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Mar. 22nd, 2017

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What did you just finish?
A Lady's Code of Misconduct by Meredith Duran. People have been telling me to check out Meredith Duran's writing for years, but I only just now got around to it. Apologies, everyone I ignored: she is indeed awesome.

This book is a Victorian romance starring Jane – incredibly wealthy heiress and shy wallflower – and Crispin – corrupt politician who will do anything for power, including bribe Jane to spy on her uncle. Jane may be rich, but she has no access to her own money until she marries. Her uncle, her guardian, deliberately makes that impossible by keeping her in the country and not allowing her to meet any eligible men, all so he can continue to embezzle her money. Therefore Crispin's bribe is not cash, but an introduction to a priest willing to forge marriage papers. Shortly afterward Crispin is attacked by thieves and suffers a severe head injury, sending him into a coma he is not expected to survive. Jane seizes the moment and has marriage papers forged in his name – after all, once he dies she will be an independant widow, and that's exactly what she wants.

Unfortunately Crispin recovers, but without his memories. He assumes his marriage to Jane is a love-match, and she doesn't have the courage to tell him otherwise. Particularly once it becomes clear that amnesia!Crispin is kinder, more idealistic, and more honest than the cruel man she knew. Will they fall in love?????

To tell the truth, I'm not usually a fan of the amnesia trope, but this book used it so well that I may have to start seeking out more. I loved the constant testing between Jane and Crispin as each strove to figure out what the other knew/didn't know, and an unexpected twist late in the book just heightened the tension. All the secrets and lies and confusion made for fantastic suspense. The emotional arc of the relationship started with 'well, let's just have sex without making a commitment' and turned into 'oh no I have caught the feelings', which IS my favorite trope. I also liked the vague hints of liberal politics; it's not a major theme of the book, but background mentions of women's colleges and laws to protect prisoners are just the sort of things that are changing the historical romance genre for the better, in my opinion.

Highly recommended, and I absolutely will keep an eye out for more by Duran.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them by Nancy Marie Brown. A microhistory of the Lewis Chessman, a set of ivory carvings from the 1100s which are probably the most famous chess set in the world, appearing in everything from the Harry Potter movies to declarations of Scottish independance. The main mystery behind them is their origin: discovered on a beach in northern Scotland in the 1830s, no one is exactly sure where they came from or who made them. The two main contenders for the title are Norway (the traditional explanation, supported by most scholars) or Iceland (a newer theory, but the one championed in this book).

Brown uses the chessmen to tell a wider story about the Viking Age, walrus hunting, art styles in everything from churches to books, women's roles in the 12th century, the place of artisans in kings' courts, the history and development of chess, power struggles between the Church and royalty, the Icelandic sagas, the size of horses, the equipment of knights, and much more. Despite the extremely broad nature of the book, there's somewhat of a focus on Bishop Pall, a rich and powerful bishop in Iceland in the late 1100s, who may have commissioned an ivory carver named Margaret the Adroit to make the chess sets.

My main criticism is that the book's organization is entirely opaque, jumping from subject to subject and time period to time period frequently and without any reason I could discern. It became particularly difficult to follow during a chapter on the frequent civil wars in Norway in the 12th and 13th centuries, where every other important figure seemed to be named either Harald or Olaf. Keeping them straight – not to mention their tangled networks of alliances, betrayals, family lines, connections in the church, ambassadors to other countries, retainers, and so on – was a task I just gave up on after a few pages.

But despite that, it's a fun book, breezily readable, full of interesting tidbits and factoids of the sort that are fun to read aloud to anyone willing to listen. And now I want a reproduction Lewis chess set of my own! :D

I read this for a project I'm working on (which it ultimately did not help much, alas). If anyone knows of any archaeology microhistories written for a popular audience, I'd love some recs!

Mount TBR update: I'm not sure if I should count Ivory Vikings or not. On the one hand, it is a physical book now off of my shelves! On the other hand, I bought it last week. I think I'll keep my count steady at 9.

What are you currently reading?
A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World by Tony Horwitz. A book about the colonization of America before the Pilgrims, a topic near and dear to my heart. I'm always ready to rant about the primacy of Plymouth Rock in our national origin myth despite it not reflecting history.


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