Review: In Great Waters, Kit Whitfield

Here is the premise of In Great Waters. It’s a hell of a premise so be prepared. In an alternate version of our world, mermaids and humans live side by side, connected by alliances like regular nations and by the existence of hybrids (bastards) who are half-mermaid and half-human. Such creatures have bifurcated tails and human reproductive organs; they can walk on land and hold their breath for as long as fifteen minutes. They are also, by tradition, the rulers of Europe. In the sixteenth (I think) century, a hybrid child called Henry, cast up on land by his mother, is raised in secret as a rebel claimant to the throne of England. The bloodline of the deepsmen (mermaids) has become corrupted after many centuries of inbreeding, and the presumptive heir to the English throne is severely inbred to the point that he isn’t able to understand much of what goes on around him. Plotting, you understand, is afoot.

If Emma Donoghue, working off a plot outline by Megan Whalen Turner, were to write an alternate-history book set in the sixteenth? I’m guessing? century, about a world where mermaids were a crucial part of the political and military landscape, I expect it would come out a lot like In Great Waters. Half of the book is from Henry’s point of view, as he struggles to adapt to human life and understand human ideas; and the other half is from the point of view of one of the (uselessly female!) princesses of England, Anne, who is caught up among the many intrigues of the English court. The reader gets to see what the English court is like from the inside — Anne’s intelligent, formidable mother working tirelessly to preserve the throne for her daughters — and from the outside — Henry’s keepers struggling to find a way to put him on the throne before some other nation’s prince takes over the English throne.

Henry is not a character designed to be lovable. He is coldly manipulative of the men who take him in (though they, of course, are manipulating him too) and contemptuous of many human ideas and values that you most likely think a lot of. But although his values are not mine, he does have values, and one of the joys of the book is Henry’s developing ideas about what he believes and where he is willing to compromise. Very sensibly, Kit Whitfield gives him a friend, John, the son of one of Henry’s co-conspirators, which gives the reader a chance to see another side of Henry besides just the alien.

Meanwhile, Anne gets all the court intrigue, which of course makes her interesting to me. Anne has cultivated a reputation as a pious idiot, a sensible idea if you want not to be noticed, but problematic should a time arise when you want to be noticed. Just as it was fun to see Henry — a character who manages to be all agency in spite of his circumstances — discover his values, it was fun to see Anne — a character whose values and faith have been important to her all along — develop her agency as a political force to be reckoned with. Clare, who recommended this book a while ago, was a little disappointed by the anticlimactic ending; and although I was too, I didn’t mind as much as I might otherwise have done, because it was so great to see Anne taking care of business.

So yeah! That is In Great Waters. Historical fiction. With mermaids.

Review: River in the Sky, Elizabeth Peters

I have a girl-crush on Elizabeth Peters.  She set a murder mystery at a romance novel writers’ convention; she spoofs H. Rider Haggard and Gothic novels; she made one of her characters lament “the first sour grape in the fruit salad of togetherness”.  The woman cracks me up.  However, I thought that Children of the Storm should have been the last in the Amelia Peabody series (it gave me the pleasing feeling that the series had come full circle), and I have not cared much about the books that came after that.

But I liked River in the Sky.  It is set in Palestine in 1910 (so right before Falcon at the Portal) and deals with that thing of the Germans trying to get all buddy-buddy with the Muslim world in the run-up to World War I.  I have been interested in this ever since Jill reviewed Like Hidden Fire, which is a nonfiction book on this very topic.  The Emersons become involved in all sorts of intrigue and deception with German spy rings in Palestine.  Ramses gets into a scrape (as he does), and David goes after him (as he does), and, well, it just felt like reading one of the old books for the first time.  In a good way!

My one thing was, where was Nefret all this time?  She hardly had anything to do!  I mean I do not care about Nefret, but if she’s not going to have anything to do, I say leave her home.  She could be, I don’t know, hanging out with Lia all summer.  Learning sexy religious dances in the Lost Oasis.  Studying medicine.  I don’t care, actually, what Nefret gets up to when she’s offscreen, but if she’s going to be around, she should have a role in the plot.

I should really go read Like Hidden Fire.  I bought it in hardback for fifty cents at the Jefferson Parish book sale.

In order to create some transition, however awkward, INTO MY GRIEF AND PAIN, let me reiterate that Children of the Storm would have been a good place to stop writing books in sequence.  Children of the Storm took place in 1919 and 1920, and 1920 is the same year that Justice John Paul Stevens was born (on 20 April, the day of the year I call Day Most Likely for College-Age Me to Get a Headache Because the Jackass Sitting in Front of Me is Countercultural Enough to Smoke Pot on 4/20 Day But Not Countercultural Enough to Just Skip Class), and y’all, JOHN PAUL STEVENS IS LEAVING THE SUPREME COURT.

I am very sad about it, and I believe he will be difficult to replace.  On the other hand, it makes total sense that this should happen now.  Descriptors I would use for John Paul Stevens include: brilliant, old, was in a war, liberal-leaning, and wears a bow tie.  You know who else I would describe using all of those words?

THAT IS RIGHT.

See, the world plainly has room for only one brilliant ancient war-veteran liberal-leaning bowtie-wearer at a time, and Justice Stevens has recognized that his time is over.  How else can you explain the timing?

The Death Collector, Justin Richards

Recommended by Darla D from Books and Other Thoughts – I knew I had to read this when she said “dinosaurs” and “Victorian”, and then she carried right on and said “street urchin” and “vicar’s daughter” and “clock-maker”, which is not totally unlike Ella saying “Warning, it’s very Gothic” about Blackbriar.  I am leaving for a fantastic and glorious vacation in London (don’t go anywhere, London, I am coming back to you soon!), so I had collected all my books together to return to the library before I left (I know, right?).  And still I could not return them until I had read The Death Collector.

Essentially, a nice clock-maker called George teams up with street urchin Eddie and vicar’s daughter Liz to discover what is up with two mysterious deaths at the British Museum.  There are automatons (hahaha, that word is funny), there are corpses with dinosaur bones inside.  There is intrigue!  There is deception!  Intrigue and deception!  Kids’ books are fun for Jenny!  I really found The Death Collector entertaining, and I didn’t want to leave the country without finishing it.  And if the characterization was the tiniest bit limited, the plot was fun and included dinosaur eggs, so I’m at peace with it.

Other reviews:

Books and Other Thoughts
bookshelves of doom
Washington Post on the audio book

The Meaning of Night, Michael Cox

I started reading this in Bongs & Noodles one time, a while ago, and I got bored.  I am more easily bored when I’m reading at Bongs & Noodles than I am in real life – maybe because Bongs & Noodles is all full of loads of brilliant books, and my time there is finite.  Anyway, then I read about it over at Superfastreader’s blog, and it sounded so good I decided to reconsider.  As often happens, I was very pleased that I did.

The Meaning of Night is all about a Victorian gentleman called Edward Glyver who conceives a plot to get revenge on one Phoebus Daunt.  He starts out by telling you how he killed someone, so you have reason from the start to think that he is an insane person, and then you can change your mind if you like, as the story continues.  In a way this book reminded me of Charles Palliser’s The Quincunx, with the Victorian times, and the lad with the poor but honest (only not really) mother, and how he’s been deprived of his Rights by a Foul Trick (or several), and how he must discover it all with the assistance of various concerned parties.

I simply cannot resist a good Victorian mystery with an intricate plot.  I particularly like mystery-type stories that aren’t whodunnits, but whydunnits.  That’s what interests me anyway.  (How they did it is also interesting – it’s why I love Beau Geste so much, though I hear some people find the intro part tedious.)  So although I did read the end, and knew that certain people were not absolutely trustworthy, and that the protagonist was going to regret certain actions, I could have still read the book without reading the end, and enjoyed it.  I love research books, where there are documents to be discovered and appended to the narrative.  Always reminds me of Wilkie Collins.

I read this mostly on the way to and from Opelousas for our delightful Easter with my family and my new little baby cousin Rayne, who was so sweet and good; and his big brother Sully, who is learning to make phrases like “baby Rayne” and “big truck” – at the top of his lungs.  And when I got home I was very sleepy, and it was rainy, and I curled up in my bed with the rain pouring down, and I read the rest of it.  A very pleasing reading experience.  I recommend this book, but particularly if you can arrange to read it in bed while it’s raining outside.

The Laughter of Dead Kings, Elizabeth Peters

I would say – not her best work.  People are never as interesting once they’re all kissy-face.  Vicky and John have much I&D, as usual, and it was charming how Elizabeth Peters put herself in the book.  I want to be Elizabeth Peters’s friend because she has read all the same trashy novels that I have read (like The Sheik! and she knows the bravest-by-far-in-the-ranks-of-the-Shah-damn-the-girl-she’d-been-laughing-at-him-all-the-time song!).  And Schmidt is the greatest swordsman in Europe.  And that’s about all I have to say about that.