“The Falcon at the Portal” Re-Read

Spoilery spoiler-words ahead, don’t read if you haven’t read the books.

The Falcon at the Portal by Elizabeth Peters

The Falcon at the Portal by Elizabeth Peters

The Falcon at the Portal is set during the 1911-1912 excavation season, and is really the set-up for the next book in the series. There are some fairly important events, chronologically speaking in the series, but it finishes on rather a loose end. There’s no real sense of resolution, despite the obvious villain being defeated and the danger removed.

The three most important developments of the book are David’s interest and involvement in the nationalist movement of Egypt, Ramses and Nefret finally admitting their love to each other (and the immediate tearing apart of there relationship by outside forces), and the advent of Sennia into the Emerson family.

David’s dedication to the cause of liberation for Egypt is hardly surprising given the character and the time period. He is a gentle soul, not really the sort for revolution, but he is also a man of strong moral character (as Amelia would say), intelligence, and some little pride. The patronizing, paternalistic tone of the British Colonial machine would chafe anyone, and David is no exception. He becomes involved with a movement, led by a man named Wardani, a charismatic and mysterious revolutionary. This involvement leads to some difficulties and brief doubts about David by the rest of the family.

Another bombshell is Ramses and Nefret’s love-story. For several books now, Ramses has been pining quietly for love of Nefret, who has been apparently un-aware of the depth of his feeling for her. Near the middle of the book, she finally discovers his desire and realizes she is of the same mind. They spend the night together, and determine to be married. Naturally, before they can tell anyone of this revelation, a bombshell is dropped on the family, sending Nefret running from Ramses in revulsion (believing him a rapist) and straight into the arms of another man whom she promptly marries in a fit of pique.

What is this bombshell you ask? Well, the advent of a new member of the family, Sennia. She is about 2 or 3 years old, the daughter of a teenaged Egyptian prostitute from the Red Blind District of Cairo. And she has the features (particularly the eyes) of Amelia. The girl’s pimp attempts to blackmail the family by accusing Ramses of fathering the child and abandoning her to the life of a prostitute like her mother. Amelia and the Professor toss him out, knowing Ramses would never do such a thing, and that Amelia’s scurrilous nephew Percy (who also lives in Egypt now) very much would. Naturally, the child, Sennia, is promptly added to the family, to be brought up by Amelia and Emerson (and Ramses and Nefret too).

Unfortunately, Nefret’s lack of faith in Ramses and her hasty marriage precipitates the family into their final show-down with the criminal they have been tracking for the whole book. She manages to marry the villain, though it’s only partially her fault. She was set up by the aforesaid scurrilous nephew, though only Ramses suspects Percey’s involvement. This setback  in the course of the Ramses and Nefret romance is incredibly frustrating as a reader. They were finally going to find happiness.

Rather than reading this one, I actually listened to it on audio-book, narrated by the amazing Barbara Rosenblat. I actually was first introduced to the Amelia Peabody series via audiobook, and Barbara’s voice has always been the voice of Amelia in my head. It was rather lovely to listen to it again, almost nostalgic in a way. Besides, she really is talented as a reader, giving each voice its own distinct pitch, timber, and intonation. She even manages to differentiate between the tone of the main point of view (Amelia’s) and the two subsidiary points-of-view (Manuscript H/Ramses and Letter Collection B/Nefret). This is noticeable, as The Falcon at the Portal has far more of Ramses and Nefret’s POV than any previous books, perhaps even half of it being not narrated by Amelia. As much as I adore Amelia, I do enjoy seeing her through Ramses eyes, and Nefret’s letters to her friend Lia are always entertaining (and in a few instances extremely poignant). The letter she writes between the time she and Ramses become lovers and when she discovers Ramses’ presumed guilt is gut-wrenching in the intensity of her love and happiness in that moment, especially in light of the disaster I know is approaching in a few short pages.

Another thing that happens in this book  (and really becomes a major plot device for all succeeding books)  is Amelia dreams of Abdullah. She dreams of him many times, usually whenever she is in doubt or difficulty. Always they stand on the cliffs overlooking the Valley of the Kings and Luxor just at dawn, and he always looks very young. He passes on mysterious hints and reassurances to her, most of which are proved true in succeeding pages. The dreams are sort of a interesting codicil into Abdullah and Amelia’s relationship, as well as another development of Amelia’s character. She is not exactly the superstitious sort, being particularly practical and skeptical. But she believes fervently in these dreams, and they bring her some comfort from her present difficulties, as well as allowing her a glimpse of her friend and the man who laid down his life for her (which does tend to forge a special bond).

The title of the book is taken from the final dream, in which Abdullah warns of troubled times ahead (detailed in the next two books) but says that “in the end, the clouds will blow away and the falcon (meaning Harakhte the Horus of the Dawn) will fly through the portal of the dawn.” It’s sort of an egyptianized variation of the saying “it is darkest just before the dawn.”

I Don’t Like Epic Fantasy

Today I read a thing that pretty much blew my mind. Elizabeth Bear posted something on her Tumblr in response (and agreement) to something else Scott Lynch had posted about Game of Thrones, and how it was basically a high-fantasy soap opera. Both posts are pretty brilliant, and you should click over to read the whole thing, but the part that really blew me away was this:

In fact, the long running soap opera is the modern equivalent of the newspaper serial or comic book or radio drama, and all of those are progenitors of epic fantasy as we know it today.

A story told in western 3 (or 5) act structure has one long peak with a series of quick up-and-down ticks in tension (rising and falling action, always trending upwards to the climax).

But the plot cycle in an epic fantasy or soap opera or serial is a series of overlapping sine waves. (One for each character or plot thread.) Each peak in each sine wave is one of those three-act structure peaks in miniature.

Here’s the thing, I’ve never enjoyed Epic Fantasy of the long-form variety. But I’ve never really been able to pinpoint why exactly. The only thing I could say was that I found them boring. I’ve also never enjoyed soap operas, long-running comic books (one-offs or short series are different) or serialized stories. It wasn’t until today that I finally realized exactly why, or how all these story forms were connected.

I get bored, and confused, with the sort of long-running, serialized, complicated story lines told in those types of fiction. Even when it’s a genre that I’m a passionate fan of (fantasy) I can’t really focus for that long. I’ve only ever really read two particularly long series (as opposed to interlocking short series and trilogies such as Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar). Those are by my two favorite authors, and my writing idols, Lois McMaster Bujold (Vorkosigan Saga) and Elizabeth Peters (Amelia Peabody). They’re a little different, structurally though. There IS an overarching narrative for both series, but each book can also be read as complete in itself (mostly), unlike the ongoing structure described in the quote above.

The only exception in this personal preference really is with non-western media, specifically anime and manga. I haven’t done an in-depth study or anything, so perhaps it’s simply a difference in narrative structure which appeals to me.

Anyway, these are the sorts of things I think about sometimes. Some people are introspective about their own lives, but I prefer to ponder on my many imaginary lives. 😉

Historical Accuracy, Representation and Ancient Egypt

I don’t talk about race much (not just here, but anywhere on the web). I don’t really feel qualified, despite reading and thinking a lot about race, because, well. I’m white. Whiter-than-white. White-bread white. I know enough to know that my understanding of racial issues is a second-hand one, so I usually feel it’s best for me to keep my trap shut and promote the words of more qualified (often under appreciated) speakers who are usually more eloquent on the subject than I am anyway.

However, there is one area which I do feel pretty qualified to talk about, even on the subject of race, and that’s Ancient Egypt. I’ve been studying it for half my life, first as a hobby and then professionally. I’m certainly not the foremost expert on it, but I’m knowledgeable enough to make reading historical fiction set in that time and place a bit difficult for me. Assuming I can find any in the first place of course. But when I do find a historical fiction or historical fantasy set in Ancient Egypt, I’m always hugely excited to get my hands on it, and usually somewhat disappointed by the end. But rarely am I angry. Everyone makes mistakes, and sometimes changes are made deliberately to facilitate the story. Reading fiction is all about suspension of disbelief. I do my best to just suspend my inner Historian and enjoy a well-told narrative. But sometimes the deliberate historical inaccuracies are Not Ok. Sometimes they are rage-inducingly Not Ok.

I (relatively) recently began listening the audio version of a book set in the same village as my own WIP. It was a historical fantasy with obvious magical elements, but I enjoy those when done well. This one had achieved a certain amount of acclaim, so I had high hopes, despite some scholarly differences with the version of the world as I encountered it in the first few pages. And then we got to the deal-breaker. A female character, one who the signs pointed to being the primary love-interest, was encountered by the main character. The female character was described as extraordinarily beautiful…and blonde and blue-eyed. She had a local name, and was heavily implied to be of local ancestry, but she was clearly being described as white.

Ancient Egyptians, like modern Egyptians, were brown and black people.

That’s all there is to it. I have never heard of an authentic case of an ancient egyptian being blonde haired or blue-eyed. Some of them had lighter brown hair, a few are believed to have had green or hazel eyes. But they’re people of color as we say now, not white. It’s doubtful the average Egyptian would even have SEEN very many truly pale people. Blonde hair and blue eyes would have been so unusual as to elicit not just comment, but probably also a certain amount of superstition and perhaps even suspicion.

There are two issues here, historical accuracy and representation. Both are tightly intertwined, but they are separate. To trounce on historical accuracy in order to take away some of the all-too-small percentage of representation enjoyed by people of color is really rather reprehensible. I didn’t actually continue listening to the book, but shut it off immediately in order to preserve my blood-vessels. Perhaps the author found a way to justify this deviation within the story. But I doubt he would have found a satisfactory justification for stealing representation from a dramatically under-served segment of the reading population.

Representation is important for it’s own sake too, even if you need to trounce on historical accuracy to achieve a wider range of it (which you usually don’t, for the record). Representation for oppressed and minority populations is hugely important, both for the people who are represented, and for everyone else. Stories tell us who we are as humans, and if we consistently see characters represented and portrayed in very narrow parameters, we start to believe that’s all there is to humanity in the real world. If you can’t see why this might be a bad thing for all concerned, then I’m afraid there’s not much else to say. We need a wide range of characters. People need to see themselves in stories, in a variety of positions. And people from the dominant groups in society need to see other people, people who don’t look like them, in a variety of stories. We need it as people, and as a species.

So, I will not be reading any more of this author’s work. I’m sorry I bought the audio-book, and feel like I wasted my money. Some authors deserve a second chance. Some don’t.

On the bright side, this did inspire me to work all the harder on my own novelization of this particular Ancient Egyptian village. Mine will be bigger, and better, and truer, and better at representing the amazing badassery of the villagers.

I hope.

When a Favorite Author Lets You Down

We (Readers) all have favorite authors, those people who wrote the books which speak to our soul or draw us in until we couldn’t put the book down even if our hair was on fire, or simply kept us entertained for the desired amount of time. Within that subset of authors, most of us have a further subset which could roughly be titled “Beg, Borrow and Read Everything They Publish.” Even if we have books by the authors on that list which we really didn’t care for, we’ll still eagerly await a new book, with the reasonable certainty that it’ll be a new favorite by the last chapter. After all, maybe they let us down once (or even more than that) but the statistics show that we just really click with their writing.

Every once in a while though, a Read Everything Favorite Author doesn’t just put out a book that you didn’t care for. Sometimes they really let you down, and the book is just objectively bad. Poorly written, poorly plotted, disappointing at the end, and generally less than enjoyable. The sort of book that leaves me thinking “I can’t believe I skipped sleep for this” when I put it down. This sort of thing is a risk with any book of course, but with a favorite author it’s usually less of a risk, so it feels like a bigger betrayal when it happens. Of course, because this is an All Time Favorite Author, I can always find an excuse (They’ve been writing that particular series a long time, they’ve had personal difficulties lately, they’re mid-career and not getting as stringent editing now, etc). I will far more easily forgive an unenjoyable reading experience from an author I’m already a fan of than from one I’ve never read before, or only read once or twice.

I recently had this experience. I read a book by a Favorite Author, set in one of the aforementioned Author’s worlds which I generally greatly enjoy. It is one I’d tried to read before (and thought I actually had, but I’m fairly sure I hadn’t, or else I blocked the memory of it because it was so bad). There were so many bad aspects. Plot contradictions within the same chapter. Sloppy editing, such as the use of “actually” twice in the same sentence. But the biggest let-down was the ending, which was definitely rushed and unsatisfactory. But at the end, all I could feel was sad. Sad that something I had looked forward to was such a disappointment. Sad that the book was attached to the name of an author who I love and respect, and someone might judge her entire body of work on said book. Sad that characters I enjoyed were shackled into such a poor frame.

Disappointment is a risk whenever you pick up any book. This uncertainty may be discouraging to some who steer clear of reading unfamiliar books entirely. I’ve certainly felt the pull of the “safe” route. But when we do that, we also miss the chance to be transported and transformed by a great new book. Books are a bit like roads that way. There’s no knowing where they’ll sweep you off to. But for all that, the wise Hobbit steps through the door anyhow.

“The Hippopotamus Pool” Re-Read

(There be spoilers in these ‘ere waters, aye. Read at ye’r own risk.)

'The Hippopotamus Pool' by Elizabeth Peters

‘The Hippopotamus Pool’ by Elizabeth Peters

At last we come to book 8, The Hippopotamus Pool. The name is a reference to the story of Apophis and Sekenenre. The tale, which Amelia is translating this season, is not especially relevant to this book except that it it set during the time of Queen Tetisheri whose tomb the Emersons are principally concerned with this season. They are in search of her tomb, having noticed an influx of objects bearing her name on the antiquities market, and the Professor is particularly anxious to save the tomb before more damage is done. This season, the entire family is on hand to help (or hinder as the case may be) the excavation. Even Walter and Evelyn eventually return to Egypt for the first time since they were married in book 1. They form part of the Emerson Excavation Team (not it’s official name, but that’s what it should be called!) as philologist and artist respectively.

At the beginning of this book, the elder Emersons are approached by a mysterious man who claims to be a reincarnation of a priest of Tetisheri. He offers to show them to her tomb in or der to preserve it, then is promptly kidnapped and murdered under the Professor’s nose before he can do so. Almost immediately, a man named Ricetti also approaches them. Ricetti, a hugely obese man whom Nefret refers to as the Hippopotamus Man, once ran the illegal antiquities trade in Egypt. He was driven out of business by Sethos, but with Sethos’ apparent death, he is now eager to reclaim his place, and apparently intends to do so by claiming the Queen’s Tomb. The Emerson’s rush to stop him, and eventually locate the tomb itself, which is almost undisturbed. This is rather a huge deal at the time, since no other undisturbed royal burials have been discovered yet (Tutankhamon’s famous tomb won’t be discovered for another two decades). Naturally, by now the Emersons are apparently contending with multiple gangs of thieves and interested parties whose attention is riveted by their unique find. Some of these people seem bent on helping them, and others are focused on harming various members of the family. Nefret herself garners a lot of attention due to a rather startling resemblance between her features and those of the images of Tetisheri. Eventually, both Ramses and Nefret are kidnapped within the same night. Amelia rescues Ramses with the help of Walter and Daoud, while Emerson is away in search of information. Nefret rescues herself with very little difficulty.

The most notable thing, from a series standpoint, of this book is the introduction of David Todros. David is one of my favorite characters, and his advent completes the young trio of friends (Ramses, Nefret, David). He is the grandson of Abdullah, but he has been raised by his drunken father and later an abusive “Master” who taught him to make fake antiquities for sale. David is prodigiously talented as an artist, and shows off his skills several times throughout the book. He runs away from his cruel master when the man beats him after a visit by the Emersons. The Professor had offered him sanctuary, should he care to come to them, since he would not live with his maternal grandfather’s family (he had been taught to hate them by the aforesaid drunken father). During his attempt to reach them, he is attacked and Ramses saves his life. The two are best friends, and blood brothers, from that moment forward. The rest of the family is a bit more skeptical of his loyalty at first, but he gradually earns everyone’s trust over the course of the book, and the elder Emerson’s adopt him as a foster son, much like they have Nefret. David is the first character of color to become a major and recurring character (his grandfather Abdullah has grown in importance over the last 8 books, but he is still mostly a supporting character). In the up-coming books, he adds unique and important viewpoints to the narratives. He’s also one of the most genuinely kind and loving of the characters. He has flaws of course, but he’s the gentlest of the family, next to Evelyn. Like I said, he’s one of my favorites.

The first half of this book is rather jarring in the way the Emersons interact with the other characters. The Professor behaves extremely high-handedly toward a great many native Egyptian characters, albeit only ones morally questionable. However much his behavior is historically accurate to turn-of-the-century Egypt, it’s a bit disturbing to see it laid so bare in a character who otherwise seems generally ahead of his time in many of his attitudes. Later, once he has what he wants, namely the tomb, he goes back to his general policy of “live and let live” with the rest of the population of Egypt.

Near the end of this book, we learn that one of the groups of thieves arrayed against the Emersons is lead by Bertha (who you may remember from The Snake, The Crocodile, and the Dog) who is now pregnant, and the leader of an all-woman antiquities-thieving gang. She still hates Amelia passionately, and Amelia still does not understand why (although she thinks she does). Another new character, Sir Edward Washington, rescues her from Bertha’s clutches, then abruptly disappears after a rather enigmatic comment about her being beloved by someone he admires greatly.

The tomb which is so central to the plot of this book is actually apocryphal. Tetisheri’s tomb has never been identified, and the tomb Peters writes about is primarily fictional (though probably based on actual tombs). Interestingly, there is a point in the book where a statue of Taweret is discovered within Tetisheri’s tomb, though it apparently was placed there by one of the thieves. Such a statue actually was discovered in a tomb in the area known as Dra Abu’l Naga, which is where the fictional tomb of Tetisheri is supposed to be. Granted, the book was written in 1996 and as far as I can ascertain the figure was discovered in 2008, but still. Perhaps it’s just one of life’s funny little coincidences.

Next Sunday (hopefully) we’ll be on to book 9, Seeing a Large Cat. It’s a sad book in some ways, but as wonderful as ever.

“Curtsies & Conspiracies”

(I haven’t finished The Hippopotamus Pool yet, so here’s another book I read this past month instead.)

'Curtsies & Conspiracies' by Gail Carriger

‘Curtsies & Conspiracies’ by Gail Carriger

Curtsies & Conspiracies is the second book in Gail Carriger’s YA Finishing School series. I’ve been waiting eagerly to read this one, and Santa answered my wish this past Christmas with a beautiful new copy under the tree. I read and reviewed the first one for Conjurings, a fantasy magazine, rather than this blog so those who haven’t yet read the first book may want to click away until they have the opportunity to do so as the two are rather closely tied together. I’ll try to avoid spoilers for this book as much as possible.

I had high expectations of this book, having greatly enjoyed the first Finishing School book. Nor was I disappointed. Sophronia returns, and we are led directly into her Finishing School Assessment. These are not so much to see if they’re ready to graduate, but rather to ensure they are continuing to progress in a manner the school finds satisfactory. Otherwise, they will be removed (but not, surprisingly, permanently). Naturally, Sophronia does exceedingly well, earning the apparent ire of her class-mates, even her best friend Dimity. Her nemesis, Monique, does so poorly that she is put on notice and told she had better just get married.

Sophronia is very lonely for the first part of the book while the other girls ostracize her, but this has the upside of making her spend more time with Soap. That relationship progresses rather confusingly for her, as he seems interested in more than friendship (even kissing her!). She enjoys the kissing, but refuses to become involved any deeper, resolving to throw herself into finishing properly rather than romantic enganglements. They are a bit young still at that, but I must admit I’m still rooting whole-heartedly for the Soap/Sophronia pairing. He loves her whole-heartedly, both in her lady-like aspects and her not-so-lady-like sneaky-pants aspects. In fact, he expects her to pull her weight in any escapade, rather than being startled when she does as some of the other males in the story do.

The second part of the book is taken up with the school visiting London, for a variety of reasons. Monique’s coming-out ball, is one. But the Vampire Professor is also required in London for a testing of a new sort of ship which flies very high in the aetherosphere. Certain parties want to see if it’s possible for vampires to survive in it, and the Professor is the only vampire with a moveable tether (i.e. the School itself). Meanwhile, someone is trying to kidnap Dimity and her brother, and no one is sure who or why. Sophronia initially suspects the Picklemen, but there are so many other interested parties it all becomes quite murky. We learn quite a bit more about the background of the Plumleigh-Teignmotts (and the reason for their ridiculous appelation), and Sophronia gets an education on vampire hives and London fashionable society.

Overall, Sophronia acquits herself well. She achieves most of her objectives, protects her friends and her school, and makes some head-way on understanding all the mysterious goings-on around her. She also learns that sometimes friends ask you to do morally reprehensible things without thinking it through. Of course, many of Sophronia’s friends are spies, assassins and evil geniuses. But she still has a conscience, and doesn’t believe everyone deserves her ‘professional’ attentions. My one concern is that she might go and fall in love with Viscount Mersey (Felix). He’s a pompous young ass at the beginning, but continued exposure to Sophronia begins to cure him of that. Still. I do hope they don’t become a pair.

Curtsies & Conspiracies is as full of delightful characters as any other Carriger book, with a few returning. One is especially exciting, Lord Akeldama! He doesn’t play a very large role, but there are some hints that he’ll be playing a larger role in Sophronia’s life in future books. It’s terribly exciting as Akeldama is one of my very favorite vampires.

If you haven’t yet, check out the Finishing School Tumblr, it’s highly amusing and there are some rather nice .gif sets on it that companion the books beautifully. Also, because it’s so very beautifully done, I must share the Japanese cover of Curtsies & Conspiracies. I found it really quite delightful.

Japanese Cover

Japanese Cover

Now we just await book three, Waistcoats & Weaponry. There’s no release date as of yet, but it appears Gail has finished writing it anyhow, so perhaps the launch will be sooner rather than later. Then again, the pace of traditional publishing does tend toward the glacial, so perhaps not.

“The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms”

'The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms' by N. K. Jemisin

‘The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms’ by N. K. Jemisin

I’ve been wanting to read some N.K. Jemisin fiction for a while, having heard that she wrote excellent fantasy with lots of diversity. I was finally able to get my hands on a copy of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, her debut and the first book in her Inheritance trilogy. I must say, it was quite an experience! I sat down to read a chapter or two before bed one night and my sleep schedule was borked for a week afterwards! I mean, I’m no stranger to reading a book in one sitting, but it’s been a while since a new book has so completely pulled me in as this one did. There are some rough spots in her execution, the sorts of things common in any debut, but they barely impinged on my single-minded focus in following Yeine Darr through her adventures with powerful magic and even more powerful angry gods.

The book starts out with Yeine traveling to a strange city. She has been summoned by the ruler of the known world, who is also her grandfather. Though the two have never met, there is no love lost between them, and he essentially sentences her to death by naming her heir, along with two more powerful cousins. She is forced to remain in the ruling city, inhabited only by the extensive ruling family, and their weapons of choice: a collection of vanquished and rebellious gods. Yeine’s brief (the story takes place over the course of a few days) stay among the Arameri family is frought with tension and conflict as her co-heirs scheme to defeat her at the ceremony and the enslaved gods scheme to gain her help in escaping their imprisonment.

Yeine’s story is complicated by the fact that she was not raised among the Arameri, her mother’s people, but among her father’s people, the Darr. The Darr are considered more savage than the Arameri (at least by the Arameri), but Yeine was their leader until she abdicated in order to obey her grandfather’s summons. She mourns the loss of her home and the people who actually care for her, and does her best to provide for them even though she is handicapped by politics. Her status as a half-breed and the fact that she takes after her father’s people who are much darker than the Arameri makes her stand out. She is by no means the only half-breed, just one of the highest-ranked within the city.

There is also a romance-thread, of sorts. Yeine is courted by the god of Death and Chaos and Darkness, one of the ones held in bondage to the Arameri. For her part, she begins to love the Dark God back, which is a sort of allegory for the fatalistic way she accepts her own inevitable death. She does not believe she can save herself, she fights only to protect her people after she is gone, and later to help free the gods who she had come to love.

Without giving anything away, the ending was entirely satisfactory and gives a smooth tie into the next book without leaving you hanging too much. I’m excited to read The Broken Kingdoms, but I’m not beating my head against the wall because I couldn’t check it out at the same time. That can be a bit of a two-edged sword for an author, but in this case I’m a little glad. I’ve honestly been a bit scared to read another Jemisin novel until I can get a solid 6 hour break during day-time to read it!

“The Lion in the Valley” Re-Read

Spoilery spoilers ahead! Proceed with caution! Awooooga!

'The Lion in the Valley' by Elizabeth Peters

‘The Lion in the Valley’ by Elizabeth Peters

The fourth Amelia Peabody Mystery, The Lion in the Valley, is almost a continuation of the previous book. We pick up where we left off in Amelia’s search for the nefarious Master Criminal, and they pick up their excavations at a site quite near their last season’s dig. For this year, they dig at Dahshoor, the Director of Antiquities graciously giving up his spot to them. Emerson takes all the credit for this rather surprising bit of charity (they are not on good terms with the Director), but Amelia strongly suspects her precocious son was instrumental in arranging this. This is one of those little subtextual things which Ramses does that makes us love him. How many 8-year-old boys would not only realize their mother lusted after pyramids, but then be able to procure them for her?

The Emerson’s return to Cairo is plagued almost immediately by mishaps. Ramses is kidnapped from his parents’ side atop the Great Pyramid (once upon a time, tourists used to be allowed to climb them, sadly). He is rescued almost immediately, but not by Amelia or her formidable husband. Rather, a stranger saves him and returns him to his parents. The stranger, though dressed as the poorest native beggar, is really a fallen Englishman and Emerson hires him on the spot as a caretaker for Ramses. The man is rather truculent, but accepts the position and gives his name only as Nemo.

Later that evening, a rich young heiress who Amelia had interested herself in, is abducted (or flees) from her room in the hotel and her presumed lover is found murdered among the sheets. Amid this cloud of mystery, the Emersons leave for their dig in Dahshoor, though Amelia is convinced the murderer is her old adversary, the Master Criminal. The murdered man was one of his confederates, and had been about to betray him!

Soon after their arrival, they are joined by a young lady claiming at first to be a student-egyptologist. She is in some distress, but Amelia sees through her “disguise” immediately and addresses her as Miss Debenham (the young society lady who vanished from her hotel room) in private. Determining to help the young lady, and her solve her mysterious troubles, Amelia sets about trying to uncover the murderer of the young lady’s presumed lover. She is convinced the notorious womanizer and antiquities thief was murdered by the Master Criminal because he intended to betray that shadowy figure (as it turns out, she was right). There are the usual amounts of Sturm und Drang, dead bodies, antiquities and history lessons as the Emersons proceed along the winding path toward solving their mysteries and discovering the identity of the man known by his criminal associates as Sethos.

This book begins to develop the friendship between Amelia and Abdullah, the Emerson’s Egyptian foreman (reis). Abdullah is in nearly every book until his death much later in the series, but in the first few he is rather interchangeable with any of the other native men, even sometimes a suspect himself in the nefarious goings-on. But now he is beginning to be an established recurring character, and we’re learnign more about him and his extended family (many of whom work for the Emersons and are considered friends). Abdullah himself has a strange relationship with her, partially loving and partially exasperated (rather mirroring the Professor’s feelings, but platonically, for Amelia). On Amelia’s part, this book really marks the point where she begins to feel affection and respect untinged with doubt for Abdullah. It’s also the book where he famously laments “Every year, another dead body!” for the first time.

The Lion in the Valley really explores jealousy and uncertainty on the part of the Professor. In a rather brilliant bit of writing, Peters conveys Sethos’ obvious infatuation with Amelia through her viewpoint, while making it equally clear that she does not quite realize such a thing is possible. The Professor clearly does, and it begins to wear on his nerves until the dramatic moment where Sethos kidnaps Amelia with the aim of forcing her to love him. This is when we finally meet the man as himself and not one of his many disguises (several of whom appear in the last two books). He is an interesting character, and his declaration after defeat that he’ll never bother them again is rather disappointing. Except, of course, he returns later in the series. But, more on that in later posts.

This book’s title is another Ancient Egyptian literary reference to an inscription of Ramses II. The relevant part is in the front of the book (a custom Peters adopts almost exclusively later in the series).

Lord of fear, great of fame,
In the hearts of all the lands.
Great of awe, rich in glory,
As is Set upon his mountain….
Like a wild lion in the valley of the goats.

The title is a clear reference to the revelation of the Master Criminal’s “identity” as Sethos, named after a Pharaoh who took his name from the god Set, who is the Lion in the valley of the Goats. This is a bit like the Ancient Egyptian equivalent of saying “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” and is certainly an apt description for the modern Sethos. He has built his criminal empire on being greatly feared and widely known by the criminal element of Cairo, even those not directly associated with his organization. It should also be noted (as Ramses points out) that Sethos I was the father of Ramses II (for whom Amelia’s son is nick-named). I’ve always believed this is a bit of foreshadowing on Peters’  part of revelations coming many many books later.

I’ve always enjoyed Lion, though this book’s particular set of “cursed young lovers” (Enid Debenham and Donald/Nemo) are rather tepid and a bit beside the point of the rest of the book. This book is really about Amelia’s relationships with The Professor, Sethos, and Abdullah. All three men are hugely important in her life, and Lion begins some of those relationships and develops others. It’s one of my favorite of the earlier books. But then, I have a weakness for Sethos!

Next week, I’ll be doing The Last Camel Died at Noon, skipping over The Deeds of the Disturber. I’m rather unfond of that book (and even skipped reading it in this re-read session), mainly because I loathe with passionate hatred Percy Peabody, Amelia’s noxious nephew who is introduced in the book. He is especially unbearable in Disturber as all the principle characters don’t yet realize his perfidy and he gets away with tormenting Ramses like the disgusting bully he is rather a lot.

I Was a Reader First…

So, I’m gonna do another post about current-internet-affairs  here. (Two in a row! *gasp* Weird, right?) Anyway, the last few days there’s been a certain amount of Twitter and blogosphere discussion about whether authors should negatively review other books. This is part of a recurring and ongoing discussion that pops up periodically over whether authors should write reviews about anything ever or just keep their goddamn mouths shut and smile for the birdy. Usually I don’t bother to weigh in on it, but it sort of occurred to me that as I’ve been writing more and more posts about the books I’m reading here, and since my first (and so far only) paid (theoretically) work has been for a book review, perhaps it’s time I did.

This particular discussion really crossed my radar because of two posts by two authors who I follow on Twitter, read their blogs, respect enormously, and generally like as people. They pretty well represent the opposing arguments here, in respectful and non-prescriptive fashion. Chuck Wendig wrote an “anti-negative-review” opinion and Jenny Trout wrote the “pro-negative-review” rebuttal. You should go check out what they have to say and then come back here, because I’m not going to rehash what they’ve already said so eloquently. So go on, I’ll wait.

Ok, you back? Good. Because I agree pretty much point-for-point with Jenny and disagree respectfully and only for myself with Chuck. I can get behind “authors shouldn’t review on Goodreads, or Amazon” or wherever else they’ll decide we shouldn’t express our opinions next. Those are privately-held sites and they can make whatever rules they’d like. Also, they are communities, and communities make rules for themselves, and the rest of us can either play by the rules, get drawn & quartered by the community, or just stay the hell away from it.

But the thing is, no one should be telling anyone else what they can post in their own space on the ‘net. This here blog? This is my little virtual house. Terrible Minds is Chuck Wendig’s, Whatever is John Scalzi’s, and Sweaters for Days is Jenny Trout’s. We all, regardless of our experience, professional standing, or career-choices, get to make the rules for our blogs/websites. We get to decorate them as we please, welcome or ban people as we please, and lay around in our underwear as we please and feel comfortable. If you came over to my real house and started telling me that you didn’t like the curtains and could I please put different clothes on because mine clashed with yours, then one of two things would happen. I would either laugh at you, or tell you to get the hell out of my house if you didn’t like it, depending on how much I liked you before you started trying to dictate my space to me.

Here in this space, on my blog, I am a writer (albeit in the very early stages of my career), but I am also a reader. I was a reader first, and looong before I ever even considered the notion of becoming a writer. I started reading when I was about three. Books spoke to my soul and provided a refuge when life got hard. They were my escape and my comfort, and I’ve always been grateful and a little bit in awe of the magic of books. When I got a bit older, about 7 or 8, I started to realize that these people called authors created books, they didn’t just pop out of the bookshelves like magic beans. I thought that was pretty amazing, and determined to give this peculiar sort of magic a try myself. Naturally, I failed miserably because I was 8 and didn’t realize that writing is a skill to be honed from raw talent, not just an innate part of who you are. So I returned to reading. I read and loved and loved and read, and I would certainly consider myself a fan of books in general. Now, anyone who has met a fan of anything knows that one of the things fans do is have opinions about the things they love. I’m no different. I have opinions about books because I love them, and I share those opinions in the hope of finding other people who love books enough to have opinions as well. And frankly, if that somehow tanks my writing career forever, well then it’s worth it to me. I love to write, and I’ll keep doing it, but reading is my first love and always will be.

Now, all that being said, I probably will rarely, if ever, post a truly negative review here. This is for the very simple reason that if I don’t enjoy a book, I don’t finish reading it. Reading is my hobby, my pleasure, and if I’m not enjoying it, it becomes rather pointless for me. I don’t really like reviewing books I haven’t finished, so it’s not real often that I’m going to write entirely negative reviews. The only thing which might induce me to do so would be if I ran across a book which I felt was dangerous (as opposed to one I just didn’t enjoy). Then I might talk about what I thought was wrong with it, and why I think people should only read it with a critical eye. Otherwise, I’ll just keep on writing about the books I enjoy, why I like them, and what problems they may have despite my enjoyment. Because it is perfectly possible to love a deeply flawed book (helloooo Ender’s Game), and I think it would be both dishonest and a disservice to my readers to ignore the problems with something just because I loved it.

So, that’s my opinion, and the train of thought which informs what I post here. Mr. Wendig is of course perfectly free to NOT post negative reviews on his site, and Jenny is totally within her rights to post reviews of things she really hated on her site. And no one should try to tell any of us that we’re “wrong” for doing so, just because we also happen to write fiction. Because Writer and Reader are not mutually exclusive occupations.

“The Elizabeth Stories”

'The Elizabeth Stories' by Isabel Huggan

‘The Elizabeth Stories’ by Isabel Huggan

I found The Elizabeth Stories by Isabel Huggan by accident in a used book store in Evanston on the recent vacation. I had a ladies’ day with a friend, and we went into a wonderful used book store just to browse. I found a few books, paid, then stood by the cash-register while waiting for my friend to finish. This one was in a box, and for some reason it caught my eye (perhaps it was the name? I’ve always had a love affair with ‘Elizabeth’). I read the back-cover blurb, then opened the first page. By the time my friend finished paying, I knew I had to take the book home so I could finish reading it.

The book is a series of short-stories about the childhood and adolescence of an unhappy young Canadian girl named Elizabeth. She spends her entire life yearning to escape from the constricted, 1950s life in her constricted little town. Her trials and tribulations are the normal sort of any reasonably well-off albeit awkward young girl, but told in such a raw and unflinching style as to be almost shocking. Following along in the head of the young Elizabeth through her first awkward, secret introductions to her own body, the darkness of the human soul, and the unfairness of the world, my heart raced and my lungs constricted with the intensity of the prose.

There are some problematic aspects of the book, both structurally and thematically. The layout of interconnected stories jumps around a bit in time, leading to a somewhat confusing picture of the sequence of events depicted. There’s also a certain sense of unfulfilled promise at the end. It leaves off with a final event before Elizabeth escapes her tiny town to college in the city, but many of the issues are never really resolved. There’s no resolution of her relationship with her parents, just the unbearable strain of unhappy people trapped by the bonds of blood left hanging in the air. Elizabeth’s sexuality is never fully allowed to blossom in the sunlight, with the tantalizing hints of a woman who wants for herself, and the suggestion of bisexuality in her early experimentation never spoken aloud. Most troubling is the monochromatic picture of race reflected in Elizabeth’s eyes. Differences are explored, especially social and class differences, but never the differences of race. The only mention of people of any color is when she lusts fleetingly after a black trumpet-player in the band at a city dance-hall.

Still, the book was definitely powerful, provocative, and compelling. It’s a slim book, not even 200 pages long, and I finished it all in one sitting. It’s the sort of book I may not re-read very often, but parts of it are sure to stick with me for quite some time.

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