I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
There’s something I’ve been meaning to say about books for a while that I don’t think I’ve gotten to yet. Present tense immediately takes me out of a story. I’ve had many books that I’ve read where I had this problem. It’s jarring to me. I would read a part, put it down, and come back the next day not thinking about it and be rattled when I read the first few words and remembered, “Oh yeah, present tense”. I don’t think present tense has worked for me in any book, but it was an especially odd choice in this one when it’s supposed to take place a long time ago.
As I said, this isn’t so much just a “this book thing”. It’s bothered me a lot of times while reading different novels, but when I wrote the reviews for them I never got around to mentioning it because other things would come up that were more important. So, why am I mentioning it here? Well, because I actually really liked this book so I don’t have much more criticism for it. It was well-paced, kept me interested and I cared about the characters. I don’t have much interest in historical stories, but a good story is a good story (and it’s not the first novel based on historical events that I’ve liked, either, even though it’s not my personal interest).
Sebastien is a spy pretending to work at a printers’ shop while infiltrating revolutionary meetings. The problem is, while he’s interested in justice and avoiding bloodshed, he doesn’t know which side he agrees with more. He feels sympathy for the revolutionaries and their plight, though he still intends on doing his job.
While working, he pays prostitutes to give him details about the clients that meet and abuse them. One particularly prostitute, Zephine, gives him a detailed description about a man that not only horribly abuses her, but the other girls, too. He’s known only as ‘Teacher’. Sebastien takes the sketch to his superior, Allard, though his superior doesn’t seem interested in getting sidetracked from their main mission of preventing another war.
Nothing seems particularly abnormal – though Sebastien feels sympathy for the prostitutes, their plight is all too common, and even people who feel sorry for them often do little more than that. Even the prostitutes themselves sometimes defend the men who abuse them, knowing they can’t get much better anywhere else.
Then Zephine turns up dead, with a pamphlet similar to the one that Sebastien drew his sketch on stabbed into her chest with a message. Sebastien is determined to find her killer, but his life is plagued with its own problems. He lost his daughter, and the relationship between he and his wife is severely strained. They choose not to even live together anymore. On the other hand, Sebastien also has someone else who he is passionate about, though he wants to stay away because he still cares for his wife.
I liked the way relationships were handled in this. Sebastien’s wife, Marie, is not evil. Often times when there’s a relationship that isn’t working out, one partner will be painted like they’re the spawn of the devil. That isn’t the case here. They’re both flawed, and dealing with the death of their daughter was too much for them. They still care about each other, but at times they can’t stand to be around each other. Marie suspects there is someone else but, frankly, this is a time when there was little women could do about it.
Trying to solve a murder in a time before modern day forensics is not an easy task. Sebastien has little to go on but a sketch that is now missing. Even then, he has no proof the person in the sketch even was the killer. He recruits the help of an old, close friend, Gilbert, and they scour the city looking for clues, listening to gossip, talking to prostitutes, infiltrating meetings and tracking down men who had seen Zephine.
All the while, Sebastien isn’t even positive if he can trust his superior officer. He wants to, he believes him, but the sketch he created disappeared from Allard’s desk, and there aren’t many who would have known it was there. Allard, on the other hand, recognized the face in the sketch and is greatly concerned about who their suspect may be.
The story is well-written with just a few small errors I ran into. The characters are fleshed out, and I did want to know what happened to Zephine and why. There are a lot of people involved, and while I was generally able to keep track of where they were and what was going on, once in a while I would get a little lost. There’s a lot of developed characters, but many we don’t spend too much time with, too. I felt like I knew the prostitutes that Sebastien spoke to, but several of the revolutionaries were mostly names. I wouldn’t really say to change it, because I don’t need a fifty page backstory about every character he talks to, and it’s easier to go with the flow of the story and figure that I knew they were a revolutionary and I didn’t need much more info than that.
I remember in particular that Gilbert was looking for Benoit, and I was trying to remember how his name came up as a suspect and couldn’t. I’m positive it was in the book, but there are so many groups and people they speak to that it’s easy to forget details.
Someone who is sensitive may want to skip this book. There is a rape scene, and it’s very uncomfortable to read (as a rape scene should be). It also doesn’t brush around the fact that many of the people live wretched lives full of abuse, rape and starvation. Many people are missing teeth because they sold them, it isn’t uncommon to see bruises, and more and more people are falling from higher positions and trying to survive in the slums. Even small children are not only working, but offering to help find people prostitutes for money. The prostitutes themselves are barely surviving, with nothing to guarantee that they won’t be murdered or brutalized that day because they’re easily replaceable to their pimp. And yet he’s better than what they will find elsewhere.
If you can handle that sort of read, I would recommend it. It kept me interested throughout, and it’s one of the books that, after a couple of days, I sat down and finished off the rest of it instead of reading a chapter a day.
I give it a 10/10.