Books We Loved, Jul. 2022
As we move into the period of serious summer reading, we have three suggestions that, while not exactly classic beach reads, will keep you entertained and even provoke a bit of reflection. Gotta make good use of those long hours of daylight, after all!
Kirstin Chen, Counterfeit (William Morrow, 2022)
Three words: knockoff designer handbags.
Counterfeit is a highly enjoyable, fast read, told from two points of view. Mostly, we hear from Ava Wong, spilling her guts to the arresting detective after she’s caught in a web of fake handbag sales. We also get a bit of Winnie Fang, the mastermind, giving a fascinating counterpoint to Ava’s “confession.”
Ava’s marriage is on the ropes, her son is not behaving or developing as expected, she hates being a lawyer, and she’s somehow lost control of the family finances. (A couple of those financial points are not exactly correct under California law, which would be more forgivable if the protagonist weren’t a California lawyer, but that’s a minor issue overall.)
Winnie left Stanford in disgrace, surrounding suspicion of SAT cheating, and has reinvented herself in a shocking way. She imports and sells fake designer purses, with an intriguing twist involving returns to major stores.
The two women reconnect after decades, when each needs the other to survive. The partnership is a devil’s brew of need and control, of superficial friendship and deep mistrust, or is it the other way around?
There are subpoints, not quite subplots, regarding the fears a mother has around her non-neurotypically developing son, the intricacies of organ transplants, plastic surgery, and SAT cheats. These issues impact our main characters, not just plotwise, but in the subtext of the importance of “face,” of how we are seen by others, and how our most intimate societies judge us.
It’s easy to breeze right through this interesting and unusual story, but it’s worth slowing down a bit to get the full impact of Asian stereotyping, the Chinese/Chinese-American divide, the pressures of achievement, and the intricacies and unexpected consequences of imposter items. Take time to relish the force of the final pages in reordering the reader’s entire view.
And check your purchases carefully!—CHL
Madeleine E. Robins, The Sleeping Partner
(Plus One Press, 2012)
I read books 1 (Point of Honor) and 2 (Petty Treason) of this series, set in an “alternate Regency,” years ago and really enjoyed the adventures of the heroine, Miss Sarah Tolerance. Who can resist an opening line like this: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Fallen Woman of good family must, soon or late, descend to whoredom”?
Indeed, Miss Tolerance—not her real name—has committed the unforgivable sin of eloping with and marrying her brother’s fencing master. Her father cast her off on the spot, and the young couple lived happily abroad until the husband’s untimely death. When we meet her, Sarah has just returned to London, and although she herself vehemently resists becoming a whore, she lives in a brothel run by her aunt, another impulsive runaway whose intended came to a bad end. There Sarah makes use of the fencing skills acquired from her husband and in time runs a private inquiry service for clients willing to tolerate her eccentricities in return for her discretion.
When I realized that Robins had written a third novel, I immediately added it to my Kindle wishlist, but years went by and life intervened. Finally, I got around to reading it last month. In this installment, Sarah accepts a case that seems both simple and virtually unsolvable: to find one young woman who has fled her wealthy aristocratic home with her art teacher and is now somewhere in London’s teeming streets. The young woman’s father has already cast her off, but her sister is determined to find the girl before she can be ruined in the eyes of society. For obvious reasons, Sarah can empathize with both the missing girl and the girl’s sister, plus she needs the gig, so without great expectation of success, she sets off to survey London’s hundreds of cheap inns, posting houses, and stews. But of course, the girl’s disappearance and its causes turn out to be far more complex than Sarah could have predicted. When ambushed on the street, she enlists the aid of her friend, Sir Walter Mandif, a Bow Street magistrate who would like their relationship to be far closer than it is, but in the end it is Sarah herself who puts all the pieces together.
It’s not easy to capture Austen’s style while postulating a world she never knew in a type of novel she would never have written, but Robins manages that trick in ways that are both surprising and satisfying. I keep hoping for more Sarah Tolerance novels, but since it’s now a decade since this one appeared, I suppose that’s too much to expect.—CPL
Richard Swan, The Justice of Kings (Orbit, 2022)
The Justice of Kings opens with our young narrator, Helena, traveling from town to town as clerk to the King’s Justice, a learned and idealistic man called Vonvalt. The first few chapters build toward a pivotal incident, the razing of the village of Rill and the immolation of its inhabitants.
Vonvalt, who has leeway on how he applies common law, has discovered that the village still worships the old gods and has imposed a fine as punishment, privately cautioning the local lord to worship more discreetly. However, Patria Claver, the priest who travels with Helena’s party, has his own ideas about how to handle pagans and returns with a party of crusading soldiers to mete out death to the inhabitants. This sets up the central conflict between Vonvalt, a rational man who prides himself on a measured and appropriate response, and the nobles who back Claver, amassing a private and punitive army of crusaders.
You can hear an interview with the author at New Books in Fantasy.—GM