Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Flame Eater - a slow-burning potboiler by Barbara Gaskell Denvil

I am thrilled to feature this marvelous independently published historical mystery by an established Australian (British-born) author Barbara Gaskell Denvil. The Flame Eater is set in late 15th century England, amidst aristocratic conspiracy, murder and plague.
Nicholas, now heir to the earldom, has no desire to marry his dead brother’s cast-off mistress. And Emeline has no desire to marry the brutal monster who murdered his brother, the man she loved and hoped to marry. 

This arranged marriage is a disaster, it would seem that it can’t get any worse. But it does. Fire rages through the castle and takes over the wedding night, and any hopes of reconciliation.
But not everything is as it seems. Murder and arson are destroying more than just one alliance, and the culprit is unknown.

But there are other matters to consider. It is 1484 and Richard III is England’s monarch. The king entrusts many of his lords with responsibilities in the service of their country, and Nicholas is charged with the undercover investigation into two desperately important situations, which involves travel to the south of England. 

Emeline joins with her younger sister and others of the household, determined to discover who is responsible for the disasters which have now entirely disrupted their lives. But the suspects are so many. It is therefore a group of eager but desperate women of various ages, characters and capabilities who attempt to solve the mystery. 

Meanwhile, Nicholas learns that he has a wife to admire and to adore. But is he a murderer? Is her mother? Her nurse? And will England’s political turmoil threaten their peace and cause even greater uncertainty? Life will never be the same. But perhaps that is just as well. 

My thoughts:
Some creatures have nine lives. They are not always cats. Sometimes they look convincingly human. Nicholas of Chatwyn, youngest son of a drunken earl, is one of such creatures. When we first meet him, he's a tenacious, sarcastic, self-deprecating prick with a mysterious gash across his face. To give you some perspective, in 15th century, even something as minor as an ingrown toe nail could lead to gangrene, sepsis and death. On the night of his wedding, he sustains extensive burns in a castle fire, and he makes many characteristic jokes about dying and leaving his reluctant bride Emeline a widow. Against all odds, he recovers - miraculously, without as much as a blister. More than that, he manages to persuade Emeline that she should give the idea of carnal pleasures a chance, even though she was still pining for his deceased brother Peter, her original fiance. Later, when plague rips through England, he survives the disease in a milder form, while people young and old are dropping dead around him. The reader unwittingly wonders: is this man even human? Is there something in his DNA that makes him so persuasive and resilient?

I also wanted to comment on the character of his wife Emeline. One reviewer labeled her as "whiny and clingy". There seems to be a requirement that female characters in modern historical fiction should be these men-eating Amazons. Every other historical novel I pick up references a "fiercely independent" heroine in the blurb. So I am very thankful to the author for not paying homage to those trends. It's true that Emeline Wrotham is not the sharpest tool in the shed, but her initial passivity and her subsequent attachment to her husband are side effects of what a modern psychologist would call "learned helplessness". That phenomenon refers to when a victim realizes that rolling with the punches burns fewer calories than resistance and self-advocacy. After all, Emeline had been bullied by her parents since infancy. You cannot expect "fierce independence" from a 15th century woman who was raised as a future breeding sow. Her own mother tells her that a good wife can expect her husband to stop sexual advances after she produces the two mandatory sons. That's the lot Emeline resigns herself to when she marries Nicholas. But her future holds so much more in store for her - adventure, danger and passion beyond her wildest imagination.

I must say, this novel is not a page-turner. No. You don't want to keep flipping the pages to skip onto the next steamy sex scene or a bloody battle scene. On the contrary, you want to savor every meticulously crafted sentence. When it comes to writing mystery, so many authors sacrifice the literary component for the sake of advancing the plot. It's not that those authors are not capable of crafting gorgeous prose. But very often, they opt not to showcase their refined literary skill because they don't expect their audiences to appreciate that aspect of their craft. Fortunately, Barbara Gaskell Denvil is not one of those authors who cuts corners. Her opus weighs in at 400+ pages, and there is not a gram of flab.

If you are a looking for a truly gorgeous, multi-layered novel to savor, The Flame Eater is the book for you!

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