This was a Netgalley book for review. There are spoilers below...
You know the saying about only having one shot at a first impression? That's the first thing that keeps coming to mind about this book, in a couple of ways.
First, the genre baffled me. As always, Kindle book + no memory of what the synopsis said + no cover to judge by (not that the cover, deceptively pretty as it is, is so helpful) = mild befuddlement. Oh, okay, I thought, it's a fantasy, with witches in sixteenth century Scotland. Wait. Historical fiction. Wait. Fantastic hist-fic – no, hist-rom? What it is, I guess, is a mélange of romance (with its full portion of romance tropes), historical fiction (on shaky ground), and a smattering of fantasy (witchcraft = real). As so often happens with a book like this, I just kind of wish it had stuck to one thing or another, and not tried to do everything.
This was my first book by the author, and considering this is the sixth book in a series that's a little awkward. I will say the author does a pretty nice job of bringing a newcomer up to speed, with only occasional moments of (before I finally checked to see whether there was indeed a series) "that incident alluded to there has to have had a whole 'nother book of its own." That happened quite often. Still, there isn't too much reliance on a reader's previous knowledge. Whether that would be enjoyable for someone who has followed the series, I don't know – I picture frequent pauses to say "I know. I was here" – but it worked pretty well for a newbie.
The other part of the book's strange first impression was that the prologue was one of those intensely irritating ones in which something tumultuous happens – and then chapter one opens years later and miles and miles away with an entirely different cast of characters. (I understand the temptation to write such a prologue, and am in fact guilty myself in the book I'm trying to write. That doesn't mean I hate them less in my reading. It just means that I'm going to try to find a better way to do it myself.) One main factor in the irritation is that I spent the next several chapters wondering which of the two men introduced as main characters had been the teenager in the prologue.
And it's to those two men the "first impressions" thing applies as well. They are introduced in a threatening atmosphere: a village girl is giving every appearance of being possessed, and Meg, the Lady of Faire Isle, has been called in to try to help her – and at great personal risk, she has come. Any given moment could see the village ignite into superstitious/religious fervor against the girl, against Meg as a witch, against the eccentric old lady the girl is accusing of having cursed her … And the two strangers who are staying in the village are not helping. One is obviously a gentleman, his companion a physician who would have had to work hard to impress Meg more negatively. The description of him is chilling.
First: "… with enough light, the devil could be kept at bay. It hadn't worked, Meg thought with a small shiver. He hovered over the bed, in the guise of a tall dark man."
Then: "Margaret stared deep into his eyes and it felt like falling into the depths of a well. She had never encountered an expression so dark, so cold, and so empty. Not since the last time she had looked into her mother's eyes."
(Her mother, by the way, for those who like me haven't read the other books, was blind. Considering the amount of confusion the withholding of that bit of information caused me in the first 25% of the book, you're welcome. Also? This just makes the description more unnerving.)
And then, a few pages later, he is being self-deprecating and kind of charming and making Meg – and, I admit, me – laugh.
And all the while I kept thinking "But … evil."
Having already been expected by the book to switch tacks rapidly, maybe the author expected it to be easier this time. It wasn't. I was just showing signs of whiplash by this point.
The whole second phase of the book felt to me like a car that needs a tune-up, clunking a little every time the gas pedal is pressed. Here's this woman whose vocation could also be the death of her, only venturing off her island to help those who need it. And here is this complete stranger asking her to go with him to England to try to help King James I get out from under a curse. After some initial scrambling to keep up with the setting (wait – we're not in England? Or at least Scotland?) I sat there reading in disbelief as Meg protested and refused and refused and protested and capitulated and went off and got on a boat with two complete strangers. For someone introduced as a Wise Woman, this seemed remarkably unwise. And even worse – when they get to London they're staying in the home of one of the two men who has all-but-abducted them. Okay.
The other aspect to this that failed was one of wardrobe. Meg and her friend/bodyguard/duenna Seraphine (whose story as it appears in this book is ridiculous; it must have a book of its own. *checks* Wait – it doesn't??? Oh good grief – hello book seven) left their island to go to a tavern in a mainland port village to see to a girl who seems to be possessed. It was not a long trip; they didn't plan to stay long; I reiterate: it was a village; they were trying to keep a fairly low profile. Which to my mind means they didn't bring much baggage – in fact, as far as I recall there was no mention of baggage. Five minutes later they're on a boat to London to see the king. They do not stop off home to pick up so much as a change of undies. Right. They get to London, and Seraphine disappears and comes back with the medieval equivalent of a bunch of shopping bags from designer boutiques. Meg: "Oh, 'Phine, what have you done? I thought we agreed any finery was unnecessary." Wait a minute. Margaret is about to have an audience - a private audience - with James I, and she was planning on going in the dress she wore to the village at the beginning of the book? In what way in that world is finery unnecessary when going to call on the king? Wouldn't that be highly inappropriate, and seen as disrespect, and – given James's touchiness – possibly end in imprisonment? It's nonsense.
So there's a curse on the king, maybe; he thinks there is, and that's what matters, and Meg is the only one who can help him – although there's every possibility that helping him might get her killed, since any help she can give will look like witchcraft and James is notoriously anti-witch. Meanwhile, Meg actually has another motive for going to England; she wants to find out more about her mother and the incredibly evil coven she was head of, and whether any of the members have survived and still practice. Meg had been raised to be her mother's witchy successor, and more, and made a horrified and frantic break from that life when she was young. And as it turns out there are still women out and about in England who believe in her as the chosen one or what-have-you, and want her to take up her rightful place. Oh, and then – possibly related to the king's curse – there's the plot featuring Guido (Guy) Fawkes… which Our Heroine refers to as "the gunpowder plot", which just irritated me as a piece of pseudo-prescience.
All of these scattered threads wind together into a weak climax that involves Meg at the mercy of the sort-of-reborn coven, being coerced to perform an evil ritual, while meanwhile the two heroes (neither of whom is particularly heroic) are variously involved with Fawkes (helping? Trying to stop? Both?). Despite her (rather weak) efforts to be Glinda the Good Witch, Meg/Margaret/Megaera (isn't that one of Godzilla's enemies?) is helpless to resist the evil coven. I kept thinking of how I would have my (strong, angry, intelligent) heroine react if I were writing the scene … and instead I kept getting Meg's reactions. Which ran along these lines: "No! Please! I – all right, I'll go with you. No! I won't! Wait, you're threatening me and my friend a lot, all right, I'll play along and hope the cavalry comes. No! I won't! I don't know how! Well, okay, I'll fake it, and oh golly look a ghost, I think I'll pass out now and hope a big strong man comes." Which he does.
The ghost I mention above is just about the most literal deus ex machina I've ever seen. Meg's mother, we are assured throughout something like four hundred pages, was an infamous Bad Witch, killing babies and kittens and plotting against the throne and leading astray assorted young women and brewing poisons and oh, just all sorts of nasty things. She was not a nice person. She wasn't a very good mother. She died (maybe) when Meg was six. I covered the fact that she was evil, right? With Meg terrified of her and of being forced to follow in Mum's (sorry – Maman's) footsteps and be Evil: The Next Generation? So here Meg is being forced to try her hand at necromancy to reach the Evil Sisters' evil grandmother, and who does she get instead? Mum. Is Mum still evil? Of course not. She's tender and motherly like she never was in life, starts to apologize for all her evildoings, is interrupted by Evil Sister #2, and retaliates by – apparently – reaching through Meg to kill Evil Sister #2. Moral: don't interrupt the ghost of an evil witch. Or something.
There is, I realize now, the vaguest possibility that this post-mortem personality transplant makes sense in light of the other books in the series; this is, after all, the sixth book. However, I haven't read the other five, and without coercion won't ever read the other five, and it made so little sense in light of this book that I started wondering if perhaps manuscripts had gotten mixed up at some point.
Besides the sheer idiocy of the deus ex, there was Meg's behavior in this situation. If this was just some high-born female who never knew anything but embroidery and flowers who was stuck in this situation, that would be one thing. Going along with it all almost without protest and then fainting to be rescued – that would be fine for such a "heroine". But this woman is supposed to be the strong, independent Lady of Fair Isle. She's a leader. She's a mature woman – 31, which was practically old in 1605. And she has worked her entire life to overcome the shadow of her mother's evildoings, and to do good and only good. For her to recoil in utter horror at how of all her mother's Evil deeds this is one of the Mostest Evilest, and then to capitulate with barely a squawk and actually sit down and try to perform this So-Evil deed of necromancy … and then for Evil Mum to turn up and not be evil at all … The manuscript had to have fallen in a bin (not, unfortunately, the correct bin) and gotten mixed up with another.
There was so much else. The setting, as I mentioned somewhere up there, was indeterminate. It hopped between prologue and Chapter 1 from Scotland to France without as far as I recall or noticed at the time making that clear, and left me floundering. Characters' nationalities made no difference to the text – French, Scottish, English, peasant, noble, it didn't much matter; there was little to indicate any of it. Not that I would enjoy lashings of pidgin scattered through dialogue – but I don't remember any mention of anyone switching languages to accommodate someone else, or having trouble understanding or keeping up, or … anything at all that would indicate there were different tongues in the mix. At some point late in the book I believe Meg is referred to as being French, which threw me for a loop; it seemed so unlikely. For one thing, since when is "Meg" (or Margaret, or Megaera) a French name? Or "Faire Isle"? London and King James and the Gunpowder Plot? It could just as easily have been a completely invented world and monarchy and history. That might have helped, quite a bit.
One of my biggest pet peeves, which I probably share with a lot of people who love historical fiction, is the anachronistic outbreak. There are few things worse than being completely taken out of a book's historical setting by a carelessly used word or phrase (though most of those few things were also present in this book). "The fuse will be lit and then wham!" Yes, I'm quite certain comic book sound effects would have been part of common speech in 1605. And "criminally insane", used by one character, made little sense in the context. Insanity wasn't really accepted as a defense in 1605, was it? A criminal was a criminal.
Those "few things" I mentioned? Here's another. "Climb into bed and w-warm me." My reaction was "Is there no cliche this book won't stoop to?" It hit quite a few, right down to the old switcheroo, the character-so-seasick-she-wants-to-die, and the dangerous-royal-boar-hunt (I think it was boar – doesn't matter). If there are any that were missed, they've probably already been addressed in the other books in the series... I gave this two stars out of my one solitary burst of holiday spirit. It will keep the second star because it made me chuckle, on purpose, once or twice. But it was a near thing.