Review of “The Tawny Man Trilogy” by Robin Hobb

This epic fantasy trilogy is actually a continuation of The Farseer Saga trilogy. I would say it is more accurately a hexalogy (a set of six related books), except that I understand the author will be going back to the same characters in a new series next year (a development about which I am more than delighted) so the story may encompass even more than six books.

Background (Big Spoilers for the Farseer Series – Skip to Evaluation for NO Spoilers)

Fitz was born out of wedlock to Chivalry Farseer, the King-in-Waiting of the Six Duchies. At age six, Fitz was taken away from his mother by his grandfather and handed over to Verity, Chivalry’s brother, at Buckkeep Fortress.

With Fitz’s existence known, Chivalry was forced as a point of honor to abdicate his right to the throne and to leave Buckkeep. Fitz’s care was given by Verity in part to Burrich, the Stablemaster of Buckkeep and Chivalry’s right-hand man. A third brother, Regal, was jealous of Chivalry and Verity, and when Fitz came, Regal began to hate Fitz the most of all of them. Regal resolved to get rid of all three of them so he could rule after the death of their father, King Shrewd.

The others ignored Regal, because the Six Duchies had bigger (or so they thought) problems. They were being besieged by pirates from the Outislands, who traveled in distinctive red ships, raiding the shores and stealing the wealth of the Six Duchies. Then the Outislanders began kidnapping villagers and by some unknown process returning them as zombie-like monsters. Because this practice began with the village of Forge, such people, no matter their origin, were ever after known as “Forged.”

People who were Forged could not even be detected by the Skill. This was magic common to those in the Farseer line enabling a person to reach out to another’s mind, no matter how distant, and know that person’s thoughts. If the other person were Skilled also, the two could even communicate through mind-speak, and if one had evil intent, he or she could control or even kill the other person via the Skill.

Some people also had a magic called the Wit. This was the ability to form a special, and mutual, bond with an animal. Fitz was witted, and had such a bond with the wolf, Nighteyes.

As The Farseer Series ends, the Outislanders have been defeated, and Chivalry, Verity, and Shrewd are gone. Verity’s Queen Kettricken now rules Buckkeep and has a son who is heir to Verity, Prince Dutiful. Chade has come out of hiding to be the Queen’s counselor. Burrich and Molly, thinking Fitz dead, have married. Fitz lives as a hermit in an isolated cottage outside Buck with his wolf Nighteyes and with the young boy Hap brought to him by the minstrel Starling. During the day, Fitz still wrestles with being drawn to the Skill, and at night, he dreams of dragons.

Specifics (or skip to Non-Spoilery Overall Evaluation and Rating)


Fool’s Errand (No Spoilers except for the previous Farseer Saga)

This story picks up fifteen years after the end of the The Farseer Saga. Fitz, now 35, still lives in his isolated cabin with his Wit-bonded wolf, Nighteyes, and his foster boy, Hap, 15, who has been with Fitz for seven years. Hap was brought to Fitz by the minstrel Starling, who still occasionally visits with Fitz. Otherwise, Fitz has been mostly alone, and is going by the name of Tom Badgerlock. As the story begins, Fitz receives a very unexpected visit from Chade, his old mentor from his days at the royal court. Chade brings news of all the people from Fitz’s past, including Fitz’s daughter Nettle, now 15, raised by Molly and Burrich along with their five boys. Chade also tells him news of Prince Dutiful, 14, who, unbeknownst to almost everyone, is also Fitz’s child. Chade asks Fitz to return to Buckkeep and instruct both the Prince and Nettle in the Skill.

Fitz refuses, but Chade’s visit awakened something in him, and Nighteyes tells Fitz he senses change in the air. “Changer” is what Nighteyes sometimes calls Fitz, similar to the name “Catalyst” given to Fitz by his old friend Fool. Hap is restless too; he is growing up, and wants to be an apprentice to a woodworker in Buckkeep Town.

Fitz’s unquiet is exacerbated further by a visit from Fool. Fool too wants Fitz to come back, to be The Catalyst again. The matter is settled when Chade sends a message urgently calling Fitz back to Buckkeep. Prince Dutiful is missing. Fitz returns as “Tom Badgerlock,” servant to Lord Golden, who is actually Fool.

In the years Fitz has been gone, prejudice and animosity have increased toward those who are witted. A renegade group of Witted calling themselves Piebalds have taken to exposing families “tainted” by the Wit. Some of those outted end up drawn and quartered by the fearful and superstitious masses. Prince Dutiful is witted, and Kettricken and Chade fear the Piebalds have taken him, either to disclose his nature, or use the threat of disclosure to blackmail the queen. Furthermore, in two weeks, Dutiful is scheduled to be betrothed to a princess from the Outislanders, an alliance deemed essential to maintain peace. Kettricken and Chade beg Fitz to find the prince and get him home safely before the Outislander delegation arrives. He has sixteen days. Fitz, Nighteyes, and the Fool set out to find Dutiful.

Much of the plot of Book One is palpably saturated with Fitz’s anguish and loneliness. I cried myself to sleep after finishing this one.


Golden Fool (Spoilers for Book One)

As Book Two begins, Fitz and Dutiful are both reeling from the loss of their wit-bonded partners. As Fitz mused, grief was not a matter of waiting for the hurt to pass, but rather of becoming accustomed to it. He feels gutted. And yet he finds, as he was taught by a witted mentor in Book One, “…what a bonded one leaves behind for his partner is deeper and richer than memories. It’s a presence. Not living on in the other’s mind, not sharing thoughts, decisions, and experiences. But just – being there. Standing by.” Still, as the minstrel Starling observes of Fitz, “You’ve the saddest song of any man I’ve ever known.”

Meanwhile, Fitz has a new assignment from the queen. He is to be an instructor to Swift, Burrich’s ten-year-old son, who has come to Buckkeep asking asylum as one with the Wit. Swift is hostile and suspicious, and it will not be an easy task. Fitz is also having difficulties with his foster son, Hap, who is unhappy with his apprentice work, and spends all his time chasing after a girl whose father does not approve of Hap. Fitz’s daughter Nettle reaches out to Fitz at night through skilling and wants to know who he is. Prince Dutiful still resents Fitz for what Dutiful experienced during his rescue. Chade’s serving man, Thick, seems to have an irrational hatred for Fitz, and expresses it through a surprising and remarkably strong ability to Skill. The Outislander delegation is at the Court, and something not right is up with the princess, Narcheska Elliania, who has been promised to Dutiful. To top it all off, the Piebalds are looking for revenge, especially against “Tom Badgerlock.” As usual, nothing is ever easy for Fitz.

Elliania tells Dutiful at their first public encounter that she will not marry him unless he proves his worth by going to the forbidding island of Aslevjal, slaying the dragon Icefyre that lives under the ice, and bringing back his head. To the dismay of his family and advisors, Dutiful accepts the challenge. Fitz agrees to help him, in part, by creating the Skilled Coterie for which Chade has always lobbied.

The Fool, meanwhile, insists to Fitz that the dragon must live, that saving the dragon is necessary to saving the world. He knows he asks something huge of Fitz: “Do you keep your vowed loyalty to the Farseers or do you save the world for me?”


Fool’s Fate (Spoilers for Books One and Two)

A large party sets out to assist or at least witness the slaying of the dragon Icefyre by 15-year-old Prince Dutiful, a task he has sworn to undertake to win the hand of Elliania from the Outislands. Elaine and her uncle/guardian Peottre are in the party as well as some Outislander guards.

Fitz conspires with Chade to keep Fool from boarding the ships to the island of Aslevjal, where the dragon is supposedly entombed under the ice. Fool was convinced it was his destiny to go along and there die, and Fitz wants to avoid that outcome. But of course, the Fool manages to get there nevertheless.

Also on the journey are the Prince’s Skilled Coterie, which includes Thick, who is terrified of the sea. Fitz must spend almost all his time taking care of him. The Prince also brought along his Witted Coterie, among them being Swift, Burrich’s wayward son. Nettle communicates to Fitz that Burrich is despondent over Swift’s disappearance, and Fitz tells her to let Burrich know “the wolf” is sheltering Swift and will bring him safely home. From that message, Burrich deduces Fitz is alive, and soon Burrich is a part of their voyage as well.

Everyone comes together in an exciting, tension-filled dénouement, all the more powerful because Hobb is not an author to protect even her most beloved characters from death.

Indeed, the ending is packed with emotion, and seems as realistic as possible for a fantasy set in a world of dragons and magic. But Hobb never once puts the aspects of being human in second place to fantasy elements. Hope, despair, loss, love, and survival are always more important than “magic.”

Overall Evaluaton – No Spoilers

This is a wonderful series, which really should be read as part of a six-book saga rather than a trilogy, with The Farseer Series preceding this one. (In fact, one of the mysteries of The Farseer Series – about Forging – is not uncovered until the third book of this series.) The characters are unforgettable, and their lives in this story full of fantasy are nevertheless richly exemplary of “the human condition.” This is a tale made up of a lot of pages, and perhaps there is a bit of repetition. But I didn’t regret reading any of it, except for the matter of all the kleenex I went through, and for the reluctant necessity of leaving the world of the Farseers when the saga was over.

Rating: 4/5

Fool’s Errand published by Spectra, 2002
Golden Fool published by Spectra, 2003
Fool’s Fate published by Spectra, 2004

Review of “The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood” by James Gleick


Note: This review is by my husband Jim.

Not surprisingly, the subject of James Gleick’s The Information is the field of knowledge known as “Information Theory.” The theory’s origin can be traced to a seminal article written in 1948 by Claude Shannon, an engineer employed at that time by Bell Laboratories. The article, entitled “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” appeared in two parts in the Bell System Technical Journal. Shannon focused on how to optimize the amount of information a sender wants to transmit. His theory is important because, inter alia, its use and practice greatly improves the speed and amount of content that can be transmitted or communicated electronically. As Gleick points out:

Satellite television channels, pocket music players, efficient camera and telephones and countless other modern appurtenances depend on coding algorithms to compress numbers—sequences of bits—and those algorithms trace their lineage to Shannon’s original 1948 paper.”

Claude Shannon also invented a number of mazes, games, and  parlor tricks.

Claude Shannon also invented a number of mazes, games, and parlor tricks.

But getting a feel for how the theory works or why it is so important isn’t easy, so Gleick takes the reader on a 180-page historical tour of various earlier forms of communication between remote sites. For example, Europeans were amazed to find that tribes of sub-Saharan Africa were able to send remarkably detailed messages to one another by means of drums. The fact that their languages were tonal (like Mandarin, but unlike any European language) facilitated their “translation” into drum sounds.

In another example of comparatively long-range communication, European war fleets were able to transmit messages by way of visual flag signals, but the range of possible messages was limited to a few pre-arranged commands. By the late 18th century, the French were able to send messages long distances by way of “telegraphs.” The first devices known as telegraphs were series of signaling devices like semaphores spaced with sight of one another. Signals could be sent from one device to the next, but complicated messages were difficult to transmit because there was no known efficient method to encode the message succinctly.

Demonstration of the semaphore telegraph designed by Claude Chappe

Demonstration of the semaphore telegraph designed by Claude Chappe

The invention of the electrical telegraph provided the opportunity to send signals much faster than the visual “telegraphs.” However, it was not until an efficient code like the one developed by Samuel Morse was generally put in use that the transmission of complex or just long messages became practical.

Just why Morse Code was efficient is is related to a well-defined concept conventionally called the “entropy of a message” or the “Shannon entropy.” It encourages the removal of as much extraneous data as possible from a message to shorten it but without a loss of meaning. Most of you will be aware of this process even without knowing the history and theory behind it. The meaning of “I lv u” is clear, and takes less space than “I love you.” Conventions such as “twitter-speak” allow for even more economy: when someone only says “OMG” you know what that person is communicating, and six spaces have been saved.

Morse Code Table

Morse Code Table

The initial thrust of Shannon’s theorizing was to condense the quantity of data to be transmitted over telephone lines, greatly enhancing the capacity of the lines to transmit ideas (content) without increasing the amount of physical assets needed to transmit. But the concept of quantifying the extraction of information from raw data soon flowed from telephone engineering into other fields such as psychology, genetics, and quantum physics.

Gleick also discusses the tension between the concepts of information and meaning. Although Shannon famously said that meaning is “irrelevant to the engineering problem,” meaning remains the thing humans most want to convey or transmit in communication. The problem remains a sticky philosophical one, and Gleick does a nice job of analyzing it, although he does not solve it.

Gleick is a master of elucidating daunting scientific concepts. Just like his earlier book, Chaos, The Information brings to light an intellectually challenging set of ideas and makes them understandable to the layman. Bravo!

Rating: 5/5

Published in hardcover by Pantheon Books, a division of Random House, Inc. 2011; Published in paperback by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, 2012

Review of “Where the Stars Still Shine” by Trish Dollar

This is an interesting “teen drama,” as it has been called, with unusual layers of complexity in some of the characterizations.


The main protagonist, Callie, is 17, and living a life “on the lam” with her mother, who kidnapped Callie from her dad twelve years earlier. The mother, Ronnie, has a bipolar disorder but does not take medication, with predictably unpleasant results. They move from city to city, squatting in abandoned houses or living in bad areas of town in month-to-month rental apartments. Ronnie works at bars, and often brings home her customers. Beginning when Callie was 8, she was molested regularly by her mother’s men friends. And yet, Callie is fiercely loyal to her mother.

As the story begins, Ronnie once again pulls Callie out of their apartment to move to a new city. Unfortunately, they are stopped by the police for a broken tail light, and the police discover that Ronnie not only does not have a driver’s license, car registration, or insurance, but that her name comes up in the database for the abduction. Ronnie is put in jail and Callie is taken in by a social worker until her father arrives to pick her up the next day.

Greg, the father, flies Callie with him back to Tarpon Springs, Florida, where he lives with his second wife Phoebe and their two little boys, Tucker and Joe. They live close to Greg’s extended family, and Callie learns not only that her real name (which she never knew) is Callista Tzorvas, but that she is part of a large warm Greek community. They all accept Callie back with open arms. Callie quickly becomes aware of all that was taken from her by her mother, but this fills her with mixed emotions: she feels anger toward her mother, but loves her deeply and wants to help and protect her; maybe even go back to her.

Callie has been damaged by all that happened to her. She doesn’t really feel like she belongs to this new “perfect” community, but she now has better insight into the “shortcomings” of the way she has been living with her mom. Yet she doesn’t really know how to act around “normal” people. And what about her mother’s mental disease – might she have inherited it? Callie has lots of decisions to make. But there aren’t instant solutions in this book, nor easy answers.

Discussion: There is not much “action” in this story; it is more of a character exploration. Some of the side characters are a bit too perfect, but Callie and her mom are portrayed very realistically. You won’t completely love either one of them, but you will come to understand them. And the ending is well-done; not everything gets suddenly resolved, but rather, the story concludes in a reasonable way.

Evaluation: The author treats a number of difficult issues with compassion and understanding. This book has been extremely well-received by teens.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books, a division of Bloomsbury Publishing, 2013

Review of “Us” by David Nicholls

This is a difficult book for me to review, because there are basically only four characters in the book, and I absolutely could not stand three of them. It was actually painful for me to read it, just because I didn’t like them so much. But that has no bearing on whether or not the book is well-written or tells a good story, and in fact, many reviewers have loved this book.

FINAL Us cover image

The story is narrated by Douglas Petersen, 54, whose wife of 20 years, Connie, tells him at the beginning of this book “I think our m marriage has run its course. I think I want to leave you.” But their only child, a 17-year-old son named Albie, is about to go off to college, and they have already planned a “Grand Tour” of Europe for the three of them before Albie leaves in the fall. They decide to go through with it, “for Albie’s sake.”

Alternating with Douglas’s account of what happened on this trip, he goes back in time to chart the course of his marriage to Connie. Granted, this is just his point of view, and I suppose if this book were by Gillian Flynn we might get a book in two halves with Connie’s perspective represented. But not hearing her take on the marriage except from Douglas’s eyes, I grew to detest Connie, Albie, and Kat, the girl Albie picks up mid-trip in Europe. Moreover, I can’t imagine what kept Douglas and Connie together for even a moment, not to mention twenty years, except that Douglas seemed overwhelmed by Connie’s looks, and – as a science geek without much experience with women – he idolized her and felt lucky to be the object of her attention. Or derision and contempt, depending on how you see it. Albie’s behavior was [also] execrable, and Connie’s endorsement of it irresponsible and cruel. And Kat actually made Albie look good by comparison. While I liked Douglas more than the others, his constant bowing and scraping to these cruel and boorish people led to a diminution of my respect for him.

Many reviewers have found Douglas “lovable” and “humorously self-deprecating.” I just had to shake my head.

Evaluation: I disliked this book, but it was very much tied to my loathing of the characters. If you don’t mind dysfunctional families and non-likable protagonists, you will appreciate this story much more than I. It made the Man Booker 2014 Longlist.

Rating: 3/5

Published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2014

Review of “John Marshall: The Chief Justice Who Saved The Union” by Harlow Giles Unger

Unger takes the interesting approach of illuminating the contributions of John Marshall to the protection and preservation of the Constitution by describing the many ways in which Thomas Jefferson sought to subvert it. This book will educate readers about the actual operations of the early republic, rather than the usual “patriotic” myths fed to students of history. Although revered as a “Founding Father,” Jefferson was in truth often interested more in advancing his own ideas and ambition than in honoring the Constitution.


Marshall’s legacy as the 4th Chief Justice of the Supreme Court was the assurance of “the integrity and eminence of the Constitution and the federal government.” Marshall, who was the longest serving Chief Justice in American history, signed over 1,180 decisions, writing 549 of them. As Unger shows:

In the course of his Supreme Court leadership Marshall stood at the center of the most riveting – and most important – courtroom dramas in the nation’s formative years. Case by case he defined, asserted, and when necessary, invented the authority he and the Court needed to render justice, stabilize the federal government, and preserve the Union and its Constitution.”

Because of Marshall’s efforts, the judiciary became an equal branch of the federal government. But it was not a predetermined outcome. When Jefferson didn’t get his way, he used every means at his disposal to try to vitiate the judiciary. To his chagrin, however, even when he appointed his own men to the bench, they became so impressed with Marshall’s erudition, devotion to the law, and integrity, that one by one, they became Marshall men instead of Jefferson men.

To this day, the decisions written or influenced by Marshall continue to shape the American polity. From his opinion in Marbury v. Madison, in which he established the independence of the federal judiciary, to his insistence in U.S. v. Burr that no one, not even the president, is above the law, Marshall made a lasting and positive imprint on the character of the country. And while Jefferson continued to insist, even when retired, that the federal and state governments represented two independent and equal sovereigns, Marshall, in McCulloch v. Maryland, set forth the precedent that state action may not impede valid constitutional exercises of power by the Federal government. The United States would be a radically different place had it not been for “the great,the good, the wise” John Marshall, as he was described by another famous and well-respected Supreme Court Justice, Joseph Story.

Chief Justice John Marshall

Chief Justice John Marshall

Discussion: One reason I like Unger very much as a historian is that he has always been able to avoid portraying the Founding Fathers in sepia tones with golden halos. He is not loathe to point out, for example, that Jefferson was a vicious man who operated sub rosa through lackeys to destroy the careers and lives of anyone and everyone who disagreed with him. He is not reluctant to provide evidence for how much of the Declaration of Independence was lifted by Jefferson from other writings, such as those of John Locke, or how pusillanimously Jefferson behaved when the fighting broke out in the American Revolution. He also takes Jefferson to task for his treasonous acts against President John Adams when Jefferson himself was serving as Vice President. (This includes the concealment of evidence by Jefferson that would exonerate Adams from charges of impeachment, a movement for which Jefferson was leading the chorus.) And he doesn’t hesitate to speak of Jefferson’s bribes to members of the press to calumniate his opponents; his threats to start a Civil War if he were not elected in 1800; his blatant disdain of the Constitution when it got in the way of what he wanted to do; and his attempts to emasculate the judiciary so that it could not rule against any of his decisions.

Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale

Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale

Jefferson largely escapes such a close look at his behavior because of the need for the American narrative to show him as a great man, who joined other great men to create a great nation. Even the recent DNA evidence of Jefferson’s long-time affair with Sally Hemings has been downplayed, and those who acknowledge it are quick to point out Jefferson’s long-standing relationship with her, as if his alleged monogamy would make up for his taking up with a fifteen-year old girl when he was forty-six, a girl who was in his care as a slave, unable not to do his bidding. The entire time she was his mistress, she continued to serve as his slave, in addition to being pregnant almost continuously when he was in town. She was not even freed by his will when he died. But collective memory serves to establish moral, political, and social lessons, and to help form an understanding of who we are as a people. Truth can often fall by the wayside.

Unger, however, has a respect for facts.

He also has a keen eye for those early figures in our history who displayed more character, more nuance, more courage, and more loyalty to the aims of the young country. One of those was John Marshall. This well-written story will keep your attention from beginning to end. Highly recommended!

Rating: 5/5

Published by Da Capo Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group, 2014

Kid Lit Review of “Gandhi: A March To the Sea” by Alice B. McGinty

India was ruled since the mid-16th century by the Mughal Empire, but it disintegrated in the early 18th century. India was left with a number of weak and unstable regional states that were susceptible to manipulation and control by Europeans. Britain’s early presence on the continent was dominated by the East India Company, which had been given a monopoly of all English trade to Asia by royal grant at its foundation in 1600. Somewhat bizarrely, the Company began taking political power as well, and by the early 19th century, it had expanded control over much of India.

In 1858, Queen Victoria decided it was time to transfer the rule of the British East India Company to the Crown, and India officially became a British colony. [This was called The British Raj (raj means “rule” in Hindi).]

1909 Map of the British Indian Empire, showing British India in two shades of pink and the princely states in yellow, except Nepal and Bhutan.

1909 Map of the British Indian Empire, showing British India in two shades of pink and the princely states in yellow, except Nepal and Bhutan.

But the British disregarded local customs and tried to impose Western values and the English language on the subcontinent.  Moreover, they exploited the Indians for labor and for cannon fodder in British wars. Hence, many Indians resented British rule, and the instigated several bloody rebellions before ultimately attaining independence in 1947.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (later known as “Mahatma,” a Sanskrit honorific meaning “venerable” or “great soul”), born in 1869, was a prominent leader of the Indian nationalist movement. He preached non-violent methods of civil disobedience, preferring the tactics of boycotts, marches, and fasts.

Mahatma Gandhi spinning yarn, in late 1920

Mahatma Gandhi spinning yarn, in late 1920

Gandhi’s most famous campaign was a march of about 240 miles from his commune in Ahmedabad to Dandi, on the sea coast, beginning March 12, 1930, and ending April 5, 1930. The march is usually known as the Dandi March or the Salt Satyagraha. [Satyagraha means passive political resistance.] At Dandi, Gandhi and thousands of protestors made their own salt from seawater. They were breaking the law; the British did not allow Indians to get salt from the sea but rather, they had to purchase it from the British and pay high taxes on it. This book tells the story of of that famous march.


The prose is simple, but evocative:

British officers
mix with the crowd,
watching every move.
Worries rumble. Rumors brew.”


He finally stops
at the far edge of town,
where the Untouchables live.
Outcasts of the Hindu faith,
dirty, ragged, poor,
pushed away by all —-
but Gandhi.”


He tells Muslims, Hindus, and Untouchables
that they are different but the same.
India needs them all
to work as one
for freedom.”

And finally he leads his marchers to the Arabian Sea: “white salt dusting dark sand.”


It is the illustrations by Thomas Gonzalez as much as the text that conveys what kind of man Gandhi was. With pencils and pastels the soft edges of his images suggest the peacefulness of Gandhi’s movement, even as they convey the quiet strength of the participants, particularly Gandhi.


At the back of the book, one map shows British India and another displays the route of the salt march, along with some additional background information.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Amazon Children’s Publishing, 2013.


Review of “Longbourn” by Jo Baker

This is one of the many, many tie-ins to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, although very obliquely; this is the imagined view from “belowstairs.”


Baker provides readers with a detailed view of what life was like in the early 1800’s for those responsible for the household. They put in long, long hours, having to be up early enough to ensure that their employers “upstairs” awoke to warm hearths, available hot water, clean and mended clothes, and hot meals. Doing the laundry in particular, in the days before washing machines, was a huge and tiring chore, especially if there were children in diapers or women who were menstruating. (And the Bennet family had six women!) If any of the family members went out in the evening, the staff also had to wait up until they returned, to help them down from their carriages, take care of the horses, and bring the family members snacks if required. Then there was the whole issue of tending to the chamber pots, and cleaning out the outhouse.

The below stairs staff consists of Mr. and Mrs. Hill (he for the horse and carriage work and she in charge of housekeeping) and two orphaned girls: Sarah, who is now becoming a young woman, and Polly, still a preteen. Suddenly their burdens are lightened by the hiring of a young man, James Smith, to take over as Footman for the aging Mr. Hill. James does even more; he is hard-working and generous with his help, and watches out for Sarah in spite of her immediate hostility toward him.

When the Bingleys come to Longbourne, Sarah develops a fascination for their footman Ptolemy (“Tol”). He seems to be drawn to Sarah as well. But their time is not their own, of course, to pursue any such attraction. Sarah wonders:

Would she, at some time, have the chance to care for her own things, her own comforts, her own needs, and not just for other people’s? Could she one day have what she wanted, rather than rely on the glow of other people’s happiness to keep her warm?”

We get occasional glimpses of the people upstairs, and whispery indications of secrets being revealed. In some cases, as with Wickham and Bingley, Baker adds to Austen’s portraits with details of her own. But the secrets that come out about the downstairs characters are more salient in this story, and for me at least, quite unexpected. And the romantic involvements and upheavals are every bit as convoluted and rewarding as those occurring upstairs.

Discussion: Some Jane Austen fans have been a bit disgruntled with this book because it shows the Bennets in a less favorable light than they would prefer. But I think if one sees the Bennets from the point of view of those who are expected to get up in the cold and haul wood and water for them, and be at their beck and call, a less rosy view of those in the upper classes doesn’t seem unreasonable. For example, after being lectured by Mr. Collins about finding her work “sanctifying,” Sarah muses (while taking out his chamberpot):

This, she reflected, as she crossed the rainy yard, and strode out to the necessary house, and slopped the pot’s contents down the hole, this was her duty, and she could find no satisfaction in it, and found it strange that anybody might think a person could. She rinsed the pot out at the pump and left it to freshen in the rain. If this was her duty, then she wanted someone else’s.”

There are moments of very fine writing in this book. At one point, one of the characters imagines what she would write to the man she loved if she could:

I would write about how you make me be entirely in myself, and more real than I had ever thought was possible. I would ask if you miss me like I miss you, so that there is not another spot in all the world that seems to mean anything at all, but where you are. That the days until I see you again are just to be got through … and that nothing good is to be expected of them at all, but that they will eventually be over, and I will be on my way back home to you.”

The ending is absolutely lovely, both in form and content.

Evaluation: I think this variation on Pride and Prejudice is much better than most. It is well-written, and the characterizations are excellent. Sarah is a spunky, courageous heroine, and James could easily give Darcy a run of the money as a dashing, romantic hero who withstands the test of time.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, 2013


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