Right so now that I’ve (finally!) posted a review of Celestial Mechanics I can tell you all about the next book in the series. It’s pretty much a standalone except one of the two leads had a tiny role in the first book, and you’ll see Eliza (one of the maids to Lady Catherine in the first book, turned engraver’s apprentice here) quite a bit but she’s not the main focus.
Mostly it follows the same themes as the first (independent women, doing their own thing! and falling in love!) but this time with printing and bees! I’ve been quite obsessed with bees during first lockdown (this guy’s videos are just… so soothing??) so it was really enjoyable to learn a bit more about it from a historical perspective. And I also learned quite a bit about the period at the end of Regency, beginning of George IV’s reign, which was really new to me.
When Agatha Griffin finds a colony of bees in her warehouse, it’s the not-so-perfect ending to a not-so-perfect week. Busy trying to keep her printing business afloat amidst rising taxes and the suppression of radical printers like her son, the last thing the widow wants is to be the victim of a thousand bees. But when a beautiful beekeeper arrives to take care of the pests, Agatha may be in danger of being stung by something far more dangerous…
Penelope Flood exists between two worlds in her small seaside town, the society of rich landowners and the tradesfolk. Soon, tensions boil over when the formerly exiled Queen arrives on England’s shores—and when Penelope’s long-absent husband returns to Melliton, she once again finds herself torn, between her burgeoning love for Agatha and her loyalty to the man who once gave her refuge.
As Penelope finally discovers her true place, Agatha must learn to accept the changing world in front of her. But will these longing hearts settle for a safe but stale existence or will they learn to fight for the future they most desire?
I finally found some time to read this book I’ve been meaning to read since I received it. And once I got started, I couldn’t really stop… Once again I was impressed by how good Olivia Waite’s writing is. I wasn’t sure I’d really care about Agatha Griffin as a MC/love interest, from the glimpse we had of her in Celestial Mechanics. Don’t get me wrong, I liked her as a character, but she probably would not have been my first choice. And yet this worked amazingly well.
I think one of the main things that make this work is that Agatha is basically all business, she’s a 40something widow who’s got to take care of a busy printershop that her son’s not ready to take over, she’s got to deal with censorship/sedition laws while wanting to print political (and financially profitable) materials, and she’s got bees??? invading her warehouse. So she’s a grumpy woman, but with a good few reasons to be grumpy, and not a Darcy-like highbrow character (don’t get me wrong I love Darcy but the man’s ego could deflate a bit when we first meet him) and I loved how she goes from “freaking scared of bees” to “hey let’s go and tour the beehives” basically.
And the romance, let me tell you about the romance! I was squealing in glee about 20 pages in because it gets epistolary and you can see them (well, Agatha) having an existential crisis over every word, and you can see their relationship develop in as little as the way they address each other! It’s magnificent. And down to the last 20 pages or so, you’re not fully sure what’s going to happen (though there’s lots of happiness in the middle pages too!) so it was a wild ride from start to finish.
There was a much stronger backdrop of politics, which makes sense when you’re talking about a printer’s that’s doing pamphlets and etchings of news events, and all that. It complemented the story rather than distracted from it – gave characters motives and things to thrive for. It also brought in sharp relief the issue of women’s, and queer people’s, position in a society where a certain conduct is expected of you and everything could ruin your reputation, or if you’re a gay man, bring you the death penalty. It was brought up subtly, but it was definitely there, in the bigoted characters that Penelope Flood especially had to be confronted with.
It also made it extra-satisfying when the bigots were thwarted. And once again Olivia Waite does that so successfully in part because she doesn’t just show you a couple, but a community. Penelope’s old friends Isabella and Joanna, with their erotic sapphic poetry and sexy sculptures, the radical young girl who thinks marriage is a prison and women should be allowed to vote, the radical (and bisexual) Mrs Koskinen who’s into organizing protests, Penelope’s brother and his practically-husband who’ve carved a life with each other…
I loved the romance part of it – that’s why I got it! – but what sets this novel apart for me, and puts Olivia Waite on my automatic-buy list, really is that sense of community, and of acceptance for queer characters, which it feels so good to read in a historical novel. And all this masterfully done without erasing any of the bigotry of the time, just showing people like us triumph over it.
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