I have a like/hate relationship with this book and struggled with the rating. None of the good parts are quite good enough to inspire love, but there are parts that I liked. Roth writes a pretty good action set piece, and the main character undergoes a believable character arc. I also found the development of the book's central romance fairly believable. The pacing of that was good and didn't feel rushed or forced.
However, there was a lot about the book that I disliked. The core premise of the dystopian Chicago world of the story is so implausible that a friend had to talk me into finishing the book after I'd put it down with no intention of picking it up again. I had to not just stretch my willing suspension of disbelief, but lock it away in a Chinese puzzle box inside a dark cupboard inside a bank vault with an armed guard outside. I just don't buy that this society would ever come to be. People don't work the way they'd have to for this society to ever have functioned. So I basically had to shut off the part of my brain that kept saying, "Nope. Nope. Nope."
I was able to relax into the story for about the middle third [(even though the Dauntless training felt like it went on for way too long), but I started wanting to throw the book at the wall again when the book started its journey toward the climax and the anti-intellectual, anti-science themes took center stage. It pissed me off that the entire intellectual class — the class of scientists and academics and physicians — was portrayed as a group of power-hungry douchecanoes who just wanted to control everyone else (hide spoiler)]. I understand that the dystopia is about social engineering gone wrong, and I hope that Roth has some endgame in mind that turns what I've read so far on its head. I'm willing to pick up the next book on the strength of that hope that this is going somewhere, but this book on its own didn't do much to impress despite offering some moderate entertainment.
It's been a while since I've delved into a Holmes pastiche, so it's difficult to say whether this particular offering brings anything new to the genre. [I know a number of other writers have tackled a view of Holmes from a female point of view and have written Holmes as the romantic interest in a relationship with a woman who is his intellectual equal. In this instance, the protagonist has feelings for Holmes that are not reciprocated. She is not, in fact, the woman who cracks Holmes' icy exterior, at least not in a way that has them ending up in bed together, so that's something.
The Devil's Grin is the story of Dr. Anton Kronberg, who really is Anna Kronberg, a woman masquerading as a man in Victorian London so that she can practice medicine. It wasn't common, but certainly not unheard of, for a woman to become a physician in England circa 1890, but Kronberg is German and the story explains that it was illegal in German for a woman to become a doctor and that Kronberg had to keep up the ruse once she left Germany for Boston and later London because once started it couldn't be stopped or she'd lose everything. As Anton Kronberg, she becomes a renowned expert in the budding sciences of epidemiology and bacteriology. She meets Holmes when the Metropolitan Police consult her about a person who may have died of cholera washes up in the Thames. There's no apparent crime, but both Kronberg and the Great Detective are intrigued by the mysterious death and end up on the case together. They ultimately track the body to a mental hospital, where they uncover that the poor are being used as subjects in unethical experiments purportedly to develop vaccines to illnesses such as tetanus and cholera, but something more sinister may actually be afoot. The book leaves the central mystery more or less unresolved — the puppets are arrested but the puppet master remains unidentified (one can only assume since we're dealing with Holmes pastiche that the villain will be revealed to be Moriarty in the second book).
I really think this could have worked as a story that wasn't a Holmes pastiche at all. I suppose Holmes gets butts in seats as it were, but the presence of Holmes wasn't the most interesting thing about the story, and I don't know that he really added much to the story. I would have been fine if it had been simply a mystery novel featuring a female detective in Victorian England. Kronberg was an interesting enough character to have carried the book on her own. In fact, I found her struggles with gender and identity far more interesting than the actual mystery or any hint of potential romance with Holmes. The author raises interesting questions about what it means to be a man and to be a woman, and how qualities traditionally defined as "masculine" or "feminine" both help and hinder Kronberg as she attempts to navigate an oppressive world. Kronberg is precise and crisp when she's dealing with science, but also proves through her relationship with an Irish thief to embrace more human desires with no shame.
I also like that Wendeberg gets into the muck of Victorian society, quite literally. The story opens at a sewage plant and features the aforementioned mental institution and an overcrowded slum as its other main set pieces. Kronberg chooses to live in an impoverished neighborhood rather than someplace more middle-class, and I appreciate that Wendeberg didn't sanitize Victorian London in the way some other novels might have. The stinking chamber pots are in plain sight here. (hide spoiler)]
The novel had some flaws. Some of the scenes felt like sketches where the picture hadn't been fully inked in, and Holmes didn't feel quite right as a character. He was a little too vulnerable, a little too tender at points.
Overall, though, I liked it enough to read the next book.
National Book Award novel finalist The Flamethrowers currently is available for $1.99 on Kindle as one of the monthly deals.
Reblogging this mostly so I'll have it in a handy spot should I need it. Credit to Denise, whoever she may be.
Denise's text begins here:
There are quite a few tutorials on how to change the layout of your BookLikes blog. I figured it's good to have them all in one post, and I'd like to thank all who put a lot of work into making them so others can enjoy BookLikes.
Let's start with the customization blogs posted by BookLikes:
Tutorials made by BookLikers for BookLikers:
Note: All links open in a new window and take you to the original posts and their creators. Leave comments, likes and reblog the hell out of them so others can see it too :)