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Susanna Fraser

JOINT REVIEW:  Christmas Past by Susanna Fraser

JOINT REVIEW: Christmas Past by Susanna Fraser

Recently, Jane forwarded a review request email from Entangled’s publicist for Susanna Fraser’s story Christmas Past to the DA loop, and Sunita and I both expressed interest in it. We decided to review the story together. –Janine

Janine: Christmas Past begins on Christmas Eve of 1810. Our heroine, Sydney, is in Lisbon, facing up to the fact that the temporal engine of her time machine is broken. Sydney, a time-traveling PhD student from our own time, was supposed to arrive safely in 2013 with the aid of her time machine’s fail-safe, an auto-recall function that brings time travelers home if even a hint of damage to the timeline appears.

Christmas Past by Susanna FraserNow the fail-safe has failed, and Sydney is stuck in 1810. This means that, in order to refrain from changing the future beyond recognition, Sydney must kill herself. It’s not a simple choice because Sydney has loving parents, a married sister, and an adorable three year old niece in 2013. If she chooses to stay alive in 1810, it is possible that all of them will cease to exist.

Before Sydney can swallow the poison she brought with her, Captain Miles Griffin intervenes. Captain Griffin is an attractive officer in the British army, with whom Sydney had spoken at the hospital where she volunteered as a nurse when he came there to visit the wounded men of his regiment.

Sydney tries to convince Miles that her time machine is only a carriage—after all, its exterior looks like one—but she is too late. Miles has seen her iPad which seems an amazing marvel to him.

Sydney has no choice but to come out with the truth, but when Captain Griffin hears that she means to kill herself, he resolves to do everything in his power to dissuade her. He convinces her to spend another day and night in 1810, and invites her to attend a Christmas dinner with officers from the King’s German Legion along with him.

After hesitating, Sydney agrees to 24 hours more, and decides to spend the night with Miles, too—since it will be her last on earth. Can Miles persuade her to spend many more days and nights with him, before it’s too late?

When I agreed to review this story, I didn’t realize how short it was – only 39 pages. Still, I’m very glad I took it up, because it’s been a frustrating reading year for me, but this story was thoroughly enjoyable.

Sunita: I really enjoyed it too. I peeked to see how long it was, so I was more prepared, and I approached it like a Christmas anthology story. That helped, both in having a sense of how quickly the story would have to move, and in the other-worldly sense of it.

Janine: The Christmas anthology story is a good comparison. Christmas Past does have a similar otherworldliness to it, and it moves at a fast clip.

I thought the world-building aspects were handled well for the most part. I loved the idea of the PhD program Sydney attended, a Historical Epidemiology program at the University of Washington which sent its PhD students to research the past. I loved the idea of a National Institute for Temporal Research, too.

These things reminded me of Connie Willis’ The Doomsday Book, in which a university student goes back in time to study the past, but whereas that novel felt really slow to me, this was a tight, focused story that got right to the compelling central conflict.

Sunita: I also enjoyed the backstory about why the time-travel takes place. In so many books it just happens, or it’s because of magic. Here it’s explained in a way that makes sense without entirely losing the magic element. That makes it believable and interesting to me.

I thought the way in which the time travel explained might have been a bit too elaborate, though. I bought the science aspect enough that when it changed at the end, I was less willing to go along than I might have been if I had had to suspend more disbelief, if that makes sense. But overall, I liked the approach and world-building very much.

Janine: I had an issue with that too. Early on, it is stated in Sydney’s POV that she can’t know with certainty whether every change in the timeline creates a new multiverse, while at another point in the story she seems to have reached a conclusion on that, and I wasn’t clear on how she had arrived at that conclusion. I wish it had been explained and supported better.

The other quibble I have is that there was a protocol guiding Sydney and the other time travelers, but it seemed like this protocol didn’t make provisions for situations like the one Sydney found herself in. Initially at first, I found this frustrating – if time travel was such serious business, wouldn’t the National Institute of Temporal Research have come up with rules to cover every potential eventuality?

But overall, I really, really liked the world of this book, and I hope Ms. Fraser writes more in this vein. I’d love to read about some of Sydney’s fellow time travelers, and even about her professor.

Sunita: Given how carefully the science was set up, I found it hard to believe they hadn’t come up with multiple fail-safes. Sydney’s need to make a sacrifice seemed a bit over the top to me.

In addition, while I think the idea that every single thing we do in time-travel can change the past is believable, the probability that our actions will change key aspects of the future is not that high. And normatively, it’s not clear to me that the changes we make are necessarily worse than the chance elements that cause changes in the same time frame. After all, if time-travel is possible, then it’s part of our world and should be accepted.

But that’s a larger philosophical question, and the fact that I even bring it up suggests that Fraser goes a long way to making this scenario plausible for me.

Janine: I have philosophical questions too, but they are less profound. Like, how come most time travelers in romance are women who typically travel to the past, and on the rare occasion when we get a time-traveling man, that hero goes forward in time?

Regardless, the romance in this story was very sweet. Sydney was immediately relatable and likeable, because she faced such a serious conflict and wanted to make an ethical decision that would preserve the lives of her loved ones. I also understood her better because I share her time.

Miles took longer to get to know, but by the end of the story I liked him quite a bit. I liked that he was attracted to Sydney and her different aspects, and while some of her mores surprised him, he didn’t judge her for them.

Sunita: I felt as if I understood and got to know Sydney much more than Miles. It was really her story, for obvious reasons, and Miles stayed a bit of a cipher for me. I put most of that down to the length of the novella, but I would have liked to know Miles better.

Janine: I agree with that—it was Sydney’s story, but that feels appropriate to the length of the story. A little more insight into Miles would have been welcome.

On another topic, although this story has a happy ending, there was also poignancy to it that I appreciated. Saying goodbye to your own time cannot be easy, and I loved that this was acknowledged here.

I enjoyed A Christmas Past significantly more than the Fraser romance I read and reviewed with you in the past, A Marriage of Inconvenience. I’m sincere in my hope that Ms. Fraser write us more time-travel stories. My grade for Christmas Past is a B/B+.

Sunita: I always look forward to Fraser’s novels and novellas. While they don’t all work fully, there is so much that is thoughtful and intelligent that she’s always an auto-buy author for me. And I agree, I’d love to read another time-travel from her! Grade: B.

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JOINT REVIEW:  An Infamous Marriage by Susanna Fraser

JOINT REVIEW: An Infamous Marriage by Susanna Fraser

Dear Ms. Fraser:

Jennie: I requested your book from NetGalley more or less on a whim; the blurb described a couple who hastily engaged in a marriage of convenience finally coming together after having been separated by the hero’s military service, and the obstacles they face. I’ve recently read and enjoyed several similar stories, so I thought I’d give An Infamous Marriage a try.

Sunita: I had committed to reading this, and when I saw that Jennie was going to review it I thought a joint review would be fun.

An Infamous Marriage by Susanna FraserJennie: Jack Armstrong is on a brief leave home from service in Canada, visiting his mother, who suffers from dementia, in his home village of Selyhaugh. He stops in to see his good friend, the Reverend Giles Hamilton, and to meet the new wife Giles has been singing the praises of in letters. Jack finds Giles deathly ill with the chicken pox, and his wife understandably distraught. Giles, knowing that he is dying, extracts a promise from Jack and Elizabeth to wed after he passes; he knows Elizabeth is alone in the world and fear what will happen to her without Jack’s protection and name.

Neither is keen on the idea – Jack has no interest in marrying a woman he doesn’t even know, and further, Elizabeth does not impress him much. He finds it hard to believe that this pale, plain little woman is the beauty Giles raved about in his letters. Elizabeth, naturally, is even less enamored of the idea – she loves her husband, is full of grief for his impending death, and can’t imagine marrying again before his body is even cold (and the marriage needs to be immediate, since Jack has to return to his regiment in Canada).

Nevertheless, after Giles dies, both agree to honor their promise. Jack will get something out of it – a caretaker for his beloved mother (this didn’t make too much sense, since the family is wealthy enough to have servants and the mother already has a devoted nurse, but I guess Jack knows that Elizabeth is trustworthy and there’s something to be said for not leaving something so important to paid help). Elizabeth, who was orphaned as a teenager (her father was involved in an embezzlement scandal and committed suicide; her mother died shortly after) and had only her cold, hard uncle as kin after that, has the security that Giles wanted her to have. And honestly, though the set-up could seem high-concept, my understanding of the time and place leads me to believe that Elizabeth’s options were limited and her situation dire after her husband’s death.

So, Jack and Elizabeth marry. They spend one chaste night under the same roof, and then he returns to the wilds of Canada. Elizabeth settles into life in Selyhaugh pretty well, getting over some initial judgment from those who found her second marriage to be unseemly in its haste, and developing a good relationship with Jack’s mother and the workers on the family farm. Meanwhile, Jack and Elizabeth have fallen into a regular and lively correspondence, and developed something of a friendship.

This friendship is interrupted when a local matron with a dislike for Jack’s family takes it upon herself to pass on gossip she’s heard about Jack’s extramarital exploits in Canada. In what seems like an unlikely coincidence, the matron just happens to have a cousin in Canada who lives in the same area where Jack is stationed, and that cousin just happens to feel the need to write her about Jack’s supposedly scandalous behavior. Elizabeth, humiliated and angry, abruptly withdraws from Selyhaugh society, and her letters to Jack turn cold and terse.

Sunita: I really liked this first part of the book. The setup was believable and the way the characters related to each other (or didn’t) was well portrayed. I enjoyed the way Elizabeth grew close to Jack’s mother and established her place in local society. I agree the letter relied on coincidence, but I was so happy to see Canada used as a setting (and authentically, too) that I forgave it, and the idea of a gossipy letter letting the cat out of the bag worked for me.

Jennie: While I will admit to being drawn to infidelity stories – well done, they can be very emotional and angsty, which I love – in this case, the drama over the infidelity never made a lot of sense. Elizabeth states that she hadn’t expected Jack to be faithful during his time in Canada – after all, their union was an unconsummated marriage of convenience, one that Jack was pretty much strong-armed into. But she’s angry because she feels like he should have been more discreet. Jack, for his part, didn’t really think his screwing around would make news so far away, and I don’t think he’s entirely unreasonable there. Furthermore, it’s unclear really how scandalous his behavior actually was – there were only a few women, actually (and in the one case that was really somewhat unseemly, it turns out Jack was more or less innocent of the wrongdoing he was suspected of). Elizabeth’s reaction thus seems out of proportion and really sort of unfair.

Though I wasn’t entirely in sympathy with Jack – one of the problems I had was that he felt somewhat inconsistently characterized for the first half of the book. The younger Jack who meets and marries Elizabeth out of duty seems rather stoic and honorable – perhaps even a bit uptight. Jack’s behavior in Canada, as explained by him later to Elizabeth, seems to be mostly driven by insecurity and immaturity, neither of which we really saw in him earlier. He apparently matured late physically and even when he went into the army was undersized and acne-prone. Supposedly even years after he had filled out and become attractive to the opposite sex, he was insecure enough that he wanted to flaunt his conquests a bit in a place where he felt safe to do so.

Which is okay, I guess, but again, it would’ve worked better if the groundwork had been laid earlier, so that he didn’t seem like so much an entirely different person. He changes again when he decides that he wants a real marriage, and the ultimate effect is that Jack feels like kind of a shallow character, thinking and behaving as the plot requires at any given time.

There were elements of the book that I struggled over because though they were realistic, they made me like the characters less. With Elizabeth, it’s her determination not to “give in” to Jack too easily; essentially, she wants to make him suffer for his behavior (she is also motivated by the fear that if she folds quickly this time, it will set a pattern for their marriage that won’t be to her advantage). Again, this is realistic but somehow the way it was written did not make me sympathetic to Elizabeth; she comes off as immature herself, and calculating. Okay, maybe “calculating” is a little harsh, but I was willing to be on Elizabeth’s side here; somehow her response lessened the impact of Jack’s wrongs against her and drained some of the tension out of the conflict. I didn’t get the feeling she was *really* hurt by the infidelity, and if that was the case I thought she should have a more mature and reasonable response to the situation.

Sunita: The middle part of the book was a real letdown for me after the strength of the first part. I agree that Jack’s characterization seemed inconsistent; he was honorable, but he had no sense of how his activities as a married man could affect his wife. He was angry at being married, but then he sees Elizabeth and suddenly changes his mind.

The other problem I had was that Elizabeth’s turnaround happened so quickly. She’s been nursing her anger for years, but it only takes Jack three or four days to break down her barriers? And then suddenly they’re building a life together? That was too quick a switch, and I think ending this area of conflict between them hurt the book in the end. Halfway through, they’re quite happy with each other, but the reader knows there are many pages left to go.

Jennie: Yeah, Elizabeth seemed to mostly be holding out for form’s sake, which wasn’t very satisfying, and it was clear that some other conflict was going to have to crop up to justify the length of the book.

Jack lost me a lot (not that I was overfond of him to begin with) with his continued enthusiasm, throughout the book (almost to the end) for war and fighting. He makes it clear early on that he’s not happy to be going back to Selyhaugh, and would rather stay with the army and engage in conflict – any conflict. Lip service is given to the need of men to test themselves in battle, and this has the ring of realism (even if I don’t personally understand it), but again it’s written in such a way that Jack is less sympathetic than he ought to be (or at least could be, in my eyes). A good job is done of showing him to be someone who feels constrained by village life and not terribly interested in the workings of his modest family estate. That’s fine. But rather than conveying that Jack feels at loose ends with no wars to fight, or that he is uncertain of his place in the world, the sense that I got was that he was an overgrown child who didn’t really understand the horrors of war.

Sunita: This part worked better for me than it did for you. I saw Jack as a career soldier who was happy in his chosen profession. The itch to get back into battle is one that other authors have explored, especially during this specific period (1814-15), so I accepted it. But I had trouble with the switch from the initial conflict between them, which was internal to the relationship, to the external conflict over Jack’s rejoining the army. I understand why the switch happened from the point of view of the plot, but it didn’t feel smoothly done.

Jennie: I guess I’m more used to romances (maybe because they are written largely by women?) emphasizing the awfulness of war rather than the gung-ho attitude Jack displayed. It would have bothered me less, I think, if Jack was more strongly characterized from the start.

One other minor complaint: there’s a conflict late in the book that I could see coming a mile away. While I know of the famous dictum about a gun introduced in the first act going off in the third, still I’m not sure it’s necessary to have a character muse so many times: “Gee, I told this big lie to my beloved but luckily it can’t come back to bite me, nosiree bob.” You might as well put giant blinking neon lights around the statement.

Sunita: Yes! I thought this was so unnecessary, and it actually made me angry. On thinking back over the book, the only reason I can see for having it there was as homage to the Heyer book that is recalled in the title. They are going to undergo enough trauma in the pages to follow without this conflict. Why not just let that provide the necessary angst? I also really didn’t like the letter. It may be historically accurate that men in his position wrote letters of that length and fervor (I don’t know), but it didn’t feel organic to those scenes.

I did appreciate the depiction of Brussels and the battle (although just once, I would like to read about characters who do NOT attend the Duchess of Richmond’s ball). If you’ve read a lot of books that feature the period, the scenes and set pieces will be familiar, but Fraser manages to put her own spin on them, which is no mean feat.

Jennie:I liked the Brussels setting as well; for some reason I have an affinity for romances that include Brussels on the eve of battle, maybe because I’ve read at least a few good ones. Though you’re right about the ball; I hadn’t thought of it but that must have been a very crowded ball, with all of those fictional characters in attendance!

Okay, I know, bitch, bitch, bitch. In spite of my complaints, the characters are still relatively pleasant, the writing is competent, and the book is readable enough. It just didn’t go much beyond that for me, which is why my grade is a straight C.

Sunita: I can’t disagree with your complaints, but I really liked the first third of the book and I am so happy these days to read about relatively adult people engaging (mostly) in relatively adult behavior, that I was grateful for that. And Canada! Please, authors, more Canada. My grade is a B-.

Best regards,

Jennie and Sunita

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