"The author’s strongest suit is his unwavering sense of time and place. If you want to get lost in the side streets of 18th-century Munich, this author is your man."
(Book 2 of Sophie Rathenau’s Vienna Mysteries)
Fictional Saga / Mystery
I’ll confess, I was skeptical. Putting a female main character into a role never (as far as we know) played by a woman in the author’s selected historical period is a tough sell for me. In the second of his Sophie Rathenau books, Lay Brothers, David Neilson just pulls it off.
Set in 18th-century Bavaria and Austria—the period in itself enough to pique my and many other HistFic fan’s interest—the indomitable widow of a minor aristocrat, Sophie Rathenau, falls in and out of trouble with a stunning array of bad guys as she solves the mystery of a young Jesuit’s disappearance. There are more than enough close calls and cliffhangers and romances to keep the book well paced while the mystery unfolds. (Although a graduate of a Jesuit university myself, I forgave the author quickly since he drew his evil Jesuits with such delicious archness and tingling duplicity.) Sophie is hot-blooded and three-dimensional and makes as many bad decisions as any of us—altogether a believable and engaging heroine.
The author’s strongest suit is his unwavering sense of time and place. If you want to get lost in the side streets of 18th-century Munich, this author is your man. He writes with all senses firing—you feel the dirt, taste the tallow candles on your tongue, smell the filth and the roasting meats, see into the flickering and mysterious shadows. This book is underpinned by a lot of excellent research. Despite her against-the-gender-role occupation as a self-appointed private detective, Sophie Rathenau stays relatable in all her insecurities, fears, lusts, and rages. The supporting characters, particularly Sophie’s somewhat ambiguous lover Luca, are well drawn and contribute their fair share to the plot without becoming tiresome.
So this is a very serviceable read for 18th-century fiction devotees as well as general historical fiction readers. But there’s a much better book lurking that could have been brought forward by a solid line edit and a last revision. There are some weaknesses—repetition, occasional awkward writing, and a fixation with… shoulders. These distract from an intriguing story and cast of characters. All of this would have been pruned and pared and polished by a good editor, possibly making this an exceptional read - it would be worthwhile for the author to do this for, even without a disciplined edit, Lay Brothers is a book worth reading and it is written by an author worth watching.
© Jeffrey Walker
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