he wasn’t the only one with a motive.

Once again, I want to question the choices of the person who put together this anthology. Though this time it’s not because of any offensive contents but rather because the basic premise ‘evil uncle keeping young lovers apart and then gets murdered’ is exactly the same as the other Bodkin-story. (Or was he simply not a very original writer?)
Beck remains a character who walks the line between ‘dull plot-device’ and ‘quirky for the sake of quirkiness’ and behind the somewhat unoriginal plot, the story gets much darker than one would expect. There’s an allusion to sexual abuse (which might not have been in the original) and a proper look at the darker parts of the British Empire (looking at the author, this could well have been in the original but since the Beck stories aren’t available online I can’t confirm that). Overall, I enjoyed this one as well, even though this time Beck wasn’t played by Anton Lesser.

Seven-Seven-Seven City by Julius Chambers

Thanks to faulty telephone-wiring Edith overhears a couple planning to murder the woman’s husband. She has to stop them. But how, when she doesn’t know their names or where and when they are planning to strike?

Well, as it turns out there are convenient trains and church bells in the background that help Edith with locating the place the call came from (she won’t be the last detective that is helped by such coincidences but – considering the story was originally published in 1903 – she might well have been the first). Apart from the novelty of a phone-based mystery the story also offers also a surprising twist and a nice Miss Marple-like sleuth. Nothing outstanding but interesting.

The Moabite Cypher by R Austen Freeman

Lestrade is supposed to protect Pastor Wayne Kaplan, an American preacher who claims to have healing powers and who has received death-threats. Things take a surprising turn when he runs into Dr. Thorndyke – and then both of them into a dying thief who has a mysterious letter in his possession.

Well…despite the addition of the pastor this is still the same story about which I already talked and about which my thoughts haven’t changed.

 

In the end, I wasn’t too fond of this collection. For once because of the choice of stories: it turns out I’m not overwhelmed by either van Dusen or Max Carrados and they featured in two stories each. But I also think ‘bitter Lestrade screaming about detectives that were so much better than Holmes’ doesn’t work too well. It starts out OK, with him only pointing out that others also did great work but that everybody only talks about Holmes. But with time it turns into ‘actually Holmes sucked, he is only famous because of Watson, all other detectives were better and also Holmes and Watson were always mean to me’.

I don’t think that’s a particularly clever marketing strategy for a collection that has Sherlock Holmes in quite huge letters on the cover and which is probably aimed at people like me – people who like Holmes but are also curious about the other detectives of that time.

John Bude: The Lake District Murder

30082530Title: The Lake District Murder
Author: John Bude
Series: Inspector Meredith #1

When a body is found in an isolated garage, Inspector Meredith is drawn into a complex investigation where every clue leads to another puzzle: was this a suicide, or something more sinister? Why was the dead man planning to flee the country? And how is this connected to the shady business dealings of the garage?

RatingD

This book comes with a new introduction that proudly proclaims “This book may be a product of the Golden Age of detective fiction, but it is a world away from the unreality of bodies in the library and cunningly contrived killings in trans-continental trains.” And it’s true. Meredith is no Poirot who invites all the suspects in one room at the end and lays open the sins of every single one before explaining who really committed the murder. Neither is he a detective in the vein of the pre-golden age geniuses,  who takes one look at the body and exclaims that this can’t have been a suicide because of the way the victim’s fingernails look. The case itself has also no big stakes. No innocent person will hang if the real killer isn’t caught. The fate of the world (or worse: the British Empire) isn’t in danger, either.

In fact, the whole case isn’t what you would expect from a typical Golden Age mystery. There’s no group of suspects and an inspector who has to figure out motive and opportunity. Quite early on Meredith discovers that the victim had more money than he could have made by legal means and he suspects that this lead to his death. So the whole investigation focusses on figuring out in what exactly he was involved. This involves coordinating which sergeant observes which location, in-depth discussion of various theories as to what illegal activities it could have been and a fair number of other things that are, quite frankly, boring. (One chapter is called The Inspector of Weights and Measures. Seriously).

Now, not every crime-novel needs a plot like Murder on the Orient-Express, a sleuth with Poirot’s flair for the dramatic, or Lord Peter Wimsey frantically investigating to save his brother from the gallows. In fact, I have read many mysteries that featured perfectly ordinary characters in perfectly ordinary plots. But The Lake District Murder isn’t just ordinary; it’s bland.

Meredith is an inspector. He’s married and his wife isn’t happy about her husband working for the police and really doesn’t want their teenage-son to also end up as a cop. That doesn’t stop Meredith from sending said son on errands connected to his investigation. That’s as far as his characterisation goes. There’s also a superintendent that gets involved in the case and a sergeant that Meredith usually works with. I couldn’t tell you anything about either of them.
The victim’s fiancee genuinely grieves about him but since she is only around for a few pages I couldn’t feel for her or the murder-victim. And while I do appreciate that the bad guys weren’t cartoonishly evil (as sometimes happens in mysteries), it also meant that I didn’t have that feeling of Finally they get what they deserve once they were caught.

Another thing the writer of the introduction tells us is that the title isn’t just a cheap advertising-ploy. This book is really set in the Lake District. Only it didn’t feel like that to me. Apart from a few mentions of ‘Coastal Towns’  it could as well be set in Midsomer County. No comparison to Inspector Morse’s Oxford that’s always so present it’s almost its own character and that made me want to go to see it for myself. If I ever visit the Lake District it will be because of the charming descriptions of it in one of my mysteries with a body in the library and a detective that invites all the suspects in the salon in the last chapter, not because of Inspector Meredith.

Rose Lerner: In for a Penny

In for a Penny - Cover

Title: In for a Penny
Author: Rose Lerner

Young Lord Nevinstoke enjoys every moment of his deep-gaming, hard-drinking, womanizing life. Then his father is killed in a drunken duel, and Nev inherits a mountain of debts and responsibilities. He vows to leave his wild friends and his mistress behind, start acting respectable—and marry a rich girl.

Penelope Brown, a manufacturing heiress, seems the perfect choice. She’s pretty, ladylike, good at accounting, and looking for a marriage based on companionship and mutual esteem, not love. In fact, the only rash thing she’s ever done in her life is accept Nev’s proposal.

When the newlyweds arrive at Nev’s family estate, they discover that all the respectability and reason in the world won’t be enough to handle a hostile next-door neighbor, mutinous tenants, and Nev’s family’s propensity for scandal. In way over their heads, Nev and Penelope have no one to turn to but each other—but to their surprise, that just might be enough.

RatingD-

She ached in places it wasn’t ladylike to think about.

I was so on board with this story at first. Nev enjoys drinking and gambling with his friends more than anything that looks like genuine work. When his father dies suddenly and Nev discovers the mountain of debt he inherited it shocks Nev into sobriety. He swears off drinking, gambling, and his friends, offers for the rich heiress and promises her not love but to be a good friend and companion. Penny agrees but there’s trouble on the horizon. Nev is leaving behind a mistress, he genuinely cared about. Penny has an almost-fiancee who takes the jilting not well. Nev’s mother and sister are convinced he heroically sacrificed himself and agreed to marry a horrible woman just to save the family and they have no intention of welcoming her with open arms. Once they are at the family estate Nev and Penny discover that it’s in a worse state than they feared and both begin to worry that the other might regret the marriage.

And that right there is already enough for one book but the problems don’t stop there. The neighbor and the parish priest both miss only a black cat they can stroke to be proper cliche villain-evil.

Cardinal Richelieu stroking his black cat

The estate isn’t just in a bad state due to incompetence, there’s something more sinister going on. The tenants are so discontent that they might rebell. Nev’s sister has more problems than not being fond of her new sister-in-law. Poachers are everywhere. Both the ex-mistress and the ex-almost-fiancee make their reappearances at the most inconvenient time. And of course, everybody else is also just at the wrong place at the wrong time so that every mistake or misunderstanding has the worst possible consequences. Considering I have read books by Rose Lerner before and enjoyed the absolute lack of this kind of melodrama, that was very disappointing. The characters in her other books are all refreshingly reasonable. There’s no ‘I overheard only parts of your conversation and now I refuse to let you explain the context’ or any of those cheap soap-opera plotlines.

Some gothic novels are name-dropped during the story and Penny firmly proclaims how ridiculous they are, only to end up in a situation that could be right out of one, which made me wonder if the book wants to be a parody or at least poke fun at some gothic tropes. But for that, the book just isn’t funny enough. Because when Nev and Penny aren’t caught up in ridiculous drama the worries they have about not being good enough for the other or dealing with bigger problems than they can handle are genuinely moving. And the author gives both Nev’s mother and one of the villains a good reason for their hostility but then they act again like the cliche evil mother in law or the mustache-twirling villain. I can’t just read one page of a book as serious romance-novel and the next as over-the-top parody but I had the impression that this was what how the author wanted me to read this.

Elizabeth Peters: Crocodile on the Sandbank

41t1ENkbSLL._SL300_Title: Crocodile on the Sandbank
Author: Elizabeth Peters
Series: Amelia Peabody #1

Amelia Peabody, that indomitable product of the Victorian age, embarks on her first Egyptian adventure armed with unshakable self-confidence, a journal to record her thoughts, and, of course, a sturdy umbrella.
On her way, Amelia rescues young Evelyn Barton-Forbes, who has been “ruined” and abandoned on the streets of Rome by her rascally lover. With a typical disregard for convention, Amelia promptly hires her fellow countrywoman as a companion and takes her to Cairo.

Eluding Alberto, Evelyn’s former lover, who wants her back, and Evelyn’s cousin, Lord Ellesmere, who wishes to marry her, the two women sail up the Nile. They disembark at an archaeological site run by the Emerson brothers – the irascible, but dashing, Radcliffe, and the amiable Walter. Soon their little party is increased by one – one mummy, that is, and a singularly lively example of the species. Strange visitations, suspicious accidents, and a botched kidnapping convince Amelia that there is a plot afoot to harm Evelyn.

Rating: D

Lucas, for pity’s sake, seize it! Don’t stand there deriding its linguistic inadequacies!

Do you care for a mystery where the heroine explains at every step that men suck and are useless (in the appropriate Victorian terminology) but nevertheless the men in the story do most of the mystery-solving? And who then ends up married and pregnant at the end?

I’m being a bit unfair here but not too much. Amelia isn’t that type of heroine who constantly talks about how strong she is but still faints at every occasion. She has a strong will but often it feels she is only right because the author says so. She wants to travel along the Nile but insists on the ship traveling the way she wants it. Objections by the captain that a different route would be better due to the wind get ignored. She is right because she is a woman and the captain just a stupid man! OK, they end up hitting a sandbank twice but Amelia isn’t bothered by that. She got her own way and that is important! She never stops to consider that under certain circumstances she should trust the experienced people. Like a captain where sea-travel is concerned.

Which makes it somewhat ironic that when it comes to the mystery-solving she’s just there to fill in the blanks at the end after a man has already done most of the work. And yes, if she’d had all the information she would have figured it out earlier. And the reason for her not having all the information even makes sense. It still is somewhat unfortunate if your feminist heroine’s first case is one where she doesn’t solve much on her own.

And then there was the romance. And yes, it is a cozy-mystery. And the heroes and heroines of those usually end up with someone sooner or later. And I don’t object to a strong and independent female character ending up with a man. But for most of the book, Amelia doesn’t just say that a woman of her age is unlikely to find a husband and that she isn’t too desperate about that. She goes on and on about absolutely not needing one because men are inferior creatures and so on. Which is again unfortunate. Especially because I didn’t feel much chemistry between the two. There were some sparks but I couldn’t buy it going that fast. The romance would have really profited if it had been stretched out over a few books.

Now for the last unfortunate thing: this is a book about white people in Egypt at a time where most of them were very racist. It’s also about archeologists at a time where a lot of people saw archeology as ‘digging stuff up, put the pretty things on my shelf and throw the rest away’. And Amelia does start off with some not very complimentary attitudes towards the Egyptians. She also doesn’t say a word when a museum-director gifts her a necklace he dug up. Then Emmerson turns up and yells that racism is bad and that not cataloging artifacts is also bad and that’s the topic done with. Amelia more or less shrugs and goes ‘yeah, guess you have a point’ and then it’s never brought up again.

Of course, I’m not expecting a cozy to devote several chapters on the chapters discussing the evils of colonialism but I couldn’t help thinking of Think of England. Another book that was more on the fluffy and humorous side with a main character who held some racists views. These views get challenged over the course of the book and then he actually admits that he was wrong before. Meanwhile, Amelia is never wrong. Ever. And that is very tiring.

 


This is also part of the 16 Tasks of the Festive Season

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Book themes for Boxing Day/St. Stephen’s Day: Read anything where the main character has servants (paid servants count, NOT unpaid) or is working as a servant him-/ herself.

Leena Likitalo: The Sisters of the Crescent Empress

34850418Title: The Sisters of the Crescent Empress
Author: Leena Likitalo
Series: The Waning Moon #2

The Sisters of the Crescent Empress is the second book in Leena Likitalo’s Waning Moon Duology, a fabulous historical fantasy based on the lives of the Romanov sisters.

With the Crescent Empress dead, a civil war has torn the empire asunder. No one seems able to stop the ruthless Gagargi Prataslav. The five Daughters of the Moon are where he wants them to be, held captive in an isolated house in the far north.

Little Alina senses that the rooms that have fallen in disrepair have a sad tale to tell. Indeed, she soon meets two elderly ladies, the ghosts of the house’s former inhabitants.

Merile finds the ghosts suspiciously friendly and too interested in her sisters. She resolves to uncover their agenda with the help of her two dogs.

Sibilia isn’t terribly interested in her younger sisters’ imaginary friends, for she has other concerns. If they don’t leave the house by spring, she’ll miss her debut. And while reading through the holy scriptures, she stumbles upon a mystery that reeks of power.

Elise struggles to come to terms with her relationship with Captain Janlav. Her former lover now serves the gagargi, and it’s his duty to keep the daughters confined in the house. But if the opportunity were to arise, she might be able sway him into helping them flee.

Celestia is perfectly aware of the gagargi coming to claim her rather sooner than later. She’s resolved to come up with a plan to keep her sisters safe at any cost. For she knows what tends to happen to the sisters of the Crescent Empress.

RatingD-

I enjoyed this book almost till the end. The prose is beautiful and the relationships between the sisters are portrayed in a very realistic way. Some sisters get on better with each other, some not so much. Things that one does or says affect the relationships with the other sisters.
It did have flaws that stopped me from really loving the book and most of them were understandable, considering the author has only written short-stories so far and I wouldn’t have minded those things (as much) then. But in a novel, I want to understand how the magic system works. Here I couldn’t even figure out who exactly is capable of doing magic, let alone where the limitations are or how one can protect oneself against spells.
I can forgive a short-story if it uses a short-cut and someone figures out a secret rather quickly and conveniently. This book was full of occasions where people just knew things. Especially Celestia frequently figures out not only that her sisters are keeping things from her but also what those secrets are. That way a fair number of potentially dangerous occasions are swiftly avoided.

But towards the end, things really fell apart. This book is inspired by the Russian Revolution, and the Russian Revolution didn’t just happen one day. The same is true for the revolution in this book. The previous empress was always fighting wars. With most men conscripted as soldiers, nobody was left to tend the fields or earn money. Gagargi Prataslav – an unholy cross between Stalin and the worst Rasputin caricatures, who enjoys laughing diabolically – took advantage of that and incited the revolution.

Now there are clearly two things the sisters need to worry about: the people who have legitimate grievances and who now definitely won’t want to go back to a time where their Empress had full power over them. And the gagargi who is ye-olde-fantasy-villain. He doesn’t care about people but right now they listen to him.

And the book utterly fails at distinguishing between those things. Nobody points out that even if they somehow manage to get rid of the gagargi things won’t go back to the way they were before. Nobody has the viewpoint ‘The gargari is bad but the revolution happened because of understandable reasons.’
The one character who has sympathies for the revolution also refuses to believe that the Gargari is that bad despite all the evidence against it. (He literally wants to sacrifice children. Not kidding.)
As a result, a series that started as a promising subversion of the popular fantasy trope of ‘good and pure ruler that is threatened by evil outside forces’ ends up sounding like an advertisement for an absolute monarchy.

Talking about ‘ends up’: The ending sucked. Not just the moral of the story. It also was bad from a narrative standpoint. There are open endings. And there are endings where I have to go back and check if this is really the last book in the series. And there are endings like this where I had to go back, check and still refuse to believe that this was the end. I might have bought that ending if it made more effort to built up the revolution and the reasons for it as a genuine problem. But it didn’t and made the villain as cliche-fantasy-villain as possible. So the book stays a conventional fantasy-novel, despite all the pretty prose and nice window-dressing. And a conventional fantasy-novel can’t end like this.


Review of book 1


This is also part of the 16 Tasks of the Festive Season:

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Book themes for Hogmanay / New Year’s Eve / Watch Night / St. Sylvester’s Day: Read a book where miracles of any sort are performed (the unexplainable – but good – kind).

I might be stretching the theme a tiiiiiny bit but unexplainable things that help the sisters happen.