Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Vanguard of Hope, by Kathy Steinemann

Vanguard of Hope, by Kathy Steinemann, the first in her Sapphire Brigade series, is a melodrama set in the late 19th century. I have had quite an internal struggle over how to rate this book. Because I determined that several of the problems I had with it were probably personal taste issues, I'm giving it three stars instead of two.

One thing that Steinemann could easily clarify at the beginning with a quick edit is the location of the story. I was very confused--there were references to "Free Negroes" and the 13th Amendment, implying the United States, most likely in the South. But the spellings are often British, there is a reference to British tutors, and Peter, the husband, is described (too far in) as having a British accent.

There are also some other editing issues like verb tense inconsistencies and confusing shifts in focus from crucial plot points to details about a secondary character's appearance and personality.

But now, on to the major issues I had with the novel...

[Warning: Spoilers abound in the next few paragraphs]

First off, Steinemann sent me the book to review, and she probably didn't realize I am a historian, or she might not have. There were a few distinct, well-researched passages, but the book had so many anachronisms as to completely throw me out of the story. Finally I decided to pretend that it was set in 1958 instead of 1890, which took care of almost all of the problems. For one thing, the term "paedophile" was not in common use until the 20th century. I am not convinced that people in the 1890s would have reacted to Hope's confession about her secret as they did. Perhaps one or two exceptionally advanced thinkers might, but the vast majority would have labeled her "hysterical" and locked her away in a room with yellow wallpaper.

The concept of "racism" as a bad thing is also far more recent than the turn of the century. At that time and well into the first half of the 20th century "racism," and specifically "scientific racism," was widely accepted as an appropriate world view, not as something to condemn. Read some of Teddy Roosevelt's writings on the topic of race sometime. By the mid 1920s literally millions of people, including a half a million women, belonged to the KKK. It became something you had to do in order to make it in a career--even Harry Truman joined for a brief time. Had the novel been set in the late 1950s or in the 1960s, after the Civil Rights movement had begun, it would make a lot more sense to me that Hope would want to reject racism. And it would still make a lot of sense to me that she and those around her might suffer retaliation for it.

Terms like "cheating" and "stalking" are also later 20th century terms, for what it's worth. The book is full of language inappropriate to the time.

Another issue I had was that I thought I was reading a romance, and as romances go, Vanguard doesn't follow the rules. Some readers may enjoy this as a step away from convention. However, I like romance conventions. Introduce the main love interest at the beginning and that's who I want the main character to end up with. But Hope had not one, not two, but three loves. Hey, I'm all for polyamorous love stories, but this really wasn't one of those (way too much talk of offending God for that). The introduction of Owen in the last third of the novel really threw me off. I never trusted him. It didn't help that he kept breaking into her house and surprising her when he 1) knew she was a victim of sexual assault and 2) was a doctor who counseled her sister about her own assault and should have been a lot more sensitive to the repercussions of violating Hope's space and safety like that. On top of that, Hope's reactions to this violation didn't ring true for me. She wasn't the least bit unnerved. Maybe if she had met Owen before Solomon or Peter, if there had been established sexual tension with him from the start, I might have been able to hang in there. And it didn't help that I found their playful sexual banter awkward (they had names for their body parts) and tiresome (there was far too much of it).

Click on the image to purchase on Amazon.
I was disappointed because in the beginning of the novel I got hooked despite the anachronisms and minor editing problems, which is saying a lot for me. I get frustrated with that sort of thing usually. But I was impressed because the story of Hope's affair with Solomon was compelling and I thought that would be the focus of the book. Also, Steinemann has a good grasp of how to throw twists into a plot. In fact, I think she does it too much (he was murdered, no, he killed himself, no, he's not actually dead--that one annoyed me particularly because I was invested in the hate crime aspect of the murder scenario). But by the last third of the novel, I felt that the tension just wasn't there. The only looming threat was Hope's illness, and that wasn't enough for me. I needed something else to threaten her--the illness was just saddening, not exciting.

Anyway, I think others may enjoy this novel more than I did. Anachronisms really bug me (unless it's an alternative history) and I don't think they bother non-history buffs nearly as much. So if you like melodramas with lots of twists and prefer romances that stray from the usual conventions, you may enjoy Vanguard of Hope.

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