It’s quite, so very, very twee.
The good stuff: it is very charming. There’s a sweet romance. There are men bicycling. There are feisty ladies. And I wasn’t inclined to either fall asleep or throw the book once.
There’s a very Edwardian England feel about it, all waistcoats, dressing for dinner, carriages, and well-bred women chaperoned when with the opposite sex. The story surrounds a man who has essentially escaped his family to live under an assumed name as a doctor. His family had wanted him to be a human battery for his sister’s powerful Storm magic, and his escape included enlisting in the ongoing war was preferable to staying at home.
“Small courses came one after another, calling for salad forks, a fish knife, red and white wineglasses. I fell into the smiling countenance I’d learned as a young man, but Grace was smooth as a still pond. My tempestuous sister had grown into a woman who steered a conversation where it pleased her, and it pleased her to bless Beauregard Veterans’ with her approval and our family’s money. Would it please her to leave me where I was, doing what good I could for the world?”
The other stuff: The least grumpy and most real of my complaints surround pacing: there was almost no suspense for the majority of this story. I enjoyed reading when I had time, but once I set it down (duty calls, after all), there would be no drive to pick it back up. I had a feeling all along I knew were it would end, so I didn’t feel particularly moved to continue. In fact, I started and finished an Agatha Christie during the same time frame.
Plot surrounds the emotionally disengaged mystery of the poisoned man, presented in the first chapter; the appearance of Tristan, also from chapter one; the vague mystery of the clouds above soldier’s heads, again, chapter one. Progress on these things is incremental. It is literally at 59% when a major plot point happens that suddenly catapults the story into actual action. The ending includes a (mild spoiler) double cross (which was expected), an explanation to a mystery that our incurious, milquetoast doctor didn’t know existed, and which will literally change the world. Along with the answers to all the other questions, which turns out to have huge implications that we didn’t really understand because no one explained this semi-magical nation to us. These mysteries all wrap in the last 50 pages, which is rather unforgivable considering how huge they are. It is also unbelievable out of tone with the with the rest of the novel. It’s like looking at a room full of Monet haystacks, and turning the corner into a Francisco Goya retrospective. Mental whiplash.
I’ll also throw out there that Doctor Miles Singer (aka Sir Christopher Miles Hensley) is absolutely the most clueless doctor in the history of doctor detecting. Although he’s apparently been a psychiatrist for thirteen years, he’s just absolutely baffled by these mysterious clouds above some of the returning soldiers’ heads and he can’t seem to make a connection between that and their illness. Initially, I put all of this down to world-building, ie., me not yet understanding some complexity. But since he (spoiler) partially solves the problem on an individual level halfway through the book, then solves it on a permanent basis while being chased by guards, that excuse didn’t work. Also, he and his friend Tristan, literally take days to discover the grocer that delivered food to a murdered man and work out how he might have been poisoned. Is this useful? Not particularly. But, yay for answers?
I eye-rolled a tad at the Prince-In-Disguise-Perfect Man, but since we’re talking twee, and since it’s super-sweet instead of dopey or sugar-overload, I’ll allow it. Yes, Tristan is perfect. Yes, it’s insta-love. Be aware.
What does all this result in? Honestly, for a first novel, it’s well done. Not on par with Hounded, by Kevin Hearne, but better than Jim Butcher’s first Dresden novel. Maybe along the lines of Greta Helsing in Strange Practice. Probably, part of the problem is me and genre incompatibility, and the only reason I didn’t call it quits was the medical mystery premise. Had Miles been, I don’t know, an accountant, solving the mystery of where missing funds were, or a legal secretary, or some such, I probably would have successfully avoided it. There was a short time where I was particularly intrigued, wondering if we were going to actually go into post-traumatic stress disorder–which I wondered if Miles had, being so determined to stay flat–but really, Polk’s treatment of it is nothing more than surface level at best. So, your mileage may vary. If you like twee, insta-love and doctors riding around on bicycles in tweed coats, this may work for you. I like my fiction a little edgier, and the bits inserted into the end definitely don’t count.