Continuing my streak in above-average teen-adult books, I’m going to have to relax my genre prejudices. Really, I shouldn’t have them; I grew up female, after all, and found a great deal of solace in books with female-centered characters. But the ones I remember were about identity and self-power, and not all wrapped up in which boy was the better love interest (The Hunger Games has a lot to answer for).
I found Vespertine by way of Jennifer’s fun review that noted similarities to a certain misanthropic A.I. Indeed, the lead character Artemisia is very much at odds with most people, but like ‘Bot, she has good reasons to be the way she is. Artemisia was found by the Grey Sisters, a devotional order that serves the Grey Lady by ‘tending to the dead’ so that their spirits don’t rise and corrupt the living in both mental and physical ways. It occurred to me at some point or another, that this could be of Joan of Arc re-telling. I mean, I have no idea if this is true or not; I avoid historical fiction like the—ahem–plague. Artemisia transforms in a way that was unexpected, perhaps largely because of the large gulf that separates her from other people during so much of the story.
“Gritting my teeth, I forced my clumsy fingers to open the tiny hatch and fumble with flint and incense. The scars were the worst on my left hand, where the shiny red tissue that roped my palm had contracted over time and pulled my fingers into permanent claws.”
So though a lot of it feels like a pastiche–‘Bot comparisons noted, there’s also very strong similarities to Novik’s Scholomance series and Muir’s Locked Tomb series–it is well written, with occasional passages that made me stop occasionally in admiration. Towards the last third of the book, it loses the bitter edge and sense of danger in favor of mutualism and seemingly inevitable self-sacrifice (which it also has in common with the aforementioned books. Honestly, I don’t remember my childhood books hitting this theme so hard either. Only the dogs died [Kali Wallace notes this as well in her discussion of childhood books], which speaks to my next point.) ‘carol,’ I hear you saying, ‘surely the threat of self-death is biting and dangerous?’ Actually, my friend, and I say this with the perspective of fifty years of life, no, particularly when it is in service to a greater good. No, and a thousand times more, no.
“It wasn’t a visiting pilgrim; it was Mother Katherine, her downy white head bent in prayer. She looked frail. The observation swooped down on me without warning. Somehow, I hadn’t noticed how old she’d gotten–it was as though I had wiped the dust from a painting and seen it clearly for the first time in years, after ages of simply forgetting to look.”
It got a little long at the end, mostly because, well, I’m apparently old and thought we were just drawing out the drama at a certain point. However, it deserves accolades for having believable character growth and for–gasp–passing the Bechdel test. In a young adult book, no less (which, incidentally, my books rarely had. The friends were always books or dragons). This book stands alone just fine (the author says it is the first in a series), but I’ll be looking out for the sequel.
Many thanks to Jennifer!