Friday, September 6, 2013

Her Ladyship's Curse (Disenchanted & Co #1) by Lynn Viehl

Kit is a curse breaker. She disenchants those suffering under curses and hexes.

And she doesn’t believe in magic. There always seems to be a rational reason for all of the magic people claim to be enduring and experiencing yet it doesn’t stop what seems to be an inordinate swarm of charlatans and con-artists trying to peddle magic to the unbelievably credulous masses.

Thankfully, she’s an able detective, able to find the truth behind the so-called curses, even if, as a woman working for herself in steampunk Toriana, she has to jump through a few hoops to do her job

But her latest job gets her involved with some of the top people in society – and lands her deeper than she imagined.

This world is fascinating. This world is truly excellent. This world is original and unique and contains so many facets that I could read a hundred books set there. The alternate America after losing the Revolutionary War, the clash of cultures, the different opinions and language that arose from it all come together to create a fascinatingly deep, alternate world all heavily laden with a wonderful touch of steampunk goodness, lovely little devices that are, perhaps, not as dramatic as iron soldiers but fun little detective devices nevertheless.

And on top of that we have magic. Actual real magic – or the widespread belief of it at least – twisting every part of society, creating new offices, new professions and shaping the culture accordingly. This combination of magic, classic steampunk and an entire alternate world comes together to create a world that is truly magnificent, extremely detailed and with so much to delve in that I want to wallow in it.

I love how Kit fits into it. Everyone believes she has a super talent for dispelling magic and curses so employ her – but she doesn’t believe in magic. Despite everyone else being sure it exists – and she goes around as a detective and exposes frauds and hoaxes (it’s not haunted, there’s an owl stuck in the chimney. It’s not a curse, the sewer pipe is broken allowing rats from the sewers. Etc etc etc etc) and becomes further convinced that magic is all a hoax. But is it all fraudulent or does she do what everyone claims – nullify magic with her mere presence? It’s a wonderful twist and adds so much to the book.

So it’s immensely frustrating that so little of this world is described. I know less is more when it comes to world building and it’s important to keep the info dumping to a minimum but there are innumerable references, random words used and history alluded to without any explanation or depth. I was constantly running to try and keep up, making big inferences about the world and hoping I was right because most of what I think is largely guess work. There is a glossary at the back of the book and it is sadly needed. If it had just been fleshed out a little more, broadened a little more, expanded a little more it would have been perfect.

The same applies to many of the side characters. She has some excellent people around her who she bounces off extremely well with lots of great interactions. I like them but they’re all a little… shallow. They’re Archetypes that need more work and development to make them more than Prostitute/Madam with heart of gold, Poor Girl Married Money, Eccentric Inventor Genius. I like them, but they need more layers; I think her police contact is the closest to a fully realised character but even then it’s notable that I’m going to have to look up his name.  It’s not that I disliked any of these characters – they’re all very very good characters with hints of excellent back stories, hints of excellent personalities and truly they’re going to be great assets

As to the story – well it’s interesting, it’s fun – but it’s largely used as a mechanism to introduce Kit, her world and what she does, with lots of foreshadowing and hints about her past that will become relevant, I assume. The main plot itself (investigating a woman suffering under a vindictive “curse”) is a little overwhelmed by Kit apparently uncovering a conspiracy we know nothing about, a ghost (she believes in ghosts), her father’s past, her “love interest” (more on that) and a few other distractions. And then it ends unfinished – there’s no closure to any of these story snippets, it’s all left rather hanging.

I’m a little annoyed actually by how short this book is, because a lot of the problems I’ve listed above could easily have been addressed; the book is short, there was space to widen the exposition and world building and to develop the side characters

More, there was room to actually tell the story. I’m slightly irritated that that “Part 1” doesn’t refer to the first book in a trilogy, it literally is a book cut into pieces. Nothing was resolved in this book, there was no closed story arc – the book didn’t end, it just stopped. It feels like a whole book was written then chopped randomly into pieces to be sold separately. It would have been easier to swallow if the book was already getting long – but it really isn’t. At least some of the problems above could have been addressed by adding a few more pages.

This is a period steampunk and it does have a lot of the prejudices of the time, including a lot of blatant misogyny and racism. The Native Americans are treated with utmost contempt and derision with a lot of offensive stereotypes. Similarly, women are regarded as vastly inferior beings with few legal rights or recourse and we have historical references to women being considered the property of men and available to be freely claimed if they didn’t have an owner. Both the sexism and racism is laid on extremely thickly but also, largely, challenged. We are presented with women being unable to hold property, with sexist laws both historic and present as well as the constant contempt women face and how helpless they are under the law, how women are not allowed to vote or manage their own funds. Yet at the same time Kit challenges these laws, she constantly proves them wrong and speaks scathingly about them; her friends, while pretty much stock archtypes (the prostitute/madam with the heart of gold and the poor girl who married well) also challenge

But then we get the “romance” (see below). And Kit doesn’t like female clients because of “silly notions and endless waterworks”.

The same goes for the treatment of the Native Americans. The society is incredibly racist, expressing extreme contempt for the “natives” in particular and anyone with dark skin in general. There are racist laws and a lot of racist attitudes – to which, again, Kit expresses her contempt at their ridiculousness, their prejudice and the damage they cause. We have the racism and then the challenge

But we also have Kit using brownface to disguise herself (though she does try to draw lines and recognise there are some things she shouldn’t appropriate – but it doesn’t change that it’s still brown face) and her heavy contempt for the Native American’s belief system.

About 90% of the racism and sexism is heavily challenged and questioned wonderfully – then we have these odd moments and examples where the book outright perpetuates them. It’s sad that it’s not an incomplete challenge but I wonder if, with all the other challenges, these are meant to show that Kit is a product of her society? That even though she holds racism and sexism in contempt – and challenges them – she has still absorbed her fair share of prejudiced tropes? That could be a highly positive spin put on it – and, again, it would be clearer if MORE PAGES were added to develop this.

Like many good steampunks there are some excellent discussions of class – but this goes a step further beyond the obsession with social position, marrying appropriately and some side references to the plight of the poor. The book includes industrial diseases because of unsafe working conditions in factories used to produce frivolous luxuries for the rich. We have a servant who calls her mistress kind and when Kit remonstrates – her employer is not “kind” for refraining from shouting at her servants and hitting them, it’s a basic expectation any servant should have – the servant turns round and basically mocks her for being so damn naïve.

Then there’s a really major problem – the “romance”.

The first time that the most excellent Kit runs into the lover interest, Lord Dredmore, she expresses her considerable contempt towards him as one of the biggest frauds of them all. And he forces a kiss on her, grabbing her, holding her head and kissing her. To which she resists until she finally metls because he’s just that hot.

Oh dear. This is a bad sign. And it gets worse.

Lord Dredmore is more than happy to order her around. And even has had her forced into his carriage before now – once even contemplating kidnapping. This cumulates in a scene at his manor that is truly awful. She is taken there against her will, she even says she has been kidnapped to the servant who ignores her. She has to attack Dredmore, twice, to actually be able to leave his bedroom. She then runs through the house, chased by him, breaking out of a window and seeking to hide from him in the maze. She runs through the maze, actually injuring herself on the sharp thorns, until he physically catches her and forces her to stop running. He then pins her to the floor, she tells him to stop, don’t, but he ignores her and removes her outer clothing, lifts her skirts, presses her hands against his bare chest and she gasps…

“What do you want from me?”
“Everything,” He said.
But he wasn’t going to take it, I knew that now.

He was not the monster I’d always hoped he’d be. He was only a man and, in his arms, I could simply be a woman.
If I chose to be.

And they have sex. “Consensual” sex.

Because she magically knows that, despite him kidnapping her, chasing her down, violently pinning her, ignoring her protests and objections,  and stripping her half naked that he will NOW listen to her if she says “no.”

Because he magically knows that, despite him kidnapping her, chasing her down, violently pinning her, ignoring her protests and objections,  and stripping her half naked that her “consent” is in no way coerced or forced by his violence and refusal to accept “no” for an answer.

No no no no NO YE GODS NO! From the very beginning, having the man continually badger and sexually assault a woman is wrong – even if she does “melt into his kiss” after objecting and being forced (ugh, and can we NOT have women who fight against sexual assault then “melt” into his manly sexiness – because they “wanted it really”?)

And then to have a sec scene that clings onto “consensual” ONLY because both characters magically know what the other is thinking DESPITE their actions and words saying the complete opposite!

Kit decides that Dredmore means it when he says its her choice – but why should she think that? Why would any woman, in her position, after what he just did, assume that he was NOW going to accept her refusal?

Dredmore decides that Kit’s “yes” is completely uncoerced there – despite him having to kidnap her, imprison her, hunt her down while she hurt herself to try and escape him and then pin her to the floor. Yes there’s no fear in her thoughts when she does say yes (because of her ridiculous magic thinking) but he has NO WAY OF KNOWING THAT.

He whole scene is a terrifying hot mess.

Later we are left with a strong sense that the love interest, Dredmore is a bad man and there’s possibly some regret from Kit about the whole affair. We more overtly see the contempt and patronising opinions he has about women as well as his complete lack of respect for their agency and choices. But, really, some belated acknowledgment of potential villainy from this guy doesn’t really patch up the problem here – that this horrendous sex scene was presented as consensual.

So where am I left with this book? I don’t know in many ways. I want to give it 5 fangs for the world. I want to give it 5 fangs for Kit. I want to give it a solid 3.5 to 4 for getting that balance of showing racism and sexism and classism and then challenging it – including a solid reality check on the protagonist herself (though it still erases GBLT people).

But then I want to give it 1.5 fangs for it’s awfully confusing lack of information on the world building. The same for its good but poorly developed characters. 2 Fangs for a good story that just ends for no apparent reason. And a “hide behind the sofa screaming profanities and ordering my tablet to be killed with fire” for that sex scene. Because No NO NO NO NO OH DEAR GODS NO! If the other problems dragged down and sullied the awesome parts of this book, then this shattered it into tiny pieces and flushed them down the sewer.