This is a terrific story about some concepts I can’t stand.
It’s set in the 1700s during a gnarly war and King Charles is on the throne, and European history is not one of my strong points. There’s magic, but it's well hidden. The narrator, Makepeace, is a bastard, raised as a Puritan (hence the catchy name). She’s also a bit of a poor pitiful wretch, with a passing resemblance to Jane Eyre. She doesn’t hold with any stupid symbolic animal cruelty though, and when she sticks up for an abused dancing bear, she learns she has the ability to capture ghosts inside her head.
As it turns out, this is a family trait on her birthfather’s side, and after her mother’s untimely death Makepeace finds herself in the family home, living amongst folk who carry squads of ancestral ghosts around in their heads.
If you’ve been hanging out here you probably know I hate bodyswapping stories – or basically any story relying heavily on body-mind duality. But this isn’t quite a bodyswapping tale. The possessing ghosts have the ability to take over, but they have to duke it out with the alpha consciousness. The bear living inside Makepeace’s head occasionally surfaces, giving her super fighting skills. Later on she acquires other brain buddies, such as a doctor that helps her perform surgery.
All these pet ghosts interact with each other inside her brain, and the author gets downright delirious over her worldbuilding at this point, making the story thoroughly enjoyable and elevating little Miss Makepeace from forlorn wretch to player. I have to admit, it’s a nice storytelling concept, one that seduces the reader into imaging what kind of ghost squad they’d like to carry around in their head. Mine would probably be full of musicians, and I’d threaten to give them ice cream headaches if they stopped playing.
If I may, this novel also illustrates how to throw a handful of socially positive notions into a story without turning it into a thudding righteous tract for the edification of heathens, conservatives and sinners. Makepeace is kind to animals, which is how she acquires a dead bear spirit in the first place, and the fact that she has a bear spirit leads her along her new path as a ghost host. I’ll take this over the average self-absorbed sociopathic litfic attitude toward our four-legged friends any day of the week – and yet there’s no editorializing over animal cruelty, no lingering on the bear’s suffering for more than is absolutely necessary, no militant vegans pummeling the reader with broccoli stalks.
Similarly, Makepeace makes it known to the vampiric aristocratic ghosts that rapaciously colonizing other peoples’ bodies is very retro, and since they happen to be dwelling inside her marginalized body, they can just keep their entitlement to themselves and wait their turn. It's a wonderful metaphor for deciding what aspects of an irredeemably corrupt history are worth salvaging. At the same time, all the characters are convincingly old-fashioned and religiously partisan, with Catholics tiptoeing around Puritans and witch hunts coexisting uneasily with prophetesses.. In fact, even though there are plenty of negative expressions of Christianity in this book, Christians are not mocked or derided in the least, and the concerns of a young soldier convinced he’s bound for hell are treated respectfully.
This one is a slow starter. I had to drag myself through the beginning, where Makepeace is subjected to an onslaught of Dickensian cruelties but she rallies and becomes a proper Machiavellian raw-fish-eating heroine in no time. And she does it all without any stinking love interest distracting her from what’s important, thank you very much. It’s been a while since I’ve found a romance-free YA story, and I liked this one better than most I’ve read lately. She does have a brother who serves as the damsel in distress; he’s a nice lad if somewhat entitled and feckless, but he comes through in a pinch.
And as far as the actual business of getting you all wound up with the plot, and making you care about the characters, and constructing a fictional world that makes sense – this book is leading the pack so far as I’m convinced. It has beaucoup page-turny-ness, and addictive pacing even if you’re philosophically opposed to bodyswapping.