You all know by now that I’m a massive history nerd and so it’d be fair to assume that I lap up historical fiction like vodka on a Friday. Yeah, I don’t. Don’t get me wrong, I love it – I’m just really fussy. I’ve been disappointed too many times. I’ve picked up books expecting to be transported hundreds of years into the past with detailed descriptions of people and places only to find that the writer hasn’t done their research – I want to know all the gory details, people. I want to know what people ate, what the air smelled like, how they used the toilet. I want to feel like I’ve just hitched a ride in a Delorean. And that goes for characters too; characters who act OOE (Out of Era) annoy the hell out of me. Oh, and when writers use real historical figures as characters, I tend to get a little bit nervous. (*cough* The Other Boleyn Girl *cough*)
Anyway, I was looking for a book to take on holiday and doing my usual Amazon click-around when I came across Queen of the Night. I was taken in by the blurb straight away; “Paris during the Second Empire” – OOH – “Mysterious Past, Betrayal” – YES – “young woman’s tumultuous trajectory from circus rider to renowned soprano at the Paris Opera” – OH YES. I love stories about women who struggle on and survive, but I was a bit nervous about throwing it into my basket. The book’s close to six hundred pages, what if I hated the main character and had to, you know, struggle on and survive with her for that many pages? Phew! Also, the reviews were… mixed. The one that most concerned me was the one that warned that there were absolutely no speech marks in any of those six hundred pages, and as that reviewer pointed out, understanding which character was speaking and when became really confusing after a while.
I’m not sure what made me take the plunge in the end. Maybe it was because I was catching a plane in less than 24 hours and had to pack something, or maybe it was because I so desperately wanted it to be good that I was willing to take a chance on it. You can probably see where I’m going with this, but I’m so glad I did go with my gut on the book because I completely and utterly fell in love with it.
Lilliet Berne is a legendary opera signer, the toast of Paris at the dawn of the Third Republic. Known as La Generale in the ballrooms and newspapers, she’s rumoured to throw out diamonds and have a rare “Falcon Soprano” voice that is cursed. When she’s approached by mysterious writer to appear as the lead in new opera about an American orphan who achieves fame as a circus rider she realises with horror that the libretto is based on her own past, a past that she thought was a secret and that is capable of ruining her reputation. As Lilliet attempts to uncover the truth about who betrayed her she recalls the truth about her past, a story that begins in a ranch on the American Frontier and ends in the glittering salons of Paris during Second Empire.
Kudos to Alexander Chee, he spent over ten years researching and writing the book and the evidence of that pours from the page. Everything you’d expect to be in a book set in Paris during the Second Empire is there; the Opera, Worth ballgowns, Can Can Dancers and Courtesans, the Franco-Prussian War, Commune and Seige… it’s all there, entwined with Lilliet’s adventure as she makes her way from orphan to circus rider, from can-can dancer to courtesan to maid of the Empress, as well as people of the era like – my all time fave – the Countess de Castiglione. They’re written with respect, and fit well into the story. It’s beautifully researched and written, and by the time I was a hundred pages in I found that the lack of speech marks weren’t the problem they’d been made out to be and that at the rate I was reading it, 600 pages wasn’t going to be enough! It’s all very Phantom of the Opera (…uh, minus the Phantom).
Now while it’s pretty damn good, it’s not without its problems. I think part of the reason I loved the book was because I’m a big fan of French history and music – I knew the era and the characters well before I’d even picked up the book. I’m not sure if someone who was completely alien to it all would enjoy it as much as I did. It’s beautiful, but probably not everyone’s cup of tea. And as much as I loved it, once Lilliet’s past caught up with the present, I lost interest a little. The last fifty pages or so didn’t have the pace of the rest of the book. As for the speech marks? To me the fact that they were missing wasn’t a problem at all – but I couldn’t work out why they were missing in the first place. It wasn’t a publishing mistake, so clearly it was a stylistic decision, but I wondered whether it was a worthwhile one as I’m sure there are readers out there who would be irritated by it. Lastly, I couldn’t make my mind up about Lilliet as a character. Even after 600 pages, I didn’t feel like I really knew her. It felt a little bit like she was modelling the setting and era in the same way that a runway model shows off the clothes. She was a bit… plain. But I think that’s just me nitpicking because on the whole I absolutely adored the book 🙂