Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Book Review - Heather Rose Jones's Daughter of Mystery

Daughter of Mystery (Alpennia Book 1) by Heather Rose Jones
Published by: Bella Books
Publication Date: February 18th, 2014
Format: Paperback, 264 Pages
Rating: ★★★
To Buy

Margerit Sovitre is in her first season. Though she'd rather be spending her time on scholarly pursuits in Rotenek than dancing in the summer playground of the rich in Chalanz. But she's never even been to Rotenek. Never walked the fabled streets of the University there. She's spent her life in Chalanz with her Uncle's family, always feeling out of place except for those rare moments talking to her cousin Nikule about the University and forming unrealistic dreams. But all that might be about to change. Her enigmatic godfather has arrived in Chalanz early. There are rumors about a duel that made it desirable that he leave Rotenek early; but more pressingly it is obvious he is dying. Margerit knows that she has a small inheritance coming her way that might get her out from under her Uncle's power, but during his last days on earth she forges a connection to Baron Saveze and he leaves her everything that he can; which is quite a lot. No one knows why he did this. Was it a whim to anger his nephew Estefen who inherited the title and has spent his life borrowing on his expectations? Was it to give Margerit the life she always wanted? Whatever the reason it upends the lives all those connected to the Baron, in particular Barbara.

Barbara is also an enigma, even to herself. But then again the Baron loves his games of secrets and shadows. She was raised by the Baron to be an Armin, a bodyguard with special skills and rights. Though female Armins are rare the Baron got away with this breach in tradition by his eccentric lifestyle. But they had an arrangement, when he died Barbara would learn her name and gain her freedom. Instead he has given her to Margerit and insisted that she remain with his goddaughter until they are both of age. What at first seems like an unholy punishment soon becomes a new way of life as Barbara becomes close to the scholarly Margerit. Margerit's fortune means that she will be able to have the life she dreamt of, with Barbara's help. While maintaining the appearance of a respectable heiress for her family's sake she can studying to her heart's desire. Though the money is a temptation to desperate men, and there is none more desperate than Estefen. Moving her household to Rotenek, Margerit starts studying the mysteries all while playing the game of disaffected debutante. Though as time goes by her scholarly side keeps asserting itself. Will her studies put her in even greater danger? It's lucky she has Barbara to protect her, even from herself.

Ruritanian Romances are tricky. They have to strike just the right balance of realism and suspension of disbelief. Couple this with worldbuilding that has an alternate history that is not clearly defined and you're stuck with a book that you're struggling to connect to. The main problem I had was this disconnect between Alpennia and the rest of Europe. With the religious practices and the magic that takes the forms of mysteries appealing to the saints Alpennia has a very distinct and unique culture. Yet there are constant references to mysteries written elsewhere, like Lyon in France. So how exactly is the world outside Alpennia different from the world of our history books? Alpennia being at one and the same time a part of our world yet outside of it how are we to grasp onto what has actually changed in our world for the alternate history angle? There seems to be a distinct lack of creating a framework for the worldbuilding in which we'd be given the information when we need it most. While this could be done to have us form a bond with the characters first and the world second, you can't understand what the characters are going through unless you know the world they live in.

I almost feel like Daughter of Mystery was at a disadvantage by being a Ruritanian Romance. I have too many questions that are left unanswered, whereas if Alpennia had been in an entirely alternate world that mirrored our own, then I would certainly have less questions. But it's not just the Ruritanian aspect I have problems with. Heather Rose Jones has an odd way of writing that adversely affects the worldbuilding. Her writing is very elliptical and what she is omitting isn't for clarity's sake! It's like she just didn't want to write about something and decides to skip it. And what she skips seems like some rather important stuff. For example we spend all this build-up to Margerit's ball she's throwing in Chalanz only to not see a single moment of the ball. And this example is just a throw-away example, it's not necessary to the world like many of the omissions are. When she arrives in Rotenek I felt at sea. As for the academics? I kind of just let it flow over me and took in what I could. Because to balance her sparsity she occasionally goes for the massive info dump. This is almost worse than nothing, because then you know there's all this stuff you should remember but it was presented in such a way that you have no chance in hell of remembering a tenth of it.

For all the worldbuilding issues I did come to like the world, despite it's imperfections. The truth is, if you're looking for the "Regency" of it all, you're not really going to find it here. Instead, in true Ruritanian style, we have intrigue and high romance and royalty worthy of the House of Medici or The Musketeers. There is this old fashioned feel to it that harks back to the Renaissance, when learning was a vocation, and I really found this fascinating, in the same way a Patrick Rothfuss book is. The truth is Daughter of Mystery doesn't really coalesce as a book until we reach Rotenek and we're in this medieval town with duplicitous scholars and scheming courtiers. Though again, what is almost the most perfect section of the book is brought down, not this time by the structure, but by how the court intrigues ensnare Barbara. For the first time in the book I was furious at Barbara. Yes, you can see why she's doing what she's doing, but her motives aren't explained properly to Margerit and it looks as if the court has turned Barbara's head. I mean, yes, you could say, as if anything could turn Barbara's stubborn head? But it seems to be done just to make us doubt the connection and love our two heroines share. It feels like a cheap shot. Yes, Barbara can navigate this world expertly, but that doesn't mean she should.

This being "Regency Magic" though the magic of it all matters. I can definitively say that not another book I've read has handled magic in this manner. Not only does that make Daughter of Mystery unique, but fascinating as you delve into the magic system. Because the magic system isn't magic, per se, it's faith manifested as miracles. But it's also not as reliable a system, as shown through Margerit's studies. Not every prayer is heard. Mysteries are complex and a word replaced could change the intent and instead of protecting an entire town only the relics of a long dead saint are protected. It's a capricious system that is itself mysterious. Learning with Margerit we see what works and what doesn't, we are with her on her journey as she systematically learns how to work mysteries. I also just like the idea that magic is referred to as mysteries, because they are both about deception and illusion. But as seems to be the case with this book, now I have more question I need answered. For example, religious persecution. Witch hunts were often done in the name of faith, so in this Alpennian world are witches outcasts? Because usually people who see visions aren't treated that well... so what's the stance? Also, is it because of the mysteries that religion is still such a strong force? Because I'd expect the church's hold to eroded a bit by now. Perhaps The Mystic Marriage will answer some of these questions for me...

But the "mysteries" ie, magic, aren't the only mysteries in this book. And these other mysteries are much more problematical. While yes, I could have liked a better understanding of the mysteries of the church, they at least weren't pedestrian and predictable. They actually had some mystery about them. As for Barbara's mysterious past... well, Poirot would have been laughing to think that anyone would have found it not patently obvious. Barbara isn't a dumb woman. She is in fact very smart and has a lot of cunning to go along with her other more physical skills. To think that she has spent years and years with the answer under her nose makes no sense. Yes, she worked for a secretive man, but would she really rely on his word that one day she would know as good enough? No, she wouldn't. It just doesn't make sense. It's literally a mystery to me! It doesn't make sense that the only reason she looks into her own mystery is because of the threat it poses to Margerit. I don't think she needed love to have her face her past, her own natural curiosity should have done that. As for the mystery as to whether they love each other, I will answer with duh. While yes, I could say that these contradictions make Barbara more human, instead I'll say it makes her fickle and Margerit did have every reason to worry about being left behind. So yes Barbara, you inadvertently knocked this book down, and for someone so graceful I find that quite shocking. Also you're not mysterious, you're just eccentric.


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