A Lit Up Review
I have to confess straight up. I am a huge fan of David Neilson and his seventeenth century heroine, Sophie Rathenau. What can I say? I’m a sucker for intelligent, courage-to-the-verge-of-recklessness, striking-and-memorable-rather-than-fashionably-beautiful women in literature and Neilson broke the mould with Sophie from his first book, The Prussian Dispatch.
Neilson has written three captivating novels and a short story in this series about a woman earning a living away from her family by investigating the matters private and not-so-private of those who hire her. The world she lives in is the Habsburg Empire, a time of dramatic and unrelenting contrast between wealth and poverty, power and helplessness, religion and the muscling of ruling families across Europe and into Asia Minor. Against this background, which Neilson paints with a master’s knowledge and love, minor breezes often announce the coming of great storms.
The latest in the series, Serene sees Sophie commanded to accompany a Princess Royal to Venice, Italy. There’s a small problem. Sophie is forbidden to enter Venice after an encounter with a powerful criminal in the city became personal. Playing hide and seek while trying to protect the headstrong and spoiled princess is hard enough. When the princess convinces herself she’s in love, with a penniless musician, no less, Sophie wants to call it quits. But it’s too late for quitting and the only way out of the mess is going to be through, a feat involving mayhem and violence that ends up close to war.
As with the earlier books, what is going on beyond the immediate story is as powerful as the adventure Sophie is caught up in, monarchies and governments moving ponderously around the board, their policy and machinations affecting everyone in due course. Alliances form and fail, promises are made and broken and even not knowing the ins and outs of the time, the sense of history, like a great weight, is in the background on every page, informing and infusing the action invisibly. It is one of the joys of reading the series, this bringing of historical times to life and breath — for fans of historical fiction in general, I suppose it is one of the reasons for reading. Here, it is so magically woven into the story that the feeling is nothing less than time travel.
Aside from the knowledge and skill to bring characters, real historical and fictional alike, to life, to plot meticulously and paint with words a world to be lived in, the most compelling part of these novels is the human fallibility of Sophie, not a super hero or mastermind, but a determined and resourceful woman with a baggage-load of pain that she sometimes deals with, sometimes pointedly ignores, much like the rest of us. I am looking forward to Neilson’s next work and all the ones after that, because I never want to say goodbye to Sophie or her world.
We also have an excerpt from The Prussian Dispatch and an interview with Mr. Neilson here on Lit Up and we’re looking forward to seeing more of his work very soon.