Archive for the ‘2014’ Category

swisssonataI had been looking forward to reading Swiss Sonata by Gwethalyn Graham ever since reading Earth and High Heaven, Graham’s extraordinary 1944 novel about love and anti-Semitism in wartime Montreal.  Published in 1938, when Graham was just 25 years old, Swiss Sonata won Graham her first Governor General’s Award – the second came only a few years later for Earth and High Heaven.  Now, I can completely understand why they awarded it to her for Earth and High Heaven – it is wonderful and richly deserves to be back in print and widely read – but I have no idea what they were thinking in giving it to her in 1938 for Swiss Sonata.

The setting, at least, is good: a finishing school on the Swiss Riviera, nestled in the hills above Lausanne.  The school is full of young women from around the world, ranging in age from their mid-teens to early twenties.  The school’s intent is to foster a League-of-Nations-esque environment, to produce insightful young women fluent in multiple languages and armed with a cosmopolitan worldview.  Or, at least that is what the current headmistress, Amélie Tourain, believes the school’s purpose should be.  The parents of her pupils might think differently:

The existing Swiss schools were in a curious position since, so far as the parents of their pupils were concerned, their chief function was to provide instruction in French and winter sports; the international idea was purely incidental.  Yet, she supposed, they must have some vague idea of giving their children a chance to see through the eyes of other countries, or they would send them elsewhere.  If you have a “my country right or wrong” point of view, surely you don’t send your children to a school where they will be forced to speak French, share rooms with a Norwegian or a Pole, and eat their meals with Armenians, Hungarians, Greeks, Danes, Germans?

The story is set in January 1935, when the kind of pluralism and tolerance Mlle Tourain believes in are more important than ever – and more elusive than ever.  Tensions between the students at the small school are high as Europe waits to hear the results of the plebiscite in the Saar.  Hitler’s homogenized dream Reich is the exact opposite of what the school aspires to be, which unsurprisingly leads to conflict among the German students – between those who admire him and those who are already experiencing the brute force of his totalitarian regime.  Elsewhere, money is being stolen by an unknown thief, a teacher is determined to catch out the school’s most seemingly perfect pupil, and a girl lies wasting away in her room.  What a mess.

The story is messy and unengaging and the characters poorly drawn.  When Graham chooses a single focus, she is interesting and articulate.  Sadly, most of the novel is spent bouncing between characters, trying to address all of their concerns.  This leaves us with a shallow understanding of both the issues at play and the women who work at or attend the school.  Some of these women are sketched semi-successfully – one student, an American millionaireness named Theodora Cohen is loud and brash and fun enough to offer relief from the unrelenting stodginess of everyone else – but Graham fails with almost everyone else, spectacularly in the case of Vicky Morrison.  Vicky is a mysterious and almost universally admired student from Toronto.  The students adore her, she is best buddies with some of the teachers, and she is probably one of the most poorly written characters I’ve come across in a long time.

What does go some way to redeeming this book and the discussions of serious matters that the students get into; specifically, of racism and feminism.  These discussions don’t necessarily contribute to the structure or the flow of the story but in and of themselves they are interesting.

“I wonder why it is that women are not supposed to be capable of friendship and loyalty to such an extent as men?  They’re always pictured like Kipling’s cat, walking alone, when it comes right down to it, and when they change their environment…I mean after they get married, or fall in love with an unusual man or something, then their friendships alter.”

“Shakespeare knew better,” said Vicky.

“I know, but he lived four hundred years ago and since then people have forgotten.  I guess it’s because no one ever takes the trouble to find out about us.  It’s so much easier to talk about men as people, and women as women…lumping us altogether, and referring to the female sex as though it were an enigmatic and too, too baffling object.  We’re supposed to be all alike underneath…men aren’t, they’re permitted individuality, when we’re not.  We differ in degree, but not in kind, apparently.

I’m glad I finally read this but I would not recommend it to others.  In its themes, it is recognizably related to Earth and High Heaven but certainly not in its below-average execution.

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Arcadian Adventures with the Idle RichI’ve been struggling for weeks now how to review Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich by Stephen Leacock.  Like most of Leacock’s works, it is a collection of stories linked by a shared settting: in this case, Plutoria Avenue, a tony street in a wealthy North American metropolis.  And, like all Leacock works, it is funny.  The trials and tribulations of the outrageously wealthy provide no end of giggle-inducing commentary from Leacock – commentary that seems just as fresh and appropriate in 2014 as it did on publication in 1914.

But, again, where to start with a review?  Perhaps at the beginning, with the introduction of one of the Mausoleum Club’s august members taking his modest mid-day meal:

Mr. Fyshe was seated at lunch, consuming a cutlet and a pint of Moselle in the plain downright fashion of a man so democratic that he is practically a revolutionary socialist, and doesn’t mind saying so…

Mr. Fyshe and his fellow millionaires flit between their offices and the Mausoleum Club, congratulating themselves for their good luck at having become millionaires and, in turn, being vociferously congratulated by those who live in hope of charitable handouts – namely, clergymen and university administrators.

Leacock was a professor at McGill University, which is no doubt why the details of the university’s delicately subtle and wildly successful courtships for the rich ring so true.  And why the book is littered with instances of internal university politics devoted to matters of such insignificance that of course they have become matters of life and death to their supporters:

 The meeting of the faculty that day bid fair to lose all vestige of decorum in the excitement of the moment.  For, as Dead Elderberry Foible, the head of the faculty, said, the motion that they had before them amounted practically to a revolution.  The proposal was nothing less that the permission of the use of lead-pencils instead of pen and ink in the sessional examinations of the university.  Anyone conversant with the inner life of a college will realize that to many of the professoriate this was nothing less than a last wild onslaught of socialistic democracy against the solid bulwarks of society.  They must fight it back or die on the walls.  To others it was one more step in the splendid progress of democratic education, comparable only to such epoch-making things as the abandonment of the cap and gown, and the omission of the word “sir” in speaking to a professor.

But the millionaires of Plutoria Avenue are a practical bunch so while the academics quibble over minutiae, the millionaires set their sights on more important matters, like the corruption of the press:

“There is no doubt that the corruption of the press is one of the worst factors that we have to oppose.  But whether we can best fight it by buying the paper itself or buying the staff is hard to say.”

If you do not giggle over that, then I am afraid there is no hope for you.

While the men congregate at the Mausoleum Club, their wives roam about town in search of intrigue and excitement.  If they are in town, that is:

It was indeed a singularly trying time of the year.  It was too early to go to Europe and too late to go to Bermuda.  It was too warm to go south, and yet still too cold to go north.  In fact, one was almost compelled to stay at home – which was dreadful.

To detract from the dreadfulness of home, the ladies seek to educate themselves.  They host salons in their homes where ”people of education and taste are at liberty to talk about things they don’t know, and to utter freely ideas that they haven’t got.”   These salons are delightful, though occasionally a little awkward, as when an actual educated person from the university chooses to attend.  The women also content themselves by seeking spiritual enlightenment, flirting both with the church (though their allegiances are easily shifted, depending on the fashion) and the occult (though the mystic seer one hostess hires proves a bit more worldly – and sticky-fingered – than suspected).

Though this is only a small book with a handful of stories, it is great fun.  I still don’t know how to review it, but hopefully I’ve given you a little bit of an idea of why you should try it.

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0375504419_0Educating Alice by Alice Steinbach – Steinbach, to me, is that well-meaning person who desperately wants you to like them and who is so earnest that you wish you could like but, really, you just spend every encounter wanting to hit them with something blunt. In this second travel memoir (following Without Reservations), Steinbach roams the world and indulges in too much introspection and overly romanticized prose.

9780375724596_custom-2efde7beec18b0b581c86a38388313349857619e-s6-c30The Pursuit of Alice Thrift by Elinor Lipman – a much more likeable Alice, The Pursuit of Alice Thrift is a wonderful comedy about a young, socially-awkward surgical intern in Boston (but of course – this is an Elinor Lipman book) who finds herself being wooed by Ray Russo, who seems very likely to be a conman. But at least he’s a man. It is fabulous and hilarious. Alice is marvellously blunt, Ray is exquisitely slimy, and the two friends Alice makes over the course of the novel – sassy Sylvie and supportive Leo – are friends I would love to have myself. Very, very fun.

The Ladies' ManThe Ladies’ Man by Elinor Lipman – I’ve read almost all of Lipman’s novels now (only My Latest Grievance awaits) and I have to say that this is not one of my favourites. That said, my least favourite Lipman is still better than almost anyone else’s best. Thirty years ago, Adele Dobbin was jilted by her fiancé, Harvey Nash. Suddenly, he shows up on the doorstep of the Boston apartment Adele shares with her two sisters with a belated apology. An inveterate ladies’ man, Harvey (now going by Nash Harvey) attempts to charm a series of women over the course of the book. Though the Dobbin women prove immune to his charms (one of them goes so far as to break a casserole dish over his head when he attempts to hit on her), his arrival does inspire them to look to the romantic lives they have largely ignored. Lipman is as clever and witty as ever, I just think there were too many characters splitting focus here, making for an uneven flow.

forever girlThe Forever Girl by Alexander McCall Smith – In that weird space between not good and not horrifically bad. So…inoffensively bad? There were some good moments but the characters were completely flat, every last one of them.

Spring MagicSpring Magic by D.E. Stevenson – I wish I had more to say about this book. It is pure escapist fantasy, about Frances, a young Cinderella-like woman, who is able to escape from her aunt after their London home is damaged by a bombing during the Second World War. The aunt heads into the country with the expectation that Frances will accompany her. Instead, Frances heads for a fishing village in Scotland to figure out her life and develop some independence. Her stay is enlivened by the arrival in the neighbourhood of a regiment of soldiers – and the officer’s wives. The socializing from then on is reminiscent of the Mrs Tim books, since the military wives prove far more interesting than Frances and her mild romantic problems. It’s a sweet book but not quite as energetic as DES’s best works.

JoieJoie de Vivre by Harriet Welty Rochefort – hands down the best – and most entertaining – book I have read about the French. Having lived in France and been married to a Frenchman for forty years, Rochefort is more than qualified to discuss the good, the bad, and the mysterious elements of French culture and the French psyche. She is humorous and does not over romanticize or demonize – an all too common failing of this sort of book. Very enjoyable.

Waiting on You by Kristan Higgins – Higgins is back on form after her disappointing last book.

It Felt Like a KissIt Felt Like a Kiss by Sarra Manning – despite a title that makes the book sound like it is about domestic abuse, this was actually a rather interesting look at what happens when a young woman’s greatest secret – the identity of her famous father – is leaked to the press by a vengeful ex-boyfriend. The romance was less than convincing but the way Ellie’s life was twisted by the press with complete disregard for the truth was all too disgustingly real.

UnstickyUnsticky by Sarra Manning – A very fluffy premise – what happens to a young woman when she agrees to become the mistress and hostess for an older art dealer – but a surprisingly engaging and interesting book. I really enjoy Manning’s writing and though her books are always long, none of it feels like filler. I did find Grace’s liberal use of “like” wildly irritating, though that thankfully faded over the course of the novel, and was thrown by some of the little details of the scenes set in BC: Vancouver, which has the same climate as London, can hardly be described as the “icy hinterlands of British Columbia.” Also, where on earth did they find a Caribbean nurse in Whistler? But these were minor, minor issues and for the most part I loved the book. I also couldn’t help thinking that Clare Carrington from The New Moon with the Old would approve.

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The Spell of the YukonStuck at home last Thursday, felled by one of the many ailments that seem to be going around, I was feeling too weak to read so instead I settled down to watch Discovery channel’s “Klondike” miniseries, which I’d recorded when it aired earlier in the week.  Set during the Klondike gold rush at the end of the 19th Century, it’s not a particularly memorable program, unless you enjoy spending six hours admiring Richard Madden’s hair (I certainly do), but it did serve to remind me of all the very bleak history books and historical novels I read during my preteens about life in the North during this period.  In this cheerful frame of mind, I picked up one of the most enduring books about (at least in part) the Klondike gold rush: The Spell of the Yukon, and Other Verses by Robert Service.

Published in 1907, The Spell of the Yukon contains Service’s two best known poems: “The Cremation of Sam McGee” and “The Shooting of Dan McGrew”.  Their Kipling-esque rhymes have made them favourites for generations of school children forced to learn something to recite in class and no matter how verse-averse you are, I’ve yet to meet any Canadian who doesn’t at least know the first haunting lines of “The Cremation of Sam McGee”:

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

Though other verses may be more well-known these days, my favourite piece in the book has always been The Spell of the Yukon, the lament of a miner who struck it rich and then went south to enjoy his wealth, only to find himself yearning to return to the place where he made his fortune:

I wanted the gold, and I sought it:
I scrabbled and mucked like a slave.
Was it famine or scurvy – I fought it;
I hurled my youth into a grave.
I wanted the gold, and I got it –
Came out with a fortune last fall, –
Yet somehow life’s not what I thought it,
And somehow the gold isn’t all.

No!  There’s the land.  (Have you seen it?)
It’s the cussedest land that I know,
From the big, dizzy mountains that screen it
To the deep, deathlike valleys below.
Some say God was tired when He made it:
Some say it’s a fine land to shun;
Maybe; but there’s some as would trade it
For no land on earth – and I’m one.

You come to get rich (damned good reason);
You feel like an exile at first;
You hate it like hell for a season,
And then you are worse than the worst.
It grips you like some kind of sinning;
It twists you from foe to a friend;
It seems it’s been since the beginning;
It seems it will be to the end.

There’s gold, and it’s haunting and haunting;
It’s luring me on as of old;
Yet it isn’t the gold that I’m wanting
So much as just finding the gold.
It’s the great, big, broad land ‘way up yonder,
It’s the forests where silence has lease;
It’s the beauty that fills me with wonder,
It’s the stillness that fills me with peace.

This is not sophisticated poetry but it is captivating, exciting stuff with a very strong sense of place. This collection deals with wanderlust in general but the bulk of the poems are based on Service’s time in the Yukon. He captures the excitement and energy of the place but also the dangers, both physical and spiritual, that await: “No spot on the map in so short a space/ has hustled more souls to hell.”

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Scene in Glencoe Pass, Scotland, in the Summer of 1937 by Francis Ferdinand Maurice Cook

Scene in Glencoe Pass, Scotland, in the Summer of 1937 by Francis Ferdinand Maurice Cook

Last weekend, with a mind weak with exhaustion after some heavy-duty studying and rather giddy at the realisation that there were no more exams left on the horizon, I settled down for some light and frivolous reading with, as is so often the case with me, a Scottish theme.  While neither Winter Solstice by Rosamunde Pilcher or Apricot Sky by Ruby Ferguson are destined to become great favourites, they certainly helped me unwind after a stressful period.

Winter SolsticeWinter Solstice was only my second encounter with Pilcher.  I’d read Coming Home as a pre-teen and thought it was just about the trashiest thing I’d ever read up to that point in my life.  A subsequent rereading didn’t do much to change my mind.  Still, enough of my blogging friends are fans of Pilcher that I wanted to give her another try and Winter Solstice had been recommended as a perfect winter read.  Well, it is very wintery – the story focuses on a group of troubled people who find themselves spending Christmas together in the Scottish Highlands – but I could not stand the book.  I loved the concept and the writing was bland but unobjectionable, but the characterization would have had me throwing the book across the room if I hadn’t been reading it as a library e-book – my lovely Kobo should not be punished for what I load onto it.  I hung on until the end, hoping that something might happen to redeem it but that never happened.  If anything, I only got more frustrated.  I can see how in certain moods others could find Pilcher’s writing comforting and enjoyably but she is decidedly not for me.

Apricot SkyApricot Sky by Ruby Ferguson, though not particularly inspired, was much more enjoyable.  Described by Scott as “the best approximation I’ve found of a D.E. Stevenson novel not written by Stevenson herself”, it is the story of Cleo MacAlvey, who returns to Scotland after three years working in America, and the rest of the MacAlvey family.  It is 1948 and quiet Cleo, now thirty, has been in love with Neil Garvine for the past ten years, though the dour Neil is completely oblivious to her adoration.  Their more outgoing (and altogether delightful) younger siblings – Raine MacAlvey and Ian Garvine – are about to be married and so, much to both her discomfort and her pleasure, Cleo finds herself frequently in Neil’s company, though she can’t seem to string a sensible or half-way interesting sentence together any time he is near.

Cleo is unobjectionable but I do wish she were more compelling.  Her younger nieces and nephews, who get quite a lot of the author’s attention, are quite interesting but it is her sister Raine who provided the bulk of the entertainment here.  She is bright and outgoing, happy to barge “through life without caring whether people liked her or not, and […]about as introverted as a fox-terrier puppy.”  Her blunt exchanges with her equally affable fiancé were my favourite parts of the novel and left me caring far more for them than I did for any of the other characters.

The book is overly long, full of characters who ought to be more interesting than they are, and generally lacking a sense of humour but it is all still very pleasant.  Not quite up to D.E. Stevenson level, I think, but rather more akin to the works of Susan Pleydell or Noel Streatfeild’s Susan Scarlett novels.  I wouldn’t rush out to buy one of the absurdly-priced second-hand copies but if Greyladies were to reissue it, and it would be a perfect title for them, then I would be happy to have a copy of my own.

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Still Glides the StreamOn January 1st, savouring my day off work and determined to get the year off to a good start, I settled down with Still Glides the Stream by D.E. Stevenson.  There is nothing quite so nice as beginning a New Year in the company of an old, dependable friend.

Published in 1959, Still Glides the Stream begins with thirty-five year old Will Hastie returning home to Scotland after years abroad in the Army, intent on learning to farm the family estate, Broadmeadows.  Will settles in quickly, enjoying his time with his father and reigniting his acquaintance with the Elliot Murray family.  Growing up, Will and the Elliot Murray children, Rae and Patty, had been inseparable.   By the time the story begins, Rae has been dead for many years, killed in France during the war.  Patty, still at home and still unmarried (though engaged) at thirty-four, is just as friendly as ever though and she and Will are delighted to strike up their old friendship.

When Patty mentions a curious letter she received from Rae shortly before his death, Will tells her not to worry herself over it.  But, knowing that Rae would never have written such odd words without some purpose, he privately decides to look into the mystery.  He leaves for France soon after (conveniently avoiding meeting Patty’s awful fiancé during his visit).

In France, he discovers Rae’s secret: his friend had married a French girl, Julie, and was not sure how to tell his family about her.  Will tracks down Julie and discovers not just Rae’s widow but also his son, Tom.  Julie’s excuses for not having made her husband’s family aware of herself or her child are rather weak but handy for plot’s sake so we won’t dwell too much on that.  Conveniently, both Julie and Tom speak excellent English; Julie, knowing how much Rae loved his family home, has seen to it that Tom had English lessons so that he would one day be ready to join the Elliot Murrays’ world.

Will brings Julie and Tom back to Scotland, everyone adores them, etc, etc.  Will briefly thinks he is in love with the lovely Julie but by the end of the book realises that, of course, he has been in love with the steady Patty all along.  All ends well, with everyone suitably married off and young Tom happily adapting to his new Scottish home.

Julie is an interesting D.E.S. character.  She is very lovely and good and, though in some ways Patty’s rival, the two become dear friends.  But she is cold and cautious in a way that horrifies Will when he realises it.  She wants a steady, comfortable life, not a love affair, and so is perfectly happy to marry for position rather than passion.  She wants to be back among people she understands, whose customs she knows.  “To me,” she says, “it seems sensible and right to marry a good kind man, to be his wife and the mother of his children.”  Patty and Will, both romantics (albeit of a silent Scottish strain), are deeply disillusioned with her after this revelation.  I, personally, rather admire her level-headed pragmatism.

But bizarrely, though much is made of Julie’s plans to arrange a comfortable but unromantic future for herself, little is made of her willingness to leave her son in Scotland while she returns to France.  It seems in character for her to do so (as she says early on, she has always known that Tom would one day go to live among his father’s people) but wildly out of character for the family-oriented (and rather judgemental) Will and Patty to make no horrified exclamations about her being an unnatural mother

Still Glides the Streams fits neatly in among the bulk of D.E.S.’s good-but-not-great works.  The plot may be flimsy and the characters one dimensional but D.E.S. had a gift of making such unpromising stuff into something really charming.

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Read Scotland 2014

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I only learned about Peggy Ann’s Read Scotland 2014 challenge a few days ago but once I did there was no chance that I was not going to join.  This sort of reading challenge works perfectly with A Century of Books and, given how many Scottish authors I am already planning to read for that (there will certainly be offerings from D.E. Stevenson, O. Douglas, and Compton Mackenzie), this seemed a natural fit.  I’ve signed up for the Ben Nevis level (13+ books) and, as usual, will be keeping track of my progress on my Challenges 2014 page.

Are any of you participating in this challenge?  Do you have any suggestions for great books by Scottish authors or set in Scotland?

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A Century of Books

I had such a marvellous time doing A Century of Books in 2012 that almost as soon as I finished I was eager to do it all again.  It was good to have a year long break but today I (and several other ambitious bloggers) start again with the goal of reading one book published in each year of the Twentieth Century.  I’ll be keeping track of my progress here.

I don’t have very specific reading plans (as I noted when I finished the challenge in 2012, the key to keeping it fun was having lots of options for each year so that I didn’t feel pressed to continue with a book I wasn’t enjoying just for the sake of checking a year off the list) but I do have plenty of ideas for what to read.  I consciously held off reading some of my own books last year, knowing how good they would be for A Century of Books, so I am very eager to finally start on them:


Do let me know if you’re doing A Century of Books this year, too. It is so much more fun when you have a buddy to cheer you along!

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A User's Guide to Neglectful ParentingI love Guy Delisle’s graphic travel memoirs.  Shenzhen, Pyongyang, Burma Chronicles and Jerusalem are all well observed records of Delisle’s time abroad, humourously depicting the culture shock he experiences while also addressing the very serious political issues he confronts in his travels.  But as much as I love those books, it was delightful to just be able to have fun with Delisle’s most recent book, the 100% lighthearted A User’s Guide to Neglectful Parenting.

The book is short, just a collection of anecdotes about Delisle’s more irresponsible interactions with his son and daughter.  I loved it.  After a busy day last week, I sat down with it after dinner and had a very pleasant half hour giggling my way through Delisle’s missteps.  I still can’t decide which vignette was my favourite.  Was it Delisle repeatedly forgetting to act as “la petite souris” several nights in a row after his son loses a tooth and having to persuade his son that the mouse is running behind schedule?  Or was it when he is trying to convince his daughter that she prefers sugary cereals so that he can keep his precious Shredded Wheat, brought all the way from Canada, to himself?  Or perhaps when he decides to offer his daughter his professional opinion of her drawing?  They are all enjoyable.  If you’re looking for a fun distraction, this is the book for you.

How to traumatize your children with the aid of red chainsaw oil

How to traumatize your children with the aid of red chainsaw oil

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Under HeavenI have made a bargain with myself: I have to review Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay before I can start reading Kay’s most recent book, River of Stars.  I am a harsh task master since there is nothing I want to do more right now that start reading the new book but one must have discipline.

Kay is the master of historical fantasy.  He began his writing career with the Tolkien-inspired high fantasy series The Fionavar Tapestry but his real success has been with fact-inspired novels like A Song For Arbonne (set in medieval Languedoc) and The Lions of Al-Rassan (which focuses on the tensions between Muslims, Christians and Jews in medieval Spain).  In Under Heaven, he takes Tang Dynasty China and the An Shi Rebellion as his inspiration and the results are spectacular, easily on par with The Lions of Al-Rassan, which, until now, I had considered his best work.

Shen Tai has spent two years among the dead.  Living alone on the plain between the kingdoms of Tagur and Kitai, where years before a great battle was fought, Tai spends his days burying the bones of the dead and his nights listening to the ghosts of those he has not yet buried.  A young man with many talents but no fixed career, Tai has chosen to spend the official two and half year mourning period following his father’s death burying the dead at Kuala Nor, to “honour his father’s sorrow” for what happened there.  But before his mourning period is ended, Tai’s quiet is disrupted; first by a gift of overwhelming and terrible generosity, then by an assassin’s attack.

The White Jade Princess, sent twenty years before from her homeland of Kitai to wed the ruler of Tagur and cement the peace between the two warring nations, has bestowed a gift on Tai in recognition of what he has done at Kuala Nor.  She has given him rare Sardian horses, called Heavenly Horses in Kitan, where “Tai’s people longed for them with a passion that had influenced imperial policy, warfare, and poetry for centuries”:

You gave a man one of the Sardian horses to reward him greatly.  You gave him four or five of those glories to exalt him above his fellows, propel him towards rank – and earn him the jealousy, possibly mortal, of those who rode the smaller horses of the steppes.

The Princess Cheng-wan, a royal consort of Tagur now through twenty years of peace, had just bestowed upon him, with permission, two hundred and fifty of the dragon horses.

A gift of two hundred and fifty Sardian horses can change a man’s life.  Or, as Tai knows, end it.

But desire for the horses is not the only reason people might want Tai dead.  Shortly after learning of the Princess’ gift to him, one of Tai’s old friends arrives in Kuala Nor to give him news of his family.  Before the friend can speak, he is killed and the assassin, who had masqueraded as his bodyguard, turns on her real target: Tai.  Tai escapes but it is clear to him that he needs to return to Xinan, the Kitan capital, and discover who wants him dead and why.  In the company of Wei Song, a Kanlin Warrior sent by his old lover, a courtesan named Spring Rain who is now under the protection of the prime minister, to guard Tai, and later the poet Sima Zian, Tai sets off to learn how the world – and his family – has changed in the two years he has been gone.

Meanwhile, Tai’s only sister, Li-Mei, is on a journey of her own.  Once a lady-in-attendance to the empress, Li-Mei has recently been named a princess and is accompanying the true princess, the thirty-first daughter of the emperor, to Bogü where Li-Mei is to become the umpteenth wife of the ruler’s second-son.  It is a great honour for her family, one engineered by her eldest brother Liu, but the canny, sophisticated Li-Mei is horrified that she is being sent against her will to live among barbarians.  A life among uneducated nomadic tribes people on the steppes is not what she had dreamed of during all those years at court, before the emperor fell in love with Wen Jian, the precious consort, and the empress and her attendants were sent away from Xinan:

Li-Mei has prided herself all her life (had been praised by her father for it, if ruefully) on being more curious and thoughtful than most women.  More than most men, he’d added once.  She has remembered that moment: where they were, how he looked at her, saying it.

She is skilled at grasping new situations and changing ones, the nuances of men and women in veiled, elusive exchanges.  She’d even developed a sense of the court, of manoeuvrings for power in her time with the empress, before they were exiled and it stopped mattering. 

She dreams that Tai will rescue her but Tai, by the time her learns of her fate, is too far away to reach her.  But in a way he does save her as Li-Mei’s rescuer comes to her aid become of a debt he feels he owes Tai.  Their journey and the dangers they face are much simpler than the ones Tai and his companions encounter, but no less fascinating.

Kay does everything perfectly in this book.  Really.  He is always so good at spinning complicated webs of political intrigue but here he excels himself.  Tai cannot plot and scheme the way so many of the people around him can, but he is clever enough to at least understand the different character’s motivations.  With the gift of the two-hundred and fifty horses, Tai returns to Xinan as an important man, no longer the insignificant student he had been when he had lived there years before.  He finds himself in the company of the most powerful figures of the day: Wen Jian, the emperor’s crafty concubine; Wen Zhou, the petty prime minister; and An Li, the aging general who soon launches a rebellion against the emperor that results in the deaths of millions.  Kay is masterful at building tension among these characters and the tragic scenes towards the end of the novel are brilliantly executed.

Kay’s female characters are always excellent but here they dominate.  As much as I was enjoying Tai’s journey, I was always so excited when I turned the page to discover that the story had shifted back to Li-Mei.  And the women who surround Tai on a daily basis are extraordinary.  Wen Jian, the Precious Consort, has already changed the empire: her beauty is captured forever in poetry and song, the face and form so perfect that the emperor banished his empress to make room for the younger woman in his palace and court.  But Wen Jian is more than just a pretty face; she has taken full advantage of her exalted position and is as firmly enmeshed in the activities that lead to the rebellion as any of the political leaders.  Spring Rain, the blonde haired, green eyed concubine from Sardia who Tai had loved as a student, keeps mostly quiet, sensitive to her fragile position in Wen Zhou’s household, but is admirably practical and level-headed when disaster strikes.  And it is she who sent Wei Song to protect Tai.  Wei Song, a Kanlin Warrior, is the quietest of the four main female characters but her presence and influence on Tai is inescapable and, after Li-Mei, I loved her best.  When she does speak, she is sharp and witty and certainly not afraid to tell Tai exactly what she thinks of him.

Oh, it is all so good.  I only finished reading it last week (staying up later than I probably should have, but I defy you to put this down once you are within a hundred or even two hundred pages of the end) but already I’m eager to reread it.  But first, on to River of Stars!

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