Wednesday, February 24, 2010


Georgette Heyer

Historical Fiction
Sourcebooks, 2010

Premise: After the failed Scottish uprising, a brother and sister seek protection in cross-dressing and must decide how far to carry the deception in the face of romantic attraction and parental claim to nobility.

Cover: Apprentice Writer has no idea where Sourcebooks keeps finding these gorgeous classical paintings, but whatever the source (ha!) it's working because she's tempted to read each and every re-issued Heyer title on the strength of beautiful cover alone. The legendary Heyer prose is (almost!) just a bonus.

What Works: This is AW's third Heyer title, and she has come to marvel at this author's versatility. It is not just the time period and subgenre that changes, but the whole feel of the language and characters. She would go so far as to say it would be a huge mistake to form an opinion on like or dislike of this author based on one or two (or three!) titles alone; a better minimum would probably be half a dozen or more.

There is a character in the story who, by nature and youth, yearns for excitement and adventure and can consequently be persuaded into all kinds of risky escapades. Readers who similarly live for (vicarious) swash and buckle will get much satisfaction - duels, bloodshed, highwaymen halting coaches, balls, aristocratic slights requiring redress, and enigmatic masked rescuers don't just appear, but do so in plural.

But the heart of the story revolves the siblings' father: a majestic character who exercises planetary-level gravitational pull on everyone around him. Is he a con-man wanted in most countries on the Continent? A Jacobite sympathizer, one step ahead of royal retribution in the form of a noose? Or a long lost heir to aristocratic titles and fortune? Not even his children know for sure. What is certain is that his oft-expressed and breathtaking delusions of grandeur are indeed so grandiose that he unfailingly gets people to believe in them, creating what almost seem to be self-fulfilling prophecies. It is a memorable literary performance. Which leads to.....

What Doesn't: ....there was a very great deal of the paternal figure praising himself. Over and over and over, frequently with the same words. At first, it was entertaining, then it was clear that this was a running joke, but by the last quarter of the book this reader found it oppressive. The impression gained was that the author was bound to a minimum wordcount, and found this the quickest way to pad the total. Apprentice Writer's guess is that 10% of the total could be cut entirely in the form of such self-praise without meaning being lost in the overall story.

The other aspect that grew wearisome was the apparent poverty of imagination of how the people in the circles where the masquerade took place spent their time. It truly seemed as if they did NOTHING else but play cards at their clubs or homes, attend balls in order to play more cards, scrutinize each other's fashion choices and insults to one another, and sleep. AW predicted the siblings and their father, all used to the heady excitement of travel, subterfuge, and the knife edge of danger due to potential discovery, would grow bored silly and plunge themselves into the closest war/price-fixing scandal/coup d'etat sooner or later after the words 'THE END'.

Overall: An entertaining tale from the era of tricorne hats and dress swords that looks at the question: what defines masculine and feminine thinking, appearance and behavior, and how much blurring can occur without lasting negative consequences? AW's favorite cover quote described it very well as ".....a tale for those who think Shakespeare didn't give Viola enough to do...."

The Fine Print: AW received her copy from the publisher. Thanks, Sourcebooks!



Julia Smith said...

When you're done ooo-ing and ah-ing over these covers, can I ooo and ah, too? This original painting is a favorite of mine, being the Jacobite sympathizer that I am. My idea of heaven is a cover like this one.

The book sounds glorious, even with the paternal pomposity.

M. said...

Julia - tell us more about the painting! Who is the subject? the painter? Spill, spill!

Julia Smith said...

M - the painting is called 'Flora MacDonald's Farewell to Prince Charles', and depicts the gratitude of Bonnie Prince Charlie for her role in his escape to the Isle of Skye and on further to France. The painting is by Victorian painter George W. Joy.

I have a copy of it on a tin from shortbread - I love tins and collect them. But they have to be special, like the one that has this painting on it.

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