Tag Archives: historical fiction

Books: Death Brings a Shadow by Rosemary Simpson

I picked this one up because it sounded interesting, but I didn’t know it was the fourth in a series. So some of the faults I have with this book may be in part because I’m less familiar with the characters than I should be. At the same time, some of the issues wouldn’t be eradicated by that one difference.

Set in, IIRC, 1889, Death Brings a Shadow is a historical mystery/romance featuring Prudence MacKenzie and Geoffrey Hunter, who are apparently established characters in what’s called “The Gilded Age” series. She is the daughter of a New York lawyer, and he is the estranged son of a Southern… plantation owner? This is what I gathered, anyway; Geoffrey is now an ex-Pinkerton detective who solves mysteries with Prudence. Ostensibly there is some kind of burgeoning relationship developing there, but I didn’t really feel any chemistry in this particular book.

The story is of Prudence and Geoffrey accompanying the Dickson family to their winter home on Bradford Island off the coast of Georgia. It isn’t winter, mind; Eleanor Dickson, the daughter of the house and also Prudence’s best friend, is slated to marry a Southerner named Teddy Bennett. Eleanor’s father bought the island from Teddy’s family, but the Bennetts still have a home there (Wildacre) while Dickson also built a massive mansion (Seapoint). Anyway, when Eleanor is found dead a couple days before the wedding, at first glance it seems like a terrible accident. But then we get some juju priestesses involved, and the usual Southern resentment toward “Yankees,” and… Well, everything goes in a fairly typical fashion from there.

The plot is interesting, but the characters made it less so, unfortunately. As a child of the South myself, I’m heartily sick of the caricatures drawn of us. The heroes are always some son of a planter who saw the error of the ways of slavery well before anyone in their families. (Enter Geoffrey Hunter.) The villains are always resentful slave owners or sore losers of the Civil War. There never seems to be any gray area, or at least not any that’s well shaded. That is to say, I can see Simpson tried to make characters with some depth and dimension, but it’s a prickly area to be sure. Teddy is the closest to straddling the two extremes, but he’s fairly colorless and boring. The murderer is plain from pretty much the moment they’re introduced (leaving it gender neutral for anyone who doesn’t want it spoiled). Most of the characters have one chief trait and are otherwise cardboard. And I found Prudence obnoxious. She’s supposed to be “strong,” I guess, but you can be strong without being dislikable—yes, even if you disagree with the people around you. Simpson works so hard to give Prudence the moral high ground, when I’m sure almost anyone would concede she has it without all the high dudgeon. So Prudence mostly comes off as condescending, which makes her supremely annoying.

The use of conjure women in this book, too… Again, coming from some of that background, it just really bothered me. Simpson was careful not to be disrespectful (though killing a cat? no thanks), but I guess I always feel a bit wary when seeing these things depicted because there are so many clichés and solidified falsehoods in pop culture.

Some of Simpson’s writing style just wasn’t for me, either, and that’s a largely personal thing. For example, she head hops. One paragraph will be one person’s thoughts and/or from their perspective, the next will be someone else’s. This is a dated way of writing that used to be common some 30+ years ago. Like, it happens in Dune, which is considered a classic, and which I love. It’s basically third-person, omniscient point of view in that the “narrator” seems to know what everyone thinks and feels. But authors today are told to avoid that. And since I see it so much less now, it’s very obvious when it does happen, and very distracting. Also, Simpson seems to be one of those authors who likes to show how much she’s learned in her research. Details are one thing, but the need to explain stuff just to show you know it is another, and that’s what a lot of the “details” in this book (embalming!) felt like.

Anyway, mixed feelings overall. I don’t know if maybe I’d like one of the others of this series more? Since so many of my issues with this one stems from the setting… But if Prudence is as shrill in the other books as in this one, then maybe she’s just not a character I can enjoy.

Self-Censorship

Recently, my home office was painted, and now I’m slowly putting it back together, organizing stuff that has been in boxes for months now (since we moved house in April). One thing I stumbled across was a map of Civil War battles. It’s not mine; I think it belongs to one of my kids. But I stopped to look at it and thought, fleetingly, of writing a book set in the Old South. And then I thought:

But I’m not allowed to do that.

At least, not in a way that romanticizes that time and lifestyle.

You have to understand that 1. I grew up in the American South, and 2. I love Gone with the Wind. Which I’m also pretty sure I’m not allowed to love anymore, but while I can definitely see that it’s problematic, I can’t hate it. I used to watch that movie every time I was home sick from school. We read the book in high school, too, and I enjoyed it as well. Then I fell in love with the North and South miniseries (though I never did make it through the books). These things are just my jam.

And maybe it’s because I grew up with a fascination for history, and my area history in particular, which included a number of plantations. But the fact that I feel the need to make excuses for things I enjoy—that’s where I start to get uncomfortable. Because again, though I see and acknowledge the problems of our past, and of putting a romantic veneer over it, I still love a good Southern Belle love story. As they say, the heart wants what it wants.

But I’m not supposed to want to read books like that. Or write them. Books set in the pre-Civil War era are now meant to be serious, and to highlight the gravity of how terrible slavery was. IT WAS. I don’t even think we can comprehend it. I’m still blown away by how recent civil rights are, that my dad went to a segregated school for a big chunk of his life. Like, what??? I can’t wrap my brain around it.

And maybe that’s another part of my problem. I can understand and appreciate a love story, regardless of setting. But I can’t do that for something as enormous as our slave-weighted past. I freely admit my failings here, and I am in no way suggesting slavery was anything but a blight on our history.

Still, being told what I can and can’t like to read, or watch, or what I can or can’t write… It’s a kind of censorship. That I’m supposed to self-inflict in order to be politically correct. Sort of like not eating all the fudge because, you know, that’s bad for me and also not nice to anyone else who wanted some fudge. Writing a Southern Belle romance would be considered both bad for me and not nice to anyone who finds that setting problematic (except when being explored as a terrible thing).

I don’t write sexy books because I don’t like them. But I don’t shame writers or readers of that kind of thing. And it’s considered progressive to be “sex positive.” Yet I’m pretty sure if I wrote a historical romance set in the Old South, I’d have people jumping all over me for it. Because that’s the opposite of progressive, I guess.

I don’t really even know what I’m trying to say here. I’m thinking (typing) out loud in a more stream-of-consciousness way. It’s a fine line to walk. Big picture is the way that the PC mindset is in some ways actually restricting rather than freeing.

Books: The Romanov Empress by C.W. Gortner

You may have noticed from my reading history that I have an interest in the Romanovs. Mostly that interest has been focused on Nicholas II and his immediate family, but when I found this book at the library, I decided to go back a generation. Sure, it’s historical fiction, so I spend a certain amount of time reading a book like this with historical references in my other hand (not to undermine authors of HF, but because I’m a curious person and find I often want to look up facts and information about historical personages as I read fictional accounts of them). In particular, when historical fiction is centered around a well-known, well-documented figure, I feel the author must work harder to hew to the facts while still creating a compelling narrative. If the author chooses to, er, elide a few things for some reason, I do say it gives me pause. I have to wonder why. To make the story more interesting somehow? I suppose some readers would value a punched-up story over accuracy, but I’m not one of them.

I’m not saying Gortner does that here. Honestly, I don’t know enough about the subject at hand to judge, and maybe that’s what makes me a tad uneasy about the novel. I’d almost want to go read a biography for comparison.

But before I get much further, a quick synopsis: The Romanov Empress tells the story of Dagmar of Denmark, who became Empress Maria “Minnie” Feodorovna, wife of Tsar Alexander III. It’s told in first person, which gives fair insight into Minnie’s thoughts and feelings, but necessarily means that anything she is not present for must be explained in dialogue scenes where she and Someone (usually Miechen) discuss politics or whatever. In fact, while the novel started strongly for me, by a little more than halfway through it began to founder for lack of tension, pace, action. Lots of terse discussions as the Russian Revolution built up around Minnie and the Romanovs. But nothing much else until the final few pages of being held by the Soviets and getting the bad news of her son’s family’s execution.

I almost wish the book had gone on a bit longer and shown some of Minnie’s days in exile. There is a solid afterword in the book that discusses where she and others ended up, but I might’ve liked to have seen it depicted. Another reason, perhaps, to pick up a biography.

This isn’t a bad book. I counted it as average on Goodreads, probably 3.5 stars but not quite worth rounding up to 4. I’d maybe try another Gortner book.