Briefly Reviewed: Martin Sixsmith’s Russia and The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, and Sebastien de Castell’s Traitor’s Blade.

Martin Sixsmith’s Russia: A 1,000 Year Chronicle of the Wild East was just what I wanted it to be — a basic survey, condensed, of course, but not dumbed-down or super gappy, of 1,000 years of Russian history, emphasis on the 21st century, written in lively, easy-to-read prose with his particular point of view on things argued well enough to disagree or agree with with clarity as you’re reading. If you already know a lot about the USSR, this book will probably bore you. If you have forgotten what happened while you were alive if you’re old enough for that, or what you learned in high school European history if you’re younger, and are interested in the Cold War again because you are watching The Americans (and if you aren’t watching The Americans, you should be because it’s one of the best tv shows out there right now), it’s a good choice.

Sixsmith’s book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee (now misleadingly retitled just Philomena to match the movie) was on the other hand disappointing and unrecommendable. The very good movie focuses on Philomena Lee, and on the investigative journey of finding out what happened to the son forcibly taken away for adoption. (The narrative license taken in the film to make it entertaining — Philomena Lee and Martin Sixsmith did not actually take a bonding road trip to the United States together, for instance —  by all accounts still got the emotional truths of the story right). The book from which the whole thing sprang, however, is a fictionalized account of the son’s life — Philomena’s hardly in it at all — and fictionalization is not Sixsmith’s strong suit. One of the very few instances where you’ll ever hear me say “skip the book, just watch the movie.”

Traitor’s Blade by Sebastien de Castell is, as the back jacket blurb promised, a combo of The Three Musketeers and Aaron Sorkin, which is to say highly articulate swashbuckling with a wicked wit. And wickedly witty while being highly articulate about swashbuckling. And wittily swashbuckling while being wicked. Banter, check. Unexpectedly dynamic and ranging main character inner emotional life, check. Fully-imagined and well-realized semi-European Renaissance-y but with magic and stuff world, check. Well-written, complex female roles that reflect in no way stereotypes we should be the hell over now that it’s 2014— totally NOT check.

While on the one hand quite enjoying the writing, the story, the banter, the fun, and the emotional range of the protagonist, I was constantly distracted and bummed out by the outdated gender tropes and stock female character types. Women who use swords, a couple of them, are mentioned to exist in the book’s world but are never seen, and with one exception the female characters who do appear fall into the tired (so tired) tropes of beautiful dead wife, beautiful prostitute, beautiful young girl, and evil power-hungry bitch. The one quite complex and interesting female character, the protagonist never lets us forget, is very old and wholly unattractive. Traitor’s Blade is to be the first of a quartet of books set in the same world, and I really hope that de Castell improves this aspect of the world of his otherwise very lively and entertaining fantasy realm, because everything else in it makes for a great summer beach read.