Monday, June 11, 2012

Through a Glass Darkly, by Karleen Koen

Sometimes, having more than a passing knowledge of History can really ruin a historical-fiction novel for me.  Case in point – Through a Glass Darkly, by Karleen Koen.  As I’ve stated before, while there is a wealth of British historical fiction out there, most of the ones I’m interested in focus on the Medieval or Tudor periods; when I saw that Koen’s work was about the Hanoverian period (which I wrote my Master’s thesis on), I was thrilled.  Until a main character mentioned that he was building his wealth on the South Sea Company.  For a historian of the 18th century, those three words sends a shiver down your spine – those of you that know the situation know why, and those of you that don’t, well, I won’t ruin anything for you.  That said, even though I knew where the plot HAD to go, I was still thoroughly engaged by Through a Glass Darkly.

Through a Glass Darkly is the story (primarily) of a highly placed noble family in the early 18th century.  Barbara, who could be considered the main character, is 15 when her conniving mother decides she should be married to improve the family’s financial situation.  The main plot follows Barbara through the marriage process, and the first years of her (eventual) marriage.  But this work isn’t only about Barbara; we also get chapters about (and told from the perspective of) her mother and grandmother, girlhood friend, lady’s maid, and husband.  Koen utilizes this as an interesting story-telling device.  While Barbara appears to be the main character of the book, her story is by far the only one being told.

What drew me to this book was a desire to recapture my enjoyment in reading Forever Amber, by Kathleen Winsor, which is the story of a woman in Restoration (17th century) England.  I enjoyed that read immensely because it too was engaging and almost epic in nature; telling the story of Amber (duh) from farm-girl to courtesan.  Much like Winsor’s work, Koen’s is of the same nature; that is to say, it follows one woman’s life and her place in society.  Very engaging and very dynamic.

One thing that was a turn off was the constant Bible quotes.  I know that the nobility of the age (in a certain set) were devout, so it shouldn’t have surprised me, but not being a fan of the old-time religion, there got to a point where it was something of a turn off.  I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, given that the title of the book comes from Corinthians 13:11-13 –

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12For now we see through a glass, darkly,* but then we will see face to face.

Moreover, the sequel to Through a Glass Darkly is Now Face to Face (and yes, I already have it, and yes, I’ll be reading it shortly).  

By now my readers must know that it’s telling when I already have the sequel lined up for a reading.  I found the characters in Koen’s work to all be engaging (even the ones you feel compelled to hate), the relationships between them to be touching and dynamic, and the writing style to be incredibly readable.  To say nothing of the fact that it’s nice to finally get a historical-fiction about British History that it’s about Bluff King Hal, or the Middle Ages.

One final note on this book, which is less about the work and more about the blurbs about it; at the front of my edition are the requisite “this book and this author rock” statements.  What makes them worth mentioning is how damn accurate I found them.  Completely unrelated to my own seeking of a Forever Amber-esque read, one review likens it to Winsor’s work, which it is.  The other comment that stood out was an observation about how the work was “engaging, elegant, chock-full of sex and gossip.”  And indeed it was.  I find these types of blurbs are typically written by well meaning critiques who didn’t actually read the work in questions, but still gave their opinion on it to see their names in print, so finding some that were spot-on was refreshing.

So, final verdict?  Obviously, I’m going to recommend this as a read.  Good characters, good plot, and good writing.  The book has both a sequel and a prequel that I’m looking forward to reading, and as long as Koen keeps up the same level of writing, I’m sure I’ll be singing their praises shortly too.  Go out and find this book!  It’s fabulous! 

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