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Review Round-up: Madams! Savages! Wolves!

Catching up with some recent reading (of not-so-recent books): Mary Stewart's Madam, Will You Talk?, Joseph Chadwick's Savage Breed and Joan Aiken's The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.

Mary StewartMadam, Will You Talk? (1955) is Mary Stewart's first published novel, and, from the few others I've read, sets the tone for many of the others: an attractive young woman, an exotic location, some thrills and the inevitable love interest. In this instance, we have the wonderfully-named Charity Selbourne, Avignon, car chases and an is-he-isn't-he-a-murderer, Richard Byron.

Although a "romantic thriller", the scenery is both the most romantic and the most thrilling part, with the south of France beautifully evoked. There are crumbling ruins, glorious landscapes, even the cultural quirks and proclivities (every meal, coffee, wink of an innkeeper is rendered in affectionate detail). There's no crisis so critical that Charity can't stop and have a delicious omelet at a quirky roadside inn. In fact, if Madam has a moral, is it to always stop and have an omelet - or an aperitif. Rushing around leads to confusion and musses the hair. To be fair, there are worse lessons.

Madam isn't quite as twisty and turny as I would've liked; the 'reveal' is a bit obvious and the actual "whodunnit-and-why" is, rather clunkily, pondered out at length by the protagonists. That said, as well as the gorgeous setting, Charity's an impressive protagonist, especially for 1955. Although her taste in men is a little dubious, she's never outclassed nor outgunned, and, rather surprisingly (again, 1955!), doesn't shy from action. Madam also has one of the best car chases I've read, with Charity doing her best Bond impression on the back roads of France. Madam, Will You Talk? is "charming" - not a word I'd generally use to describe a thriller, but in this case, it feels right.

Joseph Chadwick's Savage Breed (1959) is a dense little Western that combines the tropes of the genre with a surprising conclusion. Given the recent conversation about tropes in fantasy (see Sam Sykes' thoughtful blog post on the topic), this came as a convenient reminder that the growing pains of one genre can just as easily be found in another. Fantasy and Westerns make a good pair: two overtly macho, American-dominated genres that are often categorised solely as escapist entertainment (and, indeed, both genres often play 'down' to that level). But Westerns, I would argue, are a more mature genre - not in sales figures (despite the critical success of Westerns, they're still on the decline), but in the way the tropes have evolved. From epic to 'grimdark' to a synthesis of the two; archaic to contemporary to back again... pretty much everything fantasy has gone through in the past few decades, Westerns went through a half-century before. 

Savage Breed isn't a brilliant example of storytelling, but it is a nice case study for the way tropes can be subverted. Wyatt is an independent, square-jawed brave cowboy, keen to start his own ranch and carve out a swathe of the country. His instrument in this is J.P. Naylor, a rather weak-willed (but well-heeled) businessman who has verbally agreed to partner with Wyatt in the endeavour. The only problem? Naylor's been convinced to go on a buffalo hunt before sealing the deal. Wyatt's no fan of the hunt (cue: long soliloquy about the decline of the buffalo), but he's not going to let Naylor out of his sight - the other hunters include a blood-thirsty marshal (also a poker cheat!), a boozy senator and a sleazy land speculator who also has his eyes on Naylor's wallet. Naylor, in his defense, is pretty pleased by the attention - everyone laughs at his jokes, plays cards with him and, hey!, the hunt is equipped with whisky and women-of-ill-repute. Woohoo!

Although Wyatt's goal is just as mercenary as the other hunters, it is clear that he's still a moral cut above. The speculator is a wife-beater and a thief. The marshal is a psychopath. The hired hands are all vicious criminals. Wyatt swiftly learns that he's on his own: he'll be keeping Naylor out of trouble (and, for that matter, alive) and having to watch his own back. The only silver lining for him is the land speculator's wife, Nora. As the other other (flawed-but-)good person in the group, the two spend more and more time together. Which, as you might suspect, doesn't make things go any more smoothly in the group dynamic.

All the traditional Western events take place: the hunt, the travel, the chase and, eventually, the 'being pinned down in the rocks by the Native American warband'. At this final stop on the tour, all the tension comes to a head. The Cheyenne, presumably bemused, keep their distance while Wyatt and the rest of the band all fall to pieces.

And, of course, that's the big lesson of Savage Breed: fancy dress, famous reputations, stacks of money and two-story buildings don't make people any less 'savage'. The Cheyenne behave with focus, a sense of community and honour - Wyatt and the other hunters do not. From simple things like "keeping a bargain" to more complex matters of human dignity, Wyatt slowly recognises that he's on the wrong side... and even he, with his ulterior motives and adulterous lust, has a lot to learn.

The storytelling is rapid and often a bit confusing: Mr. Chadwick crams a lot into these pages and the plot moves like it is on (greased) rails. He does, however, take the time to throw in short backstories for each of the primary characters - revealing their strengths and weaknesses and setting up character challenges that some of them (and not the expected ones) manage to overcome. Savage Breed isn't particularly notable in and of itself, but it is a valuable example of how genres learn and grow (... fifty years before).

Wolves of Willoughby ChaseJoan Aiken's The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962) was one of my childhood favourites (even as a kid, I knew that Edward Gorey covers were awesome). It is the first in a long series of (faux) Victorian novels, Ms. Aiken's adventures are set in a slightly alternate history in which King James III has ascended the throne and wolves have migrated to Britain through an 19th century version of the Chunnel. Curiously, the alt history elements are merely background, although the wolves - and the seemingly perpetual winter - create a soft background of danger throughout.

(Aside: I wonder if this actually qualifies as environmental SF? The winter/wolves aren't plot elements, but they do change the tone of the book. Because of the cold, stakes are higher, help is more remote, decisions are more absolute. Plus, wolves.)

The book's two protagonists are Bonnie and Sylvia, cousins and - more or less - strangers. Sylvia has grown up genteel and impoverished in London, while Bonnie has been wild and rich on the family's lavish estate, Willoughy Chase. When Bonnie's mother falls ill, her parents appoint a guardian (found essentially through Victorian Craigslist) and scamper off to the continent. Sylvia comes to stay with Bonnie as part of the complex operation and, of course, hijinks ensue. The guardian - the appropriately Dickensian, Letitia Slighcarp, aided by her henchman Grimshaw - immediately takes over the estate and runs it to evil. The Dickensian comparisons continue as the two girls are ferried off to the care of an abusive orphanage.

Bonnie and Sylvia fall from one dire situation into another, saved by a heroic gooseboy, an angelic maid and a quirky doctor. The good are good, the bad are bad and it all works out in the end (spoiler?). Although I think the later books in the series are more complicated - and surprising - Wolves has a lot going for it including, as mentioned, the atmospheric backdrop. Sylvia and Bonnie are both pleasant protagonists as well. As a kid, I was definitely drawn to the rambunctious, good-natured Bonnie makes an ernest and appealing heroine, but, upon rereading, it is Sylvia - who dines on single crackers, wears re-purposed bedsheets and, uncomplaining, still matches Bonnie's exuberant adventures - who is the more appealing. Even in victory, she's a somewhat tragic figure, incapable of ever enjoying herself, because her 'upbringing' has taught her selflessness to the point of martyrdom.