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REVIEW: The Brahms Deception by Louise Marley

REVIEW: The Brahms Deception by Louise Marley

Dear Ms. Marley,

You hardly need my review, as you seem to be a fairly well-known and well-selling author—in scifi/fantasy. Certainly, I had never heard of you until I stumbled across your book at my library, which sports a lovely, romance-novel-type cover.

The Brahms Deception by Louise MarleyThat’s right. This is a case study in covers telling the reader what genre it is and successfully suckering a long-time romance reader jaded to all the subgenres. Because the cover had all the cues, I assumed certain things from the blurb.

Music scholar Frederica Bannister is thrilled when she beats her bitter rival, Kristian North, for the chance to be transferred back to 1861 Tuscany to observe firsthand the brilliant Johannes Brahms. Frederica will not only get to see Brahms in his prime; she’ll also try to solve a mystery that has baffled music experts for years.

But once in Tuscany, Frederica’s grip on reality quickly unravels. She instantly falls under Brahms’ spell—and finds herself envious of his secret paramour, the beautiful, celebrated concert pianist Clara Schumann. In a single move, Frederica makes a bold and shocking decision that changes everything…

When Frederica fails to return home, it is Kristian North who is sent back in time to Tuscany to find her. There, Kristian discovers that Frederica indeed holds the key to unraveling Brahms’ greatest secret. But now, Frederica has a dark secret of her own-one that puts everyone around her in devastating peril…

I’m a little embarrassed to admit the extent to which I was suckered. I was about halfway through the book when I realized this was not a romance. I didn’t know what it was, but I liked it.

I looked you up later to find out you are a scifi/fantasy author, which then made everything click. What can I say? I’m slow. Especially when the cover and blurb scream historical romance.

Clearly, this is a time-travel novel, which I don’t normally care for, but the premise of observing the past instead of interacting with the past was palatable for me. It also features artists of some kind, and I love artist stories.

It begins with the unlikely (at least, to a romance reader) scenario where the first character mentioned in the blurb and the book proper is actually not the protagonist. There are three points of view, all told in third person.

Frederica was a homely girl who has grown into a homely woman. She is also rich, spoiled, and ambitious—none of which is shown until about halfway through the book, which makes what she actually does in 1861 rather jolting to the reader. At the risk of spoilage, I will only say that she invades Clara Schumann’s personal space in rather more than a personal way. At first, the reader is sympathetic with Frederica, knowing her lifelong struggle with her ugliness, but as Frederica’s ambition ramps up, one loses any sympathy at all.

The real protagonist in this novel is Kristian North, whose name I read all the way through as “Kristin.” Really, “Kristian”? Now, while writing this review, I realize that at times, he read like a woman. He was too quick to take blame for his (justified) anger and apologize for it, which I don’t feel a man would have done after having been cheated of a position he’d earned by an indulgent (and very rich) father of a spoiled, ambitious woman. Money talks.

He is a sympathetic character, though, and his unprivileged ambition pays off in the end. There is a hint of romance with a secondary character, which was very sweet.

The main conceit of the book can be boiled down to this: Frederica had had a lifelong fascination with Brahms and, lacking any social life at all outside her immediate family, had a crush on him the way any other girl would have a crush on a rock star. By happenstance, Kristian was in the same position of having a crush on Clara Schumann. My only beef with this was that Kristian never seemed to understand that he and Frederica shared this personality trait.

The characterization of Clara Schumann was done very well and, though I don’t know how true to life it was, how 19th-century characters might have acted with somewhat more formal decorum, even when conducting a very secret affair, even in bed.

I can’t say much more about the relationship between Clara and Brahms during this time period because of spoilerage, except to say that the premise of historical research using observation time travel (where the travelers are essentially ghosts and cannot interact with the past) had not been tested thoroughly enough for the powers that be to know that the past could be changed via a specific (and despicable) mechanism.

I had other minor quibbles with the book, such as the ending feeling simultaneously rushed and too drawn-out. There was one particular act Frederica committed that was never explained how she did it.

The descriptions of scenes, landscapes, and ambiance were well done. Historical facts about Brahms and Clara were narrated from Clara’s point of view as if in flashback, so it didn’t feel like infodump. The explanation of the mechanism of time-travel made sense to me and it seemed you covered all the logical bases. Likewise, descriptions of the side effects of Kristian’s time-traveling made me about as dizzy as they made him, which is a definite win.

There was one line that made me laugh. Frederica, who despises children (and who is jealous of Clara’s relationship with Brahms), wonders about the nature of Clara’s lovemaking:

And she didn’t know if Clara—who had years of experience and a revolting flock of babies to show for it—was bold or shy. Modest or demonstrative.

I was mildly annoyed that I got suckered by the cover, which led me to assume things about the blurb. There was a bit of heavy-handed points made about morality (time-travel and illicit sex, to be specific). But I read the book in one sitting, so in spite of its flaws (and mine), it kept my attention. B-/C+.


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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+.


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