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Saturday, July 9, 2016

Sinfonia: First Notes on the Lute-- A Vampire Musician in Elizabethan England

I haven't read a vampire novel in years.   As I said the last time I reviewed a vampire novel on my earlier blog, there are two types of formulas in vampire fiction.  Either all vampires are evil monsters or they are all heroic.  I have zero interest in either formula. Since vampires were born human, it seems more likely to me that they are quite diverse and should be as complex as human beings.  I rarely see an author who writes non-stereotypically about vampires.

 I am rather fond of the concept on which the Saint-Germain vampire novels by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro is based because they are really historical fiction from the POV of an ancient immortal being who is an outsider in every human culture.  I enjoy them because I love historical fiction particularly when they are from the perspective of an outsider. Unfortunately, many recent novels in the Yarbro series contained a great many irrelevant info dumps to display the author's research.  I got tired of them and stopped reading the series.

So I was delighted to find Sinfonia: First Notes on the Lute by David W. Landrum which is the first volume in a series about Nelleke, a musician who was born in 16th century Holland.  I received a free copy from the author in return for this honest review.

                                     

The novel tells the story of how she became a vampire.   Landrum accurately portrays the era's severe restrictions on girls and women that led Nelleke to flee her native country for Elizabethan England. It might seem that this would be an ideal environment for a musician like Nelleke, but musicians required patrons from the nobility and were subject to their whims.   There was also intense fear of Catholic conspirators who might seek to overthrow their Queen.  Although Nelleke encountered such historical personages as Shakespeare, the atmosphere wasn't always like a frothy Tudor costume spectacle filled with endless entertainment.   Sometimes these cultural icons were under official investigation by the authorities whose tactics could be brutal. Landrum's depiction of Elizabethan England as a culture of contradictions and extremes was quite believable.   He obviously did his research.

The most interesting aspect of Sinfonia's universe is that Landrum develops vampire society.   I was very interested in the Wodies who lived in the woods and were scorned by the urban vampires for being uncivilized.   The Wodies subsisted on animal blood which meant that they didn't kill humans, but did mean that they hunted animals. Nelleke was taught to hunt humans who were murderers, rapists or other felons who the world would be better off without.  In some cases, they killed in defense of vampires.  It's true that they were acting as judge, jury and executioner.  Readers will judge these vampires on the basis of their own ethical code.   A vegan probably wouldn't consider any vampires ethically compatible.

I enjoyed Nelleke as a character and wanted to continue to read about her in historical contexts.   There was an excerpt from Sinfonia 2 which opens in the 21st century.   I sincerely hope that the sequel doesn't  stay there.   I was hoping to experience Nelleke's adventures in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.  Unless Landrum does a great deal of unusual development of vampire factions, institutions and practices in the 21st century, I probably would consider a 21st century novel about Nelleke too similar to other current vampire fiction.

                               



                                   


Friday, July 1, 2016

Night in Shanghai: War Dismembers An Illusion of Paradise

Night in Shanghai by Nicole Mones was recommended on a thread discussing The Book of Harlan by Bernice McFadden on the Goodreads group, African American Historical Fiction.  I recently read and reviewed The Book of Harlan on this blog here.  These novels are linked by their African American musician protagonists and the fact that they both take place in World War II.  I mentioned the current popularity of WWII fiction in my last review.   This blog is demonstrating that trend since I am now reviewing three WWII books in succession.

Unlike The Book of Harlan and Karolina's Twins, Night in Shanghai doesn't centrally deal with the Holocaust.  There is a plot strand devoted to the Holocaust, but it isn't the major focus of the novel.   I already knew that the situation for Jews in WWII Shanghai was unique.   I had an instructor in college who fled Germany in the 1930's and took refuge in Shanghai.  It was from him that I first learned that Shanghai had been a major haven for European Jews and Communists during WWII.  It seems evident that this happened with the consent of the Japanese occupiers of Shanghai. What isn't entirely clear is why Shanghai accepted so many refugees from the Nazis.   I hoped to gain some insight into this situation from reading Night in Shanghai.

                                   

I should not have been surprised that one of Shanghai's Triads was so prominent in the plot and that a Triad owned jazz clubs.   The Triads were powerful criminal organizations equivalent to the Italian or Russian Mafia.   The Triad brought Thomas Greene, the protagonist, to Shanghai in order to become the band leader at one of their jazz clubs.   The Triad didn't care about race or ethnic background.  They cared most about loyalty and profit.  So Thomas Greene was treated as the equal of other musicians for the first time in his life.  For African American musicians, Shanghai seemed to be paradise.  It was very understandable that even when the war began to devastate the city, some were not eager to return to discrimination and segregation in the United States.

There was also a romance in this novel, but it was somewhat peripheral.   This is not a romance novel.   The relationship existed for plot and thematic reasons.   There is no HEA (Happily Ever After).   The female protagonist had her own priorities and Thomas Greene respected them.   To me, this showed that he really did love her.  I really appreciated that Thomas' feelings toward her freed him musically. The sentimental part of me wished that she believed in the romance more than she did, but  I could see why Nicole Mones chose otherwise for these characters.   Other readers disagree.   I have seen reviews that are deeply critical of this book's ending.  I found it both chilling and bitterly ironic.

I thought this book was original and that Nicole Mones showed us hard truths because perfection isn't possible.   Night in Shanghai is the best historical fiction that I've read in the first half of 2016.