In search of Andreas Vesalius

The King’s Anatomist by Ron Blumenfeld

 Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

r/suggestmeabook: I want to watch a man grapple with a life-long friendship that seems more contentious upon the friend’s death in the context of the burgeoning conflicts between the old and new.

Movie rating: R

Pages: 282

Publisher: History Through Fiction

ARC provided by Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Scientific revolution with a touch of mystery

From the publisher: In 1565 Brussels, the reclusive mathematician Jan van den Bossche receives shattering news that his lifelong friend, the renowned and controversial anatomist Andreas Vesalius, has died on the Greek island of Zante returning from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Jan decides to journey to his friend’s grave to offer his last goodbye. Jan’s sentimental and arduous journey to Greece with his assistant Marcus is marked by shared memories, recalled letters, and inner dialogues with Andreas, all devices to shed light on Andreas’ development as a scientist, physician, and anatomist. But the journey also gradually uncovers a dark side of Andreas even as Jan yearns for the widow of Vesalius, Anne.

Giveaway

Enter to win a paperback copy of The King’s Anatomist by Ron Blumenfeld. The giveaway is open to the US only and ends on November 5th. You must be 18 or older to enter.


I’m going to start with a content warning here. The dissection scenes are very graphic and I found them too difficult to read. It wasn’t gratuitous, really, just more detail than I could deal with before starting to get nauseated. I skimmed those sections to get to the rest of the story.

There was a certain liberation, even joy, in seeing what we look like under our skins, in seeing our humanness through and through.

Ron Blumenfeld, The King’s Anatomist

Consider yourself warned. Now to the heart of the story. Ron Blumenfeld illustrates the foment of the Scientific Revolution, situated as it was in the context of the Renaissance and the Reformation, and the tension between the old way of looking to authority as having all the answers, whether the authority of the bible, church, or classical writers and the evolving way of looking to demonstrable evidence as the standard of proof for truth, particularly in the sciences.

The Spanish physicians still think that Galen has taught them all they need to know and see no merit in putting their clumsy hooves inside a corpse.

Ron Blumenfeld, The King’s Anatomist

In that sense, The King’s Anatomist is a great travelogue of the period, documenting landmark moments in the context of Jan trying to figure out just how his best friend’s life ended and to make sense of the relationship. The novel hits some high points and some big names in the journey to recreate Andreas Vesalius’s last year or so.

I had been living as if our friendship transcended time and mortality.

Ron Blumenfeld, The King’s Anatomist

There are some very witty bits sprinkled throughout the book, which, along with a very clear writing style, makes it a coherent and well-paced read. Blumenfeld does a great job of bringing a flavor of the language of the period into the style of the book, yet manages to keep it close enough to modern to keep the prose crisp. When I went back through the book, I was surprised by the number of very quotable lines throughout the text.

Reason is a precious gift granted to mankind, but in human relations reason takes us only so far. In the end it is faith in each other—trust, if you prefer the term—and the capacity to forgive that allows love to take root and endure.

Ron Blumenfeld, The King’s Anatomist

However, it has some issues as a story. First, the female protagonist, Anne, is more of a placekeeper than having any developed personality. Blumenfeld treats her in a very old-fashioned way, where she is the vague fulfillment of someone’s ideal of what love should be, but she’s not really a fully fledged character. The other major female character is Jan’s mother, whom we mostly hear about from Jan, and although he mentions the hold she had on him but Andreas helped break, that subplot is never fleshed out. So this woman, as well, is a flat cutout.

With his urging, I learned that I could safely lie to Mother because she thought it unimaginable that I would deceive her.

Ron Blumenfeld, The King’s Anatomist

On the other hand, Jan is very well-developed, as is the mutual school friend of Jan and Andreas, Antoine the bishop, and Jan’s associate/servant, Marcus. Each of them feels three-dimensional, motivated, and convincing. Andreas, though, who is the titular character, comes out a bit flat, partially because of the inconsistencies and omitted explanations of the end of his life. He is clearly driven, but even by the end of the book, I still didn’t feel like I had a handle on his character, but for the fact that he dominated the relationship with Jan and was a brilliant iconoclastic rebel.

I am grateful for my life as I am living it, and unapologetic about my circumstances.

Ron Blumenfeld, The King’s Anatomist

However, I never felt like the decisions Andreas made to the detriment of Jan were ever adequately explained in terms of Andreas’s motivations. Granted, Jan was hero-struck by Andreas and didn’t think critically about him until, it appears, the events that start the quest of the book, but because that was the main character arc in the story—Jan coming to a more realistic assessment of Andreas—it felt like those specific instances needed to be processed more fully by Jan so that he could accept Andreas’s flaws rather than simply fail to see them, as he had until that time, or to be stuck in an in-between place where Jan could not resolve the hero-Andreas with the kind-of-an-ass-Andreas.

If those who study nature—be they physicians, botanists, or astronomers—fail to guard against their human failings in the greater interest of truth and progress, then it will fall to others to correct the record.

Ron Blumenfeld, The King’s Anatomist

The breadth of the novel, though, is a lovely overview of the foment in the intellectual world of Europe at the beginning of the Reformation. Blumenfeld folds in several cameos of well-known figures of the era, which is fun, but what he does exceptionally well is to give a very clear sense of the cultural environment of the time: the reliance on Galen and authority, the taboos associated with dissection, the Inquisition, the various bits and pieces of the early phases of the European wars of religion (particularly Huguenots vs. French Catholics), the suspicion of witchcraft, and the interaction of politics and science (nope, there’s rarely anything completely new). The King’s Anatomist does an exceptional job of creating the context into which these medical and scientific advances began.

AMAZON | BARNES AND NOBLE | BOOKSHOPEBOOKSPUBLISHER

Medea in Chicago

Devil by the Tail by Jeanne Matthews

 Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

r/suggestmeabook: I want a mystery set in 1867 Chicago with a plucky heroine navigating the corrupt and seamy city with the assistance of a former rebel soldier.

Movie rating: PG-13

Pages: 252

Publisher: D. X. Varos, Ltd.

Series: Garnick & Paschal Mystery

ARC provided by Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Historical mystery

From the publisher: Quinn Sinclair, who uses the name Mrs. Paschal professionally, and her wryly observant partner Garnick get two cases on the same day – one to help a man prove he didn’t kill his wife, another to help a lawyer find reasonable doubt that his client killed her ex-lover’s new bride. As the detectives dig deeper, they unearth facts that tie the cases together in disturbing ways.

Giveaway

Enter to win a paperback copy of Devil by the Tail by Jeanne Matthews! We have 2 copies up for grabs! The giveaway is open to US residents only and ends on July 30th. You must be 18 or older to enter.


Jeanne Matthews has done a great job of starting the action of Devil by the Tail in medias res—I felt sure there was an earlier installment, but, no, there is simply a lot of backstory that is effectively ladled in so that you want to know more. Her depiction of Chicago in 1867 evokes a city bursting with postwar growth and riddled with corruption.

Only those with nothing to lose can afford to pull the Devil by the tail.

Jeanne Matthews, Devil by the Tail

This mystery drags her heroine, Quinn Sinclair AKA Mrs. Paschal, through a couple of whorehouses, which is problematic for a woman who wishes to stay respectable. However, Quinn comes to realize that she can’t be as judgmental as she had been in the past when she realizes how little stands between any given woman and prostitution in a world that doesn’t allow for women to make a living in very many ways.

Detective Paschal, self-styled heroine and daring non-conformist, afraid to lose her respectable, cozy niche at the boardinghouse breakfast table, afraid of the opinion of a bunch of prissy old hens.

Jeanne Matthews, Devil by the Tail

The themes of men and women and how they relate is interwoven through the story, as are the twin mysteries of the man claiming to be falsely accused of murdering his wife and the woman who is on trial for an arson that killed the bride of the man who jilted her as well as the bride’s father.

Quinn’s mind stretched in equipoise like a clothesline hung with contrary reasons and contrary feelings, not to mention a load of dirty linen.

Jeanne Matthews, Devil by the Tail

The misogyny of the period (which can still be seen today) is on full display, as is the tendency of people to judge on the superficial. Clothing, then as now, is a huge signifier of class, wealth, and respectability, and Matthews takes care to let us know what the ladies are wearing as well as how the dress is coded in that period.

Tightly corseted in a low-cut canary yellow dress, she resembled a belted balloon, the upper bulge near to bursting.

Jeanne Matthews, Devil by the Tail

Euripedes’s version of Medea is used to great effect to frame the mystery and its various suspects. In case you don’t remember the play (I was grateful for the reminder within the novel), Jason (of Jason and the Argonauts) dumps Medea, who has killed her brother for him, in order to wed another, and Medea takes her revenge upon the bride. As Matthews deftly insinuates, Jason is as much at fault as Medea, but society immediately makes Medea the sole problem, a horrifying corruption of womanhood.

Men could walk unmolested wherever they chose while women had to skitter about like prey.

Jeanne Matthews, Devil by the Tail

In this mystery, Medea is introduced by a reporter who has no regard for truth, only for the sales of the newspaper, and he threads Medea into his descriptions of the crime, knowing that the play had toured in Chicago relatively recently. Women latch onto this myth as much as the men, often becoming quite ugly about other women in the process.

The leech showed up in Rock Island penniless, a runaway from some little prairie town, all rags and fleas.

Jeanne Matthews, Devil by the Tail

Then there’s the recent Civil War, which is also handled cleverly. Garnick, the former rebel, had been a POW in Camp Douglas, a hellhole which is only lightly discussed, although the Confederate dead play a role in the story. Garnick has disavowed the Cause, wishing he’d never put on the uniform, which mitigates any issues a reader might have about a sympathetic Johnny Reb. Hopefully this history will be explored more in future installments.

No way to justify going to war to keep people in chains. At first I had some notion of loyalty to my neck of the woods, allegiance to kith and kin like the states rights firebrands preached.

Jeanne Matthews, Devil by the Tail

Another theme from the time that Matthews works into the story is that of the prejudice against the Irish. Quinn is often having to sidestep her Irish roots, hearing people disparage the Irish regularly. Her heritage is also at the root of her dispute with her former mother-in-law, who can’t stand to let Quinn inherit from her dead son.

You can wall people in, but I learned you can also wall them out.

Jeanne Matthews, Devil by the Tail

The characters are well-formed, the themes interesting, and the mystery absorbing. There’s a little bit of a let-down in that not all of the people we find out are engaged in nefarious dealings are served justice, but, of course, that can be one of the downsides of historical fiction: the constraints of the facts (unless, of course, you’re Quentin Tarantino). I’m really looking forward to the next installment of this well-constructed mystery series.


AMAZON | APPLE | BARNES AND NOBLE | KOBO

A changed man

An Xpresso blog book blitz & review

r/suggestmeabook: I want a fast-paced adventure through Hollywood with human turned avenging angel, private first class.

Urban fantasy

Movie rating: R

Pages: 337

Publisher: White Sun Press

Register to win a $25 Amazon gift card at Rafflecopter during the book blitz!

From the publisher: I never asked to be an angel. Truthfully, being an angel kinda sucks.

But some angels don’t get harps. We hunt demons.

I might be a social weirdo. And okay, I black out whenever I fly and wake up naked in random places. I can only sleep in windowless rooms. I have that gun problem. Oh, and I can’t drink alcohol, since I randomly start fires.

But I, Dags Jourdain, do good. Sort of. I mean, I try.

When I’m not hunting demons, I work as a P.I. in Hollywood, California.

One night, I get in a demon fight in an alley, and accidentally save the life of a movie star, and everything changes for me.

Meanwhile, someone opened a hell portal under the Hollywood sign, a dead guy left me his dog, and a homicide detective who hates me from high school is trying to decide if I’m a serial killer.

Did I mention being an angel kinda sucks?

Thank you, Xpresso book tours, for the advance review copy.

Review

The worst part about this book: It ended before I was ready for it to. The fast pace, the clever dialogue, and the fun characters made it a ride I wasn’t ready to get off yet. Part of it was that there are so many unanswered questions, although it was a logical break point.

Be prepared, though—given the blurb about the book was done in first person, I was a little thrown when I started reading and it was a third person narration. But that lasted only momentarily, as I was immediately drawn into the story.

“You’re going to keep the dog of the guy who tried to kill you? Really?”

Dags shrugged, deadpan. “It’s not the dog’s fault.”

Julie Light, I, Angel

If you want long, lyric passages, this probably isn’t your book—but that’s not what this book is about. It’s about discovery. How to figure out what’s happened to you and your environment on the fly as you cope with what life is throwing you.

She held herself still, almost unnaturally still as she stared up at the two of them, her eyes lit by the red light in the hot tub and the firelight from the torches on either side.

Now she looked like Hell’s Queen.

Julie Light, I, Angel

It’s also not for you if you’re not fond of riddles. Most of them are not solved by the end of the novel, but it’s not like some of the books I’ve read, where it’s as if the book just stopped.

Instead, this feels almost like the end of an episode of a television show, perhaps along the lines of Buffy the Vampire Slayer at the beginning of the season—or most of Joss Whedon’s series—where you’re learning about the characters and getting exposed to the world, but you’re still not sure what the hell is going on.

“Damn it, Dags. You’ve got to know it looks weird. All of this looks weird. You’re like a magnet for bad things—”

“I’m aware of that,” Dags growled.

Julie Light, I, Angel

But like Whedon, Julie Light has got you hooked and anxious to see what’s next. I have high hopes that the next installment will be even better.