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Musing on Books
by Michelle West

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, by Stuart Turton, HarperCollins, 2018, $24.99, hc.

The Sisters of the Winter Wood, by Rena Rossner, Redhook, 2018, $27, hc.

The Vampire Gideon's Suicide Hotline & Halfway House for Orphaned Girls, by Andrew Katz, Lanternfish Press, 2018, $16, tpb.

A Study in Scarlet Women, by Sherry Thomas, Berkley, 2016, $15, tpb.

The Hollow of Fear, by Sherry Thomas, Berkley, 2018, $15, tpb.

 

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle opens with a man shouting a woman's name, and then realizing, as the name leaves his lips, that he doesn't know why. He doesn't know Anna, the name he shouted. He doesn't, in fact, know anything at all about himself. He's in a forest, he's confused and afraid. He hears a woman scream for help, and he freezes in panic before he turns in the direction of that voice—and in the direction of the gun shot that follows it. Thirty seconds of inactivity, of panic and confusion, and someone is dead.

Wracked with guilt, shuddering with cold, he's only barely aware that someone is stepping in behind him; that someone slides something into his pocket, mutters a direction, and disappears before he can turn around. He stumbles his way toward the lights of a building, panicked, calling for help because someone has been murdered in the woods.

He discovers that he's a guest. That his name is Sebastian Bell. He doesn't remember anything about being Sebastian Bell. It's assumed that shock has caused the memory loss; he's been told that it's likely temporary. He has friends he no longer recognizes—they recognize him—but his concern is that the murder will go undetected. Not surprisingly, his friends treat him as if he has lost a good portion of his mind. There is pity, sympathy, awkwardness.

He is visited by a man in a mask—a man he thereafter refers to as the Plague Doctor. Eventually, this unnamed man will tell him the truth of his existence and his presence in the Hardcastle manor: A woman is going to be murdered. Sebastian is trapped in this manor house, with all of its attendant guests, until he can solve the murder, find the murderer, and bring proof that his hypothesis is correct.

He will have eight days in which to do this—eight days, said days repeating with one very interesting variant: he does not approach the same day as the same person. On the first day, he is Sebastian Bell. And on subsequent days? He will take on the role and the body of a different guest. If he fails to solve the puzzle, he is doomed to be trapped here—and he has an opponent who has the exact same goal, but he has no idea who that opponent is. It's a first-come, first-served solution; either he finds out first, or his opponent does. Only one can leave.

He learns, as he begins his eight-day race—that the events he has seen as Sebastian occur in the same way for the people he inhabits the next time through. He has knowledge of what happens because he's lived it once. But he also learns that if he is operating behind the mask of the person he now inhabits, some essential part of who they are leaks through; his approach to situations changes depending on who he is. His goals don't change, but his motivations, and how he handles those motivations, his impulses and his realization that those impulses are not entirely intellectually his own, do. I found this one of the most interesting things Turton did, because a couple of the characters he inhabits are characters you would never want to be. Or at least that I would never want to be. It brings up, indirectly, questions about personality; about emotion vs. intellect; about nature vs. nurture.

The repeats also add the nuance of context, and the way knowledge can change understanding; more knowledge applied to the same small event makes one understand just how much of a ripple that so-called small event causes.

It's difficult to talk about the things that really worked for me in this book without spoiling a great deal of the book. Since the title is pretty much a huge spoiler, I will say that you don't get to see the first of the seven deaths until a fair ways into the book. You get to see a lot of Sebastian's confusion and attempt to get a grip on his purpose. And you do get to meet the Anna whose name he shouted.

Stuart Turton has given us a terrific example of the prisoner's dilemma.

But there are many questions that arise—not so much about the murder mystery at its core, or the very oddly broken way in which it is solved, but rather, about the world this particularly interesting prison inhabits. Who is the Plague Doctor? What does the world outside of this perpetual single day look like? If the characters do somehow manage to escape, what do they escape to?

There's room for a sequel—but it would be so entirely unlike this book, I'm not sure how it would fly. Regardless, I found it absorbing, interesting, compelling. Definitely worth the read.

 

*   *   *

 

The Sisters of the Winter Wood, by Rena Rossner, is a totally different sort of book. Where Turton's is twisty and increasingly bloody, Rossner's book is told on a much smaller scale; the characters do not magically become different people over the course of the same repeating day.

They do, however, physically transform; but I'm getting slightly ahead of myself.

Liba and Laya are sisters. Their father, their Tati, is Jewish; their mother was a gentile before she met and married her husband, and she is still considered—realistically, given their small town life in Dubossary—an outsider. This book is grounded in the Europe of the early 1900s, but with very strong fantasy elements. Fairy-tale elements.

Liba is the older of the two sisters. Her viewpoint is the traditional viewpoint. She is the daughter of a devoutly religious and respected man, in an era where girls are not generally highly educated. She adores her father, respects him, and spends time with him, getting the education that isn't formally offered.

Laya is the younger. She is flighty, dreamy, inward looking in an entirely different way from her more grounded, pragmatic sister. All of her sections, in this alternating viewpoint book, are written in blank verse. I know some people will find this an affectation, but the two contrasting styles really worked for me. The blank verse is good.

The two styles—one grounded, one more impressionistic and emotional, suit their personalities; they suit the fantasy elements of who the girls, physically, are.

The two sisters are very close. This doesn't mean they don't argue or don't disagree, because sisters do, at least in my experience. But they discover that their differences are not only skin deep. Liba is the daughter of a sentient bear and a sentient swan. Laya, however, is a half-sister; daughter to two swans.

Their father is called home to the family he walked away from, because his father is dying. Liba didn't even know they had a living grandfather, because when her grandfather refused to accept their Mami, her father cut off all ties with his kin. But it's Mami who insists that their father return to his own family, because he will regret remaining behind. And their father doesn't want to go if she isn't with him, because it will be too easy to fall back into old ways and habits.

So, in the end, both of their parents go. The girls are old enough to be on their own for a short while, and the dangers on the road have been increasing.

It is in the absence of their parents that the girls individually begin to face the truth of their different heritages. And it's in the absence of parents that they begin to wonder about love, family, marriage. Mostly love. But war is coming, and Liba's people—the non-supernatural people—are about to be tested. It's not safe to be Jewish, and it will become substantially less safe with the passage of pages, of time, the march of the history that forms a backdrop to the book itself.

I really enjoyed this one. I could have done with a bit less adolescent angst, but at the same time, it felt very true to me, even if I'm admittedly fairly far from that adolescence. I also think that people who only read YAs would find much to enjoy in the book, although it's not published as YA.

 

*   *   *

 

The Vampire Gideon's Suicide Hotline & Halfway House for Orphaned Girls has a title that is pretty accurate in a variety of ways. It implies a certain humor, and it describes somewhat accurately the contents of Andrew Katz's novel.

Gideon, the vampire of the title, does indeed run a private suicide hotline. People who are desperate phone it, because, well, suicide hotline. Phone call of last resort. He answers calls in a basement that is suited for people who turn to dust in sunlight, and yes, a wooden stake through the heart would be fatal.

Unfortunately, becoming a vampire has not really made Gideon's ability to interact with people all that impressive. His goal is to somehow reach out to the desperate, the lonely, and the suicidal, because as a vampire, he knows something about death. Or undeath. And he believes that death is vastly worse, in his experience, than life.

And he pretty much tells everyone who calls exactly this: He's a vampire. So he knows death.

When confronted with someone on a line of last resort, people generally feel they're being heavily trolled or mocked, which is not why they called. But a few intrepid, or desperate, people continue to speak with him anyway. Most don't. I don't think Gideon actually understands why they don't take his above-board and true pronouncements as facts. You might think this is because he's a vampire, but no. Gideon's transformation from human to vampire pretty much left Gideon intact.

I picked this book up because it sounded like it was right up my alley. One of Gideon's callers is an abused teenage girl. He visits her in person, and takes away the person who is abusing her. Problem solved. Plus, he's a vampire and he needs to eat, and he makes a habit of eating Bad People. Because he does have a conscience, and eating good people would upset him and make him feel guilty.

But…it's a problem solved in a particular, Gideon-like way: He thinks only of the direct abuse Margie has suffered, in a very narrowly focused range, and not the rest of the consequences. She is a minor. She is not the technical renter of the run-down apartment in which she was living with her abusive foster father. The bills aren't being paid and she can't just open up accounts for herself because she's underage.

Gideon defines the words "over-focused." But something about Margie is compelling, and in the end, he offers her a place to stay. With him.

Gideon is not a Twilight Vampire. He has things to say about sex that made me laugh. Among other things. But so much of Gideon is…awkward. Instead of laughter, I flinch or cringe. I can see that he wants to be a Good Person. And I can see that his over-focus on Good Personhood means he doesn't actually understand what it means. He's struggling to do the right thing. And he thinks he always has.

Gideon utilizes his personal life—most of it prior to becoming a vampire—as a metaphor and example to the people who call his hotline. Because he does, we become acquainted with what that life was like, and how that life led to this one. His past unfolds slowly and slightly erratically, and his present is composed of the confounding, frustrating Margie, who takes over his house. He cooks for her, because she is a child and he is a guardian.

Margie, however, is someone who has also been heavily damaged by the life she's led. Gideon is unaccustomed to friends who are not Rich, one of his hotline correspondents—the only one who consistently catches him in his many lies, and the only one who is permanently interred in a psychiatric ward. I liked Rich a lot, actually, and it is very unsettling to find out why he's there.

But living with someone opens up an entirely different can of worms. Gideon has been, through choice and guilt, alone for a long time.

Did I like the book? I'm uncertain. I expected something entirely different from its beginning, and it is quite a bit darker than the opening chapters suggest, the black humor giving way to the pain that generally lies beneath humor. I would say it's a very human book. I can sympathize with Gideon's choices while still covering my eyes and groaning at them.

And I find the ending very hopeful, because there's a large chance that Gideon will actually make better choices, or smarter choices, that he won't somehow be entombed almost literally with guilt and rage and a desire to atone for his life. I'd be curious to know how others feel about it.

 

*   *   *

 

Sherry Thomas is known largely for her romance writing.

I feel very sorry for readers who picked up any book in The Lady Sherlock Series expecting that it would be a romance. They aren't. But I conversely feel very sorry for readers who saw her name and thought, "Meh, Sherlock romance," because they're missing out. There are no fantasy or paranormal elements in these books, but a lot of genre readers are also big Holmes readers, and this review is meant for that crossover audience.

Charlotte Holmes is the Holmes of the title. Yes, this is a gender-flipped Holmes series. I started this review because I begged for a review copy of the third book, The Hollow of Fear, but… I realized that discussing it in any detail is a huge spoiler for the first one, A Study in Scarlet Women. And while one would think there would be no messy spoilers that could impact something based on the Holmes canon, I think there would be.

I picked up the first book because I thought: gender-flipped Sherlock Holmes. I loved Aliette de Bodard's gender-flipped novella—and I really want more of those, ahem—I was looking for more. But de Bodard's is sfnal. Thomas's is not. I wasn't sure what to expect; many gender-flips tend to just start with the women and go from there, building the world they inhabit around them.

This is not quite what Thomas does.

Thomas approaches Holmes in the time period that spawned him. That time period is hierarchical, the layers of society determining the fate of the women born into the various social strata. Charlotte is no different, in that regard. She is certainly different in every other one.

The book opens with naked Charlotte and presumed paramour, whose mother storms in on them. Charlotte becomes a fallen woman instantly.

She has, however, zero interest in the presumed paramour. She intended to have sex with him because she wished to be able to blackmail her father. Her father promised that if she diligently entered the marriage market, and honestly made the attempt to be pleasant and feminine, if she honestly considered the possibility of marriage and found it lacking, then at age twenty-five, she would be given the education required to allow her to aspire to become Headmistress of a private girl's school.

He lied.

Ruining herself allows her the option of blackmail: keep your promise, or I will let everyone know, and you will face public censure.

Unfortunately, the paramour in question, while drunk, loudly proclaims to his mistress that he is going to deflower Charlotte Holmes—a woman to whom he proposed, and who rejected him, having no desire to marry. Except that he's so drunk, he mistakes his wife for his mistress. And that leads to inevitable public ruin.

I say all of this because it is a very clear indication that Charlotte doesn't have the usual compunctions or angst about…almost anything, really. She makes a plan, she charts a course, she observes the world around her, and she puts those observations to use. I love Charlotte Holmes.

Charlotte's sister Livia is almost the polar opposite, but the two have always been close, and when Charlotte is disgraced, rather than be bundled off to the countryside to be kept under lock and key, she simply leaves the Holmes household. And there she confronts the truth of ruination; something she knew intellectually, but did not know personally. There are very, very few jobs for women. There are very few places where those without a ready supply of money can live. There are almost no options.

She could ask her closest friend—male friend—for help, but she has her pride. She also knows she needs to find a way to stand on her own two feet, because this is what she must face going forward. Her attempts to find a job as a typist meet with little success, and she lacks necessary funds to keep a roof over her head.

This doesn't, however, destroy her. Her skills at observation are eventually put to use; she does eventually become a consulting detective. This is not really a spoiler, obviously. But the how and the why, I want people to discover for themselves. Suffice it to say that it's not just the murder mysteries that this book encompasses, but the difficulties a woman in that time period had when attempting to solve them. It's like those mysteries except that what we take for granted in the male counterparts cannot be taken for granted—at all—with the female.

I highly recommend this book.

The second book, A Conspiracy in Belgravia, continues where the first book leaves off. Which leads into the third book, The Hollow of Fear, which can't be read if you haven't read the second book (and I would say can't be read if you haven't read the first, but that's because I want people to read the first one).

This is not a standard cozy series. There are character arcs and character consequences that flow from the first book all the way through to the third one. If you pick up the third one to give it a chance, you're likely to be either confused or annoyed by it. The Hollow of Fear doesn't have the same jolt of surprise that the first book offered me; it does have the characters that I have come to love. I don't love the third book as much as the first book, but if you did love the first one, I think there's much to like about this one. I had some reservations about certain structural choices Thomas made in the narrative for the third book, but I did enjoy it, and I'm hoping that she will continue to write more in this universe.

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