by Beth Bernobich
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Beth Bernobich's debut book, Ars Memoriae, portrays an alternative Europe. In her world, the Kingdom of Éireann (Ireland) is in the ascendency, ruled over by Queen Áine Lasairíona Devereaux, a latter day Gloriana. Surrounded by courtiers at her court in Osraighe, Áine calls upon Commander Adrian Dee to fulfill a specific task when she finds that she can't trust her advisors, sending the officer on a quest across Europe to the fragmented Balkans.
Adrian Dee, whose name evokes the Elizabethan alchemist John Dee in much the way Queen Áine is similar to Queen Elizabeth, almost immediately takes his place among the pantheon of super spies and detectives. As he makes his way across Europe, there are hints of James Bond, Sherlock Holmes, Nick Charles, and others, but not slavishly so, and never to the point that it seems that Bernobich is writing an homage rather than her own story. Dee focuses his attention on the mission Queen Áine has set for him, attempting to hide any feelings he has for the Queen or hopes of reciprocation. However, Dee has issues of his own which he must also sublimate while he does the Queen's business. He seems to have a series of false memories regarding the death of Maeve Kiley, the youngest daughter of one of Áine's advisors. Although he is being treated for these strange memories by Doctor Lusk, they only play a minor role throughout the story as Dee focuses on the task at hand.
Bernobich’s world-building is done well. Although in this story she doesn’t worry about coming up with a rational explanation for how her world managed to get to the point at which we find it, the world has its own internal consistency. Bernobich introduces complex Byzantine politics both within Áine's kingdom and between her kingdom and the distant Balkan states to which Dee is sent. Dee's interactions with the locals, some of whom are the people he was sent to spy on, but others of whom are just civilians who happen to cross his path. Bernobich is able to make this work in part because of the story's length. There is enough room for her to include red herrings a well as characters who are essential to the plot, something that authors fail to do all too often.
For all that she tosses into the mix, Bernobich never forgets that she is writing a mystery, and eventually she does provide Dee and the reader with the information necessary to tie up the various questions which arise throughout the course of the story. Even when she ignores threads for lengthy periods of time, they have a tendency to make a reappearance in a manner which helps tie everything together. Not a novel, Ars Memoriae begins a year which will see Bernobich publish a collection of short stories as well as her first novel, Passion Play. Ars Memoriae demonstrates that in addition to being able to handle short stories, Bernobich is also capable of writing at longer lengths. Readers will have many opportunities to get to know Bernobich over the next year, and Ars Memoriae provides an excellent starting place.