Note from Sarah: We’re running this review and the Wedded Bliss review from Carrie together because they illustrate how one item in a larger context can ruin a book for a reader.
Thanks to Poppy for submitting such a thoughtful guest review. Poppy is a long-time fan of SBTB and loves cats, books and coffee, in that order.
Confession: I spent a long time thinking about how to grade this book. Here are the three grades I swung back and forth on. Let’s call them Without Incident, With Incident, and But is the Incident Equivalent to an Entire Book. (I’ll address the Incident later.)
Without Incident: B minus
The premise was great – spunky smart Madeleine Greenway saves charming roguish Colin Eversea from the gallows. He is, of course, innocent. He had gotten into a quarrel with Louisa, his intended, which resulted in him storming off to a tavern and getting into a drunken brawl with one Roland Tarbell who fell onto his own knife and died. The only witness able to corroborate Colin’s story had mysteriously disappeared. The mystery kicks up a notch when the anonymous man who hired Madeleine to save Colin later tries to kill her instead of paying her. Colin promises Madeleine that his family will pay her what she was due, and more, if she helps him prove his innocence.
Both of them have significant motivations for this endeavour succeeding. Madeleine wants to start a new life in America, so she needs the money to complete payment on a farm she has purchased in Virginia, and also to buy passage there. Colin needs to, well, not be imprisoned and hanged again. He also needs to prove his innocence before he can marry Louisa. So the two hit the road to launch their own investigation while dodging discovery and arrest. This is of course a petri dish for pants feelings, angst, and more pants feelings, finishing off with a HEA.
Overall, this was a fun story. The plot was engaging, the narrative well-paced, the dialogue snappy, and there were some sweet, funny, heart-warming episodes. There were also, however, a couple of moments that seemed a bit weird to me. I fully admit that I might have been too pedantic and therefore spoiled my own reading experience. Nevertheless, I got distracted enough that I had to stop reading and start
researching Googling, so I was thrown off track from the story a bit.
One of these moments was when Colin had to mansplain to Madeleine that the gunpowder in her pistol was bad – she “never would have gotten off a shot.” This gave her the “sudden realisation” that although “she was brilliant, she could shoot the heart out of a target”, she had no idea how to tell good gunpowder from bad. Oh yes, this also came after Colin escaped his bindings without her noticing. That scene was jarring to me. Wasn’t Madeleine supposed to be a mercenary? Bad gunpowder apparently (thanks Ms Google) has a strong, unpleasant, acidic smell unlike not-bad gunpowder, which doesn’t smell much. Lacking personal experience with gunpowder, pistols and even bindings, I did think that it was unlikely that one could become a mercenary and “brilliant” shot without knowing bad gunpowder and how to tie a firm knot.
Another “what…?” moment came when Colin described the accidental death of Roland Tarbell: “He came at me… I stepped aside, he slipped in a puddle of ale… the damned fool fell on his own knife trying to kill me.” (ellipses mine) I pondered the mechanics of falling onto one’s knife for a bit, then ill-advisedly turned to Google where I learnt that yes, apparently this is a thing. A tragic, horrible thing. Colin goes on: “I rolled him over, and sadly, he was quite dead… And anyone knows you’re not to take a knife out of a deep wound if you want that person to have a chance at living. So I was sober enough not to pull it out. But I did put my hand on it…” (ellipses mine) Wait, what? We went from “He’s dead” to “But I want him to have a chance at living so I won’t pull the knife out” to “But hey let me just put my hand on the knife anyway”. Considering the whole story basically hung on Colin being falsely accused of murder, I had hoped the setup would be more convincing.
But of course, this is not a deal-breaker. Colin was probably shocked and who knows why, instead of checking Roland’s breathing or pulse, or panickedly yelling his name or for help, or backing away in horror, etc., he instead chose to place his hand on the knife until someone comes in to see him. Weirder things have happened, I suppose. (Have they?)
Finally – and this is more unintentionally funny than actually problematic – these two have been on the run for days, sleeping rough on many occasions and without a change of clothes or much chance to wash. Before that, Colin had been shackled in prison, also for days. So when sexytimes started with this line, “The musk of desire was already so thick and heady between them Madeleine’s head swam”, my own head started swimming with the imagined BO. There were also the very unlikely descriptions of glowing, satiny skin (after being on the run – how?) but then again, rare is the man who would gaze lustfully upon mud-speckled, grime-smeared skin.
These parts were distracting for me, hence B minus. But overall, this was a cute, fun, enjoyable read with more good moments than bad. It’s time, though, to say hello to the elephant in the room. If you enjoyed this book, perhaps you could stop reading now?
With Incident: F minus
This was the Incident:
“You know nothing of farming,” Colin said. It sounded like a warning. She wanted to say, How do you know? But he was right, so she simply waved a disdainful hand. “I learn quickly. I can certainly fire a musket, and I daresay I should hold my own against an Indian or a bear. And I thank you for your concern.”
…he smiled a little, no doubt picturing her in battle with an Indian or a bear.
The first time I read that, I definitely smelled a musk in the air. When I read it again, in disbelief, it felt a bit like falling on a knife.
I actually stopped reading the book after that for a few days. I thought about that line quite a bit. It followed me around like a big toxic miasma, probably more noxious than bad gunpowder. My main question was, “why?” Why drop that in there? What was it for, what does it achieve? Why couldn’t Madeleine just “hold her own”, full stop? Plus – the conversation was about farming. Why would Madeleine be needing to shoot Indians and bears in the course of farming? Was her farm on their reservation? Does she mention Indians in the same breath as bear because both are supposed to be equally savage animals?
I spent a few hours reading about the history of “Indians” (obviously, they are not Indians) in Virginia, and the interactions of the Native tribes with Europeans from the time the latter first landed in the 16th century to the present. By the 19th century, many tribes had lost their lands and others, like the Pamunkey and Mattaponi, were struggling to retain control of theirs. It is a gory, painful, deeply horrific history. Put your damn musket down, Madeleine. [Some accessible readings: here and here]
The thing that makes my stomach clench is how carelessly and casually that bit of cruelty was dropped into the conversation. Whoops I didn’t even notice I alluded to shooting Indians and bears, hahaha! My musket just went off on its own. Must be the bad powder.
It’s even more upsetting that this was so carelessly and casually dropped into the conversation, as though it doesn’t warrant further thought – obviously you fight Indians and bears, what else? Perhaps it is historically accurate for someone like Madeleine to speak of shooting Indians as par for the course. But I somehow feel that writers of historicals are uniquely placed to help retell histories from the perspectives of those whose voices have been suppressed or stories misrepresented. Every time a person of colour appears in historical with his/her own agency, motivations and fully-fleshed individualism, it is a push-back against the dominant narratives that we’ve lived with for centuries. I shall not say more, as this topic has been covered at length by far more eloquent and insightful commenters, which I am grateful to encounter regularly in this community.
Anyway, let’s not forget the bears. I learned about them as well. According to the National Parks Service, there may have been as many as two million black bears in North America before the Europeans arrived. By the early 20th century, bear populations were nearly eliminated as a result of unbridled hunting and habitat destruction. There’s a HFN (happily for now) though. The park’s bear management plans and improved ecological conditions have brought numbers up to around 900,000 across North America. Around 6,000 are in Virginia today. [Source]
Also, just so you know, recently a bear cub in Roanoke locked himself into a car, ate snacks, and honked the car horn. Luckily the police officer on the scene chose not shoot it with a musket, but instead coaxed it out and let it run back into the woods. [Source]
But is the Incident Equivalent to an Entire Book: D
I finally went back to finish the rest of the book. But it’s a bit like meeting and befriending someone awesome, adding them on social media and then seeing that they are fans of #BuildtheWall or similar. It’s not going to be the same the next time you meet up. When I was a teenager, I volunteered at an Elderly Home where I would chat and play games with the residents. I got on especially well with one lovely old man, until he leaned toward me conspiratorially one day and said, “Thank god you’re not a bloody ___
So yes, this book. One bad line does not a book make – or does it? Reading, to me, is a great escape and comfort. It’s like spending a few hours with friends – the ones on the pages of the book, and through them, the author who created them. The reader-author relationship is precious to me and I cherish the lovely worlds they create for me to inhabit for a few wonderful hours. And so, I’m torn. I don’t know how to give a fair, balanced overall grade and perhaps in cases like these, there just isn’t one. This book is both a B minus and an F minus. The average of that is a D, so that’s where I ended up. That’s a cop-out, so I just thought it was important to explain why, and how, I got there.
I’d love to hear from the Bitchery community: How would you grade books like these? And why?
Powered by WPeMatico