(Melissa Scott talks about the air race that features in Steel Blues, one of the books featured in the Historic Fantasy Storybundle. Such a great deal on so many great books!)
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Because Steel Blues is featured in the current Historical Fantasy Storybundle, I thought I'd repost a piece from several years ago about how we got the idea for the Great Passenger Derby that features in the novel. Becasue sometimes you just can't make this stuff up...
The Great Passenger Derby is based loosely on a real air race held in 1930, the All-American Flying Derby, which was won by Lee Gehlbach and his Command-Aire MR-1, the Little Rocket. Like our imaginary race, the All-American Flying Derby offered an enormous purse — $25,000 to the first three finishers —and captured the imagination of the public.
I first encountered this race in the pages of the Arkansas Gazette, which I was reading as I researched an entirely different project. The Little Rocket, as you might guess from the name, had an Arkansas connection: Command-Aire was based in Little Rock, and Gehlbach’s entry was sponsored by a consortium that included Command-Aire’s owners and the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce. For Command-Aire, this was a desperate gamble: the Depression had hurt the company badly, and this was owner John Carroll Cone’s last chance to stave off complete dissolution. For the Chamber of Commerce, and the other sponsors, it was tremendous publicity, and the cash prize, half of which went to the sponsors, was just added incentive. The Gazette was happy to provide full front page coverage, and I followed along, thrilling to reports of bad weather and accidents, flyers forced to land in the desert, injured in crashes, and eliminated in various risky take-offs and landings. (And in other odd ways: Cecil Cofferin of Brooklyn collided with a car in the small California town where he landed for fuel, splintering a wing tip.) The race route covered 5541 miles, Detroit to Los Angeles and back again, and Gehlbach and the Little Rocket took an early lead and never really looked back.
After the win, Little Rock turned out for a parade in his honor, according to the Gazette, and the Chamber of Commerce brought Gehlbach and the Little Rocket back to town in the fall in an attempt to stimulate business, but the victory wasn’t enough revive Command-Aire. The company closed, and its owner ended up in Washington DC as an assistant director of the Air Commerce Bureau.
In designing the route of the Great Passenger Derby, we cribbed shamelessly from the first legs of the All-American Flying Derby: after all, if the fields could support the latter, they certainly could support our race. San Angelo, Texas, and Little Rock, Arkansas are on the route for precisely that reason. We also borrowed or were inspired by a number of the race regulations: the insistence on stock planes, for example. But the biggest thing we took from the All-American Flying Derby was the fact that it had happened — that a bankrupt aviation company had a chance to recoup all its losses by winning a single grueling race. How could that not become a novel?
My basic take is the same as for Fury Road: if I were an action movie fan, it would not be possible for a movie to target me more forcefully and specifically than this. I'm not an action movie fan, so there are sections where my reaction is, "Ho hum, can we get past the speeding around and blowing stuff up part and back to the interpersonal interactions part?" Ghostbusters had a bit higher people-to-explosions ratio than Fury Road, but they were both exellent in their own ways.
I'll leave off reviewing the premise, which is inherently goofy and doesn't stand anything in the way of scrutiny. The four principal actresses have outstanding chemistry and all play clearly distinct types without ever being reducd to sterotypes. Leslie Jones's Patty nails the type of local-history-geek who makes for great exposition. Kristen Wiig handles the initially-uptight academic, but redeems the character by the grace with which she's recalled to her original wonder and curiosity. Melissa McCarthy's character covers the combination of no-nonsense drive and tinfoil-hat focus needed to pull together a team of this sort. But it may come as no surprise that my heart belongs to Kate McKinnon's Holzmann--the archetypal mad scientist who mixes in the ass-kicking skills of an action hero.
It is evidently an open secret that Holzmann was supposed to be canonically lesbian. A few traces remain (like greeting Wiig's character with "Come here often?") but it would have been nice to have it confirmed in script by something more than innuendo. Definitely an icon for the ages!
The casting of Chris Hemsworth as the ditzy airheaded eye-candy secretary was a piece of genius. And the role is such over-the-top satire that I think reactions to the character can validly be used as a litmus test for sense of humor. The many call-backs to the original movie and cameos also add to the message that the movie is meant to be just plain fun. (I'm sure a lot of the cameos passed me by, due to the whole "somewhat face-blind" thing. But I did spot Murray and Aykroyd with no problem.)
I don't know that I'll be a repeat watcher of this movie, mostly because of the whole "not really my genre" thing. But it was a great way to spend a hot summer afternoon with the BFF.
I asked Twitter for a topic to write about--something frivolous, since I've been focusing so much on promotion lately--and Chasia Lloyd (@WriterCMLloyd) came through with, "What fashion trend do you wish would come back in style?"
I have an uneasy relationship with fashion and style. I spend a lot of time resisting the notion that I should put a lot of effort into "performing" through my appearance, rather than focusing on performing through accomplishments. I also sometimes let myself be manipulated by the desire to avoid attracting certain types of attention through dress. I blogged about that last year.
But today I'm going to answer in a totally frivolous context, rather than a sociological one.
The fashion that I love, and that I'd love to have the guts and the excuse to wear on a regular basis, is 1720s-1730s western European upper class men's wear. The embroidered waistcoats! The bright, full-skirted coats with the enormous cuffs and pocket flaps, all picked out with gold or silver braid! The buttons! And, of course, swaggering around with a gilded walking stick. *swoon* This sort of thing.
I've actually made a couple of dressy business suits that were inspired by that era, though I rarely have an appropriate context for wearing them. They're both a bit too dressy for the occasions at work when I might wear a suit, and yet at the same time, too subdued to fulfill my fashion fantasies. But there you go: the style I wish would come back so I'd have an excuse to wear it.
OK, let's just plunge into this.
It is, I suppose, a testament to Burnett's talent that the character of Ram Dass as an interesting, sympathetic, inventive, witty, and accomplished human being shines through from under the layers of Orientalism, condescention, and an oblivious racism that is shared by both the author and the viewpoint character. As the barest of backgrounds: Sara is up in the attic, taking a brief opportunity to view a gorgeous sunset through her garret window, when Ram Dass appears in the corresponding window of the house next door, holding a pet monkey. They acknowledge each other wordlessly, and then the monkey escapes and makes for Sara's open window, precipitating a closer encounter. Sara invites the man to climb over to her attic to catch the monkey. (I suppose we should imagine this to be a set of connected row houses, based on this scene and later ones.) He does so, gets a good look at her living conditions, thanks her, and leaves again.
A great deal of emphasis is placed on Ram Dass's subservient manner and his verbal performace of respect and gratitude. "He poured forth a flood of respectful thanks. ... [he] thanked Sara profoundly ... as if he were speaking to the little daughter of a rajah ... those moments were given to further deep and grateful obeisance." But his manner is not simply presented as a performance. And it never seems to occur to Sara that it is a performance, as opposed to a spontaneous expression of inner nature. When Sara reflects that, in her old life in India, she was "surrounded by people who all treated her as Ram Dass had treated her; who salaamed when she went by, whose foreheads almost touched the ground when she spoke to them, who were her servants and her slaves," she finds irony that she, who had been set so high is now insulted and mistreated by the other servants of the school. But it never seems to occur to her to map her experience onto those "servants and slaves" and recognize their equal personhood.
Well, no, why would it? This is a story about Sara's inherent nobility, not about her being a class revolutionary. And so she accepts the respect of Ram Dass as her due--as a reminder of a now-lost world. And that reminder inspires her to re-dedicate herself to being a princess, in behavior if not in station. I want to come back to Sara's peculiar notion of what it is to be a princess, but this entry is about Ram Dass.
It would be more comfortable if we were able to to read Ram Dass's behavior purely as a performace of servitude, necessary for comfortable survival in his situation of employment. But the authorial voice of Burnett disrupts this possibility by assigning elements of this performance as essential characteristic. When Sara greets him in Hindi, "The truth was that the poor fellow felt as if his gods had intervened, and the kind little voice came from heaven itself." (Note that if we are reading Ram Dass correctly as a Sikh, then "his gods" is wildly inaccurate, as Sikhism is monotheistic. So it's quite likely that despite the cultural trappings of the Sikh religion, the author is presenting him as relgiously Hindu. Or we can just chalk this up to an error from ignorance.)
There continues to be an interesting conflict between interpreting offensive stereotypes as authorial truth and as meta-performance. Ram Dass inhabits the trope of the "Ethnic Magician", but in a way that is explicitly fictional. That is, he is never ascribed actual supernatual power, but rather he is assigned--and takes up--the role of magician in being the driving engine (and most likely the mastermind) behind the "magical" transformation of Sara's attic, later in the story. Jumping ahead, we are repeatedly told of his ability to move soundlessly and invisibly, to observe without being obeserved. And in his discussions with Mr. Carrisford, the image of the magician is repeatedly invoked: "When she awakens [to the transformed attic] she will think a magician has been here." Mr. Carrisford's secretary tells him, "It will be like a story from the Arabian Nights. Only an Oriental could have planned it. It does not belong to London fogs."
In addition to tropes of supernatural Orientalist fantasy, Ram Dass is occasionally infantilized--he does not simply enjoy things, he experiences "a childlike pleasure" or is "filled with rapture" (a description he shares with Becky). On one element under this general umbrella, I will acquit Burnett. When Ram Dass describes how he would sneak across the roof at night to spy on Sara in her bedroom, the lack of any whiff of a sexual element is not a specific desexualization of Ram Dass but a blanket desexualization of the story entirely.
It is not enough simply to say that the book is a product of it's times, or that Burnett is actually quite enlightened in how she presents Ram Dass for her day and age. One of the reasons I have labeled this series as a "problematic favorite" is that I recognize that the presentation of his character is offensive and riddled with stereotypes, and that this presentation goes unchallenged even by the nominally enlighted protagonist. Despite the positive character traits that shine through it all, I squirm every time I read or listen to these passages. (In the same way I squirm every time Georgette Heyer's The Grand Sophy gets to the Jewish moneylender chapter. Though it isn't nearly as bad as that one.)
Next week, I'll tackle Sara's rather startling choice of Marie Antoinette as a role model.
In presenting teasers for Mother of Souls, I find myself jumping around a little. Since I'll mostly be choosing "atmosphere" scenes, in order to avoid spoilers, I hope no one will find it confusing. (I make no promises about spoilers for the first two books. If you don't want those, then go out and read them already!) Today's excerpt skips back to Chapter 2, Barbara's first chapter, when she has finally traveled to take formal possession of her new lands in Turinz.
I am inordinately fond of the supporting character René LeFevre, Margaret's business manager and Barbara's oldest friend from when he served in the same capacity for the late Baron Saveze. He was a significant presence in Daughter of Mystery, not least because he served as a foundation stone for both women as they struggled through the changes in their lives. I've been sorry that there hasn't been a good opportunity to continue that level of presence, but I have a lot of characters to juggle and the women come first. It's quite possible that, at some point, I'll feature LeFevre in one of the stand-alone short stories I have planned. (It's how I console myself when I cut various subplots from the novels. It's also a way of getting around some of the rules I have for viewpoint characters in the novels--though those may soften up eventually.)
But in Mother of Souls, I provide a bit of context for why LeFevre might be stepping a bit more into the background of the action.
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[From Chapter 2]
LeFevre ran a hand through his thinning hair leaving an uncharacteristically unkempt look, then drew off his spectacles and closed his eyes briefly. “We’ll need to find someone trustworthy to take on the management here. Someone local who knows all the secrets, and then a second clerk to keep him honest. And you should find someone in Rotenek to oversee the Turinz accounts separately.”
“Separately?” Barbara was startled. “Do you expect it to be that much work?”
He shuffled the papers before him and stacked them neatly. Barbara knew it for a delaying move. It was a habit of his before opening a delicate subject.
That caught her attention. He hadn’t addressed her by her Christian name since the day Prince Aukust had set the signet of Saveze on her finger.
“Barbara, I’m not a young man. Haven’t been for a very long time. With Maisetra Sovitre’s properties, and your lands in Saveze…I don’t think I can do justice to another entire estate.”
Barbara examined him closely. Did he indeed look more tired than usual or was he only now allowing it to show? Or had she simply not been paying attention? There had been a time in her life when that inattention could have been fatal. She tried to remember LeFevre’s age. Near what her father’s had been. Marziel Lumbeirt had fallen before his time, but… She felt a worm of fear. In many ways, LeFevre had been more of a father to her than the old baron had been. How could she not have taken more care for him?
“Of course,” she said quickly. “We’ll find someone. Perhaps it might be better to appoint separate managers for all of the properties. That would leave you to review accounts and read their reports.”
LeFevre let his breath out in a sigh. “I don’t know. That’s becoming the worst of it. The reading. My eyes. Mostly Iannipirt reads for me these days, but…”
Barbara followed his thoughts. A clerk who could no longer read was crippled indeed, even with as faithful a secretary as Iannipirt at his side. “Why didn’t you ask Ianni to come with you? He would always be welcome at Saveze.”
“I didn’t want to say anything,” LeFevre continued. “It comes and goes. And Ianni spends the summer with family. The holiday is good for both of us.”
Barbara reached out and took his hand. “You should have told me. Did you think I’d turn you out into the street?”
They both laughed at that. He had enough properties and investments of his own in Rotenek to live comfortably. But most of his life had been given in service to Saveze. It must pain him to admit his growing incapacity.
One of the questions raised by today's LHMP post is, "What does it meant to identify a poem or a poet as 'lesbian'?" especially in an era with different categories and expectations than our own. I raised a similar question in yesterday's blog about queer characters in historical fiction. When we write a character in a historic setting, we're telling two stories: the story of how that character relates to the past, and the story of how that character relates to present-day readers. When the character and the readers fit into cultural defaults (e.g., straight, white, middle-to-upper class, and usually male) the necessary distinctions between those two stories are not as often challenged as when either character or readers are marginalized. If someone had written a study of Katherine Phillips that presented the passionate expressions in her poetry as nothing more than metaphor, and her relationships with women as simply very close friendships, they would not feel the need to proclaim, "Katherine Phillips, Straight Poet".
Fiction is a great way to break through those quiet assumptions about the past, which is why I'm once again going to plug the Historic Fantasy StoryBundle as a great way to enjoy both rip-roaring adventures and non-default characters. (You knew I was going to find a way to do that, didn't you?)
Hobby, Elaine. 1991. “Katherine Philips: Seventeenth-Century Lesbian Poet” in Hobby, Elaine & Chris White (eds). What Lesbians do in Books. Women’s Press, London.
I rather suspect that Hobby is being deliberately provocative in calling Katherine Philips a "lesbian poet", but it certainly caught my attention to track down when I saw it in a bibligraphy citation.
Hobby looks at the work of 17th century English poet Katherine Philips, and in particular the subset that expresses sentiments of deep emotional attachment to women that could reasonably be classified as erotic, though never in an overtly sexual manner.
Philips was married at age 15 to a 54-year old widower, and in the subsequent 18 years before her death of smallpox, produced large quantities of poetry, some of which was published during her lifetime. Like many of her contemporary poets, she wrote using a classically inspired “persona” name, Orinda, and addressed poems to friends by similar aliases (especially Anne Owen, who became Lucasia in the poems), which may in part of diffused concerns about the emotional intensity of the content.
Hobby begins with a general historic background of the English restoration era (mid 17th century), focusing on progressive social and religious movements, including ones that supported women’s professional partnerships. These partnerships were often expressed in romantic language. The purpose to this introduction seems to be to establish the normalcy is such emotional expressions in public discourse. This discussion moves on into a consideration of the relationship between non-sexual emotional bonds and erotic desire, when they intersect in conventional literary expressions.
In this, she challenges Lillian Faderman’s interpretation that pre-modern women did not consider their passionate feelings for other women to be sexual in nature and therefore did not act on them. Hobby notes [and I’ll discuss this in more detail when I eventually cover Faderman’s work] that this position erases the shifting nature of perceptions of women’s sexuality in general over time, which certainly does not support a blanket assertion that pre-modern women did not consider anything other than penetrative heterosexual intercourse to be “sexual.” Hobby’s position is that while one cannot assume that the erotic nature of the language used by Philips and her contemporaries is proof that they had sexual relations with each other, neither can one presume that such a possibility is out of the question. Hobby also spends a paragraph challenging Foucault’s position that a concept of “homosexual identity” is a modern invention.
As evidence, she adduces historical cases such as Greta von Mösskirch (16th c Germany), where contemporary commentary runs through several possible explanations for Greta’s erotic desire for women, including physiology, astrology, and bad morals. Also noted is the 17th c. medical treatise by Jane Sharp, which acknowledges erotic practices between women but situates it as a foreign practice.
As the title of this article indicates, Hobby is specifically concerned with identifying Philips’s work as having “lesbian” content. Philips’s contemporaries who published her work took some care to assert her “virtue,” while overtly comparing her to Sappho. While the comparison may have been intended to speak only to Sappho’s reputation as a poet, the two bodies of work share the characteristic of using the structures and tropes of heterosexual love poetry in contexts where both the lover and beloved are unmistakably female. Modern criticism of Philips’s poetry veers between asserting her lesbianism and proclaiming her expressions to be purely Platonic. Each position derives from different framings and omissions of the evidence.
The remainder of the article consists of close readings of several of the most overtly erotic of her poems, including “Orinda to Lucasia” (which could be read either as a love poem, or as a monarchist allegory), “Orinda to Lucasia Parting, October 1661, at London” (a poem commemorating a specific separation from her close friend Anne Owen), “Injuria Amicitiae”, “Friendship’s Mystery” (celebrating the joys of social equals in love), “To my Excellent Lucasia, on our Friendship” (an intense expression of Philips’s experience of their bond).
At least one of the members of Philips’s circle acknowledged the lesbian sensibility of her poetry, in a coded verse contributed as a preface to the 1667 edition of Philips’s work. The myth of Apollo and Daphne is used to imply that the laurels that Apollo took by force to represent poetic excellence (Daphne turned into a laurel tree to escape Apollo’s sexual assault) would be offered freely to Orinda (Philips) and those inspired by her. That is, Daphne rejected Apollo’s sexual advance, but would reward Philips with herself, both body and laurels.
A lot of good blog topics start out, “So somebody asked me about....” Well, nobody asked me about this, but it would be a very excellent question and I’m kind of surprised nobody has. Let’s pretend it happened. So nobody asked me, “Heather, given that you write stories with lesbian protagonists, why the heck do you put them in oppressive historic settings? Why not put them in contemporary settings? After all, it’s rather an exciting time to be non-heterosexual in the USA. Or why not put them in futuristic settings where we can imagine that prejudice will be entirely eliminated? If you’re going to create secondary world fantasies, why use ones that carry over prejudice from our own past? Why not create a fantasy world -- even a pseudo-medieval one -- where being LGBTQ simply isn’t an issue?”
I wrote a blog with that opening paragraph back two years ago. And my answer boils down to this: I refuse to cede history to straight people. I refuse to let stand the position that same-sex desire was invented by late 19th century sexologists. That lesbian history started in the ‘50s with butch-femme culture. That the only pre-20th century gay stories are tragic ones. I refuse to accept that it is not possible to find and write satisfying historic novels about queer people. I refuse to yield the stage, abandoning it to default to straight actors. I love the rich and detailed tapestry of history and I have as much right to own it as anyone else.
It seems I’m not the only author to take that position. The Historic Fantasy Storybundle has representation from a wide spectrum of sexualities. Character sexuality doesn’t alway fit well into a book blurb, but here’s what I’ve been able to identify, with the help of the authors.
Steel Blues by Melissa Scott and Jo Graham traces a coast-to-coast air race in the early 20th century, with the aviation team beset by both supernatural and human perils. One of the several protagonists is a gay man.
The Emperor's Agent by Jo Graham follows the exploits of a bisexual woman blackmailed into becoming an agent for the Emperor Napoleon in a France where not all the battlefields are mortal.
Daughter of Mystery by Heather Rose Jones plunges two young women into the excitement and danger of exploring mystical talents, while juggling the hazards of early 19th century high society and trying solve the mystery of their past. They add to those hazards by falling in love.
The Virtuous Feats of the Indomitable Miss Trafalgar and the Erudite Lady Boone by Geonn Cannon is a steampunk thriller in which several women, some of them lesbians, forge an unlikely partnership to stop an ancient evil.
The same author wrote Stag and Hound, an occult shape-shifter adventure set in WWII. The four protagonists include two gay men and two lesbians.
The Death of the Necromancer by Martha Wells takes place in the gas-light world of Ile-Rien where noblemen, thieves, and necromancers clash wits. A significant supporting character, Captain Reynard Morane, is gay, and features as a protagonist in one of the stories in...
Between Worlds by Martha Wells, which collects shorter stories set in Ile-Rien.
The Armor of Light by Melissa Scott and Lisa A. Barnett brings real historic figures to its stage, including playwright Christopher Marlowe as one of the protagonists.
Similarly, Judith Tart’s Lord of the Two Lands tackles the story of Alexander the Great, including a realistic portrayal of sexual attitudes of the times and his relationship with Hephaistion.
I haven’t been able to confirm whether the other two books in the StoryBundle (PIllar of Fire by Judith Tarr and The Orffyreus Wheel by David Niall Wilson) have any significant LGBTQ characters, but the bundle contains plenty to interest historic fantasy readers who wish to stray from the straight path.
(Apologies if I’ve misrepresented any of these characters or their settings. In writing brief sumaries, I may have emphasized aspects differently from what may strike the reader.)
You can buy the Historic Fantasy StoryBundle for as little as $5 for the basic bundle of five titles, or get an additional six titles if you pay more than $15. All details are explained at the website.
Back last year when Melissa Scott contacted me about being part of this StoryBundle offer, I was totally blown away. Here Melissa is, explaining why she did this project and how it works.
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The Historical Fantasy Bundle - Curated by Melissa Scott
My favorite fantasy novels are the ones that ground the fantastic in the historical — that use pieces of our known past to build their fantasy worlds. Partly, of course, that's because I was trained as a historian, and seeing bits of esoteric detail used to buttress an entirely new story is always a delight, but even when I don't know the period well, there's something tremendously satisfying about seeing the details of the past used as scaffolding for new stories. The historical imagination and the fantastic imagination have a lot in common, after all: both take known data points as scaffolding on which to hang a narrative. The difference, usually, is that the fantasy writer has created the data as well as the story. In these novels, however, fact and fiction mingle, whether the author is placing fantastic events in a real and familiar world or using that familiar history as a basis for a fantastic setting.
In this collection I've been able to bring together an extraordinary group of writers who draw their inspiration from Western history, in periods from Ancient Egypt through the Second World War. There are classics like the World Fantasy Award-nominated Lord of the Two Lands and the Nebula-nominated Death of the Necromancer, and newer novels like Daughter of Mystery and The Emperor's Agent — and Stag and Hound, just released in April. What these novels have in common, across these very different periods, is a depth to and delight in their worlds, in the precise detail and pitch-perfect moment that not only propels the story, but makes it utterly, dazzlingly real.
If you pay the minimum, you'll receive five novels, Jo Graham's The Emperor's Agent, Heather Rose Jones's Daughter of Mystery, Martha Wells's The Death of the Necromancer, Geonn Cannon's The Virtuous Feats of the Indomitable Miss Trafalgar and the Erudite Lady Boone, and David Niall Wilson's The Orffyreus Wheel — a set that will take you from the Egypt of Alexander the Great almost to the present day. Pay the bonus minimum, and you'll receive six more: Judith Tarr's Lord of the Two Lands, Geonn Cannon's Stag and Hound, Jo Graham and Melissa Scott's Steel Blues, Judith Tarr's Pillar of Fire, Martha Wells's Between Worlds, and Melissa Scott and Lisa A. Barnett's The Armor of Light, taking you from Akhenaten's Egypt to Elizabethan England to World War II. I'm really proud to have persuaded such talented group of writers to join in this StoryBundle. The past may seem a foreign country, but in their capable hands, you'll feel entirely at home. – Melissa Scott
The initial titles in The Historical Fantasy Bundle (minimum $5 to purchase) are:
If you pay more than the bonus price of just $15, you get all five of the regular titles, plus six more:
The bundle is available only for a limited time via http://www.storybundle.com. It allows easy reading on computers, smartphones, and tablets as well as Kindle and other ereaders via file transfer, email, and other methods. You get multiple DRM-free formats (.epub and .mobi) for all books!
It's also super easy to give the gift of reading with StoryBundle, thanks to our gift cards – which allow you to send someone a code that they can redeem for any future StoryBundle bundle – and timed delivery, which allows you to control exactly when your recipient will get the gift of StoryBundle.
Why StoryBundle? Here are just a few benefits StoryBundle provides.
StoryBundle was created to give a platform for independent authors to showcase their work, and a source of quality titles for thirsty readers. StoryBundle works with authors to create bundles of ebooks that can be purchased by readers at their desired price. Before starting StoryBundle, Founder Jason Chen covered technology and software as an editor for Gizmodo.com and Lifehacker.com.
Eighteenth-century opera and alchemy and convoluted plots against royalty and improbable romances! There's a lot of alignment with my interests there, so the only question was whether Burgis could pull it off in terms of the story-telling. Short version: yes.
The newly widowed Baroness Charlotte von Steinbeck has come to stay with her younger sister Sophie at the dazzling Eszterhaza palace, home of Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy who is patron to the talented composer Haydn and host to the famous castrato Carlo Morelli, as well as an odd assortment of alchemists. Prince Nikolaus also happens to be Sophie's lover, and the domestic politics including Sophie's husband and the reclusive princess are only the beginning of the tangle that Charlotte has fallen into.
The story combines a number of honorable and likeable characters, several outright nasty villains, and a larger number of people desperately trying to find a path to survival, whether that path is honorable or not. The prose doesn't stint on the callous violence meted out by people of privillege, or the ruthlessness of those driven either by a cause or by revenge, but neither does it overly dwell on those aspects. The background of musical production and performance in the later 18th century was solidly grounded. The promised alchemy was a bit more on the side of pseudo-Masonic ritual and sorcery than philosophical endeavors in the laboratory, bringing in the fantasy elements that are responsible for the major climax.
Given the genre of the book we are never in doubt that the improbable romance will turn out well. The only question is whether we will believe in that ending. I did, though perhaps I have the advantage of a great deal of reading in the history of the era. Given birth and privilege, one could make some very improbable choices if one were willing to include the necessary sacrifices.
I found Masks and Shadows to be a quick read, and one that passed my "treadmill test" with flying colors. (Since most of my pleasure reading is done on the elliptical at the gym, I evaluate books based on whether they make me lose track of when my session is supposed to end.)
Before I dig into the chapter in which Sara meets Ram Dass, I'd like to talk a bit about one curious inconsistency regarding him.
I presume that the character of Ram Dass in A Little Princess was named after one of the significant early figures in the development of the Sikh religion in the 16th century, Guru Ram Dass. I have no idea whether it is a typical Sikh practice to name children after significant founding figures. It's interesting that the book never identifies him as a Sikh specifically, but rather as a "lascar", which is neither an ethnic nor religious label, but more in the line of a job description. Per Wikipedia, the term lascar applied originally to sailors from India or south-east Asia generally who took service on European ships. But it also came to be used to indicate an Indian servant, especially those employed by British military officers. It is in this latter sense that Ram Dass is identified as a lascar, although the nautical sense is used early in the book as well. Ram Dass is desribed as wearing a turban, which is strongly consistent with identifying him as a Sikh. We may easily presume that he entered Mr. Carrisford's employ in India at some time well previous to the disaster around the diamond mines, and traveled with him to England.
One of the first things we learn about Ram Dass is that he speaks Hindi. (WIkipedia indicates that the primary language associated with the Sikh community is Punjabi, but that Hindi is also spoken.) In fact, later in the book, in the context of his interactions with the Carmichael children, it is noted, "[Ram Dass] could have told any number of stories [about India] if he had been able to speak anything but Hindustani." And when Sara first meets him and speaks to him in Hindi, "[Sara] thought she had never seen more surprise and delight than the dark face expressed when she spoke in the familiar tongue."
So. In that case, when Ram Dass is describing his interaction with Sara to Mr. Carrisford, how does it never come up that the little girl who lives in the attic next door speaks Hindi? Now, it's possible that Ram Dass never mentions this point, and that he describes Sara's circumstances without ever mentioning that they'd had a conversation. But the subject is touched on again when Ram Dass and Mr. Carrisford's secretary are surveying Sara's attic in preparation for redecorating it as a surprise. Ram Dass mentions that he spies on Sara sometimes at night and has heard her describe to her friends her "pretends" about how the attic could be made over into something more comfortable. Presumably Sara wan't speaking Hindi to the other girls!
We can squeak through on plausibility if we make two allowances. First: that Ram Dass--as most multilingual people--has a passive linguistic competency that's larger than his speaking competency. So it's plausible that he could follow what Sara was describing in English but that he wasn't comfortable telling stories in English to the Carmichael children. Secondly: we may presume that Mr. Carrisford's secretary is fluent in Hindi and this is the language in which they are discussing the redecoration of the attic.
But that still leaves us with the puzzle that Ram Dass knows that his employer is searching for a little girl who was born and raised in India, and he knows that the little girl in the attic next door speaks Hindi, and he never thinks to mention this matter. It is, of course, an essential plot element. But this goes beyond Donald Carmichael's observation that if he'd just asked Sara's name when he gave her his Christmas sixpence, then he could have told Mr. Carrisford exactly where Sara Crewe was, the first time Carrisford mentioned who he was searching for. After all, one doesn't typically ask the names of beggar girls. But conversely, running into a servant girl in London who speaks fluent Hindi would seem to be a matter worth mentioning.
Of course, the other option is that I'm looking for logical consistency in an idiot-plot motif.
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Obviously, my usual weekly schedule got hijacked yesterday in favor of the Storybundle announcement. For the next three weeks, you're going to get regular reminders about the Historic Fantasy StoryBundle that Daughter of Mystery is included in. I'll be running some guest-posts on that topic periodically. If you want a sampler of a variety of great stories by fabulous authors (and especially if you like your history a bit on the queer side), check it out!