FROM A DIFFERENT ANGLE: NEW HISTORICAL FICTION

The kind of historical fiction I particularly enjoy is the type where the author takes something famous, something most people know about in a vague sense, and, by looking at it from a different perspective, brings it to new life.  Whether it’s The Wizard of Oz movie being made, or the home front in England during World War I, two new historical novels here at The Field Library bring us those kinds of new insights.

L. Frank Baum is well known, and deservedly so, for having written The Wizard of Oz, though probably more people these days are familiar with the 1939 movie made from the book. Finding Dorothy, by Elizabeth Letts, brings us to the period when the movie was being made, seeing the events through the eyes of Maud Baum, the widow of L. Frank Baum.  Coming to Hollywood to try to make sure the movie remains true to the spirit of her husband’s book, Maud remembers her past with Frank, her days as a Suffragist, and her attempt to save the girl who was the model for Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz.  Seeing Judy Garland rehearsing for the role of Dorothy, Maud feels the need to try to protect her, from the studio, from her stage mother, from the pressures all around her, and maybe save her as she couldn’t save the real Dorothy. Finding Dorothy is a rich look at the lives behind the famous story, and a portrait of a real woman’s fierce struggle against the constraints of her time and her role.

Rhys Bowen, author of the new book, The Victory Garden, is no stranger to historical fiction, between her Molly Murphy mystery series, set in New York around the turn of the century and her previous books set during World War II (In Farleigh Field and The Tuscan Child), she clearly has a talent for bringing the past to life.  The Victory Garden is set in England during World War I (the Great War, as they called it then), with the character of Emily Bryce eager to do her part to help her country in time of war, despite her parents’ strenuous opposition.  She falls in love with an Australian pilot at a local hospital, and when he’s sent back to the front, she finds work as a Land Girl, tending a large Devonshire estate. She discovers she’s pregnant, she’s not married, and her lover has died a hero’s death in the war, a devastating combination of blows. Pretending to be a war widow, Emily grows up quickly, inspired by her work and the community of people, mostly women, surrounding her.  For those of us who are fans of Rhys Bowen, picking up this book is a no-brainer. For historical fiction fans who haven’t yet encountered her, this is an excellent place to make her acquaintance.

 

 

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TIME TRAVEL MURDER MYSTERY

We all know I love time travel novels. Probably The Field Library has acquired more time travel books since I’ve been buying new fiction than at any comparable period in its history, and I’m not the least bit sorry.  There’s just something about the whole concept of time travel that allows an author to talk about all kinds of different things, and in the most intriguing way, and no two that I’ve read tackle the questions from the same angle.  There’s a reason I put “read a book about time travel” first in the reading challenge for last year.

Our newest addition to the time travel collection is The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas, and it’s a wild read, great fun and enthralling enough that I read it in one day because I couldn’t put it down.

The premise is straightforward. In 1967, four women — Margaret, Grace, Lucille and Barbara (Bee) designed and built a working time machine.  But just as they unveiled their successful prototype in a press conference that was broadcast worldwide, Bee suffered a nervous breakdown on the air, throwing the whole enterprise into doubt.  As Bee went to a mental hospital to recover, the other women, led by the indomitable Margaret, pushed forward with the time machine, creating a company called the Conclave that would turn time travel into a viable business, open to military applications, scientific research, and people who could afford to go forward or backward in time.  The only one who was not allowed to have anything to do with the company was Bee, who was virtually ostracized by the other three and the rest of the world, ostensibly for her own good.

Some fifty years later, Bee is a grandmother, living in seclusion.  The Conclave is internationally famous. Time travelers have their own vocabularies to discuss their unique experiences. One day an origami rabbit is sent to Bee’s granddaughter, Ruby,  along with a newspaper clipping about a mysterious death of an unknown woman. Ruby wonders whether this is a threat to her grandmother, a prediction, or an effort to protect Bee from someone who wants to kill her. How can she not try to find out who sent the clipping and why?

Another young woman, Odette, finds a dead woman, shot several times, in the locked basement of the toy museum where she’s just started volunteering.  The woman’s face is obliterated and no one can figure out who she was or how she died. Odette is haunted by this experience, determined to find out who the woman was and why she was killed in such a bizarre way.

Naturally the two plotlines interweave, but because it’s a book involving time travel, there are multiple characters interacting in past and present and even future.  You might think this will make the book confusing, and it is, a little, but the author helps orient you by telling you who the point of view character of each chapter is, and when the chapter is taking place, and after a while, you find yourself making connections between the past and the present and the future, watching characters meet themselves at different ages, run into each other knowingly or not, and set events in motion that you’ve already seen occur.

It all ties together, and although I guessed who the murdered woman was and how she was killed before the author revealed it, that didn’t lessen my pleasure in the unwinding of the various plot threads in the least.  The characters are vivid and surprise you with their actions throughout the book, and death itself takes on a different shape and emotion with people who can witness a person’s death and then travel back to talk to the person when the person was still alive. There’s a special justice system that operates within the Conclave because the time travelers are subject to so many different laws in different times and places that they are, in some ways, outside the ordinary laws of this world, a fact which plays a significant part in the plot.

With all the pleasures of the book, I do have to warn potential readers about one flaw.  For some reason, there are a number of places where different people’s lines of dialogue are placed on the same line, so you have trouble following who said what in a conversation.  This is purely an error in editing, but it does get on your nerves after a while. I realize that books aren’t line edited the way they used to be, and typos are a lot more frequent in published books than they were, say, twenty or thirty years ago, but this really is embarrassing and whoever edited this book should be ashamed.

Leaving that aside, dive into The Psychology of Time Travel, and enjoy a mystery, a romance, a reflection on mortality and what matters most, and a purely fun read.

EXOTIC SETTINGS, EXOTIC MYSTERIES

While a really good writer can make almost any setting, no matter how familiar, seem new and exciting, there does come a point when you want something a little different, when you want to see a mystery set somewhere you haven’t been before, somewhere that hasn’t been the setting for hundreds of other mysteries, in print or on film. So often the setting becomes an integral part of the story, so that it couldn’t take place anywhere else, or the setting itself almost becomes a character in the story, so a standard place often leads to a predictable story. However, we have two new mysteries here at The Field Library which take place in settings very unusual for the mystery genre, and as a result, the stories themselves take on different dimensions.

Jane Harper, the author of the first mystery, The Lost Man, has written two other books set in Australia (The Dry and Force of Nature).  This one, a stand alone, takes place in the unforgiving outback in central Australia.  The three Bright brothers each live on their own ranch, three miles apart, each the other’s nearest neighbor.  In December, Cameron, the middle brother, disappears. Months later, his two brothers, Bud and Nathan, find Cameron’s body lying dead at the fence that acts as a boundary for their lands. The family gathers to grieve, along with long time employees and recently hired ranch hands, but Nathan becomes suspicious about exactly how and why his brother died. Why would someone as experienced in the harshness of the summer outback have just wandered off under the hot sun? Could he have been forced to his death?  And if so, there are very few people who could possibly have had a hand in his death, all of them related, one way or another, to Cameron and his brothers. Family secrets emerge as possible motives for murder under the brutal heat and isolation of the outback.

If the thought of so much dry heat is too much for you, you can turn to Watcher in the Woods, by Kelley Armstrong, for a complete contrast. Watcher is set in the secret town of Rockton, in the Yukon territory, a place off the maps, where many of the inhabitants are criminals or victims fleeing from civilization.  Casey Duncan, our protagonist, is one of the three police officers who keep order in the town, and while she’s no stranger to violent crime there, she’s surprised that any outsider could find the place, let alone cause trouble there. A U.S. Marshal appears, demanding the officers release one of the residents to him, without specifying exactly who he’s seeking, and within a few hours, he’s been shot dead.  The pool of suspects is limited to the people in town, including Casey’s sister who just arrived, and Casey and her fiance, the town sheriff, have to determine what the Marshal knew and who was willing to kill to keep it secret, before the killer strikes again. In a town of so many secrets, so many people hiding from the world, that’s not going to be easy.

Take your pick: Australia or the Yukon.  You’ll enjoy a different world, and a different kind of mystery.

MAKE YOURSELF BETTER BY MAKING SOMETHING

How could I resist a book with the title Craftfulness: Mend Yourself by Making Things?  It’s as if the authors, Rosemary Davidson and Arzu Tahsin, looked into my psyche to find exactly the concept that would push all my buttons. And whether you’re a person who does crafts or whether you just wish you could de-stress and take more control over your life, you may very well find that Craftfulness speaks to you in a powerful way as well.

It’s an odd duck of a book. It’s not really a crafting book per se, though it does have some projects late in the book for you to see if a particular craft resonates with you (making a loom and weaving something with it, knitting, binding a small book, making a clay pot, drawing and keeping a journal). It’s not quite a self-help book either, though it probably fits more into that realm than anything else. It reads as if the two authors were sitting in your living room, showing you the crafts they do and explaining, with great enthusiasm, why they believe working with their hands is a lifesaving thing, or at least a sanity saving thing.

There’s definitely something intuitively right about their whole premise: they quote from neurological studies as well as from anecdotal evidence about how creative work calms the mind, helps one achieve a sense of “flow” and helps overly intellectual or overly scheduled people to feel better and work better overall.  I suppose it’s a sign of our times that we feel we need some kind of expert permission to make things with our hands, as if someone who’s knitting or making a clay pot or drawing is just fooling around and not being a productive member of society, as if we have to be working all the time at “important” things instead of doing things just because we enjoy them.  We can, the authors assure us (not in so many words), do things we enjoy because they’re also good for us, a form of self-care. If you have trouble getting into actual meditation, the idea that becoming deeply involved with a recreational activity (like knitting or sewing or bookbinding) can give you the same mental and psychological benefits as meditation is very attractive.

With aplomb and plenty of personal examples, they demolish many of the obstacles to starting a new creative practice, including the fear of failure, the overly critical sense we have when we’re trying something we’re not good at yet (there’s one powerful statement that as adults our critical faculties are so much more developed than our creative ones, so we tend to be much more harshly judgmental than we should be), the notion that only some special, gifted people can be artists and the rest of us should just steer clear of anything that might be considered creative. This is a fun book to read even if you already spend time making things for the sheer pleasure of it; sometimes you need to be reminded that what you’re doing is good for you and good in general.

If the world is too stressful, or too grey and cold, Craftfulness encourages you to try something different, to use a different part of your brain and return to the joyful creativity of your earliest childhood.  It’s a delightful book, a quick and inspiring read, and it made me want to go back to the sketchpad for another round of drawing.

 

WHERE COLOR MEANS EVERYTHING: WE CAST A SHADOW

As a parent, how far would you go to take care of your child?  What would you be willing to sacrifice in order to protect your child from danger?  If you knew your child was going to be the victim of prejudice and trouble his whole life because of a physical trait you could get fixed, how much would be too much to get that trait fixed?

These are the questions at the heart of a new dystopian novel, We Cast a Shadow, by Maurice Carlos Ruffin, but with a twist.  The added factor in We Cast a Shadow is racism taken to a new level.  In the future world of this book, a series of procedures have been created called Demelanization.  Skin can be lightened, lips thinned, noses reconstructed, all to make a black person look more like a white person.  Of course, there’s a cost for these procedures, and it’s not cheap by any means, but in the increasingly segregated and dangerous world of the United States, more and more African Americans are opting for these procedures.  

Our unnamed narrator is a black man who has managed to succeed in this world; he’s living outside the ghetto, he’s married to a white woman, he’s got a good, well-paying job as a lawyer in a large firm.  He’s also he father of Nigel, a biracial child with a black birthmark that’s growing larger and larger. He’s convinced Nigel’s only hope of success in this world is to lose all evidence that he has any African American traits at all, via the demelanization procedure.  

In order to afford the procedure, he has to make partner, win bonuses, at his firm, but he has to compete with the few other African Americans in the firm for whatever crumbs of status and money might be available. He’s willing to do whatever is necessary, as he defines necessary; even if this means engaging in humiliating and even degrading exercises.  His self-hatred and internalized sense of his own racial inferiority motivate him almost as much as his love for his son does.

At what point does protection become harm?  How far can a parent go to save his or her own child from a system that’s horrible and dangerous?  How far is the protagonist of We Cast a Shadow willing to go, and is that too far?   Suspenseful, satirical and thought-provoking, We Cast a Shadow is a book for our times.

WHEN THE RULES DON’T WORK: IN AN ABSENT DREAM

As anyone who’s been reading this blog for any length of time knows, I’m a huge fan of Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series, which has already won Hugo and Nebula awards and which, to my delight, shows no signs of ending in the near future.  The first book was Every Heart a Doorway, followed by the prequel, Down Among the Sticks and Bones (review), followed by Beneath the Sugar Sky (review), and now by the newest, In An Absent Dream.

The first two books are more closely related than any of the others, but you can easily read any of them independently, or read them out of order without getting confused.  The basic concept is that there’s a home for children who’ve come back to the mundane world from more fantastic places (think Alice in Wonderland or Narnia), who aren’t able to forget their other worlds and long to find a doorway or other portal back. There’s an inherent poignance, as the characters have all lost something precious and not all of them are going to be able to get it back, but that uncertainty and longing gives the books their tension and suspense.

In An Absent Dream departs a little from the usual structure, in that we don’t see the Home until the very end of the book, but it’s still at heart a story of a girl who gets to escape her normal existence by traveling to and staying in another world, at least for a while.

Katherine Lundy, our protagonist, is a quiet, well-behaved, book-loving girl of six when she finds the door in the tree that leads her to the Goblin Market for the first time. Since her father is the principal of the school she attends, Katherine has no friends and few deep connections to the human world, other than her parents, her older brother who barely interacts with her at all, and her baby sister who’s hardly a person yet. So she has little reason to hesitate when she sees the sign on the door in the tree that says “Be Sure.”

She enters the Goblin Market, a world where various kinds of humans, non-humans and partial humans live and work in reasonable harmony due to the operation of the market, which keeps everything fair by making everyone follow some straightforward rules: ask for nothing; names have power, always give fair value; remember the curfew.  The most important rule, it turns out, is the one about giving fair value. An uneven exchange results in debt, and too much debt can cause a person to be changed into something else (we see a couple of characters changed, partially or completely, into birds as a result of debts).

Katherine, who renames herself Lundy, meets another girl, called Moon, and Moon introduces her to the way the rules work and to the Archivist, an older woman who proves to be very important to Lundy’s future in the Goblin Market.

Lundy passes in and out of the Goblin Market a few times, and we get to know her and to see what the pull of that world is for her. The concept of fair value is fascinating, and the way the world is set up to make the transactions work is absorbing, as are the relationships between Lundy and Moon, Lundy and the Archivist, and Lundy and her family (especially her father and her sister) when she returns to this world.  And all the time, the clock is ticking down to Lundy’s curfew, the time she has to decide where she really belongs and to make a commitment to that world.

Obviously, since it’s part of this series, I had a feeling all along that Lundy wasn’t going to have a happy ending in the Goblin Market, but the suspense arises from not knowing what exactly is going to happen to her and how, and knowing or guessing in advance doesn’t make the ending any less poignant.

Like all the books in the series, In an Absent Dream is short, a novella rather than a novel, and that’s good and bad. It’s good because you can (and I did) read the whole book in a day, and it’s bad because the author has to leave certain things out (what did happen when Lundy and Moon battled the Wasp Queen, and what actually happened to Mockerie?). The lack of some details really doesn’t hurt the book, but you should be prepared for a book in which you sometimes have to read between the lines and guess at things.

Reading In an Absent Dream made me both impatient for the next book in the series and wanting to reread the first three books again.  It’s that good, moving, fascinating and thought provoking. If you’ve read any of the other books, I don’t need to tell you to hurry out to pick this one up and read it.  If you haven’t read the series (and why not?), do yourself a favor and check out In an Absent Dream and dive into a strange world of rules and debts and an all-powerful market that makes everything “fair.”

 

NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH: GOLDEN STATE

In this era of “fake news” and lies and the necessity of fact checkers, there’s something really appealing about the idea of a society where truth is the ultimate virtue and anyone who lies, even a little, is punished for it.  That’s the world of Golden State, by Ben H. Winters. Before you decide this is the world for you, however, you might want to consider, as Winters does, all the implications of how such a world would work and whether it would be an actual improvement over what we have now.

Something terrible happened in the past, but nobody in the world of Golden State knows what that was, because they do not keep their history.  The United States is no more, and the nation known as Golden State has arisen from what was formerly California.  In this nation, only truth is allowed, and the only people allowed to even consider possibilities other than verifiable fact are the Speculators, special enforcers like our protagonist, Laszlo, who are so sensitive to untruths that they are physically affected by the smallest of white lies, let alone major deceptions.  In order to make sure everyone is telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, the state has turned into a veritable panopticon. There is no privacy for anyone; everything is always being observed and recorded, and citizens are required to keep diaries of everything they do, and to get other people to verify their versions of events.

Laszlo starts out with a new partner, investigating what should be a fairly simple question of whether someone who fell off a building died as a result of an industrial accident or whether he was pushed. With everything recorded and verified, this should be a piece of cake for Laszlo and his partner, but this is a situation where pulling on one thread begins to unravel everything. Over the course of the story, Laszlo begins to develop from a person who believes in all the rules and how essential they are to the functioning of the world to a person who starts to ask questions, even if they’re dangerous questions that go to the underpinnings of the whole society.  What, after all, IS truth? Who determines what truth is the real thing? How can human beings, storytelling creatures by nature, refrain from ALL forms of untruth?

Golden State probably won’t make you eager to return to a world where truth seems to be a vanishing thing, but it will make you wonder exactly how far we should go to the other extreme of honesty.

 

THE PAST ISN’T NECESSARILY PAST: GHOST WALL

If you’re in the mood for a short, but dense and disturbing, book that makes you think about the concept of progress and human nature, you should definitely check out Sarah Moss’ Ghost Wall.  You can probably read it in a day, but it’s the kind of book that will haunt you much longer than that.

Silvie is a modern teenager growing up in the north of England. Her father is a bus driver with a chip on his shoulder the size of a mountain, a man obsessed by the glories of the British past, before all those immigrants came in.  He’s a bully to his wife and his daughter, and Silvie is already plotting how she’s going to leave home as soon as she can, when an opportunity that seems to be uniquely designed for the family presents itself.

A college anthropology class is doing a two week immersion study in which they’re going to try to live, as much as possible, the way their Iron Age ancestors did, leaving all modern civilization behind.  Naturally Silvie’s father schedules his vacation to coincide, and naturally he brings his family along. He has little patience for academic types in general, and he and Silvie have more personal knowledge of ancient survival skills than any of the students, most of whom are just there to get the grades they need.

Silvie slips right in to the whole Iron Age mentality and technology, much more easily than the college students, but while she’s hunting rabbits and scavenging roots for food, she’s also observing the other young people, and imagining a different life for herself, possibly at university, possibly somewhere other than England.

However, there’s more going on than playacting.  Not all of the attitudes and beliefs of the ancient Britons have disappeared entirely from modern people’s thinking, and when the group starts preparing a “ghost wall” like the ones their ancestors made to keep out invaders, disturbing questions about human sacrifices begin to percolate and rise to the surface.

Ghost Wall asks big questions about who we are, how far we’ve really progressed from our ancient roots, and what we might or might not be willing to do to survive.

 

THE DEVIL MADE ME DO IT

Poor Hannah Green, the protagonist of Hannah Green and Her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence, by Michael Marshall Smith.  At the outset of the book, she’s an 11 year old girl living in Santa Cruz, California, going to school, doing all the usual boring things kids have to do.  Her parents are separating, her mother going to London for a “business trip”, her father sinking into depression as he tries to take care of her and himself. Her life seems utterly mundane and she can’t see any possibility that it’s ever going to be different.  Things pick up a little when her father sends her to stay with her Granddad, a somewhat eccentric itinerant free spirit, living to the north. At least she gets out of school for a while, and she gets to spend time with an interesting person whose behavior is never quite predictable.

Then things start getting a little odd. It turns out that her grandfather is somewhat older than she’d thought.  In fact, he’s a couple of hundred years older. And those bizarre little sculptures he gave her and her parents might not just be attempts at art, but protections against dangerous forces.  Her grandfather, Hannah slowly comes to discover, knows quite a lot about those dangerous forces, because two hundred years ago, he built a device for the devil which converts human evil into energy the devil can use.  Her grandfather has been taking care of this device ever since, but now, for reasons unknown, something has gone wrong with it, and the devil himself is coming to ask for her grandfather’s help, and of course her grandfather isn’t going to leave her alone while he gallivants around creation with the devil.  Mundane is now a thing of the past.

This is a great fun book, one you’ll keep reading just because you have no idea what’s going to happen next: at one point the devil, Hannah, her grandfather and an accident imp named Vaneclaw find themselves in a spot in Siberia which is the exact middle of nowhere; at another point, Hannah finds herself in hell, though it’s called the Behind here and isn’t at all the sort of hell you’d picture from Dante and other medieval sources.  They run into all sorts of other characters, both demonic and human (and non human and non demonic, but I’m not going to spoil the fun on that). One of the critical mechanisms in the plot involves an antique roller coaster (and believe me, you will never ride an old roller coaster with quite the same mentality again after reading this). All the while, the author has such a sure sense of character and plot that you’re confident this will all come together somehow, but you have no idea how, and that’s what keeps you reading.

Well, that’s part of what keeps you reading.  The other part is the characters, all of whom are vivid and fully developed, from Hannah (who is not, fortunately, one of those utterly precocious and unbelievable children you see too often in fiction, especially fantasy), to her grandfather (whose hidden depths never quite obliterate our sense of who he has been throughout the book), to Hannah’s parents (both clearly drawn and neither a cliche of midlife crisis and working too hard to be a good spouse or a good parent), to the aforementioned Vaneclaw (whom most of the characters can’t see, but who is described as looking like a large mushroom with arms and legs), to Nash (a particularly nasty gang member who’s traveling across country to fulfill a destiny he can’t quite understand), to the devil himself.

I really want to give a shout out to the author for the character of the devil. It’s not easy to take a figure so infamous, so often portrayed in fiction and movies and the like, and make him fresh and interesting, but Smith manages that trick.  The devil is not a nice guy; he doesn’t even have redeeming social value, and a couple of times in the course of the book I had to stop and wonder why I was rooting for him to succeed when he spends so much of his time and energy causing destruction and misery to others. But I do root for him, and Hannah’s grandfather and the rest of the characters on his side, to succeed, despite his horrible behavior in general.

The book is full of surprises, including the humor that pops up here and there, and the way the plot winds and unwinds itself, and the way the characters keep revealing different abilities and quirks.  The ending is satisfying without being obvious, and from now on I, for one, will be looking around for other books by Michael Marshall Smith, if they’re as much fun as this one.

ANOTHER SIDE OF DRACULA: RENFIELD, SLAVE OF DRACULA

I’m a cautious fan of alternate versions of famous books.  Sometimes a new writer looking at a classic is able to illuminate it, show us aspects we never would have seen for ourselves.  Longbourn, by Jo Baker, is a good example of this, telling the story of Pride and Prejudice from the point of view of the servants working in the Bennet’s household.  It can be difficult, though, to get it right, especially if the point of view character in the new book is someone who doesn’t last through the whole of the original book.  Renfield, Slave of Dracula, by Barbara Hambly, stars one of those characters, and if Barbara Hambly weren’t an excellent writer (she is; go check out her other books, especially her Benjamin January mystery series), I would have been reluctant to give the book a try.  Which would have been too bad, because she manages to pull it off: a view of the events of Dracula from a character who’s usually seen as minor, which brings depth to that character and to all the other characters he touches.

We all know the outlines of Renfield’s story from Dracula: he’s the guy who was involved with Dracula before Jonathan Harker, who had a complete breakdown as a result and ended up in the asylum run by Dr. Jack Seward, eating flies and spiders and ranting about the lives he needed to ingest.  He’s something of a grotesque in the original, a contrast to Jonathan and a person who invites Dracula into the asylum where Mina Harker is staying, so Dracula can attack her and so the rest of the book’s plot can unfold. In the original, Dracula kills Renfield in the asylum for his unfaithfulness, long before Van Helsing and the others chase Dracula to his home in Transylvania.  

Hambly turns Renfield into a person with his own history, his own needs and his conflicts.  For most of the book, Renfield relates his side of events via letters to his absent wife and daughter, whom he has hidden away before his commitment to Seward’s asylum, to protect them from his wife’s conniving family.*  He comes across as an erudite, educated man with a past in India of the British Raj, and his obsession with eating flies and spiders and the like becomes more understandable (though still kind of bizarre). His relationship with Dracula is complex; we never learn how he met Dracula and how Dracula achieved his power over Renfield, but he finds himself seeing through Dracula’s eyes and feeling what his master feels (which, by the way, gives us the events we’re familiar with from Dracula).  He’s a sympathetic character, especially when you see how mentally ill people are treated in this era and especially in this asylum, where the lovesick Dr. Seward isn’t paying too much attention to how his staff earns extra money.  

Even where Hambly diverges from the original plot, she’s scrupulous about using characters and events that are part of the original.  In this version, Renfield allies himself with Dracula’s wives, who have come to England to follow their master and to make sure he’s not setting himself up a new harem in England.  We’ve seen the wives in Dracula, though they weren’t as differentiated as they are here.  Each has her own personality (Elizabeth, the oldest, is the most like her husband, cold and cruel), and one of them, Nomie, sees Renfield as more than just a means to their ends but as a person in his own right. She becomes such a major character that if you’re aware of the fates of Dracula’s wives, you spend a lot of time worrying about her fate and how Renfield is going to react to it.

Ah, you ask, but how does the author get around the death of Renfield?  Very cleverly, I answer, but I’m not going to spoil the fun. Suffice it to say that his destiny makes perfect sense in the context of the vampire world (and that’s as much of a hint as I’m going to give), allowing him to be an actor in the events that lead to Dracula’s destruction.

There’s one major twist in the book which I didn’t foresee, but, shocking as it is at the time, when I thought about what we already knew up to that point, it felt fair, not as if the author were twisting the plot just for the sake of twists (coughGoneGirlcough).  Renfield is our protagonist; he’s not a hero, but he’s understandable and he brings new light to Dracula and the other characters around him.

You don’t have to have read Dracula in order to enjoy this book (though why haven’t you read it? It’s a fun book and a classic); what you probably already know from having seen various movie versions of Dracula and what you know from living in this culture will be enough to give you all the background you need. Of course, if you have read the original, it’s even more fun to read this.  Introduce yourself to a new and fascinating Renfield, here at The Field Library.

 

*And yes, this means this book can be used as an epistolary novel for the purposes of the 2019 Reading Challenge.