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.
The 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?”
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.