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What did you just finish?
In the Name of the Family by Sarah Dunant. Dunant's second novel about the Borgias, a sequel to Blood & Beauty.

Well, at least I liked this book better than the first one. It benefits from several structural choices, the most important of which is that it only covers about two years compared to Blood & Beauty's decade-plus timeline. It's still hard to give a description of the plot, since like much of actual history, it's a bit random and episodic, without the nice arc of fiction. The Borgias continue to gather power in Renaissance Italy, before finally meeting their downfall.

Lucrezia once more is the closest thing the book has to a protagonist, and she is served well both by the fact that she's primarily seen from her own viewpoint and that she's dealing with a comparatively small-scale plot: the relationship with her new husband, her third, and finding her place within his court. Cesare, in contrast, is conquering half of Italy (including numerous city-states whose names I did not even attempt to keep track of), outmaneuvering a rebellion among his followers (in which at least one particular city-state switches hands at least four times), ingratiating himself to the French king before switching sides to ally with the Spanish, and fighting with his father; it's so much plot that the cumulative effect is deafening. Cesare doesn't get his own POV in this novel, but is seen only through outsiders: primarily one of his generals, his doctor, and the Florentine ambassador, Niccolo Machiavelli. (Machiavelli actually gets an oddly large amount of page time in this novel given his relatively small overlap with the Borgias, but I understand Dunant's impulse to include him. Who wouldn't want to include Machiavelli?) All of these outside POVs only succeed in distancing the reader from Cesare, but on the other hand, he spends at least half the book going insane from late-stage syphilis, so I'm not sure his own POV would have been an improvement. Rodrigo Borgia aka Alexander VI is relegated to the role of a side character, appearing only to react to Cesare or Lucrezia's actions. Nonetheless the book ends abruptly with his death; this is fairly historically accurate – the Borgia family pretty much crashed and burned immediately without his assistance – but it reads like Dunant forgot to finish the story.

As a minor note, I found the descriptions of Catrinella, Lucrezia's servant (or slave? I wasn't entirely clear on what category she'd fit into, though to be fair in the 1490s there probably wasn't a well-defined distinction between the two) off-putting. She's the only black character in the novel, and there are a lot of words spent dwelling on how dark her skin is and how bright her teeth are against it. On the other hand, at least Catrinella is slightly more three-dimensional than most of the hundreds of background characters, so it could be worse.

Overall the two books remain not terrible, but not nearly as wonderful as they could have been. I'd recommend Dunant's other historical fiction instead.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Murder on Black Swan Lane by Andrea Penrose. A murder mystery set in Regency London, the first in a new series. The notorious Earl of Wrexford has been engaged in a long-running, very public argument with Reverend Josiah Holworthy, mostly conducted in letters published in various newspapers, over the role of science and religion. So when Holworthy is found murdered, Wrexford is the obvious first suspect – particularly since it turns out that the murder was committed by throwing acid in Holworthy's face, and chemistry in Wrexford's particular interest. To prove his innocence, Wrexford sets out to find the real murderer, which leads him to A.J. Quill, a satirical cartoonist who seems to know every secret in London. Quill is actually Charlotte Sloane, a hard-working widow using her husband's penname to preserve the last vestiges of her respectability. When her husband's death also seems to be connected to the conspiracy surrounding Holworthy, they become equally passionately committed to solving the mystery.

This is a fun premise, and I admittedly was very interested in a book about the scientific circle of Regency London, but it didn't live up to my expectations. There's nothing wrong with it, exactly; it's just that everything here is such a cliche. We have the adorable street urchins with Cockney accents, the feisty heroine who nonetheless is impressed by the hero's power and honor, the grumpy Scottish doctor, devious French spies (even when their motivation is explicitly to support France's revolutionary society over Britain's classist aristocratic system, the French are always devious in a novel about how sexy and awesome the Regency was) and, of course, Wrexford himself: the hero who's just so smart that all of society bores him and so of course he's a jerk with a reputation for cynicism and 'biting wit'.

The writing itself isn't much better. Charlotte and Wrexford supposedly represent a clash of passion vs logic, but since Wrexford loses his temper and Charlotte hides her emotions just as often as the opposite, we're told this by the narrative rather than it arising naturally from the characters. For example:
“Mrs. Sloane?” Shadows tangled with the strands of black hair curling, making his face as shapeless as his rag market hat. “No protest? No demand to charge in where angels fear to tread?”
Charlotte wished she could see his expression. There was an undertone to his question that she couldn’t quite identify. “I know you think me ruled by impulse rather than logic—”
“Intuition, not impulse,” he corrected. “Which I’ve learned to respect. If you have an objection, I am willing to listen.”
“And I, sir, have learned to respect the way you use reason to attack a problem.”

So subtle! So natural! So not how human beings speak!

The writing in scenes between Charlotte and Wrexford often descends to trashy romance level (note: good romance writing also exists! But it generally avoids tired cliches like this), despite it not actually being a romance. Though I wouldn't be surprised if the series goes there in the future. More examples, from their first meeting:
A gentleman, not a ruffian from the stews.
She jerked her gaze upward.
Well-tailored wool, burnished ebony buttons. Shoulder capes that accentuated the breadth of his shoulders.
She took an involuntary step back.
He pulled off his hat and slapped it against his thigh, sending more drops of water flying through the air. Wind-whipped hair, dark as coal, tangled around his face. At first, all Charlotte could make out was a prominent nose, long and with an arrogant flare to its tip. But as he took another stride closer, the rest of his features snapped into sharper focus. A sensuous mouth, high cheekbones, green eyes, darkened with an undertone of gunmetal grey.
For a big man, he moved with feral quickness. A blur of wolf black, leaving the sensation of predatory muscle and primitive power pricking against her skin.
The earl’s face might well have been carved of granite. Not a muscle twitched. Shadows danced, dark on dark, through his long, curling hair. He appeared implacable, impervious to any appeal for mercy.
Charlotte knew she should have been repelled, but something about the hard-edged planes and sculpted contours of his features held her in thrall. There was a cold beauty to him, and she felt her fingers itch to take up her paintbrush and capture that chilling aura of a man in supreme command of his emotions.

And so on and so forth. Alas, I can't even say that I got much out of the scientific side of the book, since the mystery ultimately turns out to revolve around alchemy – also interesting, to be fair, but not what I came here for.

It's not a bad book, but with a thousand other mystery series out there, this one just isn't captivating enough to be worth more of my time.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

Mount TBR update: Still at 18

What are you currently reading?
Bears in the Street by by Lisa Dickey. A nonfiction travel book by Russia that I'm very interested in.

Date: 2017-05-31 09:56 pm (UTC)
osprey_archer: (Default)
From: [personal profile] osprey_archer
You mean that's not a romance novel? No one has sensuous lips outside of romance novels. I predict that they will get together by book three.

Date: 2017-05-31 10:52 pm (UTC)
evelyn_b: (Default)
From: [personal profile] evelyn_b

Man, I can't tell you how disappointed I would be if I thought a novel was going to be about Regency science culture and it turned out to be about ALCHEMY. :( And I agree with osprey_archer above, someone is clearly trying to summon sexual tension by invoking the cliches.
Edited Date: 2017-05-31 10:52 pm (UTC)

Date: 2017-06-01 02:56 am (UTC)
sovay: (Claude Rains)
From: [personal profile] sovay
For a big man, he moved with feral quickness. A blur of wolf black, leaving the sensation of predatory muscle and primitive power pricking against her skin.

Aaaaagh what.

That sounds very frustrating. I would happily read a mystery-romance starring a satirical cartoonist and a Regency chemistry nerd, except not this one.


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