This was great fun, as expected. Part Indiana Jones, part da Vinci Code (which pains me to say, everyone knows I hated it), part Interview with the Va...moreThis was great fun, as expected. Part Indiana Jones, part da Vinci Code (which pains me to say, everyone knows I hated it), part Interview with the Vampire.
My Thoughts and Summary: Melissa previously reviewed The Iron Wrym Affair, and you will find her thoughts here.
What you need to know: this is an alternate Victorian London, now called Londinium, with steampunk and magic, and partly an homage to Sherlock Holmes. Archibald Clare is a mentath: brilliant, logical, and deductive. Emma Bannon is a Sorceress Prime, in service to Queen Victrix and willing to do whatever Her Majesty requests.
The Red Plague Affair picks up a few years after The Iron Wyrm Affair ended. Can you read this one without reading the first? Look, as a writer, I am rather violently anal about reading books in order to begin with; in the case of this book, I’d say hell-to-the-no more than usual. Saintcrow prefers to immerse the reader in the world rather than force-feed details, trusting the reader to fill in the pieces without long bits of exposition. This is my preferred approach when reading (and writing) as well, however it would make it more difficult in my opinion to pick up the second book in the series and become accustomed to not only the new world but suss out past events referenced from the previous installment. In this series you could skip The Damnation Affair—as book #1.5, it takes place in another part of the world with different characters (though don’t, as that book is OMFG wonderful)—but I recommend not jumping into this one without The Iron Wyrm Affair first.
My review will be spoiler-free.
In this adventure, Bannon and Clare find themselves racing to stop a devastating plague from descending on Londinium. Mystery is a fair bit of the plot, and so I’ll avoid giving a summary; the jacket copy above does give enough of a glimpse. But this Bannon and Clare outing changes the dynamic of the series when secrets are uncovered, alliances form (we meet Dr. Vance!), and Bannon’s service comes into question. The Red Plague Affair is thrilling, dark and lush, wickedly smart, and told by two fascinating lead characters.
At first glance, our two leads seem as though they couldn’t be more different.
Reason and emotion. Logic and irrationality. Though a mentath is all logic and magic pure irrationality, part of why Bannon and Clare work so beautifully together is not that they are polar opposites but that they both are a mix of emotion and reason. Clare prides himself on his deductive skills and rational thoughts, though often he seems to be the more emotional of the two (especially with regards to his nemesis, Dr. Vance, eluding him); Bannon is a high level sorceress, commanding magic which is the height of illogic, however she is practical and calm, and even Clare admits she is more reasonable than he’d expect her to be. And this mix of both features is what makes them so compatible and able to complement each other; they have just enough in common to allow them to work in tandem, joining their two opposing abilities into an unstoppable force.
The characters are all three-dimensional and well-drawn, from the leads to the secondary ones that populate this world. I could go on at length about each distinct personality, however I'll restrain myself and focus on Emma, as she is one of my favourite characters to date. What I value most in people—whether fictional or real—is competency more than just about anything, and Emma has that in spades. As a high ranking sorceress with a gift for...magic of a decidedly darker sort, she is practical, powerful, competent, passionate, has a ruthless streak I appreciate, and manages to maintain a certain “ladylike” quality necessary for women of that period while still being someone no sane person would dare to cross. Emma Bannon, in a nutshell, gets shit done, and I love her for it. Her character grows by leaps and bounds in The Red Plague Affair; this book is not easy on Emma Bannon, and makes it clear that as the series progresses, more difficult choices are ahead of her.
The language is lush as in all Saintcrow’s works, but the voice here is crisp and distinctly British; I often pause during the Bannon and Clare books to speak sentences aloud, enjoying the feel and sound of them (look, I like words). Words like “vexation”. Let’s all say that one: vexation. Isn’t it delicious? Every time I hear it, I spend the rest of the day speaking like I’m in a Regency film.
Saintcrow’s head must be the busiest place in existence, as just with her other many series, Bannon and Clare exist in a fully fleshed out world that at some point in history branched from ours. The world-building is rich and vast, and each book suggests we’ve barely scratched the surface of the history and workings of this alt-London (I, for one, could happily read a series of books on The Care and Feeding of Gryphons; they are fascinating). Though the setting is quite loosely Victorian England with clockwork horses and the like, magic is firmly entrenched in the story, woven believably into the world's history. One of the more interesting details, for me, is how the monarch Alexandrina Victrix is presented: she is Queen, yes, but that is more than a mere title. She’s the chosen vessel for Britannia Herself, literally the spirit of the Empire residing in the young woman’s body.
Let me tell you, it brings a whole new perspective on using the royal “we”.
I cannot go into detail because spoilers, but suffice to say Emma's interactions with Britannia were among my favourite in the book.
What is perhaps most refreshing with the Bannon and Clare books for me as a reader is the entirely platonic relationship between the two leads. There is no will-they-or-won’t-they or forced romantic tension here: the two are allies, friends, and work as partners; they have an affection and regard for one another, but they aren’t shagging (if that is in the cards, I trust it will integrate smoothly and still not become the focus of the series). Romantic love is all well and good, but sometimes? Sometimes I want a story about male and female leads who are friends. Because friendship is often underrated in fiction in favour of...fetishizing romantic love and holding it above all other kinds. And I don’t know about anyone else, but I like having friends and I like seeing people work together without necessarily getting naked; friends who would die for one another, friends whose love is as strong as any romantic pairing. The non-romance between the leads is a wonderful reversal on reader expectations.
It also bears mentioning that those who prefer no naughty words and no sex scenes will be happy with this book; neither would particularly fit with the story, so their absences are entirely appropriate here. (There is violence, often implied rather than fully on screen.)
Although the main plot wraps up in The Red Plague Affair, there is definitely the sense of more to come (OH IS THERE EVER), and a lead up to the third book, The Ripper Affair (tentative), which I cannot wait for.
Bitchstress Bechdel Bonus: Does it pass the Bechdel Test? Why, yes, yes it does. There are multiple female characters who speak to each other about things other than a man. (less)
A wonderful sequel to All Wounds, even stronger than the last book. Rebecca's grown, matured, and while still distinctly a teenager, she's becoming co...moreA wonderful sequel to All Wounds, even stronger than the last book. Rebecca's grown, matured, and while still distinctly a teenager, she's becoming comfortable in her own skin and with it comes more strength and confidence she didn't yet have in the first novel.
There's little I can say without giving away spoilers, but familiar faces are back, new friends join the fray, and enemies rise to make Time Heals one hell of a ride. Sign me up for the next book!(less)
I just have no words. I will attempt some, however inadequate they may be.
This is a compelling, powerful book about the only known person born in a No...moreI just have no words. I will attempt some, however inadequate they may be.
This is a compelling, powerful book about the only known person born in a North Korean gulag to escape. In addition to following Shin Dong-hyuk's life--from his earliest memories and life in Camp 14 to his escape and attempts at a "normal" existence as a survivor--it also provides context, educating the reader on life in North Korea and showing where the labour camps fit in, as well as what was happening elsewhere when Shin escaped without bogging things down with long history lessons. The book is excellently written, unflinching as it follows Shin into the darkest corners of his past, and entirely honest. Shin has been through things the average person can't imagine, yet he's never painted as without flaws; due to his upbringing, he has had to learn empathy, guilt, and trust, which is still a work in progress, and Escape from Camp 14 doesn't once try to hide this. In fact, physically escaping North Korea seems to be only part of the problem, as a happily ever after for defectors and adjustment to the outside is equally as difficult.
In November I read The Aquariums of Pyongyang, and coupled with Escape from Camp 14 paints a fuller picture of the camps; Kang spent ten years and then was released from a camp for "redeemables", while Shin was imprisoned in a place no one is meant to leave from as an irredeemable. Though there are similarities in their stories, the tone is quite different coming from someone who had no hope, no support system, and had never experienced kindness.
There are horrors occurring at this very moment that the world turns a blind eye to; indeed, this is the case for many, many atrocities around the world. But it's put best in the introduction of the book:
"As important, in a media culture that feeds on celebrity, no movie star, pop idol or Nobel Prize winner stepped forward to demand that outsiders invest emotionally in a distant issue that lacks good video footage. ‘Tibetans have the Dalai Lama and Richard Gere, Burmese have Aung San Suu Kyi, Darfurians have Mia Farrow and George Clooney,’ Suzanne Scholte, a long-time activist who brought camp survivors to Washington, told me. ‘North Koreans have no one like that.’"
Someone needs to speak for North Koreans, celebrity culture be damned. Reading the account of Shin's life in Escape from Camp 14 is a start, and I urge people to pick up this book.(less)
This is the first of a couple books on North Korea--and specifically gulags--I have on my TBR, and despite persistently reading it before bed and givi...moreThis is the first of a couple books on North Korea--and specifically gulags--I have on my TBR, and despite persistently reading it before bed and giving myself nightmares, I haven't been able to put it down.
Translated a couple times over into English, at times it's a little disjointed, oddly structured, and the writing can be stilted though still serviceable, but it's absolutely worth the read. The tale of daily life for ten years in one of the (apparently) less awful camps as a "redeemable" (ie. can eventually be released) political prisoner is a compelling one, from his early, fairly comfortable childhood, through the confusion and horror of being separated from his mother and sent with family to Yodok and growing up in a concentration camp, and eventually to his release and later flight to Seoul by way of China.
Still digesting the book and might need a break before picking up the next one, but I'm very glad I read it.(less)
When I wanted to read some NOC memoirs, this was the logical place to go as I remember when Valerie Plame was outed by Robert Novak years ago. I also...moreWhen I wanted to read some NOC memoirs, this was the logical place to go as I remember when Valerie Plame was outed by Robert Novak years ago. I also recently saw the film based on this and Joe Wilson's book, and I quite enjoyed it.
Of course, any book about a CIA agent must go through CIA filters, and I knew going into it that there were a lot of complaints about entire sections blacked out--oddly, perhaps, considering so much of the information is already public record. And this was no exaggeration; sometimes it would be a word or sentence or two blacked out, other times pages and pages, and an entire chapter title was also hidden. But I felt the publisher did a good job of filling in these blanks with a sizable afterword by Laura Rozen. While Plame can't write about her time in the CIA, someone else can with publicly available information, and the afterword helped flesh out the picture presented in the book itself. For anyone reading it, I recommend flipping to the relevant section of the afterword after finishing a chapter to fill in the blanks before continuing.
Besides enjoying reading from Plame's point of view regarding her outing as an operative years ago, I enjoyed the passages on what personality types end up as NOCs, what work is involved, the dangers, etc (as I'm looking at the subject for book research). The book fleshed out my understanding of an event I followed for a time and I'm quite glad I read it. The writing itself is smooth and concise, easy reading despite flipping between the book and the afterword. I look forward to checking out her co-written fiction spy series when it debuts. (less)