Mini-reviews: Rebel, Murder, Carrie, Dance

Rebel MechanicsExpert in Murder, An

Shanna Swendson, Rebel Mechanics — This YA steampunk/alternate history tale is set in a world where the American Revolution never took place because the British upper classes have magical powers that give them access to technologies (such as electricity and automobiles) that the American colonists lack. However, the so-called rebel mechanics are hoping to start a revolution by harnessing steam power and thus leveling the technological playing field. Against this political backdrop, Verity Newton is a young woman with many friends among the rebels, yet she works as a governess for an upper-class magister. As the first stirrings of revolution begin, Verity must decide where her loyalties truly lie. This book is a fun steampunk romp, and I really enjoyed the central characters, especially Lord Henry. I’ll definitely be reading the sequels!

Nicola Upson, An Expert in Murder — A historical mystery novel featuring Josephine Tey as an amateur sleuth. The plot revolves around a staging of Tey’s play Richard of Bordeaux, and many of the suspects are involved with the play as actors, producers, and so forth. Even Tey herself is implicated in the crime, since the victim was a fan whose program Tey had signed shortly before the murder occurred. Overall I thought this book was pretty good; I enjoyed the blending of fact and fiction, and the mystery itself was interesting, albeit a little baroque. I may continue with the series, but it’s not at the top of my list.

Carrie PilbyMiller's Dance, The

Caren Lissner, Carrie Pilby — I’ve owned this book for years, but it wasn’t until I saw the movie on Netflix that I was motivated to pick it up! The titular character is a young woman with a genius-level IQ and zero tolerance for liars and hypocrites. As a result, she’s extremely isolated socially, until her therapist challenges her to mix more with the world by making friends, going on dates, and telling people she cares about them. Carrie reluctantly tries to follow this advice and learns more about the world in the process. I thought this book was just OK. Carrie’s voice is sharp and entertaining, but I’m not sure she actually learns very much throughout the course of the book. The various things she experiences and people she meets seem random and unconnected. I think this is a rare case where the movie is better than the book!

Winston Graham, The Miller’s Dance — ***Warning: spoilers for previous Poldark books!***

This book focuses most on Jeremy and Clowance, Ross and Demelza’s adult children, as they deal with career and relationship problems. Jeremy is still interested in steam power and has built a machine to help with the Poldarks’ mine. (I honestly can’t remember anything more than that about the steam-engine stuff!) He is also heartbroken that his beloved Cuby won’t marry him; she needs to marry a rich man to take care of her family’s debts. Meanwhile, Clowance and Stephen continue their relationship, but Clowance starts to have second thoughts. Another enjoyable installment of the series, and I’m curious to see what will happen next. Only three books left!

Review: A Midsummer Tempest

A Midsummer Tempest

Poul Anderson, A Midsummer Tempest

Set during an alternate version of the English Civil War, this novel follows Prince Rupert of Bohemia, one of King Charles’ most valiant allies. Unfortunately, Charles is losing his war against the Puritans, and after a particularly brutal battle, Rupert is captured by a Puritan nobleman and placed under house arrest. He immediately begins plotting his escape, but fate steps in when he meets his captor’s beautiful niece, Jennifer. The two of them end up fleeing the Puritan’s house together and receiving help from an unlikely source: Oberon and Titania, the king and queen of Faerie. They encourage Rupert to find the lost treasure of Prospero, whose magical artifacts will help the king’s cause; but Rupert must brave many dangers before he can fulfill his quest.

There are so many clever, ingenious concepts at work in this book that it’s almost too hard to list them all. First there is the obvious debt to Shakespeare: in this world, he is not merely a playwright but also the Great Historian, so everything he wrote is factually true. (Bohemia even has a sea coast!) Thus, this book is full of all the wonderful Shakespearean plot devices — faeries, star-crossed lovers, uncouth jesters, shipwrecks, and a very unusual tavern, to name a few. My favorite thing was realizing that several of the characters actually talk in iambic pentameter. Sure, it makes the style a bit choppy and stilted, but the characters talk in iambic pentameter! Add in a discussion of parallel universes, some trains, and angry Puritans getting their comeuppance, and I’m sold! I’d definitely recommend this one if you’re interested in the premise.

Review: Etiquette & Espionage

Etiquette & EspionageGail Carriger, Etiquette & Espionage

Fourteen-year-old Sophronia Temminnick is the despair of her mother due to her disheveled appearance and unladylike fascination with mechanical objects. In desperation, her mother decides to send her to finishing school — a prospect that fills Sophronia with dismay. But she soon discovers that Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing School is much more than meets the eye. For one thing, it’s located on a giant dirigible; for another, lessons include weaponry and poisoning as well as dancing and the proper way to drink tea. Sophronia is delighted with her unexpected education, which proves to be useful when the school is attacked by foes who are looking for a valuable prototype. Along with her newfound friends both above- and belowdecks, Sophronia decides to learn more about the prototype and its significance, but her investigation may endanger her family as well as herself.

I very much enjoyed Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series, so I was eager to read this new book that is set in the same universe, but a few decades earlier. I’m happy to say that I liked it even more than the Parasol Protectorate books! The concept of a finishing school that teaches young ladies how to be dangerous secret agents is absolutely fascinating, and I was absorbed by the world of the novel. I really enjoyed the combination of Victoriana, steampunk, and humor that Carriger does so well; I especially loved the occasional bits of pure silliness, such as the existence of “flywaymen” (highwaymen that travel by hot air balloon) and a villainous society of Picklemen whose leader is known as the Great Chutney. There are also some wonderful secondary characters and a few potential love interests for Sophronia, so I definitely look forward to reading more books in this series!

Review: The Iron Wyrm Affair

The Iron Wyrm AffairLilith Saintcrow, The Iron Wyrm Affair

In an alternate-universe Victorian London, sorcery is common (though frowned upon), and incredible geniuses known as mentaths are capable of being literally bored to death. Archibald Clare, an unregistered mentath, is in this precarious state when he suddenly learns that his life may be in danger: someone has been killing and mutilating mentaths throughout the city. To investigate, Archibald teams up with Emma Bannon, a powerful sorceress with a dangerous gift and a mysterious past. Their mission takes them throughout the dirty streets of Londinium, where they tangle with foreign assassins, murderous automatons, and very black magic.

Since I enjoy Victorian-era steampunk, I was excited to win this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewer program. It certainly delivers a fast-paced plot packed with action; it was easy to keep turning the pages, and I never felt like the book dragged. There were also enough steampunk elements to please fans of the genre, including mechanical limbs and giant, spider-like automatons. However, the world-building in general didn’t work for me. Saintcrow avoids lengthy exposition, which is a good thing, except that as a result I constantly felt like I was missing something. For example, we learn that Archibald is an unregistered mentath, but we don’t know why he’s unregistered, or even what being unregistered actually means. Similarly, we know that Emma is a sorceress, but we never learn the basic rules of the magical system; Emma can seemingly do whatever she wants with a few simple chants. I found it difficult to become invested in the story because I kept getting distracted by the underdeveloped world of the novel.

This is book one in a projected series, so presumably everything will start to make more sense in future installments. However, I don’t think I’m invested enough in the characters to continue with this series.