Friday, November 24, 2023

Microreview: Scarlet by Genevieve Cogman

A new and fresh spin on the story of the French Revolution fictional hero The Scarlet Pimpernel...but with a fanged twist.

It is the year 1793. The French Revolution is losing it’s head, or at least a lot of French nobles, and traitors (real and imaginary) are losing their heads, in any event. Eleanor works on the estate of a Baroness in England and so knows little of what is happening in France. But it so happens she resembles an important person in France, and so she is recruited by Sir Percy Blakeney, The Scarlet Pimpernel himself, to join in a rescue mission relying on her eerie resemblance. 

Oh and did I mention the Vampires?

This is the world of Genevieve Cogman’s Scarlet.

It is not surprising that Cogman, writer of the Invisible Library series, a series all about magical librarians going into worlds often inspired by books, to get books, would start a new series based partially on a book--in particular, The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy. Where her additional invention lies, is giving this world an additional spin--this is a world that, indeed, has a stratum of aristocratic vampires, at least in England, and of course, France. 

Cogman’s alternate history takes the Naomi Novik Temeraire approach to worldbuilding. Vampires exist, have a place in society, but their existence and presence has not had a visibly huge change in the history of the world up to the point of the novels. Events in France, England, and elsewhere have gone, as far as they are mentioned, on schedule vampires exist in an aristocratic, noble place, taking their place alongside human barons, baronesses, dukes and more. I am always of two minds of this approach to worldbuilding, and I had the same two minds back when I read the Temeraire novels. On the one hand, it feels absolutely like a cheat to suggest that this major change in the world has had no net effect on the events and people and history that we known (or more properly, the historical fictional world of 1793 France of the Scarlet Pimpernel). An innate conservatism of history that feels a little unbelievable. For example, given vampires clearly have noble titles, why hasn’t any gone for a crown, and an immortal crown (save of course by being killed) at that? Maybe not France or England, and perhaps Cogman simply doesn’t mention that there is an independent German State or Balkan principality that is autonomously ruled by a vampire and has been for centuries. 

The other side of the coin is a matter of the narrative ask and the amount of time and groundwork needed. The novel asks you to accept a historical fictional world of the Scarlet Pimpernel, with vampires. Cogman goes into real depth and inventive worldbuilding in showing what that kind of world is like, especially from the perspective of a servant like Eleanor. What is it like to serve in a vampire’s household? How does a vampire feed? How does the rest of society regard them? Cogman goes into a lot of thought as to how what apparently are non-supernatural vampires would fit into a late 18th century context. 

And then there is her depiction of 1793 France and Paris. There is meticulous and immersive detail to be found here in the pages of the historical moment of this England and this Paris. The place and moment of the Terror, particularly, the paranoid police state nature of the Terror is chillingly well described. Eleanor’s plunge into this world from the relative safety of England is evoked very well indeed. 

So, with establishing all of that, trying to add on top of it all a full fledged alternate history and conveying it to the reader, and still having something that reads like a novel would be too much of an ask for nearly any writer, living or dead.  So I do not give Cogman as much grief as I might for having a historical conservatism to the novel. 

That does beg the question, that might occur to you, reader, and it did occur to me for a fair point of the novel--so why vampires in the first place? What does this world gain by having them, if they have never really changed history or society in significant ways. Are they just really aristocrats with a hunger for blood?  

There are a couple of answers to this that emerge as the novel unfolds. We start off with Eleanor in the household of a vampire noble, and when she is recruited and sent to France, she encounters yet more vampires. The novel plays with expectations, showing vampires in an ordinary, almost mundane sort of light (pun intended!).  Then, as the novel unfolds, Eleanor eventually learns that...

Ah, but THAT would be telling. Suffice it to say that Eleanor, in the course of seeking to be part of the rescue mission that the Scarlet Pimpernel is on, discovers that what she thought she knew about vampires, society, and history itself is, shall we say, not the complete story. 

But there is also a strong social criticism here. Seasoned genre readers no doubt know the use of vampires as a metaphor for the desire for youth and immortality, trading the day to live forever. But there is also a strand of criticism that sees vampires as a metaphor for the nobility, the aristocracy, being parasitic and literally sucking the blood of those they control, contributing little of anything of themselves in the process. Cogman leans into this interpretation of vampires hard, and does it by starting Eleanor as thinking her employer is “one of the good ones” and becoming disillusioned by the French experience of vampires help introduce us to the metaphor gradually and inexorably. Eleanor might not be a republican by the end of Scarlet, but she certainly gets an eyeful as to what vampires CAN do to society. 

With all of this worldbuilding and discussion of theme, I’ve neglected to talk about the other virtues of the novel. Eleanor is an engaging young protagonist. While she has the spunk and verve and courage of her more established protagonist Irene Winters (of the Invisible Library), she is distinctly younger, less experienced, and her mode of reactions are somewhat different. She is driven with a vigor of youth, and in some ways more ambitious than Irene, and I look forward to seeing how she develops in future novels. 

The writing of the action scenes, description of the world, and the evocation of England and France in an alternate Pimpernel world are by and large well done. There are some truly excellent set pieces for Eleanor (who is our sole point of view) as, for example, when temporarily separated from her companions, she finds that she is indeed having to face off against a vampire far different, and far more overtly dangerous, than ones she is used to.

And for fans of the Scarlet Pimpernel movies and the novel, I think Cogman really gets the tone of these sequences and the general feel of the world just right. The Terror is dangerous, Eleanor is often in danger, but this is a relatively light touch, for all the talk of the Vampire as social parasite theme. I do owe myself a rewatch of some version or another after reading this book. (there is no lack of versions. While the Pimpernel doesn’t quite have the popularity of, say, The Three Musketeers, there have been numerous versions) 

Scarlet is the first in a new series. I recall, historically, the sequels to The Scarlet Pimpernel did not go over anywhere near as well as the original. I can hope that this will not be the case for Cogman and her series. Given her experience with her Invisible Library series, I am confident that the series will grow and mature further.

  • Engaging protagonist
  • The Scarlet Pimpernel--but with vampires!
  • Strong historical fictional shading into fantasy worldbuilding
Reference: Cogman, Genevieve, Scarlet, [Ace, 2023]

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.