Venom by Fiona Paul
Venom is Fiona Paul’s debut novel. It’s historical YA and, in a slight departure from my usual reading, does not contain any fantasy of SF elements. It’s set in historical Venice and does involve a bit of a murder mystery, so I (correctly) presumed that it would not be entirely outside my usual reading comfort zone. A copy of this book was provided to me for review purposes by Harper Collins AU via NetGalley.
Cass — Cassandra — is a Venetian noble young woman who lives with her aging aunt and has been betrothed for many years to a boy she finds a bit dull. The story opens with her friend’s funeral and gets interesting when, that evening, Cass discovers her friend’s body in her family tomb has been replaced by another, obviously murdered, girl. In the course of making this discovery, she meets the mysterious and somewhat alluring Falco, a painter. Together they set out to try and learn who committed the murder and why. A quest that becomes somewhat more urgent when they discover a second body. And of course, betrothed Cass falls for the roguish Falco, even though he drags her through dangerous and eye-opening situations.
The opening of Venom annoyed me a little bit. It seemed that Cass fell into the cliché of feeling trapped in a noblewoman’s life and detesting sewing because it was an easy thing to complain about. I thought she ignored her fiancé’s existence too readily and, from comments that her other friend made, running off with Falco on a spur of the moment seemed somewhat out of character. She also complained about corsets a lot — and they do make a good metaphor for her supposed gilded cage — but in the end her corset proved to be rather useful. And the fact that she managed to sneak away several times without too much trouble does somewhat belie the caged part.
By the end, however, Cass was annoying me less. I felt that she ultimately made some sensible choices, even if she had to make some careless and selfish ones along the way. I also appreciated that her lesson learned was a bit subtle and didn’t attempt to bludgeon the reader over the head.
The other thing that bothered me was some of the modern American phrases that snuck in to the writing. The setting was pretty genuinely Venetian but there were some phrases which struck me as too modern — in the colloquial sense, rather than explicitly anachronistic — and clashed with the Italian words and phrases also thrown in.
Ultimately, I would recommend Venom to fans of YA or historical fiction. It’s the first in a series, but it’s quite self-contained. The only loose threads at the end are minor and I don’t have much idea which direction a sequel might take. I will be interested to see where it does go.
3.5 / 5 stars
Dodger by Terry Pratchett
Dodger is Terry Pratchett’s latest book and not, despite the cover, a Discworld novel. It’s set in Roundworld London in the first part for the 19th century, which of course bears no resemblance to Ankh-Morpork, not at all.
The back cover blurb:
Dodger is a tosher — a secret scavenger living in the squalor of Dickensian London.
Everyone who is nobody knows him. Anyone who is anybody doesn’t.
He used to know his future; it involved a lot of brick-lined tunnels and plenty of filth. But when he rescues a young girl from a beating, things start to get really messy.
Now everyone who is anyone wants to get their hands on Dodger.
When I first started reading, I found it very difficult to get Ankh-Morpork out of my head. He doesn’t mean the Thames, I thought, that’s clearly the Ankh! And indeed, Ankh-Morpork has always looked a bit like old London seen in the right light and from the right angle. It didn’t actually take me all that long to get into the swing of London as a setting. The different slang and the inclusion of real historical figures such as Queen Victoria and Charles Dickens definitely helped. And if you needed any more evidence that it’s set in Roundworld, there was a footnote referring the reader to Google.
I liked the eponymous character. He rises quickly from sewer-searching tosher to someone a bit more respectable, through no intentions of his own, never takes his eye off the ball and never forgets what’s important. He has a very strict moral code and, thanks to his room-mate/landlord Solomon Cohen, he knows how to wash to avoid catching anything horrible from the sewers. As a side note, hubby and I were arguing about how old Dodger is. I think he’s maybe twenty, give or take a year, but hubby insists that he’s a teenager, making Dodger a YA book. My thinking is, he must be old enough to shave regularly and being the stringy type that probably happened a bit later in life. Not that it’s important.
My favourite character was definitely Solomon Cohen, Jew living in England after doing a lot of escaping persecution across Europe and the Middle East. He helps keep Dodger on the straight and narrow by forbidding theft, making him wash and helping him spruce up when when the time comes. He’s also the character with the best lines, making him enjoyable to read.
Charles Dickens was also an interesting character and, overall, I suspect I might have got more out of Dodger if I’d read
more any Dickens. Which isn’t to say it wasn’t a highly enjoyable read without much prior knowledge of Dickens’ history.
I recommend Dodger to any Pratchett fans and to anyone wanting to get into Pratchett that perhaps isn’t a fan of fantasy. Written in the style of Discworld but without any magic, I think Dodger would make a good gateway drug to Pratchett’s other works.
4.5 / 5 stars
The Bewitching Tale of Stormy Gale by Christine Bell
The Bewitching Tale of Stormy Gale by Christine Bell is the second story set in the same world and with the same protagonists. I read it without reading the first novella, The Twisted Tale of Stormy Gale, also from Carina Press, and I didn’t feel this novel/novella (it’s right on the cusp) suffered for it. I suspect it contained many spoilers for the first story, and I can guess the general plot of the first story, but at no point did I feel lost or confused for not having read it.
That said, it’s possible this review might contain spoilers for The Twisted Tale of Stormy Gale simply because I’m not entirely sure which bits might be spoilery. You’ve been warned.
Stormy, as she is affectionately known, is apparently a time pirate. I say apparently because nothing particularly piratical takes place in BToSG (sorry, it’s too long to keep typing out), but it’s part of her back story. She was born in 19th century London, spent her childhood poor and on the streets until she was taken in by a time-traveller who took her and her adopted brother to the 21st century at age 14ish. Now living in the 19th century and married to the Duke of Leister, I found Stormy a little too blasé about her acquired wealth. I was willing to believe that hanging out in the 21st century modern mannerisms might have rubbed off on her, but I was unwilling to believe that after a childhood of poverty she could so casually mention her toddler daughter intentionally destroying a dress without being angry for her ungratefulness. (Especially since Stormy isn’t a bad person.) It was a really minor, throw-away line but it bothered me for the lack of authenticity.
The story revolves around Stormy identifying a suspicious time traveller, having her husband and brother help her follow him around and then a rescue adventure after her brother accidentally gets himself transported in time with aforementioned shifty time traveller. They end up in Salem a couple of years after the witch trials where her brother appearing out of time gets him arrested for witchcraft. Of course.
It was a fun read. Not the kind of story to be taken too seriously
because then you start noticing the people in the past sounding a little bit too much like modern Americans. There was a surprising twist near the end which livened it up after I thought the tying up of loose ends would be predictable. Stormy started out as brash and amusing but later on became a bit less of the strong heroine I was expecting. From what we learnt/were told about her, I expected more saving of the day on her part.
I’ve tagged it as romance, because it’s marketed thus, but the pairing isn’t the main character (since Stormy is already married). This didn’t bother me at all, but I thought maybe I should warn romance readers who might be expecting more.
Overall, I might pick up the first story and/or the sequel (when it becomes available at some unknown point in the future). I recommend it to anyone interested in a light time-travel story, with some light steampunk overtones and a bit of romance thrown in.
I received an advanced review copy of The Bewitching Tale of Stormy Gale courtesy of Carina Press. It will be released on the 28th May and will be purchasable from this link.
3.5 / 5 stars