Heart of Light, by Sarah A. Hoyt, is the first of three books to take place in a “Magical British Empire.” No, really, that’s the name of the series. Seems a little too generic, given the number of books I’ve seen that take place in an alternate British Empire with, well, magic. Be that as it may. I picked up this book because I’d heard good things about Sarah Hoyt, and read a number of her blog posts on writing and speculative fiction in which she seemed to have her head screwed on straight. I’ve read a lot about the Victorian era and the British Empire, and rather like it as a setting, and all in all a story that begins in a giant flying carpet airship seemed like it would be good fun.
Alas, it wasn’t.
The tale starts promisingly enough with newlyweds Nigel and Emily Oldhall on said carpetship en route to Cairo, when the ship is attacked by a dragon. So far, so cool. But it seems that Nigel and Emily are having problems. Apparently the marriage hasn’t been consummated, and Emily doesn’t know why. It develops that Nigel is going to Africa on a mission for Her Majesty’s Government. Emily doesn’t know this, and Nigel feels bad about it, and about marrying Emily to some extent under false pretenses (although he courted her for a year, even before the mission came up). So no sex for Nigel and Emily, because Nigel has scruples. And of course he can’t explain why. And so we lead into a jolly book in which we watch a new marriage fall completely to pieces because the two halves of the couple won’t talk to each other.
I hate this. Your mileage may vary, but I hate this sort of thing. Want me to stop reading your continuing mystery series? Make your married couple (who probably got married after having worked up to it over three or four novels) start having marital strife as the background plot to the next one. It’s painful for me to watch, and it’s annoying, and anyway it’s trite.
But I digress.
What makes it worse is that book is set during a colorful age of the world, in a colorful country (Egypt and points south)…but almost all of the book takes place in the various characters’ heads, and it’s mostly each of them trying to figure out what the other characters are up to and making assumptions that we know to be unfounded and then not getting along and doing stupid things, instead of, you know, talking to each other.
I hate this.
Which is sad, because there are the makings of a neat book here. We’ve got were-dragons, and a secret African society called the Hyena Men; we’ve got Zulus and Masai; we’ve got magic and daring deeds; and you can hardly see most of it, because all you can see is the inside of the skulls of stupid people.
No, I’m not fair. They aren’t all stupid. But the principles are.
Let me put it this way. Have you ever seen a Marx Brothers movie? In every Marx Brothers movie, you have the Stupid Couple: a young man and a young woman who are there to provide the love interest and drive the plot. They are seldom interesting; you’re not watching to see a love story, you’re watching to see Harpo hand his leg to people while Groucho insults them. Now, imagine that you have to see the movie only from the point of view of the Stupid Couple. Gag me and pass the insulin.
I am assured that Sarah Hoyt has done better; in fact, I am assured that even this particular trilogy improves. I might even give the second book a try, since there were scattered bits of goodness in this one, and by the end of it Emily has married another, thus putting her unconsummated marriage out of my misery in any future book. But gosh, what a disappointment it was.