Jane Yolen & Adam Stemple – The Last Tsar’s Dragons

Title: The Last Tsar’s Dragon
Authors: Jane Yolen & Adam Stemple

It is the waning days of the Russian monarchy. A reckless man rules the land and his dragons rule the sky. Though the Tsar aims his dragons at his enemies—Jews and Bolsheviks—his entire country is catching fire. Conspiracies suffuse the royal court: bureaucrats jostle one another for power, the mad monk Rasputin schemes for the Tsar’s ear, and the desperate queen takes drastic measures to protect her family.

Revolution is in the air—and the Red Army is hatching its own weapons.

Rating: Burned to a crisp

I do have to point out, that I expected something very different from what I got. Sure, the blurb talks about revolution, Bolsheviks and Rasputin, all things we are familiar with, but I still expected a different Russia. After all, this world has dragons. One would think, that the existence of dragons would change the world in some way but the Russia in The Last Tsar’s Dragons is exactly the one you know from the history textbooks. Only that Tsar Nicholas has dragons.

Well, that’s not 100% true. While the real Nicholas had five children – Tatiana, Olga, Maria, Anastasia and Alexei – who all died with him Yekaterinburg, the Nicholas from the book has a son called Alexei, a daughter called Anastasia and two unnamed daughters who are still alive, and a daughter called Sonia who died of an illness before the book started. But considering none of that is in any way relevant to the plot and the afterword just tells us that the Romanovs were among the characters in the book that were real, without any caveat about how they didn’t actually have a daughter named Sonia, my guess is that the authors couldn’t be bothered to look up basic facts. This makes sense, since they also didn’t consider it necessary to run their German by an actual German speaker. And so the Tsarina says “Ein Fluch auf ihrem schmutzigen Drachens!” at one point.

Fun fact: I spent a lot of time yelling about Google Translate not being a reliable source but in this case it actually gives you the correct translation of “A curse on their dirty dragons” which would be Ein Fluch auf ihre schmutzigen Drachen. Bing Translate does worse with Fluch an ihren schmutzigen Drachen, but even they know that Drachens isn’t a German word, so I really have no clue how they managed to get it that wrong. Perhaps one of them once did learn German, just like they once learned Russian history and then were so convinced of themselves that they saw no need to check their vague memories.

Anyway, after this short diversion, back to the actual book. Which, as mentioned is The Russian Revolution with dragons. That means, that while the Tsar is busy being stupid and evil and antisemitic, his wife being German, stupid, evil and antisemitic, Alexei being sick, spoilt and evil and Rasputin being evil, creepy and antisemitic, somewhere else Lev Bronstein, a Jewish peasant, has found some dragon eggs and is trying to hatch them himself – a dangerous feat, since only the Tsar is allowed to own dragons. Bronstein is supported in this endeavour by his old friend Wladimir Ulyanov who has also brought a questionable Georgian character called Koba along who acts as a bodyguard for the eggs – and later the hatched dragons.

You probably know all those gentlemen under different names. Bronstein is more well known as Leon Trotsky, Ulyanov changed his name to Lenin and Koba is an early nickname of Joseph Stalin.

Yeah. I definitely did not expect that. And granted, I knew I was reading a fantasy book based on the Russian Revolution, an event that was very bloody and violent and which lead to decades of more death and violence. It’s not that this is the only book that ever did this. The Waning Moon books are set in a pseudo-Russia on the eve of a Revolution (including a character that seems to have been inspired by Rasputin and Stalin). The Poppy War is the Sino-Japanese war with magic. There are certainly many other examples and I think you can take a horrible atrocity, add dragons, mermaids or whatever and be tasteful about it. I don’t think it works when you make the actual architect of some of these atrocities – not even some thinly disguised version, not some conglomerate of several people – in a character in the book. Admittedly, while Trotsky is a POV-character in the book, Lenin plays a much smaller role and Stalin says only two or three sentences. But still: There’s a Wikipedia page Excess Mortality under Josef Stalin. In this book he plays bodyguard for some dragon eggs. I am uncomfortable with this.

But, YMMV and all that and neither Stalin nor Lenin are portrayed as likeable characters, so perhaps some people are OK with that. If you are: I’m not judging you (I do read a lot of other judgeworthy stuff myself after all). But I will inform you that it’s still a very boring book. Because, when I say “this is the Russian Revolution with dragons”, I’m speaking very literally. Do you have the most basic knowledge of the Russian Revolution (as in “the Bolsheviks took over, the Tsar and his family are imprisoned and later executed”)? Do you know the Boney M song Rasputin? Great! Then you know what happens in this book*. I mean it’s the Bolsheviks take over with the help of dragons, but since that happens off-screen, you won’t get much out of reading it. No, I’m not kidding. With the exception of Rasputin’s murder, all the action happens off-page and is then summed up in a few sentences. That is…not great. Of course, it’s a novella, and in the afterword the authors explain that they originally planned a full novel but couldn’t find a publisher, only one who would take a novella. But then you can’t just take the novel and leave enough stuff out to make it fit the novella length. Especially if the stuff is essentially the climax and you’re left with what’s more or less a retelling of historical facts.

*though not even the Rasputin here is the lover of the Russian Queen, but apart from that the lyrics are fairly accurate

ARC provided by NetGalley

Alexandra Walsh – The Catherine Howard Conspiracy

Title: The Catherine Howard Conspiracy
Author: Alexandra Walsh
Series: The Marquess House #1
Publication Date: March 28th 2019

Whitehall Palace, England, 1539

When Catherine Howard arrives at the court of King Henry VIII to be a maid of honour in the household of the new queen, Anne of Cleves, she has no idea of the fate that awaits her.

Catching the king’s fancy, she finds herself caught up in her uncle’s ambition to get a Howard heir to the throne. Terrified by the ageing king after the fate that befell her cousin, Anne Boleyn, Catherine begins to fear for her life…

Pembrokeshire, Wales, 2018

Dr Perdita Rivers receives news of the death of her estranged grandmother, renowned Tudor historian Mary Fitzroy. Mary inexplicably cut all contact with Perdita and her twin sister, Piper, but she has left them Marquess House, her vast estate in Pembrokeshire.

Perdita sets out to unravel their grandmother’s motives for abandoning them, and is drawn into the mystery of an ancient document in the archives of Marquess House, a collection of letters and diaries claiming the records of Catherine Howard’s execution were falsified…

What truths are hiding in Marquess House? What really happened to Catherine Howard? And how was Perdita’s grandmother connected to it all?

Rating: No reason to behead anyone…(just for a lot of eye-rolling)

There’s two things I need to say about this book:

  1. I started it Sunday morning and was then glued to the pages for most of the day, until I finished shortly after midnight
  2. While being glued to the pages, I also rolled my eyes a lot.

Because this book is essentially The Da Vinci Code with the Tudors. Admittedly, with less awkward prose and without Browns weird well-meaning but utterly condescending sexism. But it’s still a book about an awesome academic who discovers that the story we’ve been told about a historic figure is wrong and then she is hunted by a shady organisation who wants to stop her from making that knowledge public. Only it’s not about Jesus but Catherine Howard.

And that’s where things fall apart somewhat because while an organisation of Vatican assassins who hunt people that found out that Jesus was actually married and had children is stupid, it also has some internal logic. Jesus is pretty important for a lot of people. And so is the image of him as an unmarried man. If we are in parallel conspiracy universe, I can buy that people would kill to keep that a secret.

The Catherine Howard Conspiracy posits that the fact that she wasn’t executed has to be kept a secret because…people would get upset if the Divorced, Beheaded and Died. Divorced, Beheaded, Survived-rhyme didn’t work anymore? The argument they make is that history is important to people and (national) identity and finding out that history isn’t what everybody thought it is would cause an uproar. And the example they give is Richard III and how everybody thought he was an evil hunchback but then they found his bones, discovered his spine wasn’t deformed and then everybody also went back on the evil bit and accepted that Richard was actually one of the good guys. Which is not what happened. As this clip from a kids TV-show that was broadcast about a year before they found Richard’s bones, shows:

Arguments about how many of the bad stories about Richard are true and how many are made up by people who were paid by the Tudors has been discussed by historians for a long time. Granted, finding the bones has probably brought that to the attention of a lot of people whose entire knowledge about him had come from the Shakespeare play but I seriously doubt that these people were so upset by that revelation that they then voted for Brexit. Or whatever it was the book was trying to convince me off.

There are so many historic figures and events that historians argue about. Because there is no such thing as an unbiased source. We get descriptions from people who have their own reasons for making someone look good or bad, from people who couldn’t believe that women might have an agency of their own or that gay people existed. Or perhaps they even tried to be neutral but wrote about someone who deliberately tried to appear different from how they actually were. And the further back you go, the harder it gets to find a person where historians agree on all aspects of his or her life. Of course, some of these controversies are more well known than others but building a whole book on History is a fixed thing and must never be changed is so ridiculous that I cannot buy at all, not even if it’s just the premise for a light entertainment read.

And that’s a shame because, I really enjoyed the book at first, since I did not look very closely at the cover and it wasn’t immediately obvious that this was a “gripping conspiracy thriller”. There was just Catherine’s story – starting with her time at Henry’s court – and Perdita’s story – who inherits Marquess house and finds papers there that make her doubt the official story. Admittedly, Catherine’s story was a bit too much. Too much making sure the reader really likes her. She’s not the semi-illiterate woman who’s stupid enough to screw around while being married to a guy who already beheaded one wife for infidelity. Instead, she’s incredibly clever, sends complex coded messages, makes sure that she’s not even alone with her own brother once it becomes clear that Henry intends to marry her and is so incredibly kind-hearted that she’s even trying to help the people who’ve been plotting against her. And to make sure we really like her and feel sorry for her, there are several quite graphic scenes where Henry rapes her…have I mentioned that she’s 15/16 at the time of the story?

Now I would like to throw a controversial opinion out there: it doesn’t matter if Catherine was stupid, couldn’t write her own name and screwed the entire court. She was also a teenager who had no choice but to marry Henry. She did not deserve to be murdered. There’s no need to portray her as an angelic creature who saves puppies in her free time to convince me of that.

On the other hand, life is depressing and especially female characters are rarely allowed to be sympathetic and unlikeable and who am I to judge the author for telling a story with more mass appeal?

So, if this had just been a story of angelic Catherine and Perdita who goes on a treasure hunt to discover the truth and the conflict and tension had come from something that wasn’t her being hunted by secret government agencies, I’d have enjoyed this book. (Though I would have still side-eyed all the on-page rape of a 15 year old very hard). But then the story turned into…well The Tudor Code and I could not buy that, not in the way it was presented.

ARC received from NetGalley

Julian Symons: The Belting Inheritance

41750950Title: The Belting Inheritance
Author: Julian Symons

Lady Wainwright presides over the gothic gloom at Belting, in mourning for her two sons lost in the Second World War. Long afterwards a stranger arrives at Belting, claiming to be the missing David Wainwright – who was not killed after all but held captive for years in a Russian prison camp. With Lady Wainwright’s health fading, her inheritance is at stake, and the family is torn apart by doubts over its mysterious long-lost son. Belting is shadowed by suspicion and intrigue – and then the first body is found. 

Rating: Disinherited

The story’s set up is not that unusual for a classic mystery: A man appears on Lady Wainwright’s doorstep, claiming he is her oldest son David who was declared dead in the second World War after his plane was shot down. Lady Wainwright, whose health is fading, needs not much convincing and happily accepts the man as her son. Miles and Stephen – her two other sons – are less certain that the man is really their oldest brother. Not long after he appears, a murder happens.

The only slightly unusual thing about it so far is the narrator: Christopher. He’s a distant relative who was taken in by the Wainwright’s after his parents’ death in a plane crash. So, he’s neither a policeman nor one of those amateur sleuths who keep tripping over bodies. He’s a family member but removed enough to be more level-headed about the whole affair. He has neither Lady Wainwright’s deep desire to see her favourite son alive nor the other sons’ worry about having to share their inheritance. That means he has neither reason to believe David nor to disbelieve him. 

But the thing about Christopher is, that he is also an extremely annoying narrator. He’s an incredibly patronising 18 at the time of the events in the book but tells the story decades later – as an incredibly condescending old man. Inbetween him recollecting the events he deigns to grace the reader with his opinion on various literary works (like Treasure Island and The Moonstone – both are stupid because they have narrators who would never actually sit down and write down a story), tells us all about the interior decoration in his Thomas Lovell (his bedroom…don’t ask) and generally gives his opinion on everything. And, of course, since he is telling the story as a much older man, he can also give his opinion on his younger self, giving his opinion…

And then there’s the final third of the book: In it, Christopher finds something that suggests a quite definite answer to the question “Is this man really David?” But he doesn’t show it to anybody in the family. He leaves a note saying “I know what’s going on! Now I’m off to Paris” And then he is off to Paris where a string of miraculous coincidences happen and he has a revelation that solves everything while he is drunk on pastis and watching an Ibsen play. It all reads like the author had a maximum page-count and had a hard time resolving the multitude of threads so he just went “Oh who cares? He knows this because…because you are more intelligent when you are drunk! GENIUS! GIVE ME AN AWARD!” That’s a shame because once I had made my peace with Christopher’s annoyingness, I enjoyed the story and all the twists and turns it took. And I think the solution is very clever – but the way we got there isn’t. 

 

ARC provided by NetGalley

Leonard R. Gribble: The Arsenal Stadium Mystery

40861729Title: The Arsenal Stadium Mystery
Author: Leonard R. Gribble

Murder mystery enters the world of English football in this 1939 classic.

In a high stakes final between a team of amateurs and the Arsenal side of 1939, a player drops dead on the pitch shortly after halftime. It’s up to Detective Inspector Slade to unravel the multiplicity of motives and suspects behind this case of the foulest play possible.

Rating: A rather dull 0:0 draw

When Jack Doyce collapses during a football match and dies not much later it doesn’t take long to discover that he was murdered. And a suspect appears just as quickly: Phillip Morring was Doyce’s business partner. His death means Morring receives a large sum of money from the life insurance. They were on the football team together, so Morring had the opportunity to poison him and when Slade discovers that Morring’s fiancée was having an affair with Doyce it seems that everything fits together perfectly.  But Slade isn’t fully convinced, especially after he finds out that Doyce was implicated in a tragedy that happened a few years back. Is someone taking revenge? But the evidence against Morring is piling up as well, so is perhaps the most obvious solution the right one after all?

The mystery itself is solid and keeps you guessing. It does require some suspension of disbelief (among other things, the plot only works because a girl told nobody whom she was getting engaged to, not even her own father) but not more than in the average golden age mystery.

In a solid mystery, I can usually excuse bland detectives and Slade is very bland. (How bland? you ask. Well, on Goodreads his name was mistakenly given as MacDonald and I had not noticed that and happily called him as MacDonald in this review until I looked up a quote in the book and saw that he was in fact called Slade). And with the exception of Pat Laruce – Morring’s fiancée – so are most side-characters. They are in fact, for a mystery novel, surprisingly sensible. Morring, for example, immediately tells the police about the fact that he gains a lot of money from Doyce’s death. He is slightly less forthcoming about his fiancée but once he realizes that the police know, he comes clean immediately – and so do most other characters in similar situations. Only Pat, the already mentioned exception, is as unhelpful as possible and has her own agenda. As such she’s more like a character one is used to from mysteries but next to all the others, she appears more like a comical caricature.

Then there’s the football connection which felt forced. The victim is a football player who died during a match. But he could just as easily have been killed during a weekend country house party.  Neither the football nor the cameos by Arsenal players and the manager added anything to the story. Perhaps you have to be a real football-fan for that and care a lot about Arsenal (and its 1939 team) to get anything out of that and with my casual ‘I pay some attention to the German league table and am happy when certain teams are in the upper half’ attitude it didn’t really work.

And then there’s…

“Well, Inspector?” asked the Arsenal manager. “I’m afraid Dr Meadows doesn’t think it was an accident,” said the Yard detective.

Epithets. So many of them. Any character who appears more than one will have an epithet that gets used frequently. I have spent too much of my teenage years reading bad Harry Potter fanfiction full of the dark-haired boy, the blonde man, the Gryffindor star-pupil and the boy who could talk to snakes* and now I am very allergic to epithets of all kinds.

All in all, I think this book might be interesting for people who are very interested in football history. The rest can easily miss it.

 

*I am not suggesting that only one fandom has this problem. Or even only fanfiction, as this book proves. But that’s where I got my overdose of this particular bad style-advice

 

ARC provided by NetGaööey

Richard Hull: The Murder of My Aunt

39884612Title: The Murder of My Aunt
Author: Richard Hull

Edward Powell lives with his Aunt Mildred in the Welsh town of Llwll. 
His aunt thinks Llwll an idyllic place to live, but Edward loathes the countryside – and thinks the company even worse. In fact, Edward has decided to murder his aunt. 

Rating: E

There are two types of crime-novels that are written from the POV of the murderer: In one he is an evil genius, a psychopath who comes up with ingenious (and often gory) ways to kill. The question is obviously not “Who did it?” but “How will he get caught?”, where’s the mistake that will trip him up?  I never cared about those (I want to be able to like the person in whose head I’m stuck while reading).

In the second, the killer is extremely likeable and the victim(s) aren’t. Often rapists, domestic abusers and other killers who were never caught. I’ve read and enjoyed a couple of those but there’s always a danger of exaggerating the evilness of the victims too much. They turn into moustache-twirling villains who kick puppies in their spare time and end up feeling not really human anymore (because that would mean the reader had to struggle with pesky morals).

The Murder Of My Aunt in a way is a bit of both. The aunt is horrible, but I also hated Edward – the narrator who plans the murder – after about two pages. He complains that he’s stuck in a small village (due to the in mystery-novels so popular inconvenient terms of a will that make him dependant on his aunt). It’s horrible and boring, it doesn’t even have a cinema (the horror) and worst of all: it’s in Wales and has a silly Welsh name. Because Welsh is a silly language, you see. No vowels and ridiculously many Ls. Isn’t that stupid? English is, of course, the superior language. It makes sense and the spelling is totally reasona…

Gif from Tatort: Wilhelmine Klemm laughing. Caption: HAHAHAHA

Yes, I get it. This was written in 1934. Back then such views were probably considered genuinely amusing…or at least only slightly obnoxious instead of a sign of an absolute jerk. But since it’s not the thirties anymore even though current politics…no let’s not go there, I do feel strongly about people mocking languages, and we are treated to Edward’s diatribe about Welsh at the very beginning of the book, I hated him immediately.

But at the same time, his aunt is also horrible. Not in the way patriarchs and matriarchs in mystery novels usually are: They are convinced that they are always right and that their children have to obey them. They might be aware that the child would be miserable but to them, it’s just an insignificant side-effect. The important thing is that everybody obeys them.

Edward’s aunt just wants to make him miserable. For example, she knows that Edward hates walking and so she decides to force him to walk to fetch a package from the post office. For that, she has to tell the postman that he should keep the package instead of delivering it (giving as reason that the label was torn), throw away the petrol of her own car so that Edward can’t use it, tell the owner of the local garage that he should refuse if Edward calls him and ask if he can deliver petrol and hide the phone-book so that he won’t find a different garage. That’s a lot of work for an idiotic prank. Because that’s all it is. She didn’t need him out of the house for any reason, she only wants him to walk because she knows he hates it.

At that point, I was willing to temporarily forget his comments on the Welsh and cheered for his plan to work because that would mean one less horrible character. And after all, his mistakes when setting up his murderous trap where so glaringly obvious that I was sure he would be arrested soon after the murder and my suffering would also soon be over. But alas, things don’t go as expected – for Edward and the poor, suffering reader – and in a different book I might have enjoyed the way things turned but here I just had to read more horrible people being horrible to each other and hated every page of it.

ARC provided by NetGalley

E.C.R. Lorac: Fire in the Thatch

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The Second World War is drawing to a close. Nicholas Vaughan, released from the army after an accident, takes refuge in Devon – renting a thatched cottage in the beautiful countryside at Mallory Fitzjohn. Vaughan sets to work farming the land, rearing geese and renovating the cottage. Hard work and rural peace seem to make this a happy bachelor life.

On a nearby farm lives the bored, flirtatious June St Cyres, an exile from London while her husband is a Japanese POW. June’s presence attracts fashionable visitors of dubious character and threatens to spoil Vaughan’s prized seclusion.

When Little Thatch is destroyed in a blaze, all Vaughan’s work goes up in smoke – and Inspector Macdonald is drafted in to uncover a motive for murder.

Rating: B-

It’s no part of my duty to get murdered. From the point of view of detection that’s merely making a mess of it.

In Bats in the Belfry, a lot of people repeat “Detective novels are different from real life” and how a real murder isn’t the fun puzzle mystery novels make it out to be. It comes over as very condescending and didn’t work for me at all. In Fire in the Thatch people also exclaim “this isn’t a detective novel” but they do so as a reaction to one character suggesting that the body that was burned beyond recognition in the fire might not have been the tenant of the thatch. That was in all likelihood also the thought most experienced mystery-readers had. Unrecognisable bodies are always suspicious. But now? Is this really a detective novel that’s not like the other detective novels? Or is it a bluff?

Inspector Macdonald has his own opinion on this question. And a few other ideas about what is and isn’t important in this investigation. Admittedly, he’s rather quick to make these decisions and dismisses some clues for no discernible reason but it is a rather short book (by a very prolific writer). Besides Macdonald’s character makes up for much of this. He’s no genius eccentric or laugh-out-loud funny guy but he has a dry humour that makes for very enjoyable reading.

The setting also adds some unusual elements: not many mysteries are set mid-World War II. And while the location – rural Devon – doesn’t suffer from bombings like London or other big cities, the war has many indirect effects on the people (and the plot), which makes a nice change to many of the murders committed country-houses that are frozen in time and have nearly no connection to the outside world.

ARC received from NetGalley