I confess: I was never a fan of the whole high fantasy, sprawling sword-and-sorcery, and epic-quest-to-save-[insert magical world here]-from-the-forces-of-doom sort of thing. I much prefer more unique fantasy, the kinds of novels that don’t quite fit into a niche – alternate histories like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, the bizarre and fantastic stories of Neil Gaiman, and, above all, the spectacular Gentleman Bastard series in which Scott Lynch so gloriously describes con artistry and trickery and magic. I mean, who doesn’t love a good con story, especially with some fantasy thrown in?
And that’s what Raven’s Tears, by Alesia and Michael Matson, appears to be, at first glance. The first title in the Raven and the Iris series, it seemed to have it all: the well-to-do society lady who’s actually that society’s biggest con thief, a former thief who’s now a cop — did I mention that the two are lovers but the reformed thief doesn’t know that his lover is a non-reformed thief? — clever heists, dastardly deeds, and some smattering of fantasy and romance…
Somehow, though, having read the four-hundred-page first tome of what promises to be a trilogy, I’m left with the feeling that I’ve read nothing at all. It’s really strange: the story happens, the events come to pass in a sequence that suggests a narrative structure, but there’s so little worldbuilding, background, or characterization, that this sequence of events is left hanging in a void. It has nothing to anchor itself too, and eventually the very narrative itself fades away into nothingness because it’s got no world to cling to.
For example, the novel starts with Angelique Blakesly, our aristocrat-thief, attending a gathering of society ladies, to which she wears the clever disguise of a proper lady, discussing the role of women as that of being a good wife and bearing children and fulfilling all those other utterly Victorian womanly duties. A few chapters later, it turns out that these gender roles exist in a world full of female police officers, female painters, and female thieves, at whom no one bats an eye. In one scene, there are ladies fainting in tight corsets and pretending to be oh-so-delicate, and in another there are women wearing pants and questioning suspects. Right from the first chapter, therefore, it’s a world full of contradictions that leave the reader at a loss. Of course, fantasy being a land of endless possibility, this contradiction is easily resolved through detailed worldbuilding. In a story like Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastards series, it might make sense because his world is so well-developed, so stratified. In Raven’s Tears, though, it just feels like a contradiction, a fault made by writers who didn’t care enough about their fictional world to make their story make sense.
This lack of worldbuilding continues to be evident throughout – and continues to hinder the story. Our tale begins in a place called Fernwall, which is, after four hundred pages, a city with so little character that it might as well be in the American Midwest. It’s got streets and brick buildings and rooftops, and that, along with the fact that it uses twenty-four hour time, is about the full extent of what we know about it. After hundreds of pages, I have no idea what state or principality it belongs to. There’s lots of duchies and baronies around, but how are they affiliated with Fernwall? There’s some supposed borderlands, which is where the barony of Carlisle (belonging to Angelique) is located, but I have no idea where these borderlands are and why they’re of the least significance and what “border” is involved anyway. Plus, we find out that the world was recently ravaged by some kind of war over some kind of political issue, but since none of the nations or states or whatever involved are even mentioned, I have no idea what actually happened or how that’s relevant to the society in question.
In short, it feels like the entire story happens in a huge void, which is really quite a loss for the story.
In this void, though, the plot itself is at least mildly intriguing: Angelique steals the very famous jewel, called “Raven’s Tears” (the theft itself is described in a rather cursory way, and one does wish it were, well, cleverer), putting into motion the events of the rest of the book – i.e. Raven’s (her unsuspecting lover’s) search for the thief. The story then alternates between Raven (who himself alternates between investigating and sleeping with his lover) and Angelique (who spends her time sleeping with her lover and, mostly, being mopey and helpless).
And in the midst of this intrigue-in-a-void, there’s also romance, between Angelique Blakesly, Baroness of Carlisle, and Raven – cop, womanizer, rake, and former thief. The authors don’t spend time dancing around it – they plunge straight into this romance, with some supposedly steamy sex scenes. And yes, they are believable and passably written, but suffer from the problem that ninety percent of the modern media and literature suffers from: the idea that a man and a woman in the same room must be attracted to each other and it must lead to romantic engagement because…they’re a man and a woman. Why this romance exists, why these two people love each other – I have no idea.
That’s not helped by the fact that I don’t actually know who these two people are. Oh, I know their titles and a few adjectives dropped here and there: Angelique is a baroness, a thief, and a con woman who’s conned all of high society into believing she’s actually a baroness…She’s clever, and witty, and fit and lithe and well-trained. Except….she isn’t. She’s constantly falling apart and having crises. She’s still under the thumb of her tutor/enabler/information source, Louis Arnot, and it takes her halfway through the book to realize she might want her freedom from him. She’s not the masterful, independent woman the story and the back cover would like to have her be, which leaves her with little personality of her own.
Raven is better drawn – in fact, he feels like the one redeeming feature of the book. His long list of titles is rake, womanizer, former thief, aristocrat, and cop. He’s the only character who comes close to having any kind of emotional complexity: he’s of noble birth, yet disdains everything the title gives him even while he’s forced to play by the rules of this aristocratic society. He used to be a thief, and yet now he’s out catching them, testing his loyalties in order to win his freedom. He’s in love with Angelique, and yet forced to discover the terrible truth about her. In fact, he loves Angelique, but doesn’t seem to mind bedding every woman he encounters. All of which makes for an interesting male protagonist – but like the rest of the story, in an almost non-existent world of undeveloped characters, he drowns in the void rather than existing in a developed world with fleshed-out characters.
I would really have liked to enjoy this story. It’s got all the ingredients that should supposedly make the kind of story I’d like: intrigue, fantasy, romance, adventure, and mystery. In reality, this reads like nothing more than the first part of a romance novel that will presumably be continued in the rest of the trilogy. If the other two books in the series are anything like this one, though, I’m probably better off just going to the romance novel section of the bookstore and finding a book that actually admits to being nothing more than a romance novel.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=097541075X]