There’s only one story in this collection I haven’t read already, but I still feel justified in counting it as a book read, because the story in question is The True State of Affairs, which eats up about half of the pages. I don’t have a word count for it, but it is probably squarely in novella territory, if not edging toward short novel. Either way, it’s certainly longer than some of the DWJ stories that have been published independently (like Wild Robert).
It’s fortuitous timing that I chose to read it now. I started it months ago, but kept not getting into it; now, reading it through, I realize it is apparently a verrrrrrry peripheral Dalemark story. (As in, it had sort of a Dalemark-ish feel early on, and then there’s one place where it uses that name directly.) It’s hard to tell where it’s supposed to fit into Dalemark chronology, though. They have steam engines, though not for practical use, which suggests it can’t be too long before the “present” day of that series (i.e. Mitt and Moril’s time), because that’s when Alk is about to set off an industrial revolution. Also, there is no king, which means it has to be before Amil the Great, because Dalemark is a monarchy from his time up through Maewen’s, where everything is modern. But I don’t recall hearing any of these people referenced in the novels — or even the places, though there I may just be overlooking things — so it’s hard to slot into position.
Look away if you don’t want spoilers.
I find this a very frustrating story. Some of that is clearly deliberate, and done for good reason; Emily is a prisoner, in very confined circumstances, and so telling the story in such confined fashion helps me, the reader, feel what she’s going through. On the other hand, what she’s going through is kind of unpleasant, so spending tens of thousands of words under that kind of constraint doesn’t make for joyous reading.
What bugs me more, though, is the total lack of explanation for Emily herself. If there’s supposed to be a key in here somewhere, I missed it. She’s from our world — but how did she get to Dalemark? Certain lines in the first few pages seem to promise us an explanation for that, but we never get it. Emily mostly only references our world as a means of describing the one she’s found herself in. We don’t know how she crossed over, or why; she never even seems surprised to find herself in another world, just angry about having been caught up in its politics like that. It reminds me a little bit of my frustration with the movie Stranger Than Fiction, which was so uninterested in asking, let alone answering, the questions my fantasy-reader brain latched onto.
That lack ends up making me really unhappy with the ending here. I totally understand, and even sympathize with, Emily’s disorientation once she’s no longer a prisoner; the touch about how she has to psych herself up to even go explore the rest of the castle rings very true. And I’m okay with her disillusionment about Asgrim. I don’t condemn him, or her, for the little game they played, because we all know that long-term captivity does weird things to one’s psyche. And we do get the suggestion that Emily’s notes to him may (or may not) have influenced what he did after he escaped. But because we never get any kind of explanation for Emily, any interest in fleshing out her story as something other than a prisoner, the ending winds up only giving us resolution for Asgrim, not for her. He escaped, he took over the country, he married Hilda, yadda yadda yadda. He forgot about Emily. And Emily seems to have more or less forgotten about herself. Does she want to go home to England? Is that even a possibility? She never seems to have considered it, even at the beginning of her captivity, before we could blame circumstances for having ground it out of her. I end up feeling like she doesn’t have a story, here.
There’s some really well-done writing here; Jones turns her knack for character observation to rather bleaker ends than usual, giving us really well-painted portraits of Edwin and Hobby and Wolfram and so on. (And I liked the inclusion of homosexuality as a thing in the world; this is one of I think three books where I can remember Jones touching on the subject, the other two being A Sudden Wild Magic and Hexwood.) But my inability to either connect it solidly to Dalemark, or to get any kind of satisfaction, even of a bleak sort, out of Emily’s story, means I end up finding the whole thing very perplexing.