Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Book Review 2018 #5 - Tasha Alexander's A Fatal Waltz

A Fatal Waltz by Tasha Alexander
Published by: William Morrow Paperbacks
Publication Date: May 20th, 2008
Format: Paperback, 304 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

Not every country house party ends in murder, but this one will. Oh, if only Emily had had the sense to stay home. But no, she agreed to come to the home of a man she detests in order to support her dear friend Ivy. Ivy's husband Robert needs the political support of their odious host, Lord Fortescue, if he's going to make it in government. The only bright spot in the whole endeavor is that Emily gets to spend the weekend with Colin Hargreaves, her fiancé. But that bright spot is soon eclipsed by the Austrian Countess Kristiana von Lange. Kristiana makes it very clear that she and Colin have a past, possibly a present, and maybe a future, and there's nothing that Emily can do about it. This leaves Emily impotent with rage as Kristiana insinuates herself into the political talks among the men after dinner while Emily, trying to keep Ivy's best interests in mind, demurs and retires with the women, much to Lord Fortescue's approbation. In fact leaving the dinner table is the only thing Emily has done right in the eyes of their host. Emily's hackles are raised and another guest, Mr. Harrison, conveniently has a plan to get back at Lord Fortescue.

If Emily hadn't been so turned around by Kristiana, maybe she would have realized that Mr. Harrison didn't have her best interests at heart and maybe Emily could have seen there was a murderer among them. Instead their host is shot dead and dear Ivy's husband Robert is arrested for the murder. Once back in London Emily tries to piece together the information she has at hand with rumors and suppositions. Robert even gives her a few clues and everything points to a nefarious plot in Vienna. Emily can't exonerate Robert from London, so she packs up her bags, grabs her trusty sidekicks, Jeremy, Cecile, and Cecile's odious dogs, and heads to the town of her romantic rival. Little does she know that she is being followed by Mr. Harrison and her beloved Colin. And though she loathes to do it, she approaches Kristiana for help, which is denied. Kristiana will only help if Emily will forfeit all claims to Colin, something Emily knows, deep in her heart, she could never do. As the danger mounts and Emily makes alliances with the oddest assortment of artists and villains, she worries that she will be unable to save Robert, herself, or Colin. Could this be the end of all of them?

There's a realness to this installment that deepens your connection to Emily and her world. Up until this point it's not that her world was shallow, but that the stories dealt with situations that weren't too far removed from the world Emily inhabited. She was investigating her own little sphere of the world and crimes that were closely adjacent to it, maids that might be murderers. We've seen the strictures and the societal surface one must maintain, but at the same time it felt more in the realm of romanticized historical fiction with the denouement tied up nicely with a bow. Yet Victorian times weren't all fluff, there were real concerns, real problems, and here we are digging deeper into those issues and forging a stronger connection to Emily as Emily herself forms a stronger connection to the world around her. The first time this struck me was when Lord Fortescue has the hundreds and hundreds of birds from their shoot laid out for display during lunch. This excess, this cruelty to animals, this is the real world the landed gentry inhabited and exploited. House parties weren't wonderful social gatherings, they were sanctioned murder, even if your host didn't bite the big own.

Then there's the death fog Emily remembers engulfing London when she was a child. The poverty, the anarchists, every little thing makes Emily's world more real. Her world is grounded in truth, in a world we can see every night when we turn on the news. She is no longer sheltered, she is becoming an educated woman who we can relate to more than even before when she was just a pampered princess destined to marry royalty, if her mother had had a say in it. As Tasha writes in her afterward, this introduction of the horrors of the world is being done purposefully to make Emily a socially conscious being. And in becoming socially conscious Emily herself is becoming more real to us. Sure, we all occasionally dream of the life Emily had, being blissfully ignorant and free to flounce around the house being indulgent, but a fantasy can not last in the long run. Lady Emily's adventures would have no long term sustainability. There's only so many wrongfully accused kitchen maids a series can contain, and by expanding Emily as a person you expand her horizons. Therefore a series that could have petered out a few volumes in is releasing it's thirteenth volume this fall.

All this realness means that there is real danger and real consequences. Yes, we've had death and danger before, but Emily treated it breezily, it was there but it would be overcome and there would be no consequences except for the guilty. Here the danger is palpable. The threat of Mr. Harrison and his bullet calling cards, while yes, a little like something a Bond villain would do, upsets Emily's world of luxurious hotels and Sacher Tortes. Having to make alliances with anarchists who are dangerous themselves and are scared of Mr. Harrison gives you an idea as to this man's villainy. And while I knew there were more books in the series, I couldn't help but be drawn in and think, as Colin and Emily were, that they might not survive. This question being raised makes Emily and us realize the true dangers of Colin's job. He has faced this kind of situation again and again. In fact Kristiana hints that that is why she never left her husband for Colin, because the distraction of a wife could endanger him. Which makes Emily wonder, is Colin in her life worth the constant risk of losing him? Can she live like this? Real danger means you might not want to have to face the answers to real questions.

But for the longest time Emily views Kristiana as a far bigger danger to her and Colin's happiness than the looming specter of death. While I could groan at the introduction of a love triangle, this one never falls into the typical tropes. There was something fun about Emily having competition for Colin. You knew, deep in your heart, that Colin could never stray. At least not now that he's met Emily. But that doesn't discount the importance of this woman in his past or her powers over him in the present. Every chance she got Kristiana was pulling on Emily's strings and getting just the rise out of her she wanted. Historical Fiction with a romantic bent seems to always marry off their couples in too rapid a fashion and then have a happily ever after that only occasionally sees bumps of the romantic kind. That's why I love that Tasha hasn't married off Colin and Emily just yet. There's more believability that Kristiana is a threat. There's a playfulness in this what-if scenario. Competition can bring out the best in people, but not with Emily in this instance. It brings out all her bad qualities, and again, it makes her more real, more relatable. That Lady Emily Ashton could get her hackles up over her true love? Just shows it can happen to any of us.

Though for all it's realness, the most important aspect of A Fatal Waltz to me is it's most memorable character, the city of Vienna itself! I've never been and oddly enough have never really given much thought to this city that was literally the center of an artistic and cultural revolution, but now I want to pack my bags and go. Right. Now. Of course I'd prefer to go in winter with the snow falling in beautiful drifts as Emily enjoyed it, but as long as I can go to all the cafes and walk all the streets I think I could find true enjoyment. But alas, I don't know if such famous personages would be peopling the cafes. So could I literally get a time machine and go when Emily went? To see Klimt paint and dance to a Strauss waltz actually conducted by Strauss! To visit Sisi, the Empress Elisabeth of Austria, though I have a feeling I'd need to take Cecile with me to get that invite. Even if I didn't know how well traveled Tasha is, you can tell in reading the book that Tasha has been there, she's walked in Emily's steps before she even put pen to paper. This just makes the city so real that as I said earlier, it's a character onto itself! It's not just buildings, but memorable people and a feeling, something that makes you want to go back there even if you've never been because somehow Tasha has made this city an old friend.


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