Published July 2018
*Review by Alexa*
Thomas Fawkes is turning to stone, and the only cure to the Stone Plague is to join his father’s plot to assassinate the king of England.
Silent wars leave the most carnage. The wars that are never declared, but are carried out in dark alleys with masks and hidden knives. Wars where color power alters the natural rhythm of 17th century London. And when the king calls for peace, no one listens until he finally calls for death.
But what if death finds him first?
Keepers think the Igniters caused the plague. Igniters think the Keepers did. But all Thomas knows is that the Stone Plague infecting his eye is spreading. And if he doesn’t do something soon, he’ll be a lifeless statue. So when his Keeper father, Guy Fawkes, invites him to join the Gunpowder Plot—claiming it will put an end to the plague—Thomas is in.
The plan: use 36 barrels of gunpowder to blow up the Igniter King.
The problem: Doing so will destroy the family of the girl Thomas loves. But backing out of the plot will send his father and the other plotters to the gallows. To save one, Thomas will lose the other.
No matter Thomas’s choice, one thing is clear: once the decision is made and the color masks have been put on, there’s no turning back.
The Gunpowder Plot of 1605 has been retold—in both a literal approach and as an allegory for other issues—time and time again in popular culture, and it is easy to understand why. The Plot has all of the benchmarks of a great story: a struggle for power, a secret plot, religious persecution, and an assassination attempt of truly insane proportions. If I didn’t know the history behind the Plot and I saw it in a movie I would assume that it was made up. A group of guys is going to blow up Parliament and the King of England? Seriously? That’s some ridiculous American movie nonsense right there. But, proving once again that reality is stranger than fiction, it is 100% true (there is a link at the end if you want to learn more). It’s a tale that’s tailor made for a retelling, and while Nadine Brandes is not the worst of those who have taken advantage of this particular bit of history, she is definitely not the best (V for Vendetta, anyone?).
Remember, remember the fifth of November the gunpowder treason and plot!
Fawkes, Brandes’ retelling of the Gunpowder Plot, left me feeling a bit torn: parts of this book are awful, some are really great, and one made me feel tricked…so did I like it? I’m not sure. I think so? Maybe? Let me explain and perhaps we can decide together (don’t worry, I’ll be spoiler free).
Let’s rip off the Band-Aid and start with the parts of Fawkes that don’t work, namely, the entire first quarter of the book. It’s atrocious. Every handful of pages I was sending Tiffany texts telling her that there was no way I was making it through this book. The writing was stiff and choppy, the characters were wholly unlikable, the pacing was off, the world didn’t make sense, and every few paragraphs had either an unnecessary exclamation mark (Curse this plague! Damn you, father!) or very weird punctuation (She didn’t. Look. Away.). It was driving me nuts, and I was not enjoying any part of my reading experience, but I plowed ahead because even when we don’t enjoy experiences we learn from them, and in this case I was learning how not to write a book.
Not a single day has been promised me. Do not deny me this moment.
Then, slowly, a miracle happened, and I actually started enjoying the book. It is as if the first section is a rough draft that was never corrected, and the rest of the book is a genuine finished copy. Brandes’ writing started to flow, the weird punctuation (mostly) stopped, the story picked up speed, and at least one character developed into a likeable person. Unfortunately, our MC, Thomas—the titular Fawkes of the title—was never really enjoyable or relatable. The problem isn’t that he doesn’t have an arc, he does, and it is a fairly steep one. The problem is that no matter how much he changed or learned he was still a whinny, egocentric, wishy-washy kid playing at being a grown up. The entire story is seen through Thomas’ eyes, and so all of his inner turmoil is on display, and it gets a little tedious. I get it, there is a lot going on and a lot to process, but I could have done with a little less of it from his perspective. The idea of the infamous Guy Fawkes having a son is a great one, but I would like to think he would have been more interesting than this wet noodle.
The world building in Fawkes doesn’t quite work either. England in the 17thcentury is interesting, sure, but it’s also familiar. What I wanted to learn was how the magical system of Brandes’ England worked, and we sadly get only the most shallow of explanations. Brandes’ magic isn’t a particularly unique concept (people control the colors that connect to them), and the lack of explanation makes it feel juvenile as well as unoriginal. Much of my enjoyment of this book was dependent on not looking too deeply into what was being told and just taking it for face value, which is mostly fine, but the magical system is something that I can’t just skim over. It is what the entire plot revolves around, and I really needed more than Brandes gave.
There has always been fear. There will always be fear. It’s up to us to stand tall, even when the fear demands we bow to it.
Other than that, I mostly enjoyed the rest of the book. There were a few decent twists (and one great one that I actually didn’t see coming), the pacing flowed well after that initial stutter, and the ending was believable and firm. Almost all of the characters remained unlikable, but that actually ended up working for the story since they are would-be assassins planning on killing hundreds of people. That’s why it is so surprising that my favorite part of the story ended up being a character: Emma. I’m not going to explain too much, because I’m trying to keep this spoiler free, but she is seriously great. She’s the female character that I needed in this—and every—story, and a dual POV between her and Thomas would have served the book well. She balanced out Thomas’ woe-is-me insolence with a put-your-big-girl-panties-on-and-get-it-done attitude that I loved and, quite frankly, I needed much more of her than Brandes gave me. I also incredibly appreciate that Brandes puts a section in the back that explains what is historically accurate and what was either stretched or fully fictional. So many authors don’t do this in their historical fiction, and I love that she did.
Ok, here is where I felt tricked, and it’s a little difficult to explain, so bear with me. If you scratch the surface of the story (and when I say scratch I mean barely touch) you can easily find what Brandes what actually trying to say through her retelling. She uses the Gunpowder Plot as a way to show how both sides of an issue are often wrong, how prejudice and misconception leads to inherent distrust and a breakdown of communication, and how an unquestioning and zealous belief in anything can lead to a loss of human decency and a gain of violence. It’s an examination of how society and family can shape you and your beliefs without you even realizing it, and it is also a story that puts the responsibility of finding the truth on the individual. Brandes confirms this in the extras after the story by explaining that Thomas’ story is one of seeking, listening, and digging for truth.
All of this is great and something that needs to be yelled from the rooftops, especially in our current political climate. The problem, for me, comes when you put Brandes’ story in context with the actual plot, which was very much about religion, and a very religious and Christian message begins to take shape. Now, let me be clear, I don’t have a problem with that kind of message, but I do have an issue when a book is not labeled as such. Once the veil is lifted and you can see how everything has been about opening yourself up to, and a having a personal relationship with, God (the Christian version) it can’t be unseen. For example, the big issue revolves around this infinite and omniscient White Light and who controls it. The Keepers think that no one should speak with it and it should stay locked away while the Igniters believe that everyone should speak with it and let it into their being. In the original Gunpowder Plot, the plotters were Catholic (obviously the Keepers) and the King was a Protestant (Igniter). Now, Brandes makes very clear in her story that both sides have done horrible wrongs, but it is also pretty clear that she doesn’t care much for the Catholic faith, and that she believes everyone needs to have an ongoing dialogue with God in their head (also, White Light sounds like a 21stcentury teenager and it’s really weird…not a good choice). This stuff bugged me a bit, and made me feel lied to, but it’s easily overlooked if you read the story on a surface level for entertainment, although I still find it an unwelcome hoax.
My culture had affected my thinking without my consent. How many other things had it shaped without my knowing it?
A few aspects, however, make me quite livid: how the magical system works and how Emma is described at the beginning, both of which show an obvious leaning toward traditional “Christian” values, and both of which I don’t appreciate. In the beginning, Emma is described as wearing clothing that covers literally every inch of her skin, and as such she is seen as being more elegant and “a natural step above the other ladies.” Um, excuse me? Being covered up makes you a step above other women? No, absolutely not, and I do not want or need that kind of woman-on-woman shaming in my life. Also, in Brandes’ magical system a person can only obtain their magic through a mask that is given to them by their blood parent (mother to daughter and father to son)…so if you are an orphan or come from a single parent home you’re screwed? Brandes is basically saying that if you don’t come from a specific type of family/home then you can’t tap into the magic that is inside of you or be a part of “good” society. Excuse my language, but fuck that. That is some archaic nonsense that has no place in 2018.
So, yeah, I’m just not sure how I feel about Fawkes. If I pretend not to see the “hidden” messages, and read it purely for surface level entertainment, then I actually quite enjoy it, and I think that’s what most people will do. I’m finishing up a BS in History with an emphasis on religion, so some of this could be a bit of projecting on my part, or looking a bit too hard…but maybe not. When I first finished Fawkes I was super stoked to read her next book about Anastasia Romanov, but now I find myself wondering if I should. Will I be able to enjoy it or will I constantly be looking for more hidden messages? It’s really a shame because had I known these things going into it I would have been (mostly) fine with it…but deception just doesn’t work for me.
Ok, what do you guys think? Am I looking to hard and extrapolating things that aren’t there? Let me know!