Here are short reviews of books I’ve liked recently, for your consideration.
Georgette Heyer, Royal Escape (1938)
This is not a Regency romance, and it’s possibly the weakest of her historical reconstructions, but I liked it enough to keep reading, simply because I don’t know the history of Charles II’s escape from the Battle of Worcester. I had a vague idea that after Charles I was beheaded the teenage Charles II got away to France, and lurked in Paris, and later in Holland until Richard Cromwell was removed and he was asked to come back to his throne, escorted by Samuel Pepys. ‘Restoration 101’ Royal Escape is not, but it so closely follows the historical accounts (the references pages are impressive), that it’s good enough as a fictionalised primer of what happened. But history is not pliable enough for Heyer’s instincts. She does try to throw in hints of romance here and there, but she cannot handle 17th-century morals. Charles’ ruminations about whether or not to seduce young Mistress X or Lady Y are so out of kilter with Heyer’s models of Regency Buck Mark I and II, those scenes are downright peculiar and out of genre. It also feels peculiar for her to write from a male protagonist’s perspective for so long.
Aliette de Bodard, The House of Shattered Wings (2015)
This one was worth reading (so many awards!), but my copy has already been handed on. I particularly enjoyed the Paris setting (I’ve read enough urban fantasy novels set in London, thank you), and the warring Houses of fallen angels and their human dependents, and the different magical skills and secret weapons are tremendously effective. It’s a very readable novel, but it is ultimately unsatisfying. The writing is lazy, and the structure is circular and repetitive, with far too many longueurs of agonised rumination about how A must not be told B, though if B were known it would solve a lot of problems and cut the book to half its length. Which is probably why. Just let the story be the story and don’t pad it out beyond its natural length.
Peter S Beagle, In Calabria (2017)
This novella (lavishly published in hardback to make it seem longer than it really is) starts annoyingly as the (American) author sets the scene by assiduously listing names and objects on a Calabrian farm to prove his and its authenticity. But the story picks up when Giovanna the postman’s sister sees Claudio’s unicorns. Claudio is the middle-aged farmer who finds unicorns on his land, and the Mafia (here, the ‘Ndrang-thing-geta) want them. It’s a recovery fable of redemption and acceptance, made slightly farcical by an invasion of unicorn hunters and gangsters who behave like cartoon characters. Beagle ignores the tradition that only virgins may approach a unicorn, which seems puzzling, since that is the one piece of unicorn lore everyone knows. Parts are charming, parts are sumptuously beautiful, and the ending is satisfyingly powerful. It’s still in my bookcase but I’m not sure that it will survive the next cull.
Penelope Lively, Perfect Happiness (1985)
She is a marvellous writer, but slippery, and difficult to pin down. There are no stylistic tricks or obvious features: perhaps a deliberate flatness, a refusal to engage in histrionics or drama, and a matter-of-fact surface that covers vast depths in experience, insight, human understanding and compassion. In this novel a malign man called Philip bullies and predates the vulnerable, suffering Frances, recently widowed, and recently moved into his neighbourhood. He takes appalling advantage of her loneliness to secure a private revenge. If he had kept quiet about his personal satisfaction, he could have retained some dignity, but he has to rub Frances’ nose in it, and make sure he can see her face when he tells her what and why he did what he did. It’s a devastating exposure of a particular kind of misogynistic cruelty, we hardly need his pointless, useless wife to magnify it. But this is only part of this ultimately uplifting novel, which is about Frances and her progression through bereavement and self-discovery. When she begins to collect friends who never knew her husband, she can begin to live again.
Richard Jeffries, After London, Or, Wild England (1885)
I knew of Jeffries only as the author of Bevis (1882), sanctified in Malcolm Saville’s immortal Jane’s Country Year (1946), so finding this ancient OUP World’s Classic edition was a happy surprise. It’s Victorian science fiction, a utopian fantasy based on biological rather than military takeover, unlike so many Victorian dystopias. It begins with an absolutely glorious ecological projection of how the land and flora and fauna will shape England anew when agriculture stops, because there won’t be enough people to dig the fields. This long chapter alone is a classic in speculative writing for its originality and attentiveness to nature as a force of its own. The novel then goes peculiar with England repopulated by a medievalised society that is dull and Pre-Raphaelitish. I can see why Jeffries took his survivors down that route, because, if one has to hunt and gather to survive, then reverting to earlier, pre-Industrial revolution social organisation makes sense, we know how that was done. But the plot is dull. The most interesting aspect of the novel for me was reading how speculation worked with the train and the telephone as the most advanced technology known at the time.
William Golding, The Inheritors (1955)
I managed to avoid reading Golding at school and later, not even the one with Piggy being murdered, so this is the first Golding I’ve tried. It reminded me of Naomi Mitchison’s experiments in writing prehistoric society. She focuses on social relations, practical details and mysticism, whereas Golding is about the communication of ideas, alien encounter and religion. His Neanderthal group is on the edge of survival, one baby has already died in the winter, and the new baby and the child need food urgently. They carry their fire with them, and struggle to retain discoveries long enough to be able to learn and develop. Making a bridge out of a log takes forever, because imagining the log in a different and more useful place is a big conceptual leap that only a few in the group can handle. The Homo sapiens group is far ahead of them in social organisation, tool-making and communication skills, but the tiny Neanderthal family group bonds through love and experience: not hierarchies and rules. The old man Mal leads the group because he has the longest memories, but his wife takes over when he dies, and Fa, the young woman of the group, has the most intelligence (she invented the bridge, she takes over the priestess role when the old woman dies). But all the females in the novel, Homo sapiens and Neanderthal alike, are largely defined by their need for children, their dominant defining feature. This is such a moving novel, desperately sad in imagining the loss of a whole people. By presenting Mal’s family as the norm, the arrival of the Homo sapiens hunting party is a shocking alien invasion, with no hope for Neanderthal survival, except through that urgent need by females to have a baby, even if it is not their own.