Star Rating: ** 2/5
Title: The Squab Fiends
Author: Victoria Arius
Review by Silicon.
Elizabeth Herbert is as free as any woman can be in Victorian England. A widow with fortune, connections and an appetite for new experience, her search for her old lover John Maginn will lead her into adventures which stretch her credulity and sexuality. When two scientists pull Maginn from the side of a Channel steamship in 1862, he bears little resemblance to the man who left England seven years before. Exiled by his Herbert’s husband, left for dead on a battlefield in India and battling constant pain and an addiction to opium, it seems the fates have conspired to make his existence intolerable.
Damodar Rao has been raised to rule, every moment of his childhood and adolescence carefully controlled to prepare him for a great future. Arriving on English soil after his guardian disappears, a happy accident will open his eyes to becoming a prince among women, without violence or responsibility. Together the trio must keep transform themselves by rejecting their dark pasts and dependencies. Determined to take control of their destinies and using progress as their weapon against superstition, they discover that to be truly free, they must fight an elite occultist movement, while warring against their own desires.
This book does some things very well, and others not. Unfortunately, I decided to DNF this book fairly early due to a dealbreaker which I did not think would improve.
I received an ebook from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
There's three main PoV characters, each of whom I will visit in turn during this review.
I loved Elizabeth. She knows what she wants and she's had enough of playing second fiddle. She's a middle-aged, bisexual woman with children who isn't done with life after her husband's death, and knows her OWN chapter is just about to begin. In a setting where characters worry about being "on the shelf" at age 25, Elizabeth's forthright approach to love and sex is refreshing, as is her unambiguous bisexuality. She's really the driving force of the story. Due to her widowed status, she knows she's in a unique position in society, and she's going to use it to get what SHE wants.
Her story opens with a short BDSM scene between Elizabeth and her maidservant, and I was glad to see giving and receiving pleasure were equally important to Elizabeth. She's attuned to her lover's needs and they both have agency and input in the scene, with control flowing from one to the other. This joy in shared pleasure marks all sex scenes I saw in this book, as far as I read. However, I found the scenes rather short, slightly flowery, and very focused on the actual act rather than before/after--they feel cropped, I would have preferred more lead-in before the characters get down to business.
John's storyline starts with his suicide attempt off the side of a boat. He's rescued just in time, and awakens in strange company. These two men, Clover and Fox, promise him they can create a marvellous prosthesis to replace his amputated right leg. Despite wariness at their high-handed approach (they seem to always know what's best for HIM, to John's annoyance and mine), he eventually agrees to go along with the plan. John's PoV is told from a first-person PoV, a change from Elizabeth's close third PoV. I found this switch abrupt. John's story, at least as far as I've read, consists of a lot of telling. His first scene is dominated by Fox and Clover explaining his situation while he listens, his second and third by his extremely long reminiscence of how he came to lose his leg. I was much less interested in his PoV than Elizabeth's.
And now we come to Damodar Rao.
Damodar Rao is the 3rd and final PoV character in this novel. He is Indian, and has found himself in the Western world for the first time in his life. The way Rao was handled in the 10 or so chapters I read is the reason I decided to DNF the book, beginning with these lines in his first PoV scene:
...was appreciating the most amicable company and was entranced by the hospitality of the English. It was this hospitality that he was finding so profoundly affecting. He had spent his whole life hearing about the brutality and avarice of India's Masters. Having been being meticulously prepared to take on the mantle of revolt from his determined mother, he could not believe how warmly the country had opened her arms to him.
The setting is VICTORIAN ENGLAND. This is a period of greatest oppression of the English to their subjugated states. I'm sorry, but it stretches imagination too far to believe that an Indian man during the time period of Indian revolt and independence would be welcomed with open arms in the country of his oppressors. Rao is depicted as an innocent, wandering good-naturedly through London and sampling its many pleasures without care in the world. Not only is this benevolent, warm-hearted depiction of the English people towards Rao simply incorrect, it is harmful. It is erasure.
Look at the explosion of racism following Brexit, at the many victims of English xenophobia even today within the South Asian community. India was not benevolently conquered, it was violently oppressed; mined and drained of its natural resources while its people were denied cultural identity, worked as chattel, and murdered indiscriminately. To erase this reality, even for the sake of a fun, lighthearted story, is wrong. Rao's characterization reminds me of how Indians (and other non-Europeans) are often characterized in period literature--dumbly naive, unsuspicious trusting, an "innocent savage" exposed to civilization and refinement for the first time.
Furthermore, as we continue reading John's story, we discover he was an officer in the British army in India. He is described as being a true friend to the native soldiers, unlike his colleagues:
All the English officers boasted of their relationships with the native soldiers but they were paternalistic and only engaged wit the men on a shallow level. I started to try and understand the variations in religions and customs between the men [...] even choosing to socialise with them [...] I soon found that I was regarded as a pariah and became even closer to the native men, who seemed so open in comparison.
Ah, so John is the rare Good White Man, the one who truly understands the savages despite their differences. We are meant to instantly sympathize John for this, I'm sure, but instead I find myself irritated at the heavy-handed, narrow attempt at making John racially color-blind. Like I said in my Writing Racism post: it's not only the Bad Guys who are racist! In this time period, it is unimaginable that a privileged white man, an army officer with power OVER said "native men," would be free of any racial bias and easily accepted into their society, as though he were not complicit in their oppression. I also did not care for the implication that John learns to cheat at cards because of his association with the Indian soldiers.
Victorian-setting stories often ignore the violent reality of the English Empire on the rest of the world in lieu of telling stories of amusing romances in High Society. This is very common, and I would have ignored it with a short note if it were the case. When a story set in this era includes a character of color who has experienced English oppression first-hand, and one actually present during the start of the revolution, I expect the issue to be handled. Many cultures today are STILL recovering from the violence of European imperialism, including India itself. This treatment of the character Rao is inexcusable, and I have no desire to read any further.