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Ceridwen

Ceridwen

You kids get off my lawn. 

It Came from the Back Catalog!

Somewhere I'll Find You - Lisa Kleypas

I've been very happily reading through Lisa Kleypas' catalog. The Wallflowers books are pretty great (other than the one with the St Sebastian dickhead) and I think the Ravenels don't have a bad volume, even if the first one is a little weak. But this is inevitable when reading backwards through someone's novels: you're going to hit a dud written 20 years ago when said novelist was just beginning to hone their craft. This is that dud. 

 

I do not mind ridiculous set-ups in romance novels. In fact, I think building as ridiculous a set-up as possible and then getting the reader to buy it is one of those skills romance novelists share with mystery writers. It's a convention of the genre. But the ridiculous set-up in Somewhere I'll Find You repeatedly annoyed me: the children of two jerks are married to each other when he's seven and she's four. One needs money; the other wants his grandchildren to have a title. You know, typical Duke of Marlborough marries Vanderbilt stuff. It's the forced marriage trope, cool cool. But then several times the characters mention that clearly the marriage can't be legal, so why the front door is anyone worrying about it? When girlfriend comes of age, she changes her name and joins a traveling troupe of actors, because you're not going to tell me what to do, Dad!!! I'll just go hide from a marriage that isn't legally binding! She's all scared her husband will come find her because what if he's a dick like her dad, but I keep flow-charting back to the fact that everyone is behaving as though this sham marriage matters. 

 

So ten years after she's told her dad to pound salt and taken off, main girl is like the most successful actress in London, acting opposite the theater owner and all around growling misanthrope in hot pants who should have been the lead. Everyone thinks they are making the beast with two backs, up to and including her husband, who comes looking for his wife in London so they can divorce and have their own lives, and instead finds this zesty and refreshing young actress. But then dun dun dun they are one in the same! What are the odds! And he loves her and think they should stay married! But she wants to continue her career! So they have some contrived conflict about it until events conspire to work out! 

 

Bah, this is all too wonderful for me. I think I'm supposed to think there's fate at work here or something, but it all just seems dumb and awful. The romantic lead dude consistently blackmails, maneuvers, or otherwise ignores our heroine's wishes. He also does that thing that so many romantic leads do, which is just get overtaken with black jealousy maybe the second time he and lady friend hang out and she spends any attention on another man. I'm supposed to take this as a sign of his deep affection I guess, but it reads like controlling asshole to me every time. And when they do finally bone so he's sure he owns her now? That jealousy translates to a highhandedness that's both patronizing and paternalistic, which is a nice trick if you can pull it off.

 

Additionally, there is a subplot involving a slinky bitch-goddess mistress of the main guy who gets curbed when he finds his actress/wife. She then pulls a fake-pregnancy plot to try to entrap him into marriage while crawling all over the dude trying to lure him back with her luscious sexuality. The sexy mistress who flies into jealous rages after bro finds his virginal soulmate is a trope I could do without, and I do not appreciate the slut-shaming and compare/contrast between different sexual modes for women. Virginal mouse or luscious sexpot are not actually in conflict with one another. They could both exist quite happily in the world together if they weren't constantly set up as this ridiculous dialectic. 

 

Anyway, I should emphasize that I generally like Kleypas, so this is an anomaly, something pulled from the back catalog when it probably should have just stayed in the dustbin of the 90s. I am also totally going to read the next in series too, because it's about the growly hot pants theater owner. He gives such charmingly jaundiced advice to our heroine in this novel, and ye gads do I love a cynic. 

 

 

Holy cats

Spinning Silver - Naomi Novik

I think I expected this to be an extension of Uprooted, like maybe something 10 years down the road, or about some peripheral characters, or something, but that is not what this is at all. It's it's own thing, whole and true, something like a modern fairy tale, but one that fucks with the idea of both fairies and tales. Just a damn fine novel.

Go large or go home

A Discovery of Witches - Deborah Harkness

This one was a real oddity to me, because it felt like that class of Gothic fiction that attempts to take things seriously -- like, the scholarship was spot on, as was the description of academic research, historical detail, and just general academic jockeying -- but then the serious tone slips to the soporific and everyone falls asleep. This book is crazy boring. 

 

Gothic fiction tends to have a lot of blood and violence in it -- both metaphoric and literal. Wuthering Heights is a fucking bloodbath, an absolute hatecast where very few make it out alive. I mean, sure, Cathy and Heathcliff are terrible people, but hot damn are they fun to watch. If they weren't terrible people no one would care and there wouldn't be a story. High passions are the bloody engine; this is Romanticism run feral. 

 

So when the writers of modern Gothics try to make everyone sensible and reasonable, I wonder what the point it. People have to be a little touched just to get the juices flowing. Stephenie Meyer, in New Moon, tried to make everyone a good person, which would have been boring, but it turns out her sense of what makes a person worthy is so completely bonkers that the book still kind of works as a Gothic. Edward, Bella, and Jacob are all terrible people, so the hatecast can work its Gothic magic. 

 

But A Discovery of Witches? Yawn. The lead is the scion of two seriously important magical families, but won't use her magic because reasons that make almost no sense. She wants to succeed in academia on her "own merits," which, isn't magical ability one of her own merits? Anyway, I grew right tired of how helpless she was, and how she was simultaneously a big deal Chosen One type. Own your power, woman. 

 

Her love interest is a fancy vampire tosser, and their courtship is spent talking about antiques. When they confessed their love for one another, I was like, did I miss something? You're in love with each other over that pile of boring? Which is not something I should ever be saying reading a Gothic; go large or go home. 

 

Anyway, I don't want to put the knives in too hard. I think the exercise of trying to make rational grownup types enact genres that tend to fall more on the Romance end (by which I mean in the Nathanial Hawthorne sense, not like modern romance novels, exactly) is an interesting one, though I'm not sure I've ever seen one be successful. I'll have to think about it. 

Fun Series Marred by Unrelenting Girl-Hate

Halfway to the Grave - Jeaniene Frost One Foot in the Grave - Jeaniene Frost

CW: rape & slut-shaming

 

Though the Night Huntress series is pretty basic urban fantasy -- a half vampire lady stalks the streets at night to stake the undead threat -- there's enough little twists to keep it interesting. Our night huntress is the product of rape, and everything she knows about vampires come from her vampire-hating mother, which isn't much, or just plain trial and error. She meets up with a Master Vamp (named Bones ugh) after trying to stake him in a bar. After he disarms her with laughable ease, Bones proposes they team up to hunt vamps of his choosing, and he'll train her not to get killed. She thinks she's being real clever when she agrees to this while plotting to kill him at the end of the training period. Inevitably, they hook up. &c. 

 

I sort of let this slide in the first book, but boy does Cat shit on other girls. But I thought, she's maybe 18, and has been raised by an embittered mother who tells her she looks just like her father, who is a rapist. Mom sends her out to get killed on the regular, using her as a revenge proxy. Her mother seems to punish her daughter for her father's sin, so it made psychological sense to me that a girl raised without much affection and as the product of rape would be all "slut" this and "whore" that. By the second book, though, there's a big time jump, Cat is adulting pretty well, and seems to understand her mother's deep failings as a parent while maintaining a relationship with clear boundaries. 

 

And yet, the girl-hate only deepens, at times seeming to warp the behavior of many of the female characters. A variety of lady vamps from Cat's paramour's past show up through the novel, and they are all bombshells who spend their time crawling all over Bones or reminiscing about all the threesomes (or fivesomes!) they had with Bones back in the day. They are ridiculous misogynist caricatures, and not even relying on the more fun sexist tropes like Ice Queen or Hitchcock Blonde; they're just Slut Trash. Bones is not criticized for catting about in his youth, natch. 

 

Cat's inner and outer monologue is basically WHORE BITCH DIE, and this is passed off as "vampire possessiveness." Which, no. From all evidence, vampires screw around a lot, and without a lot of regard for gender norms. If they were sexually possessive, they would not be leaping into big fuckpiles all the time. (Indeed, the vampire penchant for fuckpiling is used at least twice as a plot point.) The concept of "vampire possessiveness" is inserted into the text so Cat (and by extension, the reader) can feel ok with how much she hates other women. It does not come up, either in word or deed, at any other point in the plot. 

 

Admittedly, Cat now has a woman friend on whom she does not shit, so not all of the female characters are treated this way. (And there's her mom, but that's obviously a whole other thing.) But it was a common enough element of the books that I began to sour on Cat. She regularly is required to dress up in "slut gear" (I think she calls it "slut gear") to lure male vamps to their deaths, so there's this weird acting out of the very thing she castigates other women for. Cat may look like all those other slutty sluts, but of course she is Not Like Other Girls™. 

 

Cat is a fun character: a hard-drinking hard case who is way more naive that she pretends. What I've read of Frost's later books don't have this girl-hating element in them, so maybe it's just Cat, like girl-hating is just part of her personality or whatever. Maybe Frost isn't in control enough of her first person (yet, these are her first novels) to delineate the thoughts of the character from the parameters of the world. (That's the standard objection when a reader criticizes the actions of a character, anyway: that I can't tell the difference between what the character thinks and what the author does.)

 

However, given the stated behavior of the slutty sluts, which are objective acts and not subjective opinion, that is not the case: the world works like Cat says it does. Which is to say, most women are oversexed and duplicitous by nature, except for Mom and Designated BFF. Put another way, women are slutty sluts whether Cat calls them that or not; this characterization of women is baked into the world, not one character's worldview. 

 

I just ... can we not? Can we not enact girl-hating and slut-shaming in girl pulp for girls? Don't we get enough of that hot garbage in real life? When I read escapism, I want to motherfucking escape. That gets hard when I keep running right into the same misogynist trash fire that is so vigorously burning in the world today. This is legitimately a fun series, but I just don't feel like pushing past the girl-hating at this point in time. Happy New Year! 

Librarian stuff

Sleep Over: An Oral History of the Apocalypse - H. G. Bells

Hey, so, I had to add this book, and for whatever stupid reason, the author autocorrected to somebody called Samantha Bells. That is not who wrote this. The author is H. G. Bells, who is a debut author and therefore not in the system already. I tried to fix it, but no dice.

 

Little help? 

No, not that kind of library

The Library at Mount Char - Scott Hawkins

The Library at Mount Char defies easy labels, something like dark fantasy slash horror with an incredibly black sense of humor, but both more fun and less fun than that sounds.  The opening positively crawls along, and it's not until maybe halfway through that I began to make sense of the incredibly complex world. But once the teeth catch, man, that shit really rollsMount Char makes an abattoir of various philosophical and religious questions, often literally. Violence is commonplace and bloody, which alternately hit my macabre sense of humor, or fucking grossed me out. Hawkins also manages to pull one of those long cons with the plotting, where he's doing this thing out in the open, but you're not even paying attention until it comes together with a bang.Very enjoyable. 

I Knight Thee Good Fun

A Princess in Theory: Reluctant Royals - Alyssa Cole A Duke by Default - Alyssa Cole

I started reading Alyssa Cole sometime last year. I think I saw her name on a list of women of color writing contemporary romance, and given how tragically white much romance is, I thought I should give her a shot. I read her Off the Grid series, which, in addition to being both science fictional and post-apocalyptic (these things are not necessarily the same things, a distinction I'm happy to fight about), also include a gay romance and one with and Asian dude as the hottie. Oh, and Cole is clearly a nerd and a geek, and she is not afraid of some pop cultural jokes. Really good stuff. 

 

I didn't read more, at the time, because I'm, like, not as interested in modern day princess stories. I once went regularly to this open mic at an Irish bar run by a Welshman, and there was this woman who showed up regularly in full on tartan explosion. (Yes, I recognize that's all very Celticly confused, but this is America; deal). She tended to sit in the booth behind mine, and we were nodding acquaintances. She drove me absolutely fucking bananas with her bullshit.

 

See, she claimed to be some sort of Scottish royalty, like maybe not a duchess, exactly, but more like a countess? Honestly, I find it hard to give a fig about titles so none of that stuff is going to track for me. Anyway, she had this younger dude who liked to do sweeping bows and a bunch of hand-kissing, probably because he spent too much time at the Ren Fest. Once, he tried to drag me into it, and I was like, sorry, I live in a representational democracy and have zero interest in kowtowing to someone because of who their grandparents are.

 

There was a record scratch noise and some people got pissed at me, but fuck royalty. Some of my people were hapless drunks, others were fleeing various wars, some just hated their hometowns. I feel neither pride nor shame about my ancestors; they were just people: good, bad, and indifferent.

 

Point being, I have something of a chip when it comes to the concept of hereditary monarchy. Sure, fine, if they're figureheads like in Denmark (though I'm still not bowing and scraping), but actual ruling dynasties like the al Saud family are monsters, as one recently brutally murdered journalist could attest if he hadn't been dismembered and murdered, not exactly in that order. 

 

Which is to say, I'm a fucking crank about a little subgenre of romance novels with lighthearted wish fulfillment about being a princess. I recognize I have issues. 

 

So, it came as something of a surprise when I actually earnestly enjoyed Duke by Default. Cole dives right into the class issues of the peerage, and doesn't cut those assholes any slack. Her Duke character is actually the child of a Scottish Duke and a refugee, raised by a step-father and with half siblings who are straight up black. He's not some ponce, and more's the better. Oh, and his love interest is coming to terms with an ADHD diagnosis, which was sensitively written. All told, well done. 

 

Princess in Theory, less so. (Note: I read these books out of order.) The main character, who has aged out of the foster care system and is struggling to make it in the STEM field as a black woman of no means, was a fucking great character. Prince what's his face from an imaginary African country, him I did not like much at all. Sure, some of this is intentional: he's to have a redemption arc from being a rich dickhead to monarch with a heart of gold. But I just couldn't get on board, though of course some of this is my aforementioned issues. And Princess in Theory is still a well written novel with an admirable heroine, so do not credit my bitching too much. 

 

Anyway! So, one which didn't work so great for me (due mostly to me), and one which knocked it out the park. I would totally read number three. Alyssa Cole is pretty great. 

Second verse, same as the first

Lord of the Vampires - Gena Showalter

I decided to give Showalter another shot, but this was way too stupid to finish. 

National epic from hell

The Poppy War - R. F Kuang

Uff da, that ended with some bleakness. I was half expecting ur usual boarding school matriculation maybe with a little national epic thrown in (and that isn't a bad description of events if you're being literal) but boy, howdy does The Poppy War fuck that shit up. It's like a trick where you're expecting one kind of narrative, but you get another one entirely. But slow burn style. 

 

Rin is a war orphan from a nothing province who nonetheless ends up aceing a national test in a country not dissimilar to early 19th C China, which brings her to a prestigious military academy in the capital. She thinks she's made it, but she hasn't even by half; the teachers are all arrayed against her as a podunk nothing. She falls in with Jian, the professor who teaches Lore, a subject which is basically a joke. Jian is high as fuck most of the time, but in his haphazard way, teaches Rin the ways of shamanism. Shamans are thought of as nutjobs for the most part; these are rational people after all. 

 

But the country falls into conflict with the Federation, which they've been cold warring with for about a generation, since the last of the poppy wars. Rin graduates from her structured school to the chaos of war, while groping through the ugly history of her country, and the arcana of the gods that people largely don't believe in. The war is horrific; the gods more so. Nothing in school prepared Rin for the depravity of war. 

 

Readers are trained, I think, to view a first person narrator as a hero or heroine. It's basic psychology: the "I" of the text is conflated with the personal self. One can't help but interpolate oneself into the action. And Rin is a scrappy, hardscrabble kind of person, one who deserves the sense of hard elation and respect when she overcomes some serious shit through some serious loss. Every choice she makes, makes sense. But hoo boy, are her choices ugly, in serial. She renders the inhuman, the inexcusable, into something legible and understandable. It's the absolute worst, and so much more horrible for its comprehensiveness. 

 

I feel like I'm giving the impression that I didn't like this novel, but that is not it at all. I'm thoroughly impressed at the portraiture of someone who, through no inherent evil or malice, ends up doing unforgivable shit. Rin may not be likable, exactly, but she's admirable ... except for when her actions are not. Seriously impressive writing, all told. 

 

For sure there's going to be a sequel. I'm not even sure I want to see where Rin goes, even while I respect the path she's taken. Sheesh. 

 

*I listened to the audiobook, so I'm not sure I'm spelling names correctly. Sorry. 

The Personal, the Political, and the Giant Robots: Peter Tieryas’ Mecha Samurai Empire

Mecha Samurai Empire - Peter Tieryas

Though the middle is maybe a little slack, this is an excellent bildungsroman in the alt-history suggested by The Man in the High Castle, run half a century later and into the life of one small boy who aims to pilot one big ass robot. 

Hashtag Nope

#Starstruck - Sariah S. Wilson

I've been listening to this sort of rom-com pulp while elbows deep in repetitive tasks that occassionally make my attention wander. I deep six at least half of them halfway due to rank stupidity or weird sexism. This one for both. Main girl is a college student who is also a major fangirl for some actor. The opening bits with her Twitter use were patently ridiculous, but fine, we're not in a novel built on hard realism, whatever. 

 

It was main girl's experiences in a woman's studies class that broke me. First off, it is understood that said woman's studies class is a required class. No. That is not a thing that happens. Second, main girl is a not-until-marriage type, and all the evil feminists who people said required class (why wouldn't it just be a cross section of regular students? This is a required class after all) rag on her for not "owning her sexuality" or whatever. Why aren't you fucking everything that moves to prove you're woke and shit?

 

Also no. This is written by someone who has never read one page of feminist lit, and doubly hasn't encountered second wave feminist tracts that posit that all sex is rape. Like, I don't think that is the case, but it is not an impossible feminist stance to take. I don't even know what wave of feminism we're on, but most of them include not fucking people if you don't want to, for whatever reason. Feminists are big on bodily autonomy, so any intrusion, without consent, is completely not ok. Consent being the operative. Ragging on the celibate is the kind of dumb bullshit people like to imagine feminists, and especially academic feminists, do for funsies.

 

Maybe it would be more likely someone would criticize her celibacy as purity ring bullshit based on weird fuck-daddy stuff. Like, if you think of your virginity as some kind of transactional capitalist chit that you only dole out when you've been given a compensatory social prize, i.e. marriage, then maybe you have some fucked up ideas about gender. But no one would be down on her for not having sex, per se.

 

Maybe if the main relationship had been anything but rote blah I would have soldiered on. Admittedly, it's hard to rally for a character who has irked me with her bullshit, so that may be a factor in my discontent. I ended up listening to an elegiac zombie novel instead, which I have enjoyed immensely. Sex and death, bitches. 

Complaining

You know, it's really beginning to bug me that something like a quarter of the books I read don't even show up on booklikes. I'm not even reading weird shit by unheard of authors either, though I admit sometimes they're very newly published. I just struck out on ALL THREE books I read this week: Alternate Routes by Tim Powers (Tim Powers is pretty well known), Severence by Ling Ma (debut novel published by Macmillan, so not a small press), and You Only Love Twice by Bec McMaster (which is self-published, or close to it, but McMaster has a healthy catalog.) I'm even doing the trick where I look up the book by isbn or asin because sometimes title lookup sucks using natural language. No dice. 

 

I just, I don't have the patience to input every damn book I read into a site where what I'm doing, largely, is just making a record of read books. 

I hate this book

The Headmaster - Tiffany Reisz

I don't know why I pushed through once I started getting irritated with the weird regressive snobbery of the main character -- probably because this is short and maybe she'd pull her head out eventually. An English teacher on her last dime is driving up from the deep South to Chicago to crash on a friend's couch and hopefully find a new job. She doesn't really have anyone in her life: parents are dead, boyfriend took off to Africa to Peace Corps or something. She gets into a car accident on the way to Spooky Gothic Boys Academy, and wakes up in the headmaster's apartment. She hassles him for a job and he puts her on a one week probationary period. Here's where things start to go to shit. 

 

First, main girl starts hitting on the headmaster like it's her damn job. This is unbelievably unprofessional, if not downright unethical. Which fine, this is a Gothic romance, whatever. The real irritation set in when she began outlining her curricula, and I fully own what a dork ass thing that is to say. It's a boys' school, yes? With a very frusty hidebound reading list? And she's like, I won't bother them with Brontës or Austen because boys hate romance. What in the actual fuck.

 

This is actually, literally a romance novel, and we're going to have to hear a bunch of fucking bullshit about how 1) the Brontës and Austen wrote romance and 2) boys shouldn't have to read writing by women because it's all fucking romance. Jfc does that piss me off. Brontës were Romantics, no question (though Austen was not) but given that the modern romance novel wasn't invented until a century and a half later, they were not writing romance novels. Moreover, if they were somehow writing romance novels, given their position in the actual Western Canon, there is absolutely no justification for keeping them off a reading list for boys, other than boys might get cooties and feel uncomfortable, and their delicate fee-fees must be shielded from women who are apparently only capable of writing romance novels, because that is the only thing that women write. I recognize the run-on nature of the previous sentence, but that is just an indicator of my ire. 

 

This bullshit is repeated when Gwen(?) considers maybe she should include some works by black authors because there is a single black student who, it is assured to us assiduously, is completely extraordinary and the smartest kid in the school. (Black students are never allowed to be average.) Which is why the headmaster went to bat for him the previous year when he was the first black student in the school, and half the parents pulled their kids because they were racist shitheels. There's a (stupid) reason for why the school just integrated in the 21st fucking century, but Gwen does not know that reason. Headmaster gets all the cookies for standing up to racists, but it's full on bullshit that there are only white dudes on the reading list, and Gwen is all la la la maybe I should remedy that lol, instead of asking very pointed questions about what the fuck is wrong with a school that accepted its first black student in 20 fucking 18, let alone why there are only white men are on the reading list. But really she's much more interested in banging her boss before she even gets the job. 

 

The ending is where I blew my top, but I'm not sure I should get into it because of spoilers. I'll just say that the horrible, inert ending of the Twilight saga, which saw Bella and Edward locked into enduring middle class perfection for ever and ever amen is, for me, the worst kind of hell. Aspects of that were replicated here, with an added bonus of the death wish of such a vision made more explicit. There's medieval heresies based on what happens here, and while I'm not usually aligned with religious crackpots high on ergot, we are in accordance here. What a strange world we live in. 

Credible mess

Seven Years - Dannika Dark

I've avoided Dannika Dark forever because that pen name hurts my feelings. I mean, maybe that's her real name -- and I don't have the energy to check the copyright -- but I would be hugely surprised if that were so. I was pleasantly surprised in the beginning. This is first person with a narrator who isn't mean about other women and kinda flailing in her life choices. Her family -- a mother and sister -- are still living with the grief of her brother's death 7 years previous. Brother's bff who totally bailed on them after brother's death returns to town and informs sister lady that her brother died because of shapeshifter politics. 

 

This part is fine. We are reading PNR after all. The opening is really grounded in the girl's life, and there's some nice detail about her co-workers and neighbors -- especially the neighbors. But then it imperceptibly just goes off the tracks, veering into some tragically stupid pack politics and mages and now her sister is some kind of mystical bullshit and oh my God corrupt police officers and absent dad is back and a psycho and on and on. It just completely loses focus. The pack gender dynamics are repellent, though admittedly main girl can see that they are messed up and pushes back. There are way too many near sexual assaults of our main character so shifter dude can swoop in. 

 

I dunno. This is fine, I guess, but I feel like maybe I should have heeded that pen name. Or, that's uncharitable. I did have a good time listening, and the narrative voice was pleasant enough. A credible mess. 

Why not both?

The City & the City - China Miéville

Mr. Ceridwen once had a very large public tizzy about how irritating this book was to him, I'm sure made all the more irritating because I had also just publicly declared my enduring love for Mr. Miéville. That was probably like a dozen years ago, which is apparently how long it takes me to get over my amusement at Mr Ceridwen's annoyance. Far be it from me to actually read the book in question, because I might actually agree with him, and then a very good source of bickering would be ruined. That whole anecdote is probably more illuminating of my marriage dynamics than I would prefer.

 

But then it turns out I earnestly have no idea what his problem was! The eponymous cities of The City and the City are Besźel and Ul Qoma, which are something like Buda and Pest: cities divided by a river and topography, but ultimately bound together into Budapest. Except entirely opposite of that: Besźel and Ul Qoma occupy the same land, the same space. People can be walking down a street in one city and dodging people in the other. But this seeing and in seeing cannot be done obviously or delibrately; the cities unsee each other. The borders are fiercely maintained even though they are diffuse and internal.

 

The plot follows Tyador Borlu, a detective from Besźel, who picks up a murder case that appears to be a matter of breach: her murder appears to puncture the inviolate membrane between the city and the city. Breach is one of those things that terrify the denizens of those cities, and it's hard to tell if it's social prescription or semi-mystical woo-woo -- and this is what irritates Mr. Ceridwen. Borlu in his detective plot moves through both cities and between to find the girl's killer.

 

My take is more ¯_(ツ)_/¯. Why not both? The social contract is rigidly enforced in just about any city, be that city authoritarian or boho. People have hundreds of internal rules -- thousands -- about who they interact with and how, who they see and unsee. Its both entirely mundane and semi-mystical. To misquote a favorite poet: we live in imaginary gardens with real toads in them.

Ahead of the curve

Beauty and the Clockwork Beast (Steampunk Proper Romance) - Nancy Campbell Allen

I've been listening to a lot of audiobooks recently. We recently moved, so I've been working on the various paint and plaster projects necessary to make this house not be the godforsaken beige that the previous owners thought was a good idea. Which means I have hours and hours of monotonous work that is perfect for audio. I listened to an urban fantasy trilogy I've read before, hit some China Miéville because rwrrr, and then moved on to midlist steampunk. 

 

Beauty and the Clockwork Beast is one of those titles that promises some stupid stuff. I am not opposed to stupid stuff, per se, and I felt reasonably sure I knew what I was going to get, given my experience with steampunk on the romance end. There would be an inventor's daughter, one of those irrepressibly zesty daughters of the upper class who be impressed upon to find her father's killer / continue his work / fall in love with the staff / automaton / vampire / werewolf. I once read a short story collection of steampunk stories where two thirds of the entries went this way. 

 

But that is not what I found in Beauty and the Clockwork Beast! Or it is, just a very little, but the bulk of the novel is character study, riffs on Gothic fiction, and well written prose. Jeez, who even does that? 

 

The plot follows one Lucy Pickett as she goes to stay with a cousin who is more like a sister to her. The cousin, Kate, was recently married to the younger brother of an earl, but has been ailing since she took up residence as the lady of Blackwell Manor. The earl himself, Miles, has a pall upon him, after his wife and sister died within a day of each other half a year ago. The wife died in a manor befitting the Blackwell curse, and the sister was torn apart by wild animals. It's all pretty sketchy. 

 

Lucy is a botanist herself, and a member of a society that is working towards the usual medicinal uses, but also pharmacology that is useful against vampires. This is a world with magic and animal shifters (of which Miles is one) and vampires. But it's not a world with ghosts, so it troubles Lucy some to encounter the ghost of the earl's sister for several nights running. She and Miles end up playing detective in the earlier deaths, Lucy's sister's illness, and Miles' blackmail. 

 

While there are many things about the detective plot that make me want to tear out my hair -- there are ONLY TWO OR THREE VIABLE SUSPECTS JFC -- I was so in love with Lucy. She's no inventor's daughter, an appendage on a great man, but a scientist in her own right. This might be a little harder to explain, but hear me out: she's also not gadding about in trousers because she's so transgressive, but a careful woman of her class and station. 

 

Look, I love me a firebrand, a character who smashes shit and gets stuff done. But I weary of 1) characters who haven't earned it and are just middle class fantasies of rebellion dressed up in pantaloons 2) Strong Female Characters (tm) who do everything in their power to shit on girlishness, the trappings of femininity, and any woman who might still live under its aegis. Lucy is often well and truly frustrated by how she as treated as a scientist and a woman, but she's got good table manners, and knows how perform a perfect curtsey. She has good relationships with other women -- not just one, but several -- and even treats unlikable female characters with kindness and empathy. In short, she is a good person.

 

Her worth isn't predicated on her father, or her magical powers (she has none other than education and experience) or her anachronistic badassery. It comes from her diligent work ethic, loyalty to those she loves, and innate kindness. Which, whoa. I was well pleased to encounter someone of Lucy's mettle in this sort of steampunkery. 

 

There are things to complain about, for sure. The detective plot is almost offensively stupid, even while the technical details of this specific steampunk world are careful and considered. Miles holds onto his secrets 80 pages past when he should. People almost never ask the obvious questions when confronted with a mystery, and blithely go about their business like idiots. At a couple crucial points, characters forget important details like wow. 

 

That said! I feel like this was ahead of the curve. Lucy is such a practical, well drawn character, and she acquits herself with grace. May we all, etc.