I know I spend a disproportionate amount of time gushing about author Suzannah Rowntree on this blog, but I seriously like this author. She combines the technique and refinement of classic writers with the ease and readability of modern ones.
As you may remember, she won Best Character and Best Author in the 2015 Blogger Awards, the latter for her novella, The Prince of Fishes. I read it as a contest judge, wrote a miniature review, and promised Suzannah a full-length one.
That was last December. This February, Suzannah contacted me about reviewing an ARC of her new novella, The Bells of Paradise. I agreed on the spot. (Suzannah is clearly a wonderful person who still trusts me despite my complete lack of promised book reviews.)
It's March now. Sorry, Suzannah. Here are your book reviews.
In Constantinople, the Queen of Cities, poverty-stricken Michael the Fisherman and his wife Eudokia dream of a better life for their family. When Michael catches a fish that is able to grant wishes, he and Eudokia finally get their chance to taste the wealth and power of their wildest dreams. But will their ambition destroy the city and cost them everything they hold dear?
From the first pages, Rowntree paints a gorgeous, vivid portrait of Byzantine life and politics. I cannot fathom the amount of research Rowntree must have done, because she captures it all: the clothes, the architecture, the poverty, the theology. Rowntree has a full, decadent style of writing that brought out the decay and charm of Constantinople and the exotic, brutal politics of the time.
Obviously, the plot follows the original fairytale, The Fisherman and his Wife, but Rowntree takes beautiful liberties with it. She overlays it with the Byzantine debate about the sanctity and correctness of icons. If you're like me, you have absolutely no idea what this debate is. Don't worry. Rowntree's got you covered. She covers both sides of this debate with grace and equanimity, although I detected a preference for one side.
Easily the best part of the novella for me was the relationship between Michael and Eudokia. They do not have a peaceful marriage. Their relationship is a tempest of Michael's opportunity, Eudokia's ambition, and a slew of good intentions that lead to bad decisions. What makes this couple so rare and effective for me is that neither has an upper hand in the struggle. I couldn't side with either, because the balance of power was so evenly distributed. They were kind, vicious, and romantic in equal parts. I adored their relationship.
A few criticisms necessarily accompany every work. A few characters, like Michael and Eudokia's daughter slipped through the cracks for me, to the point where I barely registered their presence in the novel. For every character like that, however, there are another twenty exemplary ones.
If you want a simple read, don't read this. If you want a straight-up historical romance, don't read this. But if you want to read about the dusty, forgotten corners of history that are nonetheless powerful and beautiful, then read this novella.
The one thing John the blacksmith loves more than his peaceful, hardworking life in Middleton Dale is the tailor's free-spirited daughter Janet. But unlike John, Janet dreams of adventure beyond the Dale. And when her dreams lead her into Faerie to be captured by a dangerous witch, John realises he must dare the perilous realm of the Lordly Folk to free his bride.
As for The Bells of Paradise, my initial impression was that it has perhaps my favorite title of this year. It takes its name from the English folk song Down in Yon Forest, whose ethereal view of Heaven colors the whole novella. I adore English folk music, and I appreciated how many more songs than just the titular one influenced this work. I have not read The Faerie Queene, which Rowntree cites as an influence, but I recognized many familiar themes and faces from the Child Ballads, particularly Tam Lin.
Rowntree uses her trademark full, rich writing style to particularly good effect here. With her poetic word choice, she not only mimics the patterns of the songs and poems that influenced her, she also writes something that is beautiful in its own right. Her language subtly adjusted and captured the change of scenery as the action moved from the human Dale into Faerie.
On the topic of Faerie, Rowntree did a ridiculously good job capturing the wild, other Faerie of English folklore. She peopled it with strange, half-familiar faces, with just the right blend of Here and There. The supporting characters especially had a wild grandeur about them that belonged in a border ballad. It was like drinking a shot of fairytale concentrate.
I feel, however, that as good as the supporting characters are, the main characters, John and Janet, don't do as much for me. They both read as blank characters to me, existing as passive observers with either honorable or flighty characteristics, respectively. Part of me understands why Rowntree did this. Faerie is so rich and otherworldly that I can understand why two less prominent main characters might have accentuated, instead of confused, the action. But I know Rowntree has a superb gift for characters, and especially for relationships, so I can't help be disappointed.
Aside from that, I thoroughly enjoyed my foray into Faerie, proving, according to the novella's logic, my own madness. But there you go.
I received this book in exchange for an honest review. Any opinions expressed are my own.