Do you ever read an enthusiastic book review and wonder if the reviewer is hoping to get something out of writing fulsome praise? This, dear reader, is not the case. At least, I hope not. I am, I confess, in the middle of an exchange of manuscripts with the author just now: I will read and give helpful feedback on the manuscript of book 3 in the series while he will do the same for my hopefully-debut novel. But I did check out the sample of the first book in the series before contacting the author, because I didn’t have the energy to read and comment on a whole novel that didn’t appeal to me. While I was waiting for him to get back to me I bought that first book. And the second. And the collaborative anthology that includes a third Sophie mystery. (And in case you are concerned at this lavish spending, dear reader, be assured that on Kindle the combined price of all 3 would buy me less than two barista coffees.)
The Prussian Despatch
1772. Sophie Rathenau, adrift in 18c Vienna, only has a few coins and her dead husband’s pistol. To pay the rent and keep starvation at bay, she advertises as a finder of lost things. Now she has no less than three people approaching her asking her to look for the same thing – a lost despatch of a sensitive nature. She is thrown into a web of lies, crime and intrigue. Or maybe she throws herself in?
Sophie is one of the most engaging characters I have encountered in a book for a long time. Feisty and brave, with a tongue that gets her into trouble, her brain works ten times as fast as mine in working out who is doing what – but she doesn’t always get it right, and she has a self-destructive streak, thanks to a deep unhappiness over her past. She has clearly had adventures before, and while part of me wishes the author had started the series at the outset of her career, it gives her extra depth and the story extra interest for us as we are given snippets about her past.
Vienna in the eighteenth century, its sights and sounds and smells, its fine buildings and its rough poverty, is drawn vividly. The story tears along at great speed, and I found it hard to keep up with what was going on. To be fair, though, I am like that in crime dramas on television as well. Plus, I didn’t realise at first that there was a glossary of terms and names which made things clearer. There are scenes at the end where characters talk and more is explained about what really happened to the dispatch. Besides, I was so interested in Sophie and her world that I wanted to keep reading.
In fact, when I’d finished The Prussian Despatch I did something that I never do normally, being a professional procrastinator. I went straight on to buy the next book in the series.
The Lay Brothers
Sophie Rathenau has had to flee Vienna after double-crossing the Chancellor of the Habsburg Empire. She’s working as a barmaid in Munich and hating it. When she loses her job, and her friend disappears after becoming involved with a Jesuit priest, Sophie picks up her pistol again and gets herself entangled with an unscrupulous conspiracy.
A new background gives this series a chance to pit Sophie against new dangers in a new setting, and once again the alley ways and taverns of an eighteenth century city are brought to life so you can almost see and smell them. Old villains and new, old friends and new mean Sophie will need to constantly question who to trust. The trouble is, she is not only brave and warm-hearted but also very vulnerable as the anniversary nears of the death of her beloved husband. Will she trust the right comrades?
The Sophie Rathenau mysteries move along at lightning speed, and as with the last one I had to go back and re-read many of the passages to follow the twists and turns of the plot, but as the books are fairly short this was not a chore. What really makes the series, for me, though, is the character of Sophie. Is she an anachronism? I’d suggest not. As well as plenty of compliant housewives, a few women were also pirates and highway robbers: Sophie just happens to be less corrupt than those adventurers. But anachronism or not, she is a layered character with mixed motives, a complicated background and a whirlwind of emotions that sometimes threaten to destroy her.
This one is a short story, fitting in timeframe between novels 2 and 3, and can be found in the anthology Winter’s Edge, an Anthology of Historical Fiction. Familiar characters feature in a new adventure. For a change, Sophie’s plan works right first time and the broken heart is not hers.
I’ve found out the author currently plans five more books for the series, news that gives me great pleasure. My only complaint is that I’m going to have to wait for the rest of the series to be written!
I had fun with the photo. A Kindle doesn’t make for a great picture in itself (the cover is best in colour, but the screen version is only black and white) so I copied the fashion for what my daughter informs me is a flat lay (Why? It’s not flat) and is borrowed from makeup Instagram posts. The beer bottle is neither eighteenth century nor Viennese, but the picture was brought back from Vienna by said daughter and, I think, features St Peter’s Church. It took quite a lot of angling to eliminate miscellaneous 21c household paraphernalia from the frame, but hopefully I will remember the ideal positioning for another time.
Edit: the author has told me the picture actually features in Chapter 31. I checked it out. Sophie is outside the church ready for a dangerous rendezvous when a friend comes out and tells her, “There’s a man I don’t like the look of. Tall and swarthy, with a moustache like an Albanian.”
“He’s Turkish,” says Sophie.