Friday, April 15, 2016

Book Review - Heather Rose Jones's The Mystic Marriage

The Mystic Marriage (Alpennia Book 2) by Heather Rose Jones
Published by: Bella Books
Publication Date: April 28th, 2015
Format: Paperback, 264 Pages
Rating: ★★★
To Buy

Antuniet Chazillen has been living in self-imposed exile from Alpennia. She longs to go back to Rotenek but that isn't an option. Even if she were to return no one would take her in. Ever since her brother was executed for treason and her mother committed suicide anyone bearing the name Chazillen has been ostracized. The driving force in her life now is to show the world that not everyone bearing the name Chazillen is worthless. To this end she has devised a plan with a rare alchemical text she found in Prague. If she can master the book's recipes to create precious gems of power she could present them to Alpennia's ruler, Princess Annek, and prove she can be of use to the crown and regain her standing. But wanting and doing are two very different things. Not only is her work hindered by a lack of funds, but she is being chased across Europe by someone who will stop at nothing to get their hands on the text she found. After she is discovered in Heidelberg she realizes that she must return to Alpennia earlier than she had planned in order to live long enough to restore the tattered shreds of her honor.

Jeanne, the Vicomtesse de Cherdillac, is a social butterfly. Flitting from party to party and lover to lover. Yet lately the petulance of these young women who rotate through her bedroom isn't as entertaining as it once was. And then one night Antuniet appears at her door. They knew each other peripherally years ago before Antuniet's hasty departure. It intrigues Jeanne that of all the people Antuniet knew in Rotenek she chose her. But Antuinet's only other option was her cousin and Jeanne's former lover Barbara, and somehow going to Barbara would have been too much for her pride to bear, and Antuinet has always been proud. In fact all the bedraggled Antuniet asks of Jeanne is help in securing a patron so she can continue her alchemical work. Jeanne tries her best but finding money for a dubious trade for a disgraced outcast tries even her formidable skills. But Jeanne won't abandon Antuniet, she will stick by her as she mends her flirtatious ways and develops a tendre for the alchemist. Though returning to Rotenek didn't dissuade Antuniet's malevolent shadow. Soon enough the protective Barbara and her lover Margerit, the crown's thaumaturge, come to Antuniet's aid as well. But Antuinet and her heart are vulnerable. Will she be able to repair her reputation and find love, or is it all too late?

Sometimes book series don't start out as series. The author writes a tale and for some reason or other the characters won't leave after the denouement. Whether it's their inability to leave the author's subconscious as they keep chatting away or rabid fans salivating for more, sometimes a stand-alone morphs into a series. It feels like this is what happened here. The first book set in Alpennia by Heather Rose Jones, Daughter of Mystery, focused on Anuniet's cousin Barbara and her lover Margerit. They had their story and got their happily ever after. There was an ending and it felt final. Yet here they are again getting into new adventures and new scrapes. You're probably wondering why I'm pointing this out. I should be happy at their return not dwelling on the whys. But I'm dwelling. I find this book's setup problematic. The thing is, if you are going to write a series in such a way that each volume has the secondary characters stepping forward into the limelight, the previous volume's characters need to know enough to take a step back. They aren't the focus anymore. Only someone forgot to give Barbara and Margerit this message. It makes sense that they would appear, Barbara and Margerit's actions in the previous volume having had such an effect on our two new heroines. But did they have to take up at least half of the narrative? I felt that this gave short shrift to Antuniet and Jeanne. It was THEIR time to shine, and they felt secondary.

I think this problem comes down to the fact that this book is stuck in the middle, and sorry, not sorry, for getting that song in your head. And by middle I'm referring to it's length. It could easily go either way. To go shorter, really pare down and omit Barbara and Margerit almost completely. This would give you a shorter, sweeter story. Yet I am not included in this direction. The Mystic Marriage has such court politics and machinations it's like a Ruritanian Game of Thrones. So make it like Game of Thrones! Make it a thousand plus pages! Don't just have four characters POVs have more. Have Anna, the little alchemical assistant have her say! Have Barbara's little country cousin have a chapter or two. Make this book the doorstop book to end all doorstop books. Make it the epic it wants to be! I just feel like there's so much I'm missing in this world, the details of a dress, the architecture of an alchemist's laboratory. So much is hinted at but then never developed further. I talked about this with Daughter of Mystery and how the writing felt elliptical. Here I was happy to see more time spent on the smaller details, such as the refining of the precious gems, but seriously, I craved even more. It's rare for me to say make a book longer, and editors today seem to only want books short and sweet, but The Mystic Marriage needs to expand to reach it's full potential. It needs to be fired a little longer.

What really helped me to connect to The Mystic Marriage more so than the previous volume was I felt the arcane elements were easier to understand. Thaumaturgy and the working of miracles still feels a little beyond my keen. I don't quite fully understand the process and I felt that the mysteries were left lacking definition and therefore left me a little cold. Fluctus this and fluctus that... it would help to understand a little better what fluctus even was in my humble opinion. But alchemy. I'm on far stronger ground here. Whereas we can question if miracles and magic ever really did happen, alchemy DID. I'm not saying it worked, but I'm saying that it was studied and was an accepted "science" of the time. Even if your only exposure to alchemy is the Philosopher's Stone in Harry Potter or the more detailed chemical marriages in Deborah Harkness's All Souls Trilogy, you have a grounding in it so that you are more easily able to understand what Antuniet is up to than what Margerit was. What I found particularly interesting from my point of view was the crossover of the alchemical practices and how it relates to things such as metalwork. I haven't done metalwork in many years but crucibles, flux, fire, all that I used is here used in similar yet different ways and I found that fascinating.

But it wasn't just the alchemical work itself that intrigued me, but the outcome. Antuniet was making stones, well gems really, that would have influence over people. So my first thought was, if this is the actual case with alchemy people have every right to fear it! Before I'd only ever heard of the Philosopher's Stone, which was used to increase your life, and turning lead into gold. But the work that Antuniet does is basically used to control people. Say what!?! Alchemy is basically rohypnol! Antuniet even worries that one of her stones set in a ring is responsible for Jeanne's feelings towards her. If Antuniet is worried about this how can she, in good conscience, give this power to the crown so that they can basically control their ministers? I can see the benefit for helping people with health issues, but to actually CONTROL THEM!?! I really have issues with this concept. It's taking away free will. It's like in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer season six episode "Dead Things" when The Trio use a Cerebral Dampener to make any woman their willing sex slave. It's not just wrong it's a violation of basic human rights. While you could say at least Annek's counsel "knows" the rings do something, I don't think she told them the whole truth... This just brings up a LOT of the more negative connotations of what "magic" can do. Is it even right that Antuniet made these influencing gems?

Which brings me around to the whole alchemy not really be respectable. Well, if you're controlling everyone's free will I'm not surprised alchemy has a dubious reputation! Of course it's hinted at that most alchemists are charlatans, but still, if Antuniet's morals were a little more lax, dear god! What I'm getting at is that question I wondered in the previous volume as to the acceptability of magic and witch hunts. I really like that Heather Rose Jones came back to this because I felt this was something that needed addressing. So yes, witch hunts do happen! Evil magicians are run out of town. The only reason "mysteries" and thaumaturgy are acceptable is because they have the cloak of religion giving it respectability. Which has an interesting counterpoint in the relationships of Antuniet and Jeanne, and Margerit and Barbara. Margerit and Barbara are accepted as a couple because of their eccentricity and status, whereas Antuniet and Jeanne raise eyebrows because Antuniet used to be respectable and one of the society that is now looking at them askance. Just like the veneer of religion covers a multitude of sins, so does the right combination of eccentricity coupled with title and wealth. The lower down the social ladder, the less acceptable it is to be an "other." You could in fact say that Jeanne and Antuniet face their own witch hunt with the lesbian backlash. The marriage of the mystical and mundane controversies just goes to show all the levels this book is working on. But don't worry, luckily love conquers all as long as you are willing to fight the good fight. Love wins.


Does it help to know that the Alpennia series is currently looking to be about 7 or 8 books? (As I'm fond of say, "Or however long it takes to get to the revolution.")

It helps to know it's going to get bigger and bigger!

I find it interesting that you found the alchemy more understandable than the mysteries! I found all the alchemical verbiage washed over me -- I understood that there was a huge amount of theory behind it, but I don't know any of it myself so it was mostly words. On the other hand, the idea of a logical approach to miracles aligns very well with a lot of my academic research (in a broad sense), so I took to Margerit's work like a duck to water.

But I completely agree, I think that these books would be even more satisfying if they were tripled in size. I felt like we were getting half of two stories in MM, instead of one story, and rather than give up on either half, I wanted double.

Perhaps it's because I'm a maker (graphic design, illustration, artwork, crafts) that made the alchemy align more with my creative side... the physical nature of it.

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