Going back into time for historical fantasy novel reviews

While I’ve not been writing, I’ve been reading to recharge my batteries. I tackled two recent historical fantasy novels, Stephanie Burgis’s Congress of Secrets (2016) and Walter H. Hunt’s Elements of Mind (2014). Odds are you might like one or the other, but probably not both: Burgis for romance, Hunt for looming horrors.

Princess Catherine Bagration, called the Naked Angel, whose passions would affect diplomatic affairs

Normally, I don’t tackle romances, but Burgis lured me in because her novel is set during the fabulous Congress of Vienna in 1814. This was the peace conference that settled Europe’s political organization after the Napoleonic wars. Burgis does name-check the main figures and gives them things to do that actually affect the plot, so they aren’t completely ornamental, which is good. (Though Wilhelmina, Duchess of Sagan, loses out to the Naked Angel in page count. Stephanie Burgis, I know whose side you’re on!) And I really liked the political side of her resolution of the crisis at the climax of the book. It was clever, period. Burgis demonstrated she understands the implications of her own premises; that’s a rarer talent than one would expect.

The alchemical magic and the romance do not fare as well. Considering how pivotal the alchemy is, we don’t learn enough of it for the magical resolution to the climax to carry the same level of plausibility and rightness; indeed, Burgis throws in a romantic twist that gives that resolution too much the flavor of a deus ex machina. And the romance is a bit too formulaic. Please save me from yet another couple who begin by hating each other and end up in bed together! That said, again, Burgis did a good job of laying the romance’s foundation within her story.

So, if you like historical fantasy romances, I’d say give this novel a read. Or if you like to see a writer who understands how to construct a version of this world with magic in it, then, yeah, it’s worth a try. If romance isn’t your strong field, but you love history that is important but also has more than a breath of scandal, try reading an actual history of the Congress. Burgis recommends Harold Nicolson’s The Congress of Vienna (1946); I’d offer 2007’s Rites of Peace by Adam Zamoyski as a more recent popular account.

Some of you might dimly remember the Congress of Vienna from a modern European history course. But very, very few of you will know about the early history of animal magnetism or mesmerism in Britain. Oddly enough, a lot of the beliefs of the early mesmerists shape today’s popular view of hypnotism, i.e., the idea that the hypnotist overpowers the will of his subject. One of their real discoveries was that mesmerism could be used as an anesthetic to reduce or eliminate pain in surgeries. Indeed, James Esdaile (1808 – 1859) ran a “mesmeric” hospital in British India!

This is from an 1837 American study of the “science” of animal magnetism

So when I found Esdaile’s name on the back blurb of Elements of Mind, I was hooked. Hunt’s novel assumes the powers of animal magnetism to control other people were real, and that they were allied with other apparently supernatural powers. Using historical figures who were interested in mesmerism in Britain in the 1840s, he constructs a story of supernatural and political power struggles that come near to costing a young woman her sanity, and almost costs the life of his protagonist, the rather lower-class Rev. William Davey, now the not-much-loved leader of the English mesmerists.

The story has the air of Wilkie Collins about it, using various kinds of narrative to unfold the story, much as Collins did in The Moonstone. Davey, who begins as the unchallenged leader of the English mesmerists, is confronted by powers and threats even beyond his imagining, as he tried to recover James Esdaile’s great secret for Davey’s society of mesmerists.

There’s a lot to like here. Hunt builds his characters with reasonable strengths and weaknesses. The use of mesmerism in the early parts of the story seems like a reasonable extrapolation of how it might have developed if mesmerism had really been a force. And the play between the British and Indian ends of the plot usually works well, though the Indian end sometimes sinks into stereotypes.

My biggest complaint is with the ending. I can see what Hunt was aiming for, but the pacing at the end is off. Hunt finishes too quickly for the significance of the ending he wanted. The reader’s apt to go away thinking, “good read, but looks like he had a page limit and had to cut the ending short.”

Hunt’s is a slow but enjoyable read for people who enjoy intellectual horror. Thanks to its unfamiliar subject matter, James Esdaile and William Davey hardly being household names, a lot of people who might otherwise like it will pass it by. But if you’re tempted, and want some background history, pick up and read Alison Winter’s Mesmerized: Powers of Mind in Victorian Britain (1998).


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Wrapping things up in the epilogue to As the Wyrm Tyrns

soe_orm_1555With the Breydon wyrm going back into its slumber, and the Faroe Islands female wyrm away from Great Yarmouth, our team’s business is almost through. But there remain a few loose ends to tie up, and Geoffrey MacAlpine’s the man to do it. Read about his curious conversation with the most subtle person involved in the laying of the wyrms in “Epilogue: Two days later,” the concluding chapter to my weekly serial, As the Wyrm Tyrns. If you want to read the story from start to finish, you can start here or here.

This was originally going to be a short story, a gift to two fellow bloggers when I went to visit one of them last summer. And yes, I did ask their permission to create thinly disguised alter egos of them. One has a photography site and blog that often features Florida birds, the other writes a fiction blog, though she, too is branching out into photography of the Norfolk (England) landscape. Pay them a visit if you want to see the work of Jacintha’s and Calpurnia’s originals.

As I say, this was meant to be a short story. It’s a curious fact that I usually know how my stories will end, but the route they ultimately take to get there is more complicated (and I hope more interesting) than what I initially envision. I had some fun with this one, but in the process turned it into a story that runs 75 pages in manuscript! And I’m so used to “Calpurnia” and “Jacintha” than I have taken to calling their real-life originals by those names when I’m not being careful. For that reason alone, I’m glad to be wrapping up this story.

And it’s time to take a break. I don’t expect to start up any new stories or have much else to post for about a month. After that, we’ll see. Thanks for following the most recent story, and I hope to see you back here when I return.

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A comedy of errors in chapter 19 of As the Wyrm Tyrns

The Nude Snake Charmer by Paul Trouillebert (1829 - 1900)

The Nude Snake Charmer by Paul Trouillebert (1829 – 1900)

Our heroes have made their share of mistakes. Geoff and Gwen just got dumped into Breydon Water thanks to one of them. But it’s a long wyrm that has no tyrning, and the Breydon wyrms are 60 feet long, so they have a lot of tyrnings! Watch our valiant team of magicians (and their associates) engage in “The laying of the wyrms,” in chapter 19 of As the Wyrm Tyrns.

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England and the Windsors are at stake in chapter 18 of As the Wyrm Tyrns

Our valiant team of magicians, along with a cambion and a normal human, prepare to put down the wyrms using Guinevere Satterthwaite’s plan. If they fail, Great Yarmouth could be laid waste and the Royal Family lose its most photogenic couple! But “No plan is without risks” in chapter 18 of As the Wyrm Tyrns, and all three of Calpunia Kingsley’s daughters are on the firing line as this story reaches its climax!


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Time is running out in chapter 17 of As the Wyrm Tyrns

Kate and Willy, the Duchess and Duke of Cambridge, are arriving in town, the English Council of magicians is getting nervous, and one of the wyrms is pregnant. But the shoe is literally on the other foot this time as Calpurnia Kingsley can now walk on both feet again. So all our magicians are setting out for their final showdown with the wyrms. They’re using a plan put together by a woman whose troubles always accompany her, so what could possibly go wrong? It’s time for “One last try?” in chapter 17 of As the Wyrm Tyrns.

One reason a regular gun won't work against a wyrm: wyrms are BIG!

One reason a regular gun won’t work against a wyrm: wyrms are BIG!

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Tackling a wyrm infestation in chapter 16 of As the Wyrm Tyrns

Illustration circa 1690 by Johann Ulrich Kraus (1655-1719)

Illustration circa 1690 by Johann Ulrich Kraus (1655-1719)

Why did Ursula try to prevent Jackie from shooting the wyrm? What makes Marcus even more sour than usual? And when is Calpurnia going to go clothes shopping? More problems fall upon our unlucky team of magicians as they try to keep Great Yarmouth from being burnt to the ground. But help is about to arrive from a very unexpected quarter in chapter 16, “Students of nature and magic,” this week’s addition to As the Wyrm Tyrns, my serial novel about the dangers of undomesticated fire-breathing supernatural creatures.

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Four against the beasts in Chapter 15 of As the Wyrm Tyrns

Our band of heroic (or at least temperamental) magicians have a goal, “Finding the wyrms’ lair,” in chapter 15 of As the Wyrm Tyrns. And wouldn’t you know, it’s the scholarly Calpurnia that sets them in the right direction. Or maybe it’s Ursula who puts them in harm’s way. Or Jacintha who walks into the jaws of death. Or . . . oh, go read the chapter, why don’t you!

The Seven Against Thebes, a team effort that didn't end well (Illustration from "Stories from the Greek Tragedians" by Rev. Alfred J. Church, M.A. (1879).)

The Seven Against Thebes, a team effort that didn’t end well.
(Illustration from “Stories from the Greek Tragedians” by Rev. Alfred J. Church, M.A. (1879))

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