Tag Archives: mystery

Review: Sovereign

Sovereign by C.J. Sansom
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s taken me years to get around to reading this, and having finished, I’m left with one inescapable thought: Why did it take me so long?

Matthew Shardlake and his trusty sidekick Jack Barak are off to York with the Royal Progress. King Henry is intending to to prod some serious Yorkshire buttock, and Shardlake is along to help with the legal petitions. He has also been given the task of ensuring the health and welfare of an accused traitor, who is being brought back to London for “questioning”.

Pretty soon, it’s clear that something is rotten in the county of Yorkshire (other than the King’s ulcerated leg, and the bits of traitor still nailed up over the gates), and before the tale is done, there are murders, attempted murders, lies, betrayals, seductions, narrow escapes, and celebrity gossip.

Shardlake and Barak make a good team, even though they don’t always see eye to eye, and Sansom is obviously moving their story on: this is a good thing, as it’s always vaguely unsatisfactory when the main characters’ lives never change, despite what’s happening around them.

Sansom also manages to get the paranoid atmosphere of Tudor England under the latter part of Henry VIII’s reign: an increasingly tyrannical and unstable king with nearly absolute power. Religion and politics inextricably linked. The danger that a wrong word or look to the wrong person in the wrong place, and someone might end up in the Tower of London however innocent they might be.

This series is going from strength to strength, and I will definitely be reading the rest of it.

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Review: Spell Blind

Spell Blind
Spell Blind by David B. Coe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I knew I was going to enjoy this book within the first couple of pages; with a hiatus for doing work, I stayed up late to finish it.

Justis (Jay) Fearsson is an ex-cop turned PI, and his ability to do magic is not only an advantage in his line of work, but also the reason why he’s ex-, rather than just cop. Magic has a pretty steep price, but Fearsson is willing to pay it, and keep paying. This was one of the things I really enjoyed about the book – the ability to do magic was almost an addiction. Fearsson pursues magic even though he knows what it will do to him eventually – but, to him (though not to some others) it’s worth the price.

A serial killer who is also a powerful weremyste (sorcerer) is on the loose, killing a person every moon. Fearsson worked the case while he was a cop; his ex-partner, still on the case, needs his input when there is a new murder.

The action plays out over a few days, with much excitement and danger, and an increasing awareness that Fearsson is in way over his head (of course, it wouldn’t be a very exciting novel if he wasn’t).

Fearsson’s love interest, I liked. Other reviewer(s) didn’t, but I found her to be exactly the sort of woman who would do well with him: smart, driven, honourable, and not willing to take any crap from him or anyone else, but also capable of having fun. She’s got her own priorities, and (thank you, David B. Coe) she doesn’t gratuitously interfere in Fearsson’s investigation or put herself or him in danger through being an idiot.

For that matter, Fearsson’s ex-partner, Kona (nicknamed after the coffee, because that’s what she always drinks) Shaw, was another great character. One thing I particularly appreciated was that Coe has a gay black policewoman without waving a big flag saying “Hey! Diversity credentials!” Kona is who she is, and the most important thing about her is that she’s a really good policewoman and a really good friend to Fearsson – not her race or her sexuality, which are very much in the background. She’s in the book to do her job, not to be a representative character.

Coe also managed the ending very well. I was wondering how he would do it, given how deep the doo-doo was in which Fearsson was swimming/drowning. Since there’s a second book in the series, it’s obvious that he must survive – but how? The way Coe did it, in the end, I found was very satisfying – no massive stroke of luck, no sudden wild inspiration, “It’s a million-to-one chance but it might just work…” Just… a good way of doing it.

So, all in all, an excellent start to a series. I’m going to start reading the second book, His Father’s Eyes, which just came out recently. I want to know what happens next…

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Strong Poison, by Dorothy L. Sayers

Strong Poison

Strong Poison, by Dorothy L. Sayers

Strong Poison is the fifth of Dorothy L. Sayers’ full-length murder-mystery novels featuring aristocratic amateur detective Lord Peter Wimsey. This is the novel in which he meets the love of his life, Harriet Vane, under adverse circumstances – she is being tried for the murder of her lover.

Lord Peter is convinced that Harriet is innocent, but unfortunately he is the only person (other than Harriet herself) to think so; indeed, the evidence is overwhelming. But Lord Peter is determined to prove Harriet innocent, and to woo her at the same time.

Both of this objectives turn out to be rather difficult; the real murderer is diabolically clever, and Harriet herself has been hurt by her appalling lover (a young man whom I consider to be very much better off dead) and by her ordeal. Lord Peter’s proposal falls sadly flat: it’s only one of many she’s had since she was arrested, since notoriety is attractive to some. Her opinion of men, therefore, would require deep-shaft mining equipment to be lower, and her opinion of herself is hardly better.

I’ve read this book many times; it’s one of my favourites in the series. Not only is Sayers’ plotting beautifully, devilishly, clever, but she is an excellent writer of character. Lord Peter comes across as rather dramatic and affected, but as you get to know him, you realise it’s mostly a pose to hide his real feelings from the world. After all, if the world is going to laugh at him, he is damn well going to be in control of what they laugh at, and when.

Harriet, on the other hand, is a clever, middle-class young woman who got involved with a young man who tricked her into becoming his lover – in a society where sex before marriage was still shocking – by declaring that he, an avant garde novelist, didn’t believe in marriage. Now she’s agreed, and damned herself into the eyes of society thereby, he is ready to reward her sacrifice with marriage. She sees right through his hypocrisy and dumps him, thus beginning the chain of events that ends with her in the dock.

The pair of them are real, complex people. They’ve both been hurt in the past; they’re both ferociously intelligent (Sayers herself was one of the first female Oxford graduates, and she does the reader the courtesy of assuming they are just as intelligent as she and her characters are) and they’re both proud, although of different things. They are clearly drawn to each other, but Harriet can’t bring herself to trust anyone, certainly not someone to whom she owes a debt of gratitude. Right from the beginning, though, you know that they are meant for each other – it’s a union of minds, not a union of bodies. It’s a refreshing change from so many of today’s novels where lust takes the place of love, and authors write characters who are physically attracted to each other but seem to pay no attention to each other’s personalities.

Anyone, moreover, who expects that Harriet will fall into Peter’s arms at the end of the book is doomed to disappointment: why would she? She has her life back, given to her by Peter, but does that mean that he now has the right to dictate how she will spend it? No, it does not, and Harriet is determined to make sure he – and everyone else – knows that. Poor Peter is going to have to do a lot more digging, and Harriet is going to have to forgive him for being the person to get her out of a humiliating hole – and forgive herself for being fool enough to fall in love with an unworthy man, which got her into the hole in the first place – before she can regain the emotional strength and equilibrium to make a new start.

Harriet and Peter are real; they are hurt, and they occasionally hurt each other, either intentionally or accidentally. They each want what the relationship promises, but they are also afraid of it. Their relationship begins badly on both sides, and it takes a long time for them to repair the damage. And we get to see it happen, not in one book, because it’s too complex a process for that – such problems are not so easy to solve. It takes several books, but the wait is worth it.

The Lord Peter Wimsey books are classics of detective fiction; it was first published in 1930 and is still in print. How many of today’s novels will still be in print in seventy years’ time? But unlike many classics, Lord Peter has stood the test of time. Yes, in some ways he is dated – the way he speaks, the way he dresses, his whole world, is gone. But his humanity, the relationships he has with his beloved (eccentric) mother the Dowager Duchess, his huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ older brother the Duke of Denver and the appalling Helen, the Duchess; his valet – not only manservant but also right-hand-man and, in a way, trusted friend – these are still very relevant.

The Lord Peter Wimsey books are some of my favourites; I’ve read all of them over and over. If you like a well-written story with excellent characterisation and some fiendish plotting, then you will enjoy these books too.

The Chocolatier’s Wife, by Cindy Lynn Speer

The Chocolatier's Wife

The Chocolatier’s Wife

Tasmin and William live in a country where marriages are arranged by magic: at birth, a spell is cast to see if the child’s most suitable mate has been born yet. If they have, the parents make contact. If not, the spell is repeated yearly. After seven years, William’s future wife has been born – unfortunately, he lives in the nearly-unmagical south, and she lives in the magical north.

Despite the fact that neither of their families are happy with the match (the author has a certain amount of fun with the fact that the north and south of the country – which were once divided by war – each believe almost identical evil things of each other) Tasmin and William exchange letters throughout their youth. We get to read the letters throughout the story, so you do have to get used to a bit of back-and-forthing in time, but it’s a good touch which helps us to get to know the two main characters. William is a merchant sea captain in his family’s business; Tasmin is a herb-witch with a possible high-status future in front of her at the university – but only if she manages to get out of the betrothal to William.

Then William gives up his position in the family business and buys a shop intending to sell chocolate. Swiftly after that – within the first week of the shop opening – he is accused of the murder-by-chocolate of the local bishop. When Tasmin’s family hear about this, they are thrilled – of course this is a reason to repudiate the betrothal. Tasmin, however, immediately packs her bags and leaves for the south to support William and try to find out who the real killer is.

There are many ways that this scenario could have been written; as it is, in many ways this is more of a love story than anything else. There are many issues that the author touches upon: arranged marriage (the advantages and disadvantages of), the problem of being married to someone you hardly know (even if you do know that s/he is your best match), and the problems of infertility in a society that values the ability to pass on property ‘down the line’. There is deceit, and the question of what is honourable conduct. However, I never really doubted that Tasmin and William would win through in the end. This is not a book that puts you through the emotional wringer. Nor is it particularly deep. But it’s a pleasant read and the author has constructed an original setting. I enjoyed it, and I’ve now read it more than once. I’ll almost certainly read it again.

Thieftaker by D.B. Jackson

Thieftaker, by D.B. Jackson

Thieftaker, by D.B. Jackson

Thieftaker is the first book in a series by D.B. Jackson, introducing eighteenth-century Boston thieftaker Ethan Kaille. In the absence of a police force, if a citizen wants a thief, or stolen goods, found, then they must employ a thieftaker. Kaille, however, does not rely merely on traditional legwork – he can do magic.

Unlike many magic-is-real urban fantasy settings, this alternate 1767 Boston does not seem to have magic-users and magical beings all over the place. Magic-users – conjurers – are not common, and they risk being arrested and convicted of witchcraft by the church. Kaille understandably keeps quiet about his gift, although it’s clear that quite a few people know about it all the same. Obviously the church isn’t too zealous in hunting conjurers down, or he’d be dead.

The current case revolves around the seemingly senseless death-by-magic of a rich young woman who was, for reasons unknown, out in the street during one of the riots due to the Stamp Act. It’s clear that she was killed by a powerful conjurer, but who might this be, and why was she killed? And were other possibly-mysterious deaths related? And, again, why?

In the course of pursuing this case, Kaille gets repeatedly beaten up, kidnapped, threatened, etc. Although conjurers have the ability to heal themselves, the man must have a constitution of iron and the courage of a lion to make it to the end of the book without deciding to retire from thieftaking and take up some nice, safe, boring occupation like alligator dentistry.

The author is a historian, and he has consulted other historians in the writing of the book. The setting felt real; however, it is neither overloaded with unnecessary detail (meant to impress on the reader that the author Knows His Stuff) nor so lacking in detail that it felt bland. I was worried that the book might not make sense to someone who didn’t know the period, but I needn’t have worried. Although knowing what the Stamp Act actually was would have helped, just accepting that it was important to the characters was enough since it was only background, and not part of the plot.

On the down side, some of the dialogue was a little modern (I’m pretty sure people didn’t say ‘hi’ in the eighteenth century), but I’m against the use of deliberately ‘archaic’ speech patterns in novels – I think it causes more interference with the reader’s enjoyment of the book than it increases authenticity. I prefer to read dialogue I can just absorb rather than something I have to decode.

Although the book had a slow start for me, and I wasn’t sure whether I was going to like Kaille enough to devote my evening to his problems, in the end he grew on me. I read the book pretty much in one sitting, and did not find myself stopping reading to do something aimless. I even carried on reading through dinner, which is one of my yardsticks of is-this-a-good-book (you can keep any comments on my table manners to yourself, thank you). So I will definitely be looking out for the second one in the series.

If you like urban fantasy, with fairly low-key magic in a historically realistic setting, then you’ll probably enjoy this book.