Review | The Calculating Stars By Mary Robinette Kowal (Or, Why Bree Loves Mary)
Mary Robinette Kowal may be an actual goddess. Her ability to convey complicated emotional dynamics in an engaging and entertaining way is pretty much unparalleled.
Want to find out how she spoke to my soul this year? Watch the video below. I don’t cry, but I thought about it.
Book Review: The Point by John Dixon
By Jacob P. Torres
Find my spoiler-free review of The Point by John Dixon, Probably the first in a new series? I received an advance reader copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Cover Description: “What if you had a power you had to hide from everyone—until now? In this bold sci-fi action thriller, a secret training program at West Point is turning misfits into a new generation of heroes.
Welcome to The Point, future leaders of the Posthuman Age.
New Cadets, society is not ready for you. The oldest, fiercest fear is ignorance. The general population would burn you at the metaphorical stake.
Here, you will train alongside other posthumans. You will learn to control and maximize your powers and to use them for the greater good. You will discover camaraderie and purpose.
You will become a part of something bigger than yourselves: the Long Gray Line.
Scarlett Winter has always been an outsider, and not only because she’s a hardcore daredevil and born troublemaker—she has been hiding superhuman powers she doesn’t yet understand. Now she’s been recruited by a secret West Point unit for cadets with extraordinary abilities. Scarlett and her fellow students are learning to hone their skills, from telekinetic combat to running recon missions through strangers’ dreamscapes. At The Point, Scarlett discovers that she may be the most powerful cadet of all. With the power to control pure energy, she’s a human nuclear bomb—and she’s not sure she can control her powers much longer.
Even in this army of outsiders, Scarlett feels like a misfit all over again, but when a threat that endangers her fellow students arises from the school’s dark past, duty calls and Scarlett must make a choice between being herself and becoming something even greater: a hero.”
A #WorldCon76 Call To Action – #DiversityIs4Me
If I don’t speak truth I can’t seek truth. — Ursula K. Le Guin, The Eye of Huron
So much about the world these days leaves me feeling impotent. It seems like terrible things happen in a fire and windstorm that no amount of compassion can put out. For me, it can feel like a physical ache. It hurts in my heart and I feel it in my shortened, rage-filled breath. And yet, I often feel like this anger mounts and mounts and would burst in any other vessel. A firework locked in a safe, no place to let the pressure out.
When all of the #WorldCon76 controversy started and then came to a head, I felt so low.
To WorldCon’s credit, they’ve brought on a fantastic programmer in Mary Robinette Kowal to help fix the programming issues. But, still. Things like this shouldn’t happen.
But the truth is, not doing something is going to do the same thing that safe might do to a firework–pull out all the oxygen so the fire dies. That’s unacceptable.
The only thing to do is fight. And I need your help.
I can’t actually slap people (something, something pacifism), and I don’t know how effective writing my congressperson will be at effecting broader social change.
If there’s one thing I can trust to get a change started, it’s the internet.
(after all, if the internet can make rickrolling someone and the tide pod challenge a thing, we can also use those powers for good.)
What I need from you.
I’m still planning some outings for WorldCon and for those of you who show up, please make the effort to find me so I can feature you and your favorite underrated author on Instagram, but …
I want everyone to be able to work together for positive, community-wide change.
So, email me.
I’ll be posting video clips and text snippets from you. Email me some text or a video clip of you (30 seconds-1 minute) about your favorite authors. Include the authors you love who are persons of color, neuro-atypical, queer or who have a disability.
I want you and I to shout their names to the internet. Together.
Feel free to do your own posts using #diversityis4me
Message me on twitter or reach out to me at Bree.LowTea@gmail.com.
Keep an eye out for tweets, youtube videos, and instagram posts all about this topic over the next few weeks.
Should’ve Voted NOLA
By Jacob P. Torres
@WORLDCON2018 is currently the largest dumpster fire on my twitter feed. This is impressive because I know and follow more than a few people who are heavily invested in national security and/or state department, and over the weekend the Trumpster Fire in Chief threatened war on a country we out-GDP 31 times over because he was having a moody day.
That the behaviour of the organizing members of WorldCon has been reprehensible is both shockingly obvious and by this point also expressed significantly better than I can manage at the moment by people all over the internet. Read Mary Robinette Kowal or Bogi Takács or JY Yang or John Scalzi. Scalzi also has a great piece on his blog from 2013 about what a goddamn harassment policy should look like and how not to be a bucket of failure in that regard. Brianne also wrote about this and I agree with every word she said.
Over the weekend we’ve seen three big problems emerge like someone has been summoning Lovecraftian horrors.
- A dress code sent to some but not all award finalists and award presenters.
- Shockingly re-writing the bio of a prominent member of the SFF community that wreaks of transphobia.
- The lack of new voices, specifically new voices that are younger, or who represent sexual, gender, or national minorities.
All of these problems are equally bad. All of them stem from discrimination. And it’s frustrating to find yet another community that fails to be as inclusive and as welcoming as we thought it was.
We look to science fiction– we look to speculative fiction– to show us some of the best of humanity. It’s born out of a desire to see a better, more inclusive tomorrow. In 2018, it’s certainly disappointing, but no longer shocking, to see the worst of us reflected in towering, rage-filled voices in the communities we have sought belonging in.
It is another reminder that we can do better. That we always must do better. And better isn’t something that happens in a vacuum. We have to work at it, fight for, clamor for it in numbers and voices that are impossible to ignore. And we have so, so far to go. I wasn’t going to be able to attend this year’s WorldCon because of scheduling conflicts, but it wasn’t until this weekend that this wasn’t something that upset me. I’m not going to rant about the big three problems, but I did have a couple sentences about the Dress Code nonsense.
The Unforgivable Shit About Dress Codes.
Some events, some places require dress codes. It’s an unfortunate reality for many, especially genderqueer or genderfluid. Because dress codes are inherently sexist. They’re almost always harsher on women than they are on men. Failure to meet dress codes is often used to excuse deplorable behaviour. Dress codes at award ceremonies are also prejudiced against people who may struggle financially. Today, Dress Codes mostly cater to people who want the sexist and classist institutions we are forced to work and live in to continue. They‘re more toxic today because the communities dress codes discriminate against have voices, and organization, and we ignore them still.
Bree and I both volunteer for another organization that has to have a dress code. It’s always a long and thorough discussion on setting that policy and making certain that it’s as inclusive as possible. That’s something that WorldCon appears to have failed profoundly at.
What Should I Do?
Well you should’ve voted for NOLA. When your options are silicon valley, known bastion of sexist nonsense or the place that has Mardi Gras, chose fucking wisely. N.K Jemison, Nielsen Haydens, JY Yang, Mary Robinette Kowal, and John Scalzi are all, as of this posting withdrawing from the panels at WorldCon76. If I was going to WorldCon to hear legends in the field, I’d have zero incentive to do so now.
I’ve struggled with this post to find something different to say than what has already been expressed by other, better people. But I realized it doesn’t fucking matter if I have something new to add. Nonsense like this, hurtful, spiteful nonsense like this, should always be called out. In the light of day, this kind of hate can’t live forever. Let’s not give it shadows to hide.
What we can all do is let your voices be heard. Go to @WorldCon2018 and tell them they’re being a dumpster fire. Then tell them you’re not going. There is plenty to do in San Jose, California that doesn’t involve helping these shitbags be a success. Get online and start tweeting about books you love from new, exciting voices, and make certain that you never shut up about them.
And finally go HERE, right the fuck now, and volunteer for World Con 77 in Dublin next year.
I really, really hope that anyone working on WorldCon 77 are watching Mary Robinette Kowal’s twitter feed today, she’s going on an epic rant about how to actually empanel a diverse, inclusive, and excellent set of programming. Let’s make certain that the planning group is full of people clamoring to be heard and guaranteeing that the inclusivity that’s present in actually nominating our Hugo Nominees is present in the planning of the events to celebrate them and the excellent work they’ve done.
And next time, unless if you’re given the option between NOLA and anywhere else, you know the right choice to make.
A Big Fucking Hugo Sigh
Well, I know it makes me naive and ignores a lot of fandom’s history, but damn if I don’t want it to be a haven. Science fiction and fantasy espouses some of what is best in humanity, and so I always hope that the people who love it will continue to espouse acceptance, love, and hope as well.
And so I made the best of the puppies.
And I forgave people who were internet jerks.
And people just keep giving me more and more strife.
Probably you’ve heard by now that there’s another dumpster fire in science fiction fandom. I wish this were less surprising.
TL;DR – Nothing that has come to light is great. I’m going to work to make it better. Here’s a plan, albeit limited by time, space and assistance.
I turned off my phone to sleep, and I woke up to news that the WorldCon 76 team had:
- Changed a person’s gender neutral pronoun bio to using the wrong pronouns
- Not put new Hugo finalists, largely persons of color and younger authors onto panels
- Sent dress codes to some individuals but not others “asking” that they dress professionally
Because, hey, it’s 2018 and why not?
I get it.
Conference running is really tough. Like on a scale of 1-10, probably an 8 or 9. I know; I’ve helped host thousands of people for academic events. Even in a place where you’re not coordinating dozens of panels and participants on top of booths, celebrities, vendors, and guests, you’re doing a lot of work.
But that doesn’t excuse shitty behavior
So, let’s talk about this.
Shitty thing #1 – Screwing with bios and using personal pictures on programming
Well, this is easily one of the things that makes me the most mad. Program creators requested bios and photos from authors and other hugo-nominees and panel participants. +1 for having people explain themselves. Except they didn’t.
Bios were edited, including switching someone’s gender pronouns.
People’s professional pictures were skipped and personal facebook pictures (listed on private accounts) were used instead.
I cannot even fathom why this was considered ok.
Guess what, if you ask for a bio, as long as it isn’t wildly unprofessional or lewd, you should stick with that bio. In particular, you should NEVER change someone’s own pronouns. If someone tells you their pronouns, you accept those pronouns and move on. You aren’t the arbiter of pronouns and I promise you don’t know someone’s gender better than that person knows their own.
I would very much appreciate a public apology from @worldcon2018 for rewriting my bio to change my name and my gender.
I have never, ever used “he” pronouns.
After many similar exclusionary actions, this is the last straw, I am honestly not sure I can safely attend. pic.twitter.com/agazsY1rmV
— Bogi Takács PERSON, 100% migráncs (@bogiperson) July 23, 2018
Using someone’s personal photos rather than a supplied professional one is a weird and invasive combination of ignoring privacy and not presenting your organization professionally. Just…What?
Shitty Thing #2 – Dress Codes
Rather than going on and on about this. I’ll just say, sending dress codes to some but not others isn’t ok. Hugo award nominees have enough on their plates, if a sparkly unicorn dress is their preference, it’s their damn night. Do what you will. I don’t care if someone is a man in a kilt, a woman in a miniskirt, or someone in a gender non-conforming outfit you don’t think is “pulling it off.” The nature of dress codes, in particular those espousing professionalism are both sexist and classist. I’m not here for that and I’m not here for it not being universally applied.
For a much more intricate look at the relationship between sexism and dress codes, here’s a fantastic piece by Everyday Feminism.
And this series of tweets shows a lot more at stake than who wears what type of heels.
Hi. My name is Elsa Sjunneson-Henry. I’m the managing editor of the Hugo Finalist magazine, @FiresideFiction, and last week when we all got angry about dress codes, I also got worried.
Because the email about dress codes ALSO talked about access needs at the ceremony.
— Elsa Sjunneson-Henry, Fancy Cyclops (@snarkbat) July 23, 2018
Shitty Thing #3 – Not Including Members On Panels Because They Aren’t “Popular” or “Well-Known” Enough
Hugo nominees, in particular many of the younger nominees and those who have diverse backgrounds weren’t put on panels. Some of them have been receiving emails saying that they aren’t well-known enough to be placed on them.
This is ridiculous on two fronts:
1- Hugo nominees are definitionally well-known. To be nominated, you MUST have a not inconsequential presence and respect within science fiction and fantasy. PLUS, in theory at least, over the last five or so months, people have been reading those works and watching those movies and looking at that fan art. They have been a highlight in the community.
2- There is no way to make our fandom last without incorporating new voices. New voices are important to science fiction and fantasy. Without them, there will be no growth, and, frankly, growth is exactly what SFF needs.
At the very least, I’m glad I’m not living in a world limited to Heinlein and LeGuin. I want innovation and new perspectives, because this genre set needs that to maintain its lifeblood. And I want SFF to be around for a long, long time.
Fine, Bree, But What Are You Doing About It?
Right now, I’m talking to folks about setting up some outtings in San Jose. I understand this isn’t the same as at-con participation, but at the very least we can be a community that accepts one another. I’ll be working to get us accessible transit and will announce any outing plans soon, both here and on YouTube.
I’m bringing a fuck ton of pronoun stickers. I want to normalize inclusivity. The only way to do that is to make people realize that their world doesn’t have the rigid limits they think ought to be there and to call folks out on their incivility. If you show up at WorldCon, hunt me down. You can have a pronoun sticker for your badge.
I’ll be wandering with my Instagram stories going on throughout WorldCon. I want to talk to people about their favorite works, especially those that are debuts, new to you authors, #ownvoices, and that feature intersectionality. I’ll be posting frequently throughout the week.
Other things. Right now I’m open to suggestions. I want to help build community in places where community should be. Let me know your thoughts about what events or other activities you think should take place. Tweet me, comment, plaster my insta and YouTube with suggestions. Let’s make it happen.
Featured image photo credit: Facepalm Glax by Mattia Basaglia © 2017-2018 CC BY-SA
Book Review: Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
Cover Description: “Jane McKeene was born two days before the dead began to walk the battlefields of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania—derailing the War Between the States and changing the nation forever.
In this new America, safety for all depends on the work of a few, and laws like the Native and Negro Education Act require certain children attend combat schools to learn to put down the dead.
But there are also opportunities—and Jane is studying to become an Attendant, trained in both weaponry and etiquette to protect the well-to-do. It’s a chance for a better life for Negro girls like Jane. After all, not even being the daughter of a wealthy white Southern woman could save her from society’s expectations.
But that’s not a life Jane wants. Almost finished with her education at Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore, Jane is set on returning to her Kentucky home and doesn’t pay much mind to the politics of the eastern cities, with their talk of returning America to the glory of its days before the dead rose.
But when families around Baltimore County begin to go missing, Jane is caught in the middle of a conspiracy, one that finds her in a desperate fight for her life against some powerful enemies.
And the restless dead, it would seem, are the least of her problems.”
Book Review: Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe
By Jacob P. Torres
Find my spoiler-free review of Alex White’s, A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe.
Cover Description: “Boots Elsworth was a famous treasure hunter in another life, but now she’s washed up. She makes her meager living faking salvage legends and selling them to the highest bidder, but this time she got something real–the story of the Harrow, a famous warship, capable of untold destruction.
Nilah Brio is the top driver in the Pan Galactic Racing Federation and the darling of the racing world–until she witnesses Mother murder a fellow racer. Framed for the murder and on the hunt to clear her name, Nilah has only one lead: the killer also hunts Boots.
On the wrong side of the law, the two women board a smuggler’s ship that will take them on a quest for fame, for riches, and for justice.”
To the Dude Who Cut Me Off in the Comics Shop
I guess you didn’t see me here, just three feet away from the shelf, browsing comics with titles C-H. Sup?
I know. You didn’t realize I was browsing. Why would I be? You saw me come in with my boyfriend or maybe you didn’t. But regardless, I am an anathema here. Or at least to you. A woman doesn’t belong a comics and games shop.
Here’s some fun trivia for you. I was born into nerddom, a little baby princess ready to inherit. I was playing Magic: the Gathering before I ever considered playing Pokemon, and I knew by age ten that I loved Punk Rock!Storm way more any other version of her. I grew up in a comics shop and can slide boards into bags so fast, I’m a goddamned comics ninja.
But sure, stand in front of me so I can’t see the shelves anymore.
I get so sick of people like you.
There are so many people who don’t think I get to exist, or who cry “fake” when I talk nerdy. It will never matter how many times I’ve seen BSG or that I spent my childhood running around gaming conventions. To these, let’s face it, men, I’m an invader, taking up space and taking enjoyment from things to which I have no right.
Fuck. That. Noise.
Let’s not bother talking about the fact that just standing in front of someone or talking to the man next to them like they’re somehow not there is just plain fucking rude. Let’s just get to the root of this problem.
You don’t think women belong here. And you’re wrong. To paraphrase the great Kameron Hurley, women have always geeked. Hell, you wouldn’t have science fiction as a genre without the late, great Mary Shelley.
(This is my cat. She is named after Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter, Mary W. Shelley)
The part that’s always got to me is that you should be so damn excited I’m here. That I’m a real person. After all, relatively attractive young woman who’s into the same things you are?! That’s supposed to be what you cry on the internet about, isn’t it? That no one will love you because you like to recite L5R deep lore a little too much?
Huge eyeroll. Here’s the truth.
You don’t actually want to be around geeky women. You identify yourself with a class of “rejects” because (1) you have based your identity and self-narrative and the idea that you are a persecuted, sad lonely person, (2) you like to feel like a self-important gatekeeper in a world that doesn’t actually use you as a gatekeeper, and (3) you think women are incompetent and tasteless walking vaginas who just flat out can’t keep up with the smart man-brain powers that let you play five hour tabletop games based off of scary stories written by a dead racist.
The fact that so much of this male geek rage is based in a sense of self-righteousness and persecution is ungodly frustrating. After all, the easiest thing to be in America is a straight middle class white dude (+1 modifier for educated). And also, you’re just being fucking petty. You had a crush or an unrequited whatever and they shot you down, made you feel like you didn’t belong. So you’re taking the first chance to do that to someone else, because to you, cruelty is how you regain your wounded pride.
The worst part, though, is all the shit you ruin. Just by being a jerk. Like, ya know, video games and Comic-Con and the Hugos.
Fun fact: no one spends hundreds of hours and tons of cash to dress up as a seriously perfect replication of a character just to get on your weasley dick. But instead of recognizing that, let’s ostracise all the hot ladies.
Let’s deep dive, though.
Why having women (and diversity) in a comics shop is only ever a good thing
Culture. It’s kind of awesome. And the more people who contribute, the cooler your culture gets.
Comics and nerddom are known for being insular spaces, but what they really ought to be known for is being *STORYTELLING* spaces. The best comics and movies and games all center around storytelling and world creation. When you add women and other diverse people into your spaces you get a much wider world of stories.
You get to finally hear about the Miles Morales and Moon Girls of the world. And those stories are fucking amazing.
I love Stan Lee as much as the next nerd, but let’s be honest there are only so many man stories a person can take before it gets old.
There’s also significant evidence that shows workplaces and social areas only benefit from different perspectives and a diverse culture. You think more creatively and work harder. Diversity literally makes you a better person.
Why not every nerdy space is your sacred hidey hole from reality
You don’t own Marvel or DC or Star Wars. Even if you did, the nature of stories and creation means that YOU DON’T CONTROL who consumes a work. Once you put something out into the world, the world will spread that as it wills. You don’t get to choose who likes something and who doesn’t.
If you really want to cloister yourself off into a space where no one else can enjoy something, you should stick to your basement or a password-protected limited access blog or something.
Until then, people get to enjoy whatever it is they want. That’s part of freedom (or whatever).
And just because someone does or doesn’t like something doesn’t give you the right to try to destroy it. Chances are good you can’t. The world is resilient and people, generally speaking, don’t like bullies. *coughVoxDaycough*
It’s cool though. I can’t stop you from being a tool.
Plus, my comics collection is bigger than yours.
Star Wars the Last Jedi, Shitty “Fans,” and Enough of this Bullshit
By Jacob P. Torres
Buckle up I have some words. To say that I am disgusted by the amount of offensive nonsense going on in America right now is an understatement so massive it has its own gravity. And while this isn’t the forum to discuss all the many things that are keeping me up at night, this is the forum to discuss Star Wars. As was pointed out in the excellent article on SyFy by the same title, Star Wars has a White Male Fandom Problem. I’d put off making many comments about The Last Jedi or these basement-dwelling nutters because I’ve got more significant things to spend my moral outrage on, but ultimately, I was reminded recently that failing to speak out against racism, against misogyny, against intolerance, any time you see it is tacitly supporting that sentiment, especially if you’re born into a position of relative privilege that being white and male affords you. So, at the risk of having my twitter feed flooded with a bunch of sexist, racist manbabies butthurt that the movie they “love” no longer reflects the white-washed worldview that dominates their dark and empty skulls, here we go.
Book Review: Stalking Jack the Ripper by Kerri Maniscalo
By Jacob P. Torres
Find my spoiler-free review of Stalking Jack the Ripper by Kerri Maniscalo below, this is the first in a series, the sequel Hunting Prince Dracula is out in hardcover now. A third book, Escaping from Houdini is out this fall.
Full disclosure, I snagged this book from a book stall at an airport while travelling for work. It was under their historical fiction section, a choice I feel was mostly correct. It checked off a big box for me when it promised to tie the story to an unsolved real-world mystery (in the case Who Was Jack the Ripper?) and a big one for historical fiction in that the female characters are supposed to be strong characters with agency who get shit done. Honestly if I wanted to read about white male dudes being historically “accurate” and also real shitty I’d go read the reddit thread for Battlefield V and then promptly kill myself. This book was a lot more romancey than I generally go for though, so if that’s your cup of tea you might ignore this review entirely and try it for yourself, it might sit better for you than it did for me.
Cover Description: “A deliciously creepy horror novel with a story line inspired by the Ripper murders and an unexpected, blood-chilling conclusion…
Seventeen-year-old Audrey Rose Wadsworth was born a lord’s daughter, with a life of wealth and privilege stretched out before her. But between the social teas and silk dress fittings, she leads a forbidden secret life.
Against her stern father’s wishes and society’s expectations, Audrey often slips away to her uncle’s laboratory to study the gruesome practice of forensic medicine. When her work on a string of savagely killed corpses drags Audrey into the investigation of a serial murderer, her search for answers brings her close to her own sheltered world.
The story’s shocking twists and turns, augmented with real, sinister period photos, will make this #1 New York Times bestselling debut from author Kerri Maniscalco impossible to forget.”
What is the book about?
A British Lord’s daughter, Audrey Rose Wadsworth, eschews the role and expectations of her gender to study the burgeoning field of forensic police work with her uncle. There she meets Thomas Cresswell, a boy of privilege and intellect who is also studying to solve crimes with her uncle. When Jack the Ripper’s first victim lands on her uncle’s autopsy table Audrey Rose and Thomas get wrapped up in the case. Then, her uncle is arrested for suspicion of the murders.
Audrey Rose and Thomas will embark on a investigation of period London as they try to track down Jack the Ripper before he can track them down. All the while, Audrey Rose will learn shocking truths about her family and the connection between all of Jack’s murders and the people Audrey Rose loves most.
What Did I Like About the Book?
Maniscalco did a great job of portraying period London, the book is replete with information about the time period, including pictures from the time that add to the general ambiance. When Maniscalco closes out the book she makes a point to describe things that she changed or omitted from both the Ripper case and period London for narrative reasons. Her characterization of mental healthcare for the time period was vivid and very accurate. Ultimately, she admits to changing very little of significance. I imagine this was not as difficult as it sounds with all of the open questions surrounding the Ripper case the persist even today. Seeing how Maniscalco would handle Dracula in the next book when there isn’t a documented historical mystery that she can turn into a narrative is maybe the only reason I’d personally read the next one.
The writing and characters are generally strong and multi-dimensional. Maniscalco does not get tied down by period language or dialogue and creates a coherent narrative that is often engaging, if not as actively suspenseful. She gives us a good cast of suspects for the Ripper and puts up a lot of good set pieces for a decent mystery, the execution of which falls short, but I’ll mention that later.
Who was my Favorite Character?
I liked Audrey Rose the best, she was a compelling protagonist, a daughter stuck between making her family happy and what she wanted to do with her life. Struggling for agency and respect in a world where that’s very unlikely to happen. All caught up with history’s most infamous serial killer and the very real implications that one of her family might be involved. Her relationships with her family are way stronger than her romantic relationships which I’ll get to later. Her father is obsessed about her safety and disease and he tries to “protect” her from the world. Audrey cares for him deeply even though he’s basically holding her prisoner at times. Audrey’s uncle is painted as a mad scientist but has gone out of his way to teach Audrey forensic medicine and lets her sit in on classes he teaches on the subject and apprentice directly for him. Audrey’s brother is both a confidant and a leash, supporting her studies but at the same time encouraging her to turn away from them and take up crochet. Her relationships with them are complicated and full of emotion and conflict, all of which is deepened as each of them is cast as a potential Jack the Ripper. There’s a point about midway to two-thirds through the book where Audrey finally begins to shine, where she is basically done with all the period sexism and decides that we can’t spend any more time on that bullshit, we need to solve this case. It’s a little unrealistic in that everyone around her is just like, “sure, sounds like a plan,” but it was her apotheosis, where she really became the kind of forensic detective she wanted to be.
What Did I Not Like?
There’s a reason that most authors choosing to tell a story like this one has the female character dress as a boy (which this book even did in one chapter), it’s an easy, if over-used, shorthand for letting a female character have the agency to pursue her desires in a time period where they were barred from employment at most jobs, from agency from their fathers or husbands, or even the ability to vote. It is much, much more difficult needle to thread to balance history with your characters and stories and have it come off feeling genuine. This is made even more difficult when you elect to make your characters Lords and Ladies of England, who often had even stricter restrictions on their lives than commoners. If you can hit this in historical fiction or fantasy, it’s a great thing to see. Some stories manage that extremely well and create wonderful, inventive new stories. This one felt… off.
For most of the novel it felt like Maniscalco was trying to have her cake and eat it too. A peer of the realm studying the dissection of human bodies would’ve been ostracized from high society, even if they were male, and much more assuredly so if female. But despite her work being a semi-open secret, Audrey Rose suffered no real consequences for her decision to pursue forensic science and was able to mingle with high society at will. It feels like Maniscalco missed her mark here, not by very much, but by enough that it pulled me out of the story. But mostly here it feels like a failure to commit. Either you’re writing a fantasy where you create the rules, in which case no consequences is fine, but then it raises the question of “if there are no consequences why is this character the only female doing anything?” or, you commit to historical fiction which means you have to have real consequences to the choices your characters make. A real-world analogue to Audrey Rose is Grace Humiston who the press famously called Mrs. Sherlock Holmes, as an investigator and then first female U.S. District Attorney during the time of the suffrage movements. Grace faced intense prejudice from the men she worked with and worse from the men she investigated. You would expect, therefore, to see similar, if not greater, levels of prejudice against Audrey almost 40 years earlier. And yet, you don’t. Which is fine for your own worlds, but in a novel that went to such lengths to be as historically accurate as possible, the absence of these consequences is jarring.
My other big complaint in this book is the romance. Audrey’s love interest, Thomas, is presented as a caustic, sarcastic asshole. Audrey as much as says that like every other chapter. Thomas is a kind of a poor-man’s Sherlock Holmes. He’s rude and dismissive of Audrey at first but quickly turns possessive and relentlessly pursues romantic engagement from Audrey despite her repeated and many rebuffs. Like someone with a tumor pressing against her temporal lobe, Audrey finds him irritating, arrogant, rude, and, of course, charming, irresistible, and mysterious. Mysterious, I’ve come to believe, is code for “asshole, but surely he can’t be 100% dick, there has to be something good about him, really, really, really, deep down.” I loathe this manner of romance, because it is entirely unhealthy. These bad boys that we toss about as love interest gloss over the fact that they’re bad. In the real world, this kind of person is likely to be selfish, controlling, primarily interested in physical relations rather than emotional ones, is probably emotionally manipulative, and unlikely to be faithful. In other words, abusive. I’ve often thought that this bad boy love interest trope emerged as a way to romanticize the often profoundly shitty behavior that men do. He’s not a controlling dick, he’s mysterious. Oooooh. I also dislike romances where the man is pervasive in his attempts to woo his love interest, because it sends a really shitty message that if a dude pesters a woman enough she’ll eventually relent to his “charms,” or conversely that if a dude is persistent enough ladies should give him a chance. Which is horseshit. That Thomas is supportive of Audrey’s pursuits in forensic sciences is immediately over-shadowed by his desire to explain forensic sciences to her in practically every chapter, effectively turning our protagonist from being her own Sherlock to being the Watson in someone else’s story and undermining all of the other admirable shit she does throughout the book. Just, overall, fuck nope.
Finally, and this might be a bit of a spoiler so skip if you want to, the manner in which the mystery is “solved” irked the hell out of me. First, Audrey was wrong about who the villain was, and she only learns this when she stumbles blindly into his lair and he basically has to Bond villain monologue her through the whole thing. She was wrong about not only the suspect but Ripper’s motive as well, which is fine because no one could’ve expected the utter nonsense that the motives were. Mysteries are good when the reader has all the clues, they’re great when the protagonists solves the bloody mystery. Instead of Hercule Poirot and getting to marvel at Audrey’s cleverness, we got a Scooby Doo mystery where the monster got tired of running from the dog and the pot head and just took off his mask. She also has to be rescued from the villain at the end too. Which all seemed like the book sacrificed Audrey’s character and agency so the book could have a really good twist. To be fair, having the detective be wrong can be a good twist, for established detectives and series, or very early in a novel, not as the god damn denouement.
I’m giving this 2.0 out of 5 cups of tea. A generally excellent picture of period London and a thoughtful twist on the Jack the Ripper mystery is spoiled by a disconnect between the protagonist and the realism the book strives for, made worse by an abominable love interest. I’m left really trying to nail down what kind of genre it is: historical fiction, fantasy, mystery, romance, or thriller? This novel might appeal strongly to people who are fans of period romances and inclined to a sufficient level of suspension of disbelief but despite having several genre elements I love, like women getting to do shit in historical fiction and real-world unsolved mysteries, this book missed my personal target by like a barn or two.
|Final Verdict: 2.0 out of 5 cups of tea. A generally excellent picture of period London and a thoughtful twist on the Jack the Ripper mystery is spoiled by a disconnect between the protagonist and the realism the book strives for, made worse by an abominable love interest.|
|+ Audrey Rose was an excellent, female protagonist striving for agency and her own life in a time period that would be unlikely to acquiesce.||– Abominable love interest hitting on tropes I hate: the bad boy love interest and that creepy persistence wins the girl.|
|+ Generally, an excellent picture of period London with historical notes and pictures that added to the story rather than detracted.||– A real disconnect between what would’ve been real world consequences of the protagonist’s life choices.|
|+ The actual following of leads and mystery elements were generally well done. I figured out who the big bad was about half way through, though not the nonsense twist at the end.||– The reveal of the Ripper changed this from being a mystery novel to, at best a thriller, by robbing our female lead of agency to pay for a good twist.|