Three quite different offerings for this month—a humor-infused historical mystery series, a retelling of Greek legends, and a fantasy of female constructs caught up in a dying man’s yearning for vengeance. Should appeal to a wide range of tastes!
Dianne Freeman, A Fiancée’s Guide to First Wives and Murder (Kensington, 2021)
This, the fourth historical mystery featuring Frances Wynn, the widowed countess of Harleigh, drew me in from the moment I first saw it. I mean, really, who can resist a title like that?
In this installment, Frances has overcome her previous reluctance to marry, a natural response to her first husband’s infidelity and extravagance, and has accepted the hand of her attractive neighbor, George Hazelton. Imagine her surprise and dismay when Irena—a young, beautiful, and tempestuous Frenchwoman who claims to be an illegitimate descendant of Russia’s imperial family—arrives in London and announces that no wedding can take place because she is already married to George.
Although George denies this assertion, he confirms both Irena’s identity and his prior acquaintance with her, as well as her report that she has been repeatedly kidnapped and held to ransom. Irena insists that her life is in danger, and, despite not knowing what to believe, Frances reluctantly agrees to take the young woman in. But her kindness backfires: when she finds Irena dead in a locked garden, obviously strangled, both Frances and George fall under police suspicion.
The series combines compelling and well-plotted mysteries with a sparkling sense of humor, making for a fun and absorbing read. In all fairness, you should start with the first one, A Lady’s Guide to Etiquette and Murder, but I didn’t, and I enjoyed them even out of order. Book 5, A Bride’s Guide to Marriage and Murder, is due at the end of June.—CPL
Madeline Miller, The Song of Achilles (Bloomsbury, 2011)
Young Prince Patroclus, the narrator of The Song of Achilles, expects little from life. His father is irritable and his mother is dull, and Patroclus himself lacks the physical prowess that is so highly regarded in the heroic age about which Madeline Miller writes. The first time Patroclus finds the courage to stand up for himself, against a bully who is about to clobber him, the bully slips, hits his head on a rock, and dies. Bad luck! As a consequence, Patroclus’ father exiles him to the kingdom of Phthia, where King Peleus is fostering many boys in an effort to surround his own son, Achilles, “the best of all Greeks,” with a wide circle of suitable companions. Patroclus expects even less in this new environment.
Achilles’ mother is Thetis, the beautiful sea goddess about whom it had been foretold that the child she bears in marriage would be greater than his father. (Zeus himself was in love with her but wisely gave her to Peleus, a mortal, to ensure his own ongoing greatness.) Of all the young boys in Phthia vying for the half-god Achilles’ attention, it is Patroclus, the quiet boy haunted by dreams of the “staring eyes and splintered skull” of the fellow he accidentally killed, that captures Achilles’ interest, and eventually his heart. Watching them grow up together—in spite of Thetis’ attempts to break them apart, and through their years living in a cave with Chiron the Centaur (who teaches Achilles how to fight and Patroclus how to heal, a skill which will be useful to him once he and Achilles reach the Trojan battlefield)—makes for an engaging reading experience, especially as most readers will have some idea of what is soon to follow.
The Song of Achilles is a beautiful, poetic novel informed by the Iliad (and yet very much an entity unto itself) and rendered equally majestic by the skill, imagination, and passion Miller brings to it. Her decision to balance a more intense focus on Patroclus and Achilles’ early life with a less busy account of their wartime activities brings her story into good keeping with contemporary reading trends. Achilles’ transition from beloved golden boy to the blood-lusting man who would nonetheless hold himself back from a war the Greeks can’t win without him—simply because he feels fellow Greek Agamemnon has disrespected him—seems even more consequential here. Likewise, Patroclus’ act of bravery—taking on Achilles’ battle gear and pretending to be him so as to spare Achilles the shame he has brought only on himself—is even more thrilling for our knowledge of Patroclus’ gentle nature and loving heart. Having known the two from childhood, the readers’ sense of impending doom is only heightened.
This is a novel to cherish. Odysseus and Briseis and Agamemnon and many others—gods as well as mortals—have mostly peripheral parts to play here, but Miller manages to bring them fully to life, raising (this reader’s) hopes that they will turn up again and again in her work. (See my review of Miller’s Circe, from September 2020.)—JS
Sara Mueller, The Bone Orchard (Tor, 2022)
Get ready for a cruel dark world of abnegation and revenge, featuring a woman who struggles to achieve psychic integration after a succession of betrayals. Like a Westworld written by Edgar Allan Poe, The Bone Orchard comes with its own charming brothel owner, whose name actually is Charm.
Charm’s free will is limited by an implant, and her memory damaged. Her dying lover/captor, the old Emperor, assigns her two final tasks that she must complete to win her freedom. She must punish his poisoner and find a worthy person—not one of his sons—to serve as the next emperor.
Charm’s girls at the brothel are also her helpmates. They were grown in vats from assemblages of bones. That doesn’t mean they don’t have feelings, though. Like Charm, they are named after emotions. Pride mostly stands behind the reservation desk, looking cool and composed, while Shame is damaged early on in the game by one of the Emperor’s sons, the cruel Prince Phelan. And Pain—well, she has an especially hard time of it. Her role is to accept the pain of others, leaving them relieved of discomfort.
Behind all those linked girls lurks the spirit of a mysterious and gentle woman, the architect of their lives, referred to as the Lady, who shares Charm’s body with her. The Lady must be shielded from the terrible things that happen, but occasionally she comes out of the shadowy recesses of their shared consciousness to mend her creations.
This is just the opening setup of this complex and original novel, which continues to introduce flawed conniving characters to create a chessboard of moves and countermoves. You can hear an interview with the author at New Books in Fantasy.—GM