Devil Dance, by Suzanne Arruda

Literary rating: starstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2

This final installment (the author confirms that fact in her Acknowledgments) of the series is set in May 1921, a few months after the previous one. The book’s opening finds Jade in Zanzibar, a new setting for her, which takes her out of the Nairobi area and away from her friends there. One reviewer complained about their absence, but as a compensation, we get to not only spend some more time with Jade’s formidable Spanish-born mother, Inez, but to meet Jade’s dad as well. Her parents have come to Africa for her impending nuptials, and she and Inez plan to enjoy a relaxing sight-seeing trip while Richard del Cameron gets acquainted with his new son-in-law on a planned safari.

Since she didn’t expect to need it, Jade didn’t bring along her trusty Winchester. But Simba Jike’s reputation has preceded her, and her propensity to land in the middle of dangerous skullduggery is as much in evidence here as ever. (Luckily, she did bring her knife….) She and Inez soon encounter a sudden mysterious death, an appeal for help, and a wealthy Arab household rife with secrets. And meanwhile, back in Mombasa, their menfolk stumble across an apparent slave-trading operation –and they’re not the sort of guys who’d let that sort of thing go on without getting involved.

This is the only novel in the series to be self-published; Arruda evidently wrote it without the aid of her usual proofreading and editorial services. There was also a five-year gap between it and the preceding novel, during which she apparently had the distraction of a pregnancy, childbirth, and care for a newborn daughter, to whom the book is dedicated. (From internal evidences, I’m guessing that the early chapters may have been written before the pregnancy, and the middle and later ones after the baby had become a toddler.) These factors show in a number of typos (though none of them are bad enough to keep the reader from understanding the author’s intention), and in some discontinuity between plot elements near the beginning and the developing story, which cost the book a star.

Otherwise, the quality is very similar to the other series installments. The mystery was more deeply concealed, with several developments that genuinely surprised me. As always, the author thoroughly researched her setting(s). An element of the possibly supernatural has typically been a feature of these novels, and that’s particularly strong here, with the background of the witchcraft guild of Zanzibar’s neighboring island, Pemba, and their rites of human sacrifice. Jade’s (and Arruda’s) concern for human rights in the face of injustice is also a strong note in the book, in the face of the persistent practice of slavery, which was nominally outlawed on Zanzibar in 1897, but still went on in practice even on into the 1920s. (And it continues to flourish today in the countries of the Arabian peninsula that are still governed by Sharia law, which regulates slavery but doesn’t forbid it.)

Barb and I read this book together, as we have the whole series, and we’re both sorry to see the series end! Jade has been one of our favorite heroines, and its been a privilege to get to know her.

Author: Suzanne Arruda
Publisher: Self-published, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Angel’s Bounty

starstar
“More double-blank domino, than a double-six”

angelsbountyHaving been involved in low-budget feature films (on both sides of the camera), I’m very much aware of how much dedication and hard work it takes to bring a feature to the screen. I tend to try and cut them slack where possible, especially when they’re in our genre. Unfortunately, the results here aren’t actually very good, and I struggled to stay focused on the film for much of the running time.

The heroine is Angel Sommers (Springer), a bounty hunter with dreams of opening a “doggie daycare” business in Los Angeles. Her chance comes when she gets notice of a fugitive called Tommy Briggs (Giuliotti), with a sizable reward on his head. And there’s a personal element too, for Briggs was involved in the death of Angel’s father, also a bounty-hunter, when she was a young girl. The capture of Briggs goes relatively smoothly. It’s the journey back that’s the problem, for it turns out his Russian ex-wife, Isabelle (Chris Stordahl) has her greedy eyes on Tommy’s life-insurance. To this end, she has hired a couple of bumbling assassins, who are intent on making sure he doesn’t make it into custody alive. If Angel gets in the way, that’s her problem.

In other words: nothing here you haven’t seen before. Right down to the bickering between the assassins about Doritos, which sounds like something from a first draft of a Tarantino movie, this is a warmed-over hodge-podge of over-familiar concepts and tropes. Curiously though, Angel is not particularly interested in revenge against the man who killed her father. You’d think there’d be a good deal more heat generated by that long-held grudge, yet the relationship remains almost defiantly low-key. The production also makes almost all the mistakes made by low-budget films. [I know, because we’ve made ’em.] Murky sound? Check. Supporting cast of enthusiastic amateurs? Check. Pointless cameo by a local band, in which the director may well have friends? Check: Guns of Nevada here.

There are occasional scenes that work. A nice one has Angel interacting with a husband and wife couple who run a motel. And I actually liked Springer, who brings an entirely appropriate, world-weary quality. However, the threat level of the hitmen is so feeble, there’s not a shred of excitement to be had. Which would be okay if the aim was comedy, except there’s even less mirth to be found here, than excitement. There’s also needless diversion in the shape of Angel’s cronies, who add nothing of significance to the entire production. Their roles should have been excised entirely, and the freed-up running time used to add depth to Angel, or her relationship with Tommy, the latter existing only because the plot demands it.

While it’s clear Fleming and Springer have a love for the genre, that isn’t enough to salvage this. And a demerit for apparent ballot-box stuffing on Amazon. A suspicious number of the glowing five-star reviews, are from people who have never reviewed anything else…

Dir: Lee Fleming
Star: Kristen Springer, J.P. Giuliotti, Alastair Bayardo, Travis Gray

The Leopard’s Prey, by Suzanne Arruda

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2

leopardsThis fourth installment of the Jade del Cameron series has much the same strengths and general style of the previous books. We find Jade back in British East Africa, a few months after the events of the third book, The Serpent’s Daughter, and again encounter our old friends from the first two books. She’s supplementing her writing income by using her lariat and photography skills to help Perkins and Daley, the two partners in a small company that secures African animals for U.S. zoos. But we sense early on that her sleuthing skills may also be called on again, with the discovery of the dead body of a merchant from Nairobi (1920 population, ca. 11,000 –white population, ca. 3,000). Is his death, as the authorities initially suppose, suicide –or murder? And where is his unhappy wife? And did she or didn’t she have a recent unreported, unattended childbirth? Inquiring minds want to know; and Jade has an inquiring mind, soon made more so by the fact that the lead investigator seems to consider her beau, Sam Featherstone, a prime suspect.

The mystery (or mysteries) here was more challenging than in the previous books; I was able to figure out the basic solution about the same time that Jade did, but not before. Jade will face life-threatening jeopardies, and get to display her action-heroine credentials before the book is over; she’s also learning to fly Sam’s biplane, to add to her accomplishments (and yes, she’ll get to fly solo here). Arruda isn’t simply marking time with this installment; there are significant developments in store for some of the secondary characters, and one for Jade herself.

In a couple of areas, Arruda touches on serious issues in this book, issues from a 1920 context, but which have continuing relevance. By 1920, wildlife in parts of Africa was already coming under pressure from the great influx of European settlement and urbanization, as well as the spread of European-style agriculture. This brought habitat destruction, and the killing of predators to protect livestock –the old Africa already at war with the new. For Jade, taking individual animals to safety in a zoo is a way to help protect their species from extinction. But she’s also painfully aware that from the standpoint of the animal, life in a zoo isn’t the same thing as freedom; something important is lost. This is a quandary the morality of which is still being debated, nearly a century later. And much more so than in the previous books, we’re brought face to face with the ugly injustices of British treatment of native Africans: subjected to arbitrary taxation without representation, payable only in British money, and solely designed to force the males over 13 into oppressive labor contracts with white employers; subjected as well to travel restrictions (in their own country), that leave them virtual wards of the British and bind the males to their jobs.

This has always been, and continues to be, a seriously researched series, in which the results of the author’s research are blended seamlessly into the narrative, creating a strong sense of place. Here, we have a close look at traditional Masai culture –not as immersive and detailed a literary experience as the exploration of Amazigh (Berber) culture in the previous book, but still fascinating to me. Arruda’s treatment of non-European cultures is realistic but respectful. As always, her concluding Author’s Note here is mainly an annotated description of the source material she used in writing the novel, which would be valuable to readers who want to learn more about Africa (and post-World War I Africa in particular).

Author: Suzanne Arruda
Publisher: New American Library, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

The Serpent’s Daughter, by Suzanne Arruda

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2

serpentMany of the strengths of the first two novels in the Jade del Cameron series (which I’ve also read, and reviewed) are present in this third installment as well. However, at the end of the previous book, Stalking Ivory, Jade got a letter from her mother, inviting Jade to meet her in Tangier for a trip to Spain (to buy a stallion for the family’s New Mexico ranch). That’s the springboard for this book, which allows Arruda to introduce some new and fresh elements into the mix as well. This time, Jade is all the way across the African continent from her usual British East Africa milieu, and into a vividly-realized 1920 Morocco. Most of our usual supporting characters are left behind, and replaced by well-drawn new ones. For the first time, we get to meet Jade’s Andalusian-born mom, Dona Inez Maria Isabella de Vincente del Cameron, a strong woman in her own right and a fascinating dynamic character, and learn more about Jade’s background. This novel is as much concerned with exploring a complex, loving but fraught relationship between mother and daughter, as well as themes about being true to yourself and the possibilities of second chances and new beginnings, as it is about solving a mystery; and it gains in psychological depth as a result.

Nonetheless, there are very definitely mysteries to solve: a kidnapping, a murdered dead body that seems to be disconcertingly mobile for a corpse, the theft of an ancient amulet, and a sinister drug-smuggling operation. (Drug trafficking between Morocco and southern Europe didn’t begin in recent times, though it’s increased greatly today.) Having read the cover copy –which I don’t recommend because, IMO, it gives away too much that the readers might wish to discover on their own– I was sure I’d identified the villains in the first chapter; but I was still in the dark about some significant things, and Arruda managed to throw me a genuinely surprising curve ball I totally did not expect. I like that! Not having expected to need it in the urban setting of Tangier, Jade didn’t bring her Winchester on this trip. But she still carries a knife in her boot sheath, and her resourcefulness and skill at fisticuffs haven’t deserted her… and that’s just as well, because they’ll be sorely needed. (And where resourcefulness is concerned, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree!). Jade’s deductive abilities, as in the first book, can be a little on the slow side; but she doesn’t have to do much deduction here, and she figured out one key thing before I did.

A unique aspect of this book that I found fascinating was the detailed look at the traditional Amazigh culture of the people usually called by the appellation the ancient Greeks gave them, Berbers (from “barbarian,” the Greeks’ general term for non-Greeks –though, as one Imazighen man points out here, “It is an insult. We are not barbarians.”). There’s a rich cross-cultural flavor here, and a sense of place that’s particularly strong. All in all, this is an excellent continuation of a series that’s become a favorite of both my wife’s and mine, which does more than just run in place; it provides significant developments in the overall story arc. Now, we’re eager to continue Jade’s adventures with the fourth series installment, The Leopard’s Prey!

Author: Suzanne Arruda
Publisher: New American Library, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Jessica Jones: Season one

starstarstarstarhalf
“The Jones’ town massacre.”

jjones1A low-key take on the whole Marvel Universe, this takes place alongside the likes of The Avengers, yet almost separate from them. This means there are a couple of references to more high-profile superheroes (the battle for New York depicted in Avengers is called ‘The Incident’), plus nods to, and characters from, Netflix’s other Marvel show, Daredevil. Otherwise, this is its own creature, and likely the better for it. The heroine is Jessica Jones (Ritter, possessing an Eliza Dushku vibe), a private eye who has been gifted – or cursed – with remarkable strength. While this does occasionally come in handy, as we see in the first episode when serving a subpoena to an unwilling recipient, she’s well aware of the downside that her talent might bring; in the comics, but barely discussed in the show, she had a brief stint as a superhero, which ended badly. Now, she largely keeps it to herself, rather than running around the city fighting crime ‘n’ stuff.

jjones2Our story starts with her taking on what looks like a mundane missing person job, the parents of the girl in question having been recommended to her PI services. The disappearance turns out to have been engineered by “Kilgrave” (Tennant), the pseudonym adopted by a man with the talent of mind-control. Jessica crossed paths with Kilgrave before, having been one of those under his mental thumb. The experience left Jones with post-traumatic stress, but she believed she had seen the last of him – only to discover that not only is he still alive, he is perhaps even more obsessed with Jessica than he was. Fortunately, she isn’t alone, with help from her foster sister, Trish Walker (Taylor), now a popular radio host, and Luke Cage (Colter), a barman who, like Jones, has an abnormal ability he prefers remain private. However, how can you defeat someone who can take anyone, even your closest friends, and turn them against you as spies or assassins?

If you are used to Marvel movies, this is very much understated in comparison to something like The Avengers or Guardians of the Galaxy, big, bombastic epics with a lot of things blowing up. It’s often easy to forget they share the same universe – but then, remember that “comics” aren’t a genre, they’re a medium. While the term “comic-book movie” has come to mean a certain type of film, the truth is the range actually includes titles as diverse as The History of Violence, The Road to Perdition and When the Wind Blows. It’s possible to imagine a version of Jessica Jones, with its heroine entirely free of all special abilities – you’d more or less have a modern noir, right down to the jazzy intro music and voice-over narration. Kilgrave would be harder, admittedly, since his powers are largely what he has allowed to define him, but perhaps he could become a creepy, stalkery ex-boyfriend.

Jones is certainly flawed, though how many of these flaws are the result of her first encounter with Kilgrave is uncertain, given the limited glimpses we get of her life before that. She now drinks heavily, can’t maintain a relationship with anyone, and is crabby and sarcastic. All told, not a very likeable individual, and this is reflected in the near-lone existence she has. As the audience spends time with her though, they grow to appreciate her better qualities, such as a ferocious loyalty which, once earned, is never lost. She’s relentless too: once she sinks her teeth into a case, you probably would have to cut off Jones’s head to get her to back off, though the pursuit of Kilgrave certainly has a significant personal element to it too. As well as strength, it appears Jessica has the ability to take damage and keep going; not just physical either, but also psychological and spiritual, because she goes through the ringer over the course of these 13 episodes.

However, she may still be overshadowed by Kilgrave, even during the early episodes where he is rarely seen. Unlike most traditional “comic-book” villains, Kilgrave has a philosophy that informs his actions, and even possesses a twisted morality of sorts. He wants, and indeed, is desperate for, Jessica to like him, without being compelled to do so through mind-control. Tennant is quite brilliant in the role: you’ll be astonished if you’ve only seen him in Doctor Who, less so if you’re aware of his excellent work elsewhere, such as in Broadchurch, or even as Hamlet. Kilgrave is a total dick, likely a clinical psychopath, with a short fuse. This may be close to the worst combination possible for someone given the ability to manipulate others like a puppet. However, Tennant manages to retain a good degree of humanity in his depiction of the character. Like many psychopaths, Kilgrave can be charming on occasion, and the differences between him and Jessica are not as obvious as you might think: they are both children of trauma.

jjones3Less effective, for me, were the supporting cast, and this aspect left the show short of “Seal of Approval” status [though I know many disagree]. The apparently obligatory, dysfunctional romance between Jones and Cage feels both too sudden and forced: I guess he needed to be established for his own, upcoming TV series, though I’ll probably not bother with it, any more than I did with Daredevil. Meanwhile, Carrie Ann Moss’s aggressive lawyer, oddly gender-swapped from the comic, never served any significant purpose over the course of this first season. More effective is the complex relationship between Jessica and Trish; one born of personal tragedies, on both sides, which still continue to resonate, years later. Still, I couldn’t help feeling that a 13-episode series was over-stretching the material; a few of the shows appeared a good deal more filler than killer, and I suspect a 10-episode order might have been better overall.

The other main weakness, to me, was some contrived plotting, such as the way in which an inexplicable immunity to Kilgrave’s powers becomes an essential part of the final arc. I can’t say if the comics dealt with it similarly, but for a series so grounded in gritty realism, suddenly to pull out something which felt more like a big lump of handwavey Kryptonite, was disappointing. Similarly, the final confrontation between Kilgrave and Jones also had the former behave in a rather dumb way, closer to that of a sixties Bond villain, than the smart and savvy psycho he’d been portrayed as over the previous 12 episodes. I guess you can take the television show out of the comic-book, but you can’t entirely take the comic-book out of the television show. Or something…

Those flaws noted, this is still likely the best action-heroine entry to come out of either Marvel or DC so far. The show has been renewed for a second season, although the time-frame for this is uncertain, and it may end up being queued behind other planned Marvel/Netflix series – not least The Defenders, their “low-rent” version of The Avengers which will team up Daredevil with Jones, Cage and Iron Fist. Additionally, the makers will need to figure out who or what will replace Kilgrave as the show’s “big bad”, a tough act to follow. If the future of Jessica’s day job seems highly uncertain at the end of this run, there are also hints that she is no longer going to  be quite the lone wolf operator that she was here, possibly building eventually toward that Defenders team-up. If not as jaw-droppingly good as some claim (“The best show on TV”?), its hard-boiled approach has to be commended, and is refreshingly unlike anything else available, from any source.

Creator: Melissa Rosenberg
Star: Krysten Ritter, Mike Colter, David Tennant, Rachael Taylor

The Sleeping Partner, by Madeleine E.Robins

Literary rating: starstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2

sleepAt the age of 16, the intelligent and spirited daughter of a country baronet, Sarah Brereton –the girl who would become the Sarah Tolerance that series fans know and admire– fell deeply in love with her brother’s fencing instructor, and he with her. (For modern readers, it’s important to recognize that in that day, teens were expected to mature and become responsible early; 16-year-old girls might well be married. So this wasn’t some sort of sick, pedophilic situation; Sarah was a young woman with the passion and impetuousness of youth, but in her society she was a woman, not a child, and Charles Connell was a normal, decent male.) Because of the class difference and paternal opposition, though, this relationship didn’t lead to a happy engagement and marriage, but to a hasty flight to the Continent, with Sarah disgraced, disowned by her family, and consigned to permanent Fallen Woman status. (Fallen men in her culture didn’t suffer any similar opprobrium.)

Like many people in that pre-antibiotic era, Connell died young, leaving her in effect a widow without ever having technically been a wife. Now, some 12 years later (we’re up to April, 1811 in this volume), she’s living in London under an assumed name, to spare her family from embarrassment. To support herself without resorting to the usual expedient of prostitution (friendless and helpless women in that environment being, pretty much invariably, sexually exploited women), she’s created the profession of “agent of inquiry” –a private investigator, in our parlance– for herself, putting her unique abilities to use. She’s smart, inquisitive, brave, able to move in a range of social circles and to pass for a man when she needs to, well trained by Connell in the use of a sword, and not afraid to pack and use a pistol. (In this volume, the level of violence in her physical altercations is again dialed down to the one-star level; but her weapons do come out, and she can definitely defend herself with aplomb.)

Her latest client is a young married woman, who desperately wants Sarah to find and rescue the lady’s 16-year-old younger sister (daughter of a peer), who’s disappeared, leaving behind a note indicating that she’s eloped with an unnamed lover. Obviously, this case stirs some very deep-seated feelings for Sarah. It will get more personal and wrenching, rather than less, as she investigates. And series fans won’t be surprised that there’s more to the mystery than at first meets the eye.

Many of my general comments on the preceding two books of the series apply to this one as well. Robins’ prose style and characterizations are as fine as ever; not just Sarah, but all of the characters (good and bad) are thoroughly real people whom we like, pity or detest. (Some are old friends from the earlier books, some are newly met.) The period flavor is as rich and rewarding as ever. (As usual, a concluding “Note on History, Faux and Real” explains the historical background, and where the author’s slightly alternate world diverges from ours in a few details.) Considering the kind of case our heroine is investigating, and the fact that she lives in a cottage behind her (also Fallen –“the black ewe of her generation”) aunt’s high-class brothel and has a prostitute for a close friend, sexual content here is relatively minimal. We also get a glimpse here of Sarah in church, which helps to deepen her character. Like many people of that day –including Jane Austen herself, a writer whose influence Robins readily admits– she doesn’t wear her faith on her sleeve, but it’s there, to a lot greater extent than some of the more ostentatiously pious might give her credit for. (Then and now, many of the latter tend to forget that a Christian society has to be, first and foremost, a community of forgiveness.) And the volume isn’t simply treading water in terms of the development of the series; there’s significant growth and change in relationships here.

Why, then, only four stars, when the two previous books got five? For only one reason. Here, in the resolution/explanation of the skullduggery at the heart of events, there’s one major logical contradiction (which is impossible to explain without a spoiler). Robins papers it over without any real explanation (and it’s possible she actually didn’t recognize it herself!), but because it’s central to the resolution of the book, I had to reluctantly deduct a star for it. But it’s still a great read!

A couple of notes are relevant on the way words were used differently in 1811 than today. First, a clergyman here is said to be “Unitarian.” Today’s “Unitarians” are somewhat similar to the “Deists” of Sarah’s day (except that most today would be even more skeptical, and less willing to accept a label of Christian, or even of theistic). “Unitarians” in Sarah’s world, however (like the slightly later March family in Little Women) were what are sometimes called “Biblical Unitarians,” holding orthodox views on the atonement and the authority of Scripture, and definitely not Deists –in other words, much more conservative than the term suggests today. Second, the word “whore” is used in these books simply as the normal word for what we would today call a prostitute. Obviously, it was an inherently insulting term to apply to a woman who was NOT in that trade, but for those who were, it didn’t have any particularly insulting connotation; the girls themselves used it as a normal self-designation. No speaker today would use it, even to a woman who is a sex worker, without a deliberate intention to hurt and demean; but in 1811, there generally is no such intention (and usually no such effect).

This is the latest Sarah Tolerance book to date –published in 2011, seven years after the previous one. It isn’t clear whether Robins intends to continue the series past this point. If not, there are features to this volume that could make it a satisfactory conclusion to what will then be a trilogy. But if the author does ever intend, in the future, to visit Sarah’s London again, I and I’m sure a goodly number of other fans will eagerly come along for the ride!

Author: Madeleine E. Robins
Publisher: Plus One Press, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Mother

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“The truth? You can’t handle the truth!”

motherBong is best known in the West for recent SF film, Snowpiercer, and also for monster movie The Host, but this, which came between those two, is somewhat less of a genre piece. A woman, known only as “Mother” (Kim), lives with her… intellectually-challenged, shall we say, shy son Do-joon (Won) in a small Korean town, making her living as a seller of medicinal herbs and grey-market acupuncturist. When a local schoolgirl is found dead, with one of Do-joon’s golf-balls next to her, he’s immediately the prime suspect, and the police investigation doesn’t bother looking much further. His lawyer is no help, and when the easily-fooled Do-Joon is browbeaten into signing a confession, it appears the case is closed. The only one still convinced of his incident is his Mom, who begins a quest, along with her son’s semi-delinquent friend, Jin-Tae (Jin), to find the truth behind the murder.

Be careful what you wish for, could be the moral of the story here, for the results of Mother’s investigation might not necessarily be what she wants to find. The film deliberately keeps the question of Do-Joon’s guilt or otherwise unresolved, almost until the very end. I suspect any Hollywood version of the same story would not have the guts to walk that tight-rope for as long, and it’s that tension between the audience’s uncertainty and Mother’s absolute, unwavering commitment to, and belief in, her son’s innocence, which largely keeps this interesting as things move forward. You desperately want her faith to be justified; I’ve been in a similar situation, someone I know having been arrested and charged with multiple murders, and denial is an entirely natural reaction. I can only imagine what it’s like for a mother, but in this case, her relentless and fearless pursuit of the real killer is what moves the film into our territory.

It’s not perfect, with neither the opening nor the end being as strong as the middle section deserves, and the resonance of Kim’s history as an actress is largely lost – I wasn’t aware she had spent much of her career in Korea playing the motherly type. There are also moments of strange irrelevance, such as when the cops taking Do-Joon away, are involved in a car crash, for absolutely no reason; it’s not referred to at any other point in the film, and seems a pointless diversion in a film that’s probably overlong, at 129 minutes. However, there’s enough meat here, and a very good central performance, to overcome the weaknesses, and make for an interesting and uniquely independent twist on the female detective sub-genre.

Dir: Bong Joon-ho
Star: Kim Hye-ja, Won Bin, Jin Goo, Yoon Je-moon

Petty Treason, by Madeleine E. Robins

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2

pettytreasonThis second volume of Robins’ high-quality Sarah Tolerance series has much in common with the first book, (Point of Honour, which I’ve already reviewed here) in style and literary strong points; and of course it shares a protagonist and other continuing characters (and an ethos) with its predecessor, and builds on the premise and events laid out there. While it could be read first and still be enjoyed, IMO the series should be read in order to fully understand the characters and relationships (and Sarah’s unique situation), and appreciate their development here.

Six months have passed since the events of Point of Honor; we’re now in November, 1810. In the background, the Napoleonic Wars still drag on, with widespread dissatisfaction on the home front with the sacrifices the government demands to support and provision the troops abroad; and Queen Charlotte’s poor health fuels the poisonous infighting of Whig and Tory factions as they jockey for the possible appointment of a new regent. The book’s cover copy gives a basically accurate explanation of the case confronting Sarah here –except that this is actually NOT a locked room mystery, classic or otherwise; whoever wrote the description didn’t read the book carefully. It’s not her usual type of investigation, and she undertakes it reluctantly; she’s accustomed to inquire after lost articles, errant spouses, social skeletons in the closet, etc –not to track down murderers. But the events of the previous book have demonstrated that she can do the latter; and since the investigating authorities are inclined to pin this crime on the widow, her brother believes that hiring Sarah might be his desperate last chance to find the real culprit and clear his sister.

Robins has crafted a challenging mystery that will satisfy genre fans, and keep them guessing down to the wire; the deceased had secrets that don’t immediately meet the eye, and he wasn’t the only one with things to hide. The pace of the storytelling and investigating is slow, in keeping with transportation by foot or by horse and communication by written messages; we see investigation conducted as it actually would be in this cultural context and with this kind of technology (or lack of technology). We’re also immersed very much in the daily life of a young woman in the Regency world; the way the author brings the milieu to life is a great strength of the series.

That said, the action component here is significantly greater than it was in the first book, reflected in the kick-butt quotient above, which here goes up a star. There’s also much less in the way of actual sexual situations, though Sarah still lives out back of her aunt’s high-society brothel and is close friends with a prostitute, and though her inquiries here will expose her to the ugly world of sexual sadism, where some brothels called “birching houses” cater to the tastes of males who get sexual satisfaction from beating and brutalizing women. As in the first book, there’s not much bad language here; low-life characters use the f-word three times, but in a context where it’s actually the Anglo-Saxon verb these people would use (rather than as an all-purpose expletive, as we hear it nowadays).

Sound historical research underlies the story here, as Robins makes clear in her appended “History and Appreciation.” The details of English criminal law of that day, as given in the book, are accurate; and the attempt to kill one of the king’s sons, the Duke of Cumberland, by his valet Sallis (who committed suicide when it failed) really did take place in May 1810. (In her alternate world here, Robins took the liberty of moving it to August.) And Cumberland actually was, as here, a scandal-ridden High Tory who wasn’t much loved by the populace. An equalitarian feminist subtext set against the backdrop of a very chauvinistic society (and ours really isn’t much less so, though we’re more hypocritical about it) is another strong point here.

Sarah’s a great heroine, who readily earns this reader’s respect and admiration. The snobbier members of Regency High Society don’t consider her a “lady” (and she doesn’t claim to be), and think an unwise choice made in the passion of teenage love should forever brand her as a moral pariah. But most readers will recognize her as a lady, and a classy one, with a very solid moral compass and integrity. And as the best literature always does, this novel focuses on very real moral choices, that will further temper the precious metal of her integrity in a crucible.

There’s no second-in-the-series slump here; if anything, I actually liked this novel even better than the first one! Next year, I’m hoping to read the third installment of the series, The Sleeping Partner.

Author: Madeleine E. Robins
Publisher: Tor, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Deadly Sanctuary

starstarhalf
“Razing Arizona”

deadlysanctuary“Feisty, flame-haired reporter, Kendall O’Dell is drawn into an evil web of conspiracy beyond anything she could have ever imagined when she accepts a position at a small newspaper in Castle Valley, Arizona.” Action heroine and local interest? Okay, I’m in. I shouldn’t have bothered though, because virtually from the get-go, this is cringe-inducingly bad. Nice though it is to see our state used, with scenes shot in New River and Black Canyon City, the script feels like it was written by someone who had never been to Arizona, and based it entirely on stereotypes.

Which is a bit of a surprise, because author Sylvia Nobel, who wrote both the source novel and co-wrote the screenplay, has apparently lived here since before I was born. So there’s absolutely no excuse for a world in which half the men wear Stetsons and there appears to be more lethal fauna than Australia. I’ve lived here for almost 15 years, and have never even seen a live snake in the wild: the heroine here (Kochan) virtually steps on one the first time she gets out of her car. About the only thing it gets right is that, yes, we locals do hate with a passion, the “snowbirds”, part-term winter residents who clog up restaurants and the freeways for us locals.

Not, under ANY circumstances, to be confused with the 1969 film in which Klaus Kinski played the Marquis De Sade, this sees O’Dell seeking to unentangle a web involving dead girls in the desert, an apparent police cover-up and a shady home for young runaways, all the while fending off the attentions of a rich adoption lawyer and a colleague at the paper. It certainly doesn’t help that five minutes in the company of Kendall would have any domestic abuse advocate reconsidering their position, she’s so irritatingly perky. The rest of the characters are one-dimensional cliches as well, and the storyline requires a staggering degree of belief suspension.

While the concept at its core is marginally plausible, it’s quite inconceivable that those involved would execute it in such a half-assed and incompetent way, behaving in a manner the writers of Scooby-Doo would reject as laughably implausible. Indeed, between its simplistic characters and Nancy Drew level plotting, the whole thing feels like a story written for an undemanding eleven-year-old.  Interestingly, seven years ago, Nobel was involved in an earlier effort to get her work filmed, only to see it melt down in a morass of shady financing. That piece also talks about the circuitous route Nobel had to take to get the O’Dell franchise going, including selling her romance novels at Walmart, and it’s a great saga of someone with a dream coming out on top. Unfortunately, based on this lettuce-limp adaptation, they should have left the idea buried, as the cinematic gods clearly intended.

Dir: Nancy Criss
Star: Rebekah Kochan, Eric Roberts, Paul Greene, Bobbi Jeen Olson

Point of Honour, by Madeline E. Robins

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2

“I lost my virginity. I lost my innocence. The world seems to regard this as the same thing as honor, but I do not.”
–Sarah Tolerance, Point of Honour

pointOver the last several decades, the detective genre has come to be graced by quite a few brave, gun-packing female P.I.s, who can handle the rough stuff on the mean streets of the urban jungle, as well as the more cerebral arts of observation and deduction. Robins’ Sarah Tolerance is one of this sisterhood, but with a key difference: her beat is the London of 1810, and the guns she packs are one-shot flintlocks –so it’s practical to wear a sword for backup, and luckily her brother’s now-deceased fencing master (with whom she ran away years ago) taught her to use one very capably. The term P.I. isn’t in use in her world; she bills herself as an “agent of inquiry,” a profession she’s created for herself.

For most serious readers, any mention of the Regency period immediately conjures the thought of Jane Austen, who introduced so many of us to it, and directly or indirectly influenced just about every later writer who employed that setting. Robins is one of them; she calls her predecessor “one of the sharpest, funniest writers in the English language,” and tips a hat to her with the opening sentence here: “It is a truth universally acknowledged….” But the rest of that sentence lets us know immediately that her picture of the Regency world encompasses a much broader and darker canvas than Austen’s: this is not only a world of aristocrats and landed gentry, but of harlots and bawds, pickpockets and Bow Street Runners, and a world where sinister things can go on. And where Austen’s heroines might push the envelope of social conventions a bit (Lizzie Bennett, for instance, is smarter and more outspoken than many males then –or now– are really comfortable with), Sarah will outright defy them. The typical Austen heroine doesn’t pack (and use) weapons, wear male-style breeches and ride a horse astride rather than side-saddle, nor live in a cottage out back of her aunt’s high-end brothel and have a male prostitute for a friend.

This book is a bit of a challenge to classify. It’s definitely a mystery (and, before long, a murder mystery); and one with an indebtedness to Dashiel Hammet that I recognized even before reading Robins’ mention of him in the same sentence with Austen –which has to be the first time in history that pair was juxtaposed! But it also has a claim to be science fiction (if you classify alternate-world yarns as SF), because this is a slightly alternate Regency England, where the regent is Queen Charlotte. (Robins explains the few other minor differences in her “Note on History, and of Thanks.”) This isn’t, as some reviewers have supposed, a pointless quirk; it plays into the fabric of Tory vs. Whig political infighting that’s crucial to the plot. (In writing alternate-world fiction, the diverging premise has to be something that could plausibly have happened. That test is met here, since in this world Prince George’s marriage to a Roman Catholic wasn’t kept secret, and was wildly unpopular with commoners and ruling class alike; and there was ample precedent in other countries for royal women to hold regencies, while England itself had had a few ruling Queens.) It brings to life a setting so nearly like real-world Regency England, though, that it qualifies in my book as historical fiction. (Some people have apparently classified it as a “romance,” but it doesn’t follow the conventions of the romance genre as the book trade would define that.)

If classifying it could be a challenge, though, rating it wasn’t. I really like this period of history (as a fictional setting –I wouldn’t have liked to have lived in it!), with its more formal manners and speech, the slower pace of a world attuned to horses and written messages rather than cars and cell phones, the grace of a lifestyle that’s not yet complicated and coarsened by high technology. Added to the appeal of the setting is that of the central character. Sarah is a wonderful, well-realized creation: not perfect, but principled; kind, generous, honest, smart, brave, capable; no bully, but well able to hold her own in a fight –in short, just about everything I admire in a heroine. Robins delivers a page-turning plot, spiced with some action scenes, centering around a mystery that’s really challenging (I figured out most of it slightly ahead of the big reveal, but not all of it!), and does a good job of tying one plot strand, that might have seemed pointless to some readers, to the main plot in a brilliant way. Her style is pitch-perfect for the setting, with a bit of a 19th-century flavor that’s not exactly like the original, but still lets you know you aren’t reading something dumbed down to the lowest common denominator, nor limited to a 200-word vocabulary. She captures a lot of the authentic idioms and flavor of actual Regency speech, and provides enough description to give the writing a “you are there” quality.

Obviously, her treatment of sexual matters is franker than Austen’s, not shying away from the fact that this was a period with a gender-based double standard that stinks as badly as the manure and sewage in the streets, where just one of the king’s sons had no less than 10 out-of-wedlock kids and London alone had some 50,000 prostitutes (by the century’s end, it would be 100,000). But there’s no explicit sex here, and despite Sarah’s “fallen woman” status and sexual choices we might disagree with, she definitely comes across as a woman who takes sex seriously, who respects herself and others, and doesn’t stoop to exploitative or lewd behavior; nothing she’s done or does here makes us disrespect her. As far as bad language goes, there’s some, as there actually was in the speech of that day; not a plethora of it, and I’d guess mostly not too rough, though I can’t tell. This copy was bought used, and it turns out a previous owner used a dark pen to blot out most of the cuss words. (Sigh! As a writer myself, though I personally feel that usually the less bad language a book has, the better, if a writer chooses to put it in, I think his/her choice should be respected enough to let readers read it as it was intended to be, and make their own evaluations of it.)

Every time I read in this book, I was glued to the page; I’d have read it non-stop if I could have, and as it was finished it in just a bit over two weeks, which for me is a pretty quick read, indicative both of its interest level and its smooth flow. I’d love to see it adapted as a movie, provided it was done faithfully (though Hollywood’s track record for faithful adaptations of books isn’t great)..

Note: There’s some bad language here (as there actually was in the speech of that time), but not much of it. I’m guessing it’s not too rough, but I can’t say for sure –I read this in a used copy, and a previous owner had used a dark pen to blot out most of the cuss words!

Author: Madeleine E. Robins
Publisher: Tor, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.