Review of God Save the Queen by Kate Locke

Title: God Save the Queen
Series: The Immortal Empire #1
Author: Kate Locke (pseudonym for Kathryn Smith)
Published: 03 July 2012
Publisher: Orbit Books
Genre: science fiction, urban fantasy
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 6/10

It’s the present day in an alternative vision of our world. History took a different turn in the 19th century when a mutation of the bubonic plague – known as the Prometheus Plague – turned Britain’s aristocrats into vampires, werewolves and goblins. Apparently they really did have better blood, because the rest of the human population died by the thousands. Society is now divided according to the level of plague in your blood – there are the aristos (fully plagued), the halvies (half-plagued hybrids born of human mothers and vamp or were fathers), and humans. Queen Victoria, a vampire, is about to celebrate 175 years ruling the still-powerful British Empire.

At both the top and the very bottom of the social ladder are the goblins. Technically they’re the most ‘aristocratic’, since they’re the most plagued, but as the most bestial of the races they’re hated and feared by all. They live underground and feed on any flesh, be it aristo, halvie or human.

Alexandra (Xandra) Varden is a member of the prestigious Royal Guard, a security force sworn to protect the aristos. Like most halvies, she was trained to fight in order to provide security services to the aristos, and Xandra was at the very top of her class. She’s an ass-kicking, corset-wearing, vampire halvie with hair as red as blood. Her father is a duke, and she’s unquestioningly loyal to queen and country. Her comfortable view of English society begins to crack and crumble when Xandra learns that her sister Drusilla (Dede) committed suicide after being sent to Bedlam, a notorious insane asylum. Refusing to believe that Dede would do such a thing, Xandra investigates the highly suspicious circumstances surrounding her ‘death’.

Nothing she finds puts her mind at ease. Conspiracies roil beneath the surface of British society, implicating the aristos in horrific crimes that Xandra cannot believe them capable of committing. A rebel group fights for democracy, denouncing the superiority of any race, calling the aristocracy a dictatorship. Such treasonous ideas go against everything Xandra believes, but in her stubbourn search for the truth she’s slowly forced to rethink her view of the people she loves, the races she’s judged and the ideals she’s based her life upon. She runs headlong into danger, romance, and an unbelievable new life.

With its cute, bold cover and enticing blurb, God Save the Queen gives a good impression of being loads of fun and just really cool. And when you read it you can’t help but imagine how awesome it would look as a movie because it really is full of cool, fun stuff. Xandra is a very sexy heroine with great hair (one of the advantages of being a halvie or aristo) in a rare, bright red colour (all halvies have colourful hair – indigo, pink, blue, etc.). She can rock a corset and kick ass in an evening gown. With a talent for violence and a wicked temper, she’s always getting herself into action scenes, often with a frock coat swirling stylishly around her. And speaking of action and style, Xandra also hooks up with Vex McLaughlin, the ultra-sexy Scottish alpha werewolf, who I imagined being played by Joe Manganiello (Alcide from True Blood) in a gorgeous tailored suit. Yum. God Save the Queen hits plenty of the right buttons with a bit of sex, lots of violence, alternate history, vampires, werewolves, corsets and really awesome hair, so it would have been a really great novel if it wasn’t so damn sloppy.

My first issue – it’s supposed to be very English, but it feels very American. It might take place in London in a world where the sun hasn’t set on the British Empire and an iconic English queen holds the throne, but it reads like it was written by an American, for other Americans, based on an American idea of England (although apparently the author is Canadian). Xandra uses words like “bollocks”, “knickers” and “fag” (as in cigarette), but it’s not going to fool anyone when ‘lieutenant’ is spelt “leftenant”, presumably to force American readers to use the English pronunciation. I think it’s weird to say “leftenant” too, but that just made me cringe. The novel lacks the right feels for its setting, and it doesn’t help that Xandra keeps making comparisons with American things (action movies, their eagle), as if to help US readers relate to this foreign fantasy setting. Is that necessary? And why would Xandra’s character be thinking of America? In this world, the British Empire reigns supreme; it can’t be assumed that the USA would have the same cultural dominance that it has in our world.

This brings me to my next issue – world-building with an alternate history. There are many interesting if awkward info dumps to explain how this science fantasy version of London came about – the biology of the plague, significant historical events, contemporary social structures, law, tech, etc. – but it’s not thorough enough. Locke devotes about half a paragraph to mentioning how the rest of the world looks, although Africa is entirely forgotten. Rather odd, since Britain has kept most of its colonies, but apparently a few extra decades of British imperialism and slavery aren’t worth any ink. London appears to be a multi-species but mono-cultural city where the aristocracy are so old-fashioned they hold balls every week and use horse-drawn carriages. Not that there’s any shortage of modern technology; humans and halvies use all the conveniences we’re used to – cellphones, cars, computers, tracking devices, DVDs. These things have different names and aren’t quite as slick as our own, but it’s hardly worthy of the term ‘steampunk’. Neither of the two World Wars happened, so why has technology advanced as if they did, especially when many aristos shun such things?

Look closely, or just attentively at God Save the Queen and you’ll notice that it’s rife with holes, inconsistencies and absurdities. How does Xandra ride a motorbike while wearing an evening gown with her hair pinned up? How does she manage to be stealthy with that striking red hair? If halvies and aristos age very slowly, then why have all the halvies in the novel aged like normal human beings?

Locke also commits many mystery-plot sins, making her characters ignore the obvious or suspicious, avoid pressing questions, withhold information or suddenly turn into morons, all to prolong the suspense. In the first chapter, Xandra goes to the goblin prince for information about her sister, because somehow the goblins know about everything that happens topside. If the novel stuck to that premise, it could have been a lot shorter. Dede commits suicide by setting herself on fire, which is such a dumbass way of killing yourself that I couldn’t believe Xandra was the only one to consider the possibility that her death was faked and a body burned to make identification difficult. Their brother Val is an investigator for Scotland Yard, but he just runs with the theory that Dede was “hatters”.

Xandra is right, of course, but she’s not always that sharp. Like when she sees a woman who looks exactly like her, but just can’t put her finger on why she looks so very familiar. Yes, really.

The novel seems to improve in the second half, perhaps because some secrets are revealed so there are fewer investigative shortcomings. Once the plot gets going there’s less opportunity to dwell on problems in world-building, and it probably helps that there’s lots of action and that Vex is so incredibly hot.

I also appreciated Xandra’s character, to an extent. OK, she’s a temperamental bitch, but intentionally so, and she has to deal with some major life changes. At the beginning she’s blindly patriotic and openly, unabashedly prejudiced. She tends to jump to conclusions and cling to them, so on the whole she’s rather close-minded. She’s clearly being set up to have her mindset challenged if not bludgeoned, and it’s pleasing to see that happen. She’s still a bitch at the end, but that’s ok. Good girls are overrated.

If you can avoid being fussy or demanding, God Save the Queen is a decent entertaining read. It’s annoying at the start, but it gets better and there’s a wonderfully satisfying demise for one of the villains. I like the ideas at the core of the novel, I just wish they’d been properly fleshed out. And yeah, I’d read the sequel, The Queen is Dead, due out in 2013. I like a good American action movie as much as the next person.

Buy a copy of God Save the Queen at The Book Depository.

Review of Snuff by Terry Pratchett

Title: Snuff
Terry Pratchett
Published: 1 October  2011
Publisher: HarperCollins
Genre: humour, fantasy, crime and mystery
Source: Review copy from publisher via NetGally
My Rating: 6/10

His Grace, the Duke of Ankh, Commander Sir Samuel Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, is being dragged against his will, at the demand of his wife and to the great amusement of his colleagues, on a lovely country holiday at Lady Sybil’s family estate, Ramkin Hall. Actually, it’s now Vimes’s estate -Sybil “had transferred all the holdings of her family […] to him in the old fashioned but endearing belief that a husband should be the one doing the owning”.  Poor Vimes, however, can’t quite settle into his position as a member of the aristrocracy, as he demonstrates by trying to treat the servants as equals, to their complete and utter horror.

And of course he can never stop working. Whatever Sybil’s hopes for her holiday with her husband and young son, you couldn’t beat the copper out of Vimes with a truncheon. From the moment he arrives he can’t help but look for something amiss. And of course he finds it. And a hell of a lot of trouble. But Sam Vimes wouldn’t be Sam Vimes if he wasn’t pissing someone off in the quest for justice. In Snuff  he boots the aristocrats off their comfy cushions by investigating their suspected involvement in slavery, smuggling, drug trafficking, kidnapping, and murder, (especially after they try to frame him for the latter).

Pratchett’s Discworld novels typically feature some kind of social commentary and with issues like those it’s particularly heavy here. Vimes has always fought against discrimination, particularly between classes and species, and thanks to him the Watch includes dwarves, trolls, vampires, werewolves, an Igor and a Nac Mac Feegle.

In Snuff it’s the goblins’ turn to get the equal rights treatment. As the Discworld’s most osctracised race, they are widely considered to be vermin. When Vimes finds out that a goblin girl has been murdered, most people assume that you can’t actually murder a goblin in the same sense that you can’t murder a rat. It isn’t even considered illegal. But Vimes knows the difference between right and wrong and he learns more about the goblins, who are revealed to a sensitive, artistic people who, unfortunately, have internalised all the terrible things others have believed about them. Goblins have always been associated with rubbish to the extent that they essentially think of themselves as rubbish. And they are a bit of a tough case when it comes to being accepted by society. They’re ugly, stinky, known for being violent, have a habit of stealing things, they live underground and their language “at its best sounded like a man jumping up and down on a very large packet of crisps”. The goblins have a strange, somewhat religious, practice called Unggue, according to which “everything that is expelled from a goblin’s body was clearly once part of them and should, therefore, be treated with reverence and stored properly so that it can be entombed with its owner in the fullness of time”. This includes “earwax, finger- and toenail clippings, and snot” (but luckily not urine or faeces) all of which are stored in stunningly beautiful pots made by the goblins.

But these oddities serve to throw into sharp relief the way difference is translated into discrimination, and how discrimination turns prejudice into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Vimes is determined to change society once again, and this includes changing the way people think about goblins and taking down the local council of magistrates who have redefined the law the suit their own interests.

With all this between its covers, Snuff turned out to be the darkest of the Discworld novels I’ve read so far. It has a lot less humour than the others, and anyway the humour tends to be downplayed by the more sombre elements. My opinion on the matter was sealed when Vimes told an anecdote about a man who chopped his dog’s back legs off with an axe. I certainly hadn’t expected something that gruesome and disturbing.

Rest assured, it’s still mostly a comedy, if not quite as funny as fans might expect. Some of the best humour comes from Young Sam, who is now six years old and obsessed with poo. I feel a bit childish admitting this, but his poo comments almost always got a giggle out of me.

“Do you know,’ said Young Sam, as if imparting the results of strict research, “cows do really big floppy poos, but sheep do small poos, like chocolates.”

As always, there are some great characters too; my favourites were Willikins, Vimes’s butler and general manservant who possesses some incredible talents when it comes to weapons; Lady Sybil, whose kind but domineering nature never fails to amuse and impress me; and Wee Mad Arthur who I love for being so angry and crazy. Vimes himself has never been one of my favourites – I admire him but I just don’t find him all that funny or particularly endearing.

So what do I think of Snuff in general? It’s good, but not Pratchett’s best. To his credit, I don’t think any of his books are bad – they range from decent to fucking brilliant and hilarious. As I’ve mentioned, this one is certainly not hilarious and I’m not sure that I like it being so serious. Towards the end the novel turns into a kind of dire action sequence (with a lot of jokes based on the word ‘fanny’) and then winds down and takes a bit too long to wrap everything up, a lot like the last Lord of the Rings movie – there are a bunch of things that need to be sorted out, but somehow it still feels like the story should end now, only to have it keep going.

It might be unfair to judge a book based on my expectations of how fun and funny I expected it to be, especially as this is a good book in its own right. On the other hand this is the latest (the 39th) in a long and much-loved series that’s defined by its unique style, and Pratchett usually has a better balance of social commentary and humour. I’ve often heard people speak of the Discworld series as their go-to books when they’re in a reading slump and want something light, or just want to relax and have a laugh with a favourite series. If that’s what you’re looking  for, Snuff might not be the best choice. Rather just enjoy it as a new story in the Discworld universe.


Buy a copy of Snuff at The Book Depository