Muse, Brittany Cavallaro (Katherine Tegen, 978-0-062-84025-7, $17.99, 332 pp, hc) February 2021. Cover by Florian Schommer.
In Brittany Cavallaro’s alt-history Muse, the first book in a duology, readers immediately learn that George Washington decided in 1782 to assume the crown of the First American Kingdom. One hundred years later, the Washington family has formed an enduring monarchy and the country is divided into regions with provincial governors (a handy map illustrates this for readers). Claire Emerson lives in the midwestern province of St. Cloud and is preparing for the much-lauded World’s Fair. (The actual 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition was in Chicago.) She is also terrified, and as readers quickly learn, she has good reason to be.
Claire has a big problem because her abusive father is a creepy and unstable inventor who signed a deal with the provincial government to build a massive cannon-like weapon that will defend the region from their neighboring province of Livingston-Monroe. (It is unclear why the provinces, who are part of a single kingdom, are interested in waging war against each other.) Her father is convinced that Claire is a magical muse and capable, with her blessing, of making his dream of engineering success come true. When the weapon initially fails its very public demonstration, he turns on his daughter, demanding she bless his creation and save his reputation. In the ensuing moments, Claire captures the attention of the young St. Cloud governor, who assumes she is the real brains behind the invention. He whisks her away and she finds herself an unlikely prisoner/adviser who is also a pawn in a great deal of political intrigue.
Tensions between the sexes, with women embracing a frightening political plot in the hopes of gaining some small degree of power, place Claire in a tenuous position as she is persuaded to spy on Duchamp’s household. Meanwhile, Remy and Claire’s increasingly complicated feelings for each other become more confusing as he considers she might actually have the mystical powers her father ascribed to her. Invasion looms, Duchamp is dealing with traitors within his own military, the weapon doesn’t work, Claire has no one to trust (even her best friend), and some very scary individuals are present in these shark-filled waters. Everything – everything – blows up in an ending that has a doozy of a cliffhanger.
Cavallaro does a very good job of playing with actual history, and her brief prologue detailing Washington’s decision is succinct and believable. The young St. Cloud governor, Remy Duchamp, has a unique backstory that fits perfectly into the plot’s basis on rising tensions over immigration. Unfortunately, Cavallaro does not address the existence of the Indigenous population, nor include any Native Americans in the narrative, which is disappointing in a book that tries to hew so closely to history. (The narrative also ignores slavery, which is problematic, and includes almost entirely all Caucasian characters.)
What works best in Muse is Claire. She is a complex character who is forced to roll with a lot of punches and does so with great aplomb. The politics are also well thought out, and the numerous villains are outstanding. The problem is, with all that Cavallaro has done well, the absences are only more glaring. Muse is a book that should have a diverse collection of characters, that is basically designed for a diverse collection of characters, and without them readers are left to wonder what the author was thinking and why she missed such a perfect opportunity.
Colleen Mondor, Contributing Editor, is a writer, historian, and reviewer who co-owns an aircraft leasing company with her husband. She is the author of “The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska” and reviews regularly for the ALA’s Booklist. Currently at work on a book about the 1932 Mt. McKinley Cosmic Ray Expedition, she and her family reside in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. More info can be found on her website: www.colleenmondor.com.
This review and more like it in the July 2021 issue of Locus.
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