Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Non-Laughter Review: UNCERTAIN MAGIC

by Laura Kinsale
Historical Romance with Fantasy Elements
Sourcebooks, 2010

Shy British aristocrat with psychic talent enters marriage of convenience with impoverished Irish aristocrat of infamous reputation and politically risky friends.

Title - Admirably brief and descriptive of content, possible that it might not stand out among the plethora of titles including 'Magic' these days but that may be irrelevant given the amount of real estate devoted to author name relative to title. Clearly (and very understandably) this book is intended to sell on writerly reputation. Art - in a welcome change from nekkid anonymous manchest (as seems to adorn way too many bookcovers), an embracing couple with the man interested in the embrace and the woman multitasking. Embracing with her arms while either appraising the value of the distant twilit castle in her head, or else planning to put her barefoot status to good use by wading the adjecent river. Purple color, stormish sky and swirl of miniscule starbursts (which Apprentice Writer was very tempted to interpret as dandelion seeds) reflect the drama within. Overall - accurate and attractive but not especially memorable.

What Works:
As with the previous two Kinsale novels AW has read, the aspect that stands out the most in this story is quality of writing; this is a much appreciated attribute to someone whose most recent DNF was due to the word 'sardonic' appearing three times in the first ten pages and a paragraph of breathless heroine admiration of the hero's eyes being followed by yet another paragraph of same.

UM has marvelous scene-setting, evocative details that intensified emotion without making it seem hyperbolic, natural-sounding dialogue. All serving to support the heart of the story: the description of how two very (with good reason)
guarded personalities reach out to one another and develop their willingness to trust even when events seem to point to the wisdom of doing the opposite. Seeing them move past their preconceived notions and insecurities was a joy, and the scenes where each respectively chooses to stand by her man or his woman in the face of opposition were cathartic.

Inclusion of an unusual animal character has become something of a Kinsale trademark and UM is no exception. Given that the hero and heroine are brought together by mutual interest in horses it would not have been surprising if the special animal character were equine, but AW was delighted to find the recurring cameo role occupied by someone else: MacLasser, the redoubtable piglet. In her view, any author who can incorporate swine into everyday aristocratic life is worth reading.

Also unusual in a historical hero (at least those this reader has met) was Faelan's manner of
dealing with stress. Rather than riding or boxing or drinking or playing cards or picking fights with blameless individuals, he plows fields, and doesn't give a damn when his friends tease him about his fascination with planting potatoes and oat crop rotation. AW found it endearing and a refreshing change.

What Doesn't

Writing manuals warn newbie writers against including too much backstory, and exhort them to 'show, don't tell'. In general, AW appreciates that this makes novels more readably streamlined, less clunky. In this case, she wished for a bit more explicit detail. She didn't really understand the motivation of a dubious friend character to take actions that could bring massive destruction on the heads of the local population. While the motivation for the initial destructive interference in the hero's life on the part of the villain was convincing, AW didn't understand why and how the villain engaged in subsequent acts of hero sabotage.

Finally, the heroine repeatedly and for good reason reflects on fears of rejection once her husband learns of her gift in reading the minds and emotions of people and animals around her. By the end of the story, it's clear that he accepts and loves her no matter what, but given the number of times her fear was articulated it left this reader feeling vaguely unsatisfied that the couple didn't actually talk about it.

These are the kinds of things that make AW wish the author could comment on, either to learn where hints were dropped that AW may have missed, or to understand the thinking behind the choices made. Thoughts, Gentle Reader?

A romantic tale of people overcoming personal, social, and political odds to be together and do the right thing in a time of turbulence. Recommended for fans of romance and light fantasy (i.e. the story has an occasional extraordinary embellishment rather than being primarily about magic and such).



Rachel said...

Thoughts? Oh so many!!! First: did I read that right? This is only your 3rd LK???? Oh my! You must get through the rest of that back list. So much awesome! (First.5: And, really, you should read them all twice as it's the only way to truly understand what everyone is up to - that's part of the awesome:)

Second: Great observation on Faelan's stress buster and field hand hobby. :) My favorite line is - “But cow dung and crop rotations are so dull, you see. There’s not a stirring speech to be had among them.”

Third: I, too, spend much time in re-reads trying to understand all the motives. The only thing I still haven't worked out to my satisfaction is - like your mentioned - how the villain was able to continue with such villainness success.

Fourth: I think my favorite part of the story (and the most heartbreaking) was watching the H and H work together to rebuild the manor. I loved their teamwork and practically cried at the immense challenges they faced.

Fifth: Really, truly, you've got to read the rest of her books. :) Just this moment - before I was checking my google reader - I finished FFTS again and now I feel like I've got to read them all again. Of course, I read FMLH just last week so I suppose I have started reading them all again.


M. said...

Rachel - oh, hooray, someone who can explain to me! Comment readers, SPOILERS AHOY

- Why was Charles so obsessed with arming the countryside? Admiration of liberte, egalite, fraternite didn't seem to cut it for me because he could have started off a bit easier on his own estate

- WTH was up with that young woman in the cottage? Why would the villain have wanted the hero mixed up with her, and how was she convinced that he was pursuing her??

- the uncle was mentioned briefly as a malign influence on the estate. How would he, being the mother's brother, have exterted any control over it rather than the father's agents acting on the son's behalf?

- what was up with the blind man's repeated insistance that she not forget about the horses? she never did anything with that information, even when he gave a demonstration of what he meant. I also wasn't clear on how her gift worked sometimes and sometimes not, and why never with the hero. I thought at first it meant that he also had some form of gift, but that wasn't really ever confirmed unless you count the final scene with the mysteriously appearing woman as sufficient proof (in which case: how did his gift manifest itself?)

And yes, my LK repertoire is very limited so far. I've got Prince of Midnight lined up on my TBR shelf. Perhaps I should bump it up.

Rachel said...

M - I'll do my best but these are really just my suppositions. I'm always interested in alternate interpretations.


1. GULP! Charles? Who's Charles? I hope you mean Geoffrey or else I'm all over red and I'll need you to remind me about Charles. If it's Geoffrey, here's my thoughts: I believe he's linked up with the Irish rebels who are working with the French in some way. I imagine they prefer a larger revolution against the ruling English. As in, I think the rebels/French want a fairly large group of people participating in the uprising. Also, it seems that Geoffrey is not particularly good at rebellion or military planning in general so I would imagine there are many holes in his plans. I'm no expert at all in Irish history, though, so how I see this might be completely off.

2. The woman in the cottage was the latest in the string of victims to the villain's psychosis. I believe the villain may have been forging notes. However, it's not really clear what happens to Faelan when he "loses time" so it may be that the villain has some kind of control over him. This whole aspect is the weakness of the story for me because what the villain is able to accomplish pushes my limits of believability. However, I mostly enjoy it at this point (have probably read the book 4 times or so) as I like to try to figure out just how all these crazy things could happen.

3. I believe the uncle was one of the trustees. When Faelan's mom comes to dinner (p. 135 in the Avon Books release) she and Faelan talk about that and mention the uncle as some kind of trustee.

4. I think the initial horses comment was his way of telling Roddy that he, too, read minds. I think he repeated it because she was trying to deny it. I def think it was his way of saying he had a gift. Regarding the demonstration - can you remind me what part that is? I don't remember that. I assumed Roddy's gift worked with everyone except Faelan, Faelan's mom, Senach, and Fionn. Each of these exceptions represented atypical minds. Faelan had part of his memory blocked by the fae and was being manipulated by the villain via black-outs, Faelan's mom... well, you know, Senach had the gift, and Fionn was fae. I think that Fionn was probably the only one that Roddy truly couldn't reach. Senach suggested repeatedly that she had the talent to get through to Faelan if she was only brave enough; I would guess that would apply to Mom and Senach, as well. Technically she did touch Faelan's mind on occasion and she was in touch with Mom immediately but found it so overwhelming and erratic that she had to tune out.

What do you think???

The Prince of Midnight is great! Def bump it up. And if you're a horse lover like me there's even more to love in that book.

M. said...

Rachel - thanks. I hope I don't seem churlish when I say 'Yes, but...'

I don't know why I renamed Geoffrey, something deeply Freudian no doubt. I got that he sympathized with the French Revolution, and that he was a terrible strategist who simply expected Faelan to come to the resuce all the time. I just didn't get how he got so caught up in the whole thing that he not only conspired all over the place, but was completely callous about the fallout.

Forging notes makes sense, especially if the villain had lots of opportunity to study the hero's handwriting, but the victims (assuming the one in the cottage is not atypical) were utterly convinced of his attachment ot them, which I don't think could have happened unless he actually spent enough intense time with them to convince them that way. So either he really was with them (in a what, hypnotized? kind of way) or he had a doppelganger - neither of which is touched on. Ergo - I needed more detail to understand WTH was going on, and since more than one person died in duels because of it, I was unhappy this was 'let go'.

Senach's demonstration was when the detachment first arrived at the castle and the duped Captain's horse (only his horse) suddenly went out of control, right up to the moment that a soldier almost shot it.

In terms of her gift, I was a little unhappy with Roddy's refusal to put 2 and 2 together - she knew from the first moments that she couldn't read Senach's mind because he was gifted, so - hello? - why in the world wouldn't she consider that possibility for Faelan, but most especially for Fionn? I got impatient with her repeated 'You're all suffering from mass delusion, sending out search parties for three days when really I've just had a brief chat with Fionn here all along'. And once finally the penny dropped - why wouldn't she ask Fionn about what was going on with her inability to feel Faelan's mind all the time or why he keep losing track of time? That's just bad resource management.

That was the first time I'd ever seen anything remotely TSTLish in a Kinsale heroine, and it was a letdown.

Julia Smith said...

'In her view, any author who can incorporate swine into everyday aristocratic life is worth reading.'


Believe it or not, I haven't read anything by Laura Kinsale yet. You may have gathered that I haven't read a lot of authors. No time! But I'm always interested in adding to my TBR pile - I find it a mark of optimism.

M. said...

Julia - it is a mark of optimism! in my case, also a mark of hoarding judging by my bookshelves.

Julia Smith said...