Book Review: The Alchemist’s Daughter by Katharine McMahon

23503Title: The Alchemist’s Daughter
Author: Katharine McMahon
Genre: Historical Fiction, Romance, Drama
Publisher: Three Rivers Press
Publication Date: January 31st 2006
Goodreads | Amazon | Book Depository
Rating: 3,5 stars
Review copy purchased by yours truly.

There are long-held secrets at the manor house in Buckinghamshire, England, where Emilie Selden has been raised in near isolation by her father. A student of Isaac Newton, John Selden believes he can turn his daughter into a brilliant natural philosopher and alchemist. Secluded in their ancient house, with only two servants for company, he fills Emilie with knowledge and records her progress obsessively.

In the spring of 1725, father and daughter begin their most daring alchemical experiment to date – they will attempt to breathe life into dead matter. But their work is interrupted by the arrival of two strangers: one a researcher, the other a dazzling young merchant. During the course of a sultry August, while her father is away, Emilie experiences the passion of first love. Listening to her heart rather than her head, she makes a choice.

Banished to London and plunged headlong into a society that is both glamorous and ruthless, Emilie discovers that for all her extraordinary education she has no insight into the workings of the human heart. When she tries to return to the world of books and study, she instead unravels a shocking secret that sets her on her true journey to enlightenment.

Emilie Selden is the sheltered, mysterious daughter of John Selden, natural philosopher and student of none other than the great Isaac Newton himself. Although Emilie is a girl, John decided to enlighten his daughter about the mysteries and wonders of natural philosophy, mathematics and alchemy anyway. But whereas John definately succeeded to give Emilie the necessary knowledge about the sciences to get through life, he failed to provide her with all the rest, ranging from social insight to the way relationships and love work. Her incapability to live and function in the real world makes her ill-prepared for the lies and half-truths Aislabie, the first man who ever showed her any interest and breaches the solitude of her home, told her. She marries him in a whim, and makes the gravest mistake of her life. Because Aislabie is about to take everything away from her, everything she ever loved. Her father, alchemy, and maybe even her own home.

The Alchemist’s Daughter gave me plenty of mixed feelings. The setting is wonderful, 18th century England with The Enlightenment on its way and Isaac Newton and other famous scientists changing the way everyone looked upon the world. The author describes this world most beautifully, in vivid, lifelike colors and sounds, like you just stumbled upon a portrait or even in the middle of a genuine scene from the 18th century. These descriptions happen in a most humble, natural-sounding way and made me fall in love with this book from the first few lines. They’re what really made the book, and they really made it come alive in my opinion. But it has to be said that all the rest wasn’t all that good.

Emilie started out as a very promising character. She was an intelligent young woman, practically brilliant for her era, and although she never challenged her father in terms of upbringing and personal choices, she did challenge him on an intellectual level. I genuinely thought that this was the beginning of her own rebellion, her own dive into alchemy and Emilie actually taking a stand against her father. Reverend Shales, the first man who appears in Emilie’s life, is a natural philosopher as well, and seemed like a very good companion for her. I was hoping that she would eventually build up enough courage to confront her father about her feeilngs for Shales, and then maybe even get the ol’ man’s permission to marry the reverend. Emilie and Shales would have been a good team of natural philosophers, each with their own distinct area of interest, but capable of working together as well. The premise certainly did sound promising.

In comes Aislabie. He offers nothing really to Emilie, because he is a bit of a con-artist and hardly knows anything about real natural philosophy, let alone alchemy. He’s more interested in Selden estate than he is in the Selden daughter, in my opinion. Although he fails to challenge her intellectually, or even meet her half-way, Emilie is immediately swept away by Aislabie’s appearance. He’s very good-looking and he manages to act like he’s a smart duck – which he isn’t. I have to grant him the fact that he knows his way in the world, and he knows how to persuade people how to do his bidding, but that’s it. Against all reason, Emilie falls madly in love with Aislabie. One day, in the garden, the fellow practically rapes her. Yet she still loves him! And when he asks her father for her hand, she is happy, releived and glad to marry Aislabie. How sheltered can one be to go marry a guy who just raped you? Although I felt more than enough anger towards both Aislabie – for doing it – and Emilie – for allowing it – for these actions, I felt that maybe I couldn’t really blame Emilie for anything. After all, she was pretty sheltered, so I gave her the shadow of the doubt. But it got only worse.

By the time Aislabie turns out to be a cheating bastard – sorry for the word choice, but he really is – and has destroyed half of Selden Manor, Emilie still can’t figure out the fact that he’s an absolute idiot, a joker, and that she should get rid of him as soon as possible. Now I know Emilie hardly ever rebelled against her father either, and took everything with a nod and a half-hearted smile, but that’s no longer an excuse. If my husband went to tear down my house, especially my labatory and the room my own mother died in, I would shout, scream, hit, bite, fight…in other words, do whatever I possibly could to stop him from doing it. Emilie just stands there, like a rag doll, and although she complains about it towards Aislabie, she is totally not convincing, and she doesn’t even treaten him. For god’s sake. She’s the daughter of an alchemist, a man who studies not only the natural philosophy, but also the “forbidden” science, a man whose ideas are very modern for the era, revolutionary even. And there she stands, like a statue, letting herself getting bullied by her own husband. I was constantly urging Emilie to get up and do something. And with that I don’t mind trying to kill herself and burn her own god-damned legs. I meant actually doing something against the monster that is Aislabie. Hit him, slap him, kill him for all I care. Make a poisonous drink and feed it to him while he sleeps. Lock him up in a room and make something go boom. Make him stumble down the stairs and claim that it’s an accident. Anything. But don’t let him get away with it!

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what Emilie does. Her failure to react very emotionally towards anything, except than the emotion of self-destruction and self-pity, makes her distant and cold as a character. I lost every ability to relate to her. I know that women were supposed to be weak little lambs in that era, but I don’t buy it that a person as rational and intelligent as Emilie would just shrug it off if a fellow as stupid and ignorant as Aislabie were to tear down her entire home, simply because he sleeps with her at night or kisses her passionately. If my husband were to come to me after tearing half my house down, he would certainly NOT be getting any sex, and he wouldn’t get kisses either. That she disregards her own feeilngs simply because he sleeps with her, is unimaginable and sounds just plain stupid. Either Aislabie gives the most amazing sex ever – which still wouldn’t explain things – or Katharine McMahon’s characters’ credibility really takes a turn for the worst here. I’m putting my money on the latter.

Emilie starts out as a promising character, but fails to deliver. Her own history, her love for alchemy and natural philosophy and her initial ambitions make her appear interesting at first. Her interests in the young men who walk into her life, first Shales and then Aislabie, are understandable, and I would let McMahon get away with marrying Emilie off to Aislabie as well. But then, when the latter starts with Selden Manor Demolition Day, all Emilie’s credibility as a genuine person melts away. She reacts in a shallow, emotionless, and just plain stupid way. Aislabie is a more realistic character – that’s not to say I like him, I’ve probably haven’t felt as enraged towards a character as I feel towards him in a long time – with his lies, half-truths and incredibly ambitious and greedy personality. He is portrayed as a villain, and he plays that role well, because I actually hate him. Shales is the good choice, the choice Emilie should have made from the start, and I instantly liked him. I would have liked it if I had gotten to know him better, because he is so much more interesting than Aislabie could ever be.

I was really impressed with Katharine McMahon’s research in the world of natural philosophy and alchemy. She describes the experiments of John and Emilie Selden to the utmost detail, the language she uses feels genuine for the era and the profession, and the experiments sound real enough. That alone was enough to keep me reading. I would have liked it if Emilie managed some interesting, life-changing break-through in either natural philosophy or alchemy, and was deeply dissapointed that this didn’t happen. I fail to see the point of adding in any science at all if it’s not plot-altering or at least very appropriate. The way the story works now, they could have easily called it The Hermit’s Daughter and just focused on the daughter of a guy whose only particular personality traits is that he enjoys seclusion from society.

When Selden was demolished by Aislabie and his crew of airheads, I was practically crying. I felt more attachment towards the beautiful hallways of Selden Manor, the secret passageways, the laboratory, the library and the several sitting rooms, than I felt towards the characters. I felt like wringing Aislabie’s neck when he tore down what seemed like one of the most beautiful houses ever.

I know that my review is a very mixed one. On the one hand, I’ve gone on and on about why the character of Emilie lacks credibility, and why Aislabie is my new number one enemy, but on the other hand, I do enjoy the alchemy-aspect of the novel, the beautiful setting of Selden Manor and London, the descriptive and era-appropriate narrator’s voice that really sketched the scenes and era for me in a most intriguing way and the over-all storyline. The story wasn’t really unpredictable, but there were some surprises along the way. If you enjoy historical fiction, this book really is a nice choice. It offers genuine scientific research and a well-defined and realistic setting. Just don’t hit me when you are as furious with the characters as I am, or when you find yourself plotting schemes to murder Aislabie by the end of this novel. The Alchemist’s Daughter has a promising premise, but it fails to deliver completely. It is interesting and entertaining and an emotional rollercoaster, but it is neither outstanding nor brilliant.

Book Review: The Poisoned House by Michael Ford

7795293Title: The Poisoned House
Author: Michael Ford
Genre: Gothic Horror, Victorian, Ghosts, Haunting, Young Adult
Publisher: Albert Whitman & Company
Publishing Date: August 1st 2011
Pages: 328
Rating: 3,5 stars
Review copy provided by the pubilsher through Netgalley.

The year is 1856, and orphan Abigail Tamper lives below stairs in Greave Hall, a crumbling manor house in London. Lord Greave is plagued by madness, and with his son Samuel away fighting in the Crimea, the running of Greave Hall is left to Mrs Cotton, the tyrannical housekeeper. The only solace for the beleaguered staff is to frighten Mrs Cotton by pretending the house is haunted.
So when a real ghost makes an appearance – that of her beloved mother – no one is more surprised than Abi. But the spirit has a revelation that threatens to destroy Abi’s already fragile existence: she was murdered, and by someone under their very own roof. With Samuel returned to England badly wounded, it’s up to Abi to nurse him back to health, while trying to discover the identity of the killer in their midst. As the chilling truth dawns, Abi’s world is turned upside down.

The Poisoned House is your typical gothic horror story with the haunted house, the archetypical gothic villains, the Lord of the house on the verge of madness and our own tagic heroine. Combine all these elements with Michael Ford’s excellent writing, and the result is an enjoyable, entertaining and sometimes even downright scary read, excellent for during a thunder storm or late at night bedtime-reading.

Abigail Tamper, or Abi as we get to call her, is the youngest servant working in Greave Hall, an impressing but cold and empty house. The tyrannical housekeeper, Mrs. Cotton, is always out to get her and punish her, mostly for crimes she hardly even committed. Every little mistake she makes is punished severely. In her despair, Abigail even tries to run away – which eventually costs her dearly, as she is returned to the manor. With the Lord of the house gradually falling into madness, the servants afraid of the abusive housekeeper, there is only one more thing needed to turn this novel into a true Victorian ghost story. A ghost.

We meet the ghost in the form of Abigail’s mother, who passed away just about a year ago. While at first, Abi feels both terrified and rejoiced over having her mother’s ghost around to watch over her, she soon realises there must be a reason why her mother is back. That’s when Abi realises that she might be in danger. And she might not be the only one.

Although the story is predictable (I could predict the ending by page 30 or so), it is very enjoyable, and it does offer a few nice surprises along the way. I did like Abi as a character. She is a typical young adult in the Victorian era: not all that confident with herself, willing to settle for the role she has in the world, and a reluctant hero. Like a lot of people in that era, she immediately jumps to the conclusion of ghosts when weird things start to happen, which is downright awesome and saves us a lot of time we would otherwise spend reading about the protagonists’s debates whether or not their house is haunted, like we find all too often in nowadays ghost literature. She is a relatable charachter, well-portrayed through-out this novel, and I felt very sympathetic towards her, especially when I got to know her a little better.

The character of Mrs. Cotton offers an excellent portrayal of the archetypical Victorian villain. She is cruel, mean, and deadly afraid of the ghosts that have come to haunt Greave Hall. She is cold, self-righteous and a pleasure to read about. The fact that she might not be the only villain in this story, only adds to the suspense. Talking about suspense, The Poisoned House really got this spot-on. From the first page I read I was wondering why a young girl like Abi would want to escape from the only safe home she has, and as I turned page after page, more and more mysteries began to unfold in front of me and I felt the undeniable urge to continue reading. Putting this book away is simply not an option.

If you’re a fan of gothic novels like Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, you will be delighted to read The Poisoned House, as it really follows in line with all the classics in the genre. It has all the elements to make an interesting and scary ghost story, and it does so in a most unique fashion. Aimed at young adults, it isn’t as frightening as it could have been, but it does make for a nice way to pass the time during a rainy afternoon or late at night. The mystery grows thicker with every page and for some, the revelation at the end, might be quite shocking. If you’re familiar with gothic novels, you might have it all figured out by then though, which isn’t always that pleasant (and which is the reason why I didn’t rate this book higher). On another note, the historical setting is anything but accurate, which often annoyed me. The characters don’t even speak the way they did in Victorian England…This might be because the novel was aimed at young adults and even younger children, but that doesn’t mean it’s not annoying for the somewhat older people under us who’d like to read things that are at least somewhat accurate.

The plot is, as I already said, decent, but it’s also predictable and not-all-that-surprising, especially when you’ve read gothic horror before. The ending is rushed, and I feel like they’re quite some loose ties the author should have wrapped up. It’s like he builds up the tension slowly, and keeps us all excited for more, and then ends it all in a page or ten. It isn’t all that believable and convincing either, which bothered me as well.

All in all, The Poisoned House is an entertaining read with interesting characters, some nice plot twists, and your typical Victorian haunted house setting. The atmosphere is gothic, creepy and tense. The suspense builds gradually, and keeps you turning page after page after page. The novel is aimed at teens, and that really shows. But all in all, if you’re a fan of the genre, or just love a nice ghost story, you shouldn’t leave this one out.

Book Review: Kat, Incorrigible by Stephanie Burgis

6609744Title: Kat, Incorrigible
Author: Stephanie Burgis
Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade, Witches, Historical Fiction
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Pages: 304
Publication Date: April 5th 2011
Rating: 4 stars
Review copy provided by the publisher.

Twelve-year-old Kat Stephenson may be the despair of her social-climbing Step-Mama, but she was born to be a magical Guardian and protector of Society–if she can ever find true acceptance in the secret Order that expelled her own mother.
She’s ready to turn the hidebound Order of the Guardians inside-out, whether the older members like it or not. And in a society where magic is the greatest scandal of all, Kat is determined to use all her powers to help her three older siblings–saintly Elissa, practicing-witch Angeline, and hopelessly foolish Charles–find their own true loves, even if she has to turn highwayman, battle wild magic, and confront real ghosts along the way!

The thing that lured me into reading this novel was the cover. Don’t you just love it? It has this cartoony, childlike feel to it that reminded me a bit of The Sword in The Stone, the Disney movie about King Arthur and Merlin (especially the scene where Merlin made the tea cups and dishes float in the air, and then made them bounce and dance) and instantly made me want to read this book. I’m glad I did, because I thoroughly enjoyed Kat, Incorrigible.

Kat is a twelve-year old girl with a nice sense of humor but an unfortunate habit of always getting into trouble. With her two older sisters breathing down her neck, and her stepmother always poking her nose where it doesn’t belong, Kat often finds herself being lectured by either her siblings, or the aforementioned stepmother. Things aren’t looking up for Kat’s family, especially not since her oldest sister, Elissa, is to be married to a horrible man who supposedly killed his first wife. On top of that, her other sister Angelina, is messing with magic she doesn’t understand by practicing spells from her mother’s old spell books. Like that isn’t bad enough, Kat herself gets dragged down into a magic world during a nightly excursion, and barely escapes. But she does find some useful information: she is a Guardian, a talented magician. Now she must use her new-found powers to help her sisters, which leads to a lot of dreadful but hilarious situations.

I can’t remember the last time I had so much FUN reading a book. Kat, Incorrigible really is a hilarious book, but it also has a lot of action, adventures and interesting characters. While aimed at middle graders, I thoroughly enjoyed the humor and the storyline in this novel as well, and I’m pretty sure it will appeal to young adults and adults as well. Although the storyline is pretty balanced, with “the good guys” and “the bad guys” and it might be a bit predictable here and there, this is still one of the best MG fantasy books I’ve ever come across.

Although Kat herself encounters no love interests whatsoever in this book (which is a big yay for me, considering she’s only twelve, and not every heroine has to find herself a proper suitor), there was plenty of romance between Kat’s older sisters and their love interests. Kat was pretty much spending half her time playing matchmaker, and the other half trying to save both of her sisters from a horrible future. I liked these themes, and the cute and giggly undertone of the novel as Kat hopped from matchmaker duties to Guardian duties and sisterly affairs.

I also liked the fact that this book isn’t set entirely in some mystical made-up world, but actually is situated in our very own Regency England. Although there might be some time inconsistencies, and the way the characters talked wasn’t really what one would expect from proper ladies in Regency England, this didn’t bother me at all, especially not considering the fact it is a MG book, and that not everything has to be spot-on or historically correct to make a novel entertaining and amusing.

It surprised me a lot to see that practically all the characters in this book, even Charles, Kat’s always-absent but often-mentioned brother, have interesting and distinct personalities. I loved how Kat’s older sister, Elissa, seems like she just stepped out of a Jane Austen novel. A lot of the characters seemed like mismatched, or cynically-addressed Regency novels archetypes, and I had all the more fun reading about the madly in love student, or the mischevious highwayman who acted out of love. Of course, Kat was my favorite character. Wicked, clever, funny and witty, headstrong, stubborn and undeniably intelligent, she is a heroine I would like to see more of. She totally charmed me over, and if I had a kid sister anything like Kat, I would be terribly proud – and probably, terribly annoyed as well! She is exactly the kind of character ever reader has to root for, whether they want to, or not.

Stephanie Burgis’ writing style was very impressive, especially considering this is her debut novel. She describes places and scenes beautifully, but doesn’t spend too much time on the details, so there’s enough action to keep you turning page after page after page. The plot is full of twists, unexpected happenings and some more predictable occurences. It would be nearly impossible to get bored while reading this novel, because the storyline is so fast-paced, original and hilarious.

Picture a lighthearted, cheery and hilarious fantasy novel set in Regency England. Add sinister villains, doublecrossing magicians, love-struck older sisters, a stepmother deadset on climbing the society ladder and a total improper 12 year old girl with impressive magical powers, and you’ll get a nice idea of what Kat, Incorrigible is all about. Please come back soon, Kat, and entertain me some more with your hilarious adventures and your heartwarming and utterly charming attitude.

Book Review: My Frankenstein by Michael Lee

10775739Title: My Frankenstein
Author: Michael Lee
Genre: Retelling Classics, Fantasy, Gothic Horror, Historical Fiction, Dark Romance
Pages: 408
Rating: 4,5 stars
Review copy provided by Bewitching Book Tours.

In a small village in early 19th Century young Eva is enthralled by the new young baron, Viktor Frankenstein. Viktor promises to transform the traditional little town into a beacon of science and gives the book loving Eva access to his fantastic library. Eva becomes his student and assists him in a secret experiment, though she is kept in the dark about its ultimate aim. Soon after that Viktor introduces Eva to his “cousin” Adam. Adam is horribly disfigured with stitches running across his face. Viktor claims he is mute and simpleminded, but Eva takes pity on him and sets out to teach him to speak.…

What follows is a combination of tragic romance and classic horror as Eva is pulled between Viktor, who grows jealous and takes murderous steps to ensure his secret, and Adam, who possess tremendous strength and rage yet deep inside is innocent and vulnerable.

In his debut fantasy novel, Michael J. Lee retells the classic story by Mary Shelley as a dark romance with steampunk overtones.

In a small village in 19th century England, a young and quite naive girl named Eva has an undeniable passion for science and progress, and she even managed to make a lightning rod. While she is trying to attach the latter to the roof of the inn she’s living in, she nearly falls down, because the scene that’s unfolding in front of her – her best friend kissing the boy she has loved all her life – makes her so upset that she loses her balance. Luckily, two strange men enquire about her well-being before entering the inn. Although she finds the first man to be quite attractive, and he seems like a true gentleman, it takes a while before Eva figures out that this man is Viktor, the new baron of their village.

Much like Eva herself, Viktor is a scientist. Amazed by the girl’s intelligence, he agrees to teach her the sciences, from electricity and mathematics to biology and chemistry, along with the help of his friend, a Russian called Igor. Viktor is a man of progression, and he is determined to bring their village into a new era. What Eva doesn’t know yet, is that her love for Viktor might be dangerous, not only for her, but for her friends and the entire village as well.

Then, one day, Viktor does the unthinkable. He introduces Eva to his cousin Adam, who got horribly deformed in an accident. Whereas Eva is capable of looking past the horrific appearance of Adam, and even manages to teach him something, Viktor could not care less about the young and horribly looking man. But Eva feels like something is up, and Viktor isn’t telling her the whole truth. To protect not only herself, but Adam as well, she is determined to find out what the truth is.

I loved Eva as a character. She is intelligent, but hardly realises she is. She is charming, intuitive and caring, but no one seems to recognise these qualities in her, aside from Viktor then. Viktor is a progressive scientist, too advanced for his era, too innovative, modern and evolved for his century. He is the tragic scientist, the misunderstood genius, the evil mastermind who does evil in the name of progress and evolution. I was secretly hoping that, even when she discovered some of his more evil personality traits, Eva would still be able to love him. To see whether or not she did, you will have to read the book though. I can only say that I still did, that he and Eva are one of the most fitting, tragically romantic couples I’ve come across in literature, and that they really touched my heart. They are both very interesting, relatable and well-described characters. I can understand that not everyone will like Viktor’s personality, but I believe he truly intended to do good, but did everything wrong, and thus was more of a tragic hero than of an evil villain.

I loved the fact that the author takes the original Frankenstein story by Mary Shelley, and adds this darkly romantic twist to it. The idea is both original and interesting, and when pulled off successfully – as Michael Lee absolutely did in this novel – it can change your view on the original Frankenstein story forever. Now I can no longer imagine Frankenstein without thinking about Viktor and Eva and their mutual bond.

I also loved the fact that Viktor Frankenstein isn’t just interested in creating a human being out of corpses and bringing it to life. He brings progression and modernization to Eva’s village, from a coal mine to a hospital, and practically brings the 19th century, filled with scientific research, machinery and evolution, to this village that still seems to be stuck in the dark Middle Ages. I also enjoyed reading about the villager’s reaction to all that, about their rebellion against progress, about their battle for the old and familiar against the new and unknown.

My Frankenstein reads very easily. It’s a fast-paced novel, with a decent story behind it, excellent characterization and it also explores several interesting topics. Michael Lee’s writing style is very fluent, and the story is gripping from the beginning to the end. I would advise My Frankenstein to anyone who enjoys a good classic retold, or to anyone who liked reading the original Frankenstein story.

Book Review: The Vespertine by Saundra Mitchell

7497552Title: The Vespertine
Author: Saundra Mitchell
Genre: Historical Fiction, Romance
Publication Date: March 7th
Review copy provided by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Rating: 4,5 stars
Goodreads | The Vespertine Website

It’s the summer of 1889, and Amelia van den Broek is new to Baltimore and eager to take in all the pleasures the city has to offer. But her gaiety is interrupted by disturbing, dreamlike visions she has only at sunset—visions that offer glimpses of the future. Soon, friends and strangers alike call on Amelia to hear her prophecies. However, a forbidden romance with Nathaniel, an artist, threatens the new life Amelia is building in Baltimore. This enigmatic young man is keeping secrets of his own—still, Amelia finds herself irrepressibly drawn to him.

When one of her darkest visions comes to pass, Amelia’s world is thrown into chaos. And those around her begin to wonder if she’s not the seer of dark portents, but the cause.

The first thing that appealed to me about The Vespertine is, although I’m ashamed to admit it, the gorgeous cover. Sure I’m the first person to jump on the boat claiming that a bad cover doesn’t necessarily make a bad book, and I’m pretty sure the first editions of Shakespeare or Homer weren’t all that lovely either, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t often get persuaded by the cover of a novel. When it’s really, really pretty, it often charms me enough to read it, without even glimpsing at the summary or browsing the web searching for reviews of the novel. I’ve let myself get tricked with Lost Voices, I felt the same strange urge with The Vespertine, and I did it all over again with Starcrossed, Hereafter and Die For Me. For Lost Voices, the gorgeous cover art hid something that was partly dissapointing, and partly fun and enjoyable. For The Vespertine, the nice cover doesn’t try to make up for lack of story and potential, because this novel has plenty of both. At first I was sighing, thinking I had let myself get caught in the web of pretty and shiny things again, but it didn’t take me long to realise that The Vespertine is anything but an empty shell. It’s an extraordinary mix of historical fiction and paranormal romance, an interesting story focused on friendship, love, betrayal and superstition in Victorian America.

The story sets off in Baltimore in the 19th century, as we meet up with a young woman called Amelia. Banished from her country home to find a suitable fiancé in the big city, Amelia is forced to spend her summer holiday with one of her distant cousins, Zora; much to her own delight, because Zora and Amelia soon grow to be close friends. During the first couple of days of her stay, Zora introduces her cousin to the boy she has been in love with for a couple of years now – Thomas. Although at first something of a one-sided crush, the relationship between Zora and Thomas soon grows into something more. The first person who knows about this is Amelia herself, who saw the two of them dancing in a vision. Shortly after, Amelia is introduced to Nathaniel, a young artist who barely gets by and gets paid to be the Fourteenth at upper class dinners. Immediately smitten by the “starving artist” who is free to do whatever he wants whenever he wants, and who has a charm and wit about him that is both intoxicating and intimidating, Amelia finds herself falling in love with this mysterious stranger. As her visions grow darker by the day, and her supernatural gifts seem to expand with every week that passed, Amelia is forced to acknowledge the dark side of her gifts, especially when they threaten the lifes of the people she loves. And on top of that, Nathaniel seems to have some dark secrets of his own…

I have to admit that before I actually starting reading The Vespertine, I had no idea this novel was a mix of historical and paranormal fiction; I had guessed the historical part from the cover art, but failed to acknowledge the paranormal part because I was stupid enough not to look at the summary. Oh well, it was a nice surprise. I love paranormal romances and I love historical fiction, and when combined, they sure make a great mix. This is one of the first novels I read in that particular mix-match genre though, and I’m happily surprised. The Vespertine isn’t just any novel though. With a writing style fit for the era, haunting and mesmerising, spellbinding you to every sentence, Saundra Mitchell utterly and completely compelled me to keep reading. When the Victorian streets came to life, and I could vaguely hear the sounds of carriages and horses in the back of my mind, and I heard the soft whisper of those large Victorian dresses; I knew this book was a winner. The descpriptions that Saundra Mitchell uses are very detailed, imaginative and lyric. Her writing style reminded me a lot of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. Needless to say, I was hooked.

Amelia is an interesting character with an outstanding and enjoyable personality. A lot of times in these historical novels, I find myself thinking that the thought process of the main character – usually a woman – is too evolved or too rebellious for that time. Sure, a little rebellion is always great, but you have to keep in mind that women in the 17th century wouldn’t want the kind of progress and equality women are striving for today. But not Amelia. No, she really is a child of her era, and although perhaps a bit of a free spirit, just like her love interest Nathaniel, they aren’t exactly extremely progressive. Their love and relationship isn’t appropriate for society, but then again, they simply don’t care for society. They don’t go about and try to change the way society feels about upper and lower class couples, they just go and do their own thing. They made me think about the first time I was in love, about how carefree one is at those moments, and about how less one cares about other human beings, about the rules of how things should go, about the world itself. Amelia and Nathaniel, in their mutual love, innocence and childlike happiness, reminded me of first love, of true love, and it was an amazing feeling, I can assure you.

As I started off by saying, Amelia has a very interesting personality. She isn’t feisty or headstrong, like about 90 percent of the fictional heroines out there, but she isn’t weak and braindead either. She seemed to me like quite a balanced person, with a mix of all sorts of qualities, but with a good balance about them. I liked Zora’s personality as well, a bit brighter and cheerier than Amelia’s, but at the same time capable of worrying and brooding, although I had wished to see more behind the hidden veils that is Zora. I had the feeling we only got to meet her on the surface, and didn’t get to see all of the real her, with her own fears, anxieties and worries. On the other hand, this is understandable, as she only is a supporting character, but I thought her interesting enough to appear in the spotlight more often.

I liked both of the suitors for our two protagonists as well. Thomas is the calm, conservative, reserved gentleman, who is all too eager to play by society’s rules, and who carefully courts the woman he loves. Nathaniel is quite the opposite: endaring, charming, mischevious, carefree, rebellious. Although it would be clear for me who I’d choose from the start, and I completely understand why Amelia is totally enamoured by Nathaniel, I loved how nice Thomas and Zora fit together as well. The dynamics between all the characters, and especially these four, are very intriguing. Another thing about this novel which I really enjoyed, is that we get to meet Zora’s Mom only from the interactions between Zora and Amelia about the woman in question, and yet we manage to form quite an opinion about her. I thought this was an impressive sample of excellent writing skills, just when I thought Saundra Mitchell couldn’t possibly impress me even more.

The storyline itself was innovating, refreshing and very well thought-through. I liked the small plot twists that turned up here and there throughout hte novel, and how Amelia’s gift of seeing the future growed gradually darker. On the downside, I thought that it took quite a while before the action actually started (more than halfway through the novel) and The Vespertine would have scored higher on my ratings had the actual story progressing started a little earlier. In the prologue, we got a view of the Baltimore in 1889, and we see Amelia locked up in her own house. Then we take a trip back in time, and it was like all that tension and excitement that had been building in the prologue, got thrown out of the window page by page, because it took a good while for the suspense to return. However, when it returned, it did so in style. The last chapters of the book are truly brilliant, they’re showcases of excellent writing, plot development and character progression. Those last chapters made me fall in love with this book all over again.

You know that I’m a complete idiot when I tell you that I didn’t stop to think about the meaning of the title, The Vespertine, once throughout this novel, and didn’t even think about it once I finished it. It only occured to me just now, when I started writing this review, what exactly it means, and why it’s the title of this novel. Damn, I’m really quite the idiot. Anyway, don’t let my foolishness fool you (get it? I made a word joke). The Vespertine truly is one of the most impressive works of fiction I have read this entire year: with an interesting mix of historical fiction and paranormal romance, heartwarming characters, a most impressive writing style, and more suspense towards the ending than your average crime novel. Amelia and Nathaniel are my favorite fictional couple of the year, and that’s saying something. I think the best way to end this review would be: what the heck are you waiting for? Go buy your own copy of The Vespertine, and start reading!

Book Review: Polyxena: A Story of Troy by Herb Allenger

7897157Title: Polyxena: A Story of Troy
Author: Herb Allenger
Genre: Historical Fiction
Review copy provided by Cindy Dashnaw at BohlsenPR.
Rating: 4,5 stars

After Troy falls, Neoptolemus claims Polyxena as his prize, but she rejects his advances. In a fit of rage, Neoptolemus contrives a story that dooms the ill-fated Polyxena. She knows what she must do to survive, but she cannot change her destiny. Polyxena, the daughter of King Priam of Troy, knows her misfortune has been to have Neoptolemus fall in love with her. As she prepares to die at the commemoration rites for Neoptolemus’s father, Polyxena reflects over her past year, relating her thoughts to Aphrodite, the Goddess she believes is responsible for orchestrating the events that have beset her. As she tries to make sense of it all, Polyxena converses with all the well-known personages associated with the Trojan myth-Achilles, Agamemnon, Cassandra, Helen, and many others-while seeking solace in the hope that her existence has not been futile. In this moving story of forbidden love, a young woman who is an integral part of the romantic legacy surrounding Troy comes to a surprising and satisfying conclusion about the life she has lived.

As she is waiting to be sacrificied to the Gods, Polyxena reminisces about her life, about the people she loved and the people she hated. About the events that led her here, like a lamb to its slaughter, courtesy of Neoptolemus. That’s how this gripping, nearly paralyzing piece of historical fiction starts off. Polyxena tells us that she is  one of the daughters of King Priam of Troy, and not just anyone of his daughters – she’s probably the most intelligent, stubborn and brave one. Rather than spending time with the other women at court, doing whatever it is women did in those days, she prefers to go horseback riding, and having actual intelligent conversations with people. Although she is already past the age that girls should get married, she still hasn’t found a suitor, nor is she desperate to find one. Independent enough to live on her own, and not at all concerned with love, marriage and children – especially not with the war still going on, and her beloved brothers dying one by one – Polyxena seems the excellent choice to go visit the Amazon queen, Penthesileia, and persuade the latter to help the Trojans win this war.

When Polyxena travels to the Amazon grounds, she is in for the surprise of a life time. Not only does she meet and befriends the great heroic queen, Penthesileia, but she also feels attracted to her general, Antiope, a young and beautiful woman. In the first relationship of her life, Polyxena feels a strong connection towards Antiope, but is forced to depart her behind after an attack gone completely wrong. That’s when she meets Achilles – the Achilles – the strong and brave warrior who is the sole reason the war that ruined her country has continued for this long, the man blessed with power that can only come from the Gods, and the murderer of her beloved brother Hector. Face to face with the man who practically ruined her life, Polyxena is surprised by the way she feels about him. And as their attraction towards each other blossoms into something new, she knows very well that she’s betraying everyone and everything, and that this relationship might end disastrous. For the both of them.

Once I started reading Polyxena: A Story of Troy, I had a hard time putting it down. The characters were sublime, powerful, crafted with the utmost precision and as real as if they were standing right next to you. The story itself was imaginative, confronting, gripping and very emotionally touching. I was practically sucked into the book, breathing the words and living the sentences. It’s been a while since I had such a good time reading a book, and I have to thank H. Allenger for making me enjoy his novel so much that I hardly know how to express what I feel into words.

I’ll start by talking about the characters. Polyxena, well, she could have been my best friend. I loved her. She was rebellious, but not openly; brave, but not too sure of her own courage; headstrong but not stubborn; and she possessed that nice balance of qualities that turns ordinary people into heroes. She was friendly and kind, but impatient with people that treated her unkindly. If she had been a man, I’m sure she’d make a nice general for Troy, a skillful warrior even. I loved her relationship with Antiope, that started out as friendship at first, but then turned into so much more. H. Allenger focused more on the love-aspect, and the emotional aspects of their relationship than on the physical parts of it, which I thought was a very good choice, as it made me understand them, and their attraction towards each other more than I would have understood it had the focus been on the physical relationship. I knew that their relationship was destined to end some time, but the ending was bittersweet and left me vaguely sad for both of them. It was nice to see that Polyxena was capable of putting her own initial thoughts and the ancient traditions of her own country behind her – like that women should only love men, and that no woman could love another woman in that way – and that she was strong and independent enough to get beyond that, and acknowledge her true feelings for Antiope. The way H. Allenger described this progression was wonderful, realistic and very touching.

I liked how the author portrayed Achilles as well. At first, we see Polyxena’s view of the strong warrior brute who murdered her own beloved brother, but that are her opinions of the man before she even meets him. Then, we gradually see a change in her feelings towards Achilles as he manages to enlight a fire inside of her, she didn’t even know that was there. We see how she likes him more and more, and he likes her as well, as he offers to bring her back to the gates of Troy. I thought their relationship developed a bit fast, but I guess that’s normal when your days together are very limited, or when it’s love at first strike. I was enthralled by Polyxena’s inner battle, and her contradictory feelings as she saw Achilles as post a murderer, and as a possible lover. This was very well and very thoroughly described in the novel, and left me amazed.

The story focuses a lot on mythology and the battle of Troy and the cast that played a role in it. Thankfully, I already knew a lot of Paris, Helen, Priam, Cassandra, Achilles and Agamemnon – because I think this novel would have been confusing at first, if I hadn’t. It’s obvious that the author knows a lot about his characters, their personalities, their weakness and their background, and someone who has only vaguely heard of the war of Troy might be oblivious to certain details this novel touches, or certain events that take place but aren’t described in detail. I thought that sometimes the author tried to include too much too soon, but as I said, I already knew a great deal about Troy, so it was no issue for me. On the contrary, I learned even more about Troy through this novel, and that means that the author more than succeeded at getting his message and story across.

I was warned from the start that Polyxena faced a death sentence, that she was to be sacrified to the gods, but by the time we got to the ending, I felt like crying. I had grown to know this character like she was my best friend, I knew all of her heartaches, pains and suffering, and I wished she got a better fate than the one that was waiting for her. Her message, even at the end, was powerful. She was happy with the life she left, and held no regrets. For me, she was a true heroine.

I would advise this novel to everyone. Even if historical fiction isn’t your favorite genre, Polyxena: A Story of Troy, will touch you in so many different ways, it will draw you in, amaze you and surprise you, and it won’t let you go. Just go read it, and you’ll know what I mean.

Book Review: The Last Witchfinder by James Morrow

218573Title: The Last Witchfinder
Author: James Morrow
Genre: Historical fiction
Year of Publication: 2006
Pages: 497p.
Rating: 4,5 stars

In the spring of 1688, Walter Stearne, Witchfinder General for Mercia and East Anglia, roams the countryside in search of heretics, delivering the English nation from Satan’s hordes. His daughter Jennet is left behind in the care of her Aunt Isobel, who schools her in the New Philosophy, expounded by Isaac Newton. But Isobel’s style of scientific enquiry soon attracts the attention of the witchfinders. Desperate to save her aunt, Jennet travels to Cambridge and seeks the aid of Newton himself. Joining the expedition is Dr. Barnaby Cavendish and his ‘Museum of Wondrous Prodigies’, including the Bird-Child of Bath, the Lyme Bay Fish Boy and the Sussex Rat Baby. The mission of this strange fellowship comes to naught, but in Isobel’s dying moments, Jennet determines to devote her life to overturning the Parliamentary Witchcraft Act. Our heroine’s quest entails many picaresque adventures, including a brush with the famous Salem Witch Trials; captivity by Algonquin Indians; erotic nights wtih Benjamin Franklin; a shipwreck in the Caribbean Sea; a perilous enconter with pirates and a great final showdown between old superstition and new science. The Last Witchfinder is narrated by another book, namely Sir Isaac Newton’s Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, which is engaged in an eternal struggle with the most notorious of the Renaissance witch-hunting manuals – a battle fought with squadrons of paper-eating moths and regiments of booklice.

I stumbled upon this novel last year at a book fair, and since it came at the cheap price of 3 euros, I decided to buy it right away. I didn’t exactly think the book would be great, since I was unfamiliar with both the writer and the title of the novel. However, The Last Witchfinder was a pleasant surprise. The book I bought was in English and I believe the book hasn’t been translated into Dutch, so if you want to read it, you’ll have to stick to the English version.

The Last Witchfinder reads fluently and even though English isn’t my native language, I could understand the story without much hassle. Since the story is told by another book, the Principia written by Sir Isaac Newton, the viewpoint is highly original. The way a book looks on human kind is quite interesting, to say the least. The story plays during the 17th and 18th century, when Renaissance slowly drops into Enlightment. We see this clash between eras in every part of the book, from the changing environment to the personality of the characters. Duncan Stearne, the brother of our heroine, is stuck in Renaissance with its romanesque and superstitious beliefs about witchcraft and satanism, whereas Jennet herself is the exact opposite. She has a very rational and practical personality, sometimes on the verge of being emotionless. Highly devoted to the new sciences and a typical bookworm, feeding off on the famous works of not only Newton, but also John Locke, Charles Montesquieu, Voltaire, etc. the heroine strikes me as a very clever and educated woman. Her personality is interesting, to say the least.

Although through university, I have already learnt a lot about the great authors of the Enlightment, they never really came to life for me until I was reading The Last Witchfinder. James Morrow has a writing style that makes the greatest minds in history, ranging from Kepler to Benjamin Franklin, appear very alive and very human. It’s almost as if you are thrown back into the 18th century and you feel like joining the great battle between superstition and the new science. Although highly amusing and informational (James Morrow includes at least fifty titles of other, some famous and others less famous, works in his novel) the story also strikes me as very tragic. It’s the ending of an era, a war between the old and familiar and the new and unknown, a war that leaves a long trail of victims behind.

The Last Witchfinder is a bit of a mix of everything but mostly it’s a beautiful piece of fiction that I am proud to have in my library. I also believe it’s a novel you will keep on appreciating, even if you read it for a second or a third time.