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The Porcelain Dove by Delia Sherman

The Porcelain Dove - Delia Sherman

You never know with obscure fantasy novels, especially those written by women, whose works are still too often unjustly ignored. There are some hidden gems out there. (Here, have some recs: FirethornThe Secrets of Jin-sheiFudoki.) And then there are the books that are forgotten for good reason. This one falls into the latter category. Unfortunately, it’s so hard to find that I wound up requesting and receiving it as a gift, at which point I felt obliged to read all of its 500+ pages.

The Porcelain Dove is a historical fantasy, set before – and, toward the end, during – the French Revolution, narrated by a duchess’s maid. The story is supposedly about a curse placed on a noble family, but would be more accurately described as the mundane life story of the maid, since all the curse does for the plot is require minor characters to disappear from the narrative as they go off questing for years – or decades – on end. Our narrator herself has nothing to do with the curse or its resolution, nor does she even have access to the people who do. Her mistress is a shallow and flighty woman, who does no more to advance the plot than Berthe herself. Berthe is possessive of her mistress regardless, but to me the LGBT label is a stretch; there is little in Berthe’s devotion that reads like desire.

Meanwhile, the character who acts as the heroine of the novel (at least toward the end) doesn’t get along with Berthe and rarely appears. In fact, our narrator has so little interaction with this character that the climax of the novel consists of Berthe’s watching a play, which magically reveals to her over 20-odd pages everything that happens in this other character’s quest. Riveting drama, that, but it’s not quite as bad as the premise itself. As it turns out, the curse is imposed as revenge for a horrific crime, and goes like this, “You have done something heinous and unforgiveable! Therefore, I curse you with a beggar approaching one of your descendants hundreds of years in the future and asking him for something! If he refuses, a family member of his will have to go on a quest, and in the interim his lands will decline!”

What kind of lame vengeance is that? Really, why even bother? The real-life perpetrator who inspired this ancestor was simply hanged, which seems much more appropriate.

But this is one example of a problem that permeates the book. Now, historical fantasy is among my favorite subgenres. Done right, the history brings texture and authenticity to the fantasy, while the fantasy brings imagination and possibility to the history. But here, the fantasy simply eliminates the stakes from history (we learn in the prologue that the entire unsympathetic aristocratic family survives the revolution unscathed, as their chateau is transformed into an inaccessible paradise), without bringing any liveliness to a tale bogged down in mundane details of jaunts to Lausanne and Paris and petty arguments among servants.

So, what are we left with? A slow-paced story, with no plot at all in the first half of the book and an ending we know from the start. A snooty narrator with no discernible goals or struggles, surrounded by a cast of characters too flat to justify the meandering. Dialogue that is often cliché and overblown, and a narrative peppered with French words and phrases (if you don’t know what lessons in comme il faut might be, or precisely what is meant by the exclamation “foutre ce dedale infernal!”, you’ll likely feel lost at times). Tedious details about clothing and garden parties. One black guy who exists primarily to be referred to by all as an ape, because those 18th-century-ers sure were racist! Various aristocratic men who get away with assaulting and/or raping whomever they like, and peasants who are dismissed as unintelligent and perpetually discontented, in a setting that, despite the overabundance of mundane detail, still feels underexplored.

Needless to say, I don’t recommend seeking this one out. But for those seeking French-Revolution-inspired historical fantasy, all is not lost! Go read Illusion instead. You can thank me later.