Sunday, May 28, 2017


by Sharon Cameron
Recommended Ages: 12+

The minute I picked up this book, I had an idea it was going to turn out to be a dystopian-future retelling of Baroness Emma Orczy's French-revolution period romance The Scarlet Pimpernel. Within a few pages, my hypothesis seemed to be confirmed. It was right there in black and white, with a dashing hero rescuing political prisoners from Madame Guillotine during a post-revolution reign of terror, leaving a rook's feather dipped in red paint as her(!) calling-card, and inspiring the masses with her secret identity as Le Corbeau Rouge (the Red Rook). There was a marriage, or rather (in this case) an engagement, forged by painful necessity, to an apparently frivolous man of fashion who turns out to be more than he seems, right in time for the heroine to realize she truly loves him. There is a plot full of peril and intrigue, and no small amount of romantic melodrama, in which the evil French intelligencer almost out-intelligences the British hero(ine). There is even a character (here actually a fox) named St. Just. It doesn't miss a trick.

But then it begins to throw out surprises, starting with the fact the Red Rook is a girl, a well-bred young British lady named Sophia Bellamy. It is actually to save her brother Tom, who has been scrobbled by the villainous Leblanc and his minions under the mistaken impression that he's the Rook, that she risks all on her most daring prison-break ever. And the fashionable fiancé, who turns out to be both Leblanc's nephew and a surprisingly capable accomplice in Sophie's counter-revolutionary escapade, is the daughter-stealingly attractive René Hasard, scion of a family of smugglers. Also, as a bonus, a studly childhood friend of Tom gets tangled up in it, due to his unrequited passion for his best friend's sister; a love triangle is always a welcome plot complication. Between nerve-sizzling break-ins and break-outs, deadly combats, frisky make-out scenes, and chilling encounters with the monstrous Leblanc and his (if possible) even more monstrous boss Premier Allemande, there is hardly a moment for the reader to calm down and match each point of Orczy's original with Sharon Cameron's retelling. And then comes the supreme surprise - I'm not sure how to go about selling it without telling it - after which the bets are off, and anything can happen.

To drop a fat hint, it doesn't turn out to be a naive retelling of Pimpernel after all. There's something in it, rather, about the idea of civilization being knocked down, of humanity having to start over after a catastrophe so great that centuries of history and technology are clean forgotten. It's an imaginative, yet convincing, look at a way in which history might repeat itself in ever-spiraling cycles, and whether there is any chance to escape making the same mistakes as the previous go-around. It's thrilling, sexy (in a family-friendly way), scary, retro-futuristic (though, I must stress, not Steampunk), and thought-provoking on several levels, from the level of asking, "Would we really be that screwed?" to questions about why human history grows monsters, like Robespierre and his fictional, future successors. And of course, it challenges the reader to imagine what could be changed.

Sharon Cameron's other novels come in pairs: the Steampunk espionage thrillers The Dark Unwinding and its sequel The Spark Unseen, and The Forgetting, a novel about a city in which everybody's memory is wiped every 12 years, whose companion book The Knowing is due for release Oct. 10, 2017.

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