Love and Science: Courtney Milan’s The Countess Conspiracy

The Countess Conspiracy, Courtney Milan

The Countess Conspiracy, Courtney Milan

Oh. This book. From the dedication to the very last word–it’s so good.

And this review is full of spoilers because–as usual with Courtney Milan’s books–it’s impossible to talk about her work without them.

The Countess Conspiracy is the third book in the Brothers Sinister series and it focuses on Sebastian Malheur and Violet Waterfield.  Sebastian, as characterized in the previous books, is a flamboyant and rather famous scientist and Violet is a widow and friend of the Brothers Sinister who attends all his lectures.  There’s a reason for this and that reason is: she’s actually the scientist and he’s her mouthpiece.

But since she is a woman, she was unable to find a scientific journal willing publish her first paper until Sebastian agreed to put his name on it. At which point it became a work of genius, not just a woman messing around with flowers.

When this book starts, Sebastian is at the end of his ability to cope with the ongoing social repercussions of Violet’s research and has decided that he’s no longer going to be her mouthpiece–which puts her in an awkward position.  And it sets the main conflict of this book in motion.

There are other conflicts–between Sebastian and his brother, between Violet and her sister and mother–but the main one is this internalized conflict between Violet and herself. There’s never really any serious conflict between Violet and Sebastian and when there is, they generally talk it out like adults (so refreshing to see characters in a romance use their words). The conflict here is all inside Violet.

Violet has been told throughout her entire life that she can’t want–things, happiness, friendship, love. She has been told repeatedly that she is fundamentally unlovable and she’s completely internalized that message–her father rejected her, her mother set her out in society with an incredibly number of rules both public and private, and her first husband abused and raped her.

I think there’s going to be a lot of discussion around whether or not what happened between Violet and her first husband was rape or not.  I think it was–she did not want to have sex with him after it became clear that she was not going to be able to carry a child to term and that her life was increasingly in danger with each pregnancy–and he coerced her into consenting. There can be no true consent when coercion is present.  I do not care that her first husband’s actions were within legal bounds for the period.  Reproductive coercion is  abuse. He raped her.

But just as surely she also recalled what it had turned into: the slide into icy nothingness, every thrust of his hips attempting to erase her from the world.

And Milan has done something pretty remarkable with her characterization of him: that’s all he is.  We don’t know if he was otherwise kind to Violet or if he also kicked puppies.  We don’t know if he was generally well-liked by his peers or if he was a good dancer or if he was a terrible cart player.  All we know is that he is a rapist.  The text doesn’t provide the reader with any way to mitigate or excuse his deeds. And he never gets a name.  As far as I can tell, he’s never even referred to by his title.  He is essentially erased from the narrative. He is, ultimately, invisible–except for what he’s done to Violet.

It’s a really interesting parallel to the main theme of this book which is, to wit: women who have been erased from history.  This book is dedicated to Rosalind Franklin and to Anna Clausen–as well as to all the other unnamed women whose accomplishments went unrecorded.  I knew who Rosalind Franklin was and how, without her contributions, Watson and Crick would never have figured out the structure of DNA and how neither Watson nor Crick gave her credit. I didn’t know who Anna Clausen was, though, and wasn’t able to find anything out about her until I read Milan’s note at the end of the book.  Here, I’ll let the relevant passage from the paper that Milan cites speak for itself:

The research work was done almost exclusively during leisure  hours, and it had not been possible to get through without the kind and  very accurate assistance yielded by my wife, Fru ANNA CLAUSEN, during  the seasonal work on the experiment field. Artificial pollinations, back-  crossings, fixations, baggings and harvesting were made almost exclusively by her, and she assisted me also in the enumeration of  segregated types.

Hover for a more readable version.
Clausen, J. “Cyto-genetic and Taxonomic Investigations on Melanium Violets.” Hereditas. Volume 15, Issue 3. July 1931. Page 221.

Milan is pretty clear in her note that she doesn’t want to criticize J. Clausen. However, I will: You long-dead asshole, your wife did all your research for you and you took the credit.

Anyhow. Back to the book!

Violet, oh. I feel for her so much–she is so self-aware and so self-conscious. She knows what is expected of her and swallows down everything she wants for herself in favor of what other people want.

So Violet retreated into silence. She pushed away everything she didn’t want to hear. The rest of the world was swaddled in cotton, its sharp edges dulled so it couldn’t cut her.

And Sebastian–he’s been in love with Violet for practically his entire life. And he tells her so very, very early in the book. Much earlier than I was expecting him to.

“Violet, I played a role for you for five years. I bought a house near yours in London and installed gates by hand so we could talk about your work in secret. Don’t tell me that I’ve never given any indication that I loved you.”

And then he waits.  He is so incredibly patient and kind because while he doesn’t know exactly what hell she’s been through, he knows it’s been hell.  He acknowledges her experiences and her pain and knows that this isn’t something that can be forced. She has to come to him.

Nearly every single physical contact between them, after the first time he touches her hand, is initiated by Violet (“he might one day seduce her into not flinching when he took her hand”–oh the feels). She sets the pace of their physical relationship.  He asks to touch her. This is a book that is, very much, about consent.

This book is also a master class on how to do sexual tension.  It’s builds slowly and it’s absolutely agonizing and then the pay-off. So, so worth it.

One thing I thought interesting about this book was Milan’s decision to include PIV intercourse despite Violet’s terrible experience with it during her marriage–and the consequences thereof, which almost killed her (19 miscarriages. Nineteen.  I can’t even). It’s not their first sexual encounter with each other and Sebastian does use a rubber condom as well as withdrawing before he ejaculation.  I also noticed that this scene was written using much gentler language and even though it is fairly explicit, the gentler language keeps it more on the sweet side. I do wonder, though, if it would have been more subversive to forego the PIV intercourse altogether and only show Violet and Sebastian engaging in other kinds of sexual activities with each other. I think that would have been so, so, so interesting.

Sebastian is really remarkable in so many ways. One of my favorite things about him was the way he so easily slipped into a support role for Violet–making sure she eats, helping her with her experiments. At one point he even jokes about becoming a faculty spouse.

He smiled. “That is the entire point. Get your back up all you wish. Rage at me for hours. Feel uncomfortable. At the end of the day, I’ll still bring you apples and make you laugh.”

At the same time, he stands up for himself and what he needs–from Violet and from others in his life. He’s not a doormat. He knows what his boundaries are and, in fact, the trigger for Violet’s internal conflict is his decision that he could no longer pretend to be the author of Violet’s papers.

And then finally, Violet has an epiphany.  She has it after the scene which is, to me, the fulcrum of the novel: when she and Alice Bollingall, through collaboration and serendipity discover and photograph chromosomes.  That scene completely reduced me to tears, utterly.  But the epiphany:

Violet contemplated the mirror. When her husband called her selfish for refusing to go to bed with him, what had he meant?

I deserve my chance to have an heir more than you deserve to live.

When Lily said it would be selfish of Violet to ally herself with Sebastian, what did she mean?

My attendance at balls is more important than your happiness.

When Violet called herself selfish, that was what she meant—that she didn’t deserve the thing she wanted. Not happiness. Not recognition. Maybe not even her own life.

From this point on, Violet allows herself to want. She allows herself to become close to Sebastian, both emotionally and physically.  She stands up to her sister and mother (and her mother is one of the most interesting secondary characters–Violet’s relationship with her isn’t healthy but her mother’s actions at the end are unexpected and there’s a reveal which was both surprising and unsurprising at the same time). She reveals herself as the author of the papers Sebastian has been presenting.

There are also some really very funny bits, too.  I loved everything about the rake phylogeny and how it made something that was very difficult for Violet easier for her because it wasn’t serious–that the anticipation and buildup to the physical act was as–or more–important to Sebastian as the culmination of the sexy times.  I loved the scene where Violet is writing an angry letter to Sebastian while he’s sitting next to her and he has absolutely no idea.  I love that she gets drunk on some sort of horrible home brew liquor made from thistles and still manages to kick everyone’s ass at cards (the thistle home brew liquor reminded me, so much, of the maple mead from Bujold’s Vorkosigan books).

The reaction of the populace to her revelation is a bit far-fetched, but I didn’t care by that point.  I was way more interested in reading about how Violet and Sebastian come together as a couple, as two adults who know their own minds and who are capable of talking to each other about their problems than about the public aftermath of Violet’s talk, although she does get a magnificent speech:

“But they want to stop me. They want to shut me up—me and everyone associated with my work. If I show fear, they’ll never stop. I shall always be forced to defend myself from ludicrous charges.” Her chin went up. “They need to know that they have no recourse. That I am not afraid of them, not even if they throw the entire weight of the law at me. So yes, Your Worships. I discovered the truth. I told the world.” She straightened and glared at them. “I’m guilty.”

The whole book is just really wonderful.

Since I finished this book, I’ve been thinking about it and about the others in the series.  They’re all about women who have been denied their voices finding them–assisted by the men in their lives, but never at the whim of those men.  Serena, Minnie, Lydia, Jane, Violet.  All of them amazing women with agency. They are constrained by their time, but they still make choices.  And of all the women in this series so far, Violet is the closest to my heart.  For oh so many reasons but especially the way in which she is often her own worst enemy. Until she’s not.

Now, if you’ll excuse me: I need to reread this book.

Digger, Ursula Vernon

Digger, Ursula Vernon

Digger, Ursula Vernon

I’ve been meaning to read Digger for years. But I am mostly-allergic to serial web-comics (I can barely manage to keep up with non-serial ones like xkcd and A Softer World) and I never think to look for print volumes, so when I heard about the Kickstarter for an omnibus edition, I jumped all over it.

Friends, the omnibus edition is gorgeous and I am so happy to have a copy for my shelves.  It also weighs about ten million pounds (okay, only 4 pounds but that is still really heavy!).  If you can afford to, get the individual volumes (the omnibus is cheaper than all 6 volumes, even at full price).  Or read online!  Luckily for me, the Kickstarter rewards also included a PDF and since I have a tablet, that’s how I ended up reading it. 

And it’s wonderful. And I can’t imagine reading it at the rate of four pages a week over eight years. The suspense! Because this has got plot galore and honestly, it’s amazing how everything ties so neatly together in the most unexpected ways.

It’s about a wombat named Digger and how she ends up far, far, away from home.  There’s a statue of Ganesh which is sometimes inhabited by the god, there are hyena-people, a demon child, and all sorts of odd nonsense going on that Digger would prefer not to deal with, being a sensible wombat, but there’s nothing to do but to get on with things.

And she does–and it’s a marvelous story, one that’s funny and sad and important in all the right ways.  Oh, Ed.

The art is gorgeous–I don’t know much about drawing or comics, but I simply can’t imagine this story having the same kind of impact done in full color.  I love the attention to detail and I love the sheer personality of the art.  It’s a perfect marriage of drawing and story and this novice comics reader found it very easy to follow.  Also, there are footnotes. Hilarious footnotes.

All in all, a great story. So glad I finally read it. So sad I’ll never be able to read it again for the first time.

Historical Fiction and Nicola Griffith’s Hild

Hild, Nicola Griffith

Hild, Nicola Griffith

This is going to be, in part, a review of Nicola Griffith’s latest novel, Hild. But it’s also going to be a discussion of historical fiction and how historical fiction is also speculative fiction and shares much more with science fiction and fantasy than may be immediately apparent.

Hild is, without a doubt, one of the best books I’ve read this year.  It follows the early life of the woman known to us as St. Hilda of Whitby, of whom very little is known–just a couple of paragraphs in The Ecclesiastical History of the English by the Venerable Bede.

Griffith has written extensively about the research she undertook during the writing of this book. The amount of research is absolutely evident in the text but it’s never overwhelming to the reader and it’s all utterly essential. You need to know what the lives of women were like in 7th century England to understand why Hild was so extraordinary–and you also need to know the kinship obligations between all the people on the page–most of whom are historical.

Which is why this review was so disappointing to read.  Calling Hild a “gussied up fantasy novel” is, I think, supposed to be an insult.  It also seems that Michael Robbins doesn’t think women are the proper subject for a historical novel–that their lives just weren’t interesting enough. At least that’s what I took Robbin’s flip reference to the gore and chivalric romance that Griffith mostly ignores in favor of the relationships between the women.

Well. I found this a lot more interesting than many fantasy novels I’ve read in part because the descriptions in Hild are so very vivid–as Hild observes, so does the reader.  I can say that the descriptions of all the textile-related activities was utterly correct based on my knowledge of the field, and because of that, I have confidence that the rest is accurate as well.

And to move back to my other point about historical fiction being speculative fiction: in the absence of working time machines, we can never truly know everything about the past.

There is, after a certain point, when research is just that: research. And it is, at that point, speculation–fiction–must begin.  And that is what Hild is.  It is, indeed, a fantasy novel but not a “gussied up” one–it’s one that acknowledges the past (is rooted in it) but is about all the things we don’t really know about it. As Griffith says, history itself is story.  We look at history and try to make it a narrative.  I think that’s one reason–at least here in the U.S.–that history classes so often revolve around war and conflict. Those things are pretty easy to turn into a narrative that will interest easily distracted students.

Speculative fiction writers learn this sort of thing from the ground up. They learn how to share important pieces of information in ways that aren’t always immediately apparent and to leave unimportant ones out–unlike Robbins, I think Fursey’s comment about the petrified dragon was absolutely perfect because of course people knew about fossils before they knew they were fossils: they were just called something different and the way of thinking about the world was different. They learn to populate their stories with believable characters. They learn about constraint and how that can force the story into interesting and unexpected shapes.

It’s an immersion technique and speculative fiction writers are–have to be–very good at it.  They have to understand their settings inside out and backwards. They typically don’t let an intriguing detail slip without understanding the ramifications of that detail.  If it doesn’t serve the story, it shouldn’t be in the story.  I’m not saying that this isn’t a skill that writers in other genres don’t have–but other genres usually focus on other aspects of story. Romance, for instance, focuses on the emotional narrative between two characters.  There may be constraint that forces emotional intimacy, but that constraint doesn’t usually completely confine one or both characters the way Hild is constrained in this novel. She is contrained by her sex and gender, at times by her age, and by her kinship ties and associated politics.  She has so little room to maneuver and a single misstep can mean her death. Those are incredibly high stakes and watching the tiny adjustments and huge chances she takes is exhilarating.

One detail in Hild that stuck out for me was all the wool and textiles.  As most of you know, I’m a knitter and spinner, so I was beyond thrilled that this industry was omnipresent in the book (no knitting, though, as it hadn’t been invented yet).  It’s women’s work, making cloth. It’s technology and it’s mostly invisible and yet, without it, there’s no civilization.  The amount of information conveyed by the clothing that the people wore was tremendous and in this book we see the birth of York as a major player in the wool industry. I think it’s important to remember that for most of our history, cloth was made by hand, not machine and it took a lot of time and energy.

This is a book full of all kinds of details–Hild and her mother have positioned her as a seer within Edwin’s court and in order to keep her place, Hild has to have visions periodically.  She does this through close observation and by building a network of informants which, to the king and his gesiths (warriors), looks like magic.  Her skills appear to be uncanny, but the reader knows that they’re the result of Hild’s observational and information gathering skills.

Ultimately, though, Hild is about an extraordinary, singular woman. It’s about the women in her life and the constraints they lived under and how they were still able to influence the path of history. They did it subtly, through weaving patterns and taking calculated risks instead of with swords and open violence, but they did it nonetheless.

This is an amazing book. Read it.

Linkspam, 11/15/13 Edition

As old as creation / Syphilis is now curable

As old as creation / Syphilis is now curable

And since today’s my birthday, everyone gets a cupcake!

cupcakes with a reading list

Linkspam, 10/18/13 Edition

I’m thinking about renaming these weekly posts from linkspam to…something else. Suggestions welcome!

I know this was totally staged but I don’t care. It made me smile.