Friday, April 19, 2013

Book Review - Suzanne Arruda's Mark of the Lion

Mark of the Lion by Suzanne Arruda
Published by: NAL
Publication Date: December 5th, 2006
Format: Paperback, 346 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy

"Here’s a closely guarded secret for you: the odds are that, on most topics and time periods, historical fiction authors tend to draw from a roughly similar pool of sources. (I say “most” because there are some periods for which there are oodles of accessible sources available, which stirs up the pool a bit.) When I read Mark of the Lion, after several months immersed in the history of British East Africa, I was deeply amused to recognize people, places, events and anecdotes. There are times when the past can feel like a very small place…." - Lauren Willig

Jade del Cameron is a plucky girl. Growing up in the American West she knows how to handle herself in just about any situation. Yet she is still haunted by her ambulance work in the great war. The insane laughing of the wounded will never leave her, nor will the memory of David. David wanted to marry Jade and have a happily ever after. Jade wasn't sure but didn't really have the chance to decide when David was shot down and died in her arms pleading with her to find his secret half brother and look into his father's suspicious death in Nairobi at the start of the war. Jade takes dying wishes seriously, and with writing work for the magazine The Traveler as cover, she sets out for British East Africa to find out just what is going on.

David's father did indeed die under strange circumstances. How was he mauled to death in a hotel, on the second floor? Africa though is not what Jade expected and it looks like her duty to David might be harder then she thought. Things happen in Africa. Weird things. Everyone just accepts this. Death by animal is common, even if it was in an uncommon location. Here they believe in witches capable of using animals as their familiars to kill. Yet, what if the witches are real? And what if they have taken against Jade?

As Lauren Willig says, "the past can feel like a very small place." This was indeed what I felt upon first cracking open the pages of Mark of the Lion. Having a little African reading extravaganza means that I am reading these books back to back. I try to insert a little something different between the volumes, but to all intents and purposes, I've been living in British East Africa for awhile now, both in fictional and non-fictional works. So therefore hearing anecdotes directly lifted from other books, in particular The Flame Trees of Thika, which I had just finished, seemed a little redundant. I would say this could have been amusing, seeing the same cast of characters through yet another author's eyes, but coming directly after reading the one, it felt a bit like flogging a dead horse. Thankfully Suzanne Arruda soon went off in her own unique direction that was actually inspired by a true tale from Bror von Blixen, the husband of author Isak Dinesen, and the book soon found it's own legs with a dash of danger and more then a little mysticism.

The mysticism is what really drew me into the story. For those who know me there are two obvious categories my reading tastes lean to, firstly is the historical fiction, secondly is the urban fantasy. By bringing in witches and animals controlled by these dark forces, it's like adding a dash of urban fantasy into Kenya's Happy Valley. While of course it's traditional folklore and not fantasy that is feeding the laibon, aka witch, isn't all urban fantasy rooted in folklore? Therefore this book is like the urban fantasy of the day, if the day was 1919. Even in more biographical books like The Flame Trees of Thika, Elspeth Huxley fully admits that whether you believe or not, that sometimes it's better to be open to other things that can not be understood. I love that Suzanne Arruda was willing to embrace the fact that there are just some things that can't be explained away unless you expand your definitions of what is possible and what is impossible. A world where everything can not be neatly compartmentalized and there is room for magic is a world I want to live in.

Now to the nit-picky bit, which little old me can never just skip. Let's talk about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder folks. This is a trap that many modern writers fall prey to. The thing is, while I fully admit that PTSD was around prior to it's official designation in the 1980s; if this were really a book set in 1919, yes Jade would be shell shocked after her work in the war, but there would be the whole "stiff upper lippedness" that had people dealing with it on their own and just carrying on as it were. Sure, you can use the excuse that she's American, so she handles things differently... but I've seen this more and more that any book written by a current writer set after a war the hero or heroine will have textbook PTSD, it's almost rote in mystery books at the moment. It just gets to be a bit much, know what I mean? I like that Arruda used a specific incident in Jade's past to have hyena's trigger her attacks, but still, enough with the PTSD, ok folks?


I read this book back when Lauren was still calling The Ashford Affair her "Kenya book." I had mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, it was an interesting story, but I just couldn't figure out why it left me feeling a little flat. I don't think I will attempt any of the others in the series. I think I'll try "Death in Kenya" instead.

Oh yes, between the two I'd choose Death in Kenya any day! I think one of the reasons I did like this book, because I do agree with the flatness of it, was that it allowed magic to not be explained. That and the book I was reading for book club was so bad that anything else was awesome in comparison ;)

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