What Janine is Reading: DNF Edition #2
Seven years ago I devoted one of my What Janine is Reading posts to three books I did not finish. Now it’s time to do it again. None of the three books I review here are bad; all of them are quite good in several regards. But I still put them down without finishing. Below are my thoughts on why.
I’ve been in search of a new author of satisfying historical romance with some attention to historicity. Good word of mouth made me think Dominguez might be one. The blurb held appeal as well:
Since Beatrice Thornton was 13 years old she’s been living with a secret that could ruin her family forever. Her parents are the only ones who know, and now, seven years later, they are forced to put on a sham for Beatrice’s late first Season. The plan, make Beatrice as mousy and ill-clothed as possible so no suitor would consider her. Then they can all escape back to their country home in Dorset to keep the terrible secret safe. But the unthinkable happens… Beatrice meets a man who gives her hope of a normal life, and Beatrice dares to love with horrible consequences.
Captain Henry Gracechurch has resigned his commission after living through the horrors and waste of war. Recently returned from Spain, Henry is cajoled by his formidable godmother to make an appearance at one of her famous balls. When he sees a young woman abandoned on the dance floor, honor commands him to save the day. Nothing could have prepared him for meeting the person who is a balm to his soul and gives wings to his heart. But winning Beatrice Thornton will take every ounce of courage he has, and this is a war he will win, no matter the cost.
The book begins as Beatrice Thornton is being fitted for a new wardrobe. The modiste is puzzled and frustrated; when Beatrice’s sister made her debut, their mother collaborated in selecting flattering colors and pretty fabrics for her older daughter’s wardrobe. For Beatrice she chooses only frumpy, unattractive clothes. The dressmaker advises Beatrice to make the most of her shawls so that her season will be a success.
Beatrice knows her season never will. No man can be permitted close enough to discover a secret that taints her. If the truth comes out, her family will be disgraced, their names and reputations ruined. Beatrice must stay dowdy; she can’t have suitors or even friends.
But at her first ball, Beatrice unexpectedly snags the interest of a man who could become both. After she is stranded in the middle of the ballroom floor by another man, Henry Gracechurch, a young captain back from the Napoleonic wars, steps into the breach. Battle-weary Henry feels rested and revitalized in Beatrice’s sweet and witty presence. The next day he asks to take her to the park. Beatrice accepts but her mother is alarmed.
There’s a lot to like in Her Caprice. The main characters are quick-witted and softhearted. Their banter is clever and they have nice chemistry. Henry is honorable, kind and loyal; he politely resists when a friend presses him for secret details about the war. Beatrice listens with empathy. She is lonely and longs for companionship. Their dialogue is lovely and suited to the time period.
Unfortunately my interest dissipated when Beatrice’s dark secret was revealed.
Sometimes the weakest thing about a book isn’t content but misleading marketing. The packaging suggests that Her Caprice is a historical romance, not a historical paranormal. And the text doesn’t clarify this upfront either. There’s nothing to hint that the secret involves a magical ability until the first major turning point at 20%. The plot hinges on the secret, so it’s not as if the fantastical aspects of the story are mere side elements. They play an important role.
I spent 20% of the book wondering what Beatrice’s secret could possibly be and when it was revealed I was thrown for a loop. All the expectations that the book created turned out to be false. It’s not that I am categorically opposed to historical paranormals—I might have liked this one if I had known what I was about to read. But since I didn’t know it felt like a cheat. I tried to stick with the book but couldn’t. When an author betrays a reader’s trust, it’s hard to have faith that there won’t be more unwanted surprises. DNF at 24%.
In this historical romance, Lucy Muchelney’s astronomist father has recently died. To support his dream of being an artist, Stephen, her brother, plans to sell her telescope. Lucy is gifted at astronomy calculations so this hurts her heart. That organ is already bruised because Priscilla Carmichael, her lover, recently discarded her to marry a gentleman.
Then a letter from Catherine St. Day, Countess of Moth, arrives. Catherine is the widow of an astronomer. She writes that she has promised the members of the Polite Science Society that she would fund a translation of a French astronomy text by an astronomer named Oleron. The purpose of her letter is to offer Lucy’s father the job of translator. Lucy seizes on the opportunity. Money could make her brother see that her telescope is worth keeping. She arrives on Catherine’s doorstep with luggage and offers to translate the book herself.
Catherine’s late husband was abusive so Catherine has no trust in scientists and their obsessions, but she is impressed with Lucy’s obvious intelligence and knowledge. She introduces Lucy at the society’s meeting and presents her as a candidate for the translation job. When the men who run the group reject the proposal because of Lucy’s gender, Catherine withdraws her funding from their project and offers to finance Lucy’s translation independently.
A couple of weeks later, while visiting her mother’s friend, Aunt Kelmarsh, Catherine realizes that the her “aunt” was actually her mother’s lover. Catherine wants a lover but a man presents a problem: he may expect her to marry him. Her husband’s abuse has convinced Catherine never to surrender her independence again. Lucy seems like a perfect answer to Catherine’s desires since they are attracted to each other and can’t marry anyhow. Catherine decides to persuade Lucy to become her lover and Lucy is more than amenable.
I feel a little bad about giving The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics a DNF because there’s much to recommend it. The writing is elegant and lovely, with metaphors like “the idea flowered like a bruise, with a dark and silent ache,” or “You could never mistake the sound of true grief, once you had felt it yourself. It made the mettle of the soul ring in sympathy, like one bell softly chiming whenever its neighbor was struck.” The characters are likable. I love the details about astronomy and botany. And the book’s feminist theme is woven with a period feel so that it reads as very plausible, not shoehorned in.
But it’s hard to see anything that would keep Lucy and Catherine apart. Both are nice people, both like each other, and both want to become lovers. Where’s the romantic tension or suspense? The same is true of the external plot about publishing the translation. After the disastrous Polite Science Society’s meeting ends and Catherine decides to finance Lucy’s translation, there isn’t anything to prevent the translation from happening either, at least not in the section I read.
These two things made the book feel, for all the elegant beauty of the writing and the potentially touching situation that the characters are in, kind of dry. It was easy to put down and verged on boring. The romance doesn’t have much spark but the writing is good enough that I plan to try this author again. DNF at 30%.
Sirius reviewed this book a year and a half ago and gave it a B. You can find her thoughts on the book here.
The powerful empire of Teixcalaan requests that a small mining station near its outer reaches send them a new ambassador. No explanation is provided as to whether the previous ambassador is dead, ill, or imprisoned. Mahit Dzmare is chosen to be the new ambassador.
On the station, people in important jobs merge their minds with the memories and thoughts of those who held their positions before via an implant called an imago device. The idea is that the consciousness of their predecessors will support and aid them. Mahit is implanted with the memories of the old ambassador, Iskander, in this way.
Mahit and Iskander’s mental fusion isn’t given sufficient time to work properly; instead of one consciousness, two people are living in Mahit’s head. When she arrives on the capital planet and learns that Iskander was poisoned, the Iskander who shares her consciousness can’t tell her why. His memory was last uploaded to the imago device fifteen years earlier so neither of them knows what happened to him in the intervening years.
Soon after they learn that he poisoned, Mahit’s implant goes glitchy and Iskander disappears on her almost entirely. Someone on her home station sabotaged the connection, she later learns. With the help of her kind and helpful Teixcalaanli aide, Three Seagrass, Mahit has to figure out who did that and who the murderer is, while her life, too, is at risk.
There’s more going on than just this. The emperor is dying and a definitive successor hasn’t been chosen, some members of the public agitate for a change, terrorist attacks take place, and in the far outreaches, near Mahit’s home, evidence of a frightening alien race emerges.
A Memory Called Empire is in many ways very strong and I can understand why it won this year’s Hugo award. It has interesting characters, an unusual world, novel technologies and smart plotting. The heroine is thrust into a desperate situation and caught in deadly intrigue on a world she is unfamiliar with, a terrific concept. Yet despite all this, I couldn’t conjure an emotional connection with the character or with the book.
I had a few more minor issues, too. A few names and terms were tongue-twisters—try figuring out how to pronounce Teixcalaanlitzlim. The society of Teixcalaan felt strange and foreign. The predominance of highly advanced technology gives the reader the experience of a great distance in time; the book is not an easy crossover to fantasy readers like some SF books are.
But the thing is, none of this should have kept me from enjoying it. In fact some of these aspects are things I have considered pluses in other books. I have enjoyed books with hard-to-pronounce names and terms (The Goblin Emperor), advanced technologies (The Three Body Problem, Ancillary Justice) and unusual societies (The Left Hand of Darkness). The thriller aspect should have given the novel narrative power. Mahit faces difficult obstacles, alone and far from home. These are strong reasons to care about what happens to her.
But I didn’t. My reading experience was more cerebral than emotional. I’ve liked some cerebral books but I need to feel emotionally invested in a situation (or better yet, a situation and a character) to enjoy even a cerebral book. A Memory Called Empire is well-written and I can see why others love it but I read it with detachment and boredom. This novel has been compared to Ancillary Justice and I can understand that comparison but whereas that book thrilled me I was indifferent to this one.
There’s such a thing as reader / book chemistry. Just as we don’t click with some people we may not click with some books. That is an unsatisfying explanation for my response to A Memory Called Empire but it’s the only one I can come up with. A book can be well-crafted and still fail to move us and that’s what happened to me here. DNF at 32%.