ARC Review: Whitley: Fawkes

Book Cover
title: Fawkes
author: Nadine Brandes

pages: 448
format: eARC
buy it: Amazon | B&N | Goodreads
rating: 2/5

Silent wars leave the most carnage. The wars that are never declared, but are carried out in dark alleys with masks and hidden knives. Wars where color power alters the natural rhythm of 17th century London. And when the king calls for peace, no one listens until he finally calls for death.

But what if death finds him first?

Keepers think the Igniters caused the plague. Igniters think the Keepers did. But all Thomas knows is that the Stone Plague infecting his eye is spreading. And if he doesn’t do something soon, he’ll be a lifeless statue. So when his Keeper father, Guy Fawkes, invites him to join the Gunpowder Plot—claiming it will put an end to the plague—Thomas is in.

The plan: use 36 barrels of gunpowder to blow up the Igniter King.

The problem: Doing so will destroy the family of the girl Thomas loves. But backing out of the plot will send his father and the other plotters to the gallows. To save one, Thomas will lose the other.

No matter Thomas’s choice, one thing is clear: once the decision is made and the color masks have been put on, there’s no turning back.

This alternate telling of the Gunpowder Plot with magic wound up being a rather confusing mess because of the substitutions made. I felt like the book didn't go full-bore where it needed to, and a lot of the implications of the changes made were...either not thought through or not explored in-text.

But let's start with Thomas, because the book starts with him and that's where I first got let down. Thomas never really felt real to me throughout the book, and that might be because he had very strong goals but I didn't get a strong sense of his motivations. He was a character comprised purely of "I want X", but without a reason for wanting X, without his need for X impacting or displaying his personality at all. So he wound up feeling like a cannonball being rolled through the story, just knocking things around without rhyme or reason. He very enthusiastically jumps on the bandwagon of whoever offers him his X, and it makes him pretty wishy-washy without that wishy-washy quality every being addressed or used.

I also had problems with Emma's portrayal as (I guess technically a spoiler but also that's part of the problem) an African-English woman in 1600's England. Or, rather, not with Emma herself as she's a fine character and has a cool history and a lot of interesting personal conflict going on. She was far better than Thomas as a character, but the book wanted to have Things To Say about being a black character in 1600's England that it just...didn't do well, I don't think. Having Emma's race constantly compared to this made-up plague as if both things were on the same level of oppression just really bothered me, because 1) flattening all axis of marginalization to being treated as the same thing is problematic and 2) the author...thinks her made up thing is on the same level as racism? I can't even parse why that bothers me, but it does. (Also Emma was fetishized like woah by Thomas, this lady really deserved a better book.)

But now for the world. So there's a plague that turns people to stone, there's magic that's based on colors, and there's this big divide between Igniters and Keepers which is supposed to stand in for Catholic/Protestant tensions. Just...so much here.
  • Thomas, a guy who lives in this world, has no idea what the beliefs of Ignites and Keepers are. Just, none. Says he's a Keeper and then has to have that position explained to him. It's like saying you're a Catholic and then have to have the idea that God exists explained to you, we're talking that level of ignorance. 
  • ...where are Catholics and Protestants in this story? Does religion not exist? Kind of...weird, especially given the huge role the Catholic church plays in English history. White magic stands in for God in this story, but there's nothing to replace the power vacuum of the Church, so...????
  • Oh, yeah, God very definitely exists in this story, it's just called magic because reasons. It even talks to people. Directly. With words. How tf you going to have a Catholic/Protestant fight in a world where God can literally just pop into your mind and go "uh, no, this is what I'm about"?
  • No one involved in this plot seems to have really good reasons or beliefs for what they do? There's just no religious fervor going on, no strongly held beliefs (that I could tell), no sense of tradition even. Literally everyone who's in the Keeper plot is there because someone they knew died and they want revenge. Even Thomas. And outside of the plotters...well, we don't see much outside of the plotters, so we don't understand the depths of this position or what's attracting people to either side. There's a very bare bones explanation of "this group says one color per person, this group says all the colors" and that just doesn't seem like it would inspire religion-levels of social conflict.
So, yeah, I was underwhelmed or just confused by the 'alternate' part of this alternate history, and since that was a huge part of the book...

You might be wondering, is there anything good about this book? Well, yes! Literally change out 'magic' for 'god' and it's very close to the Gunpowder Plot, which I thought was really cool and interesting. The antagonist for the book had a nice reveal; I didn't even realize until late in the book that there was a mystery around the antagonist but once it came up I could retrospectively see how the book was leading up to that. I love surprises like that, where all the clues were slipped to me on the sly and I didn't even know it. The writing was pretty decent. Emma kicked ass. So there was good stuff. It was just isolated good stuff all couched in a bunch mediocre stuff. :/

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