Strong Female Protagonist
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.”
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.|
My shelves are filled with ladies. I’m a fan of Leia and Rey; I adore Xena and Gabrielle; Buffy and Charmed are my sick day go-tos. I have feminist SFF coming out of my ears. But I spend a lot of time wondering if it’s really THEM that I like. Something about the Strong Female Protagonist is always going to grab me, but sometimes it seems like the Chinese takeout of the speculative fiction world: tasty and fun, but not always satisfying.
What I really want in my female characters has never been strength for strength’s sake. I want them to be rivers that run deep even when they look shallow. When I think about my favorite ladies, they tend to fit that mold. It’s not hard to see the complexity in Buffy’s character as the seasons go along.
I think what may be odder are the female characters I like who aren’t in the typical mold. I like many characters set up to be side characters and many of the main SFPs I can’t stand. It’s an interesting thing I’ve been thinking about lately. Read the rest of this entry »