Today’s Team Review is from Barb, she blogs at http://barbtaub.com/
Barb has been reading The Black Orchid by Celine Jeanjean
As I read The Black Orchid, Book 2 of Celine Jeanjean’s The Viper and the Urchin Series, I was thinking again about those three sliding variants of character development—competence, proactivity, and sympathy. In my review of her first book, The Bloodless Assassin (formerly titled The Viper and the Urchin), I talked about how those markers moved over the course of the book.
It was fascinating to see how they move again in the sequel. The motivating premise of the first book was, as its new title correctly proclaims, the anomaly of a master assassin who is reduced to physical incapacity by the sight of blood. But in this new book, would that be enough to continue moving the action forward? Not a problem! Working brilliantly within a mix of my favorite genres (steampunk/sword & sorcery fantasy), author Celine Jeanjean continues to move those sliders as both urchin Rory and assassin Longinus develop their relationship with each other and with others.
As The Black Orchid opens—to their mutual shock and not a little embarrassment— both Rory and Longinus find themselves in the position of being honestly employed in the service of Damsport’s ruler, the Old Girl. It’s devastating to both.
Longinus—”Damsport’s most elegant assassin”, clotheshorse, and bad poet—is used to stalking his contracted victims to the accompaniment of an internal monologue extolling his brilliant (and brilliantly accessorized) successes. But with legal employment, he’s reduced to stalking incoming shipments to discover the reasons for the shortage of luxury goods such as his trademark black silk (so essential to the Viper’s image you know…). And the elegant lines he formerly composed in praise of his prowess as an assassin are now replaced with love poems sent (anonymously, of course) to the Lady Martha, daughter of the Old Girl. While our sympathy for this new Longinus might be high, his rapidly diminishing competence and proactivity make him seem like an over-age and slightly whiny Harry Potter.
Well-dressed and no longer a scrawny, smelly urchin, gainful employment and regular meals have hit Rory hard as well. For the first time, her life plan of becoming a master swordswoman is tainted by the realization that “the Scarred Woman” she wanted to emulate for years is actively determined to destroy both Longinus personally and her city of Damsport. But Rory slowly realizes that if she’s no longer an urchin—the one thing she was supremely competent at—then she has no idea who or what she is. Like Longinus, the Rory we meet at the beginning of The Black Orchid is hitting the trifecta of low sympathy, competence, and proactivity.
And the relationship between Rory and Longinus—the one area that could move those sliders up as they reinforce each other’s strengths and compensate for their weaknesses—is crumbling under the weight of respectability.
Luckily for Rory and Longinus, the one person whose sliders are at 100% for competency and proactivity, and near-zero for sympathy—Longinus lifelong enemy and sister Myran—is subtly orchestrating a series of events designed to destroy them. With their enemies a step ahead at every turn, Rory and Longinus both have to step out of their comfortably respectable new life, become proactive, and resurrect the competencies of their old lives to survive.
One of the things I love about Celine Jeanjean’s writing is all the stuff she does NOT say. In keeping faith with Rory and Longinus as narrators, she keeps explanations to a minimum and pays readers the compliment of assuming we’ll get relationships and motivations from actions, instead of from paragraphs of exposition. Instead of congratulating Damsport on having people of color—and especially women—be strong, clever, and brave, the author lets the unfolding story speak for itself. The love of a woman’s life? It can be another woman, one of a different race at that, and that relationship can be publicly acknowledged. The strongest person in town? Again, that can be a woman. The villain? Ditto.
In a particular level of genius, Celine Jeanjean lets us into Rory and Longinus heads, uses their point of view to narrate actions, and lets readers put together the clues that the bemused characters still haven’t understood. In addition, The Black Orchid meets all my remaining criteria for a successful mid-series book:
- Both the Black Moment when all goes to crap AND the turning point for the series overall. I don’t want to risk spoilers, but there is a moment when all truly seems lost, and when Rory and Longinus’ relationship is severed. Coming off that moment is, I believe, the real turning point for the series as a whole.
- Both its own self-contained story arc AND the setup for the final confrontation. Yes, the story arc is nicely wrapped up within this book, and the villains dealt with. But Rory and Longinus’ nemesis, the Scarred Woman/Myran, is still out there plotting. The young noble Rafe is still interested Rory, as he told her in Book 1. “I could be your sidekick, you know. Or your love interest. There’s always a sidekick and a love interest in stories.”
- Characters who grow and develop within this book AND also have arcs that span all the books. Rory and Longinus meet this requirement individually, but even more in the form of their evolving and developing relationship.
- Villain/conflicts who suffer interim defeats in this book AND are still out there building to that climactic final book’s conclusion. And that brings us back to where we came in, with Longinus’ lifelong enemy/sister Myran pulling the strings that set the plot arcs dancing
Five stars? When a book has everything I like—diverse, well-developed and evolving characters, a steampunk setting, and entertaining dialog, what’s not to love?