My Year with Jane Austen: “Sense and Sensibility” Part II

14935._sy475_Book: “Sense and Sensibility”

Publication Year: 1811

Book Description: Marianne Dashwood wears her heart on her sleeve, and when she falls in love with the dashing but unsuitable John Willoughby she ignores her sister Elinor’s warning that her impulsive behaviour leaves her open to gossip and innuendo. Meanwhile Elinor, always sensitive to social convention, is struggling to conceal her own romantic disappointment, even from those closest to her. Through their parallel experience of love—and its threatened loss—the sisters learn that sense must mix with sensibility if they are to find personal happiness in a society where status and money govern the rules of love.

Part II – Chapters 32 – End

Story – “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”

Elinor relates Colonel Brandon’s tale to Marianne, and while it does shine more light on Willoughby’s character, she is still greatly affected. The Willoughby’s marry and leave town and Marianne can be convinced to begin returning to the world. Around this time, the Miss Steele’s and Mr. Dashwood and Fanny all arrive in town as well, greatly expanding their social groups. While out and about, the Miss Dashwoods run across the younger Mr. Ferrars who does not recommend himself by being rather vain and full of himself; he aligns perfectly with what they know of the rest of the family (barring Edward), however.

The Middletons, Steeles, Dashwoods, and Ferrars all begin to mix and mingle forming various opinions on each other. Elinor is caught up in it all and ends up being present when Lucy Steele first meets her future (unbeknownst to her) mother-in-law. The Ferrars, however, are so busy subtly, or not so subtly, slighting Elinor, that Lucy ends up with a good deal of praise and attention. Mariannne, still out of sorts, finds this intolerable and has a few break-downs while in company.

Later, Lucy crows to Elinor over how well-received she was. Elinor makes an effort to temper her enthusiasm, but gives up eventually. Edward arrives and they are all awkward together. From there, the days continue with Elinor and Marianne being thrown routinely into the company of various Steeles and Ferrars. The younger Mr. Ferrars only further proves himself to be ridiculous and Lucy Steele takes every opportunity to throw more barbs Elinor’s way.

Eventually, the Miss Steeles recommend themselves so much to the Ferrars and Mr. Dashwood/Fanny Dashwood that they are asked to come stay with the family. While there, however, the elder Miss Steele lets it slip that her sister is engaged to Edward. The sisters are immediately banished from the premise, but Edward stands by Lucy, losing his own family fortune in the process. With this shocking truth, Marianne finally realizes what Elinor has been suffering  through the last several months. Mr. Dashwood visits and drops several hints that as much as the Ferrars family might have disapproved of other prospective wives for Edward, they would have much preferred that person to Lucy Steele.

Colonel Brandon hears of Edward’s plight, and knowing him to be friend of Elinor and Marianne’s, he offers him a small estate from which Edward can go into work with the church. Elinor is tasked with delivering this news to Edward, which she does, knowing that it will be the final nail in the coffin of what could have been between her and Edward.

Finally, Marianne and Elinor begin their trip home. On the way, they stop at the Middletons and while there Marianne comes down with a bad fever. Over the next few days the fever worsens to the point that Colonel Brandon rushes off to fetch Mrs. Dashwood, in case the worst should happen. Over the night, Marianne’s fever finally breaks. And in the early morning, Elinor receives an unwelcome visitor: Mr. Willoughby. He heard of Marianne’s illness and traveled through the night to check on her. He explains his side of the story, that knowing his own selfishness and after being cut off by his wealthy aunt (after she heard of the incident with Colonel Brandon’s ward), he immediately set off to marry an heiress. He claims that his true love will always be for Marianne, however. And now that his aunt has forgiven him and restored his wealth, he lives in even more regret for not remaining faithful to her. Elinor tells him that none of this does any good for Colonel Brandon’s ward and that Marianne is lost to him forever, though Elinor does now pity him more than she had before.

Later, Mrs. Dashwood arrives and is relived to find Marianne recovering. Eventually, they make their way back home. Elinor relates what Mr. Willoughby told her, and Marianne acknowledges it all in a much more calm manner. From that point, Marianne makes a conscious effort to settle herself and try to emulate Elinor’s approach to life more fully.

One day, they hear from one of their servants that a Mrs. Lucy Ferrars has been spotted in town nearby with her husband. This seems to settle the matter until not long after, Edward himself arrives. After some confusion, it becomes clear that Lucy had broken her engagement with Edward once he lost his fortune and instead attached herself to the younger Mr. Ferrars who now, conveniently, has all of said fortune to himself. Thus, Mrs. Ferrars ends up with Lucy as a daughter-in-law either way. Edward proposes to Elinor, they marry, and move into the small estate near Colonel Brandon’s home. Marianne, eventually, comes to recognize the more important points of character in Colonel Brandon’s person, though less overtly romantic they may be, and they, too, marry.

Heroines – “I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures.”

The first half of this half is really torturous for poor Elinor. She first has to contend with an onslaught of jabs from Lucy, all while caring for a despondent Marianne. And then when the truth finally comes out, she’s the one tasked with delivering the news that through Colonel Brandon’s generosity, Edward and Lucy will be able to marry immediately. Marianne finally knowing the truth turns out to also not be as helpful as one would suspect, as she seems to at first think the only way Elinor could have managed to keep this all a secret was if she didn’t truly love Edward anyways, so there wasn’t much real loss. Not one of Marianne’s finer moments. It is, of course, gratifying to see Elinor rewarded in the end. However, I will say that all the traits that make her such an upstanding woman, do, unfortunately, also make her one of the less exciting Austen heroines. She reads more like a commentary from Austen on how women should behave (with Marianne serving as a not-too-subtle example of some of the worst flaws of the women of that time), than as a true character herself.

Marianne, for all of her ridiculousness, is definitely the more entertaining read of the two. Some have reviewed this book and commented that perhaps Marianne’s punishment for giving way to the full onslaught of sensibility common to teenage girls is a bit harsh. She’s smacked down fairly publicly with the Willoughby situation, and then ends up on death’s doorstep to boot. And, as I’ll discuss a bit later, her “romance” with Colonel Brandon reads more as a reward for him being a good person than as anything truly for Marianne herself. There is perhaps also some humor to be found in Marianne’s endeavors to make herself more like Elanor. With the same dogged pursuit that she gave romanticism, we see her here tackling a reading list and strictly minding her own temper. There’s not too much of the book left after her illness, and plot points are being covered quickly one after another. So there isn’t a lot of time devoted to how Marianne ultimately turns out. One can hope that she still retains some of her liveliness and wit, if a bit more evened out by a better sense of reality and calm. If given that, I think she could turn out similar to Emma Woodhouse in some ways. Both are clever and driven by extreme emotions, sometimes to the point of foolishness, but both are also clearly good women who love those in their lives fully.

Heroes – “What are men to rocks and mountains?”

I didn’t really remember this fact as well, since it had been several years since I had read this book before this re-read, but Colonel Brandon is by far the more fully fleshed out character. Not only are we given many more insights into his own history, he simply has at least twice the amount of page time as Edward. I feel like if I went back through the book, I could count on two hands the number of pages that have actual dialogue from Edward on them. I’ll have to keep my eye on it in future books, but I seem to think this is one of the only examples of a primary romantic hero suffering from “tell instead of show” writing. It’s not a common flaw on Austen’s part in general, and definitely not of her main characters. But here, Edward is less of a main character than a plot device, really. We’re simply told of many of his good qualities and, like Colonel Brandon, really, we form most of our opinion on him based on the fact that we know Elinor and she has good judgement. So if she says he’s good, then he must be good.

Colonel Brandon, on the other hand, is given much more room to shine. Not only do we have a better understanding of his character when he lays out his own history prior to meeting the Dashwoods, but we see several examples of his innate goodness. His offering of the rectory to Edward and Lucy is an act of kindness that is almost hard to believe. Again, he doesn’t know this man at all and is doing this purely based on the Dashwoods’ good opinion and his sympathy for a plight that reminds of his own early life. Beyond that, we see the devotion he had for his former love and the care he has taken of her daughter. And, of course, his extreme agitation at Marianne’s illness and how he takes it upon himself personally to fetch her mother. He is definitely deserving of happiness, and it’s gratifying to see Marianne acknowledge the true nobility of his actions.

Villains – “I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.” 

The Ferrars family takes center stage in this second half, putting on full display why, while Edward may be a loss to Elinor, being part of their family more than she already is, is not. Lucy is also in rare form. She continues to gloat over Elinor and, while we’re told she has some sense, she still seems unable to grasp the bigger story going on: that her seeming easy acceptance by the Ferrars family is meant more as a dig against Elinor than as praise of herself. We’re meant to feel bad for Edward when their engagement is discovered, but I have to admit part of me always revels in Lucy’s take-down, short-lived as it is. I think the biggest tell, however, as far as her character goes, is that even after she’s married the younger Mr. Ferrars, she goes out of her way to send her good wishes to Elinor as “Mrs. Ferrars.” There is no point to this action other than being one last petty dig to a woman who was nothing but tolerant and understanding of her and who had done her no personal wrong. Lucy is a small, small woman.

Willoughy’s explanation to Elinor always read as a bit odd to me. I’m not quite sure I really see the point of his apology. Perhaps in so far as it lets Marianne better understand his character and that in his own selfish way he was in love with her at one point and thus she is able to get full closure? But as a modern reader, I’m even less sympathetic to his plight than Elinor is. She seems to come away from the conversation with some pity for him, but still firm in her censure over the way he treated Colonel Brandon’s ward. But between that action and the pure self-centeredness, lack of empathy, and flagrant pursuit of wealth at all costs, I have a hard time pitying him as Elinor and Marianne do. If he is unhappy, he has brought it on himself. There is no pity from me for someone who treated others as poorly as he did, with eyes wide open about his own actions and priorities.

Romance – “A lady’s imagination is very rapid: it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony in a moment.”

Again, the romance is very muted in this last half, even when the happily-ever-afters start rolling in. Edward and Elinor’s actual proposal and acceptance aren’t included, and the story moves quickly to the facts of their new life with them moved into the rectory. Marianne’s story is even more hastily wrapped up, with her “romance” with Colonel Brandon probably reading as one of the least romantic pairings for a heroine in all of Austen’s work. Indeed, it is almost implied that she marries Colonel Brandon with the expectation of coming to love him fully, rather than actually being in love at the moment. It makes sense for the larger points about sense and sensibility that are being made in the book, but purely from a romance satisfaction stand-point, it leaves a lot to be desired. If anything, I’m more disappointed on Colonel Brandon’s part than anything. I’m sure Marianne comes to love him as he deserves, but it doesn’t quite sit right with a modern reader to think of her as “settling” for him based purely on his merits rather than actually feelings.

Comedy – “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?”

There is mostly dark comedy to be found in this second half, specifically in the round-about way the snobby Mrs. Ferrars ends up with Lucy as a daughter-in-law in the end anyways. Between the serious nature of Edward’s future, the continued fall-out of Willoughby’s actions, and Marianne’s life-threatening illness, it’s rather a serious second half. Mrs. Jennings, in fact, one of the primary comedic characters in the first half, really rises to her own and we the steadfast loyalty and real concern she has for the Miss Dashwoods, even if some improper comments still slip out. It’s gratifying to see Marianne finally acknowledge all that Mrs. Jennings has done for them, even if she has her moments of crassness.

Favorite quotes – “What did she say? Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does.”

“Elinor agreed to it all, for she did not think he deserved the compliment of rational opposition.”

The put-down we all wish we could think of in the moment.

“Always resignation and acceptance. Always prudence and honour and duty. Elinor, where is your heart?”

To some extent, I agree with Marianne here. This is probably why Elizabeth, Emma, and Anne stand out more to me as Austen heroines. All (with the exception of Emma at times) are respected and proper ladies of their time, but they also seem to have more heart to them. Their emotions are better understood and conveyed to the reader. Perhaps the simple fact that each in their way has a more apparent flaw than Elinor makes them read more fully as people and thus easier to become attached to and root for.

“Elinor could sit still no longer. She almost ran out of the room, and as soon as the door was closed, burst into tears of joy, which at first she thought would never cease.”

Finally. And we’ll see that the movies all have fun with this moment of final release for Elinor.

Final thoughts – “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!”

Here at the end of the first book in this re-read, I’m already thinking of some type of summary post I’ll have to do at the end of it all. Mostly because re-reading this one made me fully realize how much of my memory of some of the books has been impacted by my more frequent watching of movie adaptations. I had forgotten just how little page time was devoted to the men in this book and even more so the specifics of how Marianne/Colonel Brandon’s romance played (or didn’t play) out. That’s just one example, but I caught myself doing comparisons many times.

I’m also curious to see how my memory does with each of the heroines of the other books. I’ve re-read “Pride and Prejudice” and “Emma” more than the others, so I feel fairly confident there. But this re-read also highlighted just how little I remembered of how Elinor and Marianne are described on page. In this read through, I really found myself focusing, almost to the point of distraction, more on what Austen was trying to say through her very different depictions of Elinor and Marianne. In some ways, it made this book feel more like “Northanger Abbey” than her other books. Both that book and this seem to be making a fairly distinct commentary on a particular subject rather than reading as a simple story.

Here, Austen is really laying it on thick with her opinions on women who give way to flights of romanticism to the point that they lose sight of reality and perspective. Knowing Austen’s own life, particularly the fact that she never married, it’s easy to see how she might condemn this type of overly-sentimental approach to life. Marianne routinely makes grand pronouncements that anyone who has lived in the world would know won’t hold up. Instead, Elinor is a constant presence as a reminder of all that is good, reserved, and true. She may not be flashy, but she’s clearly Austen’s response to the type of flighty, unmitigated sentimentality that she must have been seeing around herself and that she reflected in Marianne.

I found myself stopping and thinking about passages in this book fairly often as I was reading. While the story was lacking much of the comedy and romance that I think we often expect from Austen’s work, I think this book was tackling an important topic for Austen. Much as “Northnager Abbey” was her attempt to poke fun at the type of silly Gothic romances that were so popular at the time, this was her call to arms for women to give credence to their own self-control and sense. I think it’s also fairly interesting that these were two of her earlier written books. Perhaps, in some sense, she was able to get these larger points “out of her system” (that phrase implies it was a bad thing, but that’s not really it) in these early books, and thus allowed herself more leeway to fully indulge in her storytelling in her later books. We’ll see if my memory holds more true for those when I get there!

In two weeks, I’ll review the 1995 movie of “Sense and Sensibility.”

My Year with Jane Austen: “Sense and Sensibility” Part I

14935._sy475_Book: “Sense and Sensibility”

Publication Year: 1811

Book Description: Marianne Dashwood wears her heart on her sleeve, and when she falls in love with the dashing but unsuitable John Willoughby she ignores her sister Elinor’s warning that her impulsive behaviour leaves her open to gossip and innuendo. Meanwhile Elinor, always sensitive to social convention, is struggling to conceal her own romantic disappointment, even from those closest to her. Through their parallel experience of love—and its threatened loss—the sisters learn that sense must mix with sensibility if they are to find personal happiness in a society where status and money govern the rules of love.

History – “I read it a little as duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me.”

“Sense and Sensibility” was Jane Austen’s first published work, but it was a long time in the making. It is thought that work was likely started on this book when Austen was only 19 in 1975. The manuscript was originally titled “Elinor and Marianne” and went through several re-writes, including likely a major change from an epistolary format to the current form, before settling as the book we now know. Austen self-published the book with its author only listed as “a Lady.” Over the next two years, the entire first run of the novel was sold out and Austen was able to publish a second run and collect earnings on it for several years. (source)

“I am never too busy to think of S & S.  I can no more forget it, than a mother can forget her sucking child; & I am much obliged to you for your enquiries.”

 —Jane Austen, letter to Cassandra Austen, April 25, 1811

Part I – Chapters 1 – 31

Story – “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”

In this first half of the book we meet the Dashwoods, a family consisting of Mrs. Dashwood and her three daughters, Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret. They are left without a fortune of their own after Mrs. Dashwood’s husband dies. Their half brother and his wife move into their home bringing with them Mrs. Fanny Dashwood’s brother, Mr. Ferrars. Elinor and Mr. Ferrars form an attachment. Seeing the match as unsuitable, Fanny Dashwood puts pressure on the Dashwoods to leave and find an establishment of their own. Thinking it for the best that Elinor and Mr. Ferrars continue their relationship out of sight of his meddling sister, Mrs. Dashwood and her three daughters move to the countryside into a cottage rented to them by a distant cousin, a Sir John Middleton.

Sir John and his family are all oddities, though mostly harmless. The Dashwoods also meet a family friend, Colonel Brandon, who, in his upper 30s, is seen as an established bachelor. It is quickly noticed, however, that he seems to have an interest in Marianne. She, however, quickly dismisses him as both too old and too reserved. Instead, through a romantic first introduction, she forms a fast, strong, and apparent to all attachment to a Mr. Willoughby. The two are incredibly open and frank about their attachment, but no formal engagement is ever mentioned. Elinor warns Marianne to curb her enthusiasm and behave in a more reserved manner as her and Willoughby’s current level of attachment is drawing the eyes and gossip of those around them.

Willoughby and Marianne’s attachment reaches a point where her family and friends cannot but assume they are secretly engaged. More questions are raised however when Willoughby suddenly quits the neighborhood and returns to town; Marianne is devastated, but still sure of his attachment. Presently, Mr. Ferrars does appear, though he is out of spirits. The family notes a new ring on his finger that looks to have a lock of hair the same color as Elinor’s. There is speculation, but Elinor says she never gave him any of her hair.

Eventually, a new party of two young women, the Ms. Steeles, join the party. Through the endless jokes of Mrs. Jennings, Sir John’s mother in law, the younger sister, Lucy Steele, guesses that at some point Elinor and Mr. Ferrars might have been speculated to have an attachment. She privately shares with Elinor that she, Lucy, has been in a secret engagement with Mr. Ferrars for several years, only kept secret due to the sure disapproval of his family; it is revealed that it was her hair in the ring. Elinor is hurt, but understands that Mr. Ferrars never made any promises or outright overtures to herself. Instead, she grieves at the poor match between the sensible Mr. Ferrars and the conniving Lucy Steele.

Mrs. Jennings asks Elinor and Marianne to join her in London. They agree, with Marianne becoming increasingly excited by the likelihood of meeting again with Mr. Willoughby. When there, she writes him several times and waits for him daily to make an appearance; he does not. Eventually, they meet at a ball and it becomes clear that Willoughby has broken with her and is now only days away from being engaged to a wealthy young woman. He writes a cruel letter to Marianne, apologizing for her “having been mislead” and returns Marianne’s letters. Marianne confides in Elinor that they were never engaged formally. Marianne sinks into a deep depression, confused and inconsolable.

Colonel Brandon appears, and still attached to Marianne and concerned for her welfare, shares his own personal history. He lost his first love when she was forced to marry her brother. The marriage went poorly and she ended up bereft. Colonel Brandon only rediscovered her when she was on her deathbed with a young girl child. Brandon took the girl under his wing. Early in this year, the girl disappeared from her keepers. When Brandon rediscovered her, she was pregnant and had been abandoned by her lover, Willoughby. Elinor is shocked and agrees that this news must be made known to Marianne.

Heroines – “I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures.”

First off, I think that book description is very misleading. For one thing, it represents Marianne as the primary sister of the two, where the book reads very much from Elinor’s perspective (the reader is in on the same secrets she knows, is unclear on the same information she is, and is privy for private conversations between her and other characters). I also think the last line is misleading about the overarching conclusion that Austen leads readers towards in this book, but I’ll go more into that in my concluding thoughts in the second part of this review in a few weeks.

It’s hard to be objective about Elinor and Marianne because of this greater focus on Elinor and said conclusion at the end. We are told that Marianne is sensible, clever, and a fine lady but we see her behave fairly poorly in this first half. But really, she mostly behaves the way most seventeen year old girls would. We are simply used to our young historical fiction leading ladies often doing better. But, of all Austen’s heroines, other than perhaps Catherine in “Northanger Abbey” (who also behaves poorly and like a teenage girl at times), Marianne is the youngest heroine we get. It’s a testament to Austen’s strength as an author that she is able to walk the fine line when creating a character such as Marianne that the reader is never pushed too far over the edge into dismissing her as romantically foolish and not worth rooting for. From the beginning, given that we are seeing things through Elinor’s eyes, the reader understands that Marianne’s actions are not ideal. Beyond that, the reader on their own can read her grandiose statements and see in them the naivety of youth.

Elinor, of course, is our solid rock. Throughout the entire book, we never see her make a misstep. At times, however, this leaves her as reading a bit more dull than some of Austen’s other ladies. She definitely falls on the Fanny Price side of the spectrum, being more reserved and providing most insight through personal reflection rather than witty dialogue. She’s not the most exciting heroine, but there’s a certain comfort in knowing that the story is safe in her hands, and, because it’s Austen, she’ll be rewarded in the end. Her handling of Lucy Steele is probably her at her finest. Here she almost takes her sense of propriety too far! Yes, Lucy told her a secret. But it’s hard to imagine taking that so to heart that you don’t even tell your beloved sister. Marianne, however, while not a blabber mouth, is also not the most discreet in her actions, so I do understand to some extent. However, it is never specified that this is a factor in Elinor’s thought process. Had she had Jane Bennett for a sister, one of the most demure and trust-worthy characters in all of Austen’s books, we can only assume that Elinor would still keep it to herself. Perhaps it is technically the right and honorable choice, but it is also one that almost stretches the believability of Elinor’s character to the breaking point. Is anyone really that dedicated?

Heroes – “What are men to rocks and mountains?”

We will get into this more when I review one of the movie adaptations for this book, because I think it’s the director who addresses this same thought in a commentary section, but the heroes of this book are, in my opinion, the weakest offerings Austen has to offer. Mr. Ferrars and Colonel Brandon are both decent characters and good men. But as romantic heroes, they are lacking. Mostly this because we are given next to nothing as far as interactions between them and our two ladies.

In this first half, Edward and Elinor’s burgeoning relationship happens entirely off page. We get zero examples of their interactions together and only hear about their relationship through the eyes of others and through Elinor’s modest, restrained discussions of her views on him. When he does finally appear again, we are once again limited to few interactions and zero between only Elinor and Edward. Indeed, I think it’s fair to say we hear more dialogue between Marianne and Edward debating various points on appreciation of art. And from there, we are mostly left with a man who is described as being withdrawn and moody. We later learn why, but compelling it does not make him.

Colonel Brandon fairs better as we do get to see more from him. To a certain extent, we can see his admiration for Marianne grow. And through his later communications with Elinor about his past and the comparisons he sees with Marianne, we get real insights into the emotional depth he has. But, again, there is very little to no interactions between him and Marianne herself. We hear their feelings on each other as communicated to Elinor, and very little else.

In this first half, it is clear who the heroes are, but frankly, they don’t feel very heroic. Brandon will ultimately fit this description much better than Edward, but as far as romantic plots lines goes, this first half clearly illustrates why this book fell lower on my preferences when I was looking for a swoon-worthy read.

Villains – “I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.” 

There are two main villains in this first half, Fanny Dashwood and Willoughby. Mr. Dashwood is also a villain, but mostly from being weak-willed and lead by his wife. In many instances, this plays more for comedic value than as a villainous depiction.

We get more from Fanny in the second half of the book, but the beginning scenes of the book with her talking Mr. Dashwood out of giving his sisters anything are a masterclass in despicable manipulation. That, and her snide comments to Mrs. Dashwood about Elinor and what does/does not belong with the house really cement readers’ feelings towards her early on. Through her, we’re set up pretty well to hate on the rest of the Ferrars family, Edward aside, when we later meet them.

Willoughby is a classic Austen villain. He shows up on the scene under mysterious, romantic circumstance, is charming and charismatic, attracting not only our main ladies, but the general esteem of the neighborhood, and while maybe not the absolute best prospect (Willoughby at least seems more financially secure than other similar characters in other books), would still be an agreeable match. Fans of Austen all know to beware of this type of character, but as we also see him and his courtship of Marianne through the sensible Elinor’s eyes, readers are immediately clued in to all not being well in this arena. While criticism is also thrown at Marianne for her behavior, Willoughby’s independence and control over his destiny, as a man, makes his actions much more reprehensible and Elinor quickly notes the dishonor in what she believes must be partially, if not all, his insistence that the assumed engagement remain secret.

We see most of his villainy laid out in this book, and in many ways he is one of the worst of the men presented in Austen’s books. He does become more pitiable in the second half when he can make his own case, but there is no ignoring the way he treats Colonel Brandon’s ward, a girl whose life has now been upended, her reputation beyond repairing, and at best has a future of quiet isolation in the country to look forward to. Marianne fairs better for being better protected and Willoughby’s own regard seeming to be stronger. But in the end, he makes the selfish decision to give her up for a fortune that has been lost to him (he at least thinks forever) due to his own reprehensible prior actions. Even in his affair with Marianne we see signs of his lack of regard for her reputation, bringing her to his future home and asking for a lock of her hair, all while knowing they are not engaged and these are not appropriate actions.

Romance – “A lady’s imagination is very rapid: it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony in a moment.”

As I said above in the heroes section, this book is particularly light on the romance. The biggest romance we see on page is between Marianne and Willoughby, which is obviously not meant as an enjoyable love story so much as a cautionary tale. Elinor reflects quite a lot on both that relationship and that of the one between Lucy Steele and Edward. Lucy, while also perhaps fitting under the villain category, is an interesting character and I had forgotten just how manipulative and cleverly snide she was in her interactions with Elinor. To her credit, Elinor doesn’t downplay any of Lucy’s wits, but is given ample opportunity in personal reflection to list out Lucy’s flaws in case any reader remains unclear. With what little we have of Edward, it’s hard to fully picture how these two came together, but in many ways I see their future together, had it happened, to be somewhat similar to that of Mr. and Mrs. Bennett: a marriage where neither partner can love or respect the other.

We see several other flawed marriages as well. Mrs. Fanny Dashwood clearly manipulates her husband much of the time and he is too weak-willed to hold firm judgments himself. Sir John and his wife seem content enough, though they are painted as two individuals who take pleasure in very different things. And we have Mrs. Jennings’ other daughter and her husband, a marriage that Elinor reflects on with bewilderment. The wife is all smiles and laughs, tittering away about how silly her husband is. For his part, he is rude and dismissive of her and those around her. Elinor wonders at how a woman can be so happy with a husband who is so consistently saying unhappy things about and to her. But, as Austen often notes, marriage is peculiar thing.

Comedy – “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?”

I’ll have to reflect on this more as I go through this re-read, but I think this book might be one of the less humerous of the bunch. Sir John and Mrs. Jennings are clearly the main comedic figures who don’t also have an element of villainy to their characters. Mrs. Jennings is a familiar neighborhood great lady who often appears in Austen’s works and due to her age and position can get away with saying all kinds of ridiculous things. While many of these are funny to the reader, we also see how it can be very painful for others to be around her. Elinor in particular ends up suffering for Mrs. Jennings essentially cluing Lucy in to Elinor’s past with Edward. But in the second half we see much more of the good of Mrs. Jennings that makes up for some of this.

The elder Miss Steele is also a good comedic figure. She doesn’t get a whole lot of page time, but what she does have is probably some of the funniest parts of the story. Her obsession with “beau” and her constant attempts to get others to ask her about them. She has some great lines of dialogue and there are even several good lines from the narrative itself that really go to town with the silliness of this character. With a page-time to laughs ratio, I think she wins hands down.

Favorite quotes – “What did she say? Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does.”

“If I could but know his heart, everything would become easy.”

I’m sure most of us can sympathize with this thought.

“It is not everyone,’ said Elinor, ‘who has your passion for dead leaves.”

Simple, but a lovely illustration of Austen’s clever writing even in small moments. Plus, one of Elinor’s few funny lines of dialogue.

“She [Marianne] expected from other people the same opinions and feelings as her own, and she judged of their motives by the immediate effect of their actions on herself.”

This is a spot-on observation about people in general. I think most all of us fall in this category at one point or another. These are the type of lines that are just casually inserted in a larger scene that make you do a double-take as you realize that some tidbit of profound wisdom and insight has just been dropped on your lap.

In two weeks, I’ll review the last half of “Sense and Sensibility” and share my final thoughts on the book as a whole.

Serena’s Review: “The Weight of a Soul”

43517326Book: “The Weight of a Soul” by Elizabeth Tammi

Publishing Info: Flux, December 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: NetGalley

Book Description: When Lena’s younger sister Fressa is found dead, their whole Viking clan mourns—but it is Lena alone who never recovers. Fressa is the sister that should’ve lived, and Lena cannot rest until she knows exactly what killed Fressa and why—and how to bring her back. She strikes a dark deal with Hela, the Norse goddess of death, and begins a new double life to save her sister.

But as Lena gets closer to bringing Fressa back, she dredges up dangerous discoveries about her own family, and finds herself in the middle of a devastating plan to spur Ragnarök –a deadly chain of events leading to total world destruction.

Still, with her sister’s life in the balance, Lena is willing to risk it all. She’s willing to kill. How far will she go before the darkness consumes her?

Review: I’ve read a few Vikings stories in the past year or so and largely enjoyed them all. Mythology is always a win for me, so it’s been fun to see Norse mythology getting its day in the sun after Roman and Greek had staked out the genre for so long. Combine those things with a story about sisters and this book was a no brainer for me to request. Sadly, all of those things together still somehow didn’t prove to be enough for me to really enjoy this book.

Lena and Fressa have grown up together to be as close as sisters can be. But while Lena is set out to lead a quiet, predictable life as a healer, it is Fressa who draws people to her with the sheer force of her vitality. So it is a shock when Fressa is suddenly found dead. But the life of a Viking is one of violence and sudden endings, so life moves on, for everyone but Lena. Driven to discover not only what happened to Fressa but to bring her beloved sister back, Lena sets out on a mission that will test the boundaries of life and death and draw her into the dark places of the world and herself.

So, as I said, this book wasn’t a hit for me. Even the things I liked are couched between things I disliked. For example, I liked the sisterly relationship. However, the story jumps through plot elements so quickly in the beginning that I was never able to feel fully connected to Fressa, thus lessening the impact of her death and my own commitment to the lengths (some pretty bad) that Lena went to in her attempts to bring her sister back.

I also enjoyed the mythology aspect of the story. However, again, there was really very little of it and only two god characters played a part and even then were more plot devices than anything else. The goddess, in particular, I felt was underwhelming and non-threatening, not something you want from an all-powerful being.

The pacing of the story also felt very off. As I said, the beginning of the book rushes through many important plot points. It’s attempting to not only set up the relationship between the sisters, but between them both and Fressa’s fiance, the girls’ parents, and  a few of the other village members as well. Between this and the brief attempts at history and world-building, the story feels like it’s simply jumping from one plot point to another. And then, suddenly, when Lena begins her journey, the brakes are pumped, hard. The rest of the book felt plodding, meandering, and frankly, rather boring. This left the overall pacing of the story feeling jarring and mismatched.

Beyond this, Lena was simply not a very likable character. The story is all set up to explore some deeper themes with regards to grief and the morality of choosing who lives and dies. And Lena, being a young woman presumably studying to be a healer, seems like a character primed to interact with these tough situations and choices in a compelling manner. Not so. While her descriptions of grief were at times beautiful and touching on some good ideas, the morality of her decisions was pretty terrible. And, even worse, she seems to think nothing of the terrible things she does.

It’s all well and good to have a character get so caught up in their own sorrow that their worldview becomes myopic to the point of a loss of their own morality, but the interesting part there is having the character explore this topic in some meaningful way. Or simply be from there after written as a villain. But Lena is unquestionably the hero of the story and yet she never seems to really care about the things that she does. As I said, it seems even more questionable when paired together with the empathy that it would have taken to be a healer. I was also not a fan of the romance of this story. It felt unnecessary at best and at worst it made Lena even more unlikable.

The idea of balancing a lost soul with the “weight” of another equal soul is a very interesting idea (though the end result is fairly predictable for fans of the genre), but much its potential was wasted behind choppy pacing and an unlikeable main character. Frustratingly, it seems like only a few minor tweaks could have really improved the story. Flashbacks, for example, would have worked better for the scenes before Fressa’s death and would have broken up some of the more plodding bits of the last half of the book. Ah well, what could have been alas was not! Fans of Norse mythology may like this book, but I think in the end it doesn’t live up to its own potential.

Rating 5: The unlikable main character was the last nail in the coffin for a book that unfortunately wasted several good aspects.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Weight of a Soul” is on these Goodreads lists: “YA & Middle-Grade Norse Mythology” and “YA Vikings.”

Find “The Weight of a Soul” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Dangerous Alliance: An Austentacious Romance”

44244324Book: “Dangerous Alliance: An Austentacious Romance” by Jennieke Cohen

Publishing Info: HarperTeen, December 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Lady Victoria Aston has everything she could want: an older sister happily wed, the future of her family estate secure, and ample opportunity to while her time away in the fields around her home.

But now Vicky must marry—or find herself and her family destitute. Armed only with the wisdom she has gained from her beloved novels by Jane Austen, she enters society’s treacherous season.

Sadly, Miss Austen has little to say about Vicky’s exact circumstances: whether the roguish Mr. Carmichael is indeed a scoundrel, if her former best friend, Tom Sherborne, is out for her dowry or for her heart, or even how to fend off the attentions of the foppish Mr. Silby, he of the unfortunate fashion sensibility.

Most unfortunately of all, Vicky’s books are silent on the topic of the mysterious accidents cropping up around her…ones that could prevent her from surviving until her wedding day.

Review: “…An Austentacious Romance.” Need I say more? I’ve been debating doing a re-read of all of Jane Austen’s novels for the blog, so as a middle ground in the mean time, this was an obvious book to request. I often don’t enjoy straight re-tellings of Austen’s stories (often they are made into contemporary romances, and I just don’t care for those myself), but this one seemed to have struck on something new: a historical piece that both pulls from the themes found in Austen’s books and straight up references those books as reading material that the heroine herself is fond of. Part of this equation work, however, on the whole, this was less than I had wanted it to be.

Lady Victoria Aston has always tried to model her life around her favorite heroines, those found in Jane Austen’s works. So, when difficulties suddenly strike her family and she finds herself suddenly needing to marry well to secure their futures, she looks to these wise and witty ladies once again for guidance. But be it rogues who are much more dangerous than those found in the pages of a book or a childhood friend who has secrets of his own, Lady Vicky quickly finds that life is much more complicated than she had thought. And it’s not only the typical challenges of the marriage market that plague her, but somehow dangerous accidents seem to be cropping up everywhere as well. Is it all connected and, more importantly, what would Jane Austen do in this situation?

Obviously, for me, this is a fantastic premise for a book. Austen re-tellings are found all over the place, some successful, others…less so. But what a fun idea, to pull from common aspects found within Austen’s novels all while referencing those very books in the story itself with a main character whose story takes place in our own world and the time of Austen’s publications. It’s a fun idea, but unfortunately, it ends up being a bit too much.

The elements of the story that are not direct references to Austen’s work do end up coming across better. We have characters who definitely fall into familiar categories from Austen’s works: the rogues, the fools, the loving sisters. There are also familiar plot points, especially with regards to the romantic confusions and the family relationships. For herself, Vicky is a capable heroine. And, given the necessity of this book being read by modern readers, she’s much more proactive and involved in the action of the plot than some of Austen’s own leading ladies. If this does lend a bit of a anachronistic feeling to the story, it’s at least a familiar flaw for books in the historical romance genre.

That said, while some of the humor and romance do line up well with Austen’s own books, these lighter topics sit awkwardly next to some much darker themes. This is where the first of my complaints really came to play. I’m not saying that books in this genre can’t touch on darker themes, but handling them is a delicate thing. The book is tripping along happily and then BANG! A super dark scene is thrown at the reader. It was jarring and unexpected in a bad way. For a book that has the words “Austentacious romance” in the title,  there are some expectations laid down from the start. And while many of those were fulfilled, some of these darker bits did not lay comfortably with the rest. And after the second such instance, I was thrown out of the book enough to continue reading only warily, which resulted in my inability to fully immerse myself again in the fluffy fun of it all.

My second problem came with the Jane Austen references themselves, bizarrely enough. I’m not quite sure if ultimately I was just less enthralled with this concept as a whole once I actually started reading it, or whether this book just over-played its hand. There were simply too many of them! Almost every situation had Vicky comparing herself to one or another of Austen’s heroines.

And many of these references weren’t to well-known aspects of Austen’s works. This part, to some extent, I did enjoy as it proved that the author wasn’t just cherry picking the popular, well-known, and commonly referenced bits of Austen’s work. No, readers actually need to be familiar with many of Austen’s lesser read books, specifically “Mansfield Park” which received a lot of attention here and whose heroine, Fanny Price, often falls last on many people’s lists of favorites. But, all of that said, this does leave the book in the awkward position of only being truly appreciated by hard and fast Austen lovers, the very people who are likely to be the most critical of other books, such as this one, that are trying to emulate those beloved titles.

All told, however, there were just too many of these references for my taste. There were several moments where the comparisons did nothing to further enlighten the scene or character being contrasted in this book and only served to break up the action and distract the reader. I can’t say for certain that it would have been better without the references at all, but thinking back on it, I’m not sure it would be any worse for losing them either.

Overall, this was kind of a disappointing book for me. Don’t get me wrong, I think for the most part it delivers on what it promises. But I think the story does throw in some darker scenes that don’t mesh well with the light-hearted nature of the rest of the book and the Austen references ended up being more a distraction than anything. Reader who enjoy historical romance will still likely enjoy this book. But know that you’ll need to be familiar with more than just “Pride and Prejudice” and “Emma” to fully appreciate this story!

Rating 7: A neat little book that didn’t feel quite settled with itself: tonal inconsistency and an imbalance between original work and Austen references made up most of my complaints.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Dangerous Alliance: An Austentacious Romance” is on these Goodreads lists: Young Adult Regency and Jane Austen variations published in 2019.

Find “Dangerous Alliance: An Austentacious Romance” at your library using WorldCat!

Serena’s Review: “Skin”

24721903Book: “Skin” by Ilka Tampke

Publishing Info: Consortium Book Sales & Distribution, October 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: Southwest Britain, AD 43.

For the people of Caer Cad, ‘skin’ is their totem, their greeting, their ancestors, their land.

Ailia does not have skin. Abandoned at birth, she serves the Tribequeen of her township. Ailia is not permitted to marry, excluded from tribal ceremonies and, most devastatingly, forbidden to learn. But the Mothers, the tribal ancestors, have chosen her for another path.

Lured by the beautiful and enigmatic Taliesin, Ailia embarks on an unsanctioned journey to attain the knowledge that will protect her people from the most terrifying invaders they have ever faced.

Review: I believe this book was self-published a few years ago (or published from a smaller, independent publisher?), so I wasn’t aware of it until I saw it and its sequel, due out in January, pop up on Edelweiss. Always in the mood for historical fiction and intrigued by the unique time period in which this was set, I was quick to request it! And while it was darker than I had expected, the beautiful writing and gripping story swept me along in a quick read-through.

Ailia has grown up living a half-life. Her mysterious origins left her without a skin, an identifier by which tribes connect to each other and their land. Without this marker, she exists outside of the normal structure of life, unable to fully participate and with a large question mark looming over her future. But when their quiet life is interrupted by the threat of war, Ailia journeys far and wide to not only find her own place, but to save her people.

This book was a bit hit and miss for me. But if I’m honest about it, the “misses” are likely just personal preferences at the moment and maybe not being in the correct headspace for some of the darker elements of this story. To start with the good stuff, however! The first thing that really stood out to me immediately was the beautiful style of writing. This book was very reminiscent of Juliet Mariller’s writing, and I really couldn’t give out a better compliment than that! It is lyrical and heart-wrenching, perfectly painting the picture of life in this early part of history in Britain. It’s the kind of thing that is hard to pin down; somehow the style of writing itself lends a sense of atmosphere to the story.

I also really liked the setting and time period of this book. It’s set in early AD Britain where Roman influence and invasion has been ebbing and flowing for a while. I don’t know much about this time period, so I can’t speak to the historical accuracy of the story. The author does include a good note at the end which does detail some of the historical influences behind the work. But beyond that, again perhaps due to the strength of the writing, it was easy to sink into the time and place being presented, even when elements of this life felt completely foreign.

I also like Ailia as the main character. The book is written in first person from her point of view, so it is quick and easy to fall into line with her character. While the general outline of her story isn’t the most original (outsider comes into her own power as a central figure in a growing conflict), I was still invested in her arc throughout the story. The idea of “skins” was also very intriguing, especially in connection with how Ailia sees herself and how other see her.

Now for the downsides. This book is dark. Very, very dark. Right from the start the reader is thrown into a pretty violent scene. And given the nature of the story, the lifestyle, and the growing conflict, this violence does continue to pop up throughout the story. Typically I’m not overly squeamish about violence, and it never felt gratuitous or glorified here. In fact, I would even say that this violence was part of what made the book feel so grounded in the time period and events that it was trying to depict. So, again, I think it was largely that I was just surprised by it and wasn’t in a good emotional place to read about some of these topics. Perhaps re-reading it later I wouldn’t struggle as I did here. And other readers may not have the same qualms I did.

My one other struggle with the book has to do with the ending, so this is obviously a hugely subjective problem. For me, the ending was of the sort that left me more focused on the grim nature of the story than on the beauty of the writing. It felt incredibly realistic, but it was the kind of reality that I didn’t necessarily want to be left with at the end of a story. I guess I needed a bit more light to counterbalance all of the brutality, and for me, the book just ended on yet another grim note.

It’s hard to rate and review books when you struggle with how they end. Obviously, that’s the last experience I had of the book, and it wasn’t an overly positive one. I’m definitely curious to see where the sequel goes from here. There is a chance that, depending on how that book goes, the ending of this one might be retroactively improved for me. And all of this to say, my qualms with this one were very much based on my own preferences. Overall, the writing, story, and characters are all strong. It was just too much darkness for me. Readers who aren’t put off by that and enjoy atmospheric historical fiction (with a dash of fantasy, of course!) will likely enjoy this.

Rating 7: A reader’s case of “it’s not you; it’s me.”

Reader’s Advisory:

“Skin” is on these Goodreads lists: “Coming of Age Stories” and “Books for the INFJ.”

Find “Skin” at your library using Worldcat!

Serena’s Review: “Newt’s Emerald”

24737347Book: “Newt’s Emerald” by Garth Nix

Publishing Info: Katherine Tegen Books, October 2015

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!

Book Description: On her eighteenth birthday, Lady Truthful, nicknamed “Newt,” will inherit her family’s treasure: the Newington Emerald. A dazzling heart-shaped gem, the Emerald also bestows its wearer with magical powers.

When the Emerald disappears one stormy night, Newt sets off to recover it. Her plan entails dressing up as a man, mustache included, as no well-bred young lady should be seen out and about on her own. While in disguise, Newt encounters the handsome but shrewd Major Harnett, who volunteers to help find the missing Emerald under the assumption that she is a man. Once she and her unsuspecting ally are caught up in a dangerous adventure that includes an evil sorceress, Newt realizes that something else is afoot: the beating of her heart.

Review: After reading “Angel Mage,” I found myself on a bit of a Garth Nix kick, as I had been clearly reminded just how much I enjoyed his writing. Not wanting to bite off the large task of re-immersing myself in the “Sabriel” world and series, I was happy to come across this short-and-sweet, standalone fantasy!

Lady Truthful, or “Newt,” is due a large inheritance, but more important than the money is a priceless, magical heirloom, an emerald with unknown but great powers. When the emerald is stolen from beneath her nose, Newt sets out on an adventure to recover it. Disguised as a man, she finds herself wandering dark alleyways at night and aboard ships raging through storms. And as a woman, she is caught up in an even more dangerous endeavor: a young woman debuting for her first season in London! By her side she finds the mysterious Major Harnett who also might be hiding his own secrets.

This was a strange little book. And really, I think that’s where many of its strengths and weaknesses lie, with how little it is. From my research, it seems that this was originally written as a novella and then expanded out into a full-length, albeit still short, book. Reading it, it is easy to see these backbones through what we are presented here. Everything that is given is excellent: a solid main character, a firm touch on both the genres its straddling (fantasy and historical romance), and a succinct, but clear, storyline. And I enjoyed it all. However, I do wish there had been a bit…more of everything.

In some ways, it feels that this was a novel born from a writing exercise on Nix’s part. That he went into the story wanting to dabble in historical romance, but, being a fantasy author, wanted to include his own trademark worldbuilding and fantastical elements to the standard elements. Perhaps readers not familiar with his other works would be less surprised by this book, but for those of us who have read those, this book feels remarkably light on the fantasy. There is the titular emerald, of course, and it seems that characters in this world are prone to having some level of magical abilities themselves. The ins and outs of these abilities, their range, scope, or power, is never really explored and the few times we see people use them, there isn’t much there other than a flash and bang. From an author that I know is capable of writing complex and thorough magic systems, it ended up reading a bit bland.

The characters themselves fared better, though even here it seemed we were getting only modestly adjusted variations on the stock historical romance characters one often sees. Newt’s time spend dressed as a man is a saving grace for her character, raising her above the tropes that often befall historical romance heroines. I particularly enjoyed the time spent between her and the love interest when she was still thought to be a man and their friendship began to develop.  Once the secret was outed, the story fell quickly back into the more expected beats of a romance.

There was a strange moment, however, when the reader is allowed to see behind the curtain on the Major’s side of things. I’m not quite sure what the goal of this inclusion was, but from my perspective it took the bite out of a few of the mysteries at the heart of the story. Newt has her own secrets, but so does the Major. Being privy to the truth before our main character quickly defangs many of the conflicts and makes Newt’s own agonizing and confusion read as more of a bore, knowing the truth and likely outcomes ourselves already.

Again, this isn’t meant to be all critical. I did enjoy the romance, it was sweet and funny. The action and adventure was probably the strongest portion of the story, with several good chase scenes and fights. And the writing was perfectly matched to the Recency romance style that Nix was clearly attempting to reference, most especially noticeable in the dialogue, which was witty and fun. Most of this seems due to the length of the story; it’s simply too short to fully flesh out all of its characters or expand on the magical system and world to the extent that I might have wished. It was a quick read, however, and a fun story. Readers who are looking for a light, beach-read-like story will likely enjoy this. Just don’t go into it expecting to see the full power of Nix’s abilities on display.

Rating 7: Reads a bit more like a primer of Nix’s work than as a fully completed work of its own.

Reader’s Advisory: 

“Newt’s Emerald” is on these Goodreads lists: “Fantasy of Manners” and “Girls Disguised as Boys.”

Find “Newt’s Emerald” at your library using Worldcat!

Serena’s Review: “The Art of Theft”

36510437Book: “The Art of Theft” by Sherry Thomas”

Publication Info: Berkley, October 2019

Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+

Book Description: As “Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective,” Charlotte Holmes has solved murders and found missing individuals. But she has never stolen a priceless artwork—or rather, made away with the secrets hidden behind a much-coveted canvas.

But Mrs. Watson is desperate to help her old friend recover those secrets and Charlotte finds herself involved in a fever-paced scheme to infiltrate a glamorous Yuletide ball where the painting is one handshake away from being sold and the secrets a bare breath from exposure.

Her dear friend Lord Ingram, her sister Livia, Livia’s admirer Stephen Marbleton—everyone pitches in to help and everyone has a grand time. But nothing about this adventure is what it seems and disaster is biding time on the grounds of a glittering French chateau, waiting only for Charlotte to make a single mistake…

Previously Reviewed: “A Study in Scarlet Women” and “A Conspiracy in Belgravia” and “The Hollow of Fear”

Review:  Continuing my week of Sherry Thomas reviews! While “The Magnolia Sword” took me by surprise (I didn’t realize it was coming out until late in the game, and still later figured out the author was Sherry Thomas), I’ve been impatiently waiting for the release of the latest “Lady Sherlock” story. Thanks to Edelweiss+, I had early access to it on my Kindle, and due to a complete lack of willpower, I ended up reading this book a few months ago but still wanted to review it closer to its publication date, so here we are. And while this wasn’t my favorite book in the series, I’m still enjoying the heck out of these stories and, again, am anxiously awaiting the next.

After helping Lord Ingram escape a false murder charge in the last book, Charlotte Holmes once again finds herself at the service of one of her close friends. This time it’s Mrs. Watson who has been contacted by a friend from the past who is now caught up in a mysterious blackmail/art theft situation. But this time, Charlotte and co. must do more than simply unravel the various players in this charade, but now find themselves playing an active role within the events themselves. Now she must not only discover who is at the heart of this conflict, but find a way to walk the narrow line between solving the case and not becoming a criminal herself!

Many of the strengths of the original books are still present here. Charlotte, as always, is a perfectly realized character, now comfortably familiar in both her quirks (her sense of fashion and preference for sweet treats), her strengths (obviously), as well as her weaknesses (challenges with navigating complicated relationships). One of the pleasing things about a long(ish) running series is this solid comfort with a character who is understood and beloved, but it also come with challenges. Here, while Charlotte is still at the heart of untangling the mystery, it feels like she is not the main character in her own book. That is, there is very little ongoing character development or a unique arc that is devoted to her. Much of this character work is picked up by the others in the book, but for a series that is called the “Lady Sherlock” series, this book was the first that did begin to show some signs of not quite knowing where to go from here with its titular character.

Luckily, the series has already set up a good number of side characters in the first several books so a shift of focus to them, while not preferred, also still feels earned. And I was already invested enough to feel that their conflicts were enough to carry much of this story. Mrs. Watson, of course, is at the heart of this story, and I loved learning more about her past and those who played a role in it. We see, again, both the strengths and weaknesses that lead her to where she is today. She also serves as a good mentor for Livia who ends up taking on a much more active role in this story.

Throughout the series, Livia has always played a bit of a strange role. A decent amount of page time is devoted to her, but she’s typically no where near the action and her development has moved at a fairly glacial pace. Here, Livia finally gets to come out of the shadow and play with the big kids. I loved seeing her come out of her shell, even if it was an uncomfortable process for her. Through her, the story also spends a bit exploring, again, the limitations on women in this time period. And, while Livia’s life has by no means been a happy one, she comes to realize the privileges that she has taken for granted.

I did enjoy the mystery itself as well. After the more active role that Charlotte took on in the previous book, it was nice to see that approach used once again here with Charlotte and co. essentially staging a heist. The story has definite “‘Ocean’s 11’ but in Victorian times” vibes, which I thought was a clever change of pace from the other, more typical mysteries of the first books. There were some surprises sprinkled throughout, as well, and, overall, I found the conclusion and explanation satisfying.

However, for all the answers we do get, there were a few too many loose ends left hanging. This was clearly done on purpose, but there were just one or two too many for me not to begin to feel slightly frustrated and anxious. For one thing, these mysteries are complicated. It always takes a bit of thinking on my part to fully put things together and still I’d have a hard time explaining it all later. But to add more unsolved clues on top of all that, clues I can only assume will come into play in a later book and that I will need to recall…it’s a bit too much. For me, I was left feeling a bit worried that I was not only missing things in this book, but will now likely miss even more in some future story.

The book also ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, which I’m not sure was necessary. It’s not the type that gnaws away at you, but more just introduces the topic of the next book. But it seemed liked a strange choice for an established series. It’s the kind of thing you do in book one or two, just to keep readers interested. But here, it was more like an unneeded “coming next week” preview for a well-watched and established TV show. Just leave it out and let the book end on a note relevant to this book’s story. The next book can take care of itself without page time given to it here.

Those quibbles aside, this was another solid entry in the “Lady Sherlock” series. I’m definitely excited for the next book as it seems like it will focus on a character who wasn’t much seen in this story. And I hope that Charlotte’s more active role continues. However, I also hope that she gets a bit more character development and a more defined emotional arc in future stories. I enjoy the side characters, for sure, but I’m mostly here for Charlotte. All of this to say, if you’ve enjoyed this series so far, you’re good to go on this one as well. And never fear, there will be another; it’s all set up right there at the end of this one.

Rating 8: While Charlotte fades a bit into the background and there are a few too many dangling clues, I enjoyed the addition of a heist plot onto another solid mystery.

Reader’s Advisory:

“The Art of Theft” is a newer title, so it isn’t on many Goodreads’ lists, but it is on “Historical Mystery 2019.”

Find “The Art of Theft” at your library using WorldCat!