I read Farthing when it came out and thought it was brilliant. On rereading it, I still think so, and Ha'penny is just as good. Farthing's plot was a...moreI read Farthing when it came out and thought it was brilliant. On rereading it, I still think so, and Ha'penny is just as good. Farthing's plot was a country-house mystery; I would call Ha'penny more of a suspense thriller, and full of suspense it is, right up to the explosive ending.
It follows on quite shortly after Farthing: Inspector Carmichael has just come off the Farthing case and has been assigned to a bombing which killed leading actress Lauria Gilmore. Viola Lark has been chosen to act Hamlet in a gender-switching production of the play, in which Gilmore had also been cast until her untimely death. As Carmichael investigates the bombing and ponders retirement from the police force, Viola is drawn into a plot to kill Hitler at the opening night of the play, along with Prime Minister Mark Normanby, the lead figure in the increasingly fascistic government.
As in Farthing, Walton alternates voices chapter by chapter, between Viola's first person and Carmichael's third, and both are equally absorbing; I especially liked the reflections of Viola's mental state in her role as Hamlet, as she wavers about her involvement in the plot and treads the edge of sanity. As England slides further and further into fascism, Walton's alternate history, always convincing, becomes more and more frightening. I can hardly wait until Half a Crown to see how she resolves it.
(Also, as someone very interested in the Mitford sisters, I really liked Walton's use of them as a basis for Viola and her sisters. They're not exact analogues by any means, but there are clear parallels. Also also, now I really want to see this production of Hamlet.) (less)
I found this a very satisfying conclusion to the Small Change trilogy (earlier books Farthing and Ha'penny), set in an alternate timeline wherein Engl...moreI found this a very satisfying conclusion to the Small Change trilogy (earlier books Farthing and Ha'penny), set in an alternate timeline wherein England made peace with Hitler and slid slowly into fascism itself. Now it's 1960, and former Inspector Carmichael is now the head of the Gestapo-like Watch (after having been blackmailed into compliance), while his ward Elvira Royston prepares to make her debut with the traditional presentation to the Queen.
Some have called the book's ending unduly optimistic, but I thought it worked very well. Yes, it's hopeful, but the hope only comes about after much grief and loss suffered by the characters, so it feels believable and earned. Plus, I really liked the unexpected way Walton chose to carry out the ending. (less)
In Dick's alternate 1962, Germany and Japan won World War II and have occupied the United States jointly, with the Germans controlling the East Coast...moreIn Dick's alternate 1962, Germany and Japan won World War II and have occupied the United States jointly, with the Germans controlling the East Coast and the Japanese the West. The eponymous "man in the high castle", author Hawthorne Abendsen, has written a seditious book, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, describing what would have happened if the Allies had won the war, and Dick brilliantly uses this as well as the I Ching to illuminate and crystallize his characters' thoughts and feelings about their reality. He follows various characters through various conflicts, and though there isn't a lot of action, and nothing is really resolved at the end, that's not the point: it's really about the inner lives of the novel's people, and their individual responses to their world. (less)
Sophie lives in an alternate Scotland around 1935, in a world where Napoleon won at Waterloo, and Scotland and the Scandinavian countries have establi...moreSophie lives in an alternate Scotland around 1935, in a world where Napoleon won at Waterloo, and Scotland and the Scandinavian countries have established a new Hanseatic League to resist being forcibly joined to the rest of Europe. Terrorist bombings are increasing, and the Scottish minister of public safety is calling for war. Spiritualism is very real, and consultations with the dead through mediums are common.
In these turbulent times, Sophie wants nothing more than to go to university and study science after leaving her girls' boarding school. Instead, she fears she'll be forced to join IRYLNS, a governmental agency which trains young women as personal assistants to male government officials, and perhaps does more than simply train them, as Sophie finds out when she visits with her aunt. And when a medium at her aunt's house delivers a frightening prophecy to her and then is murdered, Sophie and her friend Mikael must unpick a tangled web of lies, violence, and political intrigue.
I liked Davidson's taking-off point for her alternate history and the idea of the New Hanseatic League, and I thought she created a believable political world. She's rather too prone to drop famous names into the narrative, arbitrarily changing their professions and lives -- for example, there's a reference to "the theology of Count Tolstoy, the novels of Richard Wagner, the verse of Albert Einstein, or the operas of James Joyce" -- which I found distracting at first and then just annoying. I can see how this might be hard to resist, but I would much rather have read more about how the political history of the world had developed.
I quite liked clever, scientifically-minded Sophie herself, and I liked her complex relationship with her aunt (and how her aunt, who feels that emotion is bad, tries to deal with her love for Sophie) and with her friends at school. The understated romance is handled nicely, and also Sophie's schoolgirl crush on her chemistry teacher, with its attendant awkwardness and misery.
Davidson does a good job in adding detail and complexity to the plot slowly, so that Sophie's race to solve the mysteries becomes more and more tense. I wish I had known in advance that a sequel is in the works, as I found the ending overly abrupt. Still, I'll definitely be reading the sequel.(less)
Europe is on the edge of World War I, and two teens are right in the middle of the oncoming conflict. Prince Alek is the son of Archduke Franz Ferdina...moreEurope is on the edge of World War I, and two teens are right in the middle of the oncoming conflict. Prince Alek is the son of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire, and his wife Sophie, whose assassination by Serbian nationalists sets off the war and forces Alek to run for his life. Deryn Sharp is a British girl posing as a boy in order to enter the British Air Service. Their world may sound like ours, but it isn't, quite: here, Charles Darwin not only developed the theory of evolution, he also discovered DNA and also how to work with DNA to bioengineer new life forms. As a result of this, some of Europe's nations (the "Darwinist" nations, including Great Britain, France, and Russia) developed all of their technology along bioengineering lines, while the Clanker nations (Austria-Hungary, Germany) developed steam-based machinery, including giant walking war machines.
I should say right here that I do not think I'm the target audience for this book, and so it didn't work for me as well as I'd hoped. I've enjoyed Westerfeld's YA novels in the past; Leviathan strikes me as written for a slightly younger audience. Even though the two protagonists are presented as older teens, they act and speak more like early teens. More importantly, Leviathan is steampunk as alternate history, and I didn't find any of the alternate history convincing: neither the divergence point from our timeline (Darwin discovering DNA and how to modify it), nor the subsequent political developments.
With that said, there's quite a bit to enjoy here. The action is nonstop, with exciting mechanical chases and thrilling airship hijinks. Did I mention that the airship (the Leviathan of the title) is alive? Westerfeld's bioengineered creatures are very cool, from the whale-based airship to the jellyfish-based single-person gliders (they look like parachutes, but are steerable like gliders). I loved the inclusion of Darwin's (historical) granddaughter, Nora Darwin Barlow, as the intelligent, sharp chief bioengineer, along with her pet Tasmanian tiger (now extinct). And Keith Thompson's marvelous illustrations, especially the gorgeous endpaper maps, enhance the book immensely.
Leviathan ends on quite a cliffhanger, with the protagonists ready to travel to a whole new land, and I admit to being very interested to see where they end up in the next book. I wish I could silence that part of myself which insists on alternate history being convincingly worked out, so that I could enjoy this series more, but maybe that won't bother me so much by the time the sequel comes out. (less)
This is a historical mystery novel set in a Regency London that isn't quite our own. I suppose technically this is fantasy, because the history is a s...moreThis is a historical mystery novel set in a Regency London that isn't quite our own. I suppose technically this is fantasy, because the history is a slightly altered one (Queen Charlotte is Regent, rather than Prince George), but it contains no magical or fantastical elements other than that. The mystery is intriguing, with a nicely unexpected twist at the end, and the language and milieu are convincing, as is the main character, a fallen woman named Sarah Tolerance who chose to become a private investigator (or "inquiry agent") rather than a prostitute. Quite enjoyable, and I hope it will turn into a series (ETA: yes, there is a sequel, Petty Treason).(less)
Petty Treason is the second book (following Point of Honour) in Madeleine E. Robins's delightful series of alternate history Regency detective novels...morePetty Treason is the second book (following Point of Honour) in Madeleine E. Robins's delightful series of alternate history Regency detective novels featuring Miss Sarah Tolerance, a Fallen Woman who has become an agent of inquiry (read: private investigator) rather than follow the usual path to prostitution. In Petty Treason, she's hired to look into the death of the Chevalier d'Aubigny, a French émigré beaten to death in bed; along the way, the mystery develops implications that touch the Royal Family itself.
Miss Tolerance is a very intriguing character: resourceful, determined, intelligent, and good with a sword (there's an excellent duel near the end of the book). She's a pleasure to read about, and so is the slightly tweaked version of Regency London Robins has created, where Queen Charlotte rules as regent for mad King George III (rather than the Prince of Wales). I also like the book's style, because Robins hasn't chosen to try to recreate the style of an author of the period; she simply uses an elegant, formal language which matches her protagonist's style precisely. (less)
Joan Aiken's Wolves Chronicles are wildly inventive fantasies, set in an alternate England where the Stuarts remained on the throne, making the Hanove...moreJoan Aiken's Wolves Chronicles are wildly inventive fantasies, set in an alternate England where the Stuarts remained on the throne, making the Hanoverians the rebels and conspirators, and where wolves still roam even in London. There are eleven of them in all (and won't be any more, since Aiken sadly died in January 2004), and I think of them in sets of two or three.
Most people seem to think that the first three books are the best, and I'd agree with that; they have more focused plots than some of the later books. I do have an odd fondness for The Stolen Lake, which has Dido encountering ancient Britons in South America and an interesting Arthurian plot, but by Dido and Pa, I am generally happy to get back to England and Aiken's exploration of Dido's relationship with her family. Although the two Is books are very good, though significantly bleaker than the rest of the series (and Aiken is never afraid to be bleak or frightening), I was disappointed with the last two books, which are weaker of plot than the earlier ones. However, all of them are worth reading, and the first three are generally considered classics of children's fantasy; once you've read those, you'll want to read all eleven of them.
The Shadow of Albion is a alternative historical fantasy set in early 19th-century England. In this universe, Charles II was succeeded by his illegiti...moreThe Shadow of Albion is a alternative historical fantasy set in early 19th-century England. In this universe, Charles II was succeeded by his illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth, and thus the Stuarts have remained firmly entrenched on the throne; the French Revolution has happened, so Napoleon is in power, but America remains a British colony. The story begins when the dying Marchioness of Roxbury magically summons an alternate self (Sarah Cunningham, an orphan from Maryland) to replace her, catapulting Sarah into a new world of intrigue and power plays and into an arranged marriage with the Duke of Wessex, who leads a double life as a spy for King Henry IX.
This was an entertaining light read, with an intriguing plot and lively characters (particularly Sarah, whose new role of Marchioness is in constant conflict with her American upbringing and outdoors skills). As usual with alternate history, it's amusing (though not always convincing) to see how the authors have recast famous historical figures: Beau Brummell as valet to the Prince of Wales; the Marquis de Sade as a black warlock in Napoleon's service; and John Adams as a British diplomat. I could have wished for fewer sartorial details (a paragraph about practically every new outfit was far too much) and a little more humor, but The Shadow of Albion was enjoyable nonetheless; I'll be seeking out the sequel. (less)
Leopard in Exile is the sequel to The Shadow of Albion, which I thought was fairly entertaining. Sadly, Leopard in Exile is not.
The world's magical s...moreLeopard in Exile is the sequel to The Shadow of Albion, which I thought was fairly entertaining. Sadly, Leopard in Exile is not.
The world's magical structure is poorly worked out; it's a mishmash of elements from British faery lore, Native American beliefs, Satanist black magic, and even Arthurian legend (the Holy Grail). The plot is absurdly contrived, the alternate history unconvincing (why would the American colonies under the Stuarts be more friendly to the native Americans than they were under Hanoverian rule?), and the characters poorly fleshed out.
There's almost nothing of the relationship between Wessex and Sarah which was forged in the first book, just a lot of agonizing about how much they love each other, with very little interaction between them which shows rather than tells. Wessex's desperate search for Sarah, who has gone to the New World to help her friend Meriel, is a driving force behind much of the plot, but as there seems to be no depth to their relationship, it's next to impossible to feel any urgency about the search.
And worst of all, the narrative includes footnotes, which are very difficult to use effectively in fiction without distracting the reader from the flow of the action; here, they are overly self-conscious, frequently patronizing (the note explaining the bill which abolished slavery in Britain and its dominions ends "Aren't you glad I'm here to tell you these things?"), often useless (defining a recaumier as "A couch to you", when it's clear from the context anyway), and generally aggravating. Do we really need a reference to a web site about jambalaya when it's served to one of the characters? Surely not. I cannot imagine what the authors (or their editor) could have been thinking to include these idiotic, distracting notes.
I still think The Shadow of Albion was worth reading, but by all means, avoid the sequel. (Hey, and I didn't even mention the gratuitous Star Wars reference or the meaningless appearance of a character from one of Edghill's other books - duly noted in the footnotes, of course). (less)
Imagine a world in which Queen Elizabeth I was assassinated in 1588, in which the Spanish Armada defeated the English, and in which in the 20th centur...moreImagine a world in which Queen Elizabeth I was assassinated in 1588, in which the Spanish Armada defeated the English, and in which in the 20th century the Catholic Church controls all of Europe and the New World, suppressing all technology beyond the level of the steam locomotive.
This is the world of Pavane, a book of six more-or-less connected short stories (called "measures", in the dance metaphor of the title) followed by an epilogue, or "coda". Pavane is remarkable not for the carefully worked-out details that characterize many alternate histories, but rather for its intensely visual style and hauntingly dark mood. Roberts started his career as an illustrator, and that shows in passages like this (from the first story, "Lady Margaret"):
"At three in the afternoon the engine sheds were already gloomy with the coming night. Light, blue and vague, filtered through the long strips of the skylights, showing the roof ties stark like angular metal bones. Beneath, the locomotives waited brooding, hulks twice the height of a man, their canopies brushing the rafters. The light gleamed in dull spindle shapes, here from the strappings of a boiler, there from the starred boss of a flywheel. The massive road wheels stood in pools of shadow."
With passages like this, Roberts sets the dark, grim tone that pervades the book. The world he presents is not a pretty one, and even the epilogue, with its hints of a brighter future, cannot dispel the somber mood, since it also contains a surprising and disturbing twist. Some of the stories are more successful than others, but all are powerful and intelligent; this is an outstanding work of alternate history, which deserves to be better known. (less)
This is a very entertaining historical fantasy set in an alternate magical Elizabethan England. In this world, Sir Philip Sidney did not die after the...moreThis is a very entertaining historical fantasy set in an alternate magical Elizabethan England. In this world, Sir Philip Sidney did not die after the battle of Zutphen; he recovered from his wounds and lived to save Christopher Marlowe's life at the tavern in Deptford. When the Wizard Earl of Bothwell threatens James VI of Scotland with deadly magic, Elizabeth of England sends Sidney to defend him; Robert Cecil sends Marlowe along to spy, whereupon Marlowe is also pulled into the magical battle, with very interesting results.
The historical detail and language were good, the magic is powerful, and the characters were darned convincing. I enjoyed it a lot and will continue to look for the authors' other books (which are apparently set in the same universe). (less)
Jo Walton is very good at taking something familiar and putting an unfamiliar, intriguing spin on it. Previously, she's done this with King Arthur (Th...moreJo Walton is very good at taking something familiar and putting an unfamiliar, intriguing spin on it. Previously, she's done this with King Arthur (The King's Peace and The King's Name), Irish mythology (The Prize in the Game), and Victorian society as written about by Anthony Trollope (Tooth and Claw). In Farthing, she takes the traditional English country mystery, adds in alternate history, and comes up with something new and brilliant.
Lucy Kahn has come to her parents' country house, Farthing, for the weekend, bringing her new husband, David. Their marriage caused a scandal, because David is Jewish, while Lucy is of the British upper class, and Lucy is hoping that the stay with her parents will bring about a reconciliation. Instead, it brings violent death, when one of the other houseguests, who was instrumental in bringing about the 1941 peace with Hitler and Germany, is murdered, under circumstances that seem to implicate David. Soon, Inspector Carmichael of Scotland Yard enters the scene, and he and Lucy follow separate but parallel investigative tracks which lead to shocking conclusions.
The point-of-view alternates between Lucy's first person and Carmichael's third person, both splendidly done. I particularly liked Lucy, who's not quite as scatterbrained as she might initially appear, and who has a marvelous style of speaking and system of allusions (I loved her terms for sexual orientation). Both she and Carmichael are outsiders to some extent, Lucy because she's chosen to marry a Jew, Carmichael because he's a policeman (and for other reasons), and thus both are excellent viewpoints characters, looking from the outside in at different angles.
Walton slowly slips in bits and pieces of the alternate history, of which the salient fact, as mentioned above, is England's peace with Hitler, engineered by a group of conservative politicians called "the Farthing Set". Eventually, a clearer picture of this alternate history emerges, of what's already happened, and what might be going to happen. The resonances with today's political scene are chilling, and the book's ending is very unsettling.(less)
I've waited a couple of years for this sequel to The Explosionist, and alas, it was a disappointment. The Explosionist was a fun blend of alternate hi...moreI've waited a couple of years for this sequel to The Explosionist, and alas, it was a disappointment. The Explosionist was a fun blend of alternate history and thriller, with a clever and courageous heroine, Sophie, who was left in limbo by the somewhat abrupt end; I looked forward to seeing where she was headed.
Unfortunately, Davidson abandons a lot of what I liked about the first book. Much of The Explosionist was focused on the political scene of Scotland; here, since Sophie is out of Scotland for the entire book, most of that is dropped or reported second-hand. Her interesting relationship with her great-aunt, who's intimately involved with some shady goings-on of the Scottish government, is resolved entirely (well, sort of resolved) via a letter.
I was annoyed by the arbitrary way Davidson dropped historical personages into the narrative in the first book, assigning new and unlikely professions to famous names (Oscar Wilde as an obstetrician). Here, it's even worse, as some historical characters fill new roles (Wittgenstein's Uncertainty Principle, anyone?), but some fill the same roles as they did in our history: Niels Bohr, for example, and other physicists Sophie meets in Denmark. I can suspend disbelief (barely) one way or the other, but not both at the same time. (Although, all right, I did like Eric Blair as a refugee English journalist.)
Altogether, the book never feels as though it's going anywhere. Too much of it is only loosely connected with the first book, and halfway through, it derails into a bizarre and labored version of "The Snow Queen". The book ends where the fairy tale does, providing no real closure to the larger story. And that's a shame, because I thought The Explosionist had a lot of promise. (less)
It's been a long wait for this book, but I was not disappointed. On the contrary, I think this might be the best in the series so far, and I certainly...moreIt's been a long wait for this book, but I was not disappointed. On the contrary, I think this might be the best in the series so far, and I certainly hope there will be more now that Robins has a new publisher for them.
I love that the slightly alternate history allows Robins to make Miss Tolerance's career as an agent of inquiry believable, and her feel for the period and the language is exquisite. This book gives us more of Miss Tolerance's family background, combined with a suspenseful story. Also, I was delighted by the appearance of certain historical characters near the end. I do hope there's to be a fourth adventure!(less)