Olivier Barde-Cabuçon, The Inspector of Strange and Unexplained Deaths (2020)

Author: Olivier Barde-Cabuçon

Title: The Inspector of Strange and Unexplained Deaths

Format: E-book

Pages: 384

Series: The Inspector of Strange and Unexplained Deaths #1

The Inspector of Strange and Unexplained Deaths, from now on TISUD for the sake of me finishing this review this year and you ever reading it in full, is the first instalment in a 7-book series, a recipient of a Prix Sang d’encre for 2012, and the only Barde-Cabuçon book currently translated to English. Published by Pushkin Vertigo imprint in their series of non-English mysteries and crime novels, it had earlier existed on the market under a probably less sellable but more faithful to the original title, Casanova and a Faceless Woman. So, if you’ve read Casanova, TISUD is not a sequel, but the same exact book, just republished 😉. Ooof. Since this book is about mysterious, mistaken and hidden identities, the whole affair with the English title is simply delightfully ironic.

TISUD is a historical crime novel, and a very peculiar one at that. It takes place in 1759 in decadent Paris, somewhere between the shiny halls of Versailles ruled by debauched Louis XV and his cohorts, and the dirty, dangerous hovels of Parisian suburbs inhabited by the desperate poor. The social climate is the most compelling character in this novel, as the general population of Paris is seething with resentment, misery and anger, and seems on a brink of revolution, while the decadent elites seem oblivious to both the inequity and the inherent risks (and since it’s historical fiction, TISUD gets this part to a t).

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Kate Elliott, Unconquerable Sun (2020)

Author: Kate Elliott

Title: Unconquerable Sun

Format: E-book

Pages: 528

Series: The Sun Chronicles #1

First of all, whoever came up with that snappy if misleading one-liner “Gender-swapped Alexander the Great in space,” was rather off the mark.

Yes, Unconquerable Sun does take place in a political environment reminiscent of the dynamic between ancient Macedonia, Greece and Persia. Yes, there are some details pointing to Elliot’s Alexandrian inspirations, such as snakes on Sun’s extravagant father’s clothing, a clear bow toward Alexander’s mother Olympias, or the explosive relationship between Sun and her mother Eirene, resembling that between Alexander and his father Phillip II. There are some hidden clues, such as a deficient sibling of the heir hidden away, or a host of concubines and wives, each with their own claim to the throne and a healthy dose of mistrust and rivalry toward each other. Will Elliott take the resemblances as far as the real story’s sad end? Considering the first installment, fizzling with YA vibes and a sense of youthful invincibility, I somehow rather doubt it. And anyway, Unconquerable Sun mostly tells the tale of Elliott’s fascination with Asian cultures: from very strong Chinese and Japanese influences to slightly more hidden Hinduist and even Mesopotamian elements.

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Michel Faber, D: A Tale of Two Worlds (2020)

Author: Michel Faber

Title: D: A Tale of Two Worlds

Format: E-book

Pages: 304

Series: –

Let me start by saying that I discovered, with some surprise, that I’m not the intended audience for this book: it’s definitely a children’s book, one of the few occasions where these distinctions do matter. D: A Tale of Two Worlds is full to bursting with good intentions and important issues, from the casualty of racism in modern England to the plight of immigrants from Africa, to xenophobia and post-truth and the power of words. And yet all of them are very much simplified, made slightly anecdotal and not really significant (with the exception of the disappearance of the letter D which becomes the catalyst for our protagonist’s journey) – more like inconveniences than some truly troubling issues. At the same time, it’s a bit of a self-indulgent book, delighting in taking barely concealed potshots at Trump, which for a young reader might be a tad confusing.

While Faber in the afterword indicates his inspirations – mainly Dickens, who even makes an appearance as a very old and eccentric history professor, but also Lewis’s Narnia, Thurber’s The Wonderful O and the Wonderland novels – I mostly felt that D: A Tale of Two Worlds was a modern twisted retelling of Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. It is not a bad thing in itself, but I expected a bit more originality from Faber.

But ad rem: Faber’s D: A Tale of Two Worlds is a story of a young girl, Dhikilo, who discovers one day that the letter D is disappearing from the world. Inexplicably, magically, the letter D is being stolen from the language, from books and speech – and with its disappearance, ideas and things whose name start with this letter, begin to change their meaning or to disappear as well. Dhikilo’s only hope is her retired history teacher, professor Dodderfeld, who’s dead. Or rather ea, in the new parlance.

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Madeline Miller, Circe (2018)

Author: Madeline Miller

Title: Circe

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 393

Series: –

Madeline Miller, of The Song of Achilles fame, decided to return to tried and true formula of retelling, embellishing and altering Greek myths to suit modern audiences. Armed with sharply evocative, melancholy writing style and selective empathy, Miller chose to tackle the story of Circe, daughter of Helios, one of the very few witches of Greek mythology, and one famous mostly for her encounter with wily Odysseus.

One thing I cannot deny this book is its ambition. It takes a lot of ambition, and plenty of guts, to take a third-rate character and from their point of view present – or rather rewrite – a huge portion of Greek mythology, its gods and its heroes. It’s a shrewd move, for who can say what Circe was really like? We know her only from the words of others – as a sorceress, a mistress of manipulation and transformation, and a cynical enemy of men, who in time is tamed by an even greater schemer, the cunning legendary trickster Odysseus. She is the maker of Scylla, the six-headed man-eating monster. She is the sister of Pasifae, who gave birth to the terrible Minotaur. As Helios’s daughter, she is counted among the Titans; as Perse’s daughter, she is often demoted to nymphs. Circe is a rare creature; only few in Greek mythology are known for magic as not an innate limited power but something akin to alchemy: dabbling in potions and herbs, speaking incantations, waving wands. Mythological Circe is proud and powerful; an absolute ruler on her island, served by a host of dryads and naiads.

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Marie Brennan, Driftwood (2020)

Driftwood

Author: Marie Brennan

Title: Driftwood

Format: E-book

Pages: 225

Series: –

Marie Brennan’s foray into a new fantastical world comes with a lot of promise, built upon her previous series, The Memoirs of Lady Trent. That series, of which the first installment, A Natural History of Dragons, was reviewed here, had been a huge success, thanks to a happy confluence of several factors: an audacious and likeable narrator/protagonist, Isabella Trent herself; the main topic of the narrative – dragons, for many the most beloved fantastical creatures of all; the alt-Victorian/Edwardian setting with all the requisite flowery embellishment of dialogue and narrative; and, last by not least, the wonderful illustrations by Todd Lockwood. So, if you’re reaching for Driftwood with expectations built upon your reading experiences with The Memoirs of Lady Trent, beware: Driftwood has nothing in common with Brennan’s earlier books.

Not to be splitting any literary hairs here, but Driftwood is not really a novel. It’s a series of short stories connected by the setting and the recurring character of Last. Some of the stories are in fact just vignettes, focused solely on worldbuilding and showcasing characters as specimens of a particular culture; some of the other are more robust, having a discernible plot and sometimes even clear evidence of character development within its bounds. There are big and little individual and social dramas, stories of sacrifice and discovery, various religions and all that’s in between. Scarcely any science at all, which is baffling only at the first sight. For as you enter deeper into Driftwood you start to realize that the whole concept is an elaborate impression of our world’s diminishing cultural diversity. That’s my take on it, at least. To my jaundiced eye, the book revolves predominantly around the highly abstract concept of Driftwood itself – a landfill of broken worlds, floating purposelessly and inevitably through mists toward their crushing demise. We get impressions of different cultures and beliefs, alive in one moment and dead in the next, as parts of their worlds are inexorably consumed by the ceaseless grind of entropy.

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