Tuesday, January 28, 2014


Old Yellow Eyes is back. Well, this is Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, whom we first met in What Angels Fear, and not Lt. Data, but I still demand that Brent Spiner play the guy in the inevitable film adaptation.

In When Gods Die, Devlin, he of the startling yellow eyes that give him supernaturally awesome night vision (note: my grandmother had yellow eyes, truly yellow, like a freaking tub of fresh butter yellow, and her night vision was crap, but hey) and the, I dunno, Spock ears that give him super hearing as well, has landed in the middle of another murder mystery, involving another famously luscious young beauty, but this time he's not the prime suspect. Oh no.

The prime suspect this time is the about-to-become Prince Regent of England, George Hanover, son of the mad George III, who has a certain way with the ladies despite being a fat, flatulent git, as Blackadder would tell you:

Am I really going to throw in a Blackadder the Third clip every time I read a Regency novel? Yes, yes, I probably am.

Someone passed George a note at a musical evening in Brighton. Supposedly, one Guinevere, Lady Anglessey, a buxom black-haired bombshell he's had his eye on for a while. Only when he arrives at the secret rendezvous, she is half out of her dress, provocatively posed, and, as "Prinny" realizes after he wakes up from either a drunken stupor or a drugged one, dead as disco with a jeweled dagger sticking out of her back.* Yeah, it's that classic murder mystery chestnut, the (presumably) innocent dude who wakes up next to a dead hooker, except, you know, these are aristocrats so it's not quite so sordid. Or is it?

Devlin of the Yellow Eyes**, who is of course also in Brighton with the rest of the Quality, is immediately drawn into the effort to cover it up find someone else to blame it on solve the case. A case which winds up involving everything from latter-day Jacobites hoping to re-enact the Gunpowder Plot (but without the fail, thank you very much) to a strange heirloom necklace once given by a Welsh witch to a certain James Stuart (aka James II) and a century or so later passed on to Devlin's mother, who supposedly drowned wearing it when Devlin was eleven but suddenly this very same necklace turns up around the neck of the corpse of Lady Anglessey????

It's all a perplexing and intricate mystery, and a very satisfying one.

Overall, then, When Gods Die is a pretty brisk and romantic and adventurous fun once again, though if I have real complaints they would be 1) Too many sexytimes with Devlin and Kat Boleyn, his actress-lover who can't marry him because of REASONS OKAY and 2) Too little Lovejoy and Tom. But perhaps these will be redressed in future novels in the series?

One continues to hope...

*And yeah, trigger warning again. Not quite as much violence against women this time around but it's still a bit rough. Ditto the outrageous sexism Harris is hell-bent on presenting in all its In the Company of Men caliber nastiness. This is leavened by passages that explain why the upper class sexist assholes that keep seizing center stage are dead wrong, but still, prepare to spend a good bit of your time being kind of outraged. But that's historical fiction, the genre that really seems to be all about how much it has sucked to be a woman throughout history. Sigh.

**Seriously. We are reminded of his eye color every few pages, it seems like. At least once a chapter. But since all the chapters are at most six pages long (always ending with a drama button), yeah, every few pages.

Sunday, January 26, 2014


The Daybreakers marks the point where the Sackett novels start to become Westerns, as Barnabas Sackett's latest round of descendants finally get tired of squabbling with lesser men in Tennessee and decide to strike out west to some farther, bluer mountains: the Rockies.

But first, New Mexico, newly added to the United States' territory and thus the target for arrogant jerk land speculators who think that the settlers of Spanish descent who have already been ranching there don't count as Americans -- don't count as people -- and so the land they've been working for a generation or three is actually up for grabs. Soon our Sackett boys, good lookin', sweet talkin' Orrin and our narrator-hero Tye ("the fastest gun alive"), meet up with the most arrogant jerk of them all, one Jonathan Pritts, whose surname should really end with a "ck" instead of "tts" if you know what I mean, but who also has a pretty blond daughter, Laura. Uh oh.

While Orrin is chasing Laura, who reminds Tye of a difficult horse he once knew, Tye meets up with a classy Spanish family, a grandfather and pretty granddaughter, Drusilla, whom Tye falls for almost as fast as Orrin fell for Laura. Uh oh again.

So conflict between the brothers seems inevitable as the Anglo newcomers and the Spanish landowners prepare to square off, but hey, these are Sacketts. And there is a lot more going on than just a land grab.

For on their way to meeting their lady loves, the Sackett boys join up with a cowboy outfit and hatch a plan to round up all the stray cattle that are wandering wild in Colorado, getting fat and juicy on mountain grass and clean water. And the leader of said outfit is an autodidact of sorts, Tom Sunday, who reads the Greek and Roman classics at night by the campfire and teaches Orrin and Tye how to read on similarly high-minded stuff that gives birth to ideas of making the West a civilized place where children can be raised safely and big D Democracy can flourish. What a guy!

Soon Orrin, already gifted with the gab and all the charisma you could care to call on, is dreaming big dreams about a future as a politician, little knowing that Tom's ambitions have always lay this way. Oops.

This is short, taut, tense story-telling at its best, but also its hokiest, which only adds to its charm. The Sackett family produce heroes of the kind that have become thoroughly unfashionable; there isn't a brooding anti-hero in the bunch. These guys are honest, forthright, capable, daring, brave, and romantic and loyal even when forces seem to conspire to drive a wedge between them. Both of them have to use their gifts of gab and gunfire to survive one fateful day when all that conflict comes to a head.

All in just 200-some pages. All because Orrin and Tye just wanted to do what these dudes did in this terrifyingly catchy but decidedly not cowboy song:

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Dorothy Dunnett's RACE OF SCORPIONS

I cannot tell a lie, Race of Scorpions almost lost me as a member of Team Claes, but not for any reasons that I might have expected, even back when I first tossed the first House of Niccolo book onto the DNF pile as a teenager. There is, after all, still plenty of intrigue, plenty of buckles being swashed, and plenty of mercantile maneuvering -- all the things one reads a Dunnett book for. But...

But... Look, one of the things I'm liking best about the Niccolo books is that, while their hero is an unusually gifted young man, his gifts are not merely his by right of his pedigree (well, genetics, but I'm speaking socially here). He's a commoner (more or less), who has pulled himself up by his brainstraps and is out-thinking and out-planning everybody else as he makes his fortune, despite considerable setbacks and obstacles that are mostly attributable to, yes, his pedigree in that his blood relatives all seem hell-bent on crushing him. He keeps turning their tricks and traps back on them, though, does Claes, in ingenious and subtle, and often hilarious, ways, which is what makes him such fun to read about.

Alas, in his third novel, his talents are beginning to be noticed. So while last novel did see him meddling in the affairs of the imperial family of Trebizond, this was neither his goal nor theirs; his schemes and ambitions drew them somewhat organically into their orbit, and his deeds, especially his feud with his family's chosen agent of his destruction, spilled over and may well have affected the course of history as he witnessed -- and maybe assisted in -- the end of the Byzantine Empire's last gasping outpost. Pretty cool.

This time, though, it's all much more deliberate. The warring royal siblings of Cyprus* have both decided that he and his mercenary company are exactly what each of them needs to kick the other off the island and consolidate power under one crowned head. Carlotta, only legitimate child of the last King of Cyprus, Jerusalem and Armenia, waylays our boy early on and tries to hire him, and, when that doesn't work, manages to sic an irresistible courtesan on him by way of (unsuccessfully) manipulating him into agreeing after all. But then James, her illegitimate half-brother (whose courtesan mother Carlotta's royal one had de-nosified to spoil her looks, because that's what royal jackwagons, male and female, do to one another when there is no higher authority than their own bitchy wills) goes her one better and just pays the Venetians to kidnap Claes and drag him to Cyprus under the assumption that once there Claes will be just so overawed by James' personal magnetism and general awesomeness that he'll all but beg to fight for James, er, once he's over all the stiffness and bruising and whatnot from his abduction anyway...

If it sounds like I don't like these royal jerks, well, good. I don't. And so this was a frustrating read for me, because, while Claes still winds up getting the better of them (sort of) (but at tremendous personal cost, of course), it's not in the kind of super satisfying way I was expecting. Claes, for all his wiliness, is still kind of passive, and while yes, he has to tread very carefully since both royals just sort of assume they have his loyalty and aren't in the mood for any displays of agency or free will on his part, there's still not much of Claes in this Claes story -- even though he's present on pretty much every page -- nor does the larger Team Claes feel as vivid or colorful as I've come to expect them to be. Can it just be the absence of the notary/attorney duo of Julius (left behind in Bruges to manage the Charetty company for the now-orphaned Charetty daughters) and Gregorio (running Claes' bank in Italy) that leaves the crew seeming so pallid? But then it's gotten a new member or two from the last novel, and John LeGrand and Mick Crackbene are pretty interesting chaps who can more than hold their own with Tobie and Astorre and Lope.

So I'm at a loss to finally explain why I didn't like this novel more. Except to say that no, I don't like royalty. Which, that's no real surprise, is it?

*Cyprus! As in even more exotic and romantic a locale than Trebizond! Birthplace of Venus! Next to Rhodes and Crete! A storied and magical island is Cyprus. Except, apparently, in this novel. Ho hum.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Dorothy Dunnett's THE SPRING OF THE RAM

The Spring of the Ram, volume two of the great Dorothy Dunnett's House of Niccolò series of Renaissance mercantile thrillers, raises the stakes for my man Claes (now usually called Nicholas) in every possible way: he travels further, has a bigger impact on world events, acquires a ridiculous new frienemy (because Claes needed more enemies, didn't he?), and gets to learn what he really got himself into when he married Marian de Charetty the owner of the company that once employed him as an apprentice dyer.

At the end of Claes' first novel, Niccolò Rising, it was decided that he needed to broaden his horizons a bit more, by way of getting him away from Simon de St. Pol, murderous Scottish pretty boy and and Claes' unwilling stepfather.* And since Claes has manifested as a Business Genius, how better to get him away from Simon's sphere of influence than sending him on a trading voyage to the fabulous Levant?

Having secured the friendship and patronage of no less a figure than Cosimo de Medici, Claes is eastbound in a galley bought on credit to serve as Florence's consul in the empire of Trebizond -- the last remnant of the Byzantine empire, now surrounded on all sides by Ottomans and Turcomen and perpetually asking for rescue from their cranky and wrong-headed brothers in Christ, the Roman Catholic Church and its adherents. While some blustering friar types are perpetually trying to bestir the crowned heads of Europe to stop fighting each other and go save the Holy Land, Claes and the Medici see an opportunity to profit from the real situation: Trebizond is too decadent and ritual-bound to have ever bothered raising much of an army, but Trebizond has pearls and silk and dyestuffs coming through it from Asia all the time and can pay other people to be that army. Other people like Team Claes.

This all would be enough for most writers, but Dunnett has to make things more ridiculous and exciting. Enter Pagano Doria, who looks at first simply to be Claes' Genoese counterpart but has a lot more going on than that. Before we can say Lolita -- and, really, before Claes has even left his wife behind in Bruges -- Pagano has seduced Claes' younger stepdaughter Catherine and convinced her to come away with him to be his wife, even though she's only twelve years old. Talk about unruly tweens! Of course he has designs beyond her cute pre-pubescent person; she's heir to half the Charetty Company, and thus stands to make her husband very rich some day. And that's just the beginning of Pagano's perfidy.

Racing to Trebizond, Claes and Pagano duke it out, Renaissance style, with Pagano scoring most of the points. Uh oh. We all know by now what happens, eventually, to people who get on Claes' bad side, don't we?

The fun continues in Trebizond, where the rivals continue to mess with each other against the exotic backdrop of Hellenic Christendom's last imperial gasp -- and they're really just in time for the very last gasp. Dunnett doesn't go so far as to make the Fall of Trebizond Claes' fault, but the plot she weaves here proposes some interesting possibilities, and once again highlights the importance of mercantile adventurers like Claes and Pagano to world affairs. Kings and Queens are more glamorous and bitchy, but it's the guys who move the merchandise that really make things happen while the royals are off hawking or parading around in the silks and pearls the "sea princes" bring back from their travels -- and sometimes, it's the secrets those merchants keep that really make the difference. Here Claes' deal struck with Venice in the first novel -- to keep secret the discovery of a rich alum deposit in the Papal States and thus protect a monopoly -- may have hastened, if not in a way caused, the Fall of Trebizond. Had the Pope known about the alum in his own backyard, he could have mined and sold it and financed a Crusade. Instead, Europe kept on squabbling, and the last Byzantine emperor took the payoff the Ottomans offered and let them have his city. The conspiracy of alum silence needn't have been true for history to have happened the way it did, but it's a fantastically clever and subtle way to weave Claes' story into real world events -- and to load yet more guilt onto his conscience, make him seem possibly more of a monster.

For monster Claes is -- devastatingly intelligent, personable, patient, humble, and an epic holder, it would seem, of grudges. The members of Team Claes -- Loppe the freed African slave who is is household manager, Julius the Charetty Company lawyer/notary who basically helped raise Claes, Tobie the physician, and Father Godscalc the burly priest -- are neither trusting nor trusted but loyal all the same, because they know Claes can make them all rich, and because Claes keeps life very, very interesting.

On to the next novel, despite this one's actually quite icky (and sad) ending.

*As in, Claes is the son of Simon's first wife, but was probably begotten by a servant. And there are other ugly familial entanglements afoot between them, but I'm trying not to be too spoilery. I'll just say that it looks like one way or another that unnamed servant is the new St. Pol ancestor.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Hugo Claus' EVEN NOW

I review this collection of Belgian poet Hugo Claus' finest work over at Insatiable Booksluts. The Sluts "dare you to read [this review] and not want to read the collection."