I can't really judge this book on character development or plot, since I only read the kindle sample which, though much longer than typical, admittedl...moreI can't really judge this book on character development or plot, since I only read the kindle sample which, though much longer than typical, admittedly can't showcase an author's strength in these areas. What I did read, however, gave me no confidence that the author would be capable of furthering her ideas of corporate time-travel, which seem derivative of "Doomsday Book, In the Garden of Iden, or Up the Line, mashed-up uneasily with romance-y type works such as Outlander or The Time Traveler's Wife. Maybe "derivative" is being a bit hard on the author as there is nothing new under the sun, and no idea that hasn't been used before. I will say, since I have read all of these other novels, that Ridgeway's book is by far the most poorly written, with stilted, simplistic sentences larded with descriptions of flashing eyes, flaring nostrils, and dastardly cousins; it is difficult to believe that the author is a college professor, as the first chapters are written on the sixth grade level. Her historical background, too, seems very thinly researched, as if she thumbed through one of Johanna Lindsey less-inspired offerings, and caught a glimpse of the words "cravat", "earldom", and "carriage" as the pages flashed past.
So maybe I am being unfair, but the scene that made me realize that this book could not be taken seriously was Nick's mother's actions after Nick's father dies in a riding accident. It seems to me that there are several realistic ways a human being, and not an inhabitant of Romance Land, would react to witnessing such a tragedy:
1) Race to the broken body of her spouse and call for aid, even though the situation looks hopeless. 2) Stand there in shock (or secret satisfaction, depending on the state of the marriage) and do nothing at all. 3) Faint or fall into hysterics. 4) Calmly realize that her husband is dead and, with a great deal of mental and physical effort, get the people around her to move the body.
What I CANNOT imagine is the new widow PRYING OFF THE RING from the finger of the still warm corpse of her husband, strolling over to her teenage son, handing him the ring, and CURTSEYING almost down to the ground. Really, now--who would do such a thing in real life? Did the author get confused and think that her book was set in a minor caliphate in a fantastic realm? I mean, come on. Could you imagine Jane Austen writing such a scene?
I'd like my characters in what is passed off as non-genre literature to behave like real human beings. Of course, if it is a romance novel you're writing, go right ahead and compose such a silly interlude. Knock yourself out. I might even enjoy it, if I were in the mood for such a thing and knew exactly what I was getting.
My feelings might change, of course, and I might try again, which is why this is not a DNF for me. I doubt it, however. The riding-accident incident hinted of worse things to come. And if you did like it, or think that I am just being hard on the book...well, that's fine. But you might prefer Kage Baker, who died far too young, if you like this sort of genre hybrid.(less)
I read a reasonable amount of historical fiction, and I like the depiction of past eras to be gritty and even grim, in a matter-of-fact sort of way. I...moreI read a reasonable amount of historical fiction, and I like the depiction of past eras to be gritty and even grim, in a matter-of-fact sort of way. If I'm reading about a housewife in Elizabethan England, I want to see her lifting up her skirts to step over the rivelets of ooze in the street if she is running an errand near the shambles, and I want to see any sailors, towards the end of a long period at sea, to be knocking the weevils out of their hardtack; heck, they should just ignore the wriggling creatures and go ahead and eat the biscuits; they are, after all, good protein. I also hope that my authors will strive to be as true as they can to the period they are writing about; I prefer the details to be correct. At the same time, however, I realize that authors of historical fiction can't be spending all of their time in research libraries; errors will creep in, or new discoveries will be made, no matter how conscientious the writer may be. The novel has to be written, in the end.
I understand, too, that there is disagreement on how much people have changed throughout the centuries. Are the mind-sets of people from other times so altered from the modern era? I happened to think that they were very different, so when I read a work from a author such as Robert McCammon, who states in his interview here http://www.robertmccammon.com/intervi... that he doesn't really believe people have changed very much, I am probably going to find his characters rather anachronistic; or at least, not accurate depictions of what I can only imagine long vanished people to be. Fair enough. I can't really criticize an author's decision to go in that direction. It is, after all, only a guess.
I can, however, call him to account for inexcusably sloppy research, and for a fascination for the foul and vile that borders on the lurid. I get it--past times were none too clean, epecially out on the frontier; people stank, clothing reeked, and houses crawled with insects and were choked with smoke. McCammon's seemingly new-found discovery of these not very interesting facts (history isn't stuffy! he exclaims over and over in the previously cited interview) is like a little boy who has skewered a pile of dog poop and goes waving his stick gleefully in front of the grown-ups. "Lookee here what I have found! Isn't it COOL!" (Actually, I should have written "skewered a rat" instead; so many rodents are pitch-forked, crushed, drowned, smashed, that at times I thought I had wandered into a William and Mary era whack-a-rat game show; McCammon seemed to have just tossed in another rodent death when he was at a loss for ideas, which was often.) All of this endless description, which slows down the pace to a crawl, serves no real purpose, especially as it is often not really accurate.
I almost stopped the book at page 75, when he made his first really big historical boo-boo. (I'll pass over the highly unlikely conversations the two main characters, the magistrate Woodward and his clerk Matthew, on their way to try a witch at the town of Fount Royal, have with the slimy innkeeper, but the manner in which sexual details are disclosed is beyond ridiculous.) McCammon describes the home of Bidwell, chief mover-and-shaker of the fledging town, as having a dining room that would serve as the centerpiece of an English castle. I'm sorry, but that is absurd. Here is Bacon's Castle, one of the most imposing homes of the time, located in Tidewater Virginia, one of the most highly developed regions of the early colonial era, constructed just before this period of this book:
(It was actually less grand at the end of the 17th century, since the service wing was rebuilt and the roof was raised a floor much later.) And here are two English houses of the same time period, which I also visited during my years living in England. (The first one, Wimpole Hall, once every season as it has an excellent home farm which kept my toddlers busy):
And Belton Hall, just up the road an hour or so from my home, which I include as it was constructed during the same decade as Bidwell's imagined mansion:
It's pretty clear that nothing constructed during the colonial era (or until the times of the robber barons) would be judged worthy of being the centerpiece of an English manor house. So McCammon's just taking a bit of artistic license, right? He just wants to contrast the opulent home, with the barely beaten back nature in the form of incessant insects buzzing around, with the wretched hovels. All right, but then he has Magistrate Woodward, who is portrayed as a decent, mild man, condemning young, pretty white Rachel to burn at the stake, for the crime of witchcraft, and for petty treason for supposedly killing her husband.
Guess how many white women in America were burned at the stake through judicial process during the colonial period? None. That's right: zero, nada, zip. There are NO adequately documented cases of a white woman being executed by this method in the colonies. English Common Law of the time period sentenced a person judged guilty of witchcraft to the gallows, as anyone even casually familiar with the Salem Witch Trials knows. And petty treason, though technically punishable by death by fire, was NEVER enforced on a white woman.* Clearly, if you were a black slave, man or woman, who dared to be involved in a slave uprising, or a white man who had the audacity to help in a revolt, you might very well be condemned to the stake. But a woman and her white skin was safe from the flames.**
So is Rachel's sentence an anachronism? A sloppy bit of research by the author? So what if Woodward--and by proxy the author--condemns her to the most gruesome and dreaded of executions--death is death, right? But I do think it matters, particularly as this barbaric custom is part of the story of slavery, and not of colonial white America. You have to decide how important this distortion is to you. I can only view McCammon's plot twist as the sensationalistic misreading of the historical record by a third-rate writer who is willing--even eager--to put a tawdry spin on everything. Why do I think this? Well, after starting to skim through the salacious and vulgar depositions (thorny cocks! blood dripping from female parts!) and the tedious descriptions of the thought processes of every single character that serves only to bloat an all ready deadly slow narrative, I was no longer terribly interested in the fates of the cartoonishly nasty characters (all the inhabitants of Fount Royal except the beautiful--of course!--young witch) and the Scooby-Doo-ish eager young Matthew. (Rachel herself is as wooden as the stake the townspeople want to lash her to; only Woodward was a well-defined creation who held my attention.) I kept going, however, as it was a buddy read, despite my suspicions that the author was revelling in the gross details. I stopped even skimming when I came upon the utterly out of place (view spoiler)[ drawn out account of a blacksmith's sexual assault upon a mare--complete with the love words whispered to the unwilling beast and an elaborate description of the mechanism designed to carry out such a foul encounter AND WHICH IS COMPLETELY IRRELEVANT TO THE PLOT AS WE HAVE ALL READY BEEN HIT ON THE HEAD THAT THE BLACKSMITH IS A DISTURBED INDIVIDUAL. There is also a sniggering insinuation that the horse enjoyed it. (hide spoiler)]. What's more, McCammon defends this disgusting and extraneous episode by saying that such events are part of the historical record. Very convenient of him to be suddenly concerned about historical authenticity, wouldn't you say? http://www.robertmccammon.com/intervi...
No, I did not finish the book. But I don't have to finish a bowl of stew, either, to know that something putrid lurks within it. (I did peek to the end of the book just to confirm my guess as to who the villain was; it was obvious when s/he first stepped onto the stage, so it wasn't even a good mystery.) Suffice to say that I was no longer feeling charitable enough to overlook the author having his characters using matches, envelopes, eating stewed tomatoes, using pounds instead of stones to describe human weight, referring to "tricorn" hats when the correct usage for the time would have been "cocked" hats, the use of "Violet"--a Victorian invention--as a proper name, or the countless other errors that showed that the author didn't even care to do more than a modicum of research. Just throw in another dead rat seemed to be his philosophy.
Not surprisingly, there wasn't even the consolation of interesting language to pull the reader along. McCammon's flat, leaden prose-- without style or grace--is as uninventive as his facts are made up. His sentences are just words slapped one after another like bricks upon mortar. But at least, at the end of the day, a mason might build something useful, like a wall. This book, on the other hand, is a poorly-constructed, ersatz fake that reminds me of nothing so much as:
If you are an uninspired author, you can pretend to bring the past to life, much as the theme park Dickens World pretends to bring back the Victorian era by releasing a few chemical smells in the air from strategically placed "smell pots". By focusing on the nasty and the reeking, and by conveniently ignoring the truth, you can sketch a shadow of the past for an unwary audience. But in the end, the unlucky reader of this book is not transported to another time, but just trapped in a modern warehouse, just like the ticket-holders of Dickens World. An affront to the serious reader of historical fiction, a tiresome slog for the seeker of some escapist fun, and an insult to horses everywhere, this book is to be avoided at all costs. In the spirit of the author's own words: eschew this turgid turd.
* The author of Women's Life and Work in the Southern Colonies, whose work remain the cornerstone of women's studies for Colonial Williamsburg--where McCammon did his research--states categorically that she could find no case in the South in which a woman was burned at the stake for petit treason.
This is my review, and my complaints are my own. Any tisk-tisking over my request that historical fiction remain somewhat true to the times (as if a less demanding reader is somehow more worldly wise in the ways of fiction) will be, depending on the tone of the comment and my mood at the time, either not responded to--or deleted. (less)
I normally don't review books that I just couldn't bring myself to finish without skimming, but in my opinion each book that Gortner has written has b...moreI normally don't review books that I just couldn't bring myself to finish without skimming, but in my opinion each book that Gortner has written has been poorer than the last, so I thought I should warn other readers. I was really looking forward to this novel--I'm fascinated by Isabella, and even went very far out of my way on rather bad roads to visit her birthplace while I was living in Spain (a dusty, obscure little town at the time, a rather sad place, with a tiny shrine to her memory in the partially ruined castle where she was born). I really enjoyed The Last Queen, as I thought the depiction of the harsh landscape of central and southern Spain was evocative without being sentimental; I could just tell, without then knowing anything about the author, that he KNEW Spain, which of course he does as he is half-Spanish and spent years growing up there. I thought his portrait of Juana was excellent; Gortner does crazy quite well. He still is a good man to turn to when looking for a portrait of the unhinged: the depiction of Isabella's whacked-out mother is by far the most compelling part of this novel. The descriptions of the landscape are still good, too, but frankly, it's not enough any more.
This book is not very good at all. It's filled with the most absurd, info-dumping dialogue where people "remind" each other of complicated political machinations of decades past, and chockablock with the most terrible wooden writing, where people's blood run cold and eyebrows lift sardonically, and the villain's breath is always fetid. Gortner seems to have forgotten every lesson on writing that he ever knew, especially the one of SHOWING and not TELLING. Everything seems to be seen at a distance, which is quite a feat when you're dealing with first-person narration.
Isabella comes off as a very modern woman, and kind of a stupid one at that. Where is the determined monarch of the early Renaissance, the fervent believer, the warrior driven by the conviction that she was doing God's work? You won't find her here. There's far too much talk of women's rights, and sentimental sighings over sending off her daughters to be wed. It's not that I don't believe she had a mother's feelings, but royal girls were raised up to be political pawns; for Isabella to describe herself over and over again as being distraught seems to be unrealistic. Her relationship with Fernando--the greatest political/matrimonial alliance in history--is reduced to a a bunch of squabbles that finish with cries and kisses and make-up sex in bed. Isabella doesn't hate anybody except the Portuguese--it's OK to describe them as vermin. Other groups that were sanctioned/expelled/murdered by her orders, such as the Moors, Jews, and Conversos--well, she was terribly sorry; someone else persuaded her to do it. I guess it is all right for Isabella's feelings towards the Portuguese to be accurate--it seems nobody cares about Spain's neighbor to the west--but let's tippy-toe around everyone else for the sake of political correctness. It bothered me that Gortner would rather depict her as weak, or easily persuaded, rather than examine carefully Isabella's attitudes on the social and political turmoil that occured during her reign, merely to spare the modern reader's feelings.
I started skimming the book when Isabella was present at the bedside of her brother when he was dying of plague (really? having the heir to the throne present?) but I was impatient before that, when Gortner had Isabella and Fernando meeting years before they met each other (they actually met the night before their marriage). It's just to make the story better, Gortner says reassuringly in his afterword. Yes, I get it, most readers aren't looking for complete historical accuracy in their novels, but give us something for our troubles. Exciting action. Excellent writing. Or the feeling that we can really understand the characters, who have vanished into the past, even though they are very different from ourselves. Something. Anything.
Queen Isabella was a complex and amazing woman, no matter what you think of her role in history. This novel does not do her justice. At all.(less)
The scent of caramel apples. The swirl of ruby wine in a crystal glass. Black and white silk ribbons twisted artfully together. The scent of caramel a...moreThe scent of caramel apples. The swirl of ruby wine in a crystal glass. Black and white silk ribbons twisted artfully together. The scent of caramel apples (again). There--I've pretty much summed up The Night Circus so other Gr-ers won't fall for this over-hyped, underplotted novel.
This book reads as if a junior writer for Gourmet or Vogue had decided to write "Carter Beats the Devil" and forgot to include a plot. Or to develop meaningful characters. Why this book was promoted so heavily is mystery, but after looking at Erin Morgenstern's adorable, pixie-like face, I'm thinking that she was seen as a marketable product, to be served alongside tins of gourmet popcorn with the advance reader copies. I can think of no other reason why this book got so much attention.
If a writer fails to deliver a memorable plot, or compelling characters (or at least characters who behave in believable ways and not like twirling ballerinas on a little girl's jewelry box) then the reader should naturally expect some imaginative descriptions of magic, or at least an artful turn of phrase. The scenes of magic invoke no sense of wonder, but rather seem to come out of the old movie "The Magicians", or maybe a Penn and Teller show. And the writing- well, if your idea of an elegant sentence is "She focuses only on him, pulling everything that he is with her as she breaks herself apart. Holding to the memory of every touch of his skin against hers, every moment she has spent with him. Carrying him with her." then maybe this IS the book for you.
It's rather fitting that I picked this sample from the many similar examples that litter the book since the writing style that Ms. Morgenstern reminds me of the most is late-career Barbara Cartland's. Those were the days when Dame Barbara (with a Pekinese in her lap) was dictating a book a week; her paragraphs were no more than two or three sentences long so that, as that great lady admitted, she could keep the wavering attentions of her readers. Lots of paragraphs that are mostly conversations, lots of paragraphs that are mostly descriptions of gowns and food, lots of sentence fragments. God, now I'm doing it! It is amazing how spending some time with an author will start infecting your style.
Actually, however, I'm not too worried about long-term effects from "The Night Circus." There's simply nothing there to have any influence at all. I doubt I will remember anything about this book in a week. It's like eating an eclair without any filling--poof, and it's gone.
For historical novels and magical duels that are more than a few empty descriptions read "Carter Beats the Devil" or "Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell."(less)