One winter morning, an old woman named Agnes is found dead in a field, her body mutilated. It quickly turns out that most of the villagers suspected her of being a witch, which means that practically everyone had a potential motive for the murder. One young man, who visited Agnes the day before her death for medical advice, seems to be the most likely suspect, but there's more going on than Baldwin and Simon know, particularly once a second murder occurs.
This book is so bad. SO BAD, you guys. The narration switches between Baldwin and Simon, but since they are both are one-dimensional characters with no personality beyond "clever, honorable, strong detective", I never could remember which one's POV I was in, and often had to flip back and forth between pages just to figure out which of the two I was supposed to be reading. The solution to the mystery becomes obvious to the reader long, long before the characters figure it out, so it's just a matter of dully watching while they plod from clue to clue. The femme fatale who's eventually revealed to be behind it all is a misogynist cliche of a character, so over-the-top evil with her feminine wiles that it's hard not to laugh at every one of her supposedly 'seductive' lines of dialogue.
But I think the thing that bothered me the most is the utter trash that is the historical research. Jecks clearly has read a few books about medieval England (if you need to know the architectural layout, room by room, of a peasant's hovel, he will happily spend several pages describing it for you), but there's no sense that the characters actually live in, or are shaped by, a world different from our modern one. For example: the village the story is set in is so small that it doesn't have its own church or market, but it does have an inn and tavern. Why would there be enough travelers to keep an inn running? Who are these travelers supposed to be, and why on earth would they be coming to this place if there's nothing there? Travel is a major project at this time; no one is just sloping off to various small towns to check them out! Jecks also can't seem to keep straight how constrained or free his female characters are allowed to be; the societal rules women operate under change from scene to scene.
Most strikingly, this is a bizarrely secular Middle Ages. The events of the book seem to take place over two weeks at least and yet not one character ever goes to church or worries about missing it. It's fine to have individual characters who are skeptical, but the calendar and rituals of Catholicism would still structure their public lives; they can't just be unaware of it. Similarly, the book takes place in February, suggesting at least part of it should occur during Lent, but again there's no mention of it or the changes in diet and behavior you'd expect to follow.
In short: do not read.
Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach. Nonfiction about the research and experimentations that made space travel possible, delivered with Roach's typical humour, curiosity, and tales of her mild mishaps while investigating. Packing for Mars is very much not the heroism-and-grandeur style of typical space nonfiction; instead she's fascinated by all the weird minutiae of human bodies that make space travel so difficult. There are chapters on how to eat in space (no gravity makes digestion surprisingly difficult), how to use a toilet in space (splashbacks are a major problem), how to bathe in space (NASA in the 1950s: "Or what if we didn't bathe, and just let your clothes literally rot off you?"), how to have sex in space (NASA still today: "NO."), how to be motion-sick in space (turns out that vomiting into a closed helmet is an unpleasant experience), and how to deal with the psychological experience of being stuck in a small space with the same few people for months or years (ideally without theft, sexual harassment, or murder). Roach interviews scientists and actual astronauts from various nationalities, which gives an interesting look at how people from the US, Japan, and the former USSR have taken different approaches to the same problem. She also gets a lot of fantastic, hilarious behind-the-scenes stories that don't match up to the professional image all these agencies so strenuously project.
It's not a particularly deep book, and I felt like I came away with more amusing anecdotes than actually new knowledge, but it's absolutely a fun way to pass a few days.
The Tiger's Daughter by K. Arsenault Rivera. The first in a trilogy set in fantasy-medieval China, starring O-Shizuka (granddaughter of the faux-Chinese emperor), Shefali (daughter of the leader of the faux-Mongols), and their world-altering love. In this setting, the Great Wall was built to hold back a plague of demons whose blood can infect humans, causing them to become murderous zombies. Years ago, Shizuka and Shefali's mothers teamed up to defeat the demons once and for all, and ever since humans have lived in a time of peace and health. Until hints begin to emerge that the demons are creeping back. Shizuka and Shefali are determined to once again ride to war to defeat them, except that no one believes them and there seems to be a vast conspiracy to hide the truth of the demon's return. Shizuka and Shefali, who spent their childhood together, are forced to separate to their own cultures to win the necessary support against the demons.
There was a lot I was excited about when I first heard about this book: f/f high fantasy with warrior girls fighting demons? Yes, please! And there were indeed things I liked about it, particularly the worldbuilding, which was great, and I enjoyed how the tension between the two main cultures was realistically depicted. Unfortunately the writing was incredibly slow and draggy; it seemed to take ages for each plot point to crawl across the page. Most detrimentally, I just couldn't care about the relationship between the main characters. We're told over again over again how passionately they feel for one another, how they've been destined to be together since birth, how their love is the sort that can save all of humanity, but we're never really shown any of this. The characters spend shockingly little time together on-page; they're separated for something like 99% of the story. And while I love me some good pining, I just never felt the emotions between them.
Disappointed as I was, there's enough good here that I'll probably go ahead and give the sequel a try (even though it seems like Shizuka and Shefali will spend this one separated as well???) because, well... f/f high fantasy with warrior women! It's a genre I am weak before.
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