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REVIEW:  The Harem Midwife by Roberta Rich

REVIEW: The Harem Midwife by Roberta Rich

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The Imperial Harem, Constantinople, 1578. Hannah and Isaac Levi, Venetians in exile, have overcome unfathomable obstacles to begin life anew in the Ottoman Empire. He works in the growing silk trade, and she, the best midwife in the capital, tends to the hundreds of women in Sultan Murat III’s lively and infamous harem. One night, Hannah is unexpectedly sum­moned to the extravagant palace and confronted with Leah, a Jewish peasant girl who was violently abducted. The sultan favors Leah as his next conquest and wants her to produce his heir, but if the spirited girl fails an important test, she faces a terrible fate. Taken by Leah’s tenacity, Hannah risks everything to help her. But as Hannah agonizes over her decision, an enchanting stranger arrives from afar to threaten her peaceful life with Isaac, and soon Leah too reveals a dark secret that could condemn them both.

Dear Ms. Rich,

When I’ve enjoyed an author’s book(s), I’ll try and keep an eye open for new releases. “The Midwife of Venice” was one of my happy discoveries in 2012 so when I saw this book had been released and that it’s a continuation of Hannah and Isaac’s story, of course it went on my want list.

One thing I noticed immediately is that the pace and “feel” seemed off. Chapter One is a violent yet strangely emotionally unmoving opening to the story. A young girl’s life is upended but I never felt my heart catch. She acts as if her feelings are blunted – shock, I guess – but the way the scene is written my response was more ho-hum than Oh-dear-God. After this, the action moves to Constantinople where Hannah and Isaac now live after the events of “Venice.” Hannah is a midwife to the Sultan’s harem and Isaac is now a silk merchant. Hannah is called to the palace and more time gets spent describing the journey there and the palace rather than what happens after. Lots of things about the city, palace and court are described but all of it seemed more a well integrated college lecture instead of pulling me into a “you are there in this splendid world.”

The main point of view is told by Hannah yet the opening chapter is from Leah’s view though it’s the only time this happens in the book. I wanted more. What were her feelings during her journey from her capture to the Seraglio? If we’re only going to get her past tense feelings as related to Hannah, why have the first chapter at all? The villain, Cesca, is fascinating to dive into early in the story but after some scenes giving her more depth and a background which explains her drive in life, we only get two short POV chapters much later in the tale. And poor Isaac who was such a delight to read about in the first book is little more than a life size cardboard cutout from whom we get nothing.

No wait we do get something from Isaac. We get actions that swing wildly depending on what the plot needs at that moment rather than anything that feels like a real character. We need to see how happy Isaac and Hannah are in their new life? Isaac is on automatic as a kissing fool. When Hannah is needed to be seen as unsure of her life, suddenly Isaac appears to be falling for another woman. When that part of the plot is resolved, just as quickly he’s back to his old self almost as if a fairy waved a wand. None of it felt real.

Lots of aspects of the plot get rushed over too. It’s almost as if the plot skipped over water like a stone. “Two months later…” “several weeks had passed…” and I feel as if I’m getting glimpses of a story that got drastically edited down. Seemingly major issues would loom largely, get truncated build-ups and then, whoosh, they’re over with little drama. The whole has a curiously flat feel. I thought “this is it??” In addition, lots of the plot is already laid out and revealed so that I already knew what was going to happen without even peeking at the end. That took a lot of the suspense right out of it.

The finale reminded me in a way of a bad mystery/crime story in which a lot of villain exposition occurs to wind things up and explain all the things needed for closure. And rather than having Hannah or Isaac take charge as they did in “Venice,” another character serves as the all powerful judge who dictates everyone’s actions. It was all too neat, too pat and too easy.

After my delight in “Venice,” I have to say that “Harem” was a sad disappointment. From the way certain events are left, I can tell that the plan is for another book to wrap them up. However, I’m not sure I’ll be eagerly waiting since this book certainly won’t be one I’ll probably think much about after a week or so. It’s rare that I say I’m glad I bought a book at used book prices but for this one, I am. It does have a pretty cover, though. D

~Jayne

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REVIEW:  The Murder Complex by Lindsay Cummings

REVIEW: The Murder Complex by Lindsay Cummings

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Dear Ms. Cummings,

I think we’ve reached that stage where post-apocalyptic and dystopian novels are being labelled something else to circumvent disenchantment. I obviously have thoughts about this because given the flood of such books over the past few years, readers can spot them no matter what you call them. The Murder Complex is being touted as a futuristic thriller but don’t believe it. This is a dystopian, albeit more action-packed than we’ve grown to expect from the subgenre.

Now I like action. I think many dystopian novels could have been vastly improved had there been more of a balance between external action and internal monologuing. But balance is exactly what The Murder Complex is missing. Except in this case we swing wildly in the other direction to all action and little meaningful character development.

First, we have our two viewpoint characters: Meadow and Zephyr. (I don’t even know where to begin with these names.) Meadow lives on a houseboat somewhere in futuristic Florida with her father, older brother, and little sister. Zephyr is an orphan who, from what I’ve been able to gather, is charged with picking up garbage around the city. But wait, here’s the twist! Meadow was trained by her fisherman father to be sociopathic killer. As for Zephyr? Well, he’s a sleeper assassin whose mission is to kill randomly picked citizens as some convoluted form of population control. If you’re beginning to raise your brows, just wait. I haven’t even gotten to the worldbuilding yet.

In fact, I don’t even know how to explain the worldbuilding. While I’m not a fan of the Infodump School of Worldbuilding, giving bits and pieces of the setting via the narrative only works if they make sense and form a cohesive whole. From what I was able to put together, there was a plague at some point. Then a teenaged genius (Meadow’s mother, naturally!) finds a cure involving nanotech and the world is saved! Except the nanotech means that disease and injury are no longer things that happen and the population gets out of control. Resources have to be carefully controlled and rationed by the government, here called the Initiative. This led to the formation of the Murder Complex (translation: the sleeper assassins) to control population growth. On top of that, I’m fairly sure there was some sort of war that razed the earth because everyone lives in the city and doesn’t venture out. Also, there are pirates and crazed, garbage-covered mobs that roam around attacking people. (Why? Just because!)

There are other elements I’m omitting here because they venture into spoiler territory but while I’ve done my best to make sense of the worldbuilding, trust me when I say the execution is random and disjointed at best.

There are elements that sound like they should make for an interesting story. Meadow’s genius mother, Lark, is missing and presumed dead but she casts a long shadow over our heroine’s life. Responsible for the cure that saved humanity, and later doomed it, Lark was a key member of the Initiative and the mastermind of the Murder Complex. What happened to her? Did she betray the Initiative? Was she killed because the government found her? There’s great potential for the mystery of Lark but what actually happens in the book is both underwhelming and ridiculous.

Similarly, Zephyr falls instalove with Meadow. Why? Because he’s been dreaming of her for a long time. Meadow is his silver-haired dream girl, you see. (I’m choosing to believe “silver” is just a frou-frou way of saying “sun-bleached” or “platinum blonde” so please let me retain that delusion if I’m wrong.) That’s… okay, I guess, but this gets a weird connotation because Lark is the one who raised Zephyr and trained and programmed him into being a sleeper assassin in the first place. Seriously, Lark’s voice is the one he hears in his head when he gets his orders to kill. And Meadow got her “silver” hair from Lark. It’s weird, right? Does Zephyr dream of Meadow because there’s some unexplained connection to her via the programming done by Lark? Or does he dream of a younger version of Lark? I feel uncomfortable about this either way.

Ultimately, The Murder Complex fails for me because of a simple reason: the characters. Lots of things happen. So many things happen over the course of the book, in fact. But I couldn’t bring myself to care about any of it because I didn’t care at all about any of the characters. Not Meadow. Not Zephyr. When I don’t care about the protagonists, it doesn’t matter if they’re wanted by the government or being chased down by pirates. And it certainly won’t hit me hard when I learn the (not all that surprising) truth about Meadow’s mother.

The Murder Complex gets compared to La Femme Nikita and Hanna, and I can see why. It’s full of cinematic-style action and violence. But I love Hanna because I loved the characters as well as the action and violence. And there is no getting around the fact that a book is not a movie. You can do things with the written word that you cannot do with a movie and vice versa. Namely, especially in the YA genre, the ability to get into the characters’ heads and get a strong sense of their personality and feelings. I think The Murder Complex might have forgotten that along the way. D

My regards,
Jia

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