Thank you to Angry Robot for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review!
Genre(s): Victorian Fantasy
Series: N/A – Stand Alone
Publisher: Angry Robot
Release date: September 10th, 2019
/r/Fantasy Bingo Squares: Published in 2019 (HM), Four Word Title
“She’s the ninth to die, they say. Just like the ones before her.” Her voice was almost too soft for Roger to catch. “The daily papers don’t report it for fear of scandalizing visitors, what with that Cabbage King of Khalishka on his way. Can’t say I blame them.” Nine women? Roger stretched his neck upward to hear the rest of it. “One expects such ends for women of the slums, but not actresses and respectable shopkeepers. I admit, reading gruesome broadsheet headlines is a diversion of mine – don’t tell my dear Tobias…” The speaker moved away from the window, and Roger cursed his luck.”
Although there are many elements which should have worked well for me, this novel didn’t quite pull together the way I might have hoped. At only about 10% in to the Kindle edition, I could already tell that Caligo was not Caligoing well for me. Although I wouldn’t necessarily recommend The Resurrectionist of Caligo, I will say that I would happily give this author duo another shot in the future. Wendy Trimboli and Alicia Zaloga show promise in this debut even if it could have used a bit more polishing and editing.
The writing style itself is somewhat reminiscent of Brandon Sanderson’s – it’s functional and straight to the point. It’s not particularly flowery, but it keeps the story moving along at a reasonable clip. I did not enjoy the inclusion of vernacular, but that’s a personal preference on my part rather than a criticism of the way it was written. If vernacular isn’t something that bothers you, I don’t believe this would be an issue at all.
Unfortunately, the first place this book falls apart is in the character development. The story is told across two points of view: Sibylla, a princess of the realm, and her childhood friend, Roger Weathersby, raised as a footman in the castle.
Sibylla isn’t a terrible character, but her actions often come across as feeling out of place. In one scene, she becomes so angry she smashes her teacup (was the cup empty? What happened to the tea? Did it splash everywhere? We just don’t know). However, this is the only time she ever shows any sort of violent tendencies… and it was due to the smallest of provocations. There are many other odd instances of this, as well. She’s 18, of age to marry, but has been living in a small keep in the countryside due to her refusal to marry her cousin. Royal intermarriage is very common, as the royal family has secured their lineage as a form of divine mandate: all the royals have some form of magic, which is passed down genetically.
“Lady Brigitte smoothed Sibylla’s hair. “You’ve read enough books to know not all marriages are about love.”
“The happy ones are.”
“That’s simply what impoverished authors would have you believe.”
“And are you happy with Father?”
“No amount of hysteria will change the next few days, [Sibylla].”
. . .
“Despite being told whom she should love, she’d only fallen once. Roger had taken her heart and run off with it. And soon she might wed a man just to lower the market price of cheese abroad. Tears prickled behind her eyelids.”
Sibylla has three inherited gifts. Unfortunately, not a single one of the three ever becomes plot relevant. She is able to conjure bioluminescence within her blood, allowing her to glow like a jellyfish. She can create ink from beneath her fingernails and has a limited control of it in the air, allowing her to create little bees that fly around or write/draw without a pen. Finally, she has a “whistle-click” – essentially, a non-deadly method of weaponizing sound. None of these are ever used in a way that couldn’t be easily replicated using mundane tools in the same situation. Quite frankly, it could just as easily be red hair as it is magic. The magic literally adds nothing that a normal physical feature would not.
Royals are also treated as a saints, with their own chapels where the masses can go to pray to them. They write their prayers on the backs of plaques and hope for intervention via divine mandate. Now, I’m not entirely clear on how the purview of specific royals are assigned… but somehow, apparently Sibylla ended up the patron saint of – I shit you not – erectile dysfunction. I think this is supposed to serve as comic relief, but unfortunately it simply falls flaccid at every attempt. The men pray to her when their dicks don’t work. This is not a drill. She. Is. The. Patron. Saint. Of. Erectile. Dysfunction. And it’s not even funny in context!
“They arrived in Caligo’s medical district where tincture vendors, barbers, surgeons, and well-to-do purveyors of medicine occupied every shop front along Mouthstreet. Royal public service warnings against dishonest quacks and poisonous “health potions” were pasted over advertisements for Dr Groady’s Droop Serum – for “when even the princess can’t help your performance.” Though the emperor chuckled, Sibylla didn’t find the slogans amusing.”
And then… there’s Roger. Roger, Roger, Roger. Where to begin. First of all, I have no idea why he speaks in heavy vernacular as though he were a street urchin. Roger was raised as a footman in the palace, great friends with the princess, and has always been a regular reader of academic texts on medicine and surgery. It literally makes no sense at all that he’s unable to speak or write with proper English grammar and syntax.
“Sibet, her highness Princess Sibylla, had been his childhood partner in crime. Or rather, he’d been hers. Sidekick, stuntsman, scapegoat, whipping boy, and eventually the eager object of her affections. But the folktales had lied. A servant couldn’t love a princess. Not if he wanted to keep his head. After his banishment he’d scaled the palace walls intending to explain to her why he’d taken the queen’s money – his mother’s illness, physician bills – and earned a prison stint for his pains, along with a broken nose. Maybe one day he’d meet her again at some banquet held by the Royal College of Surgeons, as a self-employed medical man with his name painted above the door of his own practice. What was he doing, dredging up Sibet after all this time? He’d drive himself mad. He had dismissed that pie-in-the-sky long ago.”
Second of all, god he’s an idiot. And not only an idiot, but a bit of an asshole too. Roger is meant to be a sympathetic character from the reader’s perspective, or so it seemed, yet it was awfully hard to sympathize with him at all. He’s been accused of murder, which throws his small life digging up corpses to sell in exchange for cash and university classes on medicine into utter disarray. He frequently gets in fights with his brother over class differences, despite his brother having supported Sibylla hanging out with the lowly soldiers back in the countryside keep. He argues with Sibylla about their childhood relationship and its falling out. The whole thing is just… ridiculous. If he ever took a moment to simply talk to others honestly and openly, nearly all of his biggest issues would have dissolved in a heartbeat. Actually, that’s true of basically all the characters in this book.
“You speak of her highness as if you considered yourself her peer.” Harrod expelled this last word like a bit of gristle. “A pity, that. I’d hoped to find you… contrite. I thought her letter might make you reconsider your future. It wasn’t easy, but I’ve arranged a footman’s position for you in a respectable household. You’ll have room, board, and work better suited to your–” “These class differences you harp upon ain’t real!” Roger shouted. “No human is better than another. I’ve cut up enough of ’em, and we all look more or less the same on the inside. We all rot when we’re dead. A smart man may have a small brain, or the other way ’round. Royals claim their faerie magic, but it’s all smoke and mirrors. I grovel only so I don’t hang. Enjoy your golden chains and your charmed life, and leave me alone.”
The entire plot is essentially predicated on every single character acting in the stupidest way possible and utterly failing to communicate with one another. It’s like Who Framed Roger Rabbit but shitty. The storyline has more holes than Swiss cheese. I typically don’t attempt to figure out mysteries ahead of time, as I enjoy being taken along for the ride. I’d rather uncover things as the characters do – I just don’t really enjoy speculating in that sense. However, despite this, I called the ending of Caligo less than halfway through. I was torn between hoping I was wrong, since that would be too predictable even for me, and praying that I was right given that if there was a twist it was bound to be trite, dumb, and, again, predicated on characters playing idiotball with one another.
That all said, I actually quite liked two of the main side characters – namely, Ada (AKA Ghostofmary) and Emperor Timur. Ada is a young girl who manages to befriend Roger as he goes about in his grave robbing ways, and Timur is the emperor of Kalishkan, an Arabic-inspired country. Ada is interesting and a proper ball of mischief. She takes shit from no one, but has a real weakness for hot cross buns… and as a fellow carbivore, I fully relate. She enjoys hanging out at the graveyard and terrifying would-be body-snatchers.
“With a shaking hand, Roger raised the candle toward the shadows. He nearly fainted at the sight. A child swayed in the far corner, a pale girl-like thing in a puff of white nightdress. Her hands clasped a bouquet of glowing mushrooms – the hovering light. Her white sliver of neck ended in a blob of darkness. No head, no face. The candle rolled from Roger’s fingers. “By the Lady’s nethers!” He couldn’t rise from his knees, nor unclasp his hands. Whaaaaaatddddiiiiidyouuuuuubringmeeeeeeee???
. . .
“See?” she said. “I washed off the flour an’ the coal. You ain’t being hauled off to hell just yet.” “That were… you?” “I like scaring scoundrels, not killing ’em. But breaking locks, grave robbing and such, you near deserve it. Besides, I saw the prison brand on your neck. Get nabbed again, and you’ll hang.”
Timur, on the other hand, is game for just about anything. When Sibylla is tasked with wooing him by her grandmother the queen, she takes a decidedly nontraditional path by, y’know, taking him around the slums of Caligo in search of her childhood friend, Roger. I have to give the man credit: when Sibylla takes him to a morgue, his response is essentially, “Sure, why the fuck not. Let’s see what happens here.” I appreciate that in a love interest, personally. I also appreciated that the Kalishkans didn’t fall into the “woman-oppressing evil Arabs” stereotype we so often see. In fact, it was heavily implied that Kalishkan has a much more equitable and progressive society, allowing women to train as doctors or in other professional careers.
“Sibylla laughed. She had never been told she thought less of herself than she should. “And you have an understanding of what I could be?”
Tentatively, the emperor tucked a strand of loose hair behind her ear. “An equal. For example, if you tell me you are already engaged this evening, I would believe you are engaged. And if you say you are not, then you are not.”
Sibylla studied the emperor, certain he spoke of more than evening entertainments. “And if I needed this afternoon to pursue another matter?”
The emperor stared into the Mudtyne’s murky waters. “Then I would consider that a small price for a private dinner. The time it takes to weigh one’s fortune against those of others.”
Unfortunately, outside of these two characters, the rest of the cast was largely forgettable and often confusing. Many characters had similar names, similar ranks, and generally similar personalities. This made it quite a challenge to keep track of them all, especially since they were only rarely plot relevant. Several had “surprise” twists at the end of the book… which unfortunately made very little sense in the grand scheme of things, eliciting not gasps of surprise and realization, but rolling eyes and deep sighs of irritation. The ending was easily the worst part of this book.
All in all, I have to say…. if you were coming in to this book hoping for a fun mystery revolving around necromancers, of which there are none, you may have come to the wrong place. There are many much better Victorian-era fantasies out there to scratch your itch for intrigue.
Have you read this book? What did you think? Do you have any questions about it?
Drop me a line in the comments below!