Debts of Dishonour – Jill Paton Walsh

This is the third book in the series, and I think it’s probably my least favourite so far… but since I’m really enjoying the series, this means it only got four stars on Goodreads, rather than five. It’s harsh criticism, I know.

There are two main differences, I think, between this and the first two of the series. The first one is one I think is a genuine… not problem, because it’s not that bad, but a genuine downturn in quality from what came before. The second is just that the author managed to find something that I dislike and push the button, so make of my criticism there what you will.

I’ll deal with that one first, since it’s just a personal niggle.

It may previously have been noted that I am not… the most romantic of sorts. And this generally means I don’t much like to see romance in my fiction. Sometimes, this isn’t true – sometimes I read a romance and go “yes, this I get, please do continue”, though the only one I can currently think of that I liked was between Agnieszka and the Dragon in Uprooted. There are probably more, but I have a cold and I can’t be bothered to think very hard to come up with them. But they’re not common. Mostly, I feel like the romance has been crowbarred into the novel, in order to tick a box that some editor somewhere thinks needs ticking, in order that the book appeal to a wider demographic or something. And sometimes, I think this really is true (*cough* Sorceror to the Crown *cough*). But I know the threshold at which I’ll go “crowbarred in” is vastly lower than most people’s, because, if I’m honest, I find romance boring. It’s just overdone. Can we have a nice friendship instead? Or a not that nice one, where they bicker and insult each other constantly and claim to hate each other but are totally actually friends*. One of the reasons I love Good Omens is that one of the central relationships is a really interesting friendship, one where it’s not as simple as just liking one another and sharing interests – they’re people who purport to hate one another and have totally opposing aims and worldviews, but through long time and circumstance are really genuinely friends. And that’s what I want in my books.

Dragging myself back to the point, this relates to Debts of Dishonour, because while I was reading, the major theme I was taking away was “everyone has a romance other than Imogen, including Imogen’s exes, and Imogen is sad”. And it’s not a subtle theme. And on its own, I could maybe live with this as a theme, because hey, sure, sometimes people are single and sad about it… but almost all of the relationships are super-contrived. And seemingly designed just to make Imogen sad. Thus far in my life, my experience has been that people don’t get married to someone they only barely know, or throw themselves at them wanting to get married because they met that one time then pined over them for months without talking. This does not seem to me to be healthy behaviour to be encouraged… and in the rest of their portrayals of life and people, these books have been pretty realistic. Which is why I think this was all meant in service to character development of Imogen, on the theme of “Imogen is sad because she has no man”. All the relationships are skimmed over – which sort of makes sense because it’s not a hefty book – but the author has managed to make her other, non-romantic relationships satisfying and realistic in scant space, so there must be something going wrong. It just leaves me feeling vaguely unsatisfied.

The other thing that bothered me, and which I think is a more realistic bother, is that the plot… is a bit too convoluted. The first two, I felt very much like I could have got to the solution on my own (and I did, mostly, in the first book), because all the pieces had been laid out for me, if I only could put them together. This one felt more like we dragged about, exploring Imogen’s social life while drama sort of happened in the background, and then suddenly rushed to a conclusion without spending the time to give the reader a chance to get there themselves. We spend a long time dithering over various of the protagonists being very busy over this and that, and Imogen’s worries about them, and not very long actually getting clues or exploring the mystery, for a good while. Maybe there were more clues hidden in the first half, but if they were there, they were incredibly well hidden and I didn’t notice them.

On the other hand, this may be the cold talking, making me a bit less smart and quick on the uptake than usual.

The writing is still good, and I still really enjoy reading Imogen as a person, as well as Walsh’s picture of Cambridge (which is pleasingly real and very nostalgic). And it is still, as far as I’m concerned, an excellent book. It’s just not as great as the first two. For my part, I would like to see Imogen more going back to her many friendships than mooning over daft men (the man she moons over in this is also incredibly daft and Imogen is far too good for him, which doesn’t help). It was a comforting book to read while ill, and a series I shall continue to be invested in when I get to the last (woe!) book, probably quite soon. I’m no good at savouring series… I’m just going to rush and devour it.

On reflection (mainly prompted by someone reading the book who hadn’t gone to Cambridge talking to me about it), a lot of what I enjoy about these is the nostalgia they prompt, and they probably would be much less my thing without it… but there’s still a lot to recommend them, and I think the world is sufficiently deficient in good female detectives, that I’m going to keep unashamedly plugging them. I would also watch the heck out of a tv series of this, because it would be fantastic.

Hopefully next up will be something not brought to you by sinus-pain-induced daftness on my part… but it might well be, since I have the flat to myself this weekend and can thus get lots of reading done. We shall see.


*This absolutely does not relate to any real world events, relationships or people and you can’t prove otherwise.


About readerofelse

A student of a redundant, useless and thoroughly interesting subject and reader of many books, particularly fantasy, science fiction and plenty else besides.
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