Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Non Laughter Twin Reviews: HISTORICAL DEBUT X 2

Judith James
Historical Action Adventure


Carrie Lofty
Historical Romance

French self-mutilator overcomes abusive past via British love interest and swashbuckling adventure.

Will Scarlett steps out of his uncle's long shadow to become his own man, along the way encountering an alchemist in process of becoming her own woman.

Brilliant title - succint, striking, perfectly symbolic of content. Eye-catching art - full of movement and interesting light, with (clothed!) hero in introspective moment, again perfectly symbolic of content.

Groaningly generic title - gives zero idea of content. Why, Zebra, why?...when the original title was the so much more striking and accurate 'Redeeming Will Scarlett'. Equally generic anonymous manchest art - seen countless times before, and actually giving a wrong idea of content, judging by the much too modern-looking pants and hair. Cover and title combined do a disservice to the unusual story and quality of writing within.

What Works
BW: If ever there was a hero-centric novel, this is it. Gabriel St. Croix is a singular, memorable, highly touching character. Abandoned outside a Parisian brothel as a child, he is brutally raised in the trade and grows to become an adept and valuable employee of the house, pleasing any and all customers while going through never-ending cycles of drinking to blunt reality and cutting himself to feel alive. The only thing that holds his interest is desire to protect the child Jamie from a fate similar to his own, and he buys the boy's continued innocence at heavy cost to himself. The development of his relationship with Sarah (an unusual character in her own right) is slow, tender, and movingly describes the disbelief and tests Gabriel throws in its path as a heavily scarred abuse survivor who cannot believe anyone can truly love him for himself, unconnected from the physical pleasure he can provide. Also enjoyable were the parts where he goes adventuring, for anyone who likes unusual settings and action-adventure stories. Funny sidenote on how this path is taken: Gabriel holds earnest discussions with Sarah and her brother about his deep need to set out on his own to earn his own money to prove himself worthy of her. And how does he plan to prove his virtue and moral rectitude? By attacking and sinking ships so as to steal other people's possessions, of course. The fact that no-one in the story found this remotely ironic struck AW as amusing.

WASW: Great first line. Beautiful, convincing historical voice. Wonderful fun to delve into the story of a lesser known legendary character, and learn of continuation of story of more known ones. Whipsmart heroine who does shockingly well with the poor cards life has dealt her. Likeable hero who, indeed, redeems himself and more. Great use of unusual elements: much of the first half of the book takes place outdoors, the much-utilized ''regular' path of hero/heroine attraction development via intense mutual gazing is not applicable due to heroine's blindness so they must find another way to further communication, open and positive protagonist views on Jewish and Muslim scholars and knowledge. In a nutshell: It's all good!

What Doesn't
BW: AW once heard an author's job defined as '...telling a story in such a way that questions are placed in the reader's mind, and then not answered too soon (which would spoil dramatic tension) or too late (which leaves reader confused or bored and at risk of putting book down)." She thinks some of the trouble she had with this story was due to such timing choices. There were a number of occasions when events/speech/reactions didn't seem to make sense, because certain explanations or motivations were explained long after (or not at all), or else chunks of time were speeded up to an almost cartoonish degree. For example, the child character who leads to the protagonists' meeting did not seem like a real child to this reader, in terms of gaps in his backstory, manner of behavior, and lightning-fast disappearance from the narrative as soon as his purpose was fulfilled, being sent away to private school immediately upon being reunited with the family who hasn't seen him for years after his kidnapping. The crew of the ship Gabriel joins is so astonishingly good-natured that when he, as a life-long landlubber, supposedly outstrips them following a few months training to the point of being promoted to second-in-command, no one objects. When the ship goes a-pirating, Gabriel goes from zero bank balance to being 'rich beyond his wildest dreams' in five months. And so on.
All, in theory, possible, but having the cumulative effect of pressing the 'Oh, come on now' button.

Then there were the 'logistics' questions. There are scenes with two native Frenchmen in Paris, whose conversations are peppered with French phrases. Wouldn't the ENTIRE conversation be in French? An imprisoned, kneeling character stabs a standing, healthy, adult male character in the lower body and slices upward, without any self-defensive moves from the victim and preventing any noise that would alert guards outside the room simply by reaching up and placing his free hand across the victim's mouth. Really? And so on.

To be fair, in a book that involves years of story and farflung geographical settings, it makes sense that some spots might need to be time-condensed, and that in buckle and swash parts, a lot of detail would slow down the action. And yet.
Perhaps, these are areas where future books would show more evolution in the writer's style.

WASW: AW was bemused by the amount of biting going on. Towards hostile parties, the behavior was understandable, especially as a defensive mechanism for a seeing impaired person. But being repeatedly invoked for non-hostile parties was surprising. To each his own, it would seem...

Given AW's mad love for the author's richly detailed historical voice, it was more jarring than usual to be bumped out of the story by alien-sounding words. One was 'mutate', which caused a seriously 'WTH?' reaction. The trusty online etymology dictionary surprised with information that 'mutate's' first use was in 1374, well before current genetic usage introduced in 1894. Still, that was some centuries after the story's 1199 setting. The second was likening the heroine to 'glass and steel'. OK, she's an ahead-of-her-time alchemist - but a time-travelling one too, to know about metal alloys invented centuries after her birth?
Still - picking on a mere two words out of close to 400 pages worth is a striking indication of what lofty (ha!) standards this author is held up to.

Two wonderful new storytellers in the historic landscape, whose next titles this reader will look forward to.

Ms. James' site shows two further works, 'A Time of Treason' and 'A Dark Within', however no release information.

Ms. Lofty's site shows 'Scoundrel's Kiss' due for release in January 2010, being the story of the opium-addicted, Spain-residing sister of the heroine of her debut release. Ms. Lofty's predeliction for unusual settings (she is the founder of the highly educational yet fun site, unusualhistoricals.blogspot.com) and character traits in her heroines evidently continues - hooray!


Julia Smith said...

Woo hoo! Glad you mostly liked 'Broken Wing' - you know I loved it.

Carrie Lofty's book is definitely on my TBR pile. Sounds delectable.

M. said...

I did really mostly like BW. The emotional parts were all pitch-perfect in terms of the protagonists. I'm very interested to see what happens next with this author. Do you know?

Julia Smith said...

She's in my writers' group, so as far as I know she's going to continue in a darker, unconventional grain. Just my cup of tea.

M. said...

I'll keep my eyes open!

Nicola O. said...

I just finished BW and haven't put my thoughts together on it. But I think you're wrong about steel not being invented yet. Damascus steel was around at the time of the Crusades, and I believe that forged iron was referred to as steel even if it isn't quite what we think of as the modern alloy.

M. said...

Nicola - Welcome to AW!
the author was also kind enough to point out in a private message that steel has been around for a long time. Shame on me, I had relied on Wikipedia's dates. So, yes,it has been around longer than I originally believed - but in Spain and Damascus, respectively. Not in England, where the story takes place. I do agree that it is a small point, though.
I'll be interested to know what you thought of BW!