Pages

Friday, June 25, 2021

Interview with Jonathan Kos-Read

I agreed to read Jonathan Kos-Read’s debut novel, The Eunuch, because it is set in early twelfth-century China, a period when a Manchurian people known as the Jurchen had established control over the northern portion of the once-unified empire. This setting appealed to me because, in language and culture, the Jurchen had links to the Mongols—and therefore to the Tatars who form such an important element of my Russian novels. (The Mongols also conquered the Jurchen, who returned four hundred years later as China’s last dynasty, the Qing.)

I discovered only later (and I know, this says a lot about me) that Jonathan Kos-Read spent much of his career as an actor in Chinese film and television. But now he has turned to fiction, and I am delighted to share his answers to my questions. He has a lot of interesting points to make, so be sure to read right through to the end. Then go buy the book!

You appear all over the Internet because of your acting career and your long residence in Beijing. What made you decide to write a novel?

First, as an actor of course I’m expected to write screenplays. And of course, I did. I wrote two of them. Poured my heart into them. Sweated blood over them. And in the end three people read them: a producer, my best friend, and my mom. A screenplay isn’t the finished product. It’s the “instruction manual” for the finished product, which is the actual movie. So even if you write Citizen Kane, only a hundred people are ever going to read it. And they will hate or love the actors and the director, not you. You the writer are just a random unknown throwaway in the credits. Let’s be honest, how many names of authors of instruction manuals do you know? So after having written those two screenplays, I swore never again to write another “instruction manual.” I would only write the final product.

Second, again as an actor, most of your acting life consists of doing it in bad screenplays. I mean, maybe you’re lucky and you do Shakespeare your whole life or you constantly work with Martin Scorsese. But for the rest of us, our entire working life consists of getting handed a script, reading it, sighing, and thinking “again?” And I don’t mean just bad. I mean literally like don’t rise even to the level of basic competence. Are literally not even stories. That’s true everywhere—Hollywood, Bollywood, Chinawood, everywhere. And it’s mostly because you have writers writing under intense, brutal time pressure. And then they must give these hastily constructed—basically not finished—stories to their bosses, producers, who (almost always) know nothing about storytelling. And who not only know nothing but in fact think knowing nothing is fine because they know the money side of the business—the distribution, the financing, etc. So they then take these already bad, unfinished stories and make them worse. I’ve been a professional actor for twenty years. I’ve acted in almost two hundred films. I guarantee you this is true.

After that process has occurred—the one that has produced a piece of garbage of a screenplay—us actors get handed the result. And if you want to be a successful actor or even work regularly—you must take these awful scripts and try to find some sort of contorted logic to fill in all the logical gaps, all the unrealistic (un-human) behavior of the characters, or even just the parts that are so boring you don’t think you can read another page—and then make the acting work, or you must rewrite them and hope nobody notices or the director agrees to it. And that process teaches you a lot about writing. So in my head I have this vast compendium, not figuratively but in fact literally, of almost every mistake a storyteller can make. And so I decided I was going to write a story that threaded the very very narrow path that avoided every single one of those mistakes, and at the end, just by virtue of avoiding them, it might actually be interesting. It was like a test of myself and whether I was wrong about what constituted a story, what was interesting, what was structure, and just how to construct something that would get people to read the next sentence, turn the next page, and then be satisfied when they read the last word. It would be a check on my deep cynicism and the creative heart that had died inside me from being an actor all these years. Reading great books and watching great movies taught me a lot. But acting for twenty years in bad ones taught me more.

Finally, I’ve always loved reading, and inside every reader is a writer. So I dreamed one day people would be reading the novel I wrote.

And out of China’s long history, what drew you to the twelfth-century Jurchen (Jin) Dynasty for your setting?

I grew up in the ’80s in the US during the height of the cold war. Mutually Assured Destruction. We used to do “nuclear attack” drills at school, where we would avoid windows and hide under our desks. So I was always drawn to stories about that time period. But I was more drawn to the ones about the natural outgrowth of Mutually Assured Destruction—the spies, the silent wars, the complicated plots, the “wilderness of mirrors” that James Angleton described.


The Jin Dynasty was a period like that. There were two enormously powerful empires, arguably the two most powerful in the world at the time, the Jin in the North and the Southern Song in the south, and there was a clear border on the Huai and Yangzi Rivers. They were so powerful that a war between them really would have been mutually assured destruction. So the sparse records we have from the time—more from the Southern Song, a lot less from the Jin—hint at this same existence of plots and double plots and intrigues and spies, that same wilderness of mirrors. So I thought what a great time and place for a murder mystery. With that constant intrigue and tension, nationalism, racial politics, and spying as the backdrop for the investigation. Not the main plot necessarily, but the dark dangerous water through which the detective would swim.

Your title refers most explicitly to Enchenkei Gett, your protagonist and main point-of-view character (although there are interesting resonances to the title that we won’t explore here). Tell us who Gett is and what makes him the ideal focus of your story.

Gett is a eunuch. And when I was designing the plot and the mystery and the solution, I kept coming back to the idea that the main character should be a eunuch. I wasn’t sure why at first, but as I plotted more, I realized it was because the murder at the center of the book is about sex, lust, betrayal, and superstitions and philosophies about sex that Chinese people had (and still have). So I was attracted to the idea of a protagonist who had to navigate those waters blind. He has no intrinsic understanding of lust or sex. No gut feeling for it. He must rely on pure intellect. For him, solving a mystery about sex, being a eunuch is a great disadvantage, or should be, but it would also give him a unique and dispassionate entry into the motivations of all the characters. Eunuchs were relatively rare in the Jin. But I liked the idea so much that I went through with it. And his backstory as a castrated spy who emerged from the dark intrigues of the Jin/Song cold war allowed me an interesting way to insert him into the Jin court—and insert him in a way that emerged naturally from the environment of the world and the time.

 

The book opens with a murdered concubine, soon identified as Diao Ju. As with all murder mysteries, the fundamental questions of who killed her and why are the central focus of the book. But what can you share about her that sets up your story?

My answer to this question may seem strange to you, and you most likely will disagree or even take offense. But hear me out. And I’m willing to discuss it (and be wrong), as long as someone has read the book. My background, even though I’m an actor, is in Molecular Biology. That is what I studied in university, and I worked in a molecular evolution lab for almost two years as an intern. From an evolutionary standpoint, wars in ancient times, even among prehumans and apes, were always fought by males for access to resources or women. The thing that people may find offensive is my opinion: I think this is still true. And I think it was also true in 1153 when the book takes place. There are layers and layers of complexity accreted over the reasons that countries go to war. But I have lived in many countries. And the number one most common passionate, deep emotion felt by men, always repeated with no exceptions in any country, is: You outsiders cannot have access to our women. For the most part we live in civilized societies, and it doesn’t lead to violence. But the threat of it is always there. Always just under the surface.

Diao Ju was a curious, secretly well-read nineteen-year-old girl from a small place who crossed that line—Chinese to Jurchen, to the emperor—because she wanted to see all that the world had to offer. She saw that the world was a big, fascinating, interesting place. She had read enough about it to know it was bigger than the world she knew. And she was gutsy and ruthless enough to reach out and grab her opportunity to live that bigger, more fascinating life—outside her village, outside her culture, outside her race. And even more rare, she was smart and driven enough to succeed in that larger, more competitive world. That, always and everywhere, is a dangerous choice to make. Because eventually a man pushes back and says, “No, you can’t have our women.”

Gett has to navigate a complex web of relationships linking government bureaus and the officials who run them. Even the documents he studies often don’t mean what they say, and part of the fun is watching him interpret hidden messages. How would you characterize what today we might call his work environment?

Haha. How would I characterize it? I would characterize it as a normal working environment for anyone who has ever worked at or near the top of a zero-sum, high-reward organization. There are only a few spots at the top. And everyone who occupies one of those spots is very very smart and very very ruthless. And only the very smartest and most ruthless can remain in those spots. That is true in palaces, hedge funds, the White House, everywhere there is great power. I suspected it was true from reading a lot of history. But I confirmed it working in show business. At the real top—where I have been a very few times (and both didn’t like and was not sufficiently smart or ruthless to stay in it)—it really is this same kind of zero-sum coded game where even the most basic things like figuring out what people mean, what they don’t mean, what they might potentially mean in the future become crushingly difficult. Wouldn’t want to live there, but I like writing about it. And I think it’s the kind of environment that makes for great stories.

You portray a deep, underlying tension between the Han Chinese and their Jurchen rulers, who consider themselves racially superior. How does that play out in the early stages of this case?

Having lived in two foreign countries for all my adult life, I’m fascinated by how people who look different, speak different languages, and have different cultural assumptions—or (and this is important) assume they do—how these people view each other. Almost invariably it makes life more difficult. It makes every argument, every question, every interaction potentially about the difference and more dangerously about which culture, race, language is dominant. To live in a world like that, to navigate it successfully is hard. But it’s the only world I know. So the simple answer is it makes Gett’s job harder—not only does he have to figure out what happened, he must do it in a way that either manipulates those prejudices if they are helpful or massage his way around them with great difficulty if they impede him.

One of Gett’s frenemies, for lack of a more historically appropriate word, is an Italian known as Sulo. How did he get there, and what does the presence of a Westerner add to the novel?
 
Haha. Frenemy. That’s really true. He got there because Italians got everywhere. Simple as that. And people in power, especially emperors, love to use outsiders for their security—they’re less likely to betray because they have nowhere to go. They’re hated outsiders. There is no soft landing for them. If he dies, they die. So there is an alignment of incentives. It’s the same principle the Ottomans used when they made janissaries—Christian soldiers captured young and brought up to be the elite bodyguards and fighting units of the Byzantine emperor. It’s the same principle the Chinese examinations were based on—bring talented common people into government who have no support structure, who owe everything to the emperor. So Sulo the Italian can stay in his job because what you incent, you get. The emperor trusts him.

I think Sulo adds three important things to the story.

First, this kind of person has always existed. I’m one of them. There are a lot now, but in the history of the world, if you look closely, there were never none. And that’s something that gets lost in a lot of historical narratives. I wanted to rectify that.

Second, because he’s an outsider, albeit for a different reason, he and Gett can be frenemies. Because ultimately everybody needs a friend. For a story to be interesting, your characters can’t trust everyone, but they also can’t trust no one. That’s boring. There must be people who sit on the edge. Characters with whom the interactions, plans, confidences are necessary, sometimes both practically and emotionally, but risky.

Third, if this ever gets adapted into a movie, I know who they’re casting to play Sulo. I’m not so stupid as to not give myself a character in the adaptation of my own book.

Are you planning to write another novel? If so, what can you tell us about it?

Yes, I am. I don’t want to say too much more. But Gett has been exiled far into the north where a huge battle between the Jin and the Mongols occurs. A hundred thousand soldiers are slaughtered in a day … but one of them is murdered.

Thank you so much for answering my questions!


 

Jonathan Kos-Read grew up in Los Angeles. He studied acting in high school, then molecular biology in university. For the last twenty-five years, he has worked in the Chinese entertainment industry in Beijing. He now lives in Barcelona with his wife and two daughters. The Eunuch is his first novel.

Images: Map of Jin/Song China © Yu Ninjie; Jin (Jurchen) Dynasty jade hair ornament in the Shanghai Museum © Rolfm├╝ller, both CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, June 18, 2021

Interview with A. M. Linden

As someone who receives a great many pitches for recently released and forthcoming historical novels, I am often struck by an odd sense of disconnect. For reasons that I’m sure have more to do with marketing than editorial decisions, certain historical periods get far more than their share of attention—World War II and the early Tudors, I’m looking at you—and other times and places, equally filled with drama but less familiar, are considered not to have even the potential for mass appeal.

There must be a logic to this style of decision making, because the favored settings seem to sell lots of books. But as a reader, I much prefer new and less well-traveled paths that will take me to places I have never visited or know little about. So I was delighted to receive A. M. Linden’s The Oath, first of her Druid Chronicles, which takes us back to Britain on the brink of Christianization and the transfer of power from Celts to Anglo-Saxons. Read on to find out more.


You have such an interesting history. How did writing a fiction series get into the mix?

I began the story that evolved into the Druid Chronicles as a way to balance the formal writing I did at work with something that was just for fun. Once I’d come up with my characters and needed to flesh them out, however, I fell back on the adage “write about what you know.” It is, therefore, not an accident that two of the major characters are the medieval equivalent of health-care professionals. More seriously—and I say this from my heart—there is a reason that the heroes and heroines of this series make great sacrifices and fight all odds for the sake of the story’s children, and that is because of the privilege I’ve had to work with families of children with special needs and so have seen firsthand what real heroism is. Returning to your question, I guess I just took a mix of the good, the bad, and the funny of what I’ve seen around me, used it to make up my characters, and set them loose in Anglo-Saxon England.

And what made you want to write about eighth-century Saxons and Celts, including Druids, in particular?

The early medieval period is “long ago and far away,” and yet its mythology is so much a part of our literature that the era has always had, at least for me, a familiar feel. It was those two traits that made eighth-century Britain such a compelling setting when I began writing this series. As for Druids, again it was mythology—in this case conjuring images of nature-worshipping wise men and women—that led me to make them the driving force in a story about the struggle between Christian monotheism and pre-Christian polytheism.

The novel opens with a history of Theobold and his reign in the fictional realm of Derthwald. It sets the stage for what’s to come (and is interesting in its own right), but why start there?

While The Oath and the subsequent books in the series are set in fictional locations and populated with imaginary characters, the Druid Chronicles is intended to be historical in the sense that it is, at least in part, an examination of the interplay between sociopolitical events and its protagonists’ lives. In addition to providing the story’s setting and explaining why this particular kingdom doesn’t show up in the actual historical record, The Oath’s prologue outlines Theobold’s rise from warlord to king and introduces his power-hungry nephew, Gilberth. What’s most important, however, is that it ends at the pivotal juncture between the kingdom’s history and the story’s current events—the aftermath of the battle Theobold waged against a war band of pagan Celts led by Rhedwyn, a charismatic Druid priest who is, among other things, the biological father of Caelym, the series’ main protagonist. This is the point at which the lives of the story’s central characters first intersect. Following that battle, in which Rhedwyn and most of his followers were slaughtered, Annwr, the sister of the Druids’ chief priestess, was captured by Theobold’s warriors, then sold as a slave, while Caelym was left to fill Rhedwyn’s position and will eventually be sent to rescue Annwr.

The next person we meet is Caelym, who might be considered the central character of this book, since the oath is his. Tell us a bit about him and where he is in chapter 1.

At the opening of The Oath, Caelym, a young Druid priest, has just reached the outer walls of the Abbey of Saint Edeth the Enduring, a convent in the northeastern corner of the Kingdom of Derthwald. Caelym is both extremely gifted and extraordinarily handsome—traits that have combined to make him more than a little conceited, and he is prone to show off when the opportunity arises. That said, he is absolutely sincere in his religious beliefs and is prepared to face any hardship to obey the dictates of his shrine’s chief priestess. With only an ambiguous prophecy and a map drawn from legends, Caelym must find Annwr. He has set out on this quest believing the intense Druidic training that he’s undergone has prepared him for the dangers he will face but will need to overcome his pride and accept help from unlikely sources if he is going to succeed.

Caelym is searching for Annwr, whom he imagines as young and beautiful. He’s in for a bit of a surprise, but how did Annwr come to be missing and why is he searching for her?

In the aftermath of the battle between Theobold’s army and Rhedwyn’s war band, Annwr and two other priestesses were sent out of their hidden sanctuary to gather precious herbs for Rhedwyn’s funeral bier. When the three young women were discovered by a band of Theobold’s warriors, Annwr was captured, carried off, and sold to become Aleswina’s nursemaid. The other priestesses were drowned in a river trying to escape, and because a shawl that belonged to Annwr was found with their bodies, it was believed that she had drowned as well. Fifteen years later, their oracle tells the cult’s chief priestess, Feywn, he has had a vision that Annwr is alive and being held prisoner by the Saxons. Hearing this, Feywn orders Caelym to find Annwr and rescue her.

Annwr, also known as Anna, lives near the Abbey of St. Edeth the Enduring, which is the home of your third major character, Aleswina. What is her story, including the relationship between her and Annwr?

The daughter of King Theobold and Queen Alswanda, Aleswina was four years old when her parents died within a day of each other—Alswanda allegedly in childbirth and Theobold, overcome with grief, by either jumping or falling off a cliff. Her cousin, Gilberth, who assumed the throne of Derthwald on Theobold’s death, discharged all his uncle’s guards and servants, including the nursemaid who’d attended Aleswina since her birth. That nursemaid, a Saxon, was replaced by the newly captured Annwr. If Aleswina had been old enough to bear children when Gilberth came to power, he would have married her to cement his hegemony over her mother’s kingdom. As it was, he kept his little cousin confined to her nursery, where she lived in isolation with Annwr for the next seven years. With only each other for company—and both left deeply traumatized by the events that brought them together—Annwr came to love Aleswina as a daughter, while Aleswina was desperately attached to Annwr from the first. When Aleswina is sent to a cloistered convent at the age of thirteen, she takes Annwr with her and the two manage by a combination of stealth and exploitation of Aleswina’s royal status to meet together in the convent’s garden. Now nineteen, Aleswina is still a novice, and she is running out of excuses to avoid taking her final vows, a change in status that would mean she could no longer keep her beloved servant in a cottage on the abbey grounds.

A big part of the background to this novel is cultural conflict between Britons (that is, Celts) and Saxons, exemplified by a struggle between the ancient pagan religion of the Druids and Christianity. What do readers need to know about this issue to understand the novel?

The conversion of the indigenous Celtic population of the British Isles to Christianity took place during the time of the Roman occupation, and while there were presumably holdouts, it was essentially complete prior to withdrawal of the Roman forces at the end of the fourth century. Conversion of the Anglo-Saxons occurred at different times and under different circumstances in the various kingdoms that were established in their takeover of the area we now know as England, but for all intents and purposes this second wave of conversion was complete by the end of the sixth century. With the male Saxon warrior class being the dominant political power and a patriarchal form of Christianity ascendant, the underlying questions in The Oath are whether a tiny, demonized minority who believe their chief priestess is the embodiment of the supreme Mother Goddess can escape persecution—and what will become of Aleswina, who is caught between incompatible cultures.

Are you already working on the second novel in the series? What can you tell us about it?

Book 2, The Valley, begins a generation earlier than the other novels in the series and recounts the events that set the main story in motion. Llwddawanden, the valley of the book’s title, is a hidden sanctuary where the remnants of a once powerful Druid cult have carried on their ancient ritual practices supported by a small but faithful following of servants, craftsmen, and laborers. Narrated from the viewpoint of an elderly priest who’d been Caelym’s teacher and mentor during his formative years, it interweaves the story of our hero’s growing up with mounting conflicts within the shrine’s highest ranks. Besides Herrwn and Caelym, central characters in The Valley include Ossiam, an enigmatic oracle; Olyrrwd, a cynical physician; Feywn, the shrine’s beautiful supreme priestess; Arianna, Feywn’s rebellious and headstrong daughter; Feywn’s sister, Annwr; and Annwr’s daughter Cyri. The Valley is completed and is scheduled for publication by She Writes Press on June 28, 2022.

Thank you so much for answering my questions!

Thank you! These have been the questions I’d have hoped a friend who liked the book would ask.

A. M. Linden is the author of The Druid Chronicles, a five-volume series that began as a somewhat whimsical decision to write something for fun but became a lengthy journey that included creative writing classes, research into early British history, and travel to England, Scotland, and Wales. Additional information about the books is available at https://www.druidchronicles788ad.com.

Friday, June 11, 2021

Merchants Set Sail

As I’ve mentioned more than once, in addition to my Legends and Songs of Steppe & Forest series, for the last two years I’ve been co-writing The Merchants’ Tale (originally titled These Barbarous Coasts) with fellow historical novelist P.K. Adams. In that vastly different world that preceded the coronavirus pandemic, we met in person, but we communicate mostly via e-mail, Facebook Messenger, and video calls. Through it all, we have established a good working relationship, and the pages flew off our computer screens even before we settled in to polish each chapter until it shone. We revised the book twice, then sent it out to half a dozen willing volunteers and revised it again based on their comments. This week marks a milestone: with that fourth revision essentially complete, we started querying agents. And that in turn sparked some thoughts on the process of finding representation that I thought might be worth sharing here.

This will be my fourth agent search. The first, conducted under conditions that now appear almost medieval, did land me an agent, but in the end he couldn’t sell the book. It wasn’t his fault: one publishing company held the rights to that type of story, and its acquisitions department resisted his efforts to persuade them to take it on. It was the 1990s, when these negotiations still took place through the mail, with printed samples and self-addressed envelopes. Before getting the positive response from the agent who took me on, I accumulated a folder full of rejections, everything from handwritten notes to the already ubiquitous form letters. A few of the form letters were personalized with suggestions for improvement; most were generic. After all, when you want to end a conversation, why risk getting the other person upset?

By the time my next novel was ready (around 2008), my agent had moved away from fiction, so I needed to find someone else. I’d learned a lot about writing, and the second search was both less restrictive in terms of publishing venues and productive of more personalized letters and requests for the full manuscript. In the end, though, I abandoned the search. I could tell from the responses I was receiving that the book was still not ready, even though I had rewritten it several times and even worked with a book doctor, who taught me a great deal about story structure that I have since put to good use. But at the time, I couldn’t figure out what else I might do that would fix it. I had to complete my next novel before I finally saw the solution that had escaped me for years.



By 2008, the technology of querying had already changed: Word attachments replaced printed copies, and communications were via e-mail. But it was still common to get e-mail responses from agents, who were not yet totally overwhelmed by the volume of submissions from hungry authors. When I set out to query The Golden Lynx in January 2012, I found myself in very different circumstances. Website forms and auto-responses (or no responses) had replaced one-on-one e-mail exchanges for everyone in the first stage of querying, a desperate attempt by agents to fend off a deluge of messages. 


Again I moved higher up the query chain, receiving detailed rejections listing potential problems with marketability or objections to specific plot points among the requests for full samples. Some agents swore they would take on the project if they knew an editor who would consider a book set in medieval Russia. (I still don’t understand why Ivan the Terrible isn’t dramatic enough to sell a novel, so perhaps that was just a nicer than average brush-off.) While I was in the midst of querying, though, my writers’ group decided to launch Five Directions Press as an experiment, with The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel—the rewritten object of the 2008 search—as its inaugural publication. So I halted the hunt for an agent and added The Golden Lynx to our originally small list of titles.

 

Enter 2021, and here we go again. Will it work this time? Hard to tell. On the plus side, I’ve written a lot of novels since 2012, and based on the reviews I get, I have honed my craft enough to be taken seriously. I revised my earlier books, which I can recognize as half-baked in a way I couldn’t twenty years ago, and turned them into something that readers love. I’ve acquired a group of loyal fans, a monthly blog audience of about 10,000 views a month, a podcast with more than 100 episodes, and a co-writer who has serious sales of her self-published books. And with The Merchants’ Tale, we have two built-in audiences: people who can’t get enough of the Tudors and those fascinated by the Romanovs, whose ancestors populate this series alongside our fictional characters. Marketed the right way, this proposal could make a lot of money for someone, and ultimately that’s what publishers want.

On the minus side, the situation with queries doesn’t seem to have improved since 2012. If anything, the pandemic has made things worse: millions of would-be writers in lock-down seizing their chance to produce the Great American/British/Russian/you-name-it Novel. Many US agents are already so overwhelmed they have closed their electronic doors to new submissions; their counterparts in the UK and Europe are beginning to follow suit.

So wish us luck! In the long run, The Merchants’ Tale will find a safe harbor, but let’s hope it doesn’t get battered by storms along the way.

Images: Alexander Litovchenko, Ivan the Terrible Shows His Treasures to the English Envoy Jerome Horsey (1875); Anthony Jenkinson, Map of Russia and Tartary (1562), both public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, June 4, 2021

Sherlock Holmes Goes Gothic

Long ago—or so it seems, but everything before the pandemic now has the aura of a different universe, one where we routinely gathered in the streets without masks and hugged neighbors and friends in greeting—I walked into a just-opened Borders bookstore (remember those?) and stumbled across Laurie R. King’s The Beekeeper’s Apprentice.

The premise—in which a bored and lonely fifteen-year-old girl encounters the Great Detective during his retirement and impresses him with her reasoning skills to the point where he takes her on as his apprentice—hooked me from the get-go. By the time I discovered the series, King had already reached book 7 (The Game). Once I finished the first, I bought the rest, then settled in for the long haul, gobbling up each new installment as it hit the shelves.

When I got the chance to host New Books in Historical Fiction, Laurie R. King was on my short list of interview guests (by then, the series had reached no. 12, Garment of Shadows). You can hear our conversation on the New Books Network, although the interview gods decided that San Francisco was in some weird foreign territory, so the sound is not what it should be. In it, we also discuss her take on Sherlock Holmes and earlier books in the series, including the hilarious but underappreciated Pirate King (no. 11). And since I haven’t missed a single book in the series, when I saw no. 17 show up on NetGalley, it took about two seconds for me to request an advance copy.

I assume that most people know—but here’s the deal, just in case—that publishers use NetGalley to provide free copies of new books to readers in return for honest feedback and early reviews. Hence this overview of Castle Shade, which I will also post on GoodReads and NetGalley itself.

In some ways, Castle Shade reminds me of Pirate King—which, like many other fans, I underestimated at first but warmed up to on a second reading. Shade is billed as King’s stab at a Gothic novel, a claim borne out by the setting: a recently decrepit castle atop a Transylvanian mountain, next to a village where rumors of vampires are circulating. But beneath the details of castle life and local folklore lurks a classic King mystery, one that Russell and Holmes alternately cooperate and compete to resolve.

In brief, the setup is as follows. Holmes and Russell have just left Monaco, the site of Riviera Gold (no. 16), and are on a train heading east, except that when the book opens, the train is not heading anywhere; it’s stuck in a station. Russell, being disinclined to spend weeks of her young life traveling from Italy to Romania, solicits help from the conductor. Soon she and Holmes are on their way back to Vienna, before finding more reliable transportation southeast. The summons to Castle Bran, the Transylvanian mountain fortress mentioned above, comes from Queen Marie of Romania, one of the many descendants of Britain’s Queen Victoria on one side and of Emperor Alexander II of Russia on the other.



Queen Marie has received a threat aimed at her teenage daughter, and that is only the most worrying of the troubling incidents that afflict Castle Bran whenever the queen spends her time there. Marie enlists the help of Holmes, skeptical but unwilling to refuse royalty, who in turn recruits Russell to, as he puts it, “be my inside informant into the mysterious realm of the adolescent female.” It takes some persuasion, but in the end Russell agrees there might be something worth investigating in the reports of walking undead and countesses who bathe themselves in the blood of their victims. The chase is on—or should we say, given the context, the game is afoot?

One element sets this book aside from its predecessors and imparts some of the improvisational quality of Pirate King: every so often, King presents a character’s backstory in the style of a fairy tale, in a chapter of its own. I saw this approach as a creative and helpful way to handle the historical novelist’s perennial problem of how to get across essential context without indulging in the dreaded “information dump.” Other readers may feel differently, but it does fit the generally otherworldly atmosphere of the book.

The one area where I would like to see more development—not just in this novel but in the series as a whole—is the relationship between Russell and Holmes. They’ve been together for ten years and married for five, yet they still come across more as business partners than as husband and wife. I don’t expect (or, frankly, want) intense romance, which would fit neither the characters nor the genre, but every time I start one of these books, I hope for more exploration of the couple’s feelings than the occasional statement that one of them cares for or experiences anxiety about or misses the other. I could say all those things about my cat—and at times do—but that doesn’t mean I feel the same way about her as I do about my husband.

So far, only A Murderous Regiment of Women, Locked Rooms, and Garment of Shadows have taken steps in that direction. But maybe we’ll get there next time. And if that’s the reason why I withhold the fifth star, it’s also just one element of a series that has brought me great enjoyment for almost two decades. I’m glad I read Castle Shade. I thank the publisher for the opportunity. And when no. 18 rolls around, you can bet I’ll be first in line.


In an amusing side note, Castle Bran has been in the news lately because, if you happen to live in Romania, you can get a Covid vaccine along with your tour of the castle. Vlad the Impaler as Vlad the Medic? Or should we say that Count Dracula's fanged teeth have acquired a new, life-giving purpose? 

 

Images: photograph of Castle Bran © Pmatlock, CC BY-SA 3.0; Vlad the Impaler (1560) public domain; both via Wikimedia Commons.