This one has been in my reading pile for a while, and on my radar for even longer. I’d heard a lot of good (if vague) rumblings, and it’s appeared on the sort of lists that I pay attention to, so even without knowing much what it was about, I felt I ought to read it. It was the same sort of sentiment that led me to All the Birds in the Sky, so I was inclined to trust it. And I got to borrow the book, which, bonus.
But alas, it has not gone so well this time. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate it, and there’s a lot about it I theoretically commend… but I’m just not feeling it. It hasn’t caught my attention, or gripped me emotionally. I didn’t connect with it. So… eh. And there were some things I can put my finger on that I disliked. None of them are huge, and some of them very much in the category of “this is a thing that always bugs me but I acknowledge there’s nothing theoretically wrong with it”… though some are just “I thought this could have been done better”. So it’s a very mixed bag.
To start with the grumbling… I think I just don’t like pseudo-Victorian/Regency settings. I know I don’t like steampunk, but this absolutely isn’t steampunk, and I disliked it for a lot of the same reasons. There’s something about the tweeness and manners and politics that mashes together and makes me go “rargh”. Because I mean… I like twee. I have read more than one of the Grantchester Mysteries (and very much enjoyed them). I watch Endeavour. Gleefully. And Call the Midwife. I am enthusiastic about men on tv in knitwear (though this may just now be because I’ve become a parody of myself… I can’t actually tell anymore). So tweeness in and of itself is not the problem… it’s something about the Victoriana flavour of it that I just can’t deal with. It often just feels so much like a caricature that it hurts… and I suppose that Victoriana/Regency fall into an awkward period of time that allows that. On the one hand, they’re far enough back in time that people definitely feel they would be full of ye olde timey speake… and near enough that doing that semi-accurately wouldn’t be a bar to comprehension. No one is writing their pseudo-medieval fantasy in Middle English (though I’d honestly think it awesome if they did). And so you have to put up with period-style dialogue… amid non-period prose. And I dislike that clash. That’s not the only problem I have with it, but it’s one of the few I can put a definite finger on and go “no”.
The main other is that I don’t find any of the characters desperately compelling. If you explained them to me in theory I would totally think they would be – this is why I was excited to read the book – but in practice, they lack some of the soul and humanity I need to really appreciate them. And a large part of that is because the author sucks at showing rather than telling. She says her lead man is very bookish and academic… but we never really see that in how he behaves or speaks. And that robs the characters of any sort of reality they might have.
I have to admit, I don’t find the plot awfully compelling either. Again, it was one that appealed in theory, but practice let it down. It isn’t that well paced, with a lot rushing together at the end, and it doesn’t really ever do anything I don’t expect.
Speaking of which, the romance. I don’t think I’ve read a more crowbarred in romance in a very long time. From the first moment the two characters meet and don’t particularly get on, you think “oh good grief, is this what she’s going to do?”. And mostly she ignores it, then has one or the other of them vaguely acknowledge it then everyone ignores it some more. But there’s no real chemistry between them… mainly because they themselves aren’t hugely fleshed out. And then nothing comes of it, and you start to think it might be misdirection and maybe Cho is better than all that… then nope. Suddenly, no run up, there it is. And there’s no lead in, no drama. It feels so awkward and forced that I felt the need to skim back a bit and check if I’d missed something running up to it. But I hadn’t.
All that being said… and I’m aware that’s a lot… I never struggled to keep reading the book. Sure, it annoyed me a lot of the way through, but it was very very light going. I’m never going to claim I think it’s particularly good, because I really don’t think it is, but it’s very easy reading, and sometimes that’s all I want. And on top of that, the ideas behind it are really solid. Like I say, if someone described the book to me, I’d have been really excited… which is half the battle, in many ways. And means I’ll keep reading the series, like as not, because writing can improve, and if it’s got a good idea at the heart of it, then it’s worth giving it a chance to do so. And I like that someone has taken Victorian/Regency England and absolutely accepted the racism and sexism that were there… I hate about so much steampunk that it just glosses over them to create a utopian picture of the past that denies the struggles of so many people. You can write pseudo-historical stuff that isn’t grim, absolutely, but I think once you start pretending that the awful things didn’t happen, you start treading some awkward grounds indeed, and that is something that won’t stop bothering me in the back of my head the entire time I’m reading. Cho hasn’t done that – she’s put both issues front and centre, and made them key to the story and world she’s built. What she’s built around them isn’t perfect, not by a long shot, but I think it’s worth an awful lot of my time that she’s done it at all.
So, like I say, I’ll keep reading the series. I hope the writing will get to the point where it matches up to the ideas, because if it does – and it well might – this will be a series I’m really keen to stick at.
Next up… well, I’m currently reading a thousand pages of heft on the history of Christianity, but I may well intersperse that with shorter books, and the most likely candidate is the next Imogen Quy mystery. We shall see.