Holiday Reading Update 3 – Outlander

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Over the course of this week, I’ve been working through the back-log of reviews of books I read during my honeymoon to Bali. Now, The Luminaries (which I loved) had won the Booker Prize. We Were Liars (which I was ambivalent about) had received rave reviews on several of my favourite blogs.But neither of them had been recommended to me anywhere near as frequently or as evangelically as today’s holiday read, Outlander. In fact, I’m not sure that any book has ever been recommended to me as often as Outlander has. You love eighteenth century history? Outlander. You like time-travel? Outlander. You enjoy romance, as long as it’s done well and had a three-dimensional hero? Outlander, Outlander, Outlander.

So, safely ensconced on my sunlounger, I finally decided to bow to the collective wisdom of Goodreads and WordPress. And while this was a good holiday read in the sense that it combines being reasonably light while providing hours of reading time, rarely can a book have been less suited to a location. It’s the sort of book that’s best read by a warm fire on a stormy night or out on a moor on a wild day. And ideally, it’s probably best read in Scotland. Considering I live in England, none of those conditions would be too difficult to arrange most of the time,  but being difficult, I waited until I had tropical heat and the smell of spice and incense everywhere.

None of those drinks behind us are whisky, and this is definitely not Scotland.

None of those drinks behind us are whisky, and this is definitely not Scotland.

On a similar note, I like to read and drink things that either conjure up the spirit of a book or that characters in a novel particularly enjoy. And in this case, that meant one thing – whisky, and lots of it. The problem being that whisky was not particularly easy to get hold of. Luscious cocktails? Yes. Fresh coconut water? Yes. Locally produced beer and wine? Absolutely. Finest Scottish malts? Not so much.  As a result, I may have ended up panic buying a £16 shot of whisky when I finally saw some on a menu.  (It could have been worse. I could have been reading Book Two which is set in France and involves copious quantities of brandy, which was even more of a challenge to procure).

Though I think the characters roast a whole boar at one point, so I managed one meal that sort of tied in at least

Though I think the characters roast a whole boar at one point, so I managed one meal that sort of tied in at least

OUTLANDER (DIANE GABALDON) 4 STARS

Oh no, it's my pet hate: a cover showing a scene from a film or TV adaptation of a book. Still I (just - by about a week)) read this in time to be a smug "book fan" when watching the tv show!

Oh no, it’s my pet hate: a cover showing a scene from a film or TV adaptation of a book. Still I (just – by about a week)) read this in time to be a smug “book fan” when watching the tv show!

Despite all those recommendations and the fact that I was quite intrigued by the premise – 1940s army nurse finds herself in 1740s Scotland and ends up torn between two husbands in different centuries – I waited so long to read this as I was worried that the romance might be cheesy and the history badly researched. I was also rather put-off by the 900 page length, which seemed a bit over-the-top for what I was expecting to be a light, escapist read.

Firstly, if you’re going to read it, I strongly suggest that you do what I did and save it for a holiday or a time when you’re able to spend hours reading. Its sheer length means it takes ages to get through (and I say this as a very fast reader), plus, it’s the sort of book where you really need to absorb yourself in the world, not dip in and out.

Secondly, I’ve seen some debate about the genre of this book, but in my opinion, it’s predominantly a romance. It’s a well-done romance, and there are certainly also aspects of straight-up historical fiction, of paranormal/fantasy, and of adventure, but frankly, if romance leaves you cold, I really wouldn’t recommend this one. Similarly, I struggle to imagine many men enjoying it.

So, with those two points, out of the way, what did I think about it? In short, there were lots of things I loved and some that I hated, but the story sucked me in to the extent that I was able to happily overlook flaws that would have had me throwing a different book across the room.

For me, the best things about the book were the prose – which is much better than you might expect in this sort of genre novel – the main character (Claire) and the setting. Enjoyably tough and mostly unfazed by the increasingly strange things that happen to her, Clare was also just vulnerable enough to be likeable and believable. I also loved that she was sexually confident and happy to induct a virgin husband into the delights of the flesh – a nice change from all the painfully virginal heroines that seem to be the current trend. The other characters were generally interesting too, though some of the clansmen started to blur into one. Jamie, the main love interest, isn’t really my literary type. I generally prefer suave, charming and slightly edgy men to the rugged but adorable sorts, but while I wasn’t swooning on the floor, he was a strong romantic lead and definitely made me smile. If he could get a response out of me, then if hulking kilted warrior types are your cup of tea, you’re going to be in love.

The setting – both in terms of history and geography – was lovingly described and seemed well-researched. I really felt like I was right there in eighteenth century Scotland. The author mostly resisted the urge to over-romanticise the period, giving readers the danger and dirt as well as the excitement. In-between several dramatic episodes, there are enlightening scenes of everyday life: delivering a foal, preparing for a feast, treating minor injuries.

I felt that having Claire time-travel from the 1940s rather than from the present day was a stroke of genius, for several reasons. Firstly, it gives readers who love history two beautifully depicted periods instead of one. Secondly, it helps to stop the book from having dated. Thirdly, I found it slightly more believable that someone who has lived through WW2 could cope with the deprivations of eighteenth century life, compared to someone from today.

Moving onto the bad. Firstly, while I liked the way the book spent time fully immersing the reader in its world rather than dashing from plot point to plot point, I thought it was a bit too long overall, and got repetitive in parts. I think it would have felt a lot sharper with, say, 150 fewer pages.

Secondly, I found the way that Claire was constantly bouncing from one disaster to another – including seemingly endless attempted rapes – to not quite work. It felt oddly episodic. I also felt the time-travel elements were underplayed. I’d loved to have seen more use made of the fact that Clare knew things about the characters and knew things that would happen in the future.

Thirdly, there was a rather odd obsession with beatings of every kind – from parents chastising their children, to the clan punishing a teenager for indecency, to a brutal flogging, to a torture session, and perhaps most oddly, a scene that sat uncomfortably between a kinky spanking and straight-up wife beating, leading straight into a scene that equally uncomfortably blurred the lines between rough sex and marital rape. Along with the scenes of gratuitous Catholicism, while it may have had some basis in period accuracy, it sometimes felt like a not altogether pleasant look into the author’s psyche.

Above all, the main villain, Randall, was a bit of a let down. The idea that the sadistic English army captain who is oppressing the highlands is Claire’s loving 1940s husband’s ancestor was a brilliant one, but ended up being underused. It would have been brilliant if he was charming as well as cruel and if Claire was having to fight an attraction to him and stop herself from linking him with her husband in her mind. One scene almost suggested things were about to go down that route, but no. He ended up being the most horribly one-dimensional villain I’ve come across in a long time. He literally seemed unable to hold a conversation with someone (male or female, young or old) without attempting to rape and/or beat them, and he didn’t appear to have any sort of grand plan beyond finding more people to rape and beat. This irritated me more than it usually would, as it seemed to be at least partly playing up to the “English=evil, Scottish/Irish = good” stereotype so beloved of Hollywood directors. At times, this book made Braveheart look non-partisan – not always a comfortable read as an English woman.

Overall, despite those issues, I’d recommend this, and I haven’t been able to resist starting Book Two. I’d suggest you consider whether these are things that would put you off a book completely, or whether, with strong characters, a well-realised setting and a generally interesting plot, you’d be able to overlook them.

For what it’s worth, I did end up diving straight into Book Two, which I’m probably enjoying even more, and  I have found myself thinking about the books when I’m not reading them, which is always a good sign – although not wildly helpful when I’ve had to do pieces of work relating to the Scottish Referendum!

Holiday Reading Update Part 2 – We Were Liars

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Yesterday, I talked about my thoughts on holiday reads as a concept, listed the books I’d read on my recent honeymoon to Bali and reviewed the first book on the list, The Luminaries, a big, heavy read I’d picked up because I felt I should and ended up loving. 

Today’s read is at the other end of the scale. I’d heard it was about a rich American family staying on their sunny holiday island, and it sounded like a perfect bit of light relief. Some of the descriptions of the island and the happier times the characters spent there fitted the bill, but as the book went on, it got both darker and less interesting. Lots of people seem to have loved this, but for me, it was a bit of a failure, both as a book and as a choice of holiday read. I finished it, sat on our veranda sipping a glass of wine in the summery warmth – and was left feeling rather depressed and very cheated. On the plus side, if I’d read it anywhere else, I’d probably have felt rather jealous of the characters (at least in the early stages of the book). Instead, I had the rather unique reading experience of thinking that my Bali villa beat their Cape Cod mansion hands down!

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This is how pretty the veranda was, and the book still left me feeling a bit deflated. 

WE WERE LIARS – 3 STARS

liars

THE BLURB

A beautiful and distinguished family.
A private island.
A brilliant, damaged girl; a passionate, political boy.
A group of four friends—the Liars—whose friendship turns destructive.
A revolution. An accident. A secret.
Lies upon lies.
True love.
The truth.
 
We Were Liars is a modern, sophisticated suspense novel from National Book Award finalist and Printz Award honoree E. Lockhart. 

Read it.
And if anyone asks you how it ends, just LIE.

THE REVIEW

When I started this book, I knew only two things about it. Firstly, that it focussed on a rich family on a summer holiday. Secondly, that it had a major twist. Beyond this, thanks to what seemed to be a deliberate policy by both publishers and reviewers, its content was a bit of a mystery. I wasn’t even entirely sure of the genre or of what age group it was aimed at. Still, that bit of information I had sounded promising. I usually enjoy reading about upper class lives (do I even need to clarify that on this blog?), I was looking for a beach read so the summery theme appealed, and above all, I love a well-executed twist.

While I hate spoilers, I don’t think it’s necessary to be quite as cautious as some reviewers have been. I think it’s fair to say that it’s YA, that it’s mostly about families and growing up, but that teenage romance plays a large role.

The seventeen year old narrator, Cadence, is one of seven grandchildren of an incredibly rich WASPy-type, who owns a private island off Cape Cod. Every year since she was a child, the whole family has spent the summer on the island, having a seemingly idyllic time. The family are outwardly perfect. Not only rich, but tall, blonde, intelligent, good-looking and sporty. The are also quite obsessed with keeping up appearances, maintaining a stiff upper lip in the face of emotional upheaval and keen to perpetrate their own mythology of gilded perfection. From the first page, however, it becomes clear that, inevitably, there are problems behind the facade.

When she was fifteen, the narrator had the usual summer of spending time with her beloved cousins, as well as starting an intense relationship with Gat, the Asian best friend of one of the cousins, and a frequent visitor to the island since they were all children. Then, she had some sort of swimming accident, which has left her with debilitating migraines, little interest in her old life, and little memory of that summer. Most of the action focusses on the summer when Cadence is seventeen. Back on the island for the first time since the accident and convinced that there are things people aren’t telling her, she tries to piece together what happened two years before, while trying to rebuild her relationship with Gat and her friendship with her cousins, and deal with the interesting dynamics of the rest of the family.

Some people don’t like to know that a twist is coming, but in this case, I was very glad I did. I started off really enjoying the book, mainly because the brutally honest prose style caught my attention. And throughout, there were passages that were really clever and that caught my imagination. “We believe in outdoor exercise. We believe that time heals. We believe, although we will not say so explicitly, in prescription drugs and the cocktail hour.” I also enjoyed the world-building. The island and the family dynamics felt very well-realised and have stuck in my memory. However, I was bored and mildly irritated by the time I made it halfway through the book. At that point, I was only really continuing to read because I wanted to know what the twist was going to be.

It was difficult not to feel irritated by Cadence. Despite some bits of clever writing, at times, listening to her bare her soul felt a bit like reading over a particularly pretentious and over-emotional section of a seventeen-year old’s diary (and believe me, if I ever wanted to do that, I’ve got plenty of my own raw material locked away!). The trouble was, she got so emotional over relatively small things (a boy she likes having a girlfriend, being “forced” to go on a trip to Europe with her father instead of back to the island when she was sixteen) that I found it difficult to feel much sympathy for her when genuinely bad things happened, like the after-effects of her accident. Her response seemed the same whenever anything upsetting happened, regardless of the magnitude – unleash the “shot through the heart” and “bleeding to death” metaphors. And the only thing more irritating than listening to the over-privileged narrator’s first world problems was listening to her sanctimonious love interest calling her out on it.

The other problem was that for most of the book, relatively little happened. It was mostly just Cadence and her family spending uneventful days on the beach and in the beachhouses – again, the effect was a bit like reading someone’s day-to-day diary. I think part of the problem was that I couldn’t get really emotionally invested in the key relationship. As a cynical 28 year old, I can’t help but think that a relationship between two fifteen or seventeen year olds is probably not going to last forever. I read a lot of YA/NA, and usually I manage to push these thoughts away and buy into the love story, but for some reason (probably the narrator’s whiny tone) I couldn’t do it here.

Finally, there were the interludes in which Cadence talks about her family using the language and imagery of fairytales, “once upon a time there was a king who had three beautiful daughters.” In part, it was quite clever and fun, but they were a bit overdone and started to add to the general vibe I was getting of pretentious teenager who mythologises her life.

And so to the twist. Firstly, it genuinely caught me by surprise despite my best efforts to guess it in advance, and it made me reconsider everything that had gone before. On the other hand, I found it pretty hard to reconcile with the rest of the plot, and sort of felt that for one “oh my god, are you kidding me?” moment, the author had undermined much of the point of the story.

Overall, this is a well-written novel, but I enjoyed the prose much more than the plot and characters. It’s not a bad beach read and it does have a surprising twist, but it ultimately didn’t quite work for me. It frustrated me to the extent that I was tempted to give it two stars, but when there are so many awful books out there, that seemed a bit unfair on a book that does have a few flashes of brilliance, so I’ve gone for a grudging three.

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Tomorrow, it’s time for a review of my final read of the holiday (and one that several people have begged me to read): Outlander. Because nothing puts you in that tropical island mood faster than reading out eighteenth century Scotland…

Holiday Reading Update 1 – The Luminaries

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Got my Kindle, got my giant coconut and got my floppy hat. I am good to go.

Ahh, holiday reading. Every summer, with weary predictability, the recommended beach reads appear in all the papers, the highbrow equivalent of all the “get a beach body fast” articles in the fluffier magazines. 

There seem to be two broad schools of thought on what constitutes a beach read.

For some people, it’s about choosing the biggest, hardest, most literary tomes they can lay their hands on, on the basis that they’d never have time to get through them during the rest of the year, and don’t really have the energy for such things after a long day of work.

For others, beach reads are pretty much synonymous with “light hearted trash.” It’s hot, you’re wearing a bikini, and you may well have drunk a cocktail or two. Concentrating on something heavy is not going to happen, and why spoil the mood of relaxation and joy anyway?

As a general rule, I take a similar approach to my beach reading as to my beach body – pick up my Kindle, put on my bikini and work with what I’ve got. 

But this year, it wasn’t just a holiday. It was a honeymoon. And seen as I’d obsessed over every other conceivable detail of the wedding, there didn’t seem much point in skimping on my beach reads (or my beach body for that matter, but that’s a whole other story…)

Now, some of you might want to know why on earth I was spending time reading on my honeymoon. Firstly, apart from the literal beach reading, there was a 50 hour round trip to get through, during which I clung to my Kindle for dear life. Secondly, I love reading almost as much as my wonderful new husband, and for me, no perfect fortnight would be complete without a good book or two. And thirdly, rest assured that I did lots of other things, like visiting a monkey forest and a snake temple and surfing and swimming and eating lots of delicious food. And all sorts of things you’re meant to do on honeymoon, which I won’t go into, though if you’re curious, Chapter Eight of Oxford Blood (amongst others) will give you a general sort of overview 😉

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See, I told you I visited a monkey forest.

In the end, I got through three books, which equated to about 2000 pages. The first of these, The Luminaries  definitely fell into the first category – literary fiction I wouldn’t usually have the energy for. I expected it to be like swallowing vitamins and it turned out to be like devouring a box of chocolates. The review’s below, and then over the next two days, I’ll review the other two books, We Were Liars (which I had filed in the “light read” category but which turned out to be rather darker than I was wanting or expecting), and Outlander, which is more historical romance than literary fiction, but which, at 900 pages, I classed in rather the same way as something I’d never get through in a working week.  

THE LUMINARIES – ELEANOR CATTON – 5 STARS

LUMINARIES

 

I approached this book with some degree of trepidation. Several reviews from hardened literary critics implied that while its technical merits made it worthy of its Booker Prize win, actually reading it was a bit of a hard slog, thanks to its length and its complex structure. It sat on my Kindle for several months, until, confronted with the prospect of a 27 hour plane journey, I decided that it was now or never.

From the first page, I was astonished by how much I enjoyed it, not in an cold, “appreciating great literature” sort of way, but simply in the sense of getting wrapped up in the plot, speculating about the mysteries and feeling strong emotions towards the characters. It was beautifully written, apeing a late Victorian style perfectly, but the story drew me in and kept me turning the pages as if it were the most salacious, trashy thriller. The plot is complex, featuring at least twenty fairly major characters, but while it requires a fair degree of concentration to keep track of everyone’s comings and goings, I never felt lost or overburdened with detail, just fully immersed in a well-developed world.

It’s a tricky tale to summarise, but basically, on the same night in a nineteenth-century goldmining town in New Zealand, a hermit dies alone, only for both a stash of gold and a long-lost wife to appear; a prostitute collapses from an apparent opium overdose and is arrested, and the richest man in town disappears. There are mysteries underlying all three of these events (and several others) and endless connections between these three characters and the rest of the sprawling cast. With so many characters, it’s perhaps inevitable that some of them were more interesting and memorable than others, and that some of the supporting cast blurred into one slightly. But the best characters were very well done with some interesting nuances – and less nuanced, but just as enjoyable, was a wonderfully villainous sea captain.

I didn’t know much more about the plot than the book’s setting, and on paper, it wasn’t a period or location that really appeared to me. However, the author really brings the town of Hotika to life and really piqued my interest in a piece of history I had no prior knowledge of. While the plot is mostly rooted in the gritty realism of life in a frontier town, there is also a slight touch of the paranormal, which I suspect some people will dislike, but which I quite enjoyed.

I’d heard that this book was heavily based around astronomy, another factor that seems to have daunted some critics and put off some readers. If you have no interest in the subject, then don’t worry. The plot and the prose are perfectly enjoyable without this knowledge, and although the strange chapter titles and shortening chapters make you aware that something strange is going on, for the most part, it doesn’t get in the way of the story, just leaves you with a vague sense that the author has probably pulled off something quite clever. I’m by no means an expert, but I had some interest in astronomy in my teens, and had just enough remembered knowledge to get something extra from the book. I’m sure that anyone who is genuinely knowledgable about the subject would be fascinated by the way it is handled. As far as I could tell, the idea is that some of the characters represent signs of the zodiac (I had fun guessing who was which, until I noticed there was actually a chart – woops) and some other represent the planets. Mostly, the planetary ones are the ones doing things and moving the plot along, while the stellar ones are caught in the fall out of their actions. I think the latter were acting according to the general attributes of their star sign, and also been affected by the position of the actual planets and stars on any given day. I suspect that a greater knowledge of astronomy would help to explain what sometimes feels like odd behaviour and U-turns on the part of certain characters, as well as some of the stranger coincidences and plot twists. To reiterate though, all this underlying cleverness doesn’t get in the way of the story and it isn’t necessary to even vaguely understand it in order to follow the plot.

The other noteworthy thing about this book is the structure. It’s in twelve parts (presumably another reference to the signs of the zodiac). The first part has twelve chapters, the next eleven, and so on, until part twelve only has one chapter. At the same time, the chapters get notably shorter as the book goes on (part 1 finished 48% of the way through the book, according to my Kindle, part twelve is one page long) and though I didn’t bother to count, I’m reliably informed that each is half the length of its predecessor. I didn’t feel that this structure added much, but like the astronomy references, neither, for the most part, did it get in the way of the reading experience. My only complaint is that the book reaches its climax at the end of Part Five of twelve- (although to be fair, that is 90% of the way through the book). At that point, most of the mysteries are revealed and loose ends tied up. The following sections then go back in time to fill in some of the gaps. To some extent, this was interesting, but a lot of it felt like rehashing old ground or needlessly spelling out things that had been clearly implied beforehand. I was hoping that these flashbacks would put a new spin on events or characters, but with the exception of the interesting sections explaining how Anna (the prostitute mentioned above) came to be in her current situation, they felt extremely redundant and repetitive, which slightly dulled my love for the book. It felt like the one time the author really put structure over storytelling.

This book is undoubtedly long and clearly very cleverly written. But I’d emphasise once more that it’s far more enjoyable, far more of a page-turner and a far easier read than either its length or its reputation would suggest. Marvel at its structure and style, puzzle out its astronomical mysteries or simply enjoy a riveting historical drama – whatever level you choose to read it on, I’d highly recommend this book.

 

Tales from my wedding

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WARNING – it’s probably best to avoid this post if a)you have absolutely no interest in my personal life and/or b)weddings leave you cold. But I’d assume that anyone who reads this blog ormy books has some taste for romance and some interest in pretty pictures of Oxford and people in black tie.

You may have read the section of my bio that states, “Georgiana lives in London with her fiance.” You may have noticed the nauseatingly sweet dedication at the front of Oxford Blood, “To F, the man of my overheated teenage dreams.”  If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you might remember the post from December 2012 in which I excitedly announced my engagement. If you’re a newcomer, you might have been introduced to the blog and the series via my recent, wedding-themed giveaway. In short, you may have noticed that for quite a while now, there’s been a wedding on the horizon. 

Well, it’s on the horizon no longer. So, in what I like to think looks remarkably like stills from an Oxford Blood movie, here are  pictures from my amazing wedding on August 16th at Magdalen College, Oxford. 

The bride and groom

 

with assorted bridesmaids and ushers

My parents

My parents

 

With some friends

With some friends

 

Aggressively cute cake

Aggressively cute cake

Yorkshire roses for the bridesmaid

Yorkshire roses for the bridesmaid

Overly long train

Overly long train

And then in the evening, we changed and we danced

And then in the evening, we changed…

...and we danced...

…and we danced…

And everyone was so beautifully dressed up

And everyone was so beautifully dressed up

Finally, I leave you all with one amusing book and wedding related fact. The service was conducted by a Bishop who is my now-husband’s Godfather. Bizarrely, he’s read my books – well, one and two anyway. Even more bizarrely (and wonderfully), he referenced them in his sermon, explaining that he hadn’t yet read Ivory Terrors, but could only hope that the heroine ended up with the character who was clearly based on the groom. Cue slightly horrified looks from those members of the congregation who have finished the series, and a gentle shake of the head from the long-suffering man himself!

Anyway, it was a great day, and I had a lovely honeymoon in Bali afterwards. I’ve got lots of reviews to post over the next few days thanks to all my holiday reading, and after such a relaxing time I’m feeling invigorated and ready to make a start on my next writing project. Oh, and you might have noticed that in honour of my Oxford wedding, Oxford Blood was free for a few days. Thanks to everyone who downloaded it and who bought one or both of the sequels afterwards. Just to perfect an already amazing month, August 2014 has been pretty much my most successful ever month for book sales – and all with me not going anywhere near a computer for nearly three weeks!

My inspiration for characters in the Cavaliers – Part Three – Fea

I’ve been very lax with regards to my promised series outlining my inspiration for each of the key characters in the Cavalier, but today, all by myself in Oxford getting prepared for the wedding on Saturday, I’ve written a little something on Fea in an attempt to keep myself calm. 

You can find the earlier entries in this series here: George  Augustine 

Name: Fea (if she ever had a surname or title, it’s lost to the midsts of time. As a peasant woman in a BC world, she may well not have done)

Age: Born around 150 BC, turned in her late twenties

Place of birth: Ireland

Maker: “The Maker”

Offspring: Her only offspring are the Rick and Alife, the “Visigoth Goth Twins,” although all of the Roundheads owe their loyalty to her rather than directly to their makers. Spoiler for Screaming Spires (highlight to see) – she also turned Sam, Harriet’s father. 

Current Role: Head of the Roundheads. Unlike the Cavaliers, she doesn’t try to live a normal life and fit into society. She’s quite content as your classic vampire queen. 

Special powers and talents: Has all of the usual mental and physical powers to a very high degree. She also seems to have some talent for seduction and bending people to her will that goes beyond the normal vampire abiilities. Perhaps her most notable talent is an ability to read minds, and in particular, to tell whether or not someone is telling the truth. It’s flawless on humans and pretty powerful on most vampires. Finally, like Augustine, she’s protected by the Maker’s spells, and can only be killed be a combination of the Piso Treasures and a blood sacrifice. 

THE INSPIRATION

Fea grew out of two basic concepts.

Firstly, that while it’s fun to have someone like Augustine who is seemingly more powerful than anyone and almost undefeatable, it’s more fun if they have one, single nemesis who is more or less a match for them. Every Sherlock needs a Moriarty, basically.

Secondly, there’s something endlessly fascinating about glamorous female villains, whether it’s Morgana le Fey in the Arthurian legends, or Cruella de Ville in 101 Dalmatians. This is something that Celtic mythology tends to be very good at, and from her name to her appearance, Fea was very much rooted in this sort of tradition. I suspect that when someone has lived for over 2000 years and made their home in various parts of the world over the centuries, their original nationality becomes slightly academic, but she is definitely meant to be Irish in origin.

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Looks-wise, my starting point was this painting, but even before I saw this, I imagined her with flowing red hair and bright green eyes. That’s just how glamorous villainesses are meant to look, don’t-cha-know.

I agonised over her name for ages – probably more than for any other character, and I think the naming process actually says a lot about my thoughts on the character, In all the early drafts, she was referred to as Lilith, who is a character that there are various stories about across a few different cultures. In some western traditions, she was Adam’s first wife, and like most first wives, got a bit of a raw deal. In some semi-related myths, she is considered as the mother of vampires. Unfortunately, I’d already used Lilith for the name of Harriet’s college. I was tempted by Morgana, but it seemed a bit too obvious.  My second choice would have been Morrigan, who is basically a Celtic goddess of war and chaos, but firstly, she is usually portrayed as a trinity (sometimes the mother/maiden/crone idea, sometimes just three ass-kicking warrior women), which while it would have been awesome if I could have pulled it off, would have confused things and required some major plot alterations.

I therefore did a bit of research into the various entities that have at one point or another been regarded as constituent parts of the Morrigan, and also into borderline evil celtic goddesses and spirits more generally. One of my favourites was Annan (if only because I love the fact there are two round hills in Ireland referred to as the Paps of Anu) but when I came across Fea (who was incredibly obscure, and who I’ve struggled to find references too again since) I just had this sense (however often my spellchecker tried to stick an R on the end) that I’d found the right name.

When you search for “Fea” on Google images, this is pretty much the only relevant thing that appears. It’s not quite how I imagine her, but it’s quite a cool picture, and I think it captures something of my Fea’s essence. (Borrowed from http://dragonsbreathblessings.webs.com – if you’re affiliated with that site and don’t want me using it, let me know)

A major part of Fea is therefore this concept of a goddess of chaos. She enjoys conflict because it amuses her, and whether it’s international wars or struggles between her subordinates, she often manufactures it.

 The other main facet of the character is that she fundamentally likes to be adored, even worshipped. And as she’s charming, beautiful, and powerful, most people who meet her fall a little in love with her, despite her cruelty. The problem is that she finds it so difficult to comprehend the idea that anyone could fail to adore her, that she is at risk of letting her guard down too easily. Part of her obsession with Augustine is the classic issue of “the one who got away.” She finds it almost incomprehensible that he could have chosen his human wife over her, and wants revenge for that slight almost as much as for the later murder of her daughter.

It’s also crucial to remember that Fea isn’t just a pretty face. A key aspect of the character is that in both strength and mental power, she is Augustine’s equal, thanks to being a similar age, also being made by the Maker, and the fact that they both have his extra powers and protective spells inside them – in Augustine’s case, by killing and draining him, in Fea’s, by carrying his child.

Much like Augustine, I conceived Fea more as the embodiment of a trope than as a fully-fleshed out character. She’s only hinted at in Book One, and in both her brief appearance in the prologue of Book Two and in other characters’ references to her, she is fairly two-dimensional – beautiful, evil and obsessed with power and revenge.

Over the course of Ivory Terrors, while I’d never go so far as to suggest she becomes actively sympathetic (I mean, keeping human prisoners in your dungeons just isn’t cool and neither was killing Augustine’s first wife) I like to think she becomes both more fleshed out and a little more ambiguous, both in her modern day scenes:

One nervous look at Fea’s face told her she didn’t have to. Her strangely sympathetic expression suggested that she understood Harriet’s feelings all too well.

“There’s no one quite so unthinking as a person in love,” Fea mused.

And in particular, in her interactions with Augustine in the distant past.

A beautiful baby girl lay in a cot. She couldn’t have been more than a year old, but already, the bright green eyes and the shock of red hair marked her as her mother’s child.

“My little Cassia. Isn’t she beautiful? I’ve had to bluff and lie and mesmerise to gain and hold any position, but she’ll grow up to be a fine lady. She’ll marry the most powerful man in the Empire, and she’ll govern him from the bedroom.”

If Fea’s words sounded cynical, the way she stroked her daughter’s hair demonstrated her genuine love.

Or

The second Fea saw him, she threw her arms around him.

“I knew you’d come back. I’m just sorry that it took so long and that you’ve suffered so much in between. I wanted to find you, to beg you to live with us, but the Maker told me to wait. He said you needed to recover and seek us out in your own time.”

And of course, you have to have a little sympathy for her over the murder of her child – not to mention a little touch of doubt over whether Augustine can have done that and still be classed as the (relatively) good character in their pairing.

He tried not to think about it. The blow had been sudden enough that she couldn’t have felt any fear or known that he had betrayed her. He’d seen no pain in her eyes, but the agony on her parents’ faces had overwhelmed him. Killing the Maker had been simple; he’d been in such shock.

The look of hatred and horror on Fea’s face had almost destroyed him. It would have been the work of seconds to slip the blade into her while she lay curled up sobbing on the floor. For centuries afterwards, he couldn’t decide whether he’d spared Fea out of mercy or to extend her suffering.

One final thought. Unlike Augustine who was a great general, and unlike most of the Cavaliers, who were aristocrats in the early years and great minds in the later ones, Fea was basically an ordinary peasant woman who learnt a little magic and got in over her head when she summoned the Maker. In this, as well as in the more obvious matter of her gender, she has more in common with both Adelaide and Harriet than either do with most of the other vampires.

I can’t help but suspect that given enough time and the right conditions, certainly Adelaide and possibly even Harriet could morph into someone like Fea. And that’s going to be the key theme of my next book, the Separation of Powers – at what point does a ruthless and ambitious but fundamentally decent women cross the line towards villainess?

 

Review of The Girl on the Golden Coin

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I’ve been a little quiet on the blogging front recently, mainly because my wedding is getting ever closer – less than three weeks now – meaning I’m spending far more time looking critically at flowers and cakes than typing merrily away. On the plus side, in an attempt to keep my sanity intact, I’ve been reading loads, and have developed quite the back-log of reviews.

My last post was a list of my planned summer reading, and I described one of the entries on it like this:

“Precisely because I love history so much, I tend to be slightly wary of historical fiction, but from what I hear, this Restoration-era novel about Lady Frances Stewart is both well written and well researched, as well as full of intrigue. And more importantly, the main character marries the son of the real-life Lord George Stewart.”

On that basis, of all the books I’ve read recently, The Girl on the Golden Coin seemed by far the most fitting to review, especially as I read most of during a trip to Oxford to meet with my wedding photographer (who incidentally took some amazing practice shots)

So did the book deliver?

THE GIRL ON THE GOLDEN COIN – MARCI JEFFERSON

THE BLURB

Impoverished and exiled to the French countryside after the overthrow of the English Crown, Frances Stuart survives merely by her blood-relation to the Stuart Royals. But in 1660, the Restoration of Stuart Monarchy in England returns her family to favor. Frances discards threadbare gowns and springs to gilded Fontainebleau Palace, where she soon catches King Louis XIV’s eye. But Frances is no ordinary court beauty, she has Stuart secrets to keep and people to protect. The king turns vengeful when she rejects his offer to become his Official Mistress. He banishes her to England with orders to seduce King Charles II and stop a war.

Armed in pearls and silk, Frances maneuvers through the political turbulence of Whitehall Palace, but still can’t afford to stir a scandal. Her tactic to inspire King Charles to greatness captivates him. He believes her love can make him an honest man and even chooses Frances to pose as Britannia for England’s coins. Frances survives the Great Fire, the Great Plague, and the debauchery of the Restoration Court, yet loses her heart to the very king she must control. Until she is forced to choose between love or war.

On the eve of England’s Glorious Revolution, James II forces Frances to decide whether to remain loyal to her Stuart heritage or, like England, make her stand for Liberty. Her portrait as Britannia is minted on every copper coin. There she remains for generations, an enduring symbol of Britain’s independent spirit and her own struggle for freedom.

 

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MY REVIEW- 3 STARS

I love history, and the Stuart period is a particular favourite of mine – and one that often tends to get neglected by novelists and film makers in favour of the Tudor and Georgian periods that bracket it. Charles II is probably my favourite English King, and I also have a soft spot for Louis XIV and his French court, so this book was really quite an easy sell for me. I was expecting sex, glamour and intrigue – and it’s fair to say it delivered on some of those points and less so on others.

This wasn’t just a general book about the Restoration court. It focussed firmly on the adventures of one woman, Frances Stuart, and as a result, it was always going to stand or fall by a combination of how interesting that character was in real life and how sympathetic and intriguing the author managed to make her. Despite the fact that I used to study history reasonably seriously, I’ve always been far more interested in individuals than in grand, sweeping narratives or battles, so I was all ready for the author to make me develop a massive girl crush of Ms Stuart. Sadly, she mostly didn’t deliver. I went into this book knowing a handful of things about the character – that she’d been a mistress of Charles II, that she was very beautiful and set the fashions of the times, and that she eventually married a character I’d better not name for fear of spoilers (*see footnote), but who I was very interested in hearing more about. By the end of the book, I didn’t feel I’d learnt that much more about her, or forged any kind of real connection.

It’s probably a bit unfair to compare what’s basically a classier than average historical romance with a modern masterpiece, but I couldn’t help contrasting this with my experience of reading Wolf Hall, which also looked at historical events through the eyes of a character who is usually in the background of traditional retellings of the period. By the end of that, I felt that I knew Thomas Cromwell better than my best friends and that I would cheer him on whatever he did. Here, I struggled to get any understanding of Stuart’s motivations or real personality. Did she want to sleep with the French King or was his pursuit stressful and relentless? How about the English King? Who did she want to marry? Her approach to life seemed to vacillate wildly from one moment to the next, and I never knew quite what outcome I should be routing for. To makes matters worse, it was never quite clear what King Charles saw in her apart from her extreme beauty – which is probably quite historically accurate, but makes for a dull read. Throughout, I felt far more interested (and on the verge of cheering for) Frances’ main rival, Lady Castelmaine, who was also beautiful, but who combined it with wit, intelligence and some entertaining scheming.

On the plus side, rooms, clothes and events were lavishly described, and I got a real sense of what life was like for the wealthy and titled in this period. Some of the romance was very sweet and although it was never particularly graphic, some of the sex was really quite hot – indeed it was more interesting because of both the characters’ and the author’s restraint.

The blurb, some of the internet buzz, and the gorgeously classy cover gave me the impression that this was going to be about more than just romance, and that as well as who was sleeping with who, the book would delve into the politics of the time. Despite a few token references to religious conflict and wars, it fundamentally failed to deliver on this point. I haven’t marked it down for this, as it’s no crime for a book not to be quite the genre I was expecting, but if you’re considering whether or not to read this, it’s worth bearing in mind that it is basically just a standard historical romance. Similarly, I disagreed with some of the author’s interpretations of historical events (if you ask me, Louis XIV loved Charles I’s sister, and Frances Stuart loved her eventual husband to the extent she’d defy the king’s wrath to be with him) but again, that hasn’t affected my score – the author had clearly done some research, and part of the fun of history is that people can reach very different conclusions from the same source material.

So, to read or not to read? If you enjoy historical romance and either like the period or are looking for something slightly different, you may well enjoy this. It’s glamorous, sexy and fun, and a fairly easy read. Just don’t expect much from the main character, or much historical context.

*That’s what I wrote in my Goodreads review. I think the not revealing Frances’ eventual husband ship has rather sailed as far as this blog post is concerned, so I’ll just come right out and say I did not like the author’s portrayal of Lord Stewart Junior one little bit, but that’s just because I irrationally wanted him to read like my completely made up portrayal of his father.

 

Top Ten Tuesday – Books on my summer 2014 to-read list

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It’s been a while since I’ve done a Top Ten Tuesday List – see http://www.brokeandbookish.com/p/top-ten-tuesday-other-features.html  for more information  -but today I’ve made a special effort, as it’s Top Ten Books On My Summer TBR list. I always find I end up reading more in those months that I’ve covered off in one of these lists, as getting through them feels like a nice little challenge.

Over the summer though, I intend to get some serious reading done. Apart from anything else, my honeymoon in August apparently involves a seriously longhaul flight (no one will tell me where I’m going, so don’t ask) which seems like the perfect opportunity to work my way through some of the longer books I’ve been avoiding recently because they felt like such a commitment. 

Anyway, without further ado, here’s my list.

1) Ruin and Rising – The Grisha 3 (Leigh Bardugo) – The first two books in this Russian-themed fantasy series were some of my absolute favorite reads of last year and I’ve been eagerly awaiting this final installment. There’s not much longer to wait – it’s out on Thursday, which also happens to be my birthday. The perfect present! Except that some of the pre-release reviews on Amazon are making me a little bit nervous about just how it’s going to play out.

2) The Girl on the Golden Coin (Marci Jefferson)- Precisely because I love history so much, I tend to be slightly wary of historical fiction, but from what I hear, this Restoration-era novel about Lady Frances Stewart is both well written and well researched, as well as full of intrigue. And more importantly, the main character marries the son of the real-life Lord George Stewart.

3) Outlander (Diana Gabaldon)- I’m dubious about this one, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a book recommended so many times, both generally on blogs and specifically to me. The length of both the first book and the seemingly never ending series have made me wary of getting drawn in, and summaries of the time-travel love triangle based plot make me unsure whether I’m going to love it or hate it, but people keep telling me it’s much better than that bizarre genre makes it sound, and this summer, I intend to finally give in and give it a go. 

4) Doomsday Book (Connie Willis) – And while we’re on the subject of time travel, this one is about an Oxford history student in 2054 who travels back to the 1320s as part of her course. I’ve heard good things despite the weird premise, but this is basically wish fulfillment for me. I feel very short-changed that my college didn’t have a time machine. 

5) The Luminaries (Eleanor Catton) – I always pride myself on liking literary and genre fiction in roughly equal measure, but my reading habits have definitely tipped towards the latter recently. I’ve just finished the Goldfinch (review tomorrow, hopefully) which is this year’s other Famous Eight-Hundred Page Literary Success Story and enjoyed it far more than I was expecting, so now I’m going to give this one a whirl. Friends and reviewers with very high literary tolerance warn that it’s quite hard work, so I’l consider myself fairly warned…

6)Crewel (Gennifer Albin)– And then back to something lighter. This seems to be basically a standard YA dystopia/fantasy, but I read a glowing review of it from someone whose opinions I broadly trust, and the way it seems to bring in the story of the fates who weave the world intrigued me. 

7)Stardust (Neil Gaiman) – I’ve been slowly working my way through Gaiman’s back catalogue, and this adult fairytale is next on the list. I enjoyed the film, and while I’ve enjoyed some of his books more than others, the author never really lets me down. 

8)Changeless – PArasol Protectorate 2(Gail Carriger) – I read Soulless, the first book in this (wait for it) steampunk paranormal mystery comedy series a few years ago, and found it a really funny, enjoyable read. Somehow though, I’ve never felt motivated to read the sequel, but I think this Victorian comedy of manners and vampires will be the perfect beach read in Mystery Destination. 

9)Whispers Under Ground – Rivers of London 3 (Ben Aaronovitch) – I’ve had a similar experience with this series about a wizard policeman in modern day London, enjoying it but never feeling a pressing urge to pick up the next installment. 

There is no one book pressing for the number ten slot and lots I’m tempted by that I could include. With some really epic books on there, ten is probably ambitious anyway, and I’d like to allow myself a bit of flexibility to go off-list if the mood takes me. 

Are there any that you’ve already read that you’d push me towards or nudge me away from? Or are you planning to give any of these a try this summer? In particular, who else is going to be reading Ruin and Rising on Thursday? I suspect I’m going to need a support group. 

Book Review – American Gods

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I hope readers enjoyed the first two entries in my series about inspirations for characters in the Cavaliers, focussed on Augustine and George. I promised more entries, and they will be coming soon, with my intention being to write one about Adelaide (touching on her twin and on her previous incarnation) and then a joint one about Fea and the Visigoth Goth Twins. 

Sadly, this week’s been far too hectic to write any of those posts, as they tend to take me a while. In the meantime, therefore, here’s a review. Regular readers of this blog will have noticed that there are books I bring up again and again – in Top Ten Tuesday lists, in posts about my own books, and as comparators in reviews. One of those is American Gods by Neil Gaiman, which blew me away as a seventeen or eighteen year old when I was really, really into mythology. I’ve read several of his books since, and although I always enjoy them, they’ve never quite hit that high note for me.

Incidentally, the one other thing Gaiman has written that is as good is his Sandman series of graphic novels. I’m not a very visual person  – I definitely think in words rather than pictures – so due to personal preference rather than literary snobbery, I didn’t think I’d enjoy what are basically comics, but they are amazing and well worth a look even if it’s not a medium you’re familiar/comfortable with. 

Back to American Gods. Over the years, I’ve recommended it to loads of people, referenced it constantly, and looked back on it lovingly, but I’ve never re-read it. A few weeks ago, I decided to get a copy and re-read it cover to cover. It’s always a dangerous thing to do, thanks to the risk that it won’t be as good in reality as it is in your memory, but in this case, no such problem arose. I didn’t adore it quite as much as I did first time around, partly due to remembering the plot twists and partly due to not being quite so fascinated by the subject matter anymore, but it’s still a definite 5 star read and a book I’d heavily recommend. 

AMERICAN GODS – NEIL GAIMAN – 5 STARS

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THE BLURB

Days before his release from prison, Shadow’s wife, Laura, dies in a mysterious car crash. Numbly, he makes his way back home. On the plane, he encounters the enigmatic Mr Wednesday, who claims to be a refugee from a distant war, a former god and the king of America.

Together they embark on a profoundly strange journey across the heart of the USA, whilst all around them a storm of preternatural and epic proportions threatens to break.

Scary, gripping and deeply unsettling, AMERICAN GODS takes a long, hard look into the soul of America. You’ll be surprised by what and who it finds there…

THE REVIEW

I long been a believer that “genre fiction” can be just as meaningful and well-written as some of the more obviously literary novels, and this book, (which I first read around ten years ago but re-read from cover to cover recently) is a perfect example of the concept. 

The storyline is utterly compelling, with well-developed, memorable characters and some well-handled twists. The basic premise is an intriguing one. All gods and similar mythological creatures are real, created out of people’s belief in them. As waves of explorers and immigrants have come to America over the centuries, they’ve brought their gods with them, but with little belief left in Thor or leprechauns or whatever, they are mostly eking out a fragile existence on the fringes of society, as con artists or prostitutes or physical labourers. At the same time, new gods are coming into being – gods of the internet, of electricity, of cars etc, and having far more success. That rather bizarre set-up is handled well and believably, and both old and new gods are fun to read about. If you like mythology (and I love it) you’ll have lots of fun trying to work out who some of the more obscure characters are based on, and making frequent trips to wikipedia. Gaiman has clearly done his research.

Despite all the Gods drifting around and the fantastical nature of some scenes, much of the plot and the setting is very realistic, even gritty. The main character is a seemingly ordinary man called Shadow, who becomes embroiled in the old gods’ plot to regain their power and prestige, after a meeting with a Mr Wednesday, whose real identity readers with a passing knowledge of myths can probably take a guess at. Shadow starts the novel in prison for bank robbery, and the prison scenes and later fights and interrogations would not be out of place in something like The Wire. This is urban fantasy at it’s most urban, with a definite adult feel. 

Sometimes, the plot is full of action and revelation. At other points, however, it becomes slow and meditative, which seems quite unusual for a novel of this kind. Shadow spends large parts of the middle section hiding out in an oddly perfect snow-covered town in the north of America. This section could easily have dragged, but my interest in the character and the quality of the writing kept me engaged, and I ultimately felt the book was better for being willing to slow down. It gave it a real epic quality. 

Beyond the plot though, there are allsorts of big questions being explored. Why does every society have gods? What role do they fulfil in the human psyche? What is the nature of belief? What does it mean to be American? How does it feel to leave one country and culture behind and join another. They are the sort of questions you’d normally expect to be dealt with in a deadly serious Big Novel, but actually feel fresher viewed through this prism of gods and adventures. It’s helped by the fact that Gaiman’s writing style is consistently strong, and would actually translate perfectly to something less fantastical. 

Finally, one of my favourite things about the book is the way the main storyline is intercut with both stories of random gods’ everyday lives in modern America (I was particularly intrigued by the Queen of Sheba) and stories of the people who came to America and brought their gods with them. Of the latter, the standout was a story of an African woman brought to America as a slave, bringing some voodoo type gods with her. In one chapter, it honestly delivers the most powerful reminder of how horrific slavery was that I’ve ever read. Most of the others are lighter, but still fascinating. 

In conclusion, I’d definitely recommend this book to anyone that likes intelligent fantasy, as well as some people who think fantasy isn’t really for them. Gaiman’s one of my favourite authors, and this is probably his best book and a wonderful introduction to his style.

 

PS. This time around, I (deliberately) read the author’s preferred edition, basically a sort of director’s cut equivalent, with 12 000 words of previously cut material added back in. I’d recommend sticking with the original, slightly shorter (though still nearly 600 pages long) edition. It’s hard to be sure as it’s so long since I first read this, but I think the original is just that bit tighter and slicker. Editors serve a purpose, they’re not just there to thwart an author’s will, something that I’ve learned over time, as a naturally wordy writer. 

Cover reveal – Ashlynne Lanne’s Blood Bewitched

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A few weeks ago, Ashlynne was kind enough to participate in my blog tour for Ivory Terrors (http://ashlynnelaynne.blogspot.co.uk/2014/05/prab-welcomes-georgiana-derwent.html), and today, I’m returning the favour with a first look at her forthcoming release Blood Bewitched (The Progeny Series 5). I haven’t read this series yet, but I’m definitely adding the first one to my to read list. It sounds like it’s got a really well developed vampire history and mythos.  Continue reading

My inspiration for characters in the Cavaliers – Part 2 – Lord George Stewart

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On Saturday, I kicked off my mini-series on the inspirations for my characters with a look at the ideas that came together to create Augustine Piso. Today, I’m focussing on George Stewart, who judging from comments in review, is almost certainly the most popular character in the Cavaliers. The powerful, womanising part love interest, part borderline villain is certainly the character I most enjoy writing. 

As I explained in the previous instalment, this will be of most obvious interest to fans of The Cavaliers, but I’d like to think that it would also appeal to writers and anyone interested in how characters are developed.

 Lord George Stewart

Age: Born in 1618. Turned in 1642, aged 24.

Place of birth: Aubigny, France.

Maker: Richard

Offspring: As a Senior Officer of the Cavaliers, he’s created huge numbers of vampires over the centuries, though (at the start of the series, at least) he’s never turned anyone on a one on one basis. 

Current Role: Student of Classics at Christ Church, Oxford. Senior Officer of the Cavaliers.

Special powers and talents: Generally regarded as having the strongest mind control talent of all the Cavaliers, and is able to use it in different ways to most vampires, such as controlling mobile phone signals. 

THE INSPIRATION

Shortly after I’d published Oxford Blood, I met up with a university friend and fellow former history student who I hadn’t seen in a while, and inevitably, I dropped the existence of my book into the conversation.

“Let me guess,” he said. “I bet you called the main male character George.”

And grudgingly, I had to admit that while there was some room for argument over who exactly the “main” male character was, the series did indeed have a fairly high profile George.

The reason he guessed went back to the time when I’d been writing my thesis. I’ve vaguely mentioned this before on this blog, but in essence, my thesis was on women’s influence in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century politics. Harriet writes a seventeenth-century version of it in Ivory Terrors. It focussed specifically on a gentry woman called Jane Osbaldeston, who, following the death of her husband while her son is a young child, single-handedly controls the political environment in her area and the surrounding towns.   Jane is awesome. A total feminist heroine who tends to be something of a footnote in most texts dealing with the period, even those focussed on female history. My next writing project may well be a fictionalised and romanticised version of her life.

The trouble was, there were two main primary sources for researching good old Jane. One was letters between her and the local aristocrat, Earl Fitzwilliam, which I tracked down in the Sheffield archives and painstakingly transcribed. The other was her son’s autobiography, which is extremely rare, but which I found  in Oxford’s Bodleian Library. In many ways, the book was an excellent source of information on Jane. The trouble was, it was a better source of information on her charming cad of a son. Enter George Osbaldeston into my research. Exit any claims to any one taking my thesis at all seriously. Okay, that’s not entirely true. The thesis itself  remained perfectly serious and sensible and my tutor loved it. It was just that whenever anyone asked me about it, I tended to talk about George in an adoring tone rather than Jane in a scholarly one, which led to a certain degree of good-natured mockery from my fellow students.

File:George Osbaldeston by Sir Francis Grant.jpg

A few days before the thesis had to be submitted, I was fairly seriously stressed, as tends to be the case in these situations. Now, the friend who I mentioned in the opening paragraph and I had a rather strange standing joke. Basically, we’d buy each other old second hand Mill and Boon books (I think the American equivalent is Harlequin)  and compete to see who could find the ones with the silliest title – I think “The Viking’s Defiant Bride” was pretty much the winner. And so, to cheer me up, he wrote me a little Mills and Boon-style story featuring George Osbaldeston. I don’t think I’ve ever been so amused by anything in my life, and it reinvigorated me just enough to get the thesis safely submitted.

So in short, George was originally named for the guy from my thesis, and in his charming but womanising ways, they share certain personality traits. Unfortunately, George Osbaldeston was born in 1786, whereas my character absolutely needed to have been young during the Civil War, which began in 1642.

When I was just beginning to plot Oxford Blood, I went for a wander through the National Gallery, and I spotted this painting of two young Cavaliers, just before the war began. I thought it was a beautiful painting, and that despite the way historical figures often don’t look attractive to modern eyes, the men seemed very attractive. There was also an astonishing pathos about the painting. Here are two very young, very rich brothers, showing off in their finery, looking absolutely happy with their lot in life. According to the description of the painting, within five years, both of them would have died in the war.

And I just thought that one of them (the one on the right, in blue)looked just like i wanted my key civil war vampire to look. The only problem was that his name was apparently Bernard, and I couldn’t quite bring myself to have a romantic anti-hero with such a stupid name. And besides, I’d already pretty much settled on George.

So I merged their names, and went with George Stewart, and in my mind, the character looked like the one from the painting (albeit having modernised himself a  bit for the current period) and acted more or less like the one from my thesis.

And I wrote allsorts of things about him, including that he had an older brother called James who died at Edgehill, leaving him as the heir – which I totally made up. If you were to re-read Oxford Blood, however, you’d notice one strange thing about George – he’s never referred to by his surname and never uses it himself. The reason was that although in my notes I had him down as George Stewart, I still sort of thought of him as George Osbaldeston.

And this is where it gets a bit strange. One day, I did a bit of research on Bernard Stewart, and I discovered something mind-blowing – he had an older brother called George Stewart. And so I looked into him, and lo and behold, everything about the real George was absolutely perfect. He had an older brother called James. He fought for the king in the Civil War and died at Edgehill in his early twenties. He’s buried in Christ Church College, where my character has rooms. He was so ridiculously passionate that he defied his uncle the king to marry the woman he loved against his wishes. He had a cool title. I read his Wikipedia article (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Stewart,_9th_Seigneur_d’Aubigny) with an increasingly dropped jaw, and from then on, the character tended to be referred to by his full name, and I started to think of him less as the man from the thesis, and more as the historical George Stewart – though he seemed slightly less blond and attractive than his little brother Bernard, so I retained him as the mental image and merged together a few points from all four of the brothers’ personalities and biographies.

So that’s the weird and fortuitous mix of historical characters that came together to give George his name, background, and the basics of his personality. But that’s still only half the story. Firstly, there were the real life inspirations. Unlike some characters, George was not  directly heavily based on any one – or even any two or three – real life acquaintances. He was, however, based to some degree on a certain type of person I often came across at Oxford – extremely posh, very good-looking, utterly charming but ultimately not very nice people. One of my favourite lines in one of my favourite plays is the following from a Streetcar Named Desire:

“A man like that is someone to go out with—once—twice—three times when the devil is in you. But live with? Have a child by?” 

It sort of sums up the people I have in mind. By all means ogle them and have some fun, but don’t let your heart get involved and don’t be upset when it inevitably goes wrong. From the safety of a long-term relationship, I have a certain amount of admiration for people who can effectively turn on the charm at will, but I was always horribly pervious to their charms once upon a time.

I’ve always believed that a key theme in romance novels is the idea of the man who is adored by all women, acts like a cad towards most of them, but truly loves the heroine. I think it plays into some near universal fantasy of being special, and on the whole, I think it’s a dangerous one – people may get a bit more mature as they age, but I’m pretty sure that it’s rare for someone to completely change their personality, outlook and behaviour.  

As you can probably tell, i’m ambivalent at best about the “bad boy gone good” love interest. 99% of the time, when it’s done in a contemporary, broadly realistic novel, I hate it.  Somehow, however, in the context of a fantasy or paranormal tale, it quickly becomes more palatable, and when done well, these sorts of characters are some of my all time favourites. For me, the key is that they have to not just be “bad boys” in the sense of attractive men who drink, fight, and womanise. They have to be bordering on actual villains. And this was the sort of character I wanted to write here. 

I mentioned in yesterday’s post about Augustine that my favourite character in Gladiator was the evil emperor rather than the heroic legionnaire and gladiator. I tend to fall a little bit in love with the charismatic, scheming, unpredictable villain (far more than the staid hero or heroine), resent their lack of screen time, and feel a bit disappointed when they are defeated and die unmourned. So when a character like this gets to be a love interest too, I rejoice. Screen time! Romantic scenes! Ambiguity and a chance for redemption! Though hopefully not too much redemption – I liked them because,  not despite of their dastardly plans, after all.

My all time best example of this sort of character is Julian in the Forbidden Game series, one of my absolute favourite reads as a teenager, and still a firm (if guilty) favourite now. To attempt to summarise what quickly become a fairly involved plot, Julian is some sort of demon from northern mythology. A scorchingly hot and charming demon, needless to say. He poses as a shop-keeper, sells the heroine a board game in which players have to draw their worst nightmare, and then she, her boyfriend, and all her closest friends get sucked into the game and have to face their nightmares in reality – which in some cases risks being fatal. Julian pursues them around the game, has them pursued by his monster animals and tries to force the heroine to marry him. So proper villain territory. And in any normal book, he really should be despised by the characters and booed by the readers and the plot should focus on bringing him down. But increasingly, the heroine starts to fall in love with him of her own accord, and their scenes together, despite things never going further than kisses, are just some of the sexiest and most romantic things I’ve ever read. And this is not just me being twisted – nominally, the book contains the inevitable love triangle, but the heroine’s actual boyfriend stays firmly in the background for 90% of the series, and every review or fan page I’ve ever come across absolutely adores Julian. Incidentally, one of my very favourite aspects of the Forbidden Game is it’s ending, and without wanting to spoil things too much for anyone who’s read it and hasn’t yet got round to reading Ivory Terrors (or vice versa) let’s just say I was inspired by that too…

This sort of character is basically LJ Smith’s trademark, and it’s one of the things that made her one of my favourite authors – and probably my absolute favourite paranormal author. It’s something that crops up in other books too, most recently, for me, in the Grisha Series, which was pretty much my favourite book of last year (review here) helped in large part by The Darkling, who fits this kind of role perfectly.

It’s a style of character I also love to write.  Prophecy Filler, the first proper novel  I attempted to write, way back when I was about seventeen, had a character who absolutely fit this pattern. He was an ancient force of evil and trying to destroy the world – but was sure to make time for some sexy scenes with the heroine who was prophesied to stop him. (Incidentally, I really, really, want to rewrite Prophecy Filler now I’m hopefully slightly more adept at writing and slightly more resistant to the lure of giving characters stupid names). When I was plotting Oxford Blood, having a character a bit like this was an absolute must for me, and though he’s presented as less of a direct villain than some of these examples (in the sense that the heroine isn’t actively working against him most of the time) in his moments of ruthlessness around both sex and death, and in his intense scenes with Harriet, full of sexual tension and a longing to give in but a determination not to, George really fits this mould. And it’s always made him damn fun to write.