Historical romance edition! Three historical romances - from the wilderness of pre-Revolutionary upstate New York to the fishing villages of Cornwall - love finds everyone. Especially if you're attractive and of noble birth.
Robert W. Chambers' Cardigan (1901) was, within his lifetime, his most famous work. The King in Yellow was a cult favourite, and certainly proved the most long-lasting and influential. But it was Cardigan that established Chambers as a best-seller and a popular favourite. There's some merit to Cardigan's success. If we posit (tautologically) that this was an era in which Chambers succeeded, so therefore Chambers books were successful, there's a lot about Cardigan that is, well, Chambersy. It has, amongst other things:
- A suitably jingoistic plot - set in the early days of the American Revolution, and firmly establishing American exceptionalism
- A charming, if utterly hackneyed, romance - a young boy (Cardigan) and a young woman (whom he always refers to as her childhood nickname, 'Silver Heels') are raised together as wards of an important pre-Revolutionary figure.
- A coming of age story, in which Cardigan realises that loyalty is more than an oath to a distant King, and maybe his dream of becoming an officer isn't the best thing in the world and whatnot
- A ton of very florid nature writing - including meandering treks across the wilderness, countless fishing expeditions, and a general, ubiquitous appreciation of all things related to sunsets, sunrises, the moon, water features, trees, mountains, skies and/or dirt
All of which, as noted above, are hallmarks of Chambers' writing. As mixed a bag as this is already, Cardigan also features some of Chambers' less appreciable writing quirks.
The depictions of race (and gender) (and religion!) are particularly shocking. Certainly that's something I'd noticed in the past - The Green Mouse, for example - but Cardigan single-handedly reaps a path through all possible offensive stereotypes, from Silver-Heels' African-American maid to the scores of Native Americans to the Jewish peddler. The worst part is that all of these characters are 'good guys' (Chambers' epics have a particularly un-nuanced view of the universe, in contrast to his more morally nuanced Weird or 'slice of life' fiction). Cardigan likes Shemuel the peddler and Bessie the maid, and they're there to help out. But they are also naturally inferior, and can only do their best - Shemuel is genetic coward, with watery eyes, a weak chin and a neurotic habit of stealing during a battle. He's frequently compared to a rat, and, again - despite his frequent life-saving aid - the best Cardigan can ever do is forgive him his natural weaknesses and inclinations.
None of the other non-white-male characters fare any better: noble savages the lot of them, or cowering, insipid women - whilst Cardigan can grasp concepts like 'honor' and 'country', poor Silver-Heels can only forge onwards in search of better or brighter dresses. They're fighting gloriously to overcome the intrinsic inabilities of their race/religion/gender; the patronising nature of Cardigan is the worst blow of all. If it at least hated everyone, that would feel more acceptable: instead, it smugly condescends.
Even setting all that aside... still meh. Cardigan is also too long: Chambers was passionate about the Revolutionary War and the New York area, and gleefully name-drops and info-dumps all he can. Rather than seeming particularly erudite, it merely makes Cardigan seem distracted and unimportant. Cardigan himself is, I suppose, a 'symbol' of a young man 'making a choice', but he's also such a contemptibly banal square-jawed ubermensch that there's never any risk associated with any of his choices.
All in all, unless you're a Chambers obsessive: skip it. There are certainly interesting lines to draw across Chambers' career - the traits both good and bad.
P.S. Like The Hidden Children, there's the batshit and inexplicable inclusion of the Weird. At one point Cardigan is taken captive and is about to be burned alive (because of course). He is freed by a ghost - a walking, talking spirit that comes from the forest, scolds the local tribe, liberated Cardigan and than wanders off. I read this twice, thinking maybe it was a complex scheme - but no. Ghost. Actual undead. Because, of course it is. This is never, ever mentioned again.
I had the recent pleasure of writing an 'Author Appreciation' post for r/fantasy of one of my favourites - Peter O'Donnell. As well as creating Modesty Blaise, O'Donnell wrote 'romantic adventures' as Madeleine Brent. Writing the article encouraged me to seek out the rest of the Brent, uh, ouevre, including...
Tregaron's Daughter (1971) was O'Donnell's first foray under his pen name. And a solid start it was - ridiculous, lovable and undeniably fun. Cadi has grown up in rural Cornwall, the daughter of a fisherman. Her grandmother was an amnesiac Italian noblewoman, rescued by her sailor grandfather. I'm sure that won't come back to be a major plot point or anything. Cadi and her father save the life of some wealthy visitors. When Cadi's father passes away (on yet another aquatic rescue mission - stay out of the water folks, the best that can happen is amnesia), she's adopted by the grateful family - moved out of his village into a life of, well, if not riches, damn near close to it.
BUT THERE ARE TWISTS. Even as Cadi settles in to her new family and a surprising largesse of handsome masculinity (the hot but troubled son and the hot but troubled nephew), new problems arise. There are kidnap attempts! Assassination attempts! Mysterious Irishmen! And a whole family of scheming Venetians! There's romance and mayhem and a bit of tension (but not much, to be honest) and a daring midnight escape or two.
As with Brent's best books, it is all about the heroine: Cadi is established early as competent, courageous and utterly charming. She's not perfect, by any means, but her honesty and unflagging bravery are clearly a breath of fresh air to everyone around her - including the reader.
Stormswift (1984) follows another of the Brentian patterns. Rather than starting in Britain and travelling 'out', Stormswift takes the reverse tack. Jemimah is the daughter of a British noble family, and, at the beginning of the book, she's also a captive to an Afghan warlord in a remote part of the Hindu Kush. Stormswift is ridiculous. In the first few chapters, Jemimah explains her crazy backstory, and then escapes - helped by another prisoner (an elderly doctor) and an irritable trader. The trader turns out to be a spy, and another noble Brit. Jemimah saves his life (and vice versa), finds a fort, gets back to to Britain and discovers her ancestral home is now in the hands of another Jemimah - an imposter? OR IS SHE INSANE?
Clearly the right thing to do is to ... join a travelling Punch & Judy show and do some... crime fighting? Sort of? Also features: mistaken identity, multiple love triangles, spies a-plenty, an eeeeevil dominatrix, yet more nobility in disguise, a roving band of Gypsies, and multi-generational coincidence that could only possible make sense if the world was 12 people (all of whom were disguised nobility). This is Brent throwing the kitchen sink at romantic adventure, and it is absolutely marvellous.
Stormswift Victorian soap opera of titantic proportions. Of anything I've ever read, this should be a TV mini-series - it would be utterly amazing. Really enjoyable, completely silly, and very highly recommended.