Roz Kaveney's Rhapsody of Blood series continues with Reflections. The second volume in the trilogy opens with a party celebrating the fact that the world did not end in the previous book. Despite her heroics in that volume, Rituals (2012), Emma Jones is feeling out of place among the ancient powers who are attending the party. Her ghostly lover, Caroline, is simply delighted to be at a party where nearly everyone can see her. After some verbal sparring with small gods, Emma accepts an invitation to see the goddess Hekkat's art collection. This turns out not to be innuendo, or at least not in the way I expected. Hekkat's collection is dedicated to her lost love: the Huntress, Mara, whose extremely long life story was woven through Rituals and continues in this book.
Reflections is Mara's book. Her story is the thick middle section of the novel, going on and on without so much as a chapter break to provide relief. Mara, still telling her life story to Alastair Crowley in some timeline that has so far failed to intersect with the rest of the book, skips from prehistory to Isaac Newton and then to the French Revolution.
A secret history set during the French Revolution presents numerous problems to the writer. Unlike the prehistoric Near East, visited in Rituals, the French Revolution is well-attested and thoroughly embedded in the reader's imagination. Every variation has already been done and done again, from French Revolution: The Musical to French Revolution in Space! At one point, I stopped to check Kaveney's facts—I wanted to know whether a character could really shove a loaded flintlock pistol up her sleeve and expect it to work when she pulled it out again. I found a picture of a small pistol that is known to have been used during the revolution (and Kaveney was right; it would have tolerated being kept in a sleeve with no trouble). If I had been more engaged with the story, I would never have stopped reading in order to fact-check.
Nitpickers can find flaws in any book if they look hard enough. A good story ought to keep its readers too busy to care about nitpicks. The problem with this part of Reflections is not the details, but the lack of interesting action. Mara the Huntress is immortal, untouchable, and unflaggingly moral. It is hard to imagine anything that would pose a legitimate threat to her. She can't imagine any such threat, and fears neither men nor gods. Kaveney succeeded in writing a compelling story for Mara in Rituals, but after thousands of years of disappointment and death, Mara has become cynical. Her job, hunting down and killing anyone who would use blood sacrifice to become a god, has become routine. Those few powers left on Earth who could challenge her know better than to try—and she is confident that they would fail.
The Enlightenment does throw a few obstacles into Mara's path. Robespierre, who in this version of the Revolution has used magic to become a sort of Saruman-figure who is capable of clouding men's minds with his words, has done his research on Mara and her weaknesses. He traps her for a while. Unfortunately for him, a few months of captivity without food or water only make Mara angry. Everything about this part of the story is inevitable. Mara escapes. Robespierre goes to the guillotine. Kaveney adds her own embellishments to the story which will either amuse or annoy fans of the period. As someone with no particular interest in this part of history, I found myself looking ahead to see when the book would shift back to Emma's story.
I missed Emma. While the whole premise of Mara's chapters is that she is telling the story of her life to Alastair Crowley, she and the people she interacts with all spend too much time talking about themselves. After the fifth or sixth time that the characters engage in a bout of competitive boasting, I got bored. When Emma is around, she cheerfully takes the wind out of these kinds of immortal chest-beating displays. Without her, Mara and the others go on for far too long. Many of the stories that they tell would be interesting if the reader was allowed to see them, rather than listening in as the characters discuss them. Mara mentions that she spent some time in Japan hunting down the bloodthirsty spirits of evil swords. I would love to read that story, but Reflections has other priorities.
The worst example of this comes when Mara confronts Hassan-i-Sabbah. There is some genuinely sickening imagery here—"it became clear that his face was melting and dripping away and taking with it the hairs of his beard" (p. 201). Kaveney has not lost her knack for pulling out wild and disturbing ideas. Nevertheless, very little actually happens in this argument between immortals. Mara is, as always, a force of nature against whom no one can stand for long.
Fortunately, even jaded godslayers have a sense of humor. When a messenger arrives with a warning about a dark power growing in the East, Mara replies with, "Why do people always go on about dark powers in the East? Does no one ever worry about things to the West of them? The darkest power I ever actually had to deal with was all the way across the Atlantic, but no, it's always to the East. Why not the South, come to that?" (p. 178).
Kaveney's sense of humor brought me through the less interesting parts of Reflections. She is also fond of spontaneous fight scenes, and often defies ordinary narrative pacing in order to skip right to the violence. When Mara discovers that there are manticores in London, she assembles a team (which, delightfully, includes a young Voltaire) to go hunting for them. The hunt never happens; the manticores arrive while the team is still discussing their plan of attack.
Emma's return is a relief after so many pages of Mara's dour arrogance. Emma has made some enemies, both as a popular pagan writer and as a hunter of demons. Some of them invite her onto television talk shows while others prefer to drag her away for questioning in secret places between worlds that fall outside everyone's jurisdiction. Emma might lack Mara's abilities and confidence, but she refuses to give up no matter how grim the circumstances might be.
More than anything, Reflections makes me long for the next book in the Rhapsody of Blood. The book ends on a cliffhanger, with a feeling that all of the important parts of Emma's story are still waiting to be told. Reflections suffers from all the usual problems of a middle volume in a series—too much set-up, not enough action, and no satisfying ending. I wanted Reflections to be wonderful. I wanted the wildness that I loved in Rituals. Instead, Reflections is a necessary step to bring the characters from one book to the next.
As a child, Sarah Frost wanted to write a post-apocalyptic science fiction epic poem. The great-grandchild of that ill-fated attempt became her first published work of short fiction in Analog in 2011. She is a hopeless podcast addict, a lover of birds, and a science fangirl. She lives in Kansas with a cop, and blogs at http://www.sarah-frost.com.
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