Nisi Shawl’s Everfair is an alternate history, all right, and it’s got the dirigibles to prove it. But it’s not another WW2 or American Civil War alt-history; it’s diverging from Leopold II’s atrocities in the Congo in the late 19th/early 20th century, with the founding of the nation of Everfair.
As an alternate history, this one is heavy on the “history.” Its characters are the kind of people that history is made out of: complicated, flawed as hell, brilliant at times, occasionally very stupid, and driven by their own idiosyncratic interests that are often pulling them in different directions even from their friends and allies. This may not be the history of our world, but it feels like the history of some world.
This is actually maybe the one weakness of the book, too: It does span decades, and it doesn’t do it in a few big chunks, it does it chapter by chapter. Every time you have a chapter break, you might be skipping ahead by hours, weeks, or years. This can be disconcerting if you’re not paying attention; at first I was ignoring the dateline, as fantasy novels have trained me to find them worthless, and was getting very confused.
But even once you’ve realized what’s going on, it can still cut against narrative momentum and sap the tension out of scenes, as you’ll be getting up to a big crisis point, and then you cut to a year and a half later and a whole new set of characters, who mention in passing that oh yeah, that happened. (The positive side of this, though, is that it doesn’t wallow in things that we already know—lightly skipping through World War I, for instance, cuts out a lot of slog.)
Recommended for anyone looking for Victorian steampunk alt-history that doesn’t skip blithely over the awfulness of Victorian normpunk regular history.
Madeline Miller’s Circe follows on her biography of Patroclus by telling the life story of the famous Greek witch. I had mentioned that The Song of Achilles was genuinely mythical, with real gods and magic, and that’s all the more true here, where Circe is a goddess, born of Titans.
If you’re like me, you’re now wrinkling your forehead like, “wait, are we talking about the witch who turns Odysseus’s men into pigs? That Circe?” Yep! Turns out that she actually pops up a lot in classical literature after Homer created her—she’s in Hesiod, she’s in Ovid, she’s in lost plays by Aeschylus, actual living Romans claimed to be descended from her, and so on. I’d link to the Wikipedia page, but if you’re not familiar with all the stories, they might actually be reasonably considered spoilers, for all that they’re centuries old.
Because what Miller does is to take all this material from this classical shared universe, which is about as retconned and inconsistent as the Marvel Universe (where Jack Kirby created the Eternal Sersi, by the way), and turns it into a story that works as a single unified whole, and that not only turns all this hodge-podge into a coherent narrative, but gives it thematic unity, psychological depth, and a compelling character arc or three.
As good as The Song of Achilles was (and it was excellent), this is even better. If you have any interest in classical Greek literature and mythology, this is basically mandatory reading; even if you don’t, it’s still strongly recommended, because it’s just that good.
Writing up the previous Ethshar book, I talked about how a strength of the series is its ability to jump from the epic to the low-key, and that’s definitely at play in Lawrence Watt-Evans’ Stone Unturned.
As the book starts, we have three plotlines, with three sets of characters, and it’s not at all clear what the relationship between them is. It becomes a bit clearer once you realize that you shouldn’t just ignore those datelines at the top of every chapter—which, quick tangent: I really super-wish writers wouldn’t put chapter-heading dates in books that go in straight linear order, because then I just get used to ignoring them and don’t realize that they’re significant when they’re critical to understanding a non-linear book—and of course eventually they converge, in a way.
Right there, you’ve got an Ethshar book that’s on the intricate and involved side, but it goes on to set up even more puzzles to be resolved, with some large-scale magics in play. The end result is a pretty major book in the series, although not as world-changing as a handful of others.
This is like the mumbleteenth entry in the series, so really there’s not a whole lot to say that I haven’t said before; but yeah, I like these books, and the way they give a kind of light puzzle feel to an epic fantasy world. Recommended.
So I’ve now read the rest of Django Wexler’s The Shadow Campaigns series. You’ll recall that when I read the first, I wasn’t thrilled about how the fun military stuff was integrated with the blah fantasy stuff. The straight-up good news is that this got a lot better very quickly.
Mostly this is because the books stopped being straight-up military fantasy—the scope of them expanded beyond a pseudo-Napoleon leading a military campaign, to encompass the whole pseudo-French Revolution and revolutionary politics, with the supernatural stuff being much more seamlessly integrated.
In a way this is disappointing—I was really looking forward to these bubblegum military fantasies, and instead ended up reading a lot of morally semi-ambiguous political fantasy, which wasn’t what I was expecting—but on the whole the books are probably better than the trashy fun Napoleon-with-magic I was hoping they’d be.
I do have one quibble with them, though, which is that the demands of fantasy narrative really clash hard with a sensible political philosophy. Because when you have a sympathetic protagonist who is a fantasy version of a real-world military dictator, and you have a sympathetic protagonist who is a monarch, it’s very difficult to make democracy actually seem like it’s necessary and good. So you end up with this situation where your very non-democratically-elected characters are all “pro-democracy” but also totally going off and being autocratic, because that’s what heroic protagonists in fantasy do.
But dubious politics notwithstanding, these were fun books, and my concerns about the first should be dismissed in the context of the larger series. Recommended for anyone wanting a Napoleonic-esque fantasy who’s already read Novik.
Django Wexler’s The Thousand Names is a secondary-world Napoleonic-esque military fantasy. It’s got lots of loving talk about cannon, it’s got infantry forming up in square, muskets and bayonets, the whole thing.
And I loved the military part of it, with its brilliant colonel who comes in and invigorates a decadent army, with its clever strategems and tactics, with its individual characters who rise up to heroism or fall into brutishness.
But then there’s the fantasy stuff, which, ugh, you’ve got an ancient cult of priests, and demons, and another religious order, and a McGuffin of Great Power, and blah blah, meh. I want more Weber/Novik-style Napoleonic military fun, and way less McClellan-esque grimdark demon bullshit.
It was good enough to keep me reading, and I’m moving on to the second one, but depending on how it goes, I might not keep reading on to the third.
Describing Robert Jackson Bennett’s Divine Cities trilogy, they sound a lot like the latest Craft novel from Max Gladstone: So there was a war in which the old gods were killed off, and as the story begins, we’re in a city under colonial rule, in which the very geography of the city is shared between the old city-that-was and the new city, and there are rising tensions between the locals and the imperial overlords.
See what I mean? That’s almost precisely the premise of Ruin of Angels. But Bennett’s doing a very different thing with that premise; his world-building is a lot less weird, and more conventional, than Gladstone’s. (For both good and ill: It’s less original and densely-packed with new ideas, but it’s a more accessible, breezy read.)
Each of the three novels in the series tells a complete story, following different characters out of the first novel on their further adventures; like Gladstone’s Craft novels, they tend to be about modern political themes, examining colonialism, democracy, technological progress (feeling a bit like Pratchett at times), religious pluralism, and so forth.
But they also come together to tell a larger story that manages to acquire some of the scope of history to it. And that’s maybe what the series is most about, looking at the bloody sweep of history, and wondering if it’s possible for there to exist meaningful justice or lasting peace.
But I don’t want to give the impression that these are dry, grim, big-concept reads. The characters in them are great; they’ve got a good solid mix of humor, action, and mystery; and the writing is compellingly readable. Highly recommended for people who like Pratchett and Gladstone.
Ellen Klages’ Passing Strange starts off with a magical mystery in modern-day San Francisco, and then immediately jumps into the pre-WW2 past to give us the backstory. Mostly, this consists of a portrait of gay culture in pre-war SF, and just enough plot to carry the story through its interesting (and I assume well-researched) setting.
When I got to the end, I had a bit of a “that’s it?” feeling, and thought that it would probably have been a better novella than a novel… at which point, I discovered that it was, in fact, a novella. Oh. That would explain why I read it so fast, I guess. And as a novella, it’s very good.
Martha Wells’ Exit Strategy is also a novella, but nobody would ever accuse it of being short on plot. This is the conclusion of the first arc of Murderbot novellas, and it’s got a lot to wrap up, both action and character development. In doing so, it’s maybe more straightforward than previous installments—there aren’t any new characters introduced (though old ones return) and there’s not a whole lot of mystery to puzzle through. This is taking all the pieces that have been set up in the previous novellas and knocking them down. Which it does well, while leaving just enough hooks for there to be a place to hang the upcoming Murderbot novel. Good stuff.
So the setting of Kameron Hurley’s The Stars Are Legion is interesting. There’s a swarm of worldships around a star, each with their own inhabitants (all of them female) and civilizations. And the tech is entirely biological in ways that are about as gross as real biology is.
And the part of the novel that’s dedicated to exploring that setting, which feels like one of those journey-of-discovery novels like Ringworld, is similarly pretty great. The protagonist finds new societies, makes new friends and new enemies, encounters surprising creatures and places, all that. It’s stickier and slimier than Ringworld maybe, but it’s working in a fun space.
Unfortunately, that’s a relatively small part of the book. The rest of it is a morass of horrible people being horrid to each other. It’s full of betrayals and counter-betrayals, casual cruelties and elaborate vengeance, brutal acts of war and even more brutal acts of “love.”
The book spoon feeds out the background to you, as the main protagonist has lost her memory, so there’s a kind of puzzlebox feel as she regains it—who can she trust? what is not actually as it appears?—but as it becomes clearer what’s actually happened before, my ability to care if any of these people succeed in their too-complex schemes fell to basically zero.
This is another one that might appeal more to people who like grimdark antiheroes doing horrible things, but I can’t really recommend it.
So Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles is the story of Achilles, as told by Patroclus. There are a lot of novels that try to retell Homer (or other such epics), and it’s usually pretty predictable how they go: They take as their viewpoint character one of the more minor characters on the edge of the thing (check), they add in psychological complexity that gives the mythic characters human depth (check), they add in a bunch of sex (check; Patroclus’ relationship with Achilles is not subtext here), and they make it gritty and realistically historical.
It’s that last one where Miller breaks from the mold, because the story she’s telling is still openly and unabashedly a fantasy. When Chiron appears to train Achilles and Patroclus, he’s not just a guy, he’s an actual centaur. When Thetis, Achilles’ sea-nymph mother, appears, she’s not just a lady who lives down by the water, she’s a genuine goddess. The plague that strikes the armies outside of Troy is unambiguously brought about by Apollo. The focus of the novel isn’t the gods, it’s the human characters, but the gods are unquestionably real and acting directly.
And so along with setting the book in a genuinely mythical world, Miller writes in a tone that isn’t crisp realism, it’s much more lyrical and poetic. Achilles appears as a golden demigod of a man; the army of the Greeks isn’t one of shit and blood, it’s courage and bronze; everything is grand and epic. And, too, this isn’t really a story about war in the modern sense, it’s about glory and legacy, about love, and about what it means to be aristos Achaion. Recommended.
Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series reminds me a lot of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files. Not in the specifics, mind—they have some commonalities (vampires and werewolves as institutional powers, and a hero who deals with the supernatural on the regular), but also many, many differences (Carriger’s series is a romance-flavored thing, set in Victorian London).
No, the similarity that strikes me is how both series deepen the world-building as they go. Carriger’s first book is really a pretty standard supernatural romance, and there’s not much more to the setting than what’s needed to support that. But as the series go on, Carriger is forced to think about how her societies really work, and about what various characters’ backstories really are. So book by book, they evolve in subtle ways, never quite contradicting earlier books, but definitely taking advantage of the blank spaces present in the earlier ones to fill in an awful lot of stuff that wasn’t really lurking in the background then.
As it happens, this also goes hand-in-hand with her getting better as a writer. Soulless, the first book in the series, is kinda weak. The romance is super-tropey (hey look, two characters who hate each other at first sight, will they end up falling in love? okay, but what if he’s a gruff and uncommunicative alpha male, and she’s a free-spirited “spinster” in her twenties who thinks she’s unattractive because her breasts are too large and her complexion too Italian?), the supposed-to-be-witty banter mostly feels labored and unfunny, and the plotting relies on people being idiots in obvious ways.
Some of the plotting problems persist for a few books—there are scenes where people will narrowly avoid assassination attempts and then never mention it to people who really, really ought to know about it, and will take virtually no action as a result of it, because it’s not time to tug on that plot thread yet—but it gets better as it goes, and by the fifth book, that mostly doesn’t happen. The character and dialogue problems improve faster.
Still, even by the end, these aren’t much more than light fluff, with some serious flaws. They don’t seriously interrogate the underpinnings of their world—that all the characters are aristocrats in the service of the British imperial project isn’t really called out in any way whatsoever, for instance; and the idea of female political equality is openly mocked within the books in a way that I guess might be period-appropriate, but still seems a little weirdly off—especially given how aggressively independent the female characters in the book are. (The books do have a bunch of non-straight characters, though, so are good on that front.)
I enjoyed them enough to power through all five in a row, but I’ll only recommend them weakly: If this is the sort of thing you love, you’ll probably like these.
Fonda Lee’s Jade City is exactly the sort of thing I’d normally hate. It’s set on the fictional island of Kekon, a couple of generations after it’s won its independence from a colonizing nation. The guerrilla fighters who won that war went on to become basically ganglords, and now we’re watching their grandchildren—who are modern, educated, cosmopolitan people—trying to meld their modern attitudes with the macho bullshit needed to be successful ganglords. If this sounds a lot like The Godfather to you, you’re not wrong.
So yeah, it’s about criminals doing murders and being lightly angsty about it, and it’s about gang wars and street violence and loyalty and intimidation and all that jazz. Not really things that are in my wheelhouse at all. But for whatever reason, it really worked for me. Maybe partly because of the interesting setting, with magical jade that only specially-trained people (who get pulled into high positions in the warring clans) can safely use; just the presence of magic and calling the gangs “clans” kinda makes it feel more like a fantasy novel more than a straight-up street crime thing (even though it’s clearly set in modern-esque times—roughly the ‘80s, I’d guess?).
But also it works because of the characters, who are unexpectedly interesting—even the ones who seem blandly obnoxious have more depth to them than you’d expect. And a few of the prominent characters in the book are women, which seems atypical for the testosterone-drenched street crime genre.
Recommended to anyone who likes gangster stuff, but also to people who (like me) don’t. (This is the first book of what’s apparently going to be a series, but it stands alone well, even as the sequel hooks are obvious.)
I super-hated the third Chalion book, so I didn’t really rush out to read Lois Bujold’s Penric novellas, which are set in the same world (though in a different country and featuring different characters); but people said good things about them, and I’ve been liking the novellas I’ve been reading, so I figured I’d give them a go.
They’re pleasantly enjoyable books. Penric is a young lad who unexpectedly finds himself possessed by/of a demon. He then has a series of adventures—solving a murder, hunting down a shaman, doing some light spycraft, and engaging in a jailbreak. The novella format works well for letting Bujold tell relatively small, direct stories without needing to pad them out with a whole bunch of complications or an elaborate B-plot or whatever. (It really is nice that the e-book world has let writers free of the length constraints around paper books, so they can tell stories that are whatever length makes sense for the story, rather than always having to cram everything into novel length.)
If there’s a criticism, it’s that they really aren’t more than pleasantly enjoyable. They’re not brilliant, they aren’t breaking new ground, they’re just little light adventure stories that go down easy. But that’s not really a failing on their part, so much as it’s a failure of the Hugo organizers and voters for instituting a stupid “Best Series” award and giving it to this series.
Recommended, but don’t expect one of the Best Series of all-time.
So Alex White’s A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe is not a Firefly tie-in novel. Okay, sure, it mostly takes place on a ship whose captain is one of the last survivors of a losing war, with a ragtag crew of outcasts and misfits who engage in semi-criminal (but fundamentally decent) activities; and sure it starts with a rich girl with almost superhuman abilities going on the run from powerful forces that control the highest levels of galactic society and ending up on that ship; and okay, maybe it’s doing the same found-family-has-an-adventure thing that Whedon’s show was doing. And if it comes to that, it’s even sort of paced like a TV show (or maybe like a movie): It’s very fast-paced and action-filled, with this sense of a headlong flight away from pursuit and into ever-deepening danger, with a constant drumbeat of tension.
But it’s not just a serial-numbers-filed-off pastiche, thankfully. The world-building fixes a couple of problems that the TV show had (the losing side of the war isn’t quite so reminiscent of the Confederacy here, for instance), while also providing the book with an interesting technomage science-fantasy setting.
It’s a quick read and enjoyable. There’s apparently a sequel coming out, and it’s easy enough to see what it’ll be about, but this does wrap up its own story enough to feel complete on its own. Recommended.
If you have a surprisingly detailed memory, you’ll recall that when I read Robin Hobb’s Tawny Man trilogy back in aught-six, I noted that she’d made a brilliant trilogy of trilogies; when I subsequently read the Rain Wild Chronicles some years later, I thought that they were enjoyable, but… also kind of unnecessary, the sort of book you write because your fans want a new book in a setting, rather than because it really needed to be written.
So when I went to read Robin Hobb’s Fitz and the Fool trilogy, the latest series in this setting, the question in my mind was whether it’d just be another unnecessary coda, or would actually feel essential.
As it started, it was hard not to think that it’d be the former. I’ve remarked before that Hobb typically starts a new series by subverting the happy ending of the last book, but here… she didn’t do that. She starts off in the happy ending, and lets us inhabit it for a while. We get older versions of characters living a good life, and reflecting on their past and how emo they were as kids. (Which really rings true here, when my main gripe with the original Assassin trilogy was that its first-person narration was way too grim ‘n’ mopey. And of course, it also works because the first book was more than twenty years ago; more time than that has passed for the characters in the book, but it’s still enough for that “long ago when I was young” feeling to feel real to me.)
But of course, things don’t stay happy forever—it wouldn’t be much of a series if they did—and eventually there is plenty of violence (including an amount of rape that seems really shockingly high by modern standards) and an epic fantasy plot ensues.
And so through much this, it still felt enjoyable but unnecessary; there was even a retcon feeling as some old prophecies got “reinterpreted” in a way that reminded me of the David Eddings’ Mallorean—the kind of “yeah, we THOUGHT that the original series was what the prophecies were about, but hold on, turns we have more books we want to write, so now we’re pretty sure they’re about THIS series.” The characters even seem to feel this sense, with one saying at one point, “I’ve gone beyond the end of my life, to a place where I never expected to be.”
But… dang if Hobb doesn’t manage to put it all together by the end. By the time I finished the third book, I wondered how I could have thought that the series was complete before now; this all had to happen, and in a real way, this is the actual end of the story of its protagonists. It circles back and ties together all the previous books (which were already closely related, but now are even moreso) and brings it all to a nice close… while also setting up novels that can easily follow up from this without feeling like they’re dragging things out unnecessarily.
If you’ve been reading Hobb’s books, you’ll want to read these. If you haven’t, I think they’re one of the best hyper-long-form epic fantasies out there—certainly her 16 book series is better than Robert Jordan’s—and if that sounds appealing to you, you should give them a read.
So I was a huge fan of the first two Tensorate novellas, but JY Yang’s The Descent of Monsters worked less well for me.
The main culprit is, I think, the structure. It’s told largely in reports and letters, and is mostly looking back at solving a mystery about what happened in a recent-ish event. But and so, having only a vague memory of the ending of the previous story (yes, I know I read it only a month ago), I could tell that this involved the same characters who were featuring in that story, and since it seemed to me like they had already solved the mystery being investigated here—that was the end of the second story, right?—I was distractedly trying to figure out how much of what I was getting was recap and how much was new.
But it turns out this is investigating a different aspect of that same mystery, and so a bunch of it was new, much more than I was thinking. Oops.
But then also because of the structure of the story, it wasn’t very tense or narratively propelled. “Something happened a while ago, and we’re trying to figure out what” is a calm, laidback story where all the tension has already been resolved. And the usual way to address that is to put the investigator into danger—which Yang does—but the investigator takes so little active action, and has so little meaningful interaction with the other characters we know, that their danger just didn’t have a really strong impact.
When I got to the end of this one, my general feeling was: “That’s it?” I know these are only novellas, but the previous two felt like short novels; this felt like a long short story. It’s not bad, and if you can actually remember what happened in the previous book before reading this one, you’ll avoid my confusion; but it feels like the prologue to a longer novel, or a light palate cleanser. I’m still looking forward to the next one, but maybe keep your expectations in check before reading this one.
Martha Wells’ Rogue Protocol is the third Murderbot novella, and is now available for reading. There’s a pretty good chance this tells you everything you need to know, but I guess I can go into a bit more detail.
Like the previous novellas in the series, it features Murderbot. As in those, Murderbot remains a great narrator. Also as in those, Murderbot gets into adventures. Unlike in the second story, ART is not a character, maybe my only disappointment here.
Beyond that… look, it’s a novella, there’s only so many words in the thing, I can’t say that much about it without comprehensively spoiling it. It’s a good story (though the second remains my favorite, thanks to ART) and it advances Murderbot’s larger story arc while being a satisfying self-contained story. Recommended.
So the eponymous protagonist of Walter Jon Williams’ Quillifer is the son of a butcher, a lawyer by training, and I’m fighting really hard not to describe him as “young, scrappy, and hungry,” but he pretty much is. Like Hamilton (or Miles Vorkosigan, for that matter), he’s one of those high-energy, smartest-person-in-the-room characters who excels at both getting into and out of trouble.
And there’s plenty of trouble to be gotten in here, because Quillifer is pretty much a straight picaresque; he careens from episode to episode in his efforts to gain wealth and power, and the world in which he’s careening is basically early modern Europe—you know: gunpowder, printing presses, galleons, but also monarchs and guilds—except that it is a fantasy, so it may well be that some of the gods and magic are real.
Quillifer is a fun character to hang around with, and his adventures—political, military, naval, and otherwise—make for an absorbing read. My biggest complaint with the book is that it is just a series of episodes. There’s no real larger arc to the story other than “here’s a bunch of stuff that happened to a guy.”
But it turns out that this is almost certainly because this isn’t the standalone book I thought it was; it’s intended to be the first in a multi-book series, so the full story arc will become visible over the course of the series. So I guess my real biggest complaint is that I accidentally started an unfinished fantasy series, sigh. I do think it ends satisfyingly, though—all the episodes are basically wrapped up, and a phase of his life is sort of over, so it’s not leaving you completely dangling until the next book is published.
Recommended for anyone who enjoys hyper-competent smartasses having fun adventures in early-modern fantasy Europe.
Becky Chambers’ Record of a Spaceborn Few is the third of what I guess they’re calling the “Wayfarers” series. It’s not a direct sequel to either of the other books (though it has some character links to the first, and events that happen there are referenced here).
It’s sort of a weird book, because structurally it doesn’t seem to work at all. It’s about a bunch of characters having very disparate stories, and while they do come together in some ways—it’s not just a half-dozen short stories all interleaved—their stories never really cohere into a tight plot. They’re all just kind of circling around each other, interacting without converging. And really, the story that they circle around isn’t particularly complex or interesting.
But and so, a thing I’ve said before is that I sometimes wish TV shows could be just the setup part, before it gets into the big action-packed plot, where it’s just a bunch of people going about their lives. And it’s not quite accurate to say that’s what Chambers is doing here…. but it’s not totally inaccurate, either. Because fundamentally, what the book is about isn’t the specific plot events, it’s not some central man vs. whatever conflict that gets raised up and resolved.
What it is, really, is a kind of meditation about what makes a good society, the nature of happiness, the tension between preservation and evolution, and what it means for a place to be home. And despite its unconventional structure, it actually does work—by coming at these themes from different angles and loosely-connected perspectives, it somehow ends up feeling tied together in an almost improbable way.
This isn’t the sequel I expected from Chambers, after reading her two previous books, but it’s good stuff. And now I’m even more curious about what her next book will be.
So I’ve read the last three books of Sarah Caudwell’s Hilary Tamar series, and found all of them a delight. The epistolary structure continues throughout (taking a detour into “telexes,” whatever those were—some kind of telegram, I assume—at one point), as do the murders. (As does, though I didn’t emphasize this when talking about the first one, the focus on the legal aspects of wills and trusts—Caudwell is definitely writing what she knows here.)
The writing remains droll, the characters charmingly arch, and the mysteries interesting. If I were looking for criticisms, I might note that the plot of the fourth is a bit loose, and that Caudwell has a tendency to make unpleasant people physically ugly and fat in a way that is, let’s charitably say, “old-fashioned.” But I’m not really looking for criticisms, because I enjoyed the heck out of these. If you like the first one, you’ll definitely want to read them all in a row, so clear out that much space on your reading calendar when you start.
Sarah Caudwell’s Thus Was Adonis Murdered is the first of her Hilary Tamar mysteries. I obviously haven’t read the rest of them yet, but this one at least is one of those arch British novels that you want to quote all the time—not Wodehouse pastiche, but the kind of prose that will appeal to people who like Wodehouse, I should think—which also happens to be an epistolary murder mystery.
The premise of the book (explained in the first few pages, so I’m not spoiling anything) is that there’s a group of friends, who are lawyers in London; one of their number has recently taken a vacation to Venice, and been arrested for murder, and they’re working to find the truth of the matter and prove her innocence.
The epistolary structure is clever, in allowing the build-up to the murder to be told after we already know the murder occurs: The news of her arrest comes across quickly on the wires, but the letters trickle in, building up to the events leading to the arrest. This also works well in allowing the characters to bounce off of each other, reading her letter and riffing on it, or airing their suspicions of who might be guilty.
The mystery itself is entirely credible, and seems to be largely fair—the reader has all the knowledge the lawyers do, and if there’s perhaps a deduction or two that seems a stretch, it can be forgiven as genre convention. (There was one point that I suspected well before it was revealed, but I didn’t know where it was going; that kind of partial guessing of the truth is probably where a mystery ideally wants its reader.)
The one weird thing to me is that if you had asked when the book was set, I would have said at first somewhere in the 1920s, not too long after the Great War. The characters would be libertines by the standards of the time (they’re very casual about their sex in any gender combination), but maybe not too far off for sophisticated cosmopolitan London. But then one of the characters is described as having been in WW2 when he was younger, such that it seems more likely that it’s actually taking place in the 1960s or something. (It occurs to me that it’s entirely possible exact dates are given in the book, and I just didn’t notice.)
But they don’t feel modern. Part of that, of course, is me thinking of Wodehouse; but another part is the letters. The telephone does come into play later in the book, but the idea of mailing around letters seems like something out a past more distant than merely the ‘60s. But probably this is just a case of the internet era making pre-internet communication seem more impossibly ancient than it was.
Anyway, though, that’s not the main point. The main point is, this is a ton of fun and a pure delight if you like your mysteries light-hearted and ironic.