Gaius Ruso Mystery #3: Persona Non Grata by Ruth Downie

Read: 4 October, 2009

When Gaius Petreius Ruso receives a strange letter from his brother, he has no choice but to return to Gaul. Once there, however, he discovers that he has been tricked and he’s about to find out just how dangerous “civilization” can be.

We’ve seen quite a bit of Roman-occupied Britain, but now we get a glimpse of Ruso in his own environment; and this presents its own whole set of dangers. Once again, Downie is able to stay faithful to everything I love about the series without making it seem like just another replica.

I was a bit concerned when Christianity was introduced to the story, as Tilla spends time with Christian slaves. Books with Christian subplots so often devolve into apologetics either for or against the religion. I was practically holding my breath through the whole novel! But Downie manages to handle it with great finesse, simply including it as she does other historical details, and remains blessedly non-partisan.

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Mistress of the Art of Death #4: A Murderous Procession by Ariana Franklin

Read: 24 June, 2010

Adelia Aguilar has been enjoying a simple life with her daughter and friends, but King Henry II has come for her again. This time, he needs her to accompany his sister, Joanna, to Sicily. To ensure that Adelia returns when the task is completed, he keeps her daughter in England as a hostage. As the procession makes its way, strange things start to happen and Adelia is suspected of witchcraft.

There isn’t much to say about this that hasn’t been said for the last three books. If you’ve enjoyed the last three, you’ll enjoy this one too.

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Mistress of the Art of Death #2: The Serpent’s Tale by Ariana Franklin

Read: 7 July, 2009

In Serpent’s Tale, we find that Henry II’s mistress has died. Naturally Adelia, who now has a baby in tow, is called to solve the mystery.

In many ways, Serpent’s Tale is an improvement over Mistress of the Art of Death. The plot is more of a mystery in the detective sense and Adelia does, actually, solve it and finger the culprit. There is also considerably less Mary Suism. The addition of the baby raises the stakes for Adelia, making the novel more suspenseful.

In addition, Serpent’s Tale kept many of the good bits of its predecessor. There is still the interesting view of Henry II and the low key but definitely present feminism. Overall, this novel is a very interesting read.

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The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

Read: 28 November, 2008

Having been a huge fan of the movie version for years, my approach to the book was understandably loaded. I already had an image of what the characters would be like and how the plot would unfold. As I read, I kept referring back to the movie and comparing the two versions – sometimes favourably and sometimes not. Ultimately, however, I realized that the two are entirely different entities, having only some plot elements and names in common.

Overall, I found the characterizations of the movie to be more enjoyable, from a purely emotional stand-point. I don’t think any film has ever captured the awkwardness of growing up quite so well as Adso’s kitchen scene with the village girl! Sean Connery’s William was the familiar figure of the innocent and slightly naive genius. And then there’s Ron Pearlman’s Salvatore – a character the book version can only be a poor foretelling of.

In the novel version, however, the characters didn’t come through as much – perhaps because they were more realistic and didn’t draw quite so much on stereotypes and archetypes. On an intellectual level, this worked just fine. On an emotional level, however, I just had too much trouble bonding with any of the characters for it to really work. That being said, I don’t know how much of this is because of the movie version’s taint.

The novel is long and slow (an intentional feature, if the appended essay is to be believed), but it is never tedious. The rythm is steady and only as slow as it needs to be. Whenever I would feel myself just starting to get bored, something would happen. Eco showed an incredible sense of pace in that sense – every scene is exactly as long as it needs to be.

All in all, it’s a great novel. It is, however, very dense. I am glad that I waited until now to pick it up because I think that I would have been turned off by it had I tried any earlier. It’s a wonderful novel to read for someone who has been studying Medieval history as a hobby for quite a while and wants a good illustration of the complexities of society/theology.

My recommendation would be to try reading it, but to put it down immediately if it seems to dense or boring. Try it again later. It would be a terrible shame to predispose yourself negatively to the experience simply because you tried to get into it too early.

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The Third Victim by Lisa Gardner

Read: 13 May, 2008

This is your fairly standard mystery genre-fiction piece. Characters are well developed, they have psychologically realistic explanations for all their actions, and they are each unique – but none of them really jump off from the page in the same way that, say, Brother Cadfael does. In other words, they feel real but they aren’t particularly memorable.

And that’s really all that can be said about the entire book. It’s a good book and, as far as genre-fiction goes, I’d say that it’s one of the better mysteries I’ve read to date. It was an enjoyable read, it brought up some interesting ideas, I enjoyed the psychology perspective the author chose, and the subject matter was handled very well. But for all of that, I won’t remember the title in a week and I will have forgotten the book entirely in a month.

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Sano Ichiro #4: The Concubine’s Tattoo by Laura Joh Rowland

Read: 18 January, 2008

Emperor Tokugawa Tsunayoshi’s concubine has died while carving a tattoo onto her body. The emperor’s lead investigator, Sano Ichiro, must solve the mystery of her death while navigating the delicate balance of the court, the conflicted allegiances of his right-hand-man, and his new wife’s feminist ideals.

The Concubine’s Tattoois genre-fiction; there’s no mistaking it. It makes the unfortunate poor writing choices that most detective mysteries seem to make. If characters are developed at all, it is only in “character blurbs” that are given on introduction and that are supposed to explain all future actions of that character. For example, a few paragraphs are devoted to Lady Uechi Reiko’s (Sano’s wife) upbringing and how, as an only child, she was raised as a male and that’s why she’s such a feminist. Unfortunately for what could have been a very good story, Rowland has never heard the phrase “show, don’t tell.”

This is a recurrent issue in the novel, and not only when characters are first introduced. Whenever a character feels anything, we are told explicitly what it is they feel, regardless of which side of the investigation they are on. In a mystery, this does a great deal to ruin the story because it takes a lot of the guess-work out of the equation. And, of course, since the reader knows what the protagonists can’t know, it forces Rowland to give the detectives “sudden insight” that defies logic.

The novel also offended my sensibilities in many ways. Nearly every “bad” character is either gay or a sexual pervert. It wouldn’t bother me so much if only one antagonist were gay or if some of the good characters were too, but the one-sidedness suggests to me that Rowland equates being gay with a deficiency of character (whether it be outright evil like Lord Yanagisawa or plain effeminate impotence like the emperor). And while I certainly agree with some of the narrator’s ideas about the caste system and the role of women, seeing the author break through into the writing to get on her soapbox and lecture about these topics becomes wearisome after a while.

For my last negative comment of the day, I found the mystery itself to be lacking. There were red-herrings and femme-fatales and all the other staples of the genre, but the total lack of originality, interesting characters, and a compelling plot made the whole novel drag. The big twist ending might have been all right if the characters didn’t go on at length about how unexpected a twist it was. Rowland doesn’t seem to understand that her readers can identify surprising conclusions without being told to be surprised (and then lectured at about how anti-feminist we all are for not anticipating it).

That being said, I loved the setting. Rowland does a great job of exposing the world of her mystery – it’s just a shame that such an interesting world is populated by such cardboard people.

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