Rachel Hartman–Seraphina

Like so many other 16 year olds Seraphina, the eponymous heroine of Seraphina, struggles to fit into her world. Her mother died at childbirth and her relationship with her father is strained at best. She thinks she’s ugly and feels torn between two worlds.

Unlike other 16 year olds however, Seraphina also happens to be half-dragon. Rachel Hartman’s debut Seraphina is as enjoyable on a re-read as it was the first time I read it two years ago. (I re-read in preparation for Shadow Scales, the sequel).

Rachel Hartman’s world is one where an uneasy peace exists between humans and dragons. The story opens with the 40th anniversary of the signing of the peace treaty looming on the horizon. To commemorate the event, dragon commander Comonot and his entourage are travelling to the human kingdom of Goredd.

While there is no outward conflict between dragons and humans, distrust runs rampant, with the two species viewing each other as alien beings with no common ground between them. To compound the matter, as the story begins, the human king Prince Rufus has just been murdered—in a fashion that is reminiscent of dragon killings.

seraphina-198x300At this point I want to talk about Hartman’s dragons. Dragons in Rachel Hartman’s world are not the fiery creatures of passion and emotion that one normally encounters. Quite the opposite in fact. Cool logic is their purview and they disdain emotional quagmires, looking at human beings as interesting cockroaches, as Seraphina puts it.

Seraphina’s character and the tension fraught world of Goredd reminded me of the world we live in. I love how the framework of a fantasy world makes the issues that are explored in the story feel non-threatening. The distance that the fantasy aspect provides makes it easier for me to approach the subjects that are being dealt with, and to think about them from a broader perspective than I would have been able to if those very same issues had been couched in a non-fantasy story. (And in fact this is one of the reasons why I think I love fantasy as a genre).

Seraphina is thrust right in the middle of all the intrigue. A gifted musician and the assistant to the court composer she comes to be in a unique position, one from which she can see clearly both into the human and the dragon heart. In her quest to understand the going-ons around her, she has to reach a measure of peace with herself, and has to stop viewing herself as one of the “grotesques.” As she comes to realize:

We were all monsters and bastards, and we were all beautiful.

Are you intrigued yet?

The world that Hartman builds is very atmospheric:

The road, not wide to begin with, narrowed even further above us; the upper stories cantilevered over the street, as if the houses were leaning together to gossip. A woman on one side might have borrowed a lump of butter from her neighbor on the other without leaving home. The looming buildings squeezed the sky down to a rapidly darkening ribbon.

Or the vividness of the details that makes this bit come alive:

I did not just see it: I smelled fish and market spices, felt the ocean’s salty breath upon my incorporeal face. I soared through the pristine blue sky like a lark, circled over white domes and spires, and glided above the bustling dockyards. A lush temple garden, full of chuckling fountains and blossoming lemon trees, drew me in.

As you can make out from the above, the writing is lovely (and remains so through and through):

The music flew from me like a dove released into the vastness of the nave; the cathedral itself lent it new richness and gave something back, as if this glorious edifice, too, were my instrument.

I took one last look around this peculiar, smelly slice of interspecies coexistence, the treaty’s mad dream come to raucous life.

Seraphina is exactly the sort of fantasy that I enjoy the most—layered characters, evocative settings and thought-provoking writing. It doesn’t hurt that the plot sucks you in too.

There’s just one last thing that I want to remark upon before I go off to enjoy Shadow Scales. Though there’s just a whiff of romance in the story, I very much love the way that the sort-of-love-triangle that exists between Seraphina and two other characters, Princess Glisselda and Kiggs, is handled. Far from portraying one of the girls as an evil other-woman, Hartman makes the reader fall in love with both Seraphina and Glisselda. They complement each other in their strengths and weaknesses and share a friendship that has nothing to do with Kiggs. I just love that so much!

Anyway! Here’s another bit that I enjoyed:

The ocean was still there, but my music was a bridge, a ship, a beacon. It bound me to everyone here, held us all in its hands, carried us together to a better place. It modulated (ripples on the sea) and modulated again (a flight of gulls) and landed squarely on a mode I loved (a chalky cliff, a windswept lighthouse). I could make out a different tune, one of my mother’s, just below the surface; I played a coy melody, an enigmatic variation, referencing her tune without bringing it up explicitly. I made a pass at her song, circled, touched it lightly before swooping past once more. It would draw me back into its orbit again and again until I gave it its due. I played her melody out in full, and I sang my father’s lyrics, and for a shining moment we were all three together.

Cluny Brown by Margery Sharp

Cluny Brown’s saving grace was not the eponymous heroine but the other characters whose frequent appearances in alternating chapters rather reminded me of an episodic story, and of a play more than a novel.

It’s 1938, England, and Cluny Brown, who took tea at the Ritz one afternoon (because she wanted to and could), is constantly told by one and sundry to not aim for more than she should and to remember “her place” in life. Her uncle is a plumber, “respectable, respectful, and self-respecting,” and in a last ditch effort to make Cluny understand her place he sends her off to be a parlor-maid at a big house in Devonshire, Friars Carmel.

That the world around her wants Cluny Brown’s actions, indeed her very being, to reflect the class into which she is born is made obvious, over and again. Thankfully, our heroine has a joie de vivre that refuses to be stamped out. (Mostly because of her tendency to be so lost in her own head that the purported import of her behavior, as others would want her to think about it anyway, is frequently lost on her).

Despite all of this Cluny Brown’s story is sort of non-interesting. I was glad to see that she “felt more like herself, as though she had at last stopped acting a difficult part,” in the end but I’m not sure why an entire book, in fact this exact story had to be told for that to happen. The ending with respect to her love life is quite abrupt but I frankly didn’t care much about the abruptness because I couldn’t dredge up enough enthusiasm for our heroine in the first place.

Cluny BrownOn the other hand, there’s the lady of the manor, Lady Carmel, her son and heir, Andrew, and Andrew’s stunningly beautiful friend Betty whose beauty renders men and women speechless. All three of them turned out to not be quite what I thought they would be and it is this sharpening of their characters, this revelation of their multi-dimensionality that made their story so much more interesting than the straightforward unfolding of Cluny Brown’s tale who remains exactly what she was at the beginning of the story. (not that that’s a crime, just that her story couldn’t manage to engage me the way the other characters’ did).

Neither Lady Carmel nor Betty are the fluffy brained females that they seem to be in the beginning. Indeed I found both Lady Carmel’s and Betty’s “fluffiness” as well as their sensitivity (which the reader is made privy to through the course of the story) to be peculiarly English in its portrayal. Then there’s Andrew who belongs to a new restless generation and yet who cannot be rid of the “Lord-of-the-Manor” feeling that he’s assailed with whenever he’s home.

Lady Carmel finds fulfillment in arranging flowers for the manifold rooms of the manor while Betty has a vague sense of disquiet at her advancing age. (I couldn’t help feeling incredulous at both Betty’s and Cluny’s realization that they are past the first blush of youth. Betty’s 22 and Cluny’s 20. Of course I’m reading a book more than 60 years after it was written, but still! They’re 20! And 22! Babies, practically! Well, not babies but you know what I mean).

All these disparate bits come together to give a glimpse into the life of the landed gentry of mid-20th-century England. It was this drawing back of the curtain on the “upstairs” and the “downstairs” that prevented the book from being a DNF for me. The housekeeper’s reactions in particular served to accentuate the feeling of peeping into another world, starting with her reaction at Cluny Brown’s walking the neighboring Colonel’s dog on her afternoons off:

But Mrs. Maile remained uneasy . . . She remembered some of Mr. Andrew’s sayings . . . cracks in civilization, the breaking-up of society, world revolution, the decay of the West; and for the first time, their meaning struck home.

The setting of Friars Carmel too is very much a character in its own right, an “oyster . . . [that could] smooth and overlay” whatever forayed into its precincts and transform it into something “like a pearl;” a treatment that was of course not necessarily applied to parlour-maids.

This sense of the English landscape being a part of the quintessential Englishness is captured perfectly in a dialogue by the foreigner in the story:

I have so often thought how in all English art the place of women is taken by landscape. Your poetry is full of it, you are a nation of landscape painters. In other countries a man spends his fortune on a mistress; here you marry a fortune to save your estates. . . .  [the industrial revolution] was real life, that was business. But when a businessman has made money, what does he do? He buys a place in the country. That is what you all want. You cannot escape it. Your green grass is as strong as the creepers of a jungle, with the additional advantage that you are able to play games on it. Or lie in it.

While it was not a complete meh, I think I might have enjoyed this story more as a movie or a play!

The Parfit Knight by Stella Riley

I’ve been away.

But now I’m back!

In the between-while I have been reading romances. A glut of romances. Nothing else but romances! So many romances that I’ve started reading We, The Drowned to cleanse my reading palate.

Let me begin with Never Judge a Lady By Her Cover by Sarah McLean which was a really nice time-filler of a book. It’s really. . . nice? With a big reveal. However—you knew there was going to be a however didn’t you—I can’t say that it’s a book which makes me squee or makes me want to particularly think about it.

With that out of the way let me talk about my new favourite author, Stella Riley. I discovered her through Dear Author (which has had its own very big kerfuffle just a couple of days ago btw if you’re interested). So anyway, I read Riley’s The Parfit Knight and The Mésalliance and while I enjoyed the latter I loved the former!

Here’s a description of The Parfit Knight from the author’s site:

The Marquis of Amberley is rich, assured and thirty-four years old, with the reputation of being a law unto himself and a degree of charm which even his friends consider disastrous.

When his coach is waylaid by highwaymen and his coachman shot, he is forced to take shelter at the first house he finds and is subsequently trapped there for a week by a severe snow storm.

Oakleigh Manor is the home of beautiful, twenty-two year-old Rosalind Vernon who lives alone but for her devoted servants and an ill-natured parrot, cut off from the outside world by the tragic result of a childhood accident. But Rosalind is brave and bright and totally devoid of self-pity – and it is these qualities which, as the days pass and the snow continues to fall, cause Amberley to fall in love.

On his return to London, the Marquis persuades Rosalind’s brother, Philip, to bring her to town for a taste of society – a move which, despite her handicap, Rosalind handles brilliantly.

But the course of Amberley’s courtship is far from smooth for, due to a misapprehension, Philip Vernon actively dislikes him and Rosalind appears to be falling under the spell of the suavely elegant Duke of Rockliffe. Worse still, Amberley is haunted by a dark and terrible secret that, if revealed, may cause him to lose Rosalind forever.

Miss Riley’s forte seems to be characterization. Oh, she’s good with the rest of the bits too—her language for one was quite lovely but also quite unobtrusive if you know what I mean. . . used in service of the story rather than as a standout feature all on its own, an aspect that I found myself appreciating—but I think the reason she’s my new favourite author is because she’s really really good at filling out her story with just the right characters.

Take Amberley and Rockliffe, the hero of The Mésalliance for instance. Amberley and Rockliffe are both very hero-like (handsome, commanding, and the other usual staples of a romance book hero) but are also quite different from each other. It struck me that one of the reasons why I’m not particularly moved to look up other books by an author I enjoyed, at least in genre romance, is because I could take the hero out of one book and put him in another by the same author without it making much difference to the story. On the other hand, a substitution would not work for Amberley’s and Rockliffe’s stories precisely because of the people they are—their romance unfolds the way it does because of who they are. I’ll concede that I’m coming to some rather hefty conclusions from a reading of just two books but I have a feeling that this is going to be true for all of Miss Riley’s works (hopefully!).

Amberley’s romancing of Rosalind is a delight to read. The tenderness that develops between our hero and heroine, to which they in time-honored tradition of the romance novel are quite oblivious (at least initially), is rather sweet. And yet perfect as they are I don’t think I would have sighed over The Parfit Knight the way I did if it was not also for the cast of its secondary characters without whom the story would not have been what it is.

And so there’s the villainous reprobate who is tiresome and selfish and remains faithful to villainy all the way till the end, causing havoc for our hero and heroine in the process (and yes, I couldn’t wait for him to receive his comeuppance!). Then there’s the supporting actress/faithful friend character who starts out as being an unknown quantity but proves her mettle rather quickly. The mutton-headed brother of the heroine, who’s also our supporting actress/friend’s love interest, is the obstructionist in the path of true love. Rockliffe stars as Amberley’s know-it-all best friend who has frighteningly omniscient powers and a prodigious love for snuff boxes. Our hero’s mother is poised, perfect and French. A rascally parrot with a penchant for curses and vilifications rounds up our motley crew.

Each character fits the bill perfectly. I can almost imagine Miss Riley having back stories for each of them which the reader is not privy to but which affects how he or she is portrayed in the story one is reading. The same holds true for The Mésalliance which has its own list of secondary characters and romances.

Unlike other authors, with Miss Riley, I find myself eager to read her other stories and see for myself what she does there. I’ll report how that excursion into her back list goes. Till then, I’d recommend you try out The Parfit Knight yourself!

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

I couldn’t help but feel the invisible authorial hand behind The Light Between Oceans. By which I mean that the story felt a tad too tidily plotted. The grief and the heartbreak were all in too much perfect proportion and with the correct justifications for me to not be aware of the writer behind the story.

Tom Sherbourne is the moral center of the story. A WW1 veteran, he and his wife Isabel live on the tiny island of Janus where Tom works as a lighthouse keeper (do those still exist?). The couple suffers three miscarriages before the ocean washes up a weeks-old baby onto their shore. You can sense can’t you, that things are bound to get complicated and messy for these people?

M.L. Stedman is really good at writing fully fleshed out characters. They hooked me in. It’s easy to foresee the plot twists and I could guess at the scars that the characters were on their way to accruing. I became interested in knowing what they would do with those scars.

Tom’s desire, to do right by his wife whom he loves more than life itself, and by his conscience which he has come about through the horrors of a war, and the conflict between the two causes the tension in the story, and moves the plot forward.

Apart from the characters the other thing that Stedman does really well is the highly atmospheric setting. It is the late 1920s and the action flits between Janus, and a small port town, Partageuese, on the coast of Western Australia. The isolation of a strip of land in the middle of nowhere is captured perfectly. Here’s how Janus is described:

[L]inked only by the store boat four times a year, [Janus] dangled off the edge of the cloth like a loose button that might easily plummet to Antarctica.

And again:

On clear summer days, Janus seems to stretch up right to its tiptoes: you’d swear it’s higher out of the water at some times than at others, not just because of the rising and ebbing of tide.

Stedman switches between tenses quite a bit (as you can see above). Quite nifty, the technique is, as the present continuous use builds a sense of immediacy.

The writing is also lyrical at times. And was perhaps the third reason I kept reading. Yes, I do feel like I need to list the reasons why I kept reading because. . . while it’s a well-crafted story there’s nothing particularly special about it. Plus, there’s a movie coming out this year based on the book (speaking of the reasons why. . .).

So that’s what I think of The Light Between Oceans. Did you read it too?

Burned and Books that Cook: The Making Of A Literary Meal

Here’s a quick rundown of where I’ve been reading wise!

Burned by Karen Marie Moning

Ugh. Avoid. I’d read the first five books in the Fever series feverishly (clever! not.) And had thought that that would be the last I would see of Mac and Barrons and the sidhe-seers and the uglies (I mean the Unseelies of course) and the pretties (also known as the Seelies).

Turns out I was wrong. Miss Moning released a sixth book in 2012. Only it wasn’t really a sixth book. It was purported to be the first book in a trilogy set in the same world but following the travails and triumphs of Dani Mega O’Malley, a precious 14 year old who was one of the major characters in the series.

Fair enough.

I like Dani’s voice and enjoy the first book in the trilogy.

Only it wasn’t the first in a trilogy. No siree. Miss Moning backtracks and pronounces that Iced was actually the sixth in the series and a continuation of the first five. Ugh, what? I was left feeling slightly distrustful but mostly confident in KMM’s ability to tell a good story.

Or not.

Because the seventh in the series (!!) which was released this past January on the 20th of the month was a Disaster (yes, with a capital D).

Where do I begin?

First there’s the whining. Yes, Mac, the girl who’s become a woman through the first five books whines. Now, I don’t think that being a woman means that you’re done with insecurities forever but dear god, Mac’s moanings (see how clever I am being today?) makes her downright unbearable and BORING. Yes, dear reader so bored was I that I skipped large swathes of the book (majority of which were Mac’s inner chatterings) and finished the behemoth of the book (it was 500 pages plus) within four hours.

Then there’s Barrons and his nine whatever they are. I’ve already documented my love for Alpha Heroes but this was just Too Much Testosterone! And not necessarily in a way that appeals. The problem with getting into the details of Barrons and his entourage is that all of them come across as carbon copies of each other. I would rather have some mystery associated with them than have them become boring in their details.

The biggest infraction, however, is the short shrift that Dani’s character is given. The only way KMM can redeem herself is if in the next book she can explain why Dani’s character was developed the way it was.

There’s just too much going on and not in a way that adds up to any coherent whole. Maybe KMM’s setting it up for the next two books but that’s no excuse for such sloppy storytelling! The world that’s been created in the series is compelling and is what might persuade me to read the next installment. We’ll see.

Books that Cook: The Making of a Literary Meal
Edited by Jennifer Cognard-Black, Melissa Goldthwaite, Marion Nestle

So I love food. And it has dawned on me that perhaps there is literature to be explored that celebrates food and explores food and discusses food.

Books that Cook was one of my first forays into this territory. Unfortunately because of its structure (it’s a collection of pieces, excerpted both from fiction and non-fiction, that focuses on food) I never got around to reading it in one sitting and was half-way through before I realized that I most likely would not finish it anytime soon and returned it to the library.

The bits that I did read I enjoyed quite a lot.

There’s what I call the talkative recipes from the 18th and the 19th centuries. No, the recipes themselves don’t become little monsters and start whispering in your ear while you’re stirring the ladle in what constitutes for the modern cauldron. It’s the way the recipes are written—preceded by exhortations to be an economical housewife and the admonition to learn the practical art of cooking which would mean a steady source of income at the very least that I found quite entertaining.

Then there was a piece about mushrooms which was quite lovely. It was a piece of non-fiction in which the author alternates between the mushrooms and his own doomed relationships. As he narrates his love for the edible fungus, alternating it with his account of a phobia of commitment and his discovery that he prefers the company of men to women, following his father’s death, the reader cannot help but feel the solace that the author derives from the image of life blooming into fullness amidst rot and waste. I loved how the writing was imbued with this sense of confluence, of the feeling that surely there would be a point of convergence between his two loves.

It’s a book that I’ll most likely be checking out again.

Ancillary Sword & Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Sword is the sequel to Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice which swept up just about every sci-fi literary award possible last year. I’d read Ancillary Justice last fall and finished Sword a few days ago. What follows may contain key spoilers for the first book (and also the show Battlestar Galactica)—so, you’ve been warned!

When I’d first read Ancillary Justice I was struck by how its description of AI resembles the Cylons of Battlestar Galactica. For those of you who don’t know about BSG, Battlestar Galactica is a highly acclaimed sci-fi series that ran from 2004 to 2009. It’s ending is easily one of the best.est. EVER. I glommed on to it big time.

In BSG, there are several “clones” aka cylons—robots with AI who look human and are identical to each other and who exist in groups. So there are copies of Number One (a group of the humanoid cylon), copies of Number Two (another group of the humanoid cylon) and so on. In the Ancillary world there are several bodies of the same one mind. This hive-mind is often a spaceship which is crewed by humans and also “ancillaries” who are the ship’s AI fed into dead human bodies. There are groups of ancillaries, with about 10 ancillaries to a group. These ancillaries serve the human crew and act as the ship’s eyes, present as they are in several places at once.

Ancillary_Sword_Orbit_coverThe set-up in both the cases lends itself to contemplating issues of identity and also meditation on what it means to be a human being.

In Battlestar Galactica the question of identity is explored through two of the Cylons specifically: one of the Sixes who was instrumental in the destruction of the entire human race save a few thousand, and in an ironic turn of events one of the Eights who, as she falls in love with a human (I promise it is not as sappy as it sounds) and who in turn falls in love with her, sort of becomes a template for the future of humanity (and it isn’t as trite or simple as I make it sound). These two cylons have to contend with thoughts and feelings that their counterparts do not experience. Then there’s the humans who cannot get their head around the concept that Cylons, a creation of humans after all, could be anything remotely close to what a human being is.

In the Ancillary world Breq, our heroine/hero (I’ll get to the hero/heroine part later), is one of the ancillaries of the ship “Justice of Toren.” “Justice of Toren” is completely destroyed in the first book, save the one instance of Breq herself/himself. One of the defining characteristics of this particular manifestation of the “Justice of Toren” is that she/he loves music. It seems like such a trivial aspect to endow on a character and yet it serves to bring the whole issue of identity into a tighter focus. The destruction itself of all of it save herself/himself leads Breq over and over to contrasting and often interesting turns—the destruction of the wholeness of who she was feels incapacitating to her and yet without that destruction she could not have become one who has any sort of agency.

This is perhaps more the theme of the first book than the second. Ancillary Sword is more concerned with exploring what it means to be a person with agency in the context of a civilized world and what being civilized means in the first place.

Ann_Leckie_-_Ancillary_JusticeRadchaii (the civilization in which Leckie’s stories are set) have been annexing planets for thousands of years and they justify their invasions as their version of the “white man’s burden.” The absorption includes allowing the ruling classes of the conquered societies to continue with the rituals and traditions that are important to them. For maximum benefit, the Radchaii are focused on maintaining the status quo in the worlds they take over as this allows for the minimal of upheavals in the existing power factions. This is not to say that it’s not clear who the conquering hero is—it is. It’s just that the Radchaii have become really good at appeasing the worlds they stride into (to the extent that there are factions of the conquered who believe that justice would be theirs if only there was a way of getting Anaander Minaai’s (the Lord of the Radch’s) attention).

As to what it means to be a citizen of the civilized world, one of my favourite aspects about Leckie’s story-telling is her ability to show clearly the prejudices that inform the biases of many of the power differentials at work in her world. It’s insidious and just like real life the people of the Ancillary world aren’t even aware of them. The only one who seems to be clear-sighted is Breq. Given that Breq is after all thousands of years old AI I can find this prescience believable (mostly). However that didn’t stop her from being a little insufferable at times.

The one power differential which is absent in Leckie’s world is that of gender. Hers is a genderless world in the sense that while there are males of the species and the females of the species in the Radchaii society, both of the genders are referred to as “she.” Indeed this is an aspect of Leckie’s world-building that has been lauded almost everywhere. While I really admired this authorial choice, I honestly didn’t understand how it served the story other than being one less power differential to grapple with. (Addendum after some discussion with hubby: Perhaps the purpose is to affect the reading end of the experience rather than advance the story side of the exchange)

I was also struck by how the second book is called Ancillary Sword and not Ancillary Mercy given that the ship that Breq commands from page 1 of the second book is “Mercy of Kalr” and not “Sword of Atagaris” (another major ship/player in the book). Well it’s not that surprising given how the events unfold but it made me even more aware of one of the major threads that runs through the book: of what it means to be a conscious being. The humans in Leckie’s world find it alien that ships who are just AIs would have preferences or feelings. Breq addresses this in a line in the book which I of course cannot find now! She talks about how humans are unable to recognize that thoughts and feelings are tangled up in one another and are not as unconnected as one would tend to think. As someone who’s come to see that emotion follows in the wake of what I’m thinking, I found this parsing to be spot-on.

I cannot wait to see “Mercy of Kalr” taking the front stage in the third and the final book!

The Unknown Ajax by Georgette Heyer

The Unknown Ajax begins with the inhabitants of the rambling, ramshackle Darracott Mansion in a state of furor. This is not an uncommon occurrence for the Darracotts given that they are lorded over by the penny-pinching, cantankerous Lord Darracott who sets his various progeny and their progeny in turn quaking in their boots at his mere thought.

The scene is set with Lord Darracott receiving the news that his heir and the heir’s son have drowned. The news makes him particularly sullen and the reader is very soon made privy to the reason. The next in line is the son of a son who was cut-off years ago as he married a weaver’s daughter. The “weaver’s son” is the hero of the story and reader, is one of my favouritest heroes in literature. You see, this is my second re-reading of The Unknown Ajax and one of the reasons is definitely Hugo Darracott.

the-unknown-ajax-by-georgette-heyer-2011-x-200Heyer paints Hugo Darracott as bovine-like: huge, patient, and with a thick skin. I do not remember my first reading (which must have been at least 15 years ago) but I can imagine myself feeling slightly impatient with Hugo were I to be reading the book for the first time. For quite a part of the story one isn’t sure if a hero of a romance can be really that . . . simple. And hapless.

The truth of course is something else. Hugo Darracott, dear reader, is exactly the sort of understated hero who I fall head over heels in love with. He’s patient, he’s kind, and he has a “broad back.” One knows instantly and instinctively that he can be relied upon no matter what. In other words, those bovine like qualities are actually quite sexy.

He’s also a hero to a set of supporting characters who are probably some of my favourite in romance. Lord Darracott I’ve already mentioned. He doesn’t discriminate against whom to turn his nose upon. Everyone gets the same treatment.

Then there’s Lady Aurelia, a grand dame if there was ever one; a lady who “never reproved [her husband] in public” but whose mastery over her husband and her sons is evident. Here’s what Austenprose had to say and I couldn’t have said it better myself:

And there is a truly magnificent grande dame whose well-modulated voice is never raised, whose countenance rarely smiles, whose behavior towards her irascible father-in-law is always perfectly correct, and whose dignity is never compromised. Even when she beats all of the young people to flinders in a lively game of copper-loo, her response to being asked if she always holds the best cards is merely: “I am, in general, very fortunate.” She expresses her opinions as pronouncements, and makes the most splendid (though dispassionate) speeches that render her auditors without a thing to say. Lady Catherine de Bourgh only wishes she could be as majestically formidable.

The ensemble cast includes a fop, a “Corinthian,” and my personal favourite—two “gentlemen of the same calling, but of different cut,” Polyphant and Crimplesham, valets to the aforementioned fop and Corinthian. The rivalry between the two and the scenes in which they star, “suggestive of tomcats about to join battle,” is one of the many perfectly executed capers in this book.

I haven’t read Heyer’s entire oeuvre but I would be willing to bet that this is one of the funniest stories she’s written. Each character lends themselves to the mayhem and hilarity that pervades the story.

And as always, Heyer excels in dialogues. I love how her dialogues build up not only the characters but also the story. Ok, that sounds stupid. As in “Duh! Isn’t that precisely how it should be?” stupid. What I mean is that Heyer seems to have a gift for dialogue. She can have pages upon pages of dialogue with virtually no descriptions in between and yet move both the plot and her characters to a whole new set point with just that.

And speaking of dialogues, I thought Mrs Darracott’s prattle was really well done. She’s a bit of a chatterbox we are told and her ability to segue seamlessly from one subject to another is exactly what chatterboxes do I imagine. (Ok fine, there’s no imagination involved there. I speak from first-hand knowledge. Given that I’ve been labeled a chatterbox. At times.)

Which brings me to the banter between Hugo and Anthea (our heroine). Our heroine has just found out that Hugo is wealthy. Quite, quite wealthy.

“I know I told you I was mercenary, but I’m not Hugo! Only think how it would appear to everyone! As though I had been determined before ever I saw you not to let your odious fortune slip through my hands!”

He patted her consolingly. “You needn’t worry about that, love. When people see you wearing the same bonnet for years on end they’ll never think you married me for my fortune.”

“As nothing would induce me to wear the same bonnet for years on end—

“You’ll have to,” he said simply. “I’m a terrible nip-farthing. . . .”

“You seem to forget that you wished to purchase the moon for me!”

“Nay, I don’t forget that! The thing is I can’t purchase it, so there was no harm in saying it. Now, if I’d said I’d like to give you a diamond necklace, or some such thing, you might have taken me up on it. I remembered that just in time to stop myself,” he explained, apparently priding himself on his forethought.

“I should like very much to have a diamond necklace,” said Anthea pensively.

“Wouldn’t a paste one do as well?” he asked, in a voice of great uneasiness.

She had been so sure that he would fall into the trap that she was taken, for an instant, off her guard, and looked up at him with such a startled expression on her face that his deep chuckle escaped him, and he lifted her off her feet, and kissed her.

Be still my heart! This is exactly the sort of stuff that I can believe happily-ever-afters to be built on. (I might be biased though considering my husband can give Hugo a run for his money: if I had a dime for every time I thought I had had the last word. . . )

The climax of the story is funny, fraught and fabulous—a deeply satisfying conclusion to a deeply satisfying story. If there’s a Heyer you have to read, I would exhort that it be this!