The Pearl Thief – Elizabeth Wein

This is going to be a weird review because a comprehensive review of The Pearl Thief would involve cultural/subject matter expertise which I don’t have. Specifically, many characters in this book, though not the protagonist Julie, are Scottish Travellers, and the prejudices they face form a large aspect of the plot. So I’m putting it upfront that I’m not going to review the representation of that culture in this book, because I don’t have sufficient knowledge. I will say that Scottish Traveller author Jess Smith is thanked in the acknowledgements for reviewing the manuscript for Traveller cultural elements.

I’d also like to thank Hyperion for sending me an ARC.


Unlike Code Name Verity, The Pearl Thief is not presented as a found manuscript, so it is very much franker about sexuality, for example, than Code Name Verity. Julie has two crushes over the course of the book, one on the contractor who is turning her grandfather’s estate into a school, Frank Dunbar, and a more serious one on Ellen McEwen, a proud and prickly Traveller girl with an interest in archaeology and geology. Ellen and Julie never “get together” in the sense of explicitly forming a relationship, but they do clandestinely kiss once under the guise of showing how a man kisses a woman. Julie is clear that her “passion for Ellen” is equivalent to and even deeper than her passion for Frank.

I enjoyed this book actually even more than Code Name Verity, though I missed the character of Maddie (we see in this book how Julie got the nickname “Queenie”). I thought it was more plausible than Code Name Verity and I liked getting inside Julie’s head a bit more and seeing more of her brother Jamie. However, as is usual with Wein’s books, the very ending is fluffed a bit and spells out the epiphanies too much. And while I enjoyed the exploration of class in the book (Julie is an aristocrat, and coming to terms with the privileges that entails), it struck me as a gap in that theme that the only working-class characters were either Travellers or two prejudiced and unsympathetic servants.

As to the mystery element, I figured out who the villain was immediately upon his introduction, but I didn’t predict some of the twists. I also loved a scene which I will put under a cut for mild spoilers.
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Idylls of the Queen – Phyllis Ann Karr

Thoroughly enjoyable Arthurian mystery, treating the same episode in Malory as Dark Jenny, which I reviewed for Ideomancer. That is, the poisoning of Sir Patrise and the false accusation against Guenevere, which makes for a good mystery framework. The authors take rather different approaches, though– Dark Jenny features an original character from an ongoing series, while Idylls of the Queen rehabilitates Sir Kay, Arthur’s foster-brother, making him a hero in his own right. idylls_of_the_queen

I picked up this book to scratch my “sympathetic Mordred” itch– my copy of The Winter Prince is out of state. Mordred is a major supporting character, like Kay trying to solve the mystery of who poisoned Sir Patrise, as it is suspected that the poison was aimed at his brother Gawain. This Mordred is sarcastic, infuriating, sharp-witted enough, loyal to his mother, and tormented by the knowledge that he is prophesied to be the downfall of Camelot. This makes him suicidal, but as by medieval standards a suicide damned his soul, he mostly tries to get other people to kill him. His humor, and Kay’s skeptical narration, stop his character from being weighed down by angst.

So it scratched the Mordred itch, but this book also dug up my Gawain feelings from way back when I read Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight– which is clearly an influence on this portrayal of Gawain. He’s far from perfect, but he’s honorable to a fault.

And what of Kay, the main character? He’s pragmatic, being a seneschal and not much of a fighter (in fact, he loses the climactic fight with the bad guy). He’s the guy who makes sure everyone gets fed, not the guy who goes off on quests, and he has a cynical attitude towards glory-seeking. Oh, and he’s desperately in love with Guenevere– which accounts for his bitterness towards Lancelot, who is Sir Not Appearing in this Book. Kay’s a fun narrator, but I found my sympathies more deeply engaged by the Orkney brothers. The emotional climax of the book is when Kay gathers the brothers together and makes them face some unpleasant truths.

The book bogs down for a bit in the middle, when they’re visiting Morgan le Fay, and also the villains tend to be unsympathetic from the get-go– both sanctimonious in different ways. But those are minor flaws, as the novel picks up towards the end and repays the investment. At the end of the book, I was only sad there wasn’t more.

The Walls Around Us – Nova Ren Suma

This post is going to be VERY SPOILERY.

I had an unusual reaction, compared to other readers, to the narrators of this book. Yeah, Violet, the driven ballerina who sends her best friend Orianna to jail for a double murder she committed, is unsympathetic as hell. But Amber, the gentler girl in juvie for killing her abusive stepdad? Is an even worse person than Violet. Amber murders literally everyone she knows rather than face a future of uncertainty. It’s Amber, not Violet, who is responsible for Orianna’s death.

And is Orianna as innocent as she seems? She gathered the poison Amber uses to kill the entire juvenile hall, although she may not have been aware of what Amber was planning. She’s much more implicated in Violet’s eventual death, which allows her Orianna to rejoin the world of the living. She doesn’t participate in her murder, but she lures her to the spot and digs the grave before Violet’s even there. That, to me, speaks to an (understandable) premeditation.

Justice may be done in some ways by Violet’s death and Orianna’s return, but Orianna too is tarnished by what happened to her because of Violet and by what she herself finally does about it. And as for Amber, though she may be a more conventionally sympathetic narrator than Violet, that just shows how messed up our ideas of sympathy are, how easily we are manipulated.

Anyway, a fine horror novel/ghost story.

Hysteria – Megan Miranda

This was a solid though not amazing YA novel about a girl who, having killed her boyfriend in self-defense, is shipped off to boarding school only to find herself accused of murder in a completely separate case. What I didn’t like about the book was the physical manifestation of the titular hysteria– in a world with no type of magic, repressed memories aren’t enough to give one bruises and blisters. What I absolutely loved was the friendship between the main character Mallory and her best friend Colleen. At first I was worried that Colleen was somehow behind Mallory’s troubles, because she was mentioned so often for an offscreen character, but instead we get a story of true rather than toxic friendship. I love seeing that kind of bond take center-stage, as it does towards the end of Hysteria.

Other than that, I also enjoyed the complexity of Mallory’s choice to kill in self-defense– many factors lead to that fatal moment, and the consequences are multilayered.

Graveyard Sparrow- Kayla Bashe

And the promised review of kbashe‘s debut novella, Graveyard Sparrow! Disclaimer: I know the author IRL.

This novella is a feminist parable, a same-sex romance, and a genuinely tense thriller. Its theme can be summed up in the words of Katriona, one of the two protagonists: “Someone once said that there’s nothing more poetic than the death of a beautiful woman, but I think that’s only true until the women get revenge.” While dealing with professional and health issues, Katriona and Anthea fight a misogynistic serial killer with an artistic bent and fall in love along the way.

The strongest part of the book is the final third, as the women realize the identity of the villain, whose identity the reader has known from the beginning, and find themselves in grave danger– the threat is not just to their lives, but to the integrity of their minds. The villain is incredibly creepy in his megalomania, total confidence, and twisted sense of beauty and values. Needless to say (this is both a genre romance with a happy ending, and a feminist tale) the women rescue themselves and each other.

The weakest part of the book is the narrative voice, which is overly keen to tell us how wonderful and brave our heroines are and see each other as,  rather than trusting the readers to figure this out from their actions and using more subtle means to show their increasing attraction to each other. However, the writing is beautiful in places; I particularly liked this bit of description:

“He smelled of old books and incense, the scent of the Society’s hall. Soon it would cling to her skin as well, a cloak of authority in the form of perfume.”

I really liked the characterization of Anthea, the professional witch with her sights set on an academic career, and the way her desire to be taken seriously in her field and adhere to its ethical codes is used to manipulate her. She rethinks her priorities without abandoning her passion.

If you’re intrigued by the mix of light-hearted romance and a nightmare-inducing serial killer investigation (and oh, did I mention that Bashe writes really scary nightmares for her characters), this might be right up your alley. Hopefully the problems with the narrative voice will be ironed out in future works.

New Queer Romance Novel- Graveyard Sparrow by Kayla Bashe

My friend Kayla Bashe– kbashe here on WordPress– has a novel out from Torquere Press today. It can be bought here for $3.99. I’ll be reviewing it on this blog later, but here’s the cover copy:

Katriona Sparrow, dubbed the Mad Heiress by London’s upper class, is the deceptively fragile ward of a foreign nobleman. She can’t stand making small talk with strangers, but she’s unparalleled when it comes to deciphering the dead.

On a routine investigation, something goes horribly wrong, leaving Katriona catatonic in an upscale hospital and a serial killer with an artistic bent stalking London’s most vulnerable.

Enter Anthea Garlant, a young witch and academic ostracized from polite society for traveling the world without a chaperone. She devises magical treatments to protect Katriona from the side effects of her abilities, but as she grows more and more attached to Katriona, her professional façade begins to slip.

Will they be able to stop the man who turns beautiful dead women into works of art before he turns his attention much closer to home?

The Quiet Gentleman – Georgette Heyer

        ‘But this is Gothick, Frant, quite Gothick!’

Unlike most of Heyer’s novels, this is not primarily a romance, and it has a good deal of plot. That is probably why I enjoyed it despite having recently given up on Frederica. The protagonist is is less worried about who he will marry and more about who is trying to murder him.

Gervase Frant has returned alive from the wars, in which most of his relatives hoped he would perish, and claimed his inheritance. No sooner has he arrived in the same house as his sullen half-brother, awful stepmother, and protective cousin, than strange, potentially fatal accidents start to befall him. Meanwhile, his best friend visits him, the local belle is pursued by everyone, and a furtive, slangy valet attracts suspicion. The identity of the culprit is quite easily guessed (I was sure before I was halfway through) but the quiet final revelation is still emotionally effective in terms of both the betrayal involved and the reasons the culprit turned out the way he did.

There are two romantic subplots, one involving a flirtatious young girl whom everyone is in love with and whom the half-brother twice tries to force himself on- of course, everyone and the narrative think she’s at fault for flirting in the first place. However, she gets a nice happy ending with a much nicer man. The other romantic subplot involves the hero and a highly sensible girl raised by progressive parents, who are gently laughed at by the text, but who are noted to have given their daughter a strong sense of duty toward her dependents. Her practicality, however, is all her own. Though for plot reasons she must be kept out of the finale, Drusilla Morville does save the day when Gervase is shot, and afterward argues with herself amusingly:

‘He would have liked me better had I fallen into a swoon!” argued Drusilla. ‘Nonsense! He would have been dead, for well you know that no one else had the least notion what to do!” said Miss Morville.

But this is Gervase’s story. By the end the title has a double meaning, but it certainly refers to Gervase, a “quiet gentleman” in his easygoing manners and fear of scandal, but the most obstinate man his friends (and foes) have ever known. He has a steel backbone and canny way of outwitting others and getting his way despite appearances, all of which serves him in good stead as he matches wits with his unknown enemy.

‘…I am really very much harder to kill than any of you can be brought to believe.’