You know I really only mention books I loved, and I loved my latest Cybils read: The Explosionist by Jenny Davidson. I'll describe it as "an alternate history supernatural mystery" set in 1938 Scotland. With terrorists, dynamite, seances, and creepy government secrets. Intrigued? You don't know the half of it yet.
You don't see that much alternate history. I loved Jo Walton's Farthing, an English country-house murder mystery that just happened to take place in a world in which the English had made a truce with the Nazis and changed the course of history. In The Explosionist the turning point wasn't World War II but the battle of Waterloo in 1815 -- in which, instead of losing, Napoleon won, consolidated his power in Europe, and later conquered England as well. Scotland is now allied with the "Hanseatic States" -- the Scandinavian countries and Russia -- and maintains an uneasy autonomy through manufacture of the weapons with which Europe fights its wars. So, that's the backdrop, but the author never overwhelms with exposition; the history comes in just how I like it, in small, fascinating doses where relevant, and it never slows the story.
The fun of the alternate history is in the little references to how the world is different. Small things, historical personages turned upside-down. We learn in passing that Oscar Wilde is the famous Irish obstetrician who invented the incubator; Freud is a crackpot radio-show host nicknamed "Thanatos"! Alternative energy sources have been developed, because Scotland didn't have access to oil reserves -- "You'll find a few fuel cell enthusiasts in the Americas, of course, but most of their motorcars are powered by a filthy and wasteful method called internal combustion. All very well if you're American and sitting on top of huge petroleum reserves, but that kind of reckless comsumption doesn't suggest a very sensible attitude toward the future!" And how! There's also a chilling reference to the unnamed European chancellor having a "toothbrush mustache." And aside from the historical differences, there is one major way that the world of the book differs from our own: spirits commune freely with the living in all manner of ways, notably through radio waves and photography! Spiritualism is a respected scientific field, and when 15-year-old Sophie is warned in a seance that she is in danger, she has good reason to be afraid.
But. . . what nature of danger? The city has been rocked by a series of terrorist bombings, and she can't help but suspect the teacher she has a crush on might be involved. The medium who delivered the warning turns up murdered, spirits are sending Sophie messages, and as if that's not enough, a new and sinister threat emerges from a source much closer to home: her own aunt. To tell what that is would be to spoil a very creepy revelation, but I'll say this: it raises the question of what sacrifices a country can, in good conscience, demand of its citizens, and it takes the role of woman-as-selfless-helpmeet-to-male-power to the most devastating extreme.
Only as I try to convey in some simplicity what this book is "about" do I really realize how complex the story is, and I mean that in a good way -- while reading, all the threads are woven so well that you don't feel like you're in the midst of a labyrinth of plot. To be extremely simplistic, here's what the book is about: it's the story of Sophie and her Danish friend Mikael trying to unravel the mystery of who murdered the medium, and while they're at it, who's behind the bombings in Edinburgh, and what are the political stakes. With the help of dead people, and sort-of dead people. While the country ramps up for war. Whew.
Okay. I can't do it justice. Just read it. It's a great book-group book. Much to discuss about power and resistance, armed deterrance, government abuse of power in the shadow of war, and more. I liked the way the author showed Sophie's perspective on her own country slowly shifting as she begins to see familiar things through the eyes of her foreign friend, and questions them for the first time. Like here, in response to the "suicide machines" in the public library:
"I don't see why you're getting so worked up about it," Sophie said, uneasily conscious that it had taken Mikael's reaction to reveal what was troubling about the familiar practice. She suddenly wondered whether she might be blind to other things about Scotland as well.
I think about that a lot -- the way people are blinded by their indoctrination, whatever it might be, religious, political, whatever, and with the most recent discussion on my blog, this seemed particularly appropriate. It is terribly difficult to see beyond one's own indoctrination, particularly if one doesn't travel or meet a wide variety of people. It is through connection with people of different experience that we have a chance of broadening our own vision. But first, you have to open yourself up to it, and not cling to the things you've always blindly believed.
The author, Jenny Davidson, is a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia, and hey, she blogs. I have only just this second discovered her blog, andI see that she has a post about "Dark Banquet: Blood and the Curious Lives of Blood-Feeding Creatures," accompanied by a photo of a vampire bat in action. Oh joy! It's like she wrote it just for me! I must go and read it. . .