I'll be honest. I picked up this book in my examination of Hugo nominees expecting to read a few pages and then give up on it. It was a book 3, and it...moreI'll be honest. I picked up this book in my examination of Hugo nominees expecting to read a few pages and then give up on it. It was a book 3, and it had been nominated as part of a slate of other stories I didn't like, and I don't much like the author as an internet personality.
And I almost did give up. The Prologue is nearly pointless and read weirdly. But the setting interested me. I read a little more. And then a little more. By the time I reached about page 60, I decided I'd at least read 100 pages. And by the time I read 100 pages I knew I was going to finish it.
There's a lot I don't like about it: some of the politics, the loving descriptions of mass murder, the extremely stereotypical scene where the Japanese woman seduces the hero because it was That Time in the pre-climactic checklist.
There's other stuff I'm ambivalent about: the most powerful person in the book is a young woman, and she's written with a clear and distinctive voice and yet as a person she was really boring. I mean, not that many of the characters were better.
However. This is not a character book. This is a setting book.
It's a world where an interdimensional alien fleeing a predator bonds with humanity in a symbiotic way, giving individual humans superpowers in exchange for nourishment when those humans die. It's a world where this happened relatively recently, and our own world's history is still struggling to reconcile with that. And I simply loved reading about the setting, and how the various bits of the setting interacted, and how cleverly the superpowers were described and used. It's a pretty brilliant book in that regard.
I've heard people dismiss the book out of hand as a Hugo nominee just because the other two books weren't nominated and the author _campaigned_. 60 pages in I wasn't sure that was a valid observation. The books that get nominated tend to be a certain _kind_ of book, or from a certain kind of author, in my limited observations. I think it's perfectly possible that this book is just the wrong kind of book from the wrong kind of author, because it was _excellent_ science fantasy with wonderful worldbuilding and an interesting exploration of genre concepts. I think it's a perfectly valid nominee.
If it wasn't for the very brief scene where the Japanese lady offers herself to the brave hero, I might even have given it four stars. It's an extremely cinematic scene in an extremely cinematic book but I would have docked any movie for the same scene, so.(less)
I tried, but it really didn't work for me. Jumping back and forth between a contemporary combat scene and extended flashbacks and flashbacks within fl...moreI tried, but it really didn't work for me. Jumping back and forth between a contemporary combat scene and extended flashbacks and flashbacks within flashbacks was too distracting.(less)
I picked up this book because of the setting: a courtesan district in Tang China. It was not exactly the romance I expected; the hero was far more ord...moreI picked up this book because of the setting: a courtesan district in Tang China. It was not exactly the romance I expected; the hero was far more ordinary than I'm used to my romantic heroes being. Still, after I adjusted my expectations closer to 'realistic', I was quite happy with it. It was a genuine and tender love story. The hero is a perpetual student with a managed gambling addiction; the heroine is a clever maidservant and ex-prostitute with a strawberry birthmark on her face. And I really, really liked the mystery and its conclusion. I'm eager to read other books in the setting; the romance in book 2 looks intriguing and I have great hopes for the possible pairing in book 3.
Stylistically the writing sometimes threw me off. Usually I'm very sensitive to that kind of thing but in this case I told myself the stylistic oddities were part and parcel of the 'historical China' aspect and that worked pretty well.(less)
Roman-inspired fantasy romance. Extremely adequate. I loved the correct use of decimate. And I had very little to complain about for the first 80% of...moreRoman-inspired fantasy romance. Extremely adequate. I loved the correct use of decimate. And I had very little to complain about for the first 80% of the book. After that the pacing got weird but she managed to keep me interested. There was a lot of technical competency in the narration but the characters didn't fascinate me. I'll read the other books, though. Sometimes that's exactly what I want. (less)
I pick up books primarily based on premise. Even my favorite authors have to catch my attention with the premise and if a beloved author wanders into...moreI pick up books primarily based on premise. Even my favorite authors have to catch my attention with the premise and if a beloved author wanders into territory that doesn’t excite me I may never pick up the books in question.
Luckily, my premise hooks are broad. I like angels and goddesses. I like Regencies and other interesting, non-contemporary settings. I like women with powerful magic. I like dark romances. I like stories about fighting destiny and I even like a bit of Arthuriana. And when This Crumbling Pageant was pitched to me, I knew that I had to read it.
It’s set in a shadow world that lies alongside the historical Regency-era England we know. The shadow world—Magi England-- seems to be made up of bubbles of magical geography that rest on the foundation of Ordinary England, and likewise, the culture of Magi England and the story rest upon the foundations of a mundane world— although most of the time the foundations are so deeply buried you don’t notice them and the book might as well be in an entirely different world. But, as foundations do, the foundations matter.
In Magi England, the indigenous people are called the Earthborn, and their invaders and conquerors are the Fireborn. They worship Greco-Roman gods and take their names from Greco-Roman culture. The ancestor of the current Fury family is credited with creating Magi England as it now exists: enthroning its King, suggesting its laws and warding its ways. Once the Magi were safe from Ordinary England, the Fury family took up a retired life: focusing on elegancies and their enchanting music. At least until Our Story Begins, when a King is dying without a blood heir, and their eldest daughter marries the Duke Regent.
The story isn’t about her. This Crumbling Pageant is about her little sister, youngest daughter of the Fury family: born to dark rumors and uncomfortable, strange magic.
(One of my favorite parts of this book: This is a fantasy novel, right? Sort of pitched as an upper YA thing? You’d think the young lady’s dark birth and strange magic would make her family draw away. What’s a YA novel without a heroine estranged from her family, right? But Persephone’s family absolutely cherishes her despite her problems. She has a sister and three brothers (including a twin she supposedly stole the magic from) and she has a warm individual relationship with each of them. Even her parents, who supposedly travel abroad for years at a time, are _her parents_. The author doesn’t spend a ton of time detailing this but the warmth of her family ties infuses every scene with them and I love it.)
We meet Persephone Fury at age 13 as she goes on an adventure and is first introduced to her destiny. After introducing all of the major characters, we’re whisked forward a few years, to the point where Persephone is preparing for her social debut while drinking a tisane to suppress her magic, and the story really gets started.
While powerful and more educated than most of her peers, Persephone also carries the full weight of her entire culture’s flaws. She’s both sheltered and privileged: gossip and her strange magic are pretty much the worst she’s had to deal with by the time she’s seventeen, and she has never been given any reason to question anything about her world. She’s in love with a man who only wants to shelter and protect her, and if she had her way, she’d be happy with him for the rest of her life.
Unfortunately for her, the antagonist has other plans. She has both the power and skills he needs. She’s hated him her whole life, but he’s not exactly a stranger to hardship. Worse, he’s a master of the same strange magic she can only control through drugs and he has other secrets she craves. And sadly for both of them, they’re the chosen chew toys of a goddess with an agenda of her own.
For the reader, this isn’t as bad as it is for the poor characters: Vespasian Jones is as expertly drawn as Persephone Fury. He’s very much the protagonist of his own story; he is _interesting_ on the page in ways that I’m sure surprise some readers— and there’s a lot in-between the lines of his sections. I was not disappointed by the final convergence of their arcs (and I’d love to talk about them more with anybody who finishes the book!)
The story moves fast, with layers of hinted secrets, foreshadowing, setting development, character development and plot. Very little is laid out easily for us: some things referred to in the first third of the book aren’t fully explained until near the end and other things introduced halfway through are still unexplained at the end (because this is a trilogy). It doesn’t, claims a Barnes & Noble review, end on a cliffhanger, which I suppose is technically true: it has a strong plot arc that resolves in exciting and _mostly_ satisfying ways. It just leaves a lot of wild possibilities in the ‘pending’ queue and I’m feeling a bit intense about some of them still, two days later.
Patricia Burroughs is new to high fantasy (as far as I can tell), but not new to writing; she’s been a romance author and a screenwriter for over twenty years and it shows in her storytelling. The book is expertly crafted. She knows what she’s doing. It’s not _perfect_: sometimes the world building is a bit too in media res; sometimes explanations promised are interrupted or never come; occasionally small details are skimmed over where I would have liked to have seen them explained; sometimes (like me) you get a crazy idea and fly with it for too long.
The plot takes a few twists that — for me — meant I rushed through the second half quickly. Some really dreadful things were foreshadowed and I wanted to get them over with as quickly as possible. But dreadful events are never throwaway events. They matter. Because our heroine is going to change the world, one way or another, though perhaps not in the ways the entities steering her would like…
(Can you see why I like this book so much?)
And I hope if you’ve been reading this far, you’ll give the book a try so I’m not alone in anticipating the second volume.
It took me 4 months to finish this book; I had to restart it at one point. It's not entirely the book's part, although I found myself stopping the boo...moreIt took me 4 months to finish this book; I had to restart it at one point. It's not entirely the book's part, although I found myself stopping the book at the same point twice. Sooo... yeah. 3 stars. 3.5? I liked much of it. I like where it's going. I continue to love the magic, I love how Jim Hines' mind works. His writing has sometimes struck me as a bit awkward but in the places where I really noticed, it could have been purposeful. I'm ready to read the next one. It is a very solid 3-4 stars.(less)
4.5 stars or so-- it lacked any real emotional punch but it was incredibly enjoyable, with great supporting characters and a really fun magic system t...more4.5 stars or so-- it lacked any real emotional punch but it was incredibly enjoyable, with great supporting characters and a really fun magic system that had my husband and I chatting about it all day. The story moved quickly and it felt like light reading although there was nothing in the subject matter to declare it so.(less)
This is exactly the kind of romance novel I want from an ex-law professor with a graduate degree in theoretical physical chemistry. It is smart, histo...moreThis is exactly the kind of romance novel I want from an ex-law professor with a graduate degree in theoretical physical chemistry. It is smart, historical, poignant and lovely. The romance in it reminded me of my own wonderful husband and both made me understand him a bit better and made me a bit braver.
It is about a scientist, inventing the study of inheritance a few decades early, in the 1860s. Because she is a woman, nobody will even read her ideas, and so she works with a man to get her ideas out there. And it is about this woman and what her world has made her into and what she has made herself into far more than it is about a romantic hero or even a romance. It is about other women, too: real women who might have achieved what Violet achieves, real women whose names, if recorded, were only recorded as the loving helpmeets of their respected husbands.
Even if you don't read romance, I think this is worth reading if you care about things like history or women in STEM. It isn't a bodice ripper. It's a love letter to those history never admitted existed. (less)
Some good chemistry early on. She did an excellent EXCELLENT job hooking me into the third book. And it made me think of Georgette Heyer a bit wistful...moreSome good chemistry early on. She did an excellent EXCELLENT job hooking me into the third book. And it made me think of Georgette Heyer a bit wistfully.(less)
I think Courtney Milan's career may eventually reach an integrity ceiling. Her books are absolutely beautiful for the raw honesty of emotion and histo...moreI think Courtney Milan's career may eventually reach an integrity ceiling. Her books are absolutely beautiful for the raw honesty of emotion and history, of suffering and ignorance and strength that they portray. If you're sensitive, as I'm sometimes sensitive, it makes it hard to use them as escapism. I like historical novels because history is just as much another world as any second world fantasy can present. But I like escapism, too. I like exceptional people. I like to believe, when I'm seeking escape, that somebody will save all the sick and starving children _this_ time. But Courtney Milan is all too aware that mostly, those children didn't get saved. They lived short, brutal, unpleasant lives. She doesn't focus on it, oh no. But she knows. And that knowing shines through the seams of her stories. It makes them something other than romance. They're beautiful things, but they rarely make me comfortable.