Release Date: May 11, 2023
Genre: Historical Fantasy
Rating: 3/5 Stars
I really like Historical Fantasy. I especially like it when it adds in vampires, and I admit I’m a little bit of a sucker (no pun attended) for stuff around the French Revolution. Throw in the fact this is a retelling and I was completely sold. I’m not overly familiar with The Scarlet Pimpernel, though I do vaguely know the story. It’s possible I would have enjoyed this more with more knowledge of the original tale, but for the most part although I enjoyed some parts of the book, I did struggle with bits.
Some of this book just kind of drags out. Eleanor is a maid in a world facing turbulent times, with the revolution in full swing in France. Vampires are very real and present in this world, mainly as aristocrats, who drink blood from their servants. When it’s discovered Eleanor looks very much like the French queen, a shadowy group (known as The Scarlet Pimpernel) recruit Eleanor to their ranks, hoping she can help them get the queen and her family out of the country. However, shortly after reaching France things go wrong, and Eleanor finds herself separated from the others, lost in the French countryside and desperate for a way to find them again.
Firstly, Eleanor. A character who shares my name and namesake (Eleanor of Aquitaine), referred to by others as Nell initially, and I thought it was a really nice touch that the other characters use this, and only when someone else directly asks her what she prefers does this change. But Eleanor is kind of a flat character. She felt bland. She kind of had some goals, but it never felt like she was particularly doing anything to achieve them until it was offered to her. She’s a servant, who gets annoyed at the way she’s treated by the others and…just puts up with it, until she ‘proves’ how useful she can be. It felt like her character was a bit of a wasted opportunity in terms of the whole revolution thing. The only character she really challenges is a woman as trapped as she is. The other character tries to explain to Eleanor what the revolution means and the changes in place, which Eleanor – an English maid – completely and utterly dismisses rather than engaging with in meaningful way.
This is the other element where it fell down for me. This book feels like it goes a little too hard on the “rah rah England” aspect, where England is held up as an example of Things Done Right, a ‘civilised’ country compared to the ‘scarier’ France. In the book, England isn’t perfect, but whenever Eleanor almost hits any kind of realisation – when she has doubts about the aristocrats she’s with, or the vampire she served – something happens to underscore why They Are Great, Actually, or ‘better than the alternative’, at least. Vampires can’t hold office or have official power, but they’re still in the role of nobility and it’s hard to exactly see why the league are so determined to rescue them from France. It just feels like the revolution and the ideas behind it are never really engaged with, and the villains on the revolution side are portrayed as nastier and more dangerous than any antagonists on the royalist side.
A lot of it just feels a little messy. It feels like it wants to be a fun adventure book, but it’s set against a backdrop of revolution because people are fed up, starving, and angry at the way people are used by the vampires and cast aside. It doesn’t help that the book is releasing at a time when people are fed up, starving, unable to heat their homes, and angry at the way they’ve been treated by employers, politicians, and targeted by the media.
I don’t think this book works. I can see what it’s trying to do, and it’s not a bad book, but it feels like it’s very much both-sidesing issues that aren’t just in the past, and although Cogman is a talented writer, there’s a failure to meaningfully engage with the actual historical events being dealt with here. Which is infuriating, because again, not a bad book, but it just could have been so much better.
Thank you to Tor for providing me a copy of this book via NetGalley. Views remain my own.
2023 Tarot Reading Challenge
Prompt: The Fool
Progress: 2/164 Completed