Saturday, December 28, 2013

Review: The Handfasted Wife by Carol McGrath

What happened to Harold Godwinson’s first wife Edith Swaneck (or Elditha as she is known in this novel) after his tragic death during the 1066 Norman Conquest? Too often, women are merely a footnote in history and I love historical fiction which speculates about the unknown, untold stories of women in history. Instead of focusing on Elditha’s life leading up to the conquest, this novel explores the after events. How did this woman cope with losing her husband and the father of her children first to another woman and secondly to death and the Norman invasion? What was her fate and the fate of her children once they were in the hands of the enemy and what did she do improve their chances at safety and happiness?

On one hand, this approach certainly set it apart from other books focusing on the Norman Conquest and allowed for more creative freedom but on the other hand, it wound up being a little anti-climatic to focus on the events following 1066 rather than leading up to it. While the book was very eventful, I didn't really get a sense of the emotional turmoil both Elditha and others would have gone through upon learning the outcome of the Battle of Hastings, not on the scale I expected anyway. What should have been the biggest event of the book was quickly passed over in the beginning and while the following events were thrilling at times, without giving away any specific spoilers, they wound up being all for nothing. The efforts Elditha made to escape and keep her children safe were moot in the end and I struggled to understand how Elditha could abandon her children as many times as she did. Granted, she had many children and they were split up and she always left them in trusted care and sometimes she didn't have a choice - but sometimes she did and I just think if I had been her, I would be doing everything I could to remain with my most vulnerable children, whatever the cost to myself. When she finally attempted to extract one of them, she unnecessarily risked everything she'd spent half the novel accomplishing. So that was a little frustrating.

That said, it was very well written and researched. The dialogue and characters were realistic, even if I didn't always agree their decisions. It was written in third person, mostly from Elditha's point of view but also a few others. When it was told from a male point of view, it was still in relation to the women's world, as this is very much a story about women and we do not get to see the Battle of Hastings in action. The author had a lot of room to work with a creative license since soon after Hastings, Elditha disappears from records so her fate was open to lots of speculation and the author used her knowledge of the times to make believable assumptions. This is the first in a planned trilogy called Daughters of Hastings and I look forward to the second two which are to feature Elditha's daughters Gunnhild and "Thea" (renamed such in the novel because her real name, Gytha, would have caused confusion with more than one character named Gytha), I am interested to see what the author does with these characters.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Review: The Arnifour Affair by Gregory Harris

Received ARC from publisher via NetGalley.
Release date: January 28, 2014

The first in a planned series, this is pretty much a Holmes and Watson mystery with different names. Colin Pendragon is the eccentric and unorthodox but brilliant observationalist and private detective. Ethan Pruitt is the more down-to-earth medical sidekick and roommate who serves as narrator. While he makes a point of clarifying that he’s not a doctor, presumably in attempts to set him apart from Watson, he apparently picked up a lot of medical knowledge during his time as a drug addict in the slums. I’m not really sure how that equates to informally gaining some basic biological understanding but it was obvious the author did not want to lose Watson’s medical training entirely since it’s often beneficial during investigations. However, Pruitt’s fall from grace in the past certainly sets him apart from Watson more than not being a doctor does. Additionally, Pendragon abhors drug useage because of what it did to Pruitt and this sets him apart from Holmes.

There’s been suggestions of a homosexual relationship between Holmes and Watson and the author capitalizes on that with Pendragon and Pruitt. Nothing explicit, of course, but it’s clear from the beginning the two protagonists have a romantic relationship and I do wonder if this was the main reason for not simply writing another Holmes mystery, given that many Holmes fans would object to it.

The story opens around the “turn of the century” and after Pendragon and Pruitt have been together for twelve years already. This also fits with the timeline of Holmes and Watson, who met in 1881 so twelve years later would put us around 1893, roughly turn of the century.

Pendragon and Pruitt live together in a home in London maintained by their maid and cook, a grumpy old woman who I suppose is meant to be Mrs. Hudson. And their investigations mean they frequently clash with Inspector Varcoe, who may take the place of Doyle’s Inspector Lestrade.

On one hand, the fact that it was basically just a Sherlock Holmes novel with different names made it feel unoriginal but on the other hand, the fact that it’s not a Holmes story allowed for a little more creative freedom. It was well written and the dialogue was good, but every once and a while the characters would do something a little unrealistic or out of character. There's a lot going on with a main plot and a subplot which keeps the pace moving and makes it very readable.

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