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REVIEW: No Proper Lady by Isabel Cooper

Dear Ms. Cooper,

I was really intrigued by the description of your book, No Proper Lady, which touts itself as a being a cross between Terminator and My Fair Lady. And indeed, this is a very apt description for the plot of this book. More importantly, based upon the excerpt I read before deciding to review the book, the heroine seemed to fit my current desire for a female protagonist who is neither attractive nor particularly good. So I gave it a shot and I was happy I did.

No Proper Lady Isabel cooperThe book opens in the middle of battle. Joan, daughter of Arthur and Leia, stands in a circle of blue as priests chant. Beyond this circle, she can hear the sounds of death and destruction. The sounds of people she loves dying. This ritual—a ritual designed to detach Joan from time and space and send her into the past, never to return to this moment—is the last chance the human race has against the demons and monsters that have invaded the world.  But the novel is not spent in Joan’s time, circa 2188. It occurs in Victorian era England. That is the time—as the priests have learned—where the dark magician, who will open gates to other worlds and let the demonic into ours, lives. This is the pivotal point. The point when humanity’s hope for a future without the death, the destruction, and the demons that shape daily life in 2188 is still a possibility. This is the time to which Joan has been sent in order to kill Alex Reynell and his horrible book before he can open the gates to other, hellish worlds, and never close them.

Simon Grenville is riding the forest, riding off his frustration and sorrow.  He and his sister Eleanor have retreated to the country. In London, there are still whispers of scandal attached to his sister’s name. Nobody knows the truth. What rumors and innuendoes are exchanged—that Eleanor was ruined, that Simon tried to kill Alex Reynell—all suppose a more human, a more mundane cause.  The truth is much more unbelievable and far darker than anything Society might conceive of. Though they were once the best of friends, Simon had begun to suspect that Alex was no longer just dabbling in dark magic. He had begun to keep his distance, detach himself from his old friend. But he never would have believed that Alex would do what he did. So when Simon stumbles upon the strange woman in the blue circle of light on his property, he is not surprised. Another attack by Alex convinces him to trust the woman, Joan, because she saves his life. It isn’t before long that they realize that they have a mutual enemy in Alex Reynell.

So much could have gone wrong in this story that didn’t. As a long time fantasy reader, one of my chief pet peeves concerns the problem of world-building. I would argue that any book, regardless of whether or not it slides into the Sci-fi/Fantasy genre, requires a certain deftness with constructing a world. Too often I see books in which the magic seems to have no rules, the plot and the conceit gets bogged down in minutiae, and the complexity of our actual histories (with their attendant religions, politics, various cultures, foods, music, perspectives, attitudes etc.—and that’s just this week!) get reduced down to a singular and rather unimaginative How-It-Works-In-This-World-Is-Like-This. For simplicity is always less imaginative than complexity. This is particularly so when one has to balance the world-building and adventure that is a part of the fantasy genre with the focus on the central love relationship that is the hallmark of romance.

So I was leery, author. Very leery, indeed, when I opened this book.  But my fears of a sloppy magical world or alternate England were almost immediately put to rest. The world-building in this novel is, perhaps, one of the most seamless and effortless examples I have seen in a long time. Fantasy has the unfortunate tendency to proselytize a certain ideology (-coughs- Philip Pullman –cough-), which is all well and good if you don’t notice. Because once you, the reader, start asking questions about how the world operates, you know you’ve stopped caring about the characters. If you are more concerned with how the mail works, then it’s over.  No Proper Lady, I’m happy to report, does not make you question train schedules in Victorian England, or magic rituals. Instead, it weaves an apocalyptic future in which mankind is enslaved to demonic forces with Victorian era England in such a way that you don’t notice the threads.

One of the other strengths of this book is the heroine, Joan. Joan is another thing that could have gone horribly wrong but didn’t. Aren’t you tired, readers, of kick-ass heroines? I am. All that ass-kicking in leather pants and a halter top really is rather chaffing. What’s particularly awesome about Joan is that she’s a person. It seems so silly to say that, to have to point that out as the thing that, at least, I am looking for in a heroine, but there it is. She’s a person. And as a person, even though she’s tough, and even though she’s a warrior, she’s also vulnerable and scared and overwhelmed with the duty she has been sent to the past to perform. Like anyone would be. So Joan, like anyone, finding themselves in a strange world with no friends or family ties, is a little lost. Nor is she afraid to admit to Simon that she is:

“No, please,” Simon insisted. “I must know. Is something wrong here? Has anyone been uncivil to you—were the girls—” Improbable—impossible—for Joan to be crying over what a bunch of village chits thought or said or did. He knew that even before Joan shook her head. “No. It’s nothing you did. Nothing anyone here did. I just—”

She stopped and looked at Simon, then swiftly away again, at the desk and the opened book on it. A flush crept up her neck and over her face. “What the hell,” she said, in a tight voice he’d never heard from her before. “If I’m going to act like a six-year-old anyhow—I want my mother. And my dad, and my friends, and the world I knew. It was a shitty world, but it was mine, and everyone I love is there. Was there.” At the last her voice cracked.

Joan spun around to face the bookshelves, but Simon saw her face before she did: stripped of control at last, a study in weariness and far and stark bleeding grief. The pain there made his own look like a stubbed toe. “Oh,” he said, sounding awkward and insufficient to his own ears. “But—won’t you see them again?”

“No.”

What I like about this exchange is that Joan wants her mother. I think that is a very telling desire. Joan, for all that she is a highly trained, extremely efficient soldier, is still a daughter in a family—not a dysfunctional family—but a family that was proud of her, that she wants to see again, that she’s not going to see again. This emotional and human aspect to Joan’s character is directly a result of the world-building because, as Joan explains a little further on:

“There were rituals,” Joan said. “I’m cut loose from time. That’s how I could come back, and I guess it lets me survive any changes I make by being here. But that’s just me. If I succeed . . . then there’ll be a different world two hundred years from now. Mine won’t be there anymore.”

Character arc, world-building, and the progress of the relationship are all interwoven in this one small exchange. And what’s even more extraordinary is that this aspect of magic, the limitations of the world, and previously unknown aspects of Joan herself, is not information forced upon us through some roughly inserted exposition or awkward dialogue, but comes to us readers through what I think is one of the central components of romance: conversation. They are talking, talking because Simon caught Joan crying. How normal! And in world where demons exist, to boot!

In fact, the greatest strength of this book is that our understanding of each time period comes through the encounter of that period by one of the characters. What I mean is, that instead of being told what such and such a place is like for Joan or Simon, we experience their wonder or terror or joy, etc. along with them. Moreover, we understand what kind of a magical world we are operating in through those encounters—not just with places, or things, or manners, but with each other. Joan starts out as a foreign object in Simon’s eyes. He can’t even decide what she looks like beyond being utterly strange. A concept like beauty or plain or ugly can’t be applied to her because she is a person, a being totally outside his experience. He cannot place or categorize her. Joan, conversely, can take nothing for granted. The world she came from was diseased and bleak. Where every moment was shadowed. Where every moment was a beat in an ongoing war. She has trouble adjusting to world with sunshine and grass. Her first experience of a living, breathing city is overwhelming. We understand what Joan’s world is like not because she tells us, but because in her reactions to Victorian England we are able to deduce what the place and time she came from were like.

Neither does this book try to answer all the metaphysical questions fantasy novels inevitably evoke. Things like what is time? What is evil? Why are there other worlds? Is there a God? What kind? Maybe Gods? A conscious universe? Where does consciousness come from? Is there life after death? It does, in some ways, address these questions, but it does not answer them definitively: for they can’t be answered in fictional world anymore definitely than they can be in our world. They are answered, in a limited and ambiguous way, in the experiences of the characters. And as a person who has read far too many SF/F novels who attempt to explain everything, I appreciate that underlying ambiguity that still maintains a resolution of the pertinent plot points.

If there was any weakness to this book, then it was that I wasn’t totally emotionally invested in the outcome. I read the first half quite quickly and then put it down. I had to because I had to go to work. But then, instead of rushing home to finish reading it, I just didn’t. I just didn’t pick it up again. Even I find this strange, what with all my previous praise. But there you go. I’ve had trouble writing this review because even though I truly believe from an objective perspective that this is a solid and very good piece of writing, I somehow didn’t emotionally connect to it. When I was reading it, I enjoyed it, but I was not enthralled by it. There wasn’t a visceral connection for me, and that really signals the difference between an A book and B book in my mind.

Perhaps this lack of an emotional connection was because I wasn’t as invested in the romance as I was in the adventure. I remember the action much better than I remember the love scenes. I found the romance between Joan and Simon almost entirely forgettable. Nothing about it stood out for me. Joan, as a character, does somewhat but mostly because of her unusualness. Simon has dark hair, I think, and that’s all I can remember except for the fact that he is a very honorable man. The magic and the fantastic elements of the novel are quite well done. The prose was smooth and easy to fall into. The villain, Alex Reynell, is probably the most memorable of the characters. Partly, I think, because unlike so many other villains in romance, Reynell is both complex and evil.  He is frightening, and not just because of the things he does but the way he does them. He is frightening because, as Simon’s friend and in Simon’s memories, especially, we see that he was not always this way.  Yet . . . like two people on a first date who ought to be soul mates, who have all sorts of things in common, this novel and I found ourselves unable to relate to one another on a fundamental level.

So, yes. This is a strongly written, well-constructed magical world with complex characters. More importantly, Ms. Cooper doesn’t tell or show when she can imply. But for me, even though this book and I ought to be compatible by all 142 eHarmony points of compatibility or whatever, we simply didn’t quite click. There was a certain spark missing from the whole experience for me. And so I give this book a very well-deserved B+ with the full acknowledgement that for some other girl, this one’s a keeper.

Lazaraspaste

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Lazaraspaste came to the romance genre at the belated age of twenty-six. While she prefers historicals, she's really up for anything . . . much like her view of food! Some of her favorite authors include Jo Beverley, Anne Stuart, Lisa Kleypas and Joan Smith. Once a YA librarian, she is now working towards an advanced degree in literature with the mad idea of becoming a critic and teacher. Though she loves romance, fantasy has always been her first love. She hates never-ending series and believes the ending is the most important part.

20 Comments

  1. Sasha
    Sep 24, 2011 @ 14:39:16

    Just read this, and your review is so interesting to me because though we approached it from two very different places, we arrived at basically the same conclusion. I am not a reader of SF/F- (actually, mostly because of the reasons you mentioned about worldbuilding-it can get annoying- I can never get past that or all that interested in it.) So from my perspective, the book succeeded in surprising me in that it was a book about magic, time travel, different worlds, etc. that did not annoy the crap out of me at all, and where I could just take it all in naturally and not be taken out of the story. The whole idea was so interesting. And I also agree- I really like Joan- she was very real to me. Strong, but real. And I like Simon too- seemed like such a good guy. And Alex scared the living shit out of me. But somehow, the romance part came off more convenient that a true romance. Like, a source of comfort I guess, rather than a true connection. And I did the exact same thing…left it alone for awhile even though I had been enjoying it. Huh. Anyway, overall it was a good read to me and I thought it was well written.

  2. Kate Sherwood
    Sep 24, 2011 @ 15:21:14

    I’m going to give it a try. The heroine sounds fantastic, and the setting is interesting. Thanks!

  3. Carolyn
    Sep 24, 2011 @ 16:43:06

    I clicked over to check this book out and discovered I already had it. Oops. It’s been languishing in the TBR pile, unread and forgotten.

    I shall take immediate steps to correct this oversight. It sounds good, disconnected romance or not. :-)

  4. Willa
    Sep 24, 2011 @ 17:24:14

    I am intrigued . . . so clicked over to Amazon and it is not available on the Kindle. Pants!

  5. Isabel C.
    Sep 24, 2011 @ 18:13:51

    Eee! Thank you very much for the review, and I’m so glad to hear you liked No Proper Lady. Your comments are excellent!

  6. Kristal
    Sep 24, 2011 @ 19:15:58

    @Willa: Amazon tells me that it is available on Kindle for $5.59. That would be so weird if it’s not showing up for you.

  7. Hannah
    Sep 24, 2011 @ 19:37:01

    Great review–I just ordered for my Kindle!

  8. Darlynne
    Sep 24, 2011 @ 23:06:03

    Not in a million years–between the cover and the title–would I have expected this to be futuristic fantasy. What a great review, I love how detailed you were about what worked or didn’t. I’m fascinated now and must have it. Thank you!

  9. Janine
    Sep 25, 2011 @ 01:18:27

    @Darlynne: I was thinking the same thing about the cover and title. The book could easily be mistaken for a historical romance. I’m surprised the paranormal/fantasy aspects weren’t played up more.

  10. Willa
    Sep 25, 2011 @ 06:49:42

    @Kristal: Thanks Kristal . . . sorry – should have qualified my reply with it is not available in Amazon U.K.

    Have clicked the ‘I want to read this on Kindle’ button though.

  11. BevQB
    Sep 25, 2011 @ 09:59:04

    Only the artwork on the cover model’s back, which I didn’t even notice at first, hints that this isn’t like a hundred other Regency/Victorians and I probably would have passed right over this on the shelf.

    So, thank you for this review and for giving us a heads up about a book that truly sounds different. It’s in my Amazon cart right now.

  12. Estara
    Sep 25, 2011 @ 12:05:22

    So basically this is fantasy with a romantic subplot instead of fantasy romance then? I like that as well – as long as it’s done well – for example Sherwood Smith’s Crown Duel or her Dobrenica Duology.

  13. hapax
    Sep 25, 2011 @ 14:42:20

    To be honest, I love the cover. Classic paranormal fantasy kickass heroine pose, tats and all, but with the historical gown and all the gorgeous blue.

    (Haven’t read the final version yet — curse you overflowing review pile! — but I read a draft-in-preparation and was so excited to see this come out)

  14. Susan Laura
    Sep 25, 2011 @ 16:02:31

    Thanks for the in depth review. This is not my usual type of book but it sounds intriguing so I think I will give it a try!

  15. lazaraspaste
    Sep 26, 2011 @ 10:59:09

    Thanks for all the comments. I’m glad I intrigued you guys enough to check it out.

    @Isabel C. And thank you for writing such an awesome heroine.

    @Janine I would not personally characterize the book as a PNR, although it is definitely within the SF/F genre. I don’t know why I think of those as being different than paranormal, but I do. So perhaps that is why it wasn’t played up more in the cover. Quite frankly, I’m as sick to death of the standard PNR cover as I am of the standard Hist Rom cover.

    @Estrata Definitely more romance than Crown Duel. I’d liken it more to The Fire Rose by Mercedes Lackey, if that makes sense?

    @Sasha I find it interesting we both had such similar reading experiences. I’ll be interested to know if this holds true for other people as well.

  16. Amy
    Sep 26, 2011 @ 12:12:09

    I would look into getting this book.

  17. Ursula Whistler
    Sep 27, 2011 @ 12:54:30

  18. Klio
    Sep 27, 2011 @ 14:34:31

    Cover is gorgeous, but I actually even skipped the review because, based on a quick look at the art, I didn’t realise the genre (or genre-blending). I’m so glad I got bored in this phone meeting and drifted over to catch up on reading DA (shh, don’t tell my boss). Am putting this in my TBR list and have the sample chapter loaded up and ready to go.

  19. Nonny
    Sep 28, 2011 @ 23:49:44

    I actually almost passed the review by because of the cover. It looked like a standard historical romance to me, which I’m not especially interested in (paranormal/fantasy/SF girl here). I noticed the tattoo and thought that might be interesting so read more. I probably wouldn’t have taken a second glance in a bookstore though.

  20. No Proper Review | Something More
    Apr 28, 2013 @ 20:12:44

    [...] it’s still on sale as of this writing). I’d been wanting to read it since I read Lazaraspaste’s review. I pretty much agree with her take on the book, so, what she said, and rather than write a proper [...]

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