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Friday, 10 July 2015

The Convenient Marriage by Georgette Heyer

It was a couple of months ago that I first read a book by Georgette Heyer, namely one of her crime novels, Footsteps in the Dark. I wasn't terribly struck by it, so when I remembered that I'd received one of her Regency novels as a present I wondered whether she would benefit from a change of genre. Plus, up until this point, I hadn't read much, if any, Regency Romance. The fact that it was quite a short book just decided the matter. So, was my second foray into Georgette Heyer's work any more successful?

The Convenient Marriage starts with the Winwood sisters, members of a proud but impoverished family in a rather difficult position. The Earl of Rule, a wealthy and eligible bachelor, has made an offer for the hand of the eldest sister, the renowned beauty Elizabeth. Unfortunately, she is head over heels in love with her childhood sweetheart, the equally impoverished army lieutenant Edward Heron, so the proposal has only succeeded in making her incredibly unhappy. The youngest sister, Horatia, decides that this just can't stand, and convinces the Earl that he would be just as satisfied marrying the youngest sister as he would the oldest. It's not as if this is a love match right? So they are married, and find themselves becoming more fond of one another whilst a long-time enemy of Rule's attempts to bring them to ruin.
I'm not sure how I really feel about this book. While I enjoyed this overall, there are a few things that prevent me from loving it wholeheartedly. The positive things first though. First, I absolutely adore the main heroine, Horatia. When I think Regency romance, the thing that comes into my head is the image of someone wholesome enough that they can win and change your stereotypical rake into upstanding husband material, most likely being the epitome of English Rose in looks. Horatia is a spirited and headstrong 17-year-old girl with enough naivety to propel her into making some decisions that are less than well thought-out. She states her mind quite openly and is a prolific (and generally unlucky) gambler. Her looks are described by others as essentially the sort of face that only family could love, with her primary physical feature being her "preposterous" thick eyebrows. And, to top it all off, she is the only main character that I have ever seen with a stammer. She is utterly glorious. Second, the plot becomes surprisingly humorous as it gets towards the end. It very much reminded me of The Marriage of Figaro at times, if not in terms of events then in regards to tone. It was a lot more farcical than I expected it to be, and very skillfully pulled off too. Third, the villain of the piece, Lethbridge, is a fascinating mix of cold, calculating and incredibly charming. His downfall is a fantastic scene that brings excitement just before it turns firmly onto the more romantic comedy parts.
So, now to the things that I wasn't so fond of. First, a minor point. I think that having a working knowledge of aristocratic fashion would really help. While I was aware of the general tendency that fashions took at the time (skirts as wide as a bus and big powdered wigs), it meant absolutely nothing to me when I was told things like Horatia's hair being styled a la capricieuse. I presume that the narrative is talking about different hairstyles, but I couldn't tell you what it meant in terms of actual visual description. And since Horatia is very fond of indulging in her husband's wealth, it means that there's a bevy of descriptions of clothes and fashion styles and the uses of what must be several miles' worth of ribbon. But they become less frequent as it goes along, so it's not too egregious. Second, for as much as I love Horatia, I found myself largely bored by Marcus, the Earl of Rule. I can see what Heyer was trying to do with his character: self-indulgent and mischievous, but with a good heart and surprising seriousness lurking beneath the veneer. But instead of a romantic hero, he put me more in mind of a father figure, which is technically the point in some ways. The hero and heroine of our story are 35 and 17 respectively, so for much of the narrative Rule acts in a weird hands-off but benevolent paternal figure. I'm all for depicting romances with age gaps, I mean I've tried writing a couple myself, but it's difficult to set up their relationship as quasi-paternal at the beginning to only then make the father figure to morph into a lover figure. Related to this, I wasn't quite convinced by the change in the main romantic relationship from marriage of convenience to love match, simply because the two didn't really interact enough. When they did interact, it was usually Rule gently admonishing his wife for associating with the wrong people or for gambling away the allowance that he'd given her. Admittedly, they were shown to get on from the day that they met and Horatia did find her husband attractive throughout, but there wasn't really a noticeable change in their behaviour. We're just supposed to agree that at some point Rule begins to love his wife, though I couldn't for the life of me point out where his eureka moment is supposed to be.

Overall, a bit of a mixed bag but mostly enjoyable. A feisty main heroine, a sinister but charming villain and surprisingly good humour save it from being an entirely disappointing romance. If you're looking for passionate romance, this isn't for you. If you're looking for something a bit more focused on married life in a convenience match, then you'll have better luck. 3.5/5

Next review: The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens

Signing off,

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

The Ring of Solomon by Jonathan Stroud

So now to The Ring of Solomon. The book that I re-read the entire Bartimaeus series thus far to prepare for. I remember this book coming out with surprisingly little fanfare considering how well the series before had sold. Admittedly, by the time it came out, I was in my first year of university, so my attention may well have been a little on the diverted side. But now that I've finally gotten to it, I can finally find out if the prequel is worthy of the rest of the series.

The Ring of Solomon sees Bartimaeus serving a master in Solomon's Jerusalem. Having just devoured his last master, he finds himself facing enslavement by an even harsher magician as punishment. His exploits proceed to get him and his master into even deeper trouble, straining at their already frayed relationship. Elsewhere, Asmira is brought before her ruler, the Queen of Sheba, and charged with killing King Solomon and stealing his ring of power, following a violent demand for exorbitant taxes. Determined to live up to her mother's prestigious reputation, she sets off to Jerusalem with little more than a few knives and a prayer.
I sorely regret not reading this book earlier. It is everything that I loved about reading the series for the first time. Certainly it's been a long time since I nearly giggle-snorted on the bus. Bartimaeus was fantastic as usual, although it's obvious that this is a younger, slightly less jaded version of himself. It's an interesting change, as he still has a weird affinity for selfless/unwittingly suicidal humans despite Ptolemy being a far-off prospect. Speaking of Ptolemy, there's an interesting evil parallel with his relationship to Bartimaeus in the characters of the magician Khaba and his loyal marid Ammet. What was touching and poignant between Bartimaeus and Ptolemy becomes infinitely more sinister and unhealthily feeling like blind devotion on Ammet's part rather than an equal partnership.
There were a couple of things that I wasn't really expecting when I started reading The Ring of Solomon. Firstly, I didn't realise just how good a starting place this would be for new readers of Bartimaeus. On the surface, this seems like a stupid thing to be surprised about, but I've been burned by stand-alone spin-offs before. But this struck a really nice balance between providing enough information for new readers, whilst not bogging down the narrative with background that long-time readers already know. Since the setting is so far removed from the main trilogy, there's no knowledge needed about the main plot, so it's perfect for those who want to try out the series without necessarily committing to a trilogy that they're unsure about. Secondly, it made me realise just how much I want to see more from Bartimaeus, even if it's in the form of stand-alone stories. I hadn't realised just how much I missed reading new adventures for this character. It's unlikely that Jonathan Stroud is reading this, but if he is, then this part is addressed specifically to him. If you ever have any more ideas for Bartimaeus, please write them. If they could involve his time working for Nefertiti then that would be great, but honestly, I would probably read anything at this point.

A fantastic addition to the series, and a perfect entry point for anyone considering the series but unwilling to commit to a trilogy. It's perhaps lower in the stakes department, but as a self-contained addition, it's pretty flawless. 5/5

Next review: The Convenient Marriage by Georgette Heyer

Signing off,

Saturday, 4 July 2015

Ptolemy's Gate by Jonathan Stroud

I remember when Ptolemy's Gate came out with surprising clarity. I'd read the first two installments of the series, loved them and then found out that the last part of the trilogy was yet to be released. So when I heard that the book was finally being released, I was hyped. I don't usually follow publishing schedules, so this is pretty unusual for me. So it perhaps wasn't a shock that when I finally did get to buy it, I read all but the last two chapters in a single sitting, interrupted only by my mum insisting that I had to go to bed. I think the only other book that came close to being so keenly anticipated was the third book of the Artemis Fowl series, which was devoured at a slightly more leisurely pace. I wanted the Bartimaeus trilogy to end as well as it had started, and I was by no means disappointed.

Ptolemy's Gate again follows Nathaniel, who has had another rapid rise through the parliamentary ranks in the three years that have passed since the previous book. He is now Information Minister, in charge of the propaganda being forced onto the commoners, as well as informally looking after his previous Internal Affairs post. Considering that his main job is now to encourage the populace to support a failing and increasingly unpopular war in the American colonies, it means that he is positively drowning in work. That's not much of a consolation for Bartimaeus, who has been constantly in Nathaniel's service for the better part of two years, and it's really starting to show. Where he was once nimble, cunning and more-or-less capable, years of constant service has whittled his strength down to a fraction of what it once was. With mounting frustration and desperation, he is trying to persuade his master to dismiss him before he just disperses entirely. Elsewhere, Kitty has been making herself busy learning about spirits and summoning in her latest plan to bring down the magicians' rule: a plan which requires the assistance of Bartimaeus himself. And in the background, another conspiracy is at work, one more terrible and ambitious than both Lovelace and Duvall's previous attempts at coups.
In my previous two reviews, I focused a lot on setting and theme, because they seemed to me to be some of the most interesting things to talk about after re-reading them. As a result, I have neglected to discuss my favourite part of the trilogy as a whole, namely the title character of the series: Bartimaeus himself. When I first started these reviews, that did bother me slightly, but it just didn't feel right at the time. It is only now in the final installment that I consciously realise why I refrained for so long. You see, Bartimaeus is kind of an oddity amongst many of my favourite characters in regards to the fact that he doesn't really change at all when it comes to personality or outlook. Certain individuals might rise or diminish in importance to him, but his overall character doesn't change. Honestly, why would it? He's thousands of years old, surrounded by people whose lifespans are minute in comparison and consistently has to endure the same old indignities by those same people. It doesn't make sense for him to have a traditional character arc. Instead, his character is revealed over the course of the trilogy in little chunks, with the most important parts saved for Ptolemy's Gate. I can't have been the only one practically begging to find out who Ptolemy was and why Bartimaeus still took on his appearance more than two thousand years after his death. Those sections didn't disappoint; by the end of the flashback sections in Alexandria, I was a heartbroken mess and wouldn't have it any other way. It's a story that fans of the series know is going to be tragic from the off-set, but I don't think it would work anywhere near as well if the relationship between Bartimaeus and Ptolemy hadn't been as good. I think the reason their relationship works so well is that at no point does Ptolemy treat the spirit as a symbol. That might seem like a strange thing to say, but hear me out. Nathaniel insists on keeping Bartimaeus in the world for two reasons: because he represents his precarious position in society due to the knowledge of his true name, as well as a link to his childhood and the adventure associated to that. Kitty's plan is initially scuppered because she sees Bartimaeus only as a reflection of the repression she experiences at the hands of magicians, not as someone that she is currently repressing herself, albeit unwittingly. Neither of them really considers him as a personality in his own right, and the realisation that they were short-sighted is a large, if understated, part of the plot's main drive.

A fantastic end to a trilogy that means a great deal to me. I would wholeheartedly recommend this series to anyone interested in fantasy, and to anyone who wants to interest their kids in reading. I honestly couldn't recommend this series enough if I tried. 5/5

Next review: The Ring of Solomon by Jonathan Stroud

Signing off,