Friday, August 8, 2014

When writing YA historical fiction ...

One would think that in writing a novel--however loosely based on historical fact--a person would perform research.  Even perfunctory research would be appreciated.  Author's notes should address where liberties were taken with the recorded history.

Well done (sounds like a steak!)  historical fiction illuminates the time period and the time period enriches the story being told.  An excellent example of this is Cat Winters' upcoming The Cure for Dreaming, which I reviewed here.  Another great YA HF is A Plague-Struck Year by Makiia Lucier.  You shouldn't just set your story during, say, the Bolshevik Revolution unless that setting will add something to the story you have to tell.

That's my own opinion, anyway.  It's not some sort of writing rule, but it's a rule I set for myself, as a reader, when I select books.

I know, too, that sometimes I'm just asking for it when I request a galley.  I'm pretty sure that 95% of the time, it won't be worth my while (however, I try to read enough of something to get a feel for whether the teens my library serves would like it.  If it has appeal, I'll still buy it.  However, if something is just plain, flat-out poorly written or researched, I don't want to misinform my teens.

I've already admitted to having difficulty keeping certain authors straight in my mind--Scott Snyder and Scott Sigler are the two that I conflate most often (and I really shouldn't!)--but another strange mind-pairing is Diane Zahler and Suzanne Weyn.  Honestly, I don't know why I get them confused.  I adore Diane Zahler's princess fairy tale retellings for younger readers (they're so sweeeeeet and fluffy like marshmallows!), so when I saw an ARC available for a book by Suzanne Weyn, my brain got confused and said, "Yay, more princesses!"  Oops.  Well, technically there is a princess in Faces of the Dead.  One Marie-Therese, daughter of Marie-Antoinette and Louis XVI.  It's French Revolution time.

Then I remembered that Weyn recently released a book called Doctor Frankenstein's Daughters, which was not well-reviewed (well, actually, the reviews were hilarious.  But scathing).  As I clicked through into Faces of the Dead, I was ill-prepared for what awaited.

When it comes to any sort of revolution, there are obviously two or more sides to the story.  Some historians will take the part of the overthrown, others the part of the revolutionaries.  I feel mildly qualified to offer some comment on the choice of setting here, since I have a B.A. in French and did a lot of French history and Western Civ classes in college.  A revolution isn't something that happens overnight--the whole cult-of-the-Sun-King thing with Louis XIV, not to mention his extravagant spending and building and wars, certainly created conditions that were ripe for revolt (yum!).  Plus, Louis XVI had no ruling experience, and neither did Marie-Antoinette.  Yep, they did idiotic things, but it's hard to be a great king/queen when your parents did little to train you.  They didn't exactly have a University of Phoenix night course back then called Monarchy 101.  The people had every right to be ticked off, too.  No food, high taxes, aloof and silly rulers who didn't listen, a religious environment more interested in making money than helping the poor--yep, I'd be mad too.

So, here we are.  Suzanne Weyn is evidently firmly in the pro-Marie-Antoinette-and-Louis-XVI camp, but her writing doesn't acknowledge that what they were doing (or not doing) was also very wrong for the people and the country.  They weren't innocent victims.  They made very, very poor decisions, or they neglected to make decisions entirely.  I don't want this to turn into an essay on the behavior of the Bourbons during the outbreak of the Revolution, because I'm not getting any credit/money for that, and I think I've already written enough of those during my academic career.

Let's cut to a fun, totally time-appropriate quote, shall we?

" 'We are one,' I say. 'That's why we look alike.  We're one soul with two bodies.' "

That's the Princess Marie-Therèse to her chambermaid, Ernestine.  Evidently, they are omigoshtwinsies! and switch places a lot at court so that Ernestine can hang with the fancy peeps and Marie-Therèse can scamper around Paris.  M-T (abbreviated because I am lazy.  A hyphen and an accent grave is a bit much to ask of me tonight as my head pounds with histamine reactions to pollen) says dopey things like the totally deep one above, and paints herself as a sort of pre-Revolution beneficent monarch who completely loves and adores the common people of France.  In the first few pages, M-T reminisces about her first memory, which is when she and the royal family (or would it be Royal Family?) meet the plebes in the courtyard at Versailles.  Pretty Pretty Princess remarks, "I love the smell and sounds of the crowd.  All kinds of people are here.  Some are very well dressed.  Others are ragged and without coats or cloaks on this frigid day.  But we are all happy.  Excited."

Um.  First of all, I know that the Court at Versailles barely had rudimentary hygiene concepts (people routinely just peed and pooped in the corners because ... they're there), and so M-T probably didn't have a great concept of what "smelling nice" was, but I honestly think that someone brought up in a palace would definitely notice the smell of the unwashed masses, who didn't have time to clean themselves, because they had to work ridiculously hard for no money and no food.  Horse poop, cow poop, human poop--they would have had it all.  Also the body odor was, I'm sure, astounding.  You can get a little whuff of it even today--just ride the Métro on a sweltering July day.  So "I love the smell of the crowd" is really piling it on thickly.

Secondly, Weyn totally undercuts her whole mission to make M-T likeable by having her remark on the lack of clothing that most people have, but then cheerily state that they're all happy anyway just because they get to see the royal family.  Gee whiz, if I were a French peasant of, oh, I don't know, 1780, I'd definitely rather have a pair of warm boots than the opportunity to see the King.

M-T, being such a wee little adorable child, begs her parents to set up a feast for the masses, but M-A and Louis XVI say there's not enough food.  M-T: " 'Please, Mama,' I beg, 'these people are our subjects, aren't they?  Isn't it our duty to feed them?' "


There really are no words to express the utter inanity of this character.  She natters on like this constantly, talking about how she "envies the freedom" of peasant children because they can run around and junk.  Yes, and then they will die of cholera.  Yay!

A few chapters of useless exposition later (mostly describing the aforementioned body-double Ernestine and their place-switching), M-T sets off to see Paris.  She's dropped off by someone who's evidently like the Versailles taxi-driver at ... the Place de la Concorde.

The what?  Where?  I'm sorry, Place de la Concorde did not exist in 1789.  Well, I mean, the place existed, but it was called Place Louis XV, and there was no fancy Egyptian obelisk there (notably because Napoléon hadn't invaded Egypt yet!).  Place de la Concorde became Place de la Révolution during the (you guessed it!) Revolution/Reign of Terror, and was the main site of executions by guillotine.  M-T's father was beheaded there.  After various other revolutions and restorations, everyone agreed to stick with Place de la Concorde, which commemorated the peace (or "peace") brought about by the Directory in the late 1790s.

You don't have to be a French major/librarian/major nerd like me to catch that.  I mean, this is one of the things that you can Google.  It is on Wikipedia (which I normally don't recommend as source material, but it's actually generally quite accurate when it comes to well-known places and events).

When I read that line about getting dropped off at the Place de la Concorde, I abandoned all hope.  A bit later on, she runs into a Hot Guy named Henri, who acts as her (very convenient) tour guide to Paris, and educates the Princess on Revolution and Other Important Social Stuff.  There's loads of sappy dialogue like, " 'Ernestine, I can tell you've got a kind, good heart.  You think the best of everyone, even the selfish royals.  I'm glad you bashed into me today.'  'You are?' I ask.  'We'll be the best of friends, always.'  'I hope so, Henri.' "  Whaaa ... who talks like that?  Well, five year olds: "best fwends fowevah!"  Evidently, Henri is the Mandatory Love Interest and Hot Guy, so they have to, you know, be friends and stuff.
I think the rest of the book deals with M-T trying to save her family and herself and I'm sure she probably escapes by switching places with her maid (the foreshadowing, it is so heavy, I'm being crushed like Giles Corey over here).  Other reviewers mentioned something about magic/voodoo ... yeah.  

The title refers to an artist/sculptor who makes death masks (she may also be the one involved in the alleged voodoo, but please don't quote me on that).  Whoop-de-do.  

This is just a whole mess of Not Good.  No fact-checking, no believable characters, and plot contrivances up the yazoo.  Don't insult the intelligence of your readers when you write historical fiction.  Just because the word "fiction" is in there doesn't mean you can completely ignore the "historical" part.  

I received an ARC of this title from Netgalley.

No comments:

Post a Comment