For some reason, I’ve found that often when a novel is set in the 1600’s the characters bear about the same resemblance to lifelike human beings as characters in an unenthusiastic high school play. By the time the author has stamped them with the mold of “Elizabethan Character” – thee and ye and dost and old by forty and doublets and stomachers – most of the personality has been stamped out, and it becomes rather hard going to get through the book.
Alys Clare overcame that obstacle beautifully. First person narrator Gabriel Taverner is a wonderful character, a life–long ship’s surgeon who would still be mending sailors if not for the accident that destroyed his equilibrium. He’s full of life, and feels contemporary. “Very slowly and quietly, I bent forward and banged my head several times on the gleaming surface of my oak table.” I have my doubts about his abilities and commitment as a physician; he has picked up a great deal of unorthodox knowledge from the natives of a great many far-flung places, some of which runs counter to the current trends. Still, he seems to keep picking up books to hone his knowledge of “civilized” medicine, and keeps getting distracted – and when he needs to hie him off to investigate this or that or the other, he never seems to have any concern about his patients’ care during his absence.
One thing that’s rather wonderful about him is a lovely obtuseness. He is the first-person narrator of the story, and his realizations and brainstorms are realistically handled in such a way to clue the reader in. He’s a very good character; I hope he has better surroundings in another book.
Something I kept wondering about, which I know very little more about than that it existed, is the code of sumptuary laws. I first discovered them when I was getting into Renaissance Faires, when it surprised me that if I wanted to be historically accurate I had to decide where in society my persona fell and dress accordingly, avoiding certain fabrics and certain colors. (From 1562: No Englishman other than the son and heir apparent of a knight, or he that hath yearly revenues of £20 or is worth in goods £200, shall wear silk in or upon his hat, cap, night cap, girdles, scabbard, hose, shoes, or spur-leathers, upon forfeiture of £10 for every day, and imprisonment by three months.) Yet Gabriel’s sister wears the finest silk day in and day out.
There were a handful of off words sprinkled throughout – I don’t, for example, think that someone would refer to a man as being “broke”, meaning penniless. (Then again, maybe they would – the adjective has a surprisingly long history. I wouldn’t have thought it, and I think I’d avoid it because it doesn’t sound right.) “Frenchie”; “get over it” – these were the ones I made note of. Borderline – and as such, enough to take me out of the story just a bit.
There were moments when the author revealed a bit or a piece which seemed like they ought to have been mentioned earlier. It was sort of the opposite of Chekhov’s gun, with a shot going off suddenly leaving me wondering how. The origin of the murder weapon, for example – which I won’t spoil here – seemed frankly kind of stupid and, till then, not even hinted at, not something the reader could remotely guess at.
It was a quick and easy and enjoyable read, but somewhat weak in areas. I enjoyed the writer’s writing, but wish it had been more even and cohesive. There were excellent elements, but they were like beads on a long string, with thin bits in between. I’d like to try more of the series, in hopes of a stronger plot.
The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.