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#263 C. E. Murphy: The Queen's Bastard

C. E. Murphy: The Queen's Bastard

Paperback: 448 pages
Publisher: Del Rey Books (29 April 2008)
Language English
ISBN-10: 0345494644
ISBN-13: 978-0345494641
Category(ies): Fantasy

Until now, Catie Murphy has been known for her urban fantasy novels. But with this one, she's gone for a historical fantasy, with quite a different feel.

There are two particular forms of historical fantasy, which I'll call the Powers and the Kay forms. In the Powers form, as evidenced in Tim Powers' The Drawing of the Dark, an actual historical event (Powers uses the Siege of Vienna) becomes the setting for something bigger and more mythic than what the prosaic history books recount. Done well (and tDotD is excellent), it produces a depth that mere generic mediaeval or renaissance cannot provide.

The opposite form is visible in much of Guy Gavriel Kay's work: it takes our history, but as an inspiration, a template for a fantasy world that is definitely not ours, though it may have many parallels, including gross historical trends and specific places. (For example, on reading his A Song for Arbonne, back in 1995, I was struck by how well Kay described a particular scene, having shortly before parked my car there.) It also has resonance, though for different reasons. It definitely should not have a map in the front because either it matches our world, but with funny names, or it doesn't, and readers who do see the parallels will get annoyed.

Murphy has followed the Kay form. Here, the time is the 16th Century, with Elizabeth Gloriana Lorraine on the throne of an England analogue. Her spymaster Francis Walsingham Robert Drake has the care of young Belinda Primrose, a talented young girl (and then a woman) who is raised by him to be a spy and assassin, sent abroad to secretly destabilise the alliances of those Ecumenical states who threaten England Aulun.

(Belinda herself perhaps most closely reminds me of Aphra Behn, except in being three generations earlier.)

Being a woman, Belinda's most useful skills are often (though not always) those that female spies have always been known for: the ability to seduce men and to elicit their secrets, and the ability to be thought unimportant. However, she has another ability, one that is distinctly unusual and at first apparently unique: she has some form of innate magic. It appears to be a type of psychic ability, as she is to some extent able to stop others noticing her, and to be able to read the thoughts of those she touches. It's not something she's willing to let others know about, as she'd rather not be burnt for witchcraft. So it's rather ironic that when she does discover someone else with similar abilities, he's the part-analogue of a man who in our world wrote a treatise on witchcraft.

(Oh, and as the title suggests, Belinda is the secret offspring of Lorraine.)

As the first volume of a trilogy, this works quite well in its own right. Playing with history in this way causes both resonances and dissonances, leaving the reader slightly off-balance with regard to the likely path of the story. Will the historical path be followed, or the dramatic?

It's also one of the most sexually explicit fantasies this side of Laurel K Hamilton. Happily, unlike the late Anita Blake stories, there's a strong story pushing this along, and though I'd keep it out of the reach of youngsters (unlike Kay's novels), it's not sex for the sake of it, but because for Belinda, spreading her legs is often the best way for her to achieve her goals. Belinda may be our protagonist, but that doesn't mean she always very nice. She's got her dark side, as is appropriate for someone whose very purpose is secret murder.

This novel works. The existence of magic is so limited that it's almost not there at all (except of course for Belinda). And there are some unanswered questions (like, why the magic?) which we can expect to see the answers to in later volumes.

In my view, this shows Catie Murphy is getting even better.
Tags: books, books by friends, reviews

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