The Adventure of the Naked Guide by Cynthia Ward (novella)
No Spoilers: We’re back with Lucy Harker and her lover, the vampire Carmilla, in the midst of a World War I spliced with the literature produced roughly around that time, with a particular interest in early science fiction, horror, and adventure stories. After discovering that the world is hollow in the previous book, this book moves the action decidedly into that space, full of dinosaurs, cave people, women warriors, and sentient dinosaur-people. It’s hardly a sight-seeing journey, though, and Lucy has to contend with a lot while trying to retrieve her captured mother from the clutches of an evil German super-scientist. The piece is packed with action and drama, expanding on some of the world building the previous installments have established, complicating what it means to be a vampire, and what it means to have a soul, in a reality that seems at times as mercurial as fiction. As always, the piece is consistently entertaining and occasionally profound. Unlike the previous volumes, though, this one ends with a promise of more adventures to come and much different direction for Lucy Harker.
Keywords: World War I, Hollow Earth, Queer MC, Vampires, Robots, Dinosaurs
Review: The action of this third book certainly lives up to the previous two. With each installment, things get a bit more and more Strange and Epic. The first was a rather intimate affair on board the Titantic. The second took place across the battlefields of World War I Europe. Now the action moves almost entirely underground, in the inner world, which is full of dinosaurs and others dangers, both of the physical and ethical sense. Because tucked into the expanding cast is An, a young woman of the Inner World, who is brash and not afraid of pursuing what she wants, and she wants Lucy...just as much as Lucy is obviously attracted to her, not least of which because she doesn’t exactly bother with clothes (hence the title of this book).
More than that, though, An gives Lucy a voice that comes from outside of the Victorian morality of the time. In the Inner World, where humans are struggling against the dangers of dinosaurs and a sentient dinosaur-people who both don’t mind eating humans, there really isn’t such a focus on relationships purely based on reproduction. At first that might seem odd, but as An points out, there are always plenty of children to adopt, so why worry about it (which I love how Lucy, an intellectual who has internalized so much Victorian bullshit, is challenged and really forced to confront her demons by a woman who couldn’t care less). If anything, the book is a long pivot for Lucy, who has to realize a lot of things she held as true, despite them being contrary to her heart and her inclinations, is built on stories. And it’s a meta twist in a series that is all about stories, about stitching together this picture of the early 1900s through its literature, complete with its messy takes on sexuality and gender, right and wrong, empire and civilization. And Lucy comes to realize that a lot of people with power realize that the world is made of stories, and that the real struggle is always to control those stories. To be the one telling them. Which makes me kind of sad for them, because they’re assholes, and in a story themselves, and I kinda suspect that’s not going to end up working out for them.
But just the freedom that the Inner World represents, then, the mirror it holds up to the rest of the world, is enough for Lucy to see the cracks, to notice that the stories people tell (be it religion or governments, empire or ethics) change and twist to suit certain groups, and that she needs to be making her own mind up about the way the world is and should be, rather than swallowing the party line of queer and country. Things get real in this book in ways that they hadn’t before. Not in the violence (though that is still very present) but in the way that she can see her own people acting against their expressed morals. She sees people she works for betraying their allies, and covering up atrocities, all the name of controlling the narrative of the world. And I love that she comes to the point of wanting to tear it all down. Because yes, a lot of her problematic ideas, her racism and her internalized homophobia, is a product of the time. But that doesn’t excuse the wrongness of them. And she can see that, just as anyone could see it at the time. And she can try to fight against that, just as many fought against those things even hundreds of years ago. It’s a wonderful evolution of the character, and a brilliant way to deepen the story, shifting the goalposts that were always stained by imperialism and repression. And personally I can’t wait to see what happens next. Lucy is finally starting to really open her eyes and embrace herself and her desires, and it happens even as Clarimal (Carmilla) seems to be slipping the chains her vampirism “should” put on her. Which might be about people not believing in god as much or might be more about the strength of her own belief that she isn’t beyond redemption, and the love she shares with Lucy. It’s a fun and frantic run of a book, and so worth checking out!