Thursday, January 4, 2018

Regular Sip - Conversation Pieces #53 (from Aqueduct Press)

I'm looking at a novella from Aqueduct Press today, another of their Conversation Pieces. I must say, for all the attention that Tor has received with putting out a novella line, similar efforts have always been a part of the SFF landscape, and Aqueduct has been putting out some great works for a long time (this is the 53rd Conversation Piece, and I reviewed the 56th not too long ago). This story captures a playful style that mixes together Victorian literary staples (and Common Domain regulars) like Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, Tarzan, and many more to craft an experience that is a mix of times, styles, and themes. It's a rather charming read, so let's get right to the review!


The Adventure of the Incognita Countess by Cynthia Ward (novella)

Where to start with this book? Well, it's a bit lit A League of Extraordinary Gentleman except better because it's got joyful queer characters, a more nuanced discussion of monsters and morality, and probably even more nods to late 19th/early 20th Century supernatural literature. It follows Lucy Harker aboard the actual Titantic on a covert mission to prevent dangerous Martian technology from falling into the hands of the Germans in an alt-historical take on pre-war Europe. Harker, a dhampir, is an operative of the British government, the step-daughter of M(ycroft Holmes) and is tasked with protecting humanity from other supernatural threats, which is supposed to include vampires. Only when she meets Clarimal (Carmilla), her instincts take her in much different directions than slaying her to protect the other passengers on the ship. Throw in Tarzan and an extended cast that is an I Spy of literary references, and it makes for a rather entertaining (and just a bit spicy) read.

For all that the action is fun and the references are great to find, though, the heart of the story is still very much about the heart of the main character, a woman who has lived her life in service and finds that being a lesbian vampire hunter doesn't really afford her a lot of personal satisfaction and even less respect from those around her, who see only a weak and frail woman. The piece doesn't hand-wave the opinions and taboos of the time, but neither does it pretend that lesbians didn't exist just because it was "the past." The tension between Lucy and her desire and her duty is what drives much of the story forward. She's supposed to be taking out Clarimal and yet finds herself perpetually hesitating. More, she finds herself questioning all of her suppositions and prejudices when it comes to vampires. For a book that uses queer themes and characters, it can't be a mistake that Lucy comes face to face with "the way things are" and discovers that what she originally accepted at face value needs to be re-examined. It doesn't help that with the narratives of abuse and monstrosity what they are, everything points to the fact that Lucy's happiness is impossible, a sacrifice she must make for her country. Except that Lucy herself has the power to challenge that, a power that people make triple sure she uses only to reinforce the status quo. When she finally sees that her obedience might not only stem from an outdated belief system, but also strengthens that belief system, things begin to change for her. Too bad there's also a German plot and an iceberg that sort of get in the way of things.

The action here is well done, following a mystery/espionage format where Lucy is essentially the James Bond, distracted by a beautiful woman as much as she's dedicated to getting the job done. It's fun and even with the darkness of many of the elements there's still a bit of an adventure feel to it—that there will always be a twist to reveal that the good guys can win, even when they're not guys and wonderfully queer. It's a story that defies the pressure to be a queer tragedy, and plays with that trope rather heavily, calling to mind the ways that queerness is often an element of the monsters depicted in Victorian literature, but here it's allowed to be reclaimed and celebrated. The way the story incorporates the various properties and characters into a cohesive whole is also an impressive bit of world building, and it almost begs for further exploration. At least, I would be more than willing to return to this world of monsters, intrigue, and spies. An excellent read!


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