Author: Shay Shortt

Slayer

Cover image for Slayer by Kiersten White by Kiersten White

ISBN 978-1-53440495-3

 “And that’s my struggle, the truth of my life among the Watchers, growing up and aiding a society that exists because of Slayers: I hate them. What they are, what they do. And I hate none of them as much as I hate Buffy.”

When Buffy destroyed the Seed of Wonder, magic went out of the world. The hell mouths were sealed, cutting Earth off from the infernal realms. But the demons who were on Earth when the portals closed are now trapped here forever. Some latent magic still remains; vampires have not stopped existing, though they can no longer properly sire new vampires, and all of the Potentials who became Slayers still have their powers. Nina is the last Slayer, her powers activated in the final moments before magic left the world forever. And as the daughter of Watchers, this is the last thing she ever could have wanted. Because Nina hates Slayers, and Buffy in particular. Her father died serving as Buffy’s first Watcher, after all. Buffy is the Slayer who rejected the Watcher tradition Nina was raised to respect and uphold. And Buffy is responsible for destroying magic, taking away what little power the remaining Watchers had to protect themselves in this brave new world.

The group of young Watchers that form the cast of Slayer are among the last survivors of the ancient organization that has watched over the Chosen One for generations. There are a handful of older Watchers, forming what is left of the Council, and a few very young children, but teens Nina, Artemis, and Rhys, along with the slightly older Honora, Leo, and Imogen make up the bulk of the survivors. Together, they form the Watcher version of the Scooby Gang, figuring out how to fight evil and stay safe in a world that is somehow no less dangerous for magic’s passing. The once-warded Irish castle they now call home has been stripped of its protections, vengeful demons might be lurking anywhere, eager for a bit of revenge, and the end the Watcher line forever.

I think some people will probably find Nina’s hatred of Buffy off-putting, because it is an intense and ill-founded dislike of the character at the heart of this universe. However, it felt like a genuine and honest motivation for someone who has never actually met the Slayer in person, but has suffered for her choices nevertheless. Buffy and other characters from the original canon do not appear directly, but do make various cameos by way of mention, as well as dream sequences. Wesley’s status as a fallen Watcher working for a vampire detective, for example, is the butt of many jokes. Nina also has her own characterization and backstory beyond hating the Slayer. She has carved out a place for herself as healer, since she has never been deemed strong enough for proper Watcher training, while her twin sister Artemis is more of the warrior. Her relationship with her mother is fraught, but she is tight with her sister, and her best friend Rhys

The tone of the book is very much in keeping with the middle seasons of the show, where Buffy was about the same age as Slayer’s protagonists. Kiersten White is on point with the quippy dialogue and off-beat humour in the face of danger that characterized the show’s writing style. The camp and melodrama counter-points the typical teen angst of the Buffyverse, making for a familiar return to a beloved world, even if the characters are different.

Watch Us Rise

Cover image for Watch Us Rise by Renee Watson and Ellen Haganby Renée Watson and Ellen Hagan

ISBN 978-1-5476-008-3

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

“This has to be about bringing women’s voices to the forefront. This has to be about speaking up and not allowing your voices to be silenced… It has to be bigger than your anger or disappointment at one or two people. This isn’t only personal. It’s about every girl everywhere. And if you only make it about your school, your club, you make it small.”

Jasmine and Chelsea are best friends who attend a progressive, social justice oriented high school in Washington Heights. But despite their school’s liberal ideology, the girls still face sexism and racism on a regular basis, from the casting of school plays, to the limited selection of poets they are assigned to read.  Every student is required to be in a club, but when they become fed up with the microagressions they face in their current after school activities, Jasmine and Chelsea decide to start their own group, focusing on women’s rights and voices. But when their blog becomes unexpectedly popular, they face pushback from some of their peers, as well as the school administration, and they will have to find the courage to keep raising their voices and fight for change.

Although this book started slow, and could be a bit didactic at times, the two best friends are full of a righteous, youthful fury that felt familiar and authentic. Jasmine is thoughtful, and good at strategically positioning their ideas in a way that makes adults listen to them, while Chelsea is a little bit more unbridled and forthright about her dissatisfaction. Together they make a good balance. Jasmine is also struggling with her father’s slow decline from cancer, while Chelsea is facing the reality that the personal is political when she has to figure out how to deal with a crush on a boy who has a girlfriend, yet seems to return her feelings. Can she be a feminist, and like someone who is unavailable, or is she betraying her values?

The two best friends have one another’s backs, and are strong allies, but their friendship is not without some of its own turmoil. Jasmine is caught in the crux of feeling simultaneously invisible and hypervisible. Her blackness is often noted or remarked upon, yet somehow, her fatness is used to render her invisible, and ignored. Even her best friend doesn’t consider it when they go out shopping together, and Jasmine can’t try anything on in the stores Chelsea likes, or when they order t-shirts for a protest they are planning, and Chelsea fails to consider that the shirts she has chosen doesn’t come in a large enough women’s size for Jasmine to wear. However, I appreciated the fact that their differences weren’t played for petty drama, but rather were something for them to work through in order to become closer, and understand one another better.

I think I related to this book quite strongly because when I was in high school, a group of friends and I tried to start a gay-straight alliance. This would have been the early 2000s, and gay marriage was recently legalized in my home province of British Columbia, but was still the subject of national debate. Nation-wide legalization was still a year or two away. The school told us that a GSA was too specific, and not inclusive enough. Not knowing any better at the time, we agreed to a “Diversity Club” instead. I wish we’d had a fraction of the knowledge or resources these girls have in their community, from supportive parents, to understanding teachers, to a local anarchist feminist book store. We didn’t know that we should have pushed back harder, much less how to go about it. Watch Us Rise specifically shows teens not just figuring out what they believe in, but how to live it, and fight for it.

The chapters in Watch Us Rise are told from alternating points of view, and often end with essays, blog posts, and poems. Sometimes only one or two, but sometimes several pages, including reproducing the likes, shares, comments, and reblogs of the post. I think this is the element of the book where people will probably differ in their level of enjoyment or connection. I enjoyed the occasional selection, but struggled when it went on for too long, as I wanted to get back to the plot. Honestly, I might also have struggled with the earnestness of this story when I was a teen, having been strongly prone to sarcasm and cynicism, but there are elements of this book I could have used then nevertheless, and find valuable now.

You might also like Juliet Takes a Breath  by Gabby Rivera

Because Internet

Cover image for Because Internet by Gretchen McCullochby Gretchen McCulloch

ISBN 978-0-7352-1093-6

“Whatever else is changing for good or bad in the world, the continued evolution of language is neither the solution to all our problems, nor the cause of them. It simply is. You never truly step in the same English twice.”

Canadian internet linguist Gretchen McCulloch studies the informal written English that has grown up around our use of the internet, as well as text messaging and chat services. Because Internet covers a lot of ground, from typographical methods of conveying tone of voice, to emoji as gesture, to the evolution of memes, and the centuries-long quest for sarcasm punctuation. Her study focuses predominantly on English, with occasional examples from other languages and cultures. Taking a broad view, McCulloch surveys the origins and precursors of how informal written language has evolved since took to the web, and will continue to develop as new generations make their own changes and additions to the lexicon.

Because Internet is a prescriptivist’s nightmare; McCulloch is less interested in how we should use language, than in describing how our use of the written word has evolved to help us communicate over the internet, and through other forms of technological mediation. As she points out, “standard language and correct spelling are collective agreements, not eternal truths.” She notes that the fact that young women lead linguistic change is so well established as to be an unremarkable state of affairs in linguistic circles. But it also likely helps explain why such changes are so heavily derided; young women are rarely taken seriously. However, McCulloch approaches her study with the same attention and rigour usually devoted to more formalized texts.

One of the most interesting sections of the book covers the evolution of emoticons and emoji to facilitate text-based communication. McCulloch contends that they serve the purpose of mitigating a feature that is both a strength and weakness of writing—it is disembodied. The disadvantage becomes evident “when it comes to representing emotions and other mental states.” What is stunning is that over time, “a couple billion internet users had subconsciously, collectively, and spontaneously” mapped the functions of embodied gestures and facial expressions on the capacity for text or image-based icons to convey those missing nuances.

McCulloch also maps some subtle changes in the way we use punctuation. In informal writing, terminal periods have begun to disappear, to the point that younger people will sometimes read a period as passive aggressive. Falling somewhere in between the two age groups, I looked at my own text messaging history and realized that, indeed, my terminal periods had largely disappeared. I would end a sentence with a question mark or an exclamation point, but if the final punctuation mark would have been a period, I generally left it off and simply sent the message. Similarly, different generations use ellipses in different ways. While older people will use the … as a connector between thoughts, younger people will tend to read in hesitance, or omission, and wonder what isn’t being said.

In a guest post on Whatever, McCulloch explains that she decided to write to the reader of the future. So if you are what McCulloch calls a current “Full Internet Person,” certain explanations will probably feel unnecessary, but as time passes this context will become more important for everyone, just as it is currently useful for “Semi Internet People” who don’t live and breathe memes, and aren’t on the cutting edge of every social media trend. This approach does make for some sections that feel a bit overwritten for the current reader, but the current reader is only current for this fleeting moment in time. Because Internet captures the early linguistic evolution of informal writing on the internet.

You might also like Lost in Translation 

Sorcery of Thorns

Cover image for Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson by Margaret Rogerson

ISBN 9781481497619

“She would never dare give voice to such a thought aloud. The sentiment verged on betraying her oaths to the Great Library. But a part of her rebelled against the idea that in order to be a good apprentice, she should close her eyes and pretend she hadn’t seen. How could a warden defend against something they didn’t understand? Surely it was better to face evil than cower from its presence, learning nothing.”

As a child of the Great Libraries of Austermeer, orphaned Elisabeth Scrivener has been raised surrounded by the magical grimoires that house the arcane secrets of the kingdom. Since sorcery is only possible via demonic bargain, magic users are necessary to the security of the kingdom, but also suspect, and never to be trusted. Librarians and their apprentices, like Elisabeth, tightly control access to magical knowledge, and are responsible for containing and protecting the most dangerous books. Worse, if a grimoire is a damaged, it can transform into a violent Malefict, wreaking havoc until it is bound or destroyed. When a disaster at the Great Library of Summershall forces Elisabeth to ally with the taciturn young sorcerer Nathaniel Thorn, and his demonic servant, the precepts of the Great Libraries are called into question, with the fate of Austermeer hanging in the balance.

In Sorcery of Thorns, Margaret Rogerson has created a tantalizing world, both filled with magic, and where magical knowledge is forbidden, with the practice of sorcery tightly controlled by law. But while sorcerers are dangerous, they are also powerful, and the checks and balances of power in such a world make for intriguing politics. Who gets access to knowledge, and who gets to decide? What have the old magical families kept in reserve, even after the Reforms that stripped them of the right to practice their craft freely? Elisabeth does not come from one of the old sorcery families; in fact, she has no family at all save for the Warden who chose to raise her in the Great Library. As a young, non-magical woman, she has very little power, and even less credibility, making her quest to discover what really happened at Summershall all the more difficult.

Fortunately, of course, Nathaniel Thorn has the power and prestige that Elisabeth lacks, though he has tried his best to remain aloof from the politics of Austermeer’s magical elite. With all his relatives dead, he has largely cut himself off from society as much as he can get away with while still serving his duty as a sorcerer to the crown. Elisabeth’s problem is to convince him to let down his walls, and forge an alliance with her, even as she is uncertain whether or not she should be trusting any sorcerer. Her circumstances leave her with little choice, but it is a constant tension that defines the course of the narrative. Keeping company with Nathaniel changes not only her idea of the world they live in, but her conception of herself and what she imagines for her future.

The third point of the triad at the heart of Sorcery of Thorns is Silas, the hereditary demon of the Thorn clan. The names of high demons are passed down from father to son, and when the father inevitably pays the price for his bargain, it is the duty of the son to recall the demon, and continue the family’s legacy and duty to the kingdom, whatever the personal cost. Demons are to be trusted even less than sorcerers, but something about Silas seems different from the other high demons Elisabeth encounters after she travels to the capital. However, the more time she spends with Nathaniel and Silas, the more she learns about the terrible price the Thorns have paid to keep him bound into their service over the centuries.

Sorcery of Thorns has not been billed as a series, and it contains a strong standalone plot that is concluded within the volume. The magical setting results in a thoroughly immersive reading experience, and Elisabeth’s stubbornness and curiosity make for a heroine who is inevitably going to push boundaries and ask hard questions as she outgrows the world of her childhood. Mix in some romance, action, and intrigue, and you have the recipe for a fascinating read.

You might also like Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

Flamebringer (Heartstone #3)

Cover image for Flamebringer by Elle Katharine White by Elle Katharine White

ISBN 978-0-06-274798-3

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

 “You humans with your saints and heroes. Learn the truth as I did, both you and your husband: they will always disappoint you. If Alastair returns to Pendragon a wiser man for my honesty, then I will have done some good. It is all I have left to offer House Daired.”

Weary and disenchanted by their adventures in the north of Arle, Aliza, Alastair, and Akarra return south bearing a dire warning. Their old enemy Wydrick lives, ghast-ridden and merely the harbinger of a greater evil yet to come. Old things are stirring in Arle and abroad, and war is coming. The Silent King of Els is coming to Edonarle, even as the Tekari range ever further southward, terrorizing the towns and villages in their path. But will either the dragons or the human rulers of Arle listen to their warnings, or it will it be up to the Daireds to mount a lonely defense against the old grudges that are finally being called to account?

While Heartstone began as a Pride and Prejudice adaptation, by the third volume that scaffolding has largely fallen away, as Flamebringer is well beyond the bounds of that plot, leaving only the characters to hint at the origins of the tale. The story becomes about grappling with history and tradition, both for Aliza and Alastair personally, and the Kingdom of Arle as a whole. The return of Tristan Wydrick forces both Aliza and Alistair to face up to their previous relationship to him, and the social disparities that led him down his current path. As the plot develops, it becomes evident that Wydrick’s fate ties back to old Daired secrets, which House Pendragon has wilfully forgotten, but other still remember, and do not forgive. House Daired is an old power in Arle, but on what foundation was that power built?

After setting Dragonshadow in the north of Arle, and separating Aliza and Alistair from their family and friends, Flamebringer returns south, catching up with the Bentaine sisters, as well as Julienna Daired and Cedric Brysney. Bearing dire news about the war to come, Aliza hesitates to share all of her misadventures in the north with her sister, even though she is delighted to be reunited with Anjey. Their reunion sparks doubt in Aliza, as she realizes that Anjey has embraced the identity of Rider as her own, training and fighting alongside her husband. Still more healer than warrior, and attuned to the fact that Rider culture will never fully accept her, Aliza has a harder time leaving her old life behind as she tries to settle into the new one. Together the two form an interesting contrast in adapting to a new culture, and new life circumstances. The complex relationships depicted between the sisters remain one of my favourite aspects of the series.

Dragonshadow (Heartstone #2)

Cover image for Dragonshadow by Elle Katharine White by Elle Katharine White

ISBN 978-0-06-274796-9

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

“I won’t play this game. Aliza is your wife, not your servant. You can’t dismiss her and you certainly can’t slip away in the night without telling her. Frankly, I’m a little ashamed to see you try.”

The Greater Lindworm is dead, and Aliza Bentaine and Alistair Daired are happily wed and settled at House Pendragon. But only a couple of weeks into their honeymoon, reality has come calling. The Tekari continue to wreak havoc on the Kingdom of Arle in the aftermath of the Battle of North Fields, and the offers for Alistair and Akarra to take a new contract are mounting. The question of which contract to accept is settled when a desperate messenger from the far north of the kingdom collapses on their doorstep, bringing news of a threat that hunts Idar, and has now begun to claim human victims as well. But as Alistair and Akarra prepare to travel north, Aliza is determined not to be left behind

The second installment in this series follows on Heartstone, which could be best described as Pride and Prejudice with dragons. However, Dragonshadow stands alone, having left the parameters of the original scaffolding story behind. I was curious to see if White would try to pull in another narrative, perhaps using elements of a different Austen story, but Dragonshadow instead delves deeper into the fantasy elements to explore the fallout of the Battle of North Fields. Old, dark things are stirring in Arle, and the lindworms were only the beginning. While humans freely harvest heartstones from the Tekari, they do not take them from the Idar, and wearing the heartstone of a Shani is unthinkable. But meeting some of the Idar, and talking to one Centaur in particular, causes Aliza to beginning thinking about how these distinctions among Arle’s magical creatures arose in the first place.

Many of the supporting characters from Heartstone do not feature in Dragonshadow, as Alistair and Aliza wing north to Castle Selwyn with Akarra. None of Aliza’s sisters make an on page appearance, and nor does Alistair’s sister Julienna feature. I found this a bit disappointing, since I really enjoyed the sibling dynamics in Heartstone, but White highlights other relationships here. I particularly enjoyed the dynamic between Aliza and Akarra. Although Akarra is bonded to Alistair, she accepts Aliza into that bond as an equal, despite her lack of Rider pedigree. More than that, she calls Alistair on his nonsense when his protectiveness borders on infantilizing. It would have been easy to set up a conflict between Aliza and Akarra, but their friendship is much more interesting.

This final point is a bit spoilery, but also falls into the category of content warnings. Over the course of the story, Aliza discovers, and then loses, a very early pregnancy. It’s rare to see miscarriage depicted in a fantasy novel at all, let alone sensitively handled. I was a bit worried that it would be used as a destructive plot point for Alistair, who would blame either himself or Aliza for killing their child by allowing her to accompany him on the contract, but fortunately White does not take the story down that road. Instead, Aliza is surrounded by empathetic and supportive women from Castle Selwyn, some of whom have known loss of their own.

In order to live happily ever after, Aliza knows she needs to figure out how she will walk the line between the traditions of the dragon riders, and staying true to her own heart. As Lady Daired, new expectations threaten to hem her in at every turn, but she is determined to forge her own path, and set her own terms for what it means to be a Rider’s wife. Sequels with newly married characters often find an excuse to separate them in order to add tension to the plot, but Dragonshadow stands out by having Aliza and Alistair face the difficulties together, weathering their first disagreements as newlyweds. I look forward to the Daireds’ further adventures in Flamebringer.

Ninth House

Cover image for Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo by Leigh Bardugo

ISBN 978-1250-31307-2

 “Nothing is going to stop this. Too many powerful people rely on what the societies can do. Before Lethe existed, no one was keeping watch. So you can make futile bleating noises in protest and lose you scholarship, or you can stay here, do your job, and do the most good you can.”

Alex Stern never expected to end up at Yale. She spent most of her teen years going from fix to fix, looking to numb out, to forget. But when an overdose lands her in the hospital, she wakes up to an unexpected visitor. Dean Sandow of Yale University knows much more about her than any stranger should, and he has an offer to make Alex; come to Yale on a full scholarship, in exchange for serving as the watch dog to Yale’s secret societies. When she arrives on campus, Alex descends into a world of privilege and magic, monitoring the arcane rights of the societies, and ensuring that they follow the proper occult forms for their rituals. She was supposed to have an entire year to learn the rules from outgoing delegate Daniel Arlington before he graduated and moved on. But then Darlington disappears, and a girl is murdered, and it is up to Alex to ensure that none of the societies were responsible.

Told in alternating chapters, Ninth House toggles between Alex’s arrival at Yale in the autumn, and the investigation into the murder of Tara Hutchins during the winter. Leigh Bardugo carefully peels back the layers, doling out information in dribs and drabs. Alex’s past is murky, and the precise events the led her to the hospital where Dean Sandow made her his offer even more so. She doesn’t want to think about it. The circumstances around Darlington’s disappearance are equally mysterious; no one is supposed to know that he isn’t just spending a semester abroad, lest the societies get any funny ideas. What quickly becomes evident is why Alex was chosen; she can see the Grays, the ghostly shadows of the dead that haunt New Haven and the Yale campus, and threaten to disrupt occult rites if not banished by graveyard dirt or death words. Every watcher before her has had to swallow a nasty, toxic potion to perform this duty, but Alex can see the Grays all the time, even when she would rather not.

Ninth House might be best described as a dark fantasy with horror vibes. It is set in our own world, but to the privilege of wealth is added the privilege of magic, the one contributing to the other. The fact that it feels just one step to the left of what is real only serves to make it that much more eerie. Some of the horror is magical in nature, but much of it is real. Trigger warnings for this title include, but are not limited to: rape and sexual assault, ritual gore, drug use, and self-harm. Bardugo is examining these events from the point of view of the victims and survivors, but nevertheless, some of these occurrences make for difficult reading.

In many respects, Ninth House is an examination of structural inequality. It is all too easy to imagine the privileged secret societies of an Ivy League school keeping magic to themselves, and using it to increase their power, wealth, and influence, widening the gap between themselves and everyone else. Alex is trying to bear the weight of the responsibility she has taken on, but she is being slowly crushed under the burden. Her aborted high school career left her utterly unprepared for the rigours of study at Yale, just as Darlington’s sudden disappearance leaves her utterly unprepared for performing the full scope of her responsibilities. Lethe House is supposed to monitor and curtail the excesses of the other eight houses, but Lethe is also dependent on the houses for the very funding that allows it to continue to exist, creating a conflict of interest that threatens to bind Alex’s hands at every turn. Power dynamics are constantly in play.

At nearly five hundred pages long, Ninth House is a slow burn. Bardugo plays her cards close to the vest, and only doles out information grudgingly. This opening and build up contrasts sharply with the dramatic twists and rapid turns of the ending, which comes to more than one false conclusion. While the main plot is largely wrapped up in this volume, Bardugo leaves the door open for more mysteries in the world of Alex Stern.

The Five

Cover image for The Five by Hallie Rubenholdby Hallie Rubenhold

ISBN 9781328664082

“Much like the occupants of Whitechapel’s common lodging houses, the victims of Jack the Ripper and the lives they led became entangled in a web of assumptions, rumor, and unfounded speculation.”

In 1888, in one of London’s poorest, most downtrodden neighbourhoods, five women were murdered between August 31 and November 9, setting off a panic amongst Whitechapel’s residents, and an obsession in the public mind that survives to this day. The five women, Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elisabeth Stride, Kate Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly were the victims of the killer called the Whitechapel Murderer in his time, but who would come to be known as Jack the Ripper. The killer was never caught, and while the five women were soon forgotten, their murderer became a legend, giving rise to “Ripperology,” or the study of the series of murders that took place in Whitechapel, and the ongoing quest to identify the person responsible. In The Five, historian Hallie Rubenhold places the five so-called “canonical victims” of Jack the Ripper at the centre of her narrative, focusing not on their deaths, but on the lives and social circumstances that would ultimately bring them to a common end.

Rubenhold opens The Five on Trafalgar Square in 1887, a year before the events that would claim the lives of her five subjects. Hundreds of homeless Londoners descended on the Square each night, bedding down on the paving stones, in a Victorian precursor that modern audiences might recognize in the more recent Occupy movement. Among them was Polly Nichols, who was no stranger to sleeping on the streets when she did not have enough money to buy a bed for the night. She had no fixed address. In opening on this scene, Rubenhold emphasizes that poverty and homelessness were rife in Victorian London, and that many factors contributed to the situation.

Most of the victims were born into working class families, with trades such as printing, tin making, and soldiering. Elisabeth Stride was a Swedish immigrant who arrived in London to work as a servant. Of the five, only Mary Jane Kelly’s early life remains a mystery, lost to a series of fabrications and name changes. Four of the women were, or had been married, and three of them had children. Although Jack the Ripper’s victims are commonly remembered as prostitutes, Rubenhold contests this narrative, laying bare the cultural assumptions that gave rise to an equivalency between homeless women and sex work that is difficult to substantiate. Though it is impossible to definitively rule out occasional engagement in survival sex, she finds clear evidence of sex work in the histories of only two of the women. In the case of Elisabeth Stride, she may have left Sweden in part to escape a reputation that lingered even after she had left the trade behind. Ultimately, of course, it does not matter whether Polly, Annie, Elisabeth, Kate, and Mary Jane were, or ever had been sex workers. They were poor, vulnerable women struggling to survive on the streets of London’s East End. They were victims of a brutal murderer who felt entitled to take their lives, knowing that society would not value their loss.

If not prostitution, there are other common threads along the path that led each of the women to one of London’s poorest neighbourhoods. The breakdown of a marriage was a common catalyst; unable to legally divorce, they simply left. And since the work available to women did not pay a living wage, leaving meant falling into a makeshift existence, trying day by day to scrape together four pence for a bed in one of the East End’s filthy lodging houses. The other option was to commit oneself to the workhouse, exchanging a day’s labour for a night’s lodging and a meagre meal. However, the workhouse was fraught with shame, and many would choose to sleep rough rather than submit. Alcoholism was also a shared problem, though the relationship between cause and effect is murky. Which of the women landed on the streets because they drank too much, and which drank too much to dull the difficulties of poverty and homelessness?

The Five felt neither voyeuristic or nor obsessive, two qualities that often leave me feeling slightly uncomfortable with some other true crime narratives. Rubenhold’s stylistic avoidance of the killer is very clean; he is elided and deemphasized at every turn. No attempt is made to build suspense up to the moment of their deaths, or to speculate about what they endured in their final moments. The deaths are not lingered over, and the mutilation of their bodies is minimally described, noted only in the difficulties they lent to identifying the victims, and the impact seeing this desecration had on the family members who were called upon to performance this office. The substance of the work is given up to their lives, and their surrounding social circumstances, not their gruesome ends.

I would have liked to learn more about how Rubhenhold sifted through the conflicting and biased evidence that survives in order to piece together the lives of these five women. However, I think that such a method would ultimately have detracted from Rubenhold’s focus on centering the lives of the women, rather than their deaths, and the legend that grew up around their murderer. To ruminate too much on methodology would be to slip back into the amateur sleuthing that defines so much of the modern obsession with Jack the Ripper. Rubenhold notes in the text when the coroner’s records of an inquest do not survive, forcing her to rely on newspaper accounts of dubious and conflicting accuracy. She also states that she privileged the evidence and testimony of the people who knew the women in life. Otherwise, she steadfastly keeps her attention on the women, and the social context in which they lived.

You might also like How to Be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman