Review: Mother of Souls by Heather Rose Jones


Another beautiful installment of Heather Rose Jones’s Alpennia series, which  introduces us to composer Luzie Valorin and Serafina Talarico, a vidator who is blessed with the power to see fluctus but not invoke it. Serafina appeared briefly towards the end of the second book The Mystic Marriage, but here her story is taken up in full. Born in Italy to Ethiopian parents, she escapes a loveless marriage to pursue her study of thaumaturgy, lodging with Luzie, a widow and musician who struggles to make ends meet following the death of her husband.

All the other major characters from the previous books are also given their own stories and the book emerges as a complex weave of narratives, each subtly related but distinct in the way they represent different aspects of Alpennian life. And while the book doesn’t draw all the individual strands of the story to their conclusions, the ending is really satisfying and leaves you hankering for more. Having said that, I did feel that as more characters are thrown into the ensemble, there’s not always enough focus on each one. I feel the author might have gone for broke and even doubled the length of the book to deliver more insight into the lives and relationships of these characters who never fail to fascinate.

That, however, is just a grumble which proves how much I love this series. It’s expertly penned, the prose style is tense and concise, it’s convincing in terms of characterisation and you just find yourself completely absorbed by the whole idea of Alpennia and its mysterious inhabitants. Can’t wait for more.


Review – A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel


It takes nerves of steel to write a novel on the French Revolution. I can’t even begin to imagine how you’d approach such a project given the complex, ambiguous weave of personal and political motivations and relationships which contributed to this watershed in European history. On the other hand, it is an irresistibly dramatic subject: the  notion of an ideal which rots even as it takes root. And the very fact that the “reign of terror” was ultimately birthed by staid, middle class, respectable lawyers somehow prefigures the cold calculations of the Nazi death machine – the Nazis, it should be added, employed the guillotine during the second world war.

Hilary Mantel’s narrative is a dizzying, polyphonic masterpiece. Rather than isolating a single character and their perspective – as she does in the Thomas Cromwell trilogy – we hear from many characters caught up in this political maelstrom, their voices rising and fading in succession, sometimes blurring into each other. While the story pivots around the relationship between Desmouslins, Dantons and Robespierre, we encounter their wives and lovers, their families, business associates and relations, aristocrats, Jacobins and Girondistes. And the text itself has an almost collage-type structure, laced with reports from newspapers and pamphlets, the prose sometimes slipping into pure dramatic dialogue. It’s a chaotic, mind-bendingly complex narrative which sometimes seems to teeter on the brink of losing its form, but Mantel keeps it all together with virtuoso skill.

The narrative is punctured by a robust wit and an eye for irony which somehow deflates our notion of these men and women as icons or emblems – and allows the reader to encounter them on a very human level. Robespierre’s belief in his own value to the revolutionary project, for example, contributes to his failure to save his childhood friend Desmoulins from the guillotine, while Danton – orator and man of the people – is revealed to be permanently on the take, determined to make his fortune and get out of the revolution while the going’s good. Ultimately, of course, it is the revolution which devours him before he can make good his escape.

What I also really appreciated about the book is how many women’s voices we hear, whether it’s the frustration of female politicians such as Anne Theroigne and Madame Roland, straining against the misogyny of male revolutionaries, or wives and lovers – Lucile Desmoulins, Louise Gély and Eleanor Duplay. So often in narratives of the revolution, these are the voices which get suppressed and it becomes male-oriented. The historical role of women has gone unacknowledged, but Mantel brings their voices to the fore, emphasising their insecurities, their own private tragedies and their political influence.

This is a novel which drops you headfirst into Paris at the end of the eighteenth century without too much of a lifeline. But if you’re prepared to take on the challenge, it’s a book which absorbs and fascinates, which prompts you to research as you’re reading, and offers a sustained and intense insight into the minds behind one of the most frightening episodes in European history. Worth not one read, but many.

Review – “The Mystic Marriage” by Heather Rose Jones


You know that joy you have when you first discover what it means to read for pleasure as a kid? That sense of losing yourself in another person’s imagination, of finding yourself so invested in their characters that you’re willing them on: that they become, if only for a brief moment, part of the fabric of your own mental world? This is precisely the joy I experienced reading The Mystic Marriage, the sequel to Heather Rose Jones’ first novel in The Alpennia series, Daughter of Mystery.

Jones has created a society in which the strange and the recognisable collide – the gentility and brutality of the nineteenth century twinned with its fantasy other. And in that space of historical otherness miracles really do happen, alchemy is ‘the great art’ and the supernatural is seamlessly woven into the politics and culture of Alpennian life. And – even more amazingly – those seams don’t show. It’s testament to Jones’ skills as a researcher that her stories leap out the page at you with such immediacy that you begin to forget Alpennia is a made up nation – an imaginary central European state with one foot in the political machinations of the countries which surround it.

But then again, you don’t just read fantasy books to marvel at the realism of their projected landscapes. You encounter them and engage with them through their characters. And this time, the author sets up an unlikely pairing: scandalous, flighty Jeanne – Vicomtesse de Cherdillac – and the austere, tragic figure of Antuniet Chazillen, desperate to clear her family’s name after the dishonour brought upon it by her brother. Emotionally worlds apart, the two women gradually come to a position of mutual understanding, respect and love. Their stories are closely bound to those of Barbara and Margarit, the main characters from Daughter of Mystery – and as the disparate strands of narrative are drawn together, the novel unfolds at a breathtaking pace with the jeopardy piled on right up to the final pages. It’s spellbinding writing, propelling the reader into an adventure which never ceases to excite and entertain. Highly recommended.


Review – Daughter of Mystery by Heather Rose Jones


It’s quite hard to explain how much I loved this book. Let’s just say I’d already bought the sequel before finishing Daughter of Mystery simply because I knew I’d be paying another visit to Alpennia shortly.

The novel is an exquisitely crafted romance, deftly paced and with engaging characters, exciting enough to keep you turning the page, cerebral enough to get you thinking deeply about the culture and politics of the world – or rather the country – which Heather Rose Jones has created.

Set in an imaginary central European state at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the narrative pivots around the actions of two young women brought together by the stipulations of an old aristocrat’s will. The rules of social hierarchy seem an insurmountable barrier to their love, and yet Margarit – an ingénue and burfro or bourgeois – finds herself struggling to understand the feelings she develops for her armin or private duellist. The novel also explores by proxy the way in which women of this period were denied anything approaching a meaningful education or intellectual fulfilment and stimulation, forced into culturally ordained roles which proved restrictive and demeaning.

The fantasy element of this novel is fascinating. The working of miracles and invocation of saints carry beyond the realm of the mystical in Alpennian society, having a tangible impact on the everyday lives, the politics and the traditions of the nation. Margarit’s abilities as a vidator, capable both of perceiving and working miracles brings risk as much as privilege. In pursuing her scholarly interests, she finds herself plunged into a world of deceit and intrigue which threatens to destroy her and those she loves.

The world building is superlative – I never felt that I was being spoon-fed when I read this novel. The author fleshes out sufficient space for the reader to make sense of Alpennia as both a reflection of 19th century Europe and its ‘other’ – a realm of fantasy in which our awareness of religion and history might be turned on its head. The prose style both challenged and entertained, and I found myself unable to stop turning the pages as the narrative reached its climax. Which means I’m going to have to give it another read to pick up on anything I might have missed. But first I’m off to read The Mystic Marriage – part two of the Alpennia series.


Review – The Miniaturist – by Jessie Burton

Well its been a while since I was last able to get some reviews out, as I’ve been involved in various projects which have proved quite time consuming. But finally, summer is here and I hope to be posting regularly again!

So here’s a review of Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist.


It’s something of a truism to point out that historical fiction has been reappraised as a genre in recent years, with authors like Hilary Mantel, Emma Donoghue and Sarah Waters commanding the respect of critics and readers alike. What makes the new wave of historical fiction so special is the way it interrogates our relationship with the past. Rather than feeding us romantic, heroic, Walter Scott style narratives, contemporary authors look at history side on, inviting us to consider the minor narratives which are so often ignored or even annihilated by conventional readings of history. In particular, this includes a focus on the secret, the hidden and the repressed – on the way in which issues such as gender, sexuality and race interact with a general preconception of European/Western history as white, masculine and straight.

In this respect, Jessie Burton’s exquisite novel The Miniaturist is no exception. It is a story which the reader somehow unpeels or unwraps, each layer shedding yet more secrets. The literary equivalent of a Rembrandt or Vermeer, it is to the shadowy areas of Burton’s “canvas” that our eyes are drawn. What is it that the light is hiding? What ironies or subversions are hinted at?

It is 1686, and child bride Petronella Oortman marries into the Brandt household, her husband Johannes a wealthy Amsterdam merchant. Petronella (Nella) also encounters Johannes’ enigmatic sister Marin, whose piety and self-repression soon emerge as camouflage, enabling her to act out the role of a devout Protestant spinster. Bored and lonely, Nella sets about furnishing her dolls house – a wedding gift from Johannes – receiving parcels containing dolls and scaled down furniture from the mysterious Miniaturist. As the story unfolds, it seems that the Miniaturist has an uncanny knack of predicting – or possibly even controlling – the lives of the real house’s inhabitants.

The Miniaturist reveals how, even in  the most repressive of environments, space can be found for autonomy and self-awareness. The Miniaturist’s first message to Nella insists that she can challenge those conventions which restrict her as a woman and as a wife: “Every woman is the architect of her own fortune.” As readers, we might anticipate Nella’s emergence as that stock character in historical fiction: a romantic figure who finds release through love. Instead, this is a journey into independence and freedom. As the world about her starts to disintegrate, she becomes stronger, increasingly resilient and resourceful. In short, she becomes herself.

Just a joy to read. Perfectly paced, The Minaturist yields its secrets one by one, couched in a sinuous, lyrical prose. A beautiful book.


Review – “His Bloody Project” by Graeme Macrae Burnet


Although I finished this book several days ago, it’s taken me some time to sit down and write a review. The reason for this is that it’s hard to register the impact of His Bloody Project until you’ve allowed the novel to really seep into your skin. It’s not so much the story we encounter on the page that makes this such a fascinating read, as the questions which that story leaves in its wake. That’s why I decided to consider my response to the narrative for a while before putting fingers to keyboard.

His Bloody Project is not a narrative which sits comfortably in any particular genre. While ostensibly a work of historical fiction, it is conceived as an investigation into the real murder of three members of a crofting family in the Scottish Highlands. The story is first presented in witness statements and through an account provided by Roderick Macrae, a seventeen year old crofter accused of the murders. Then come reports following Macrae’s trial, the verdict and its aftermath. This approach serves to immerse the reader not only in the tragedy itself, but also in the dying culture of the highland crofters who eke out an almost feudal existence in stark contrast to the industrialisation and capitalism surrounding them.

For me, this was one of the book’s greatest strengths and in this respect it feeds into current debates as to whether Scottish literature can or ought to be considered in any respect postcolonial. Roddy’s narration of his life up to the point of the murders serves as far more than a sensationalised account of a brutal crime. It reveals the severe hardships and pressures of a people still clinging to their traditions and ancient ties of kinship – a way of life which by this period had been forgotten in most other parts of the United Kingdom. It also reveals the way in which the complexities of the clan system and highland culture are misunderstood by outsiders who regard the crofters as primitive and savage in the same way that Victorian imperialists would regard subaltern cultures in other parts of the British empire as barbaric, thereby justifying the entire imperial project as one of ‘civilisation.’ This perspective is embodied in the figure of James Bruce Thomson, a genuine pioneer in the field of criminology and criminal psychology, who attempts to categorise Roddy and his community while failing to truly engage with them; his claims to be an objective man of science are undermined by his own arrogant assumptions and personal bias. As such, his representation of croft life reflects imperialist narratives of progress and evolution: “It is a shameful truth,” claims Thomson, “that the lower tribes of our country continue to exist in a state barely higher than livestock, deficient in the will to self-improvement which has brought progress to our southern regions.”

Roderick Macrae proves resistant to Thomson’s reductive narratives however, just as he slips through the pages of His Bloody Project without ever fully revealing himself to the reader. We learn from various sources that he is the most gifted, intelligent student at his local school, but that his father refuses to allow him to leave the croft for a better life. We know that he has an almost obsessive relationship with his older sister Jetta, that he is furious with the local constable Lachlan Mackenzie for the way he bullies the Macrae family, and that Roderick develops another obsessive longing for Mackenzie’s daughter, Flora. As the story unravels, however, the reader discovers that Roddy’s account of the events leading up to the murders is remarkable as much for what it conceals as for what it reveals.

Initially, when I finished reading this book, I felt as if I needed a greater sense of conclusion. It occurred to me, however, that Burnet probably wants to leave the final judgement of Roderick Macrae in the hands of the reader. And I think this is what gives the book its real power: it’s a story which continues to retell itself, long after you’ve finished the last page. This is a book which takes on a life of its own, and its impact rests in its ambiguity. Simply brilliant.