Monday, December 30, 2013

A Changeling Put Among Us By Strange People

Order of Darkness
Book 1
By Philippa Gregory

Amazon ~ Powell's ~ Jan's Paperbacks

The year is 1453 and all signs point to it being the end of the world. Accused of heresy and expelled from his monastery, handsome seventeen-year-old Luca Vero is recruited by a mysterious stranger to record the end of times across Europe. Commanded by sealed orders, Luca is sent to map the fears of Christendom and travel to the very frontier of good and evil.

Seventeen-year-old Isolde, a Lady Abbess, is trapped in a nunnery to prevent her from claiming her rich inheritance. As the nuns in her care are driven mad by strange visions, walking in their sleep, and showing bleeding wounds, Luca is sent to investigate and driven to accuse her.

Forced to face the greatest fears of the dark ages—witchcraft, werewolves, madness—Luca and Isolde embark on a search for truth, their own destinies, and even love as they take the unknown ways to the real historical figure who defends the boundaries of Christendom and holds the secrets of the Order of Darkness

The first in a series, this epic and richly detailed drama is grounded in historical communities and their mythic beliefs.

I'd heard of Philippa Gregory—I mean, it's hard not to after the huge success The Other Boleyn Girl became. I knew she was mainly a historical romance writer who tended to write historically 'factual' novels with a few embellishments. I happen to enjoy the occasional historical novel, especially those that focus on women and/or teens of the time (see Tamora Pierce and Robin LaFevers). So when I heard that this renowned author was tackling a YA-focused historical series, I was pretty excited for it.

And then I read it. And then I shook my head and sighed.

The book first introduces us to Luca, a handsome and highly intelligent young man who is rumored to be a Changeling (one with fairy blood). After questioning the validity of church relics, he is recruited by The Order of Darkness (or Order of the Dragon?) to investigate strange and/or blasphemous occurrences around Italy and report whether or not the Bible's End of Days is approaching. So he goes out and investigates, joined by his outspoken servant, Freize, and an uptight record-keeper, Brother Peter.

We are then introduced to Isolde, a noble woman whose father has just passed. However, instead of being willed his lands as she had always been promised, her brother announces that their father changed his mind and said she was either to marry or become Abbess of the land's convent. After a failed rape by an 'approved' suitor, she and her closest friend (and servant), Ishraq leave for the convent.

And wouldn't you know it, the two cross paths! And though they're both sworn to the church, they kinda sorta have a thing for each other...

But if you want to have any fun with the book, ignore those two completely. Sure, Luca is smart and handsome and is leading this important quest for knowledge, and Isolde is beautiful and caring and the victim of the misogynistic times, but that's really all there is to them. There isn't any growth from either of them. No, the real stars turn out to be their confidants, Freize and Ishraq.

Freize is a kitchen-boy-turned-squire who joined his friend in order to help him. He's street-smart, funny, boisterous, crafty, and has a gift with animals. He also sees himself as a bit of a ladies man, but is quickly put in his place, often hilariously, by Israq. He may be a bit cocky, especially when he has information others don't, but his intentions are in the right place and he is loyal to a fault.

Israq is of middle-eastern descent, brought back from the crusades by Isolde's father. She was raised as a servant, but also protector and constant companion for Isolde, such that she learned all manner of skills—both physical and knowledge-based—to ensure she and her lady were safe. She is often distrustful, especially of men, but slowly learns to accept kindness and strength from others, especially Freize.

Compared to the two bricks that are the book's "main characters", these two companions have all the best dialog, the best growth, and the best chemistry. Heck, they have the most character of anyone in the whole book!

Which made the romance surrounding Luca and Isolde the most flaccid thing I have ever read. Firstly, they have absolutely no time spent between them, at least not alone, so any feelings generated between them are on looks and actions alone. Secondly, the book is written in 3rd-person-omniscient and most of the details are focused on the world, such that we have no idea what's going on in the character's heads. We don't feel any drama, any heartache from them at all. And lastly, they're both in the church, so everything is prim and proper and distanced between them at all times. On the bright side, there's no love triangle, on the other side, there's barely even a love line connecting these two!

And that's part of what leads me to call this a failure of a Young Adult novel. No, a YA story doesn't need a romance, but it does need the characters to learn and grow throughout their stories. If a main component of this story was supposed to be love, then one or both of the lovers need to come to some realization about their feelings. Admitting they have them, realizing that love is more important than religious vows (or visa versa), learning that love is complicated but worth trying for... something.

A YA book doesn't just need teen characters, it needs teen characters dealing with teen issues. Even historical teens had issues (romance being an obvious one) that they had to deal with. Changeling doesn't have its characters deal with anything. Even the titular character, Luca the presumed Changeling, never struggles with finding his origins, his truth. It comes up once at the very beginning, and is then thrown away entirely. And Isolde, who suspects that her brother betrayed her, never struggles (on-screen) with this betrayal, either of her father or her brother. In fact, she hardly does anything in the entire course of the novel.

Really, it didn't matter if the main characters were young, middle-aged, or old. None of the mysteries or strange events had anything to do with teens, self-discovery, growth, coming of age, or anything. It seemed as if the author simply wrote a story, made the main characters church-tithed to eliminate sex, and then threw in a few mentions of how young the characters were in order to break into a new, lucrative market. Nothing about the book read YA at all, which was both disappointing and infuriating.

Thing is, I can't even call it that great a story without the incorrect YA classification. As I said, it seemed like the wrong characters were written as the leads, but even they didn't come to the forefront until over halfway through. With no characters to root for, I didn't find the intrigue of the mysteries all that riveting, and so much of the novel was a bore to read. I don't know if this is typical of the author's writing style, or if this was different because it wasn't true-story-based, but I will definitely not be reading any of the sequels any time soon.

Overall, Changeling was a struggle to get through. If you're looking for a historical novel that's kid-safe, or you're starved for anything Philippa Gregory writes, you might give this a try. No language, sex, or violence, here, though there were a couple mentions of rape. Add in the thick historical details and the slow pace, and I'd suggest high school and older would be able to enjoy this. Patience is not only a virtue, but is almost necessary if you want to try getting into this series. Historical novel first, and a romance or YA novel only if you squint, Changeling will hopefully find a happier audience than I.

Approximate Reading Time: 3.5 hours

Audiobook Review
Performed by Charlie Cox
Length: 6.9 Hours
Listened at 2x Speed

This was a hard book to listen to. At first I found the narration to be quite dry. It didn't read like a typical Young Adult audio, either in voice or in acting. However, the voices were excellent - all distinct and with wonderful accents. But the narration felt monotone for a long time. It really wasn't until the story actually picked up - a good halfway through the novel - that I finally felt some life in the reading.

One thing I appreciated at the end was the reading of the author's note. Though not read by the author herself, it was a nice touch to add in some of the same historical notes from the regular book (minus a couple notes on illustrations or maps in the novel). And it did answer a few of the questions I had in terms of writing style and whether or not the characters were based on true historical figures or not.

Overall, I have a hard time recommending this audio to the 'Young Adult' audience it was supposedly intended for. As with the story in general, the narrator wasn't your typical YA fare, and while the voice acting was top notch, the story bogs it down considerably for the whole first half of the book. I'd recommend this more for regular Philippa Gregory fans or Historical novel readers, but if you can get through the first half of the book, you're in for a treat as the dialog amps up, especially with Ishraq and Freize.

Disclaimer: I read an e-copy of this book for free via Simon & Schuster Inc./SimonTeen's 31 Days of Reading promotion on their website, In addition, I checked out a copy of the audiobook at my local library. I received nothing in exchange for this review.