Do I even need to tell you what this book is about? You can probably tell from the cover. That’s right, it’s about baseball. In particular, a minor league phenom named Joe Carpenter who quickly takes the sport by storm. The scout who discovers Joe, Bud Esterhaus, is a grizzled but likable veteran of the American pastime, who narrates the budding star’s meteoric rise from one league to the next, as the two of them pursue Joe’s ultimate dream of making it to “The Show”.

Of course, Joe has a secret that threatens to derail any hope of playing in the major leagues, and Bud has problems of his own–an ex-wife, an estranged son–that make their journey far from smooth.

I admit, I’ve never been much of a baseball fan. Fortunately, Brennan’s wonderful prose is so finely crafted that knowing anything about the sport is purely optional. The story moves along well, and the characters are interesting and likable. Especially Joe, who I was rooting for from the start.

This book also includes another Brennan staple: long and vividly-described road trips during which characters can explore their pasts. Like Fascination and Eternity Began Tomorrowthis is partially a road trip story, if only because the “here today, gone tomorrow” ethos of the minor leagues requires near-constant travel.

If you love baseball, you’ll love this book. If you don’t love baseball, you’ll still probably love it, simply because Brennan is a fantastic writer who knows how to spin a compelling yarn in any setting.

[Audio version of this post available below.]

I saw this book in Lydia Schoch’s weekly thread of free books a couple weeks ago, and it looked interesting. You all know the famous warning about judging and covers, but what can I say? This one caught my eye. I advise you to study it for a moment, and think about what kind of book you expect it to be.

The character on the cover is Philippa Roy, a successful politician who serves as U.S. Secretary of State from 2041 to 2045. The book is presented as her memoir of her time in office, which starts off fairly ordinarily enough, recounting her early political career, in which she makes combating climate change a major priority.

Her early successes raise her national profile, which leads to her appointment to the State Department. However, she soon learns a disturbing truth: the U.S. government has been concealing the existence of extraterrestrials, with whom they have been in contact ever since the famed Roswell Incident.

The President reveals this to her because alien technology is humanity’s last hope of reversing the effects of climate change. And so, Secretary Roy enters into tense negotiations with beings from another world, attempting to convince them to share their advanced technology.

Of course, she also still has to juggle various Earthly political rivalries, both in the form of domestic and global opponents. My favorite was her relationship with the Russian President, who, despite being a villain, was perhaps the most entertaining character in the story.

Also, as most of you know, I am fascinated by conspiracy theories, and Roswell / Area 51 is fertile ground for same. As an aficionado of classic Coast to Coast AM, back when Art Bell was the host, the parts of the story that concerned the government covering up their dealings with “our friends upstairs” gave me a warm, nostalgic glow. I loved every minute of Secretary Roy’s gradual uncovering of the clandestine operations of the “dark state”. (How cool of a term is that, by the way? I bet Mike Lofgren wishes he thought of it.)

This brings me at last to the “political” angle of the story. Just last week, I was tweeting about how much I prefer reviewing indie books to blogging about politics. But I guess I have to say a word or two about it here.

Some readers might disagree with Secretary Roy’s policies. Some may find them too left-wing. Others may find them not left-wing enough. Such are the joys of politics! My advice: don’t get hung up on details like this. Obviously, for the plot of the book to work, the main character needed to be a high-ranking official in the U.S. government, and to make that make sense, the author needed to give her a plausible political background and corresponding set of policies.

I myself did not agree with every one of Roy’s policies. But that did not detract from my enjoyment of the book one bit. While the author obviously put a lot of thought into making the political aspect of the book believable, it’s a science-fiction story in the tradition of Childhood’s End and The Day the Earth Stood Still, and should be treated as such. I highly recommend it to all sci-fi fans.

[Audio version of this post available below.]

This short story collection came recommended to me by Lorinda J. Taylor, so I knew going in it would be good. And it lived up to my expectations. The stories are all weird, unsettling, at times disturbing, at other times very funny. In short, an excellent blend of moods.

Each story is based on a famous painting, including works by Chagall, Picasso, and others. A neat concept which leads in interesting directions, and allows for new interpretations of famous pieces.

My favorite story in the collection was probably “The Gift,” which is a classic tale of a vengeful spirit, a concept that I love. I also greatly enjoyed the story from which the collection takes its name, a disturbing blend of sci-fi and horror that evoked A.C. Flory’s Vokhtah in its detailed portrayal of an utterly alien society. “Corden’s Coral Phase” was also a highlight, with the entertaining banter between its characters gradually revealing their personalities.

The description of this collection on Goodreads says, “If you like authors such as Philip K Dick, Edgar Allen Poe, Ray Bradbury, P.G. Wodehouse, Annie Proulx and Franz Kafka, then Crow Bones is the anthology for you.”

I can definitely see the influence of Poe and Bradbury. (To be clear, I’m talking Bradbury at his best, i.e. Something Wicked This Way Comes.) I didn’t pick up the Wodehouse influence so much, maybe because the subject matter, even when it is humorous, is more off-kilter than “Plum” would usually do. But it is well-written, and to that lineup above I would add two more names that it brought to my mind: Harlan Ellison and Ambrose Bierce. It has that same dark mood that characterized their works, and frequently the sardonic edge as well.

These stories are probably not for everyone, as their grimmer elements may deter some readers. But if you like dark, weird fiction, and the fact that you’re reading this blog is a strong indication that you probably do, then you should absolutely check it out.

[Audio version of this post available below.]

I’ve been hearing a lot about this series, The Book of Boba Fett. But, turns out it’s not a book. It’s a television series, on a streaming service I don’t have. Damn false advertising!

However, Boba Fett: A Practical Man is a book. And it’s by the author of the Republic Commando books, the first of which I enjoyed. So far, so good.

The book follows Fett after his escape from the Sarlaac, when he has assumed the title of Mandalore. He’s going around doing typical Mandalorian mercenary stuff, when who does he run into but the Yuuzhan Vong?

Okay, time-out. How many Star Wars fans even know who the Yuuzhan Vong are? Personally, I had heard of them only by reputation; this is the first piece of Star Wars fiction I’ve ever seen that includes them.

My gut reaction is, they don’t fit in. They are weird, vaguely Lovecraftian entities that shun all machinery in favor of specially evolved organic technology substitutes. The Mandalorians description of them as “crab boys” made me think of the Collectors from Mass Effect 2.

Fett realizes a Yuuzhan Vong invasion is going to be bad news, and so strikes a deal with them to help them fight the New Republic, in exchange for the safety of his people. Of course, he knows they will renege on the deal and attack the Mandalorians eventually, so the deal is negotiated in about as much good faith as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and Fett begins discreetly passing intelligence to his nominal enemies in the New Republic.

I’m about to go off on one of my rants about Star Wars lore. Be warned.

I hated the idea of Fett negotiating such a deal. Of course, it makes strategic sense, but the Mandalorians are all about bravery and valor. Yet, here we have Fett using deception and legal quibbles to save his bacon. This is not the honest, forthright, confrontational style that Mandalorian honor demands! They are lions, not foxes!

This leads me to a larger point, which concerns not just this book, but everything we thought we knew about this particular Star Wars icon. Namely: is Boba Fett actually overrated?

I’ve always thought I liked Boba Fett. But, pretty much everything I see him in, he never quite lives up to expectations. As I said, I haven’t watched the new series, but I hear bad things, including that Boba Fett becomes a secondary character in his own show.

Of course, the thing that makes Boba Fett cool in the original trilogy is that you have no idea who he is or what his backstory is. He seems tough and capable, but beyond that, you make up whatever story you want for him.

Which is why all subsequent attempts to flesh Boba Fett out fall flat. They’re never going to live up to what you imagine. (Probably my all-time favorite Boba Fett story is his appearance in Galaxy of Fear #2, City of the Dead. But, I read that when I was 8.)

Like Karen Traviss, I love the Mandalorians. Theoretically, Fett should be the ultra-Mandalorian. But, again, he falls short of the Mandalorian ideal, otherwise known as Canderous Ordo from Knights of the Old Republic.

Ordo is like a combination of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Clint Eastwood. A tough-as-nails soldier who found steady work as a mercenary after the Mandalorian Wars, then used his underworld connections to forge an alliance with the Jedi Revan to defeat Darth Malak, then rebuilt the entire Mandalorian army. Meanwhile Boba Fett is most famous for being knocked into a hole in the ground by a blind man.

And so all writers who try to write Boba Fett are hamstrung by the fact that his documented actions are not half as cool as what everybody thinks he can do, and has done. Traviss is perfectly capable of writing good, solid Mandalorian warriors, as shown in the Republic Commando book, so I think the real issue here is the difficulty of reconciling movie Boba Fett with what we all want him to be.

Apart from the fact that (a) Fett isn’t a great protagonist and (b) the primary villains don’t really feel like they belong in Star Wars, it’s a decent book. There are plenty of battle scenes and stuff about Mandalorian culture. Traviss’ writing is mostly fine, although that issue with made-up words I mentioned in my Republic Commando review comes up again.

Also, there’s this:

Fett hadn’t come across anyone with ideas about taking over the whole galaxy before, unless he counted Palpatine.

Um… why would you not count Palpatine?

Anyway, that’s a minor point. This is a fun book for fans of the Mandalorians, even if only to compare how far they have fallen since the days of Ordo. But if you’re not a die-hard Star Wars fan, you’ll probably be lost.

This is a sci-fi horror novella. The setting is a ship on a deep space voyage, which is temporarily knocked off course by a collision with an asteroid.

I can’t say too much more about the plot, because this is a short book, and if I say much, I’ll spoil everything. All I’ll say is if you enjoy stories like Who Goes There? or Alien, you’ll enjoy this one.

What I want to talk about instead are the setting and the characters. Especially one character, Sage, a scientist whose knowledge of chemistry becomes very important in the second half of the story. Despite her brilliance, she’s rather prickly and a little paranoid. (The latter quality ultimately serves her well.)

Nor can I blame her, because there are aspects of the society on the ship that are somewhat creepy. There is an A.I. that is designed to keep the peace among the crew members. One of the ways it does this is by deploying drones that fine people for displays of anger, including even very mild profanity.

I expected this would play a bigger part in the story, although it sort of disappears (for logical reasons) about halfway through. But I would be curious to see this aspect of society on the ship explored in more detail.

All in all, this is a good scary story that blends the science-fiction and the horror elements well and builds to a satisfying conclusion.

[Audio version of this post available below.]

Obi-Wan: I have a bad feeling about this.
Qui-Gon: I don’t sense anything.
Obi-Wan: It’s not about the mission, Master. It’s something… elsewhere. Elusive.

You are not going to believe my Phantom Menace take. I need to prepare you for it gradually. It is simply too incredible. And Star Wars is something people feel very passionate about, so I don’t want to just up and say it without some preamble. You might want to pour a glass of your favorite drink to brace yourself in the meantime.

Back in ’99, the hype for this movie was off the charts. And why not? It was a movie people had been waiting 15 years to see. It was the cinematic event of 1999. Maybe of the whole decade.

And of course it became synonymous with disappointment. This was one of the earliest examples of the now-common phenomenon of internet fan backlash. Star Wars fans felt betrayed; violated by the movie’s failure to fulfill their expectations.

Instead of being a new chapter in the beloved saga, it became fodder for endless jokes. See, for example, this Simpsons parody, which really summarizes the whole thing neatly. What was the deal with this Jar Jar character? What was all this about trade negotiations? What the hell were midichlorians? This wasn’t Star Wars at all; it was some twisted perversion of the space opera so many Baby Boomers and Gen Xers had come to love.

I think I’m describing the film’s reception pretty accurately. I suspect most of you are nodding your heads in agreement.

Now for my opinion of the film. If you’re ready. If indeed anyone can be ready for this.

My opinion is that The Phantom Menace is the best film in the Star Wars saga.

I chose my words in that sentence very carefully. Note that I did not say it is the best Star Wars film. The best Star Wars film would be the one that most accurately captures the fun, pulp-throwback, spacefaring spirit of Star Wars, which in my opinion is, oddly enough… Star Wars. You know, the first one, A New Hope.

Nor did I say it was my favorite Star Wars film. That is, and always will be, Revenge of the Sith, for reasons explained here. So, if you like some other installment in the saga better, well, more power to you.

But my contention is that The Phantom Menace, when considered as a standalone film and not part of the same series, is the best single movie made under the Star Wars brand.

Now, I don’t deny that TPM has its off moments. I don’t hate Jar Jar Binks like most people do, but there’s no doubt he was overused. And the decision to make the film centered around the performance of young actor Jake Lloyd, despite the fact that Lucas struggles to get good performances even from experienced actors, was a major misstep.

But what it gets right, it gets very right. And of all the films, it’s the one with the best atmosphere, and the most interesting plot.

You want evidence? I’ve got evidence. Let us consider some of the film’s plot elements:

  • As part of a trade dispute, an unscrupulous organization has seized a planet and forced a young ruler into exile.
  • The young ruler flees into the desert along with members of a strange and mystical religious order.
  • Realizing that appeals to the conventional authorities are useless, the young ruler organizes a surprise attack against the occupiers using primitive native forces that hardly anyone knows about.

Huh… that’s funny. I appear to have inadvertently also described the plot of Frank Herbert’s 1965 science fiction novel Dune. For added fun, you can insert the young ruler’s initials into that summary and it will still fit both, whether you’re talking about Paul Atreides or Padmé Amidala.

Essentially, Phantom Menace takes Paul’s character and splits it into two people, Padmé and Anakin Skywalker. Which is really interesting if you’ve read the Dune sequels. (Note this should not be interpreted as me actually telling you to read the Dune sequels. Ruined Chapel cannot be held liable for damages incurred while reading Dune books.)

Everyone focuses on Anakin’s character arc. Even Lucas focused on Anakin’s character arc, because the whole concept of the prequels was exploring how Darth Vader came to be Darth Vader. Which was a bad idea. You never explain that which is better left to the audience’s imagination.

What was a good idea was exploring the collapse of the Republic. This is the background to Padmé’s story arc, and it’s obviously the more interesting one.

There is no civility, only politics. The Republic is not what it once was. The Senate is full of greedy, squabbling delegates. There is no interest in the common good. […] The Chancellor has little real power. He is mired by baseless accusations of corruption. The bureaucrats are in charge now.

So Senator Palpatine tells the Queen when she reaches Coruscant to seek the aid of the government. Civic virtue, the lifeblood of any republic, is gone, replaced only by in-fighting among bureaucratic factions trying to hold on to power.

It’s a great scene, not least because of the aesthetics. Queen Amidala in one of her innumerable ornate gowns, Palpatine in a shimmering robe, and all surrounded by elegant, if baroque, art that characterizes the upper-crust of Coruscant and Naboo. It all screams “late stage Republic.” Reclining into splendid decadence, the Old Republic is now incapable of defending its people.

These were the sorts of political messages the audiences of the ’90s laughed at. Such themes sounded like something out of a history textbook, and have we not said that the ’90s were The End of History? Who needed an Edward Gibbon-esque lecture on the collapse of a republic into barbarism, as the sun rose on a new millennium and Western liberal capitalism bestrode the whole world, triumphant and prepared to give us material solutions to all our problems?

Well, it’s not the ’90s anymore. Are the audiences still laughing? And are we so sure, after all, that the sun really was rising?

The ending of The Phantom Menace is simply perfect. Quibble if you want about Anakin’s line delivery or Jar Jar Binks’ comical triumph over the battle droids, but they do nothing to detract from the overall atmosphere. You have four perfectly intercut battles going at once, each matching the other tonally, emotionally, and logically. From the appearance of the Gungan army out of the fog to the death of Qui-Gon Jinn is the best sustained sequence in any Star Wars film. John Williams’ soaring score helps a good deal.

And yet, despite the triumph of the good Queen and her warriors, there is a dark shadow pervading everything. Williams’ soundtrack for the celebratory song in the final scene is a reworking of the Emperor’s Theme from Return of the Jedi in a major key. What better way to underscore that beneath the effusive and joyous ceremony hide the seeds of corruption, decay, and death?

So ends The Phantom Menace, and so ends our retrospective of ’90s action films. Dear reader, I hope you enjoyed this stroll down memory lane. The ’90s didn’t have streaming services, or smart phones, or cinematic universes, but I hope you’ll agree they did have a certain spirit that makes them worth remembering even decades later.

This is actually the 2nd book in Shatzer’s “Cozy Murders” series. The 1st book is the only one of his I haven’t reviewed yet, because it’s a Christmas-themed tale, and I’m saving it for December. But, you can read them out of order.

I like cozy stories. I even like Hallmark-esque Christmas-themed cozy stories. That said, there are certainly things about the genre that do invite parody. And that’s what Shatzer does here, using his comedic pen to lampoon the cloying earnestness sometimes found in such stories.

What do I mean by that? Well, here’s an example:

“Hi, Mrs. Smith,” he said. “I just wanted to thank you for giving me that anti-drug pamphlet. It really made me think. I had no idea drugs could be so dangerous. I’m never going to take them again.”

“I’m glad to hear that, Jimmy,” I said.

“I showed the pamphlet to my friend, Tyler,” he went on. “Tyler told me he was thinking about taking drugs, but then after I gave him the pamphlet and he learned about all the bad things that can happen when you take drugs, he decided not to.” 

Shatzer is parodying the typically unsubtle and occasionally preachy style that sometimes accompanies coziness. The whole book (which is only about a ten minute read) is written in this silly, fairy-tale-for-grown-ups tone. Maybe not everyone will find it funny, but personally, I think it’s a hoot.

As the title suggests, the plot of this book centers around extraterrestrial visitors to the protagonist’s aggressively-charming town of Quaintville. With one exception, the aliens are just as friendly as the human residents of Quaintville. In fact, one of them is strikingly simpatico with our narrator.

Is it kind of a goofy concept? Yeah, it is. It probably wouldn’t work as a full length novel or even novella. But as a short story, it made me laugh. The best thing I can compare it to are MAD magazine spoofs of yore, that would take their inherent silliness and run with it. In fact, I can almost picture the story illustrated by Mort Drucker. It’s that kind of light-hearted fun.

[Audio version of this review available below.]

I applaud you for reading this. You could have just left well enough alone by reading the first part and marking this down as a gentle romantic comedy. But you want to know “the rest of the story,” as Paul Harvey used to say.

I breezed past some of the world-building elements of this book in the first part, but now I want to get into the nitty-gritty.

First, as mentioned in H.R.R. Gorman’s review, the Victorian class system is very much intact. Helena and August both have family servants. Now, in keeping with the principle of noblesse oblige, and because Helena and August are good people, they treat their servants well, and they, in turn, are deeply devoted to their employers. Which is all swell, and will be a dynamic familiar to anyone who ever read a Jeeves novel.

But… it’s still a class system. Helena’s servant Fanny is never going to be a member of the ruling class. Which may be fine, as Fanny shows no desire whatsoever to be a member of the ruling class. But I am just saying.

“Okay, Berthold,” you reply. “So there’s a feudal dynamic. Whatever; I’ve watched Downton Abbey. What’s the big deal?”

Nothing… it’s just very Victorian. Which is to be expected since it’s in the title. I’m not arguing that it’s a flaw or that it shouldn’t have been like that. It’s just interesting, especially in light of other things.

Because then you have that hybrid DNA test and dating service which finds promising romantic matches based on a person’s genetic makeup. Did I mention this service is run by the Church of England, which at this point now encompasses all religions practiced in the Empire?

Now, one asks, what reason could there be for wanting to run DNA tests to find good matches? Is there any other term for this type of practice? Why yes, there is, and its origins are also firmly rooted in the Victorian epoch.

To be clear, the gene-matching program in That Inevitable Victorian Thing is purely based on individual choice. There is no compulsion (unless you are actually a member of the Royal Family) to marry certain people based upon it. It’s just a rite of passage. Like getting your driver’s license. Or registering to vote.

Oh, about voting… yes, well, I don’t think that happens here. Now, if you’re a neo-Imperialist, you’re like, “What part of ‘absolute monarchy’ is confusing you, Yankee Doodle? Of course there’s no voting!” (Real die-hards may also be unable to refrain from adding aloud, “And rebellion and treason are forcèd to yield!“)

So, just to recap: we have a strict class hierarchy, a social system predicated upon genetic compatibility and overseen by the Church, and unelected monarchs who rule for life and hold supreme executive power.

Does this sound to you like the setting for an idyllic romance, as I described in the first part? Or does it sound like, I don’t know, nine different dystopias are about to break out all at once?

Of course, the story is the story. If Johnston wants to write a book about a genteel, peaceful, and civilized society governed by absolute monarchy and based on eugenics and class, she can do it. And there’s no unreliable narrator sleight-of-hand going on here, either, trying to make us think it’s one thing when really it’s another. Believe me, I put on my Hildred Castaigne goggles and looked.

Part of the reason is, as I mentioned earlier, everyone in the story is basically good. As Plato himself said, the best form of government is the kind where the best people are in charge. (Well duh, Plato! How much are we paying you again?)

And because everyone is basically good, they can do fine with a form of government which, in the wrong hands, one can easily imagine being used to turn the Empire into a nightmarish hellscape.

Speaking of nightmarish hellscapes, I want to talk a little about how the alternate future of That Inevitable Victorian Thing depicts the United States of America. Not that it depicts it much. The book largely takes place in Canada, with other characters from different parts of the Empire dropping in now and then.

But when something bad shows up, chances are it came from the USA. The USA of this world is the rotten ruin of a failed experiment. It has no culture. Its food is terrible. It is apparently overrun with pirates. When the neo-Victorian ruling élite discusses it at all, it is with a mixture of disgust and pity.

Any one of these elements in the world Johnston has built might seem like a trifling bit of counterfactual history put in just for the sake of being different. But together, they form an unnerving and weird backdrop to the light and pleasantly mild main plot.

Which is, I think, the point. After all, the real Victorian world, which we often see with rose-colored sentimentality, had its unnerving and weird side too. But the real Victorians, who read books like Jane Eyre without thinking of what you might call the Wide Sargasso Sea perspective, were probably oblivious to the unnerving and weird aspects of their society. So is everyone, in every society.

To read That Inevitable Victorian Thing is to get a vague sense of what it would have been like to read a Victorian novel as a Victorian, and not as a modern looking back at the literature of a bygone era. In that regard, while it’s probably not for everybody, it is a fascinating literary experiment.

[Audio version of this post available below.]

This right here is the movie that inspired me to write this series. Of all the movies I have discussed, or will discuss, this is the ’90s-est, action-est, movie-est.

While I obviously like every movie listed here, I could point to flaws in most of them. Terminator 2 is too cartoonishly violent, Last Action Hero has too many crude jokes, GoldenEye has Xenia Onatopp, and so on. But when it comes to The Mummy, I’m at a loss to find much fault with it. It’s a classic pulp adventure.

You’ve got wonderful characters, from the gunslinging American Rick O’Connell and the bumbling twit Jonathan Carnahan, to the mysterious Ardeth Bay and the jovial pilot Winston Havelock. Not forgetting the conniving coward Beni or the sinister High Priest himself, Imhotep.

And then, of course, there’s Evie Carnahan. I can do no better than to quote her description of herself, after she’s had a little too much to drink around the campfire one night:

“I may not be an explorer or an adventurer or a treasure-seeker or a… a gunfighter, Mr. O’Connell! But, I am proud of what I am! I… am a librarian!”

All right, maybe that’s not Evie at her finest, although definitely she is pretty awesome even when she’s been hitting the bottle. But what I love is how she and O’Connell make such a good team. His adventuring skills and her thorough knowledge of Egypt help rescue them time and again from the wrath of the revivified mummy.

Everything about the movie is just fun. You can tell the actors are enjoying themselves, and why shouldn’t they? It’s a cracking good yarn of romance and derring-do. It’s one of those movies that, when you see it come on TV, you just sit and watch it before you even realize where the time has gone.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the better I like a movie, the harder it is to review it. How many ways are there to say, “this movie is awesome and I love it”? Not bloody many. This is probably why academic critical analyses of movies tend to focus on what’s wrong with them; that’s much more fruitful ground. But the result is that many words are generated on the topic of bad movies, and not so much on the good ones.

Well, I’m no academic, but I’ll give this a try: The Mummy is great because it offers us an immediately recognizable, yet still sufficiently different world we can escape into. People watch movies because they want fun. Critics, as a rule, don’t want fun. Ergo, critics aren’t people. Oops, wait; I’m a critic, aren’t I? Hmm.

My point is, if you want to write a 20 page paper on themes and symbolism and whatnot, this movie probably won’t furnish you with enough raw material for same. But who cares? Only weirdos like me sit down and write at length of their thoughts on movies; normal people just enjoy them. And joy is an underrated emotion when it comes to providing fodder for writing. Probably because it’s so far beyond words. There’s a reason that the most famous instance of a composition expressing joy was written in music.

In a way, writing critiques is just dodging the real issue. Could any review I write, no matter how clever, witty, or insightful, ever equal the sheer glee I had as an 11 year old kid watching Rick O’Connell mow down legions of zombie warriors? Of course not! Writing about it is just a way to relive the experience over again, and hopefully share the joy with others.

The real greatness of movies is never found in reviews; it’s found when you are sitting there in that theater, with your popcorn and your drinks, ideally with people you really like, sharing the pleasure of diving together into some fantastic, imaginary world full of excitement and suspense and adventure that you can talk about afterward not in the technical, fussy language of a critic, but with the burbling excitement of a kid playing in the backyard. Take that, Bembridge scholars!

This book is in that uncomfortable range of works that is neither obscure nor famous enough to typically warrant a review from me. I like to review either indie books that are really new, or iconic books that are so famous everyone knows them. This one, though, falls somewhere in between.

I read it because of H.R.R. Gorman’s review. By the way friends, if you want to get me to read a book, this is how to do it:

“This one was a trip. Like, really weird. Super out there. I had fun for the most part, but certain elements just threw me off hard.”

Such was H.R.R.’s verdict, and to me, that’s about as enticing as it gets.

That Inevitable Victorian Thing is a YA romance set in an alternate future where the British Empire never fell. How exactly this happened is left vague, but it’s suggested that Victoria overrode Parliament, ruling more as an absolute than a constitutional monarch, and married her children off to all parts of the Empire, thereby embedding its influence all across the globe.

Our three main characters are Helena Marcus, the daughter of an important geneticist, August Callaghan, who is set to inherit his father’s shipping company and planning to marry Helena, and Victoria-Margaret, the crown princess, traveling in disguise for the debut season in Ontario, Canada.

In other words, we have many standard tropes of Victorian novels: disguised royalty, engagements, and lots of fancy parties and grand balls. I was impressed early on with how well the author imitated the style of The Old Victorian Novel. I was worried it was going to be one of those affairs where we’re told it’s a neo-Victorian setting, but everyone acts and talks just like modern-day people. Thankfully, that’s not the case for the most part.

And of course, also very much in keeping with the expectations of Victorian melodrama, everyone has a secret. Victoria-Margaret is concealing the fact that she is the heir to the throne of the British Empire. August is concealing an indiscreet business arrangement he foolishly made early in his career. And Helena…

…well, I won’t say exactly what Helena is concealing. But let’s say that it is one of those “accident of birth” things with which the Victorians were so fascinated. The Victorians were obsessed with concepts like blood and breeding, and that’s very much the case here, as evidenced by the prominence of the DNA-based computer dating service that drives so much of the plot.

That said, this is more of a comedy of manners than a melodrama. The plot develops largely at dances and over teas, or at long trips to the family summer retreat. Again, classic Victorian romance stuff.

The other thing that struck me about the book was how nice everyone was. There are no villains; the drama mostly comes from misunderstandings. The worst person in the whole thing is an overly-aggressive paparazzo trying to get pictures of the undercover princess. Everyone is polite, well-meaning and generally decent. (Not to fall into blatant stereotyping, but it was set in Canada, and written by a Canadian…)

Before I wrap this up, a quick word about the cover. I like it a lot. It reminds me of something. But what? I’ve been trying to figure it out, but I can’t. At first I thought it was this image of The Golden Bough, but on closer inspection, I realize it can’t be. So, what is it then? There is something Victorian that looks like that, I’m convinced of it.

Anyway, though, this is a very charming romance story that honors its Victorian heritage well. There are a few nits to pick here and there, including one super-jarring use of a certain word beginning with “f”, but for the most part, it’s a sweet, cozy tale of young love at the height of a great Empire.

Except…

…as Columbo would say, “There’s just one more thing.” Well, actually, maybe it’s more like three more things.

Could anyone seriously believe that the author of American Chimera would call a mere cozy comedy of manners “really weird”? Oh, no, no, no. There’s a lot more going on here. If you’ve read H.R.R.’s review, you already knew that.

There is so much more to address, and this is running long. So, for the first time on A Ruined Chapel by Moonlight, I’m splitting the review in two, with the second part to be posted next Friday, same bat-time, same bat-channel. Then we’ll find out what is really happening.

[Audio version of this post available below.]