Sunday, January 13, 2019

A Problem of Presentation: Wolf on a String

One of my biggest pet peeves is when books sell themselves on one story, but are actually another once you start reading. That's what happened with Wolf on a String. I bought this because the jacket copy talked of a murder mystery set in Imperial Prague, which is actually quite intriguing to me. That's not, however, what I got.

First off, this book wasn't thick enough to be period fiction. There was very little world-building here, unless you count the name-dropping of famous personages who lived in Prague at the time of this story. And sorry, most people don't know who Johannes Kepler is. I do, but that's what I get paid to do. At any rate, he had nothing to do with the story. The major players (most of them fictionalized) are well-fleshed out, which I wish I could say for our protagonist. He started off fine, a scholar from a smaller village trying to make his way in the Prague court, but the problem is that the character never grows, and as a result his immaturity and poor-decision making grates more and more as you read. For someone who is highly educated, the guy is an idiot. I understand a degree doesn't make you smart with women (which is what most of the book is about), but that's got nothing to do with an ability to think logically about who might have killed the emperor's young new mistress. Oh, that's right, this is about a murder! Of the emperor's you g mistress! I almost forgot...

And that's really the problem. The story is not truly about the unwinding of this mystery - that's very clear very early on. It's really about Christian Stern's ridiculously brash love affair with the emperor's older mistress (ahem), which preoccupies his time so that momentum on the investigation screeches to a halt. Hmm. Some mystery. No, indeed more time is spent with Stern trying to unravel the machinations of the emperor's court, trying to figure out the sides in some great game (which we're not privy to, since politics play no part in this tale whatseover). As I said, the book simply was not thick enough to carry the weight of such a story. The majority of the language was about how besotted Stern became with this older, "tainted" woman (his words, which I do in fact take umbrage with).

The absolute worst part is that Stern seems to realize that everyone around him is playing him, including his lover, but he does nothing about it. No progress is made on the murder investigation - he has the resolution spelled out for him very neatly by people who (rightly, it seems) treat him like an oblivious pawn, and the story ends with him running away from the whole mess. Wow. I've never seen a complete abdication of self-realization or growth on the part of a character, a main character, that I can recall.

If you want to write what I'll call a male-centric bodice-ripper in murder mystery dressings, then say so. It wouldn't sell very much, because mostly women read such works, and they want something where women aren't just props for a protagonist with more play than seems reasonable. I guess it still is historical fiction, but with an off-kilter focus and terrible characterization. I don't know what else you call that, other than bad.

K Rating: 1/5

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