Author: Shay Shortt

Invisible Women

Cover image for Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perezby Caroline Criado Perez

ISBN 978-1-4197-2907-2

“Routinely forgetting to accommodate the female body in design—whether medical, technological, or architectural—has led to a world that is less hospitable and more dangerous for women to navigate. It leads to us injuring ourselves in jobs and cars that weren’t designed for our bodies. It leads to us dying from drugs that don’t work. It has led to the creation of a world where women just don’t fit very well.”

In a data driven world, evidence is everything. But so much of our data is biased, or incomplete, often entirely failing to account for a full half of the population. Author Caroline Criado Perez—known for receiving death threats for advocating to have Jane Austen on the back of Britain’s £10 banknote—calls this the “gender data gap.” And while Criado Perez believes that this gap is, generally, neither deliberate nor malicious, it nevertheless has consequences, ranging from inconvenient to deadly. Poised on the edge of a future where proprietary black box algorithms will use this data to make decisions humans can barely understand, amplifying this invisible bias by orders of magnitude, Criado Perez argues that it is more important than ever that we collect this data, and separate it by sex in order to prevent women from falling through the cracks of a male default world.

Invisible Women reads as a veritable laundry list of gaps, omissions, and injustices that result from presuming a male default in everything from medicine to urban planning to product design. Testing treatments on young (mostly white) males, and then adjusting for women and children, presumes a level of understanding of human biology that we have yet to achieve, and probably never will if we continue to avoid studying large segments of the population. It can also lead to astonishing oversights, such as building houses without kitchens. This happened in the wake of not one, but several disasters in South East Asia, where only consulting with men about the process of rebuilding lead to the creation of houses that failed to include the facilities that were predominantly the domain of women. Some of the examples are glaringly obvious, while others are patched together through a variety of smaller or older studies that give us an impression of what we might be missing because we’ve failed to study “atypical” patterns or behaviours that are in fact only atypical for men.

Done well, science is a tool for discovering the truth about our world. Done poorly, it can enshrine falsehoods and half-truths as doctrine. And leaving women out of almost all medical research for the sake of simplicity and reducing variables is just one example of how research can arrive at such half-truths—truths that are valid for one half of the population, but do not necessarily hold for the other. After nausea, Criado Perez found that the most commonly cited adverse drug reaction among women was that the drug simply didn’t work. For the author, this also raises an equal but opposite question; how many drugs that would have worked for women, but not men, never made it past trials because they were not effective in the majority of the (male) study participants? It is this kind of default thinking that can lead a company to make bank on a drug that stimulates erections in men, while completing ignoring the fact that the same drug was reported in trials to complete eliminate menstrual cramps in women for up to four hours. That’s like sitting on a gold mine and ignoring half of it.

In a book about gaps and biases, I did notice one significant omission in the discussion. Not once does Criado Perez mention transgender women. Nor is the term cisgender ever used. This is in spite of the fact that the she acknowledges that “the female body is not the problem. The problem is the social meaning we ascribe to that body, and a socially determined failure to account for it.” Criado Perez follows three themes through the book, which are the female body, women’s unpaid care burden, and male violence against women. While transwomen’s medical realities are different than those of ciswomen (and probably in the middle of an even bigger data gap thanks to their small numbers) they are very much a part of the latter two, most especially male violence against women. Combined with neglecting to discuss the singular they pronoun in a discussion of gender inflection in languages, and a couple of comments that reduced gender to genitals, I was left wondering if Criado Perez was thinking intersectionally. This was a glaring omission in an otherwise very thorough book which included many examples specific to working class women, women of colour, and women in the developing world.

Protect the Prince (Crown of Shards #2)

Cover image for Protect the Prince by Jennifer Estepby Jennifer Estep

ISBN 9780062797643

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

 “I wasn’t the queen everyone had expected and I certainly wasn’t the one they wanted, so draping myself in layers of silk and cascades of jewels seemed silly and pointless. Besides, you couldn’t fight very well in a ball gown. Although in that regard, it didn’t really matter what I wore, since every day at Seven Spire was a battle.”

Having defeated her scheming cousin Vasilia in a royal challenge per the Bellonan gladiatorial tradition, Everleigh Winter Blair is now Queen of Bellona. Unfortunately, her impressive performance in the ring hasn’t stopped Bellona’s scheming nobles from continuing their long game, and taking bets on how long her unexpected reign will last. But Evie has bigger things to worry about, including the coming war with Morta, and Morta’s ongoing interference in her efforts to secure a treaty with the neighbouring kingdom of Andvari. With her closest advisors in tow, Evie sets out for Andvari, determined to personally seal the deal while there is still time. But the Andvarian court is full of its own plots and intrigues, as well as secrets about Lucas Sullivan’s past.

Protect the Prince picks up several months after the events of Kill the Queen, and is organized around a series of assassination attempts. Evie has claimed the crown, but now she must secure it against all those who would try the new queen. Having escaped during the royal challenge, and returned to her native Morta, Maeven and her Bastard Brigade grow increasingly desperate to complete their mission and kill Evie for the King of Morta, leaving Evie besieged from within and without. At the Andvarian court, she is also surrounded by Lucas’ family, his ex-fiancée, and an entire court of nobles who blame her for the deaths of Prince Frederich and Ambassador Hans during the Seven Spire Massacre. Internally, Evie struggles with imposter syndrome, trying to project strength and certainty to the world, despite her secret belief that she was never meant to be queen.

After playing coy in the first volume, Estep does finally deliver some romantic satisfaction in Protect the Prince. Evie and Lucas continue circling one another cautiously for most of this second volume; Lucas continues to stand on his principles, and Evie continues to respect his wishes, leading to a long and frustrating stalemate. However, traveling to Glanzen, and staying at Glitnir where Lucas grew up is a revealing twist that exposes how the son of the Andvarian king’s mistress became so guarded in the first place. A series of flashbacks equally develops Evie’s backstory, unveiling details about her parents’ murders and her own escape from Winterwind. In much the same way that Estep drew out the events of Kill the Queen by having Evie hesitate to trust her identity to Serilda, Lucas, and the other members of the Black Swan troupe, Protect the Prince is drawn out by Lucas’s inability to bend, and Evie’s unwillingness to push him, as well as her desire to protect him from the consequences of her new responsibilities as queen.

With Vasilia dead, Maevan and Morta take center stage as the villains of Protect the Prince. Maeven’s motives are slightly more developed than Vasilia’s, but she still comes across as a bit of monologuer. The Mortan king remains a shadowy, nameless background figure, pulling the strings of his Bastard Brigade, and allowing his illegitimate sister to do his dirty work while he plots to gain an empire. The title of the third volume, Crush the King, suggests that he will take on a more prominent role in the final installment of the Crown of Shards series, due out in 2020.

You might also like The Deepest Blue by Sarah Beth Durst

Kill the Queen

Cover image for Kill the Queen by Jennifer Estepby Jennifer Estep

ISBN 9780062797629

“Summer queens are fine and fair, with pretty ribbons and flowers in their hair. Winter queens are cold and hard, with frosted crowns made of icy shards.”

Although nearly thirty years old, Lady Everleigh Winter Blair is still a ward of her cousin, Queen Cordelia of Bellona. For more than half her life, ever since her parents were murdered, Evie has lived at the palace, serving as the royal stand-in for whatever luncheons and ceremonies are not deemed important enough for the Queen or her daughters to attend to personally. Apprenticed to the royal jeweler, Evie dreams of using her carefully hoarded savings to return home to Winterwind, her family estate, and live a quiet life far from the intrigues of the court. All she needs is the Queen’s permission, which she hopes to get at a luncheon announcing Crown Princess Vasilia’s engagement to Prince Frederich of Andvari. But Vasilia has plans of her own, and they do not include marriage, or an alliance with Andvari. When Vasilia murders her mother to secure the throne for herself, Evie is driven into hiding, taking refuge with the Black Swan gladiator troupe, owned by the disgraced Serilda Swanson, who was once bodyguard to Queen Cordelia.

Kill the Queen is an adult fantasy with a quasi-medieval, Roman-influenced setting, and a multi-tiered magic system. Evie is a “mutt” with only a hint of magic, despite her royal bloodline, while Cordelia and Vasilia are powerful elemental magiers who wield fire and lightning. Some people are mortals, with no magic at all, but this group is not explored in the book. The world is also populated by morphs, who can transform into other creatures, such as ogres and dragons. However, Evie has also been hiding another special talent for most of her life, an anti-magic, which her mother cautioned her to keep hidden at all costs, lest others seek to exploit her. So while Evie has certain abilities and advantages within this world, she is not a power player, and the arc of this novel is about watching her become one.

 Kill the Queen is not primarily a romance, focusing instead on court intrigues and gladiator adventures. But Evie does have a slow burn going on with Lucas Sullivan, the enforcer and head magier of the Black Swan troupe, from the moment that he finds her sleeping on the floor of his house inside the gladiator complex. But both Evie and Sullivan are prickly, secretive people who do not trust easily. This gives their relationship great banter, and a crackling tension, but though this is an adult fantasy, Estep does not deliver so much as a kiss, at least in this first volume of the planned trilogy.

The book’s main villain is Crown Princess Vasilia. Evie has known her since she arrived at Seven Spire as an orphaned child. By the time the book opens, the two women have nothing to do with one another, but once they were friends, and Vasilia betrayed that friendship. Over the course of the book, Evie slowly reveals the form that betrayal took, and the scars it left. She has very few friends, and trusts almost no one at the court. It is only once she arrives at the Black Swan that she considers friendship again, dangerous though it may be to her secrets. The Black Swan has its own intrigues, and unable to stay out of them, Evie finds the best friend she never had in Paloma, the troupe’s number one gladiator. Unfortunately, Vasilia herself is a bit flat, coming across as a monologuing psychopath. However, this has interesting consequences for Evie’s character, and combined with the fact that she is not set to be the series villain, it is a relatively minor complaint.

I listened Kill the Queen in audio form, narrated by the consistently excellent Lauren Fortgang, who also performed Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy, and was part of the cast for the audio version of Six of Crows as well. I’m now all caught up for the recently released Protect the Prince, so check back for that review soon!

You might also like The Deepest Blue by Sarah Beth Durst

Mistress of the Ritz

Cover image for Mistress of the Ritz by Melanie Benjaminby Melanie Benjamin

ISBN 9780399182242

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

 “This is what an occupation does—it wears you down until you accept evil. Until you can no longer fully define it, even. Let alone recognize it.”

When American actress Blanche Ross marries French hotelier Claude Auzello, she gives up a free-wheeling lifestyle for a more staid existence as the wife of the manager of the beautiful and famous Hotel Ritz, on the Place Vendome. Marrying in haste, they soon find themselves at loggerheads over their differing expectations. Over decades, they broker a fractious peace, but all of that is swept aside when the Nazis occupy Paris, and make the Ritz their headquarters. Now the Auzellos are faced with a deeper question; do they acquiesce or resist?

Mistress of the Ritz is told in alternating chapters, beginning with the Auzellos whirlwind courtship in 1923, and then jumping ahead to the Occupation in 1940. However, Melanie Benjamin often blurs these distinctions, switching to the 1940s, only to have Blanche spend pages reminiscing about the events that were recounted in the earlier chapter. The novel is based on true events, but in the Author’s Note, Benjamin concedes that the historical record of the Auzellos is so slight that most of the book comes from giving her imagination free rein. This takes fullest expression in the character of Lily Kharmanyoff, an unlikely friend who pushes Blanche to question her comfortable situation.

The relationship between Claude and Blanche is the lens for the rest of the story. There is always a third in their marriage, and sometimes a fourth. They both love the Hotel Ritz; it is the child they never had. Yet Claude’s emphasis on the duties of his job, and his conformation to the establishment’s conservative and old-fashioned rules inevitably causes tension with his independent-minded wife. While some American women found more freedom in pre-war Paris, Blanche is stifled by Claude’s unfamiliar French Catholic world-view. When Claude takes up visiting a mistress on Thursday nights, and forthrightly explains this to Blanche in French fashion, the fissures in their marriage only widen. It is on this cracked foundation that they become the managers of the Nazi’s Paris headquarters, walking a fine line between collaboration and resistance. Unable to quite trust one another, they must make their own decisions about how to protect the staff, the hotel, and their secrets while avoiding retribution from their occupiers.

Benjamin sets up two facts as points of suspense which are of questionable effectiveness, in that the reader is not likely to be surprised or deceived. Part way through the book, Claude begins receiving mysterious phone calls in the middle of the night. He tells Blanche he has taken another mistress, but it is immediately clear that this not the case, though Benjamin obfuscates for a hundred pages. The reader is unlikely to be surprised by the revelation that he is working with the Resistance, so this point is only useful in heightening the tension between Claude and Blanche. Such devices, carried out too long, begin to make to protagonist look unobservant. At the same time, Benjamin veils Blanche’s origins with questionable effectiveness, trying to play her Jewish heritage off as a big reveal towards the end of the book. Leaving aside the fact that no one’s identity is a plot twist, Benjamin also sacrifices the opportunity to explore the emotional implications Blanche must have felt, living as a secret Jew under the nose of the Nazi command in Paris. This aspect of her psyche was much more interesting to me than her tribulations as the wife of a condescending philanderer, but the latter receives much greater emphasis.

You might also like A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell

Fall, or Dodge in Hell

Cover image for Fall by Neal Stephenson by Neal Stephenson

ISBN 978-0-06-245871-1

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

 “She began to feel that the tech industry, which prided itself on having disrupted so many other things, was now creeping up on the moment when it would attempt to disrupt death.”

When wealthy businessman Richard “Dodge” Forthrast dies on the operating table during what was supposed to have been a routine operation, his family discovers that a decade earlier, he made out a highly unusual will, bequeathing his body to science with the understanding that it should be preserved until such time as his brain can be digitized and uploaded. In the intervening time, his Corporation 9592 has made a vast fortune, and his death establishes a highly-endowed foundation charged with helping bring this future to pass. His will also binds his fate together with the machinations of the eccentric billionaire Elmo Shepherd, who has his own ideas about the digital afterlife. As years pass in Meatspace, an elaborate structure of shell companies, foundations, and quasi-religious movements grow up around supporting Bitworld, with Dodge’s niece Zula, her daughter Sophia, and his friend and former colleague Corvallis Kawasaki caught up the labyrinthine consequences of Richard Forthrast’s last will and testament.

You probably need to be an author as established and respected in the genre as Neal Stephenson to get away with writing a book like this. It is nearly 900 pages long, and begins with the protagonist waking up, and spending a good several pages pondering the concept of consciousness. It then goes on to pull in mythology, theology, philosophy, and literature, all while toggling between science fiction tropes and high fantasy quests, through an ever-shifting cast of point-of-view characters. After teeing off the action with his death in the opening chapters, Dodge himself disappears from the narrative for nearly three-hundred pages. Stephenson is also the author of a trilogy known collectively as The Baroque Cycle, and baroque is certainly a term that is applicable here as well.

After Dodge’s death, the narrative is handed over to Corvallis, aka C-Plus, who has been named the executor of his friend’s will. It is up to him to help Zula and the rest of the Forthrast family navigate the bizarre ramifications of Dodge’s forgotten desire to live forever in bits and pixels. Meanwhile, C-Plus is caught up in the largest internet conspiracy ever executed, one he believes, but cannot prove, to have been masterminded by El Shepherd for reasons unknown. The baton then passes to Sophia, now grown into a college student, and planning to spend her summer as an intern at the Forthrast Family Foundation, working on the problem of DB or Dodge’s Brain. But first she must make the trek across the post-truth America created by El’s Moab Hoax. These three hundred pages set the stage for the creation of Bitworld.

When Dodge’s Brain is finally digitized, uploaded, and switched on, Fall becomes focused upon literal world-building. Existing mythology meets new creation story as the being who calls himself Egdod achieves consciousness and begins to give shape to the Land. The language also shifts accordingly, as Stephenson’s style becomes more formal, adopting the tone and cadence of mythology. Egdod cannot quite recall before, and indeed it takes him some time to remember that there was a before, but the world he is shaping around him nevertheless begins to bear a distinct resemblance to the imperfect one he left behind. For a time, he is the god of his own universe, but out in Meatspace, once it becomes apparent that the simulation is live, soon many more souls are clamouring to be scanned and uploaded when they meet their end. At first, those left behind can only see what is being created in terms of computational resources consumed, but with the invention of the Landform Visualization Utility, soon watching the goings-on in The Land becomes the primary form of entertainment for those on the original plane of existence. And not everyone there likes what they are seeing, or believes it is how the afterlife should look.

In general, I was more interested in the events back in the “real” world, rather than the development of The Land. The end of death as we know it has profound effects on Meatspace, not all of which Stephenson takes the time to fully explore. But Fall is working on a long time-scale, so as the story progresses, many of the characters that began in one realm cross over into the other.  The resulting story is a strange brew of mythology and scripture, meandering at times, and engrossing at others. Fall has distinct biblical influences, pulling in the Tower of Babel and Adam and Eve, but also draws significantly upon Greek mythology, and the rivalry of the gods. The physical edition is adorned with Gustave Doré end-papers, and Milton’s Paradise Lost is also heavily in the mix. An altogether curious journey.

You might also like City of Golden Shadow by Tad Williams

The Wicked King (The Folk of the Air #2)

Cover image for The Wicked King by Holly Black by Holly Black

ISBN 9780316310338

 “Power is much easier to acquire than it is to hold on to.

With her young step-brother Oak revealed as an heir of the Greenbriar line, Jude has made her bid for the throne of Faerie, and won, after a fashion. Bound to her will for a year and a day, Prince Cardan now sits on his father’s throne, while Jude pulls his strings. But a year and a day is not enough time for Oak to grow up, and become a King who will be kinder than Balekin, more responsible than Cardan, or less bloodthirsty than Madoc. Now it is a game of chess, as Jude tries to find a way to bind Cardan to her for longer, and Cardan tries to wiggle around the strictures of her edicts. General Madoc seems to be quietly planning his own next move, while Queen Orlagh of the Sea Folk is determined to see Cardan married to her daughter, Nicasia. Power is fleeting, and everyone wants a taste.

The Wicked King opens on Jude as the lonely power behind the throne, alienated from her twin sister, and her adopted family by her betrayal of Madoc at the coronation ceremony during the events of The Cruel Prince. She has seized the Crown, but must keep the fact of her power secret, desperately trying to quell Cardan’s rebellions, and her own feelings for the troubled Prince, who is now High King, if only in name. Faerie has no love for mortals who gain favour and power, and they would love nothing more than a reason to cast her down. While Dane’s geas continues to protect her from enchantment, there are many other ways to extract revenge. She has temporarily seized control, but she can feel the days slipping through her fingers, knowing that she will lose everything if Cardan bides out his year and a day, and becomes High King in fact. Having betrayed her family to gain power, now she must face the question of what she will do in order to keep it.

If you love a dark and twisted faerie tale, it is hard to go wrong with Holly Black. This series is also highly recommended for those who enjoy the trope of enemies to lovers. Cardan’s long hatred and resentment of Jude stems from his hatred of the fact that she, a mortal, has found a place in Faerie, even while he was always rejected by his own father despite being a prince of the blood. Trained from childhood to hate himself by his father’s disdain, he hates himself even more for being attracted to Jude despite her mortality. Meanwhile, Jude knows that she is playing a dangerous game. Mortals who fall in love with the Folk never fair well, as her own mother’s bloody fate constantly reminds her. Her twin sister, Taryn, is playing an equally dangerous game with the conniving and despicable Locke, and though the sisters are estranged, Jude hopes she can somehow protect Taryn, and give her the happily ever after she dreams of.

As one lone, mere mortal in a magical realm, Jude can little hope to control all the many threads and intrigues of Faerie, as various factions try the strength of their new king. But try she must, as Cardan shows little interest in ruling, and she has few allies to call on. Even the Court of Shadows is not to be fully trusted, though Jude must accept their aid. Holly Black takes the reader for a tense ride through the months of Cardan’s vow, and though we know it must end in disaster, she still manages to bring The Wicked King to stunning cliff-hanger that will leave you reaching for The Queen of Nothing, due out in the fall of 2019.

Also by Holly Black:
The Darkest Part of the Forest

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown 

The Iron Trial (with Cassandra Clare)

Becoming

Cover image for Becoming by Michelle Obama by Michelle Obama

ISBN 978-1-5247-6313-8

I was ambitious, though I didn’t know exactly what I was shooting for. Now I think it’s one of the most useless questions an adult can ask a child—What do you want to be when you grow up? As if growing up is finite. As if at some point you become something and that’s the end.”

Michelle Robinson Obama, a future Princeton graduate, lawyer, hospital administrator, mother, and First Lady of the United States, grew up on the South Side of Chicago. Her father worked for the municipal utility company, and was slowly losing his health to multiple sclerosis. Her mother Marian stayed home with Michelle and her brother Craig while they were growing up, and then returned to work at a bank. Eventually, Marian would live quietly in the White House with her daughter and granddaughters. Michelle’s post-White House memoir, Becoming, chronicles her childhood, her education, her marriage, and their journey to America’s most famous address.

I was personally most interested in the section of Becoming that comes between Michelle going off to college and meeting her husband, and their arrival in the White House. I rarely enjoy reading about people’s childhoods, and the period of the election and her husband’s time as President were pretty well known to me already. The section in between, however, offered a vulnerable glimpse into the sacrifices involved in being married to a rising political star, and the difficulty of trying to find your passion when you go to sleep every night beside someone whose “forceful intellect and ambition could possibly end up swallowing” your own. Michelle Obama’s path to career and motherhood was a rocky one, but she breaks taboos by sharing her decision to quit practicing law despite an expensive Ivy League education, and also talks openly about her miscarriages and fertility treatments, sharing that “a miscarriage is lonely, painful, and demoralizing almost on a cellular level. When you have one, you will likely mistake it for a personal failure, which it is not.”

Although this is Michelle’s memoir and story, Becoming also offers an intimate portrait of the former President from the person who sees his most human side, and is not a bit dazzled by him. “For me, it had always been important that people see Barack as human and not as some otherworldly savior,” she writes of her husband. One clear illustration of his priorities comes from her recounting of how Barack blew his deadline for his first memoir because he kept putting it off in favour of his work as a political organizer. They had to repay the advance, and it would be several more years before Dreams from My Father was completed, and released by a different publisher. Overall she does a wonderful job of evoking what his intelligence and ambition have meant for their lives, particularly in passages where she writes about “sleeping in the same bed with it, sitting at the breakfast table with it,” and later, “Barack’s potential rode along to school with the girls and to work with me. It was there even when we didn’t want it to be there, adding a strange energy to everything.”

Many people have enthused about the idea of the former First Lady running for office herself, but Michelle seems thoroughly uninterested in starting a political dynasty. She is the more practical, if not the more cynical, answer to her husband’s hope and optimism, a man who “seemed at times beautifully oblivious to the giant rat race of life.” At the municipal level, she writes, “I had never been one to hold city hall in high regard. Having grown up on the South Side, I had little faith in politics.” Even of her husband, she believed he could have a more profound impact by continuing to work as an organizer, or for a non-profit, rather than running for office. While she gave her blessing for him to run for President, she did not in her heart believe that America would elect a black man. Trying to put rumours and speculation to rest, she closes baldly, “I’ll say it here directly: I have no intention of running for office, ever. I’ve never been a fan of politics, and my experience over the last ten years has done little to change that.”

You might also like The Moment of Lift by Melinda Gates

The Confessions of Frannie Langton

by Sara Collins

ISBN 978-0-06-285189-5

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

 “But this is a story of love, not just murder, though I know that’s not the kind of story you’re expecting. In truth, no one expects any kind of story from a woman like me. No doubt you think this will be one of those slave histories, all sugared over with misery and despair. But who’d want to read one of those?”

Frances Langton was born on a sugar estate in Jamaica, the property of a depraved scientist who gave her his name, and educated her for his own ends. But The Confessions of Frannie Langton is the story of Frances’ free life in London, and how she came to be accused of murdering her employers, George and Marguerite Benham, to whom she was given by her former master, though in London she is technically free. The Mulatta Murderess is a broadsheet sensation, the talk of London, the boogieman in the Old Bailey, but Frannie is a woman determined to tell her own story, and to be seen as a real person, one who loved and was loved, and paid a terrible price for daring to reach above her station.

The frame narrative finds the former slave known as Frances Langton in her cell at Newgate prison, furtively scribbling her “confessions” to her lawyer, whom she addresses as “you.” The lawyer has begged her to give him something—anything—that will help him in his defense of her, for to this point she has maintained that she remembers nothing of the night the Benhams were murdered. But Frances has her own ideas about the story she wants to tell, and she will not pander to the judge, the jury, or anyone else. Newspaper clippings, court transcriptions, and extracts from the diary of George Benham are interspersed between her chapters so that we see Frances largely through her own eyes, but occasionally catch glimpses of how she was seen by those around her.

By far the strongest feature of the novel is Frances’ voice. She is an avid reader, and that love of language seeps into her own writing, colouring her descriptions and insights. She is a keen observer, though she often deludes herself in the matter of love, losing sight of that which would normally be obvious to her keen intellect. “Sometimes I picture all that reading and writing as something packed inside me. Dangerous as gunpowder. Where has it got me, in the end?” she laments. She wants to be seen, but every time she reveals her true self, she is forcibly reminded that “there are many who find an educated black more threatening than a savage one.”

Frances consciously writes back against the slave narrative, the formulaic accounts peddled by abolitionists and anti-slavers to further their cause. “What no one will admit about the anti-slavers is that they’ve all got a slaver’s appetite for misery, even if they want to do different things with it,” she warns. Collins nods to the real slave narratives of the period, naming one of the characters Olaudah, in reference to Olaudah Equiano, and Frances takes her name from Francis Barber. But Frannie is determined to write her own story on her own terms, even if “most publishers can’t see past their noses. Probably not far enough to see a woman like me.” She spends little time on her slave upbringing in Jamaica, focusing instead on her fate after her owner brought her to London and turned her over to fellow scientist George Benham. But it is Mrs. Benham who becomes the centre of Frannie’s world, bright and shining, but also eccentric and troubled, descending further into laudanum addiction every day.

Although framed by a murder mystery, the novel is, at heart, a tragic gothic romance. Frannie’s greatest defense also condemns her. “I never would have done what they say I’ve done, to Madame, because I loved her. Yet they say I must be put to death for it, and they want me to confess. But how can I confess what I don’t believe I’ve done,” she opens the book. And it is here her heart remains throughout the story, leading towards the inevitable tragedy, and final revelation of her trial.

You might also like:

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead