YA Review: The Power of Five series so far, by Anthony Horowitz

As punishment for a crime he didn’t really commit, Matt was given a choice: go to jail or go live with an old woman named Mrs. Deverill in a remote town called Lesser Malling.
He should have chosen jail.
A strange and sinister plan is coming together made in Lesser Malling, with Matt at the center of it all. People who try to help him disappear … or die. It all ties to an evil place named Raven’s Gate – a place whose destiny is horrifyingly intertwined with Matt’s own.

The Power of Five series by Anthony Horowitz will be comprised of five books – Oblivion, the fifth installment, is due to be published in October 2012 – and I’ve been eagerly working my way through the first four, starting with Raven’s Gate, first published in 2005.

I’m already a fan of Horowitz’ work, having read the Alex Rider books, which I found really exciting and adventurous.  Alex Rider was a great, believable teenage character, who grew and developed over the course of the series as his adventurous became more and more thrilling and dangerous.  I was looking forward to more of the same fast, tough action from this series.

I have to say, at first I was a little disappointed with Raven’s Gate.  It started really well, introducing Matt Freeman, our hero, in an interesting way, but then, as Matt is taken to Lesser Malling by Mrs Deverill, the action slows somewhat.  I felt that, for a long time, we didn’t get a clear idea of what the malevolent power was that Mrs Deverill was in league with.  This meant that some of the big action scenes weren’t as exciting as they could have been, as I wasn’t quite sure how scared I was supposed to be.  Possibly, this is because I’ve been reading some pretty violent/scary YA fiction lately (The Hunger Games trilogy, Charlie Higson’s The Enemy series) but I didn’t really get as drawn in as I was expected.  I wanted a bit more depth in terms of the mythology behind the story – who were the Old Ones exactly? – and in fact for the characters as well.  I did discover that Raven’s Gate was at least partly based on one of Horowitz’ short stories, so perhaps that’s why.  I decided to keep reading as I’d been given the first three books in the series as part of my Reddit Book Swap, so I thought I might as well.

The second book in the series is called Evil Star.  In this volume, we accompany Matt to Peru.  The Nexus, the shady organisation who are working with Matt to combat The Old Ones, have discovered that, although [SPOILER] Matt and his new guardian Richard were successful in Lesser Malling, a new threat is rising in South America, and The Old Ones may be released into the world again…  So, Matt and Richard set off to try to stop this disaster before it happens.  Before long, their plan falls apart – has someone betrayed them? – and Matt is rescued by a street urchin names Pedro, who helps him attempt to complete his quest and stop the Old Ones from returning to terrorise humanity.

I enjoyed Evil Star a lot more than Raven’s Gate – finally we get some insight into the Old Ones, who they might be, what they want, and why Matt (and the four other Gatekeepers) have been chosen to try to stop them.  Pedro was a great addition, Richard became more than just a begrudging babysitter and Matt really starts to show some backbone.  The confrontation at the end of the book is really thrilling and the whole thing has more than a whiff of Mysterious Cities of Gold about it, which can only be a good thing.  And the dramatic ending of Evil Star leads us to…

Nightrise.  Good name! In Nightrise, we meet two new character, twin brothers Jamie and Scott, who have a strange and uncanny power.  They’re performing in a two-bit theatre show in Reno, they’ve been passed from pillar to post and it’s only going to get worse from here.  The shady Nightrise Corporation is taking an interest in them and it’s clear that’s not going to be good for the boys.  Jamie must battle to save his brother, and we discover how they fit into the wider story and mythology.

I found Nightrise more gripping again than the previous book in the series – Jamie is so well drawn, and there’s so much depth to him, the brothers’ relationship and the people who help him on the way.  I particularly like the sinister members of the Nightrise Corporation, and the way that the evil of the Old Ones is being perpetrated by capitalism in the modern world.  I also enjoyed the way Horowitze uses Jamie’s story to delve back in time to the ancient Gatekeepers, to give us a much clearer perspective on what the Old Ones and the Gatekeepers could be capable of.  The tension is definitely building as we start to see just what a monumental task our heroes have on their hands.

The fourth book in the series is called Necropolis.  I read this book in a day – I found it by far the best and most exciting part of the series to date.  It deals primarily with the fifth Gatekeeper, Scarlett, or Scar, although we have already met her (in a way) in Nightrise.  Here, Horowitz creates a really nasty, creepy new reality as the Old Ones’ power grows and they begin to wreak havoc, in Hong Kong.  The Nightrise Corporation returns, helping them to carry out the slow and insidious destruction of the city.  I felt this book edged from fantasy towards horror, as the quite gruesome nature of what is happening to people in the city is revealed.  There were some fantastic action sequences as Scarlett and the boys fight off their supernatural attackers and encounter some very dangerous locals too.  Luckily, they’re on the right side!

Over all, despite my initial mixed feelings, I’m very glad I kept reading.  There’s a great storyline unfolding here, which will grip young people and imaginative adults, drawing on a rich mix of cultures and mythologies, as well as some classic fantasy tropes.  Although Raven’s Gate is perhaps a little ‘light’, the later books certainly make up for this, with full on action scenes, creepy and intriguing villains and brilliantly described locations around the world.  The final book in the series, Oblivion, is due to be published in October 2012, and I for one will be queuing up for a copy.

Kate Neilan @Magic_Kitten

Review: Artemis Fowl and The Last Guardian


Opal Koboi, power-crazed pixie, is plotting to exterminate mankind and become fairy queen.

If she succeeds, the spirits of long-dead fairy warriors will rise from the earth, inhabit the nearest available bodies and wreak mass destruction. But what happens if those nearest bodies include crows, or deer, or badgers – or two curious little boys by the names of Myles and Beckett Fowl?

Yes, it’s true. Criminal mastermind Artemis Fowl’s four-year-old brothers could be involved in destroying the human race. Can Artemis and Captain Holly Short of the Lower Elements Police stop Opal and prevent the end of the world?

Artemis Fowl and The Last Guardian is the final instalment in the phenomenally successful YA fantasy/action series by Eoin Colfer. Eoin first introduced Artemis to the world in 2001, already a criminal genius at the age of 12. Living in a mansion near Dublin, his (criminal mastermind) father disappeared and his mother mad with grief, he is convinced of the existence of fairies and is determined to get his hands on ‘The Book’, which could unlock untold riches and also a way to cure his mother.

Described by Colfer as ‘Die Hard with fairies’, the story romps through a brilliant, witty adventure peopled with a varied cast to say the least – LEPRecon officer Holly Short, a fairy, Foaly the tech-wizard centaur, Mulch Diggums the kleptomaniac dwarf and Artemis’ faithful bodyguard, the formidable Butler.

Artemis does succeed in unlocking the secrets of the Lower Elements (he is a genius, after all) but by the end of the book, he and the fairies are beginning to forge a shaky alliance. By the end of book 7 – Artemis Fowl and The Atlantis Complex – the boy genius has assisted the Fairy Folk in saving the world at least five times over.  The Last Guardian sees our heroes reuniting one last time to make a stand against arch-enemy Opal Koboi, who has one final plan to achieve world domination.

I have to say, I felt extremely privileged to be able to read this book before it goes on sale on Tuesday 10th July. At this stage, there’s no need for Puffin to send out proof copies to generate interest, but they did allow a very small number of ring-bound copies to be released to a few lucky bloggers and reviewers. I’m under strict instructions not to reveal any spoilers, but I’ll say what I can…

Any fans of Colfer will immediately recognise his snappy, quick writing style, with plenty of witty humour, up-to-date cultural references and names that play on words; young adult readers will particularly enjoy this, and it’s a refreshing change for a grown-up reader too. Then, of course, there’s the cast of characters who regular readers will know and love. It’s good to note, though, that all our key cast have grown and developed over the series, especially Artemis, and they now show a more mature, sophisticated approach to the disastrous situations facing them. They are not one-dimensional constructs but well-realised and interesting personalities, with histories that readers will treasure.

I found the book a very quick read, as the plot crashes along at break-neck speed. The whole book is set up right from the start with a very quick deadline to thwart Opal Koboi or face the extinction of the human race, so this really helped to keep the pace up. My interest was expertly held, as Colfer revealed each new aspect of Koboi’s plan and the heroes’ counterplanning, piece by little piece. It’s a masterclass in thriller plotting. I also really enjoyed, as always, the interweaving of technology and mythology that is typical of this series and Colfer’s work in general.

The final act is particularly tense, as we understand Artemis may be willing to do something very drastic in order to preserve his family, friends and the human race. Obviously, I can’t tell you what, or if he succeeds, or survives, but it’s a brilliantly emotional piece, and I was genuinely moved as I finished reading. I think Colfer has come up with a perfect way to conclude the series, and fans will feel he has done justice to the characters and story line.

Artemis Fowl and The Last Guardian is available to preorder, and is on sale from Tuesday 10th July, published by Puffin.

Kate Neilan @magic_kitten

The Hunger Games – His and Hers Film Review

Kate on The Hunger Games:

Katniss Everdeen. Long brown hair, an olive complexion and used to struggling to stay alive.  She’s also the heroine of teen book and now film sensation The Hunger Games.  She’s able to transfer her skills at hunting, which she uses every day to provide for her one-parent family, into self-defence and killing when absolutely necessary in order to try to survive the Hunger Games, a 70-year old tradition in Panem, the post-apocalyptic remains of America.

Opening the film with hand-held, washed out shots set the scene perfectly; it was a bit too shaky for me personally, I was starting to feel a bit seasick, but it certainly created a sense of poverty and desperation that was necessary to allow us to understand a world in which the Hunger Games could be in any way acceptable.  I was reminded of some of the more desperate scenes from Cold Mountain, which is surprisingly appropriate as District 12, Katniss’ home, nestles among the Appalachian Mountains.  I would have liked to spend a little more time here with Katniss’ family and friends, especially Gale, in order to fully appreciate the sacrifice she made by volunteering to be a Tribute.

In Panem, the Hunger Games is an annual ritual, with echoes of films like Rollerball and Battle Royale, as well as stories as old as Theseus and the Minotaur.  Two Tributes, aged between 12 and 18, are taken for each of the twelve Districts to take part in the Game, a brutal event and reality TV show in which the participants fight until only one remains, to be hailed as the Champion and feted throughout the country such as it is.  

The Games preparations take place in the Capitol, which I’ve heard someone liken to a vision from a Vivian Westwood collection.  This setting contrasted dramatically with District 12, in every way imaginable – the costumes, architecture, interiors, colours all seemed luxurious and flamboyant. Katniss’ stylist Cinna seems the only one not affected, wearing simple black with a touch of gold eyeliner.  In the book, sitting down to a meal with her, he comments, “We must seem despicable to you.”  This was left unsaid on screen but was clearly communicated by the actions of Katniss, Peeta and their mentor Haymitch, played by Woody Harrelson.  Despite its mythical origins, this is also a very modern story, with AA strong message about using technology and media, rather than allowing ourselves to be used by it.  Katniss and Peeta aim to outsmart the TV executives by playing the Game too well, rather than allowing themselves to be pawns in a vicious game where suffering becomes entertainment.

In keeping with the brutality of the Games, the film is also brutal despite its 12A rating. There’s little blood or gore but the threat feels imminent as soon as the Game begins.  I recently rewatched Battle Royale; that film is an 18, with vivid, graphic bloody violence, but I was able to detach myself far more easily, as the action was over-the-top, almost cartoonish.  In this film, because the violence was implied rather than overt, the atmosphere was more tense and sinister, with a couple of very emotional scenes and real jump moments too. I’d definitely recommend the film for teens and older, who know what they’re getting themselves into, perhaps having already read the books, but I think that anyone younger might find the film upsetting, even if they were accompanied by a parent.  I certainly enjoyed the film, finding it really exciting, and I’m looking forward to the next instalment.

Rob on The Hunger Games: 

It’s been described as the latest teen sensation with copies of the book flying off the  shelves and following in the footsteps of Twilight, my expectations were not high. Instead I was pleasantly surprised, leaving the cinema having seen an intelligent and at times shocking film that everyone should seek out.

Jennifer Lawrence was incredible as Katniss. I found her believable, strong and with a moral core that plays against much of the death and mayhem around her. As a female role model it would be hard to look elsewhere as she fights as intensely as the men around her whilst retaining dignity and courage.

Visually it is impressive, with the camera moving and sticking with Katniss throughout. Almost all is shot from her perspective, beginning in District 12 but as we move from its grey, washed out scenery to the gaudy nature of the Capitol, I found this move rather jarring. It shows the tasteless decadence that society reaches and the violent depths it needs to plumb to entertain themselves. While I understood the decisions being made, and the contrast that was required, it did seem as if we had stumbled into a Duran Duran or Spandau Ballet video. Vivid colours and tasteless clothes are everywhere and we become as dazzled and overwhelmed as our heroine.

Characters that we come to like do die and knowing that only one can survive the Games leads to a sense of doom and dread that runs throughout the film. Much has been made of the violence and in particular how cuts were required to make it a 12A in the UK. Most of the violence is implied with little to no blood shown which in some respects, ups the intensity. You are left to imagine your own images of brutality.

I found The Hunger Games a thrilling, exciting and thoroughly engaging film that asks real questions of society and the media. I’m looking forward to Catching Fire already.

Review: The Preacher by Camilla Lackberg

Camilla Lackberg has been heralded as the queen of Scandinavian crime fiction. Her seven novels featuring Erica Falck and Patrik Hedstrom have all been bestsellers around Europe; the front cover of the editions I’ve read proclaimed “7 MILLION BOOKS SOLD”.

The Preacher is the second book in this series. Twenty years ago, two young women disappeared while on holiday in the peaceful resort of Fjallbacka, the setting of the series. Now, their remains have been discovered in a local beauty spot, along with those of a new victim, sending the town into shock.

Patrik Hedstrom, local police detective, takes charge of the investigation, which tears him away from his heavily pregnant partner, writer Erica. As the identities of the victims are revealed, the investigation revolves around the Hult family, a strange clan already at war internally over old feuds and split into two branches, one respectable and one constantly in trouble with the law. Lackberg brings these characters to life in glorious technicolour. I’m not always a huge fan of the Swedish-to-English translation by Steven T Murray but the occasionally clunky word choice didn’t hamper my immersion in this rural seaside community.

Unlike Mankell’s Wallander series, Lackberg’s Hedstrom novels always keep the villain’s identity a mystery. I really engaged as I investigated alongside Patrik and his colleagues, weighing up each new piece of evidence as it was revealed. In this instance, I guessed the murderer but then changed my mind at the last minute – the twists and turns are really gripping and will certainly hold any reader’s attention.

The Guardian quote splashed across the front of the book reads “Expert at mixing scenes of domestic cosiness with blood-curdling horror”; I wouldn’t necessarily say the horror in The Preacher is blood-curdling but it’s very sinister and insidious. You feel as if any number of characters could be guilty of, or complicit in, a foul crime, involving prolonged torture and abuse. There is certainly a sense of threat pervading what should be cosy, homely scenes.

In her previous book, The Ice Princess, the contrast between crime and cosiness is more pronounced – we experience it as a dichotomy as Lackberg presents us first with a murder, then with the growing romance between Erica and Patrik. In The Preacher, however, Erica and Patrik seem to have little in the way of domestic bliss – Erica is fed up of pregnancy, especially in the heat of high summer, she has been advised by her doctor to stop working and she is then plagued by a series of bizarrely inconsiderate house guests. Her troubled sister, Anna, also puts in an appearance, just to add to her woes. I was really puzzled by this marginalisation of the main character of the previous book. Despite Patrik being the police detective, it’s actually Erica who does a lot of the legwork and puts together the pieces to solve the murder of her friend Alex, the eponymous The Ice Princess. As a result, I found that book a more enjoyable read over all. The Preacher, while a great thriller, definitely loses out in the comparison.

Despite this, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend The Preacher, or its predecessor, to those who enjoy crime thrillers with a little more depth.

Kate Neilan

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s nest.

The Millenium Trilogy draws to a close with The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest.

Salander is plotting her revenge – against the man who tried to kill her, and against the government institutions that very nearly destroyed her life. But it is not going to be a straightforward campaign. After taking a bullet to the head, Salander is under close supervision in Intensive Care, and is set to face trial for three murders and one attempted murder on her eventual release. With the help of journalist Mikael Blomkvist and his researchers at Millennium magazine, Salander must not only prove her innocence, but identify and denounce the corrupt politicians that have allowed the vulnerable to become victims of abuse and violence. Once a victim herself, Salander is now ready to fight back.
Following on directly from the events of The Girl Who Played With Fire, Lisbeth Salander is in hospital and Mikael Blomvist is still investigating the conspiracy surrounding Soviet defector Zalachenko. Salander is recovering from a bullet wound in the head, but has inadvertendly triggered a chain of events within the most secretive of government agencies. They are determined to cover their tracks at all costs and having already had her declared mentally ill and sentenced her to an instituion, they want her to go back there for good. 
As with the previous books, it takes some time for the plot to get one. It is very much a continuation of the second book rather than stand alone novel and so it is vital to read the other two books to understand the story and characters. It does improves on the second book though in that Salander is present throughout, even though she starts off severly injured and incapacitated in hospital. Without her we are left with an interesting but somewhat dry investigation into the Swedish secret service. Soon though the book picks up, with the courtroom scenes being particularly compelling.
It is remamrkable that the pace and momentum are kept up over what are considerably long and complex plots. Plotlines interweave with one another but it remains clear and concise. Once again it was only the Swedish names that remain a potential stumbling point. The lengthy trial scenes are perhaps Larsson at his most grandstanding, where the Swedish judical system is examined and taken apart, and the authors own views come on a little too strong. This final book could have done with a bit more editing as at times there are few lapses and certain sections could have been tightened up, yet it still remains a thrill as the book draws to its conclusion. Not everything is tied up neatly at the end, with the whereabouts of one character still not resolved…
For me, the first book remains the best, with the second the weakest of the three. It remains to be a crying shame that the author died without knowing his success and overall the Milleniunm series has been a triumph.  As it is though, it remains a thrilling and fitting conclusion to a remarkable series of books featuring one of the most interesting and complex heroines in recent crime fiction history.

The Girl Who Played With Fire

The Girl Who Played With Fire.

The Millenium trilogy continues with The Girl Who Played With Fire and as with the first book, the novel takes a while to get going as Larsson puts all the pieces in place. Once they are though, the book moves at a frantic pace. Set some time after The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, we see the fallout of the Wennerstrom affair as Blomvist and Salander revel in their glory. Yet two shocking murders take place and Salander is the suspect….

Lisbeth Salander is a wanted woman. Two Millennium journalists about to expose the truth about sex trafficking in Sweden are murdered, and Salander’s prints are on the weapon. Her history of unpredictable and vengeful behaviour makes her an official danger to society – but no-one can find her. Mikael Blomkvist, editor-in-chief of Millennium, does not believe the police. Using all his magazine staff and resources to prove Salander’s innocence, Blomkvist also uncovers her terrible past, spent in criminally corrupt institutions. Yet Salander is more avenging angel than helpless victim. She may be an expert at staying out of sight – but she has ways of tracking down her most elusive enemies.

It begins with an extensive look at Salander as she travels the globe, examining her past, and why she is who she is today. Then the book shifts to its focus to Sweden and events there. Lisbeth becomes a fugitive, hidden away from the investigation as she refuses to be victimised by her ordeal. She becomes determined to find out the identity of the killer and turns the table on them, going on the attack to deal with the situation as her distrust of the police and the law forces her to act on her own. As the investigation continues, events from Salander’s past are gradually revealed, leading to shocking and stunning climax. We are left on a cliffhanger, with little actually resolved as it leads on to the third and final instalment.

As before, women remain a theme as it examines how the state cares for the mentally ill or those that are being abused. Also through Salander, Larsson crusades against the media, as she is exploited and defamed as she remains in hiding. As it delves into Salander’s past, we are exposed to an intricate conspiracy that touches at everything in Swedish life. He asks that if we cannot trust our own governments then who can we trust?As with the previous book, there are flaws in the novel. The villians are rather caricatured, with Niedermann, the blond ‘hulk’ suffering particularly from this as he resembles a James Bond bad guy. There are sections where Salander is not present and the book focusses on the manahunt for her, and while it was enjoyable, you are left waiting for her return. It’s about here that the trilogy itself shifts the focus onto to Salander and while I can’t help thinking that while Larsson would have preferred us to treat Blomvist as the main protagonist, it is Salander’s books from now on.

With an ever expanding plot, The Girl Who Played With Fire lacks the taut plot and the unravelling of the first book. The long section where Salander is in hiding means that the book’s most interesting character is missing, but it remains a thrilling and entertaining read from start to finish.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

Part One of the Milleniun trilogy, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, introduces us to journalist Mikael Blomkvist and computer hacker and social outcast Lisbeth Salander. It’s an intelligent thriller with a conscience, with a complicated plots that demands concentration to match.

Forty years ago, Harriet Vanger disappeared from a family gathering on the island owned and inhabited by the powerful Vanger clan. Her body was never found, yet her uncle is convinced it was murder – and that the killer is a member of his own tightly knit but dysfunctional family. He employs disgraced financial journalist Mikael Blomkvist and the tattooed, truculent computer hacker Lisbeth Salander to investigate. When the pair link Harriet’s disappearance to a number of grotesque murders from forty years ago, they begin to unravel a dark and appalling family history. But the Vangers are a secretive clan, and Blomkvist and Salander are about to find out just how far they are prepared to go to protect themselves.

The novel is split between the shady secrets of the wealthy Vanger family and the murky dealings of a famous businessman. One flaw that many have commented on is that the central drive of the book does take a little while to get going. The first 50 pages or so are Larsson giving us the background to the Wennerstrom affair and while it may seem irelevant at first, by the conclusion it all comes together. Some may find like I did that it was difficult to get in to initialy, with a variety of unusual Swedish names to keep track of, but its not long until the pace picks up.
The story begins by focusing on Blomkvist, a journalist just as Larsson was, but once Salander arrives the focus of the novel shifts. She’s one of the most interesting heroines of late, lacking in people skills but making up for it with her fierce intelligent. She operates on the edge of society, preferring to be on the fringes, where she feels more comfortable and accepted.  While she may seem to be single-minded and at time vicious, Salander is also incorruptible with a strong moral code. She is the most ‘good’ of all the ‘good guys’ in the book.
Despite this, it can be a brutal book, as it examines sex and violence, particularly towards women. Some may feel that it even oversteps the mark, but here Larsson is creating a dark story which reflects something of the darker side of life in Sweden. There has been arguements of late regarding Larsson’s attitudes towards women and the interpretation of feminism within the novel but it’s a difficult one to judge. If Larsson was with us today, he would no doubt be able to defend the accusations made towards the trilogy.
Larsson may also need to defend his writing style, as at times it falters where Larsson adds in a few too many details to the story. I don’t think we really need to know the exact type of laptop a character is using, or the precise food they eat for breakfast. In the case of the laptop, we are also lectured on the merits of certain models but it also instantly dates the novel. Perhaps it was the case of the translation but at times it does become a little too ‘clunky’ for my liking. Larsson is a little blunt in expressing his opinions and his politcal views are hardly disguised at all. It also comes close to stretching credibility, as Blomkvist certainly manages to jump into bed with a number of women. Perhaps a little bit of wishing thinking on the author’s part?
Despite its flaws, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo was one of those rare books which I read it ferociously and then when I stopped, it was all I could actually think about. The way the plots intertwine, along with the interesting characters somehow grabbed and then dominated my attention throughout. Quite simply, I adored it and would recommend this intelligent, thought-provoking and adult thriller to anyone.

Free Agent by Jeremy Duns

Get ready for a new Dark Age.

Jeremy Duns’ Free Agent is a refreshing and exciting new novel where nothing is quite what it seems. Following a high level KGB defection and the suggestion of a double agent, MI6 man Paul Dark finds himself doubting everything he ever knew and must not as in most cases prove his innocence, but hide his guilt…

Paul Dark is our ‘hero’, billed as a mixture of Jason Bourne and James Bond. We should really dislike Dark – he’s cold-blooded, arrogant and a killer – but you find yourself drawn to him and even empathising with him. You want him to succeed, even though he’s ultimately one of the bad guys. His actions in the opening chapter are genuinely shocking, but then you want him to get away with it.

Interestingly, he is also our narrator. It does mean that the novel is confined to only the one viewpoint and in a book where our hero’s allegiances are being tested from the very beginning, it does leave you in an interesting relationship with the protagonist. I felt at times doubting what I was being told by Dark and questioning his authority, but then enjoying it all the more as you feel that you are there with Dark, trying to work out what is going on. Is he double-crossing us or is he being used as well?

The Mistress of Nothing

In Kate Pullinger’s The Mistress Of Nothing, we follow the true story of Lady Duff Gordon, suffering from the debiliating effects of tuberculois, and her maid Sally, as they travel to Cairo and Luxor, where  Gordon seeks refuge from her illness.

Away from England, Lady Gordon and Sally together cast off the European dress that has stifled them both physically and mentally, and begin to explore the freedom that Egypt offers. Yet it is the arrival of Omar, Lady Gordon’s dragoman, who leads them further into the heart of Egypt, and forcing them to re-examine the relationship between themselves and also their European roots.

It is Sally that narrates their story and it is tinged with excitement, mystery and the heat of Egypt. You can almost feel the heat as Pullinger delves deeper into the intriguing tale and the relationship between the two women. Yet soon, and somewhat inevitably, we see that appearances can be deceptive and Lady Gordon cannot help but keep her English mentatility. Perhaps tellingly, while Lady Gordon may dress like a man and imerse herself in the culture around her, they still reside in ‘The French House’, leased from the French Consul, which remains a link to Europe and her colonial past. Without revealing too much, Sally is cruelly reminded of her position and her reliance on Lady Gordon as her maid and the remainder of her story is tinged with sadness. She is offered a glimpse of a different life for herself, only for circumstances to overtake her.

Pullinger shows us Egypt and bring it to life as it really was. The Egyptian people are kind and welcoming, happy to accept Sally and Lady Gordon for who they are and it is the British expatriates who are judgemental and critical, showing themselves to be backward and fixed in their thinking. As Anthony Sattin remarks on the book’s cover,  Pullinger’s work is not “an Orientalist fantasy”; the only fantasy that remains is that of Sally and her hope that she may escape her lowly status as the mistress of nothing. With Sally as our narrator, I was somewhat expecting the blame for her situation to be placed solely at the feet of Lady Gordon, but Pullinger never quite allows this to occur. Lady Gordon blames Sally for causing her predicament but we are left looking for answers elsewhere. The blame is a product of its time, in particular the rules and conventions of English thinking and Sally’s position within her household as a lady’s maid.

Pullinger’s novel draws you in to the heartbreaking tale, providing us with a wonderful social commentary of the time amid the searing heat of Egypt. Little is documentated of Sally Naldrett, but now she has finally gained a voice after many, many years.