Back when I was a fragile young Starving College Student, I had a deep and abiding love of history. Though never reaching the lofty goal of history professor, I retain my love of the past so naturally I began to salivate at the prospect of a tasty piece of period fiction coming up on my review plate. Though the front wrapper is plain, any good reviewer knows to let the flavor of the text do the talking. So will Fraudulent delight or despair?
Before we find out, it’s time once again to recite the solemn rules of the Starving Review:
- I attempt to rate every book from the perspective of a fan of the genre
- I attempt to make every review as spoiler-free as possible
As with several of the meals up for review lately, Fraudulent dances on the line between inspired and mediocre. There is a great story here, one that is fairly competently told, that finds itself held short of greatness by a variety of minor missteps. A little too much spice here, an underbaked layer there, each little problem adds up to hold back the overall narrative. Let me be clear, though, in that Fraudulent is never held back enough to be bad! In fact, with just a little bit of work it could easily rise to be a truly great dramatic work.
Let’s touch on the high points. The core of the story and the dramatic interplay between the characters is excellent. The main characters are well-realized and that is what makes up the core of this character-driven piece. The bits of historical lore mixed in throughout the piece speak to a properly-researched recipe, a must for any period piece! The plot itself holds up to scrutiny and moves along at a steady pace. At all levels, the core recipe of this literary treat is good and proper.
The meal’s best moments are when the core themes of the book, which all revolve around the secrets we keep and the repercussions these can cause, come to the fore (I can’t go deeper as it would be SPOILERS!). Mr. Spake shows a strong understanding of both human emotion, relationships, and the peculiarities of Victorian English culture. It’s when these interact with those central themes that you see the full potential of this book.
So where do things sour a bit? There are two main issues that hold Fraudulent back from greatness. Each on its own is relatively minor, but both together add enough off-texture bites to drag the whole recipe down a notch.
First off, there are some systemic stylistic issues that distract from the reading itself. For the most part, the chef keeps proper control of his shifting points of view, signalling when it changes by scene and story breaks, and yet there are quite a few random departures from this stylistic rule. Often this interjects random bits of mental insight from minor characters, but this only adds unneeded details and distractions to the story being told. Combine this with a need for a serious round of formatting and editing cleanup (especially when it comes to paragraphing, something that makes the flow of dialogue and description difficult to follow at times) and you have a book that seems to fight the diner at times over the right to eat it.
Secondly, there is an extensive sequence in the middle of the book, essentially an extended flashback as told by one character to another, that is handled somewhat clumsily as an extended dialogue sequence. As written, it is a huge info-dump, an understandable one, yes, but it could have been handled much more smoothly through several literary techniques, such as using the start of the discussion to switch to a ‘flashback’-style scene of the character reliving the story he is telling. As with the stylistic and formatting problems above, it’s a minor problem, but it gets stuck in between my teeth easily and it occupies a good chunk of the book’s pages.
So, in summation, Fraudulent is an almost-great slice of Victorian drama cake that is just a bit too sloppy stylistically to reach that greatness. All the same, if someone is a fan of solid character dramas and can put up with the formatting and stylistic problems throughout the book, I would wholeheartedly recommend it, warts and all. However, if you aren’t already a fan of the genre, I would give Fraudulent a pass at the dinner table. If Mr. Spake does take this one back to the kitchen to have the recipe edited and a fresh edition whipped up, I could then freely recommend this to any and all parties.
FINAL VERDICT: *** (An almost-great slice of Victorian drama cake that is just a bit too sloppy stylistically to reach that greatness!)