The Duke’s Tattoo by Miranda Davis

Well, that was completely adorable. I don’t even mean that in the bitchy way I often mean adorable either. 

The Duke of Ainsworth wakes up one morning after getting rolled by persons unknown with an embarrassing tattoo on his naughty bits. Maybe I don’t even need to write the rest of this review, because that set up is the most hilariously awesome thing to happen to the oft-boring, half-assedly historical genre of the Regency romance since…I don’t know what since. It is a great set up though, and it is not squandered, having set a tone of rank silliness cut with a winking genre sensibility that totally worked for me. 

The Larch:running gag since October 1969

I imagine that if you go in looking for some super historical jibber-jabber about Regency mores and the like, you will be disappointed. Really, though, very few are reading Regency romance for the articles, if you catch my drift, and Davis justifies the far-fetched stuff in a cromulent manner. Prudence, the young woman responsible for the rolling of our titular Duke, is a sensible, modern sort of girl, working as an apothecary in Bath after being shut out of polite society due to the Duke of Ainsworth and her dick of a brother. But, whoops, it was not this Duke of Ainsworth, but his brother. Sorry about the confusion, and about your colorful peen. 

I really enjoyed the interactions between the duke and Prudence, especially in the beginning when it was all grudge match and everyone not knowing that what everyone else knew. Davis manages a prose tone that cuts a middle distance between sounding too modern and sounding too mothballed, and, frankly, I’m jealous of her working vocabulary. I don’t think I’m a slouch on the vocab quiz, and she sent me to the dictionary a couple times. (And not in a shitty, I’m-using-a-thesaurus way either.) A lot of the situations were – how do I put this – pretty stock things that happen in ur Regency romance novel (like the sleeping in the same bed non-sexually trope, which is such an oddment to me) but I thought she pulled them off with grace. The subtle invocation of the duke’s PTSD – he was an infantryman in the Napoleonic wars – made the whole insomnia thing more sensible. 

The third act goes on way too damn long, in a way that made me want to give everyone a wedgie, but especially Prudence. That’s not really unusual though, and the third act avoids much of the descent into sentiment or treacle one finds in many (if not most) romantic comedies. I can’t say I’m surprised by it, given how often it happens, but the way raunch comedies often end in these just weltering affirmations of crushing domesticity still puzzle me (e.g. just about every movie by Adam Sandler, not including Punch-Drunk Love.) Not that The Duke’s Tattoo does this, except in the most expected of ways. I mean, a comedy, a romance, by definition ends with an HEA (or, at the very least, a HFN: happy for now) so I don’t even know what I’m complaining about, or if I’m even complaining.

Maybe it’s just this: like many romance novels, I can imagine profoundly different, and slightly to wholly tragic conclusions to the action – Prudence knocked up in Italy, raising her daughter as a “ward”, or worse; the worse is easy – which may be the point of the whole romance/comedy thing. The old saw goes that comedy happens to other people, while tragedy is personal. The romantic comedy cuts these two things together in a way that rarely works, but it mostly worked here. W00t. 

Nebula Nominees: Glamour in Glass

I would never have read Glamour in Glassby Mary Robinette Kowal on the strength of the first of the Gamourist Histories novels, Shades of Milk and Honey, but I had assigned myself the homework of reading the Nebula nominees in the novel category, and this is book two and the nominee. After the insult of Ironskin – the first Nebula nominee I read – the restraint and the attention to detail in Shades of Milk and Honey felt good, and I did like the book. Unfortunately, the novel doesn’t say anything and it doesn’t really matter. Fine as a diversion, and well written in the strictest, most sentence-level sense, but not actually interesting.

So, you know, second verse, same as the first. 

But actually, probably worse. 


Shades of Milk and Honeyis very much what would Jane Austen have written if there was a half-assed little bit of magic in the mix. The half-assed magic is called glamour, and even though it’s understood as a woman’s art, Milk and Honey is very much about a growly, dickish artist-type dude who is nevertheless famous for performing the woman’s art of glamour, and how the plain-but-gifted gentry lady doesn’t even understand she loves him. (Spoiler alert, but not really, because c’mon.) 

The trouble with glamour is that it never feels like an integrated facet of this alt-Regency society, and therefore the story never feels very alt-Regency. However well-described the glamour is – and it is – glamour ends up seeming inconsequential and frivolous, which is an unfortunate way to write a magical woman’s art. I could see dozens of uses of glamour other than tarting up the gentry – including military applications – and it really didn’t make much sense that glamour was both a) a woman’s art and b) all the famous glamourists mentioned were men. The world seemed inconsistent. 

Glamour in Glass starts where Shades of Milk and Honey ends, with Jane and Vincent married and practicing glamour for a living, and as a couple. It’s interesting to see an alt-Regency story depict marriage, because so many of the period stories end at the wedding. (Certainly, all of Austen’s major novels end there, and she’s the obvious hat-tip in the first novel.) And Glamour in Glassseems to address some of the criticisms laid out above. Jane and Vincent go to Belgium during Napoleon’s brief sojourn on Elba before the he escapes and stirs shit up again. Again, the alt in the history is nonexistent for the most part, but we do see a lot more of the potential uses for glamour, and when Napoleon makes his escape and starts marching toward the coast (spoiler alert? srsly, no), you get to see a lot more action than your typical Austen novel, and the potential non-domestic uses for glamour are more fully explored. (Still, that glamour can record sound is never looked at once, and why?) 

Other problems are not addressed at all, or get worse; that glamour keeps being referred to as a “woman’s art” being the biggest one. Jane and Vincent are visiting a famous glamourist friend in Belgium, who is also running a school of sorts for glamourists. Most of these people are male. Vincent tells the story of how his earl father disowned him because he was a glamourist, and it’s implied that the earl thinks being a glamourist means you’re gay. This is understood to be a pretty common opinion. Then we briefly meet a “folk glamourist” – who is a woman – and her art is dismissed as crude. Isn’t glamour a folk art? Aren’t the folk in the this case explicitly said to be women? 

If we take glamour to be like music, then any woman of a certain class would be expected to know it, but certainly many or most professional musicians would be dudes, and that wouldn’t be a threat to their masculinity. A music analogy would work. But I think the best folk art analog is embroidery (or any textile craft, like dress-making) – practiced almost exclusively by women, and mostly anonymously (or commercially.) I simply do not understand these men – many from the upper classes – who are given accolades for something that is a “woman’s art”. Nice dress you made there, Vincent, are you going to wear it now? Accessorize with a sampler?
                               A sampler that reads 'you can't tell me what to do'

The real problem here is Jane. Boy, I really don’t like her, and I don’t like the things said through her. Now, I am completely cognizant that the opinions that a character espouses are not the same as the take-home message of the book, or of the author, blablah. I’m not expecting Jane to be all magically modern in her opinions, but I am getting sick to death of main character ladies who humble-brag about how plain-but-smart they are, and cut down every other woman around them. Apparently, every women in England is either a whore or vapid, and on the Continent, either a whore or a spy for Napoleon. Good job, Jane. You win the Girl Olympics, and get to take cigars with the men as a reward at the end, so’iz you don’t have to hang out with the ladies who are dumb and boring.

And then we get into a pregnancy plot which similarly makes me itch. Again, I get that this is Regency England, and their medical understandings are psuedo-scientific at best, but when it’s put forward that women can’t do glamour while pregnant because it might cause miscarriage, I really wanted to know if this was bullshit or not. I’ll totally accept it, but in this Regency setting, with all the leaches and women-can’t-ride-astride-while-pregnant (because why? whatever, Freud), I would like just a minute more of internal push against this idea. I can roll my eyes when Jane isn’t allowed up on a horse because I know that’s bs, but I can’t assess the truth of whether glamour really is a danger during pregnancy. Jane feels sick when she tries to perform glamour before she knows she’s up the duff, sure, but I absolutely couldn’t abide dairy in my first trimester, and that didn’t mean cheese was dangerous. It just meant it tripped off a very capricious morning sickness, which had vanished by the second trimester, where I absolutely stuffed myself with cheese to no ill effects.

If it is real, why has Kowal created this magical system which is understood to be for the ladies which is also stupidly impossible for women to work? While they are in a condition that literally only women can be in? Maybe this is a subtle check on the idea of gendered arts at all, but, no, I’m totally not feeling that given the general thrust of the text. (Remember: whores, spies, vapid or Jane are your options, if you are a woman, and you win if you get to hang with the boys.) Glamour ends up being one of those dumb fucking magical systems which exists to cause impediments for the main characters and not much else. Of course Jane is going to have to perform glamour at some point, and the results are similarly ambiguous. Wtf are you saying? Sloppy, sloppy. 

So, like Shades of Milk and Honey, I ended up with Glamour in Glasswondering what the point was. And if the point is what I think it is, I’m going to be piiiissed. Unlike Milk and Honey, the action of the plot and prose read more like The Scarlet Pimpernel than any Austen, and I have very limited success with Orczy. I think Georgette Heyer gets mentioned in the same breath as the Glamourist Histories, but I think that’s a bad comparison. Heyer is a lot more fun, to put it baldly, and while her plots and characters are often understood to be frivolous, there isn’t this Jane in the middle judging everyone for having a good time. Hell, even Austen, who was often barbarous to the ridiculous, shot her mockery through with kindness and understanding. 

This afternoon I forced my husband to turn off some stupid comedy about two supposedly lovable assholes who were mocking an ex-girlfriend while she was absolutely correctly telling them off. This movie is going to be about these dicks winning, I yelled. I don’t want to see them win. I don’t want to see Jane win either, and that’s my problem with this book, and this series. I don’t dislike her because she’s plain, or kind of a dishrag, or talented – I’m not jealous of her competence; take notes here, heroine writers – I dislike her because she’s a boring snob. Sometimes a cigar is more than a cigar, Jane, and that you’ll slut-shame everyone to take one with the guys doesn’t endear you. I’ll be over here with all the other vapid whore spies, because they are way more interesting and way less judgmental.

Corsets & Clockwork: 13 Steampunk Romances

I went up to the cabin with the best of intentions: a backpack full of books and the will to read them. But, what ended up happening was playing Munchkin, chatting about the local land scandal, and making and eating a lot of food. A very wonderful week, all told, despite the godamn half foot of snow that fell quite prettily down on all and sundry in freaking April, but not a week in which I clapped eyes on much reading. When I did eventually sit down to read, I did hack a bit on my assigned reading, but mostly I slunk off to Corsets & Clockwork: 13 Steampunk Romances.

Short stories do much better as distracted reading, and Corsets & Clockwork was the only short story collection in the backpack. I had grabbed it in a mad library rush, but also because I’ve been arguing with the hubby about the state of steampunk these days. I don’t think I’d care much about the genre in a vacuum, but my man has a huge chubby for the entire concept. He doesn’t read so much these days, but I do, so I keep reading and reporting back. I see a decided shift in steampunk towards more romantic sensibilities, which is an interesting shift from the early days of very dudey stuff like Alan Moore and William Gibson. Some of this I think is sartorial: steampunk is very much about how things look, and about ornamenting fetish objects. (Done well, I think it’s also about punk-history, but not everything is done well.) Which is not to say that the sartorial is always feminine, just that romance, as a genre, deals with the body in a way that many genres do not. The clothes make the genre.

Given that Corsets & Clockwork: 13 Steampunk Romances has the romance thing right in its title, it’s not a huge surprise that this collection felt sub-par to me. I’m not trashing romance here, but short form romances can be extremely weak: setting up and knocking down lovers and their cheesy impediments without a lot of thought towards form or function. There’s a reason it’s usually a romance novel, and that reason is that short stories (I think) by their very natures require a concision of characterization and/or a third act snap that romances either a) don’t require or b) actively eschew on a genre level. Sing it with me: not that there is anything wrong with this. After scanning over some reviews, I see that my feelings are out of step with people who are reading these stories as romances. Fair warning, I guess, and if you’re a romance reader primarily, just take everything I say and reverse it. See how even cranks can be helpful? I live to serve.

“Rude Mechanicals” by Lesley Livingston. Despite some goofy names that made me wince – Agamemnon, Quint, Kingfisher for crying out loud – the story of a mechanical girl who acts as Juliet in a shabby Shakespearean troupe to both comic and tragic ends made me smile. Romeo and Juliet is often disastrously misinterpreted, as far as I can tell, run in such a way that those teenaged idiots are somehow noble, when what they are is irrational in a completely different way from their irrational parents. Nobody gets to win, even posthumously, because there is no posthumous win. Anyway, my cranking aside, this was funny and clever and hit who can separate the dancer from the dance in a way I appreciated.

“The Cannibal Fiend of Rotherhithe” by Frewin Jones. This story is where I’m most out of step with other readers, because I hit several reviews that called this one bad, and I would absolutely, without a doubt call it the stand-out of the collection. Frankly, if I hadn’t hit something this bloody weird this early in my reading, I may not have even finished the collection. Beautifully sly narrative voice, fairy tale echoes which are Grimm not Disney, and a half-footed nearly incomplete ending that says more with a gesture than a statement. A rough, horrible fisherman on the Scottish coast captures a mermaid in his nets. The narrator demures as to logistics – one of the many times when the narrator points out something awful and then lets you try to sort it out, horribly – but the fisherman gets the mermaid with child. She dies in childbirth and is discarded, leaving the fisherman to raise a girl with sticky skin and shark’s teeth. She’s a monster with a monstrous upbringing, and her brutal reactions to the brutal world out there – the one that pretends not to smile with shark’s teeth – are raw and ugly and perfect. Even monsters deserve love, even while both the monster and the love are terrifying. I would absolutely seek out more of this writer’s work, in a heartbeat.

“Wild Magic” by Ann Aguirre. Fine, I guess, but somewhat perfunctory, ending in and some day I shall be the queen of all I survey! in a way that makes me tired. A young girl who is the daughter of the ruling class, but, like, gifted with magical powers which are frowned upon – yawn – falls in love with Oliver Twist, even though he might, like, have an agenda. Felt like a preface to a larger work, ending just as the actual conflicts might begin, and in that way, is something of a failure as a short fiction. Not bad, but not interesting.

“Deadwood” by Michael Scott. I liked this up until the ending, which has one of those last minute reveals where the main characters turn out to be actual, historical figures. I’m not even kidding when I say I rolled my eyes and humphed when the main characters introduced themselves with their real names – oh my god, that was the worst. All I’m saying is that you have a short story named the same as this show:

then you should try a little fucking harder, cocksucker. I get that Deadwood is an actual historical place, and that David Milch did not invent it, but this Deadwood is nowhere near as interesting as either the historical Deadwood or the HBO series. That said, before the humphing and eye-rolling – seriously, why the fuck would [redacted] and [redacted] ever be hanging out together? let alone smooching? – the whole post-Civil War company town thing was workable, and the characterizations fun. There are many a fiction I wish ended earlier than they did, and this gets to be one. Ta da!

“Code of Blood” by Dru Pagliassotti. I skipped this one after a couple of pages. I know my track record with stories of the ingenue daughters of the ruling class and their tired rebellions via fucking the staff. (See, for example, “Wild Magic”, above.)

“The Clockwork Corset” by Adrienne Kress. Yet another daughter of the ruling class fucking the staff, but I was charmed by said aristocratic daughter joining the army and trying to pass as a boy for much of the proceedings. The passing-as-a-boy trope is an odd thing in fiction, usually requiring the girl to be both more and less dumb than she is. The ending here is…maybe not unsatisfying, but it doesn’t make work of all the potentials.

“The Airship Gemini” by Jaclyn Dolamore. Fascinating premise in a locked room environment which needs to be a longer fiction. “The Airship Gemini” doesn’t exactly work – there are too many lacunae – but I so seriously want it to, and the ways it doesn’t work are still compelling. A set of conjoined twins, just regular physical freaks – work as a show on a dirigible for magical folk – vampires, werewolves, etc – because freak is freak, but not all freak is the same. A self-serving doctor seeks to separate the girls, throwing the girls into crisis. I loved that the girls have no interest in separation – their connection is fact not deformity – and I loved their relationship with The Lizard Man. I thought the crisis and denouement was confused, but there’s a lot of here here.

“Under Amber Skies” by Maria V. Snyder. I actively hated this story. Set in a steampunky Poland just after the Nazi occupation, it managed to get high and mighty about resisting the Nazis because resisting Nazis might interfere with the romantic bullshit of some teenage girl. Zosia’s father is a mad scientist who has been building farm equipment & kitchen implements when the Nazis take over. Everyone assumes he’s begun making war machines for Poland to be used in the war effort, but he’s been missing for a couple months. Then Nazis try to take Zosia in for questioning. She escapes, and then the story turns into how Zosia’s Polish nationalist mother is evil, and Zosia’s dad would never make war machines despite the fact that we’re dealing with actual Nazis here, and apparently resisting Nazis is evil because war is bad and everyone should be a lover and not a fighter and war is wrong double plus times.

What the actual fuck? I am of the opinion that most writers should avoid Nazis in their fiction unless they are willing and able to take on the most Godwin of all genocides, but here it’s an actual disaster. I get how love is dreamy and wonderful and all, but this kind of judgmental bullshit about how resisting Nazis is wrong because of love, man makes me want to die. This story is stupid and childish and takes the easy way out in situations which are forever and decidedly less than easy. Uuuurrrgh.

“King of the Greenlight City” by Tessa Gratton. Starts out in a very traditional romance vein, where the principles meet cute and discover their magical powers and whatnot, and then builds to a third act OMIGOD which is pretty freaking hilariously subversive. We two are as one…ahahahaha. Sad. 🙁

“The Emperor’s Man” by Tiffany Trent. Yet another daughter of the ruling class banging the help – someone who actually has an academic placement should write a paper about this phenomenon – but better than my dismissive opening would imply. This is one of those coded histories, with a transported London in a magical setting. I feel like with a lot of these stories there is way too much going on in the weird department. Mixing werewolves, manticores, hard science, alternate history, and clockwork is way, way too much in a story 60 pages long or less, but this was cute and it functioned as a story. The only thing that made me itch was the way science was equated with mysticism. Just because something is an epistemology, does not mean all epistemologies are equivalent.

“Chickie Hill’s Badass Ride” by Dia Reeves. Snappy dialogue and narrative voice in a setting not usually seen in steampunkery. No one writes in the segregated American South, and if they do, they sure as shit don’t write almost light-hearted romps about black children being stolen by tentacled monsters who are easily mistaken for the Klan. I’m not entirely sure this story works, but full freaking points for a story where the casual fun belies a sharper message.

“The Vast Machinery of Dreams” by Caitlin Kittredge. Omg, another good one. I couldn’t even say what happened here, exactly, but the way the total freaking weirdness is held with a hard hard and doled out to the reader in snippets is masterful. A young boy with dreams both nightmarish and juvenile meets a girl who might be a monster, and Lovecraftian hijinks ensue. This is what happened; this isn’t what happened. ZOMG.

“Tick, Tick, Boom” by Kiersten White. Yet another daughter of the ruler class banging the help. Seriously, what is up with this? There is so much of this in this collection, and I am beginning seriously to wonder why it is that our romance lady avatars are all these high-born chickies who are discomforted by their status, and alleviate that discomfort by kissing the low-born? Why am I even talking in terms like this? Low-born? The fuck? I don’t even mean to be attacking this specific story, because it’s fine or whatever, despite the fact I saw the twist coming in the first page, and I don’t think it actually said anything at all. And it deals with political violence in a way I think is deeply lame. Har har, I blew up some people because I don’t like my daddy!

Woo boy, I must be cranky tonight, given how bitchy I’m being. Still though, what is going on here? Maybe it’s just the steampunk genre, and its hazy Victoriana written by (mostly) Americans who have zero clue about how the British class system works, and romanticize it. It’s yet another godamn Lady Diana plate. Yerch. Maybe I’ll come back with a coda some day, but for now I’m just feeling itchy and irritated that the one excellent story about a girl with shark’s teeth tricked me into the rest of this mess. Fine enough reading for the cabin, but back in the everyday I’m feeling much less charitable. Sorry.

Shades of Milk and Honey: Diversions

I haven’t had a lot of luck with Austen retellings, not that I’ve given them much energy. I’ve given half-heart to some zombie stitching, with ok to terrible results; I have avoided smut recastings; I have thrown within pages various contemporary takes, but loved a couple too. So, when I say I enjoyed this slender Austen-riff, I am actually saying something. However – and you knew this however was coming – I can’t say Shades of Milk and Honeyby Mary Robinette Kowal is more than a diversion: amiable enough, but mostly pointless.

My husband and I went out to lunch today and got into a big argument about fanfiction. He was disparaging something for being fanfic, and I countered: how many thousands of Shakespeare retellings have I both consumed and enjoyed? How many Greek tragedies, folktales and the like? There are absolutely more stories in the world than the 12 or so we get told exist in some freshman writing class by some credulous idiot, but the resonant cultural motifs are a specific bunch, even if they keep changing and morphing. 

Anyway, so, we made up over the idea that it’s not so much the concept of fanfic that he had a problem with, but the fact that the fanfic that was he subject of the argument corrected none of the problems of the source material, and, in fact, introduced more than a couple more. Fifty Shades of Grey is pretty much garbage, not because it’s Twilight fanfic, but because it’s garbage. I don’t love Twilight, while I respect its resonance, but I feel like a fanfic that misses all the inherent silliness of vegetarian vampire chastity porn is a freaking disaster. Twilight works because Bella gets to marry Jesus, not Mark Zuckerberg. 

And, quick aside: I’m not using the term fanfic with any rigor here, or as a knee-jerk indicator of poor quality. And, now that I think about it, the term seems to be used dismissively of women’s fiction more often than of stuff written by men, so it’s possible I’m wrong-footing this whole review by starting with a discussion of the term. Shades of Milk and Honeyis not fanfic in the strictest sense. Sure, the plot probably owes to Pride and Prejudicesome, but then so many plots do. It is set in Regency England, and Austen is probably the best known chronicler of that period, but it’s not like she invented Regency England. 

Jane and Melody Ellsworth are rivalrous sisters whose parents are roughly Mr & Mrs Bennet, but softer. Mrs Ellsworth still has the vapours, but Mr Ellsworth isn’t an entailed dick. Melody is pretty-but-dumb and Jane is talented-but-plain. While the world is decidedly Regency England, there is this tiny bit of magic in the mix – glamour – which is to be our shifting paranormal lens on the rigid gender divisions of that society. Glamour is understood to be a woman’s hobby – good for cosmetic reasons and not much else – but there’s a hot, grouchy male glamourist with whom Jane is secretly smitten. (Secret even from herself, but seriously dude.) 

The whole concept of glamour is a ripe metaphor that unfortunately goes nowhere. It solves some issues with the Regency novel – aha, performing glamour is why all the ladies are swooning – but it has close to zero impact on Regency England or any of the characters. Everyone dismisses the wartime applications – the Napoleonic wars are unfolding, the way they do – but glamour obviously has an impact on a confusingly written dueling sequence near the end. Glamour can record conversations for crying out loud! That absolutely could be a thing with spycraft, at the very least! 

I did appreciate the ways Jane and glamourist dude talked about the craft of art, and I even marked a passage in the now-lost book where glamourist dude growls at Jane for observing the ways he built a specific illusion. The ways Jane takes that to heart and tries simply to experience the illusion without a critical eye felt…felt like something about all this arguing I was doing about retellings with my husband. But, unfortunately, I admired the craft here much more than I enjoyed its heart. 

Shades of Milk and Honeydoes a very, very good job of aping the craft of a Regency novel – it is set beautifully, with attention to detail and character. But it is not actually a Regency novel, and it lacks the snap of Austen’s often cutting observations about the culture she lived in. As a reader, I can only access that snap in Austen’s works through historical research, which makes the cuts less immediate; a joke explained is less funny than a joke that punches known knowledge. Which might be the lack in Shades of Milk and Honey: Kowal doesn’t cut anything about Regency England, which would be a weird thing to do anyway, but then she also doesn’t say anything about the here-and-now.

I don’t actually appreciate the dichotomy between smart-but-plain and pretty-but-dumb all that much, because I think it’s a boring and unrealistic binary, so I think the expression here of that tension is unrewarding. And unrewarding in a way that Austen never hits. Elizabeth is not as beautiful as her sister Jane, but that’s not really a thing, and, in general, Austen avoids all but the tersest of physical descriptions. Elizabeth is said to have fine eyes and dark hair and not much else. So I’m in a place where novels written 200 years ago felt more harshly critical of their societies than ones written in the last decade, which is the weirdest. 

The Nebula nominee I read just previous to this, Ironskin, also recasts the woman-penned 19th Century novel Jane Eyre as to be about looks and not much else, and I wonder what is up with this contemporary attention to the superficial to the exclusion of, well, anything else.  Shades of Milk and Honeyis nowhere near as bad as Ironskinin this, not even by half, but it is still strange that these novels are being lauded as genre stand-outs. Admitting, of course, that I haven’t actually read the sequel here, which is the one up against Ironskin. Still, it is an oddment that glamour is more ornament than architecture, more diversion than statement. I enjoyed being diverted, but I can’t say much else about it. 

Crossed fingers for Glamour in Glass, but…

Riveted: A Song of Ice and Fire

Without question, Riveted by Meljean Brook is the most accomplished of the Iron Seas novels so far, with a smooth and well-paced exposition, likable characters who do not behave like children or (worse) teenagers, and a trotting, road-trippy plot that doesn’t drop threads or wander off. Even the cover is better, without the greasy torsos of the first two novels. Greasy torsos really gross me out. Observe:

Admittedly, the Iron Duke looks pretty dry, but someone has oiled the second dude. Yuck. And it doesn’t make any sense, because that character was supposed to be a clothes horse and a dandy. I hate to say this, lest I sound like a hipster douchebag, but the UK covers are better across the board. Apparently, I’m out of step in my torso aesthetics with my country. Rule Brittania. 

David Kentewess is a vulcanologist traveling to survey Iceland for the alt-history version of the Royal Society; Annika is the daughter of an insular all-female society on Iceland. David also has personal reasons to locate and possibly expose Annika’s community. You can see how this might be a problem, despite a meet cute and the fact that they generally enjoy each other. There are other points of connection and fracture between the two of them, and Rivetedtakes time and care to build their relationship with an almost Regency-level restraint. (And I have noted before that this is more an alt-Regency steampunk world, less an alt-Victorian one, dirigibles notwithstanding. Though the first manned balloon flight was in 1783, which is kind of a trip if you think about it. Anyhoo.) 

So, it seems to me that romance novels – especially those that fall in to the broad rubric of paranormal – often deal with various kinds of body trauma. The paranormal, with it’s extreme and changing bodies – the animistic werewolf rippling with fur, the cold blood of the vampire, the insubstantiality of the ghost –almost externalizes that trauma (which doesn’t have to be sexual trauma, but because we’re dealing with body trauma here, almost always affects the sexual) and dramatizes it. Omg, I don’t want to drink blood; change into a monster; succumb to my biology. Et cetera. Certainly, this can be just badly done, and you can hit a bunch of anorexic ideation, slut-shaming, or just straight up rape fantasy, but trauma’s not actually ennobling, and pain and fear bite. But body trauma is often the heart of paranormal romance. 

Steampunk is on the far edge of paranormal – there are often scient-ish explanations for whatever megalodon/dirigible/automata – but a pulp sense of goofy hand-waving to explanation is happily part of the genre. And the Iron Seas books certainly have been taking on body trauma in their romantic pairings. I was not at all comfortable with Rhys and Mina’s deal in The Iron Duke – even while I really loved Mina’s character & the world in general. The whole Alpha male sub/dom thing was just too much for me, though I do appreciate that it’s addressed pretty head on. 

But here with David, we don’t have a big rippling alpha asshole who just has to pin down his lady love and fuck make love the trauma right out of her, but an almost virginal scientist who has been very seriously scarred in a volcanic eruption – one that also killed his mother. His monocle is not foppery, but a prosthetic replacing a lost eye. Three of his limbs have been replaced with prostheses as well. So he’s got some body issues: limited mobility, lingering survival guilt, still adjusting self-image and self-loathing, etc. I haven’t been much of a fan of virgins-lose-it tales, because, ahem, they almost never match up to the awkward reality, and they make me feel weird for how perfect everything is. But here it was sweet and awkward and occasionally painful – not just whatever hymen stuff, but painful in the sense that you can make some serious missteps while learning a lover’s body. Add in the fact that, if you think about, Annika more or less has to come out as hetero. We breeders almost never have to consider our sexual preferences as adolescents, least not the way gay people do anyway, so it is very interesting to see a straight person have to consciously make the choice of straightness, knowing that choice will lead to certain fractures with her community. 

This isn’t obnoxiously done or anything – there’s no Star Trek style arm wheeling about her single-gender community is just as wrong as the rest of them! or whatever, but that does bring me to why I couldn’t cough up that last star. This book is incredibly message-y, from gay rights to ableism to racism to fossil fuels to maybe some other other stuff I’m forgetting. It feels like a bitch-move from me to complain about this, but sheer number and occurrences of the messages got to be distracting, and I’m really sorry to say this, a little bossy. It’s not that I disagree – yes! don’t be dicks to people because of their sexual orientations! – but I felt a little choir-bound. Putting aside the bigots who won’t like this anyway – because fuck them – my main criticism is that so much was taken on – race! gender! the planet! disability! – that the take-homes felt dissipated and topically treated, except for the body trauma stuff. 

Anyway, another perfectly fun and intelligent alt-history/romance from Ms. Brook, one that balances the needs of the relationship against the needs of the plot in a near perfect manner. I certainly have my preferences for the thickly urban steampunk alt-history – and I did miss the London of the Iron Seas world – but the substitution of desolate, volcanic Iceland was pretty great. And there’s a character with my daughter’s name! I can see my house from here!

Oh, and by the way? Scientists are hot. 

From Bangable Dudes in History

Disappointments: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Most of the time, I prefer to think of the universe as cold, meaningless and without a greater consciousness that imbues our lives with meaning and guides us with an unseen hand. So you can bet your sweet butt that I sat up and took notice when the universe handed me two of my most favorite things, Jane Austen and zombies, together in the novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. What? Have all my years of fruitless prayers been answered? There truly is a benign and smiling force who animates both undead flesh and my haphazard existence! 

I’ve been waiting on the release of this book for some time with trepidation. The idea is flawless: who doesn’t want to see reanimated corpses intrude upon the landed gentry of Regency England? But the devil is in the details, and I couldn’t know if the execution would match the fevered imaginings of my idle mind. 

Austen has always attracted fan-fic, but it’s usually more along the lines of Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife. (And when I say takes a wife, what I mean is takes a wife. Right now, I’m doing that fist-pump thing that the immature use to connote sex.) It makes sense. Despite all of her savage, manly wit, Jane Austen’s stories occur in the carefully delineated world of women. Men must want for a wife, not for combat training and the feel of zombie skulls crunching under the weight of a vorpal sword. The fan-fic takes this all to the logical, romance novel end. Women marry, and then sis-boom-bah, other, more entirely throbbing vorpal swords are sunk into flesh, while toes curl and the gardener rustles below the window. 

Zombies come with their own, ready-packed symbolisms and meanings: consumerism, a sort of post-Marxist fear of the the rising masses, along with a discomfort toward mass media. One zombie is funny, a lumbering inconsequential, quickly dispatched. But many zombies, and there are always many zombies, is a force of crowd-sourcing, a d.d.o.s. attack, the worm eating your email, the end of modern life as we know it. Like scientologists. 

So what happens when we add one symbol cluster to another? Some interesting things, unfortunately done in a less than interesting manner. Many, many people have already noted that while Pride and Prejudicetakes place during the Napoleonic Wars, and soldiers factor prominently in the tale, not one word is breathed about the blood, sucking gunshot wounds and gangrene that is war in the 19th century. (Personally, I’ve always thought this observation was specious. I mean, things are about what they are about, and not about other things. Do we bitch that we don’t know more about Mrs. Lear?) Adding zombies into the story of Lizzie and her Darcy reminds us that life was about more than bonnets and barouches, that people lived and died in service of the motives of the upper classes. Workers of the world unite, and feast on brains. 

However, despite my panegyrics in the the service of the idea of this novel, the execution is maybe less than satisfying. Large, large chunks are lifted verbatim from Austen’s story, which is fine and all, but when the text strays, you can feel the graft. For example, Charlotte is bitten by one of the “unmentionables” and slowly succumbs to zombification during the course of her marriage. It works well as metaphor of the slow smothering of an unfortunate match, but to what end? Other people, in equally crappy marriages, do not zombify and need to be beheaded. So, am I just making all that stuff up about badly matched people? Is the only Zombie on top of mountaintops that which I bring with me?

Braaaaaains. (I couldn’t resist.)

Under the Bleachers: Northanger Abbey and the Teen Film

There are many things wrong with the film adaption of Pride & Prejudice which stars Kira Knightly, the most obvious of which is tone. Though Austen is often mistaken for a high Romantic, thrown in with the Brontës with their wild passions and Gothic styles, rainstorms and moors are not Austen’s purview. Her plots and characters are based on social realism or caricature; her sensibility is of the satirist. Darcy does not stride out over the morning grass with his coat unbuttoned, and Elizabeth would never smirk her way through their engagement, finding it hard even to meet his eyes in the book. 

However, Joe Wright – the filmmaker – does get several things right in the adaption, my favorite being the hat-tip he makes to teen movies. There’s a scene where Elizabeth and her friend Charlotte are talking shit about Darcy after he’s snubbed Elizabeth within her earshot, and it reads like an under-the-bleachers scene in some Regency John Hughes film. Though Elizabeth and Charlotte are in their 20s, they are in a long adolescence: living at home, going to dances. When the scene has them making their cat talk and then clasping hands and laughing at how mean they are, how clever, it was a pretty perfect capture of the tone of that section of the book. 

The beginning of Northanger Abbeyis so very much a John Hughes film. Catherine is much younger than Charlotte or even Elizabeth, a tender farm-bred 17. She heads to the resort town of Bath, and it’s either a summer camp movie, or a new girl in school movie, or elements of both. Catherine has chaperons, but they are so mild and unobservant that Catherine may as well be one her own, a fact that troubles Catherine occasionally – why did you not tell me I was doing the wrong thing? Catherine is a good girl though, sweet and either dumb or innocent, because it’ s difficult to tell them apart sometimes. The narrator – and Mr. Henry Tilney, Love Interest – make great fun of Catherine’s wide-eyed inability to picky up on innuendo. There are whole pages of conversations where he is saying one thing, and she is understanding another, and only you and Henry are in on the fun. 

Oh, speaking of the narrator! Once I noticed the narrator in Persuasion, I have been in love with Austen’s narrators. Lord, they are strong voices: often wry, occasionally sarcastic, always smoothly barbed. This is the first of Austen’s novels, likely never re-written by her and published posthumously, and it reads like a first novel. The narrator gets out of hand at points, clumsily commenting on the state of the novel, addressing the reader directly. This is (a bit) charming, because it makes you think about how Austen was writing these novels primarily to amuse her family. There’s a long section bitching about the sorts of people who can be found on a Sunday at a certain intersection in Bath, and it has the ring of the inside joke, which is totally freaking adorable. But like most inside jokes, it’s not especially amusing to those of us not in on it, and comes off as a well-written traffic report. 

And speaking of early novels, this one is bisected into two discreet sections that have only the shakiest of thematic overlap. The early part of the book has Catherine meeting two sets of siblings, the Tilneys and the Thorpes. She meets Isabella Thorpe first, who is a classic mean girl, the hot girl who knows it. But Catherine is too naïve and good natured to understand Isabella’s bitchiness. Isabella’s brother is even better: cussing all the time, crude, prone to wild exaggerations and criticisms of people and events, which can be altered to their opposite with just a little prodding. This is the best coach in the world! It is about to fall apart! etc. Then Catherine meets the Tilneys. The sister is a bit of a cypher, sort of Georgeanna Darcy-ish in her mildness, but Henry is a total babe. Not because he’s super hot, but because he takes the time to talk about muslin with Catherine’s chaperon and tease her mercilessly. Interest and attention go a long was towards affection. Naïve Catherine slowly learns how to navigate a tricky social terrain based mostly in frivolity; why, yes, high school, I remember you well. 

The second half is a funny take-down of the Gothic novel, Catherine gone to visit the Tilneys in their abbey. Being a somewhat silly girl who has read too many Gothic novels, she starts imagining all sorts of fell deeds, partially helped along by Henry’s gentle teasing. The most memorable sequence has Catherine approaching a spooky old piece of furniture within her room with trembling hands, looking through all the drawers until she finds a roll of papers! What horrors will this manuscript enumerate? What dire deeds of yore!? Omg!!1!! Then, it turns out the papers are laundry lists. The plot from the first half of the novel intrudes, but somewhat distantly – there is a scandal, but it is learned about in letters, and then discussed at the breakfast table. In Pride and Prejudice, Lydia’s elopement, which learned about in letters as well, was much better played. The drama of Lydia’s scandal is acted out in the Bennet household breaking into activity – Mrs. Bennet screaming about duels, that great speech by Mr. Bennet about his culpability. Here it was just less interesting to watch.

The end? Well, the end is abrupt and unsatisfying, the plot resolved only in the most mechanical way. Catherine is turned out of the Tilney house by the father for no good reason anyone can discern. (We do learn the reason, and it doesn’t have any relationship to the earlier scandal or the first part of the book, so it feels like a lost opportunity.) The section of her going home – the cruelty of turning a 17 year old out onto the roads with no servant or pin money, forcing her to ride the Regency Greyhound back 70 miles to her house – this was a nice bit of writing. Seeing how beholden to the male head of a family everyone – but especially women – are, this was honestly freaky, and freakier than the Gothic spookings that had Catherine jumping at her shadow. It’s a pretty sly commentary on horror fictions – no, the father didn’t kill the wife, but he certainly has the very real power to make everyone miserable, put them into real danger, and destroy their lives. Watch the birdy, because the real horror is in the everyday. Nice. And just a stray thought – I loved the portrait of General Tilney – this twitchy, overbearing asshole who clearly has OCD; kind enough if you are in his good graces, and a monster if you are not. 

I’m not even going to put under spoiler that everything works out in the end, but this was mostly truncated and distant in its recounting. The narrator becomes obnoxious, relating everything and enacting speeches in a bald manner, ending with a Law & Order style dun dun – but at what cost?? I feel very affectionately towards this novel, but this is mostly because I love Austen enough to want to read this twice, just to see her grow and change as a writer. Also because when I first read it, I had much less experience with the Gothic novel. I said this before somewhere else, but for the writers we love, sometimes the failures are as interesting as the successes. (And this isn’t a full-on failure, just uneven.) Watching an author’s voice develop, from the first rough coughings to the later arias, this can be a joy to read for the beloved author. So, reader beware, this is not a smart book to start with if you’ve never read any Austen, or you don’t particularly like Austen’s more assigned readings. For me, it was an excellent October read. Spooooooky.