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REVIEW:  The Fever Tree by Jennifer McVeigh

REVIEW: The Fever Tree by Jennifer McVeigh

Dear Ms. McVeigh,

I was interested in The Fever Tree, your first work of historical fiction, partly because of this beautifully written excerpt at your site, partly because the Booklist review mentioned that it had a social justice angle (the novel is mainly set in late 19th century South Africa), and partly because of the pretty cover (yes, I’m shallow like that).

TheFeverTreeThis book was hard, at times even painful to read and it left me with mixed feelings. But before I get into that, a plot summary.

The novel begins with eighteen year old Frances Irvine’s discovery that her father is unwell. Frances’ father is a successful furniture maker who rose from humble beginnings to marry above his station.

Frances’ mother, the daughter of a gentleman, died when Frances was a child, and Frances, the only child of their union, now learns from the maid that her father had a collapse – due, it turns out to losing his fortune in a bad investment. Frances fears she may lose him too.

With her father is Edwin Matthews, a doctor as well as a cousin of Frances’ on her father’s side. Like her father, Edwin comes from a community of poor Irish workers in Manchester, and it was her father’s generosity that helped Edwin obtain an education and medical training.

When Frances was a young teen Edwin came to live with them. His manners appalled Frances, and she found the way he watched her, especially when she played piano, disturbing. After they finish discussing her father’s condition, she senses Edwin is attracted to her, but she wants no part of him.

Frances has cousins on her mother’s side, too, and to them she is the unwanted family member. Her uncle only deigned to invite her to visit after his father’s death. Frances’ grandfather never forgave her mother for marrying down, and her uncle is very cautious about how much he is willing to do for her.

Thus, when, a few months later, her father passes away, her uncle tells Frances that he has received an offer for her hand from Edwin Matthews, who is in England just then but lives in South Africa. Frances’ aunt on her father’s side has grudgingly offered to take her in to a small, shabby house in Manchester full of children who need looking after, and those, says her uncle are the  two choices she has.

Frances is dismayed. She already turned down one proposal from Edwin, and now his persistence in asking to marry her has cost her a potential invitation to live with her uncle’s family. She turns down Edwin’s proposal, but later, when all her father’s possessions are sold and it’s almost time to go to Manchester, she changes her mind. Anything would be better than Manchester, even South Africa.

On her way to her future husband, Frances shares a ship’s cabin aboard the Cambrian with Anne and Mariella, two working class girls going to South Africa because it’s hard to find work in England. At first they seem foreign to Frances, but later she befriends them and even stands up for them.

Also on the ship is the handsome William Westbrook. William, Frances learns, is “partly Jewish,” the Whitechapel-born nephew of Joseph Baier, a man who sailed to South Africa to make his fortune and eventually became a diamond magnate and then sent William to Oxford for polish.

William has excellent prospects and he appeals to Frances far more than Edwin. This attraction is reciprocated: William flirts with Frances and once, during a storm at sea, even saves her life. Frances eventually allows him to touch her, and one night when she has drunk quite a bit, sleeps with him.

What will happen when the Cambrian docks in Cape Town? Will Frances choose William over Edwin or Edwin over William? More importantly, will she remain the spoiled, cosseted girl she was in England, or will she discover a hidden strength and integrity she did not know she possessed?

I have to admit upfront that reading The Fever Tree was, for long stretches of the novel, not a pleasant experience.

Although we get to know a couple of the black characters somewhat, the focus is mainly on the white ones, and to me this felt at odds with how much the book focuses on racism and the evils of colonialism.

Discrimination, bigotry and privilege are major themes here, with Frances initially disliking Edwin in part because he reminds her that she too has Irish bloodlines, and William attracting her because despite his half-Jewish status, he hobnobs with the powerful.

Once Frances arrives in South Africa, the exploitation of black South Africans by white colonists is all around her, everywhere, and one of the men in her life tries to stand up to it at personal risk, while another embodies it.

The fact that she was still torn between them at this point was very difficult for me, though of course, this was the point the book made —that often it is easier to conform with a social wrong than to do the right thing, which may come at personal cost.

Further, the N word is used casually by some of the villainous characters. A reader who finds any of the above painful, as I did, may want to avoid the book because of these triggers.

In my own case, I was also disturbed by the portrayal of Joseph Baier, the diamond magnate, when he appears on the stage. I understand that Baier has to be a villain, given his position of extreme power and his exploitation of black South Africans, but I’m not certain he had to be Jewish. Though some powerful investors in the diamond trade were indeed Jewish, Baier’s worst actions are based on those of Cecil Rhodes, the son of a Church of England vicar.

To clarify further, I don’t categorically object to Jewish villains, but I feel that when one is portrayed, it is extra important to avoid stereotypes. Baier’s portrayal skated very close to the edge of Nazi era stereotypes in that he was not only money-grubbing but also predatory and physically unattractive, though the latter was due to a corpulent physique and not to stereotypically Jewish features.

A scene in which Baier uses his knowledge of Frances’ personal life to blackmail her into rubbing his bare feet and breathes heavily while she does so struck me as offensive and I feel his power over her could have been portrayed in a more sensitive way.

I want to be clear, though, that the book also had a social conscience and took a stance against racism over and over. There is a scene in which a spoiled Frances, in one of her worst actions, complains about the laziness of a black maid and one of the men in her life reads her the riot act—I wanted to cheer when that last happened.

The love triangle at the center of the story frustrated me because it took Frances far too long to see the truth about these two men. One was strong minded, passionate about social justice and compassionate to others, while the second was power hungry, womanizing, immature, and by far the most damning of all in my eyes, openly racist.

I wanted to kill the second man, and I couldn’t understand why he had such emotional power over Frances, especially since during their first sexual encounter, her consent was in question. I can handle reading about unfaithfulness, but this man was so horrible that I didn’t feel Frances’ blindness where he was concerned was sufficiently supported in the text.

Two of the novel’s biggest strengths are its well-crafted prose and its scenic description of South Africa. So many images formed in my mind as I read it, and I especially loved the stark beauty of the Karoo, where Frances spends part of the novel.

I also enjoyed Frances’ turnaround, when it finally arrived. It was good to see her redeem herself in my eyes but I wish this had come sooner. I was a bit reminded of Kathleen Winsor’s Forever Amber when I read this novel because Frances took so long to come to her epiphany about the men, and more importantly, about herself and her own values.

As I said above, big stretches of the novel were difficult to read, and some even painful. Craft wise The Fever Tree was fairly well executed for the type of book it is, but it was also too triggering for me. C-.

Janine

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REVIEW:  Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

REVIEW: Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

Dear Ms. Hartman,

Your debut YA fantasy, Seraphina, set in a world based Renaissance Europe, is both a coming of age story and a tale of a clash between two species. Sixteen year old Seraphina Dombegh, the heroine of the novel, is the child of a human father and a dragon mother. The secret of her maternity is one she must hide at all costs.

SeraphinaIn this world, dragons are a logical, emotionless species, but they can take human shape and while doing so, experience human emotions – something they guard against vigilantly. A truce exists between the two species but there is also a lot of tension and bigotry. Most dragons in Goredd, Seraphina’s country, are required to wear a bell on their shoulder, although scholarly dragons are exempt.

From Seraphina’s narration, we learn that her father Claude had no idea his wife Linn was a dragon until Linn died giving birth to Seraphina. At first glance Seraphina appeared to be a normal human baby, and it was not until she was eleven that she discovered that she is not what she appears to be.

On that same occasion, Seraphina realized that her father’s odd friend Orma is really a dragon, her mother’s younger brother. Seeing Orma in his dragon shape broke open a cache of memories that Seraphina’s mother bequeathed to her. Seraphina passed out and had a vision in which she became her mother as she experienced one of these memories.

A distraught Seraphina returned to consciousness sick and feverish, and dragon scales appeared on her midriff and on her left forearm. Because of the bigotry and oppression dragons face in Goredd, Seraphina always hides her scales under layers of clothes. She is emotional and musically talented, two things dragons are not, so everyone takes her for human. It also helps that most humans and dragons don’t believe a half-human, half-dragon being such as Seraphina can exist.

Now, at age sixteen, Seraphina has become the music mistress in Castle Orison, assistant to the famed composer Viridius. Her father is unhappy about it; Seraphina is a brilliant musician and he is terrified that she will call attention to herself and the truth will come to light.

Seraphina feels isolated and alone with her secret. She does not dare get close to anyone lest that person discover the truth. The closest thing she has to a friend is Orma, and he does not express emotions. More than anything, Seraphina wants a friend, but for her own safety she rebuffs her fellow musicians and anyone else who attempts to befriend her.

Then, just as the treaty between Goredd and the dragons is about to be renewed and the nation awaits the arrival of Ardmagar Comonot, leader of the dragons, for that occasion, Prince Rufus, the queen’s son, is murdered.

Many suspect a dragon is behind the crime, and attacks against dragons increase. Prince Lucian Kiggs, a grandson of the queen and captain of her guard, is charged with investigating the murder. Lucian is illegitimate and was orphaned as a young child. Prince Rufus took him under his wing, so for Lucian, getting to the bottom of the truth is paramount.

An incident in which a dragon is attacked brings Seraphina to Lucian’s notice. He realizes how perceptive she is and begins to rely on her to notice clues. But Seraphina herself is a mystery, and mysteries are irresistible to Lucian. What will happen when he begins to dig into her life in search of answers?

Meanwhile, Seraphina herself has her share of mysteries to contend with. Not just who killed Prince Rufus, but also her mental garden of grotesques, a place peopled with beings whom she visits in her imagination, and who begin to show signs of independent life and thought.

Then there are the memories her mother left her, which Seraphina fears to allow herself to experience. And Orma and her father – are they what they appear to be?

But perhaps the biggest mystery of all is Seraphina herself. Forced to continually lie in order to hide her nature, she has no room to figure out who she is and how to be true to herself. Instead, she feels alienated from her scaly, “monstrous” body, from a mind which contains unwanted memories, from two societies that despise one another and from those who offer her friendship but whom she believes would hate her if they only knew.

Yet as Seraphina begins to accumulate clues to Rufus’ murder, to the garden of grotesques, to Orma, to her father, to her dead mother and to which friendships may be real enough to survive the truth, her alienation from her own body and spirit slowly lessens, and she begins to close the gap between the Seraphina she presents to the world and the Seraphina she is.

Thus, perhaps the biggest pleasure of the book is seeing Seraphina overcome obstacles which include her own dislike of herself, despite the bigotry she must face each and every day.

Seraphina is truly an impressive debut because the novel is strong on so many fronts. The worldbuilding is detailed and fresh, with well thought out cultures both in Goredd and the dragon realm.

There is an intricately plotted mystery which, in an interesting twist, is less about the whodunit question and more focused on the “Where is the killer?” question instead.

The novel’s pace is deliberate and thoughtful, but I wasn’t bored at any point. I’ve seen reviews by readers who felt that it was too slow, but I’m not one of them.

The characters are sometimes surprising and often intriguing, with Seraphina being the most layered of them all. Due to her standoffish aspect I only warmed to her gradually, but I also understood that her distance and deceitfulness were not parts of her nature, but rather, ways in which the prejudices she faced on a daily basis warped her behavior. Her brightness appealed to me and her isolation engendered my sympathy.

At times this book made for uncomfortable reading. Fantasy novels in which the characters must hide their true identity in order to escape persecution can be tough for me, and this book certainly fit that description. Seraphina’s feelings of being alien also reminded me of some experiences I had when I immigrated with my family to the country where I now live as a girl.

Ultimately, though, this was a well-written and rewarding novel. I can’t think of much negative to say about it other than that I guessed one or two plot twists ahead of time. I was reminded a bit of two favorite novels, Shana Abe’s The Smoke Thief, with its poetic language, historic backdrop and dragons who can take human shape, and to a greater degree Kristin Cashore’s Bitterblue, with its intricate plot and mysteries, its themes of oppression, secrets and the search for truth. Both books have an unusual richness, and while this book is as different from them as it is similar, it has that quality too. B+.

~Janine

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