Friday, March 4, 2016

Book Review - Gath Nix's Newt's Emerald

Newt's Emerald by Garth Nix
Published by: Katherine Tegen Books
Publication Date: October 13th, 2015
Format: Hardcover, 304 Pages
Rating: ★
To Buy

To celebrate Truthful Newtington's eighteenth birthday her father has invited the people she loves most in the world, her three cousins, Edmund, Stephen, and Robert, for a family dinner. The five of them have a wonderful repast where Truthful's father regales them with stories of his time at sea. Though his weather magic does accidentally bring on a real gale. Yet a small squall will soon be the least of their worries. While Truthful won't inherit the famous Newtington Emerald until she's in her twenties, her father brings it out from it's hiding place and they are all mesmerized by it's worth as a stone and it's power as a magical artifact. But the unthinkable happens and the emerald is stolen. Truthful's father is taken to bed and he blames the three young cousins. In an attempt to clear their names they vow to Truthful that they will solve this heist and restore her father's health. Frustrated that she can't go out into the world and try to find the emerald for herself Truthful concocts a plan. She was supposed to leave for her Great Aunt's house in London in a few weeks to be presented and have her first season. What if she just left a few weeks earlier and used that time to find the emerald? Dragging her begrudging maid Agatha along, Truthful has no idea of the adventures and dangers that await her in the thriving metropolis. With her Great Aunt's help they concoct a male identity for Truthful based on a distant relative so that she may move freely in the quest for the emerald. Truthful's alter ego soon has a compatriot, a Major Charles Harnett. Yet working with him so closely he's bound to find out the truth of her secret identity and her heart. Little does she know that no one is as they appear.

In his author's note Garth Nix freely admits that Newt's Emerald started out as a plot contrivance of another very different sort of book. I have to wonder if perhaps it should have stayed that way. It's like someone told him Regency sells really well and he went to his trunk and dusted off the skeletal remains of that previous book, forgetting that there's a reason trunk books stay in the trunk. Also, for a Regency book to sell, perhaps get the Regency right? Seriously, I CAN NOT stress this enough. If you are writing a period book, even if it's fantasy during a certain period, you need to know the societal conventions and mores so that IF you decide to break them you at least know that you are. Nix needed to spend more time actually doing research instead of re-reading all of Georgette Heyer and Patrick O'Brien. Or at least re-read all of Austen, instead of just a few. Austen wrote six books yet Nix had time to read all twenty-one books in the Aubrey-Maturin series? Not to mention all twenty-six Heyer Regency romances! I'm not slamming these books, it's just they are written after the fact by modern authors. To get an actual feel about the period read books from that period. There's more then one reason people revere Austen, and one is how she perfectly captures the time period in which she lived!

Or how about a reference book? What Jane Austen Ate and Who Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Pool will fix such glaring errors of Truthful being improperly addressed. She is the eldest, and in fact only daughter of Admiral Newtington and therefore should be addresses as Miss Newtington, never Miss Truthful, which anyone who read Pride and Prejudice should know! Jane Bennet is addressed as Miss Bennet because she is the oldest, while Elizabeth, being younger, is addressed as Miss Elizabeth Bennet. But that is if Truthful wasn't a peeress. Instead she should be addressed as Lady Truthful Newtington, NEVER drop that Newt! I mean you can find this by simply googling "how to address a lady in the regency period" and seeing as Nix seems too busy to even provide a full glossary for his readers and tells them to use google, well the LEAST he could do is abide by his own ruling. But this doesn't even come close to the faux pas of Truthful dancing with men she has never been introduced to! What heathen society is this I'm reading about. This is not good ton! And this doesn't even scratch the surface of the sartorial errors. Gloves in the house! Bonnets at the dinner table! You'd look ridiculous carrying a reticule from room to room in your own house! And has Nix EVER seen a Regency silhouette, voluminous skirts my eye! The waist doesn't drop till 1820 with the skirts not going wide till 1825!

But the glaring errors weren't my only problem with the book. The fact that it goes on overly long was one, which I thought might be fixed reading the original novella, PS, it wasn't, because it was exactly the same and I was basically tricked into reading this book twice. Also I might have been a little more forgiving of Nix's lackadaisical attitude to the Regency if he had bothered to create a world that was interesting. Or at least logical. Reading other reviews I saw time and time again that the number one criticism of this book for those who aren't Regency obsessives was the lack of a convincing system of magic. Worldbuilding is KEY no matter if you are tweaking an already extant world or creating a new one. But seeing as Nix couldn't even properly reflect reality how can he be expected to create an entirely new magic system? There's obviously fairies, but how do they figure in? Glamors are key but how exactly do physical charms break them? Then there's weather magic... so one might assume that there is elemental magic... just where does this come from? How is it used? You can't just drop things all over the place and not explain them. Is magic primarily in the upper classes? Is it exclusive to women or men or are they equal? Just something please. Some basic rules. Like focus on the elemental magic, go with that. Build on that. Just build something. ANYTHING! BUILD YOUR WORLD! And what's with the talking to animals?

If we strip away all the fripperies as Nix sees them, such as historical accuracy and worldbuilding, we are basically left with Twelfth Night. I've never been a big fan of girls dressing up as boys to go fight or save the family honor or protect themselves. It's always seemed cliched and unbelievable and most of all trite. Which is probably why I hate Shakespeare's Twelfth Night so much. It's entirely unbelievable to me that Viola could pass as Cesario. Therefore I don't believe that Truthful could pass as the Chevalier. Yes, they make a big to-do that this wouldn't work without that little bit of glamor, but seriously? Ugh. I know it's all about saving the family honor and being a hero, or heroine as the case would be, but it's just so played out. And the falling in love with the hero while in disguise, gag me now. When it came out that her "disguise" actually makes her look like her cousin Stephen, I almost banged by head against the wall. Damn you Shakespeare and Twelfth Night! This is a hackneyed story. This type of story is over, it's done. It should have been killed off in 1985 with the horrid movie Just One of the Guys. Yes, there might be someone out there who could bring some originality to it, but it's not Nix and it's definitely NOT Newt's Emerald.

What made me even more annoyed with the cross-dressing trope was that all the adults in Truthful's life seemed to be in the know and were indulging her with a wink and a nudge. Excuse me? Her guardians were indulging her impropriety and the possibility of her being ruined? It just seems too unlikely. This wasn't exactly a time when people shook their heads and said "kids will be kids." This was a time following a very harrowing war with danger still lurking in the shape of French foreign agents and well gosh darn it all, let Truthful risk her life if she's having some fun. While yes, the only character I actually liked in the book was Truthful's Great Aunt Ermentrude because while appearing respectable she really was an exotic and wild old doyenne who sat around with scimitars and wore fezzes, she made an effort to be conventional in the eyes of society. So while, yes, she herself might conceivably be a little indulgent in Truthful's behaviour, I really think she should be more concerned with her great niece's welfare and reputation. By the time Ermentrude and Charles's aunt, Lady Otterbrook, are conspiring to make a match of the two young ones they seem gleeful with innuendo and sly asides. This isn't the French Court before the revolution people! This is staid old England, and while it was more human than some history makes it, there's just no credibility in the version that Nix is presenting us. There is just annoyance and a lot of rage reading. Twice over in my case.


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