#WyrdandWonder Book Review: Scarlet by Genevieve Cogman
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction
Series: Book 1 of Scarlet
Publisher: Ace (May 9, 2023)
Length: 339 pages
Author Information: Website
Being a huge fan of Genevieve Cogman’s The Invisible Library series, I was quite excited for Scarlet, as you can imagine. That said, when I started seeing the early mixed reviews, I had to remind myself to keep those sky-high expectations in check. The book has been described as a retelling of The Scarlet Pimpernel, an early twentieth century historical novel set during the French Revolution following a mysterious Englishman who leads a band of aristocrats on a daring rescue to save French nobles from the guillotine. In Cogman’s version though, there is magic and vampires.
The story introduces Eleanor Dalton, an English maid and budding seamstress in the employ of Lady Sophie, the vampire Baroness of Basting. Our young protagonist’s adventure begins when she makes the acquaintance of Sir Percy Blakeney and is recruited into his secret plot to save what’s left of the French royal family from execution. With the Reign of Terror raging on in France, Marie Antoinette has been separated from her children and imprisoned, a situation that Sir Percy’s League of The Scarlet Pimpernel simply cannot abide. Because of Eleanor’s striking resemblance to the queen, they decide to make her central to their dangerous plot by making her play a body double.
Following intense training with new identities and cover stories in place, the group finally makes its clandestine way towards Paris while trying to blend in with the local populace as bands of revolutionaries comb the countryside for suspicious activity. Once in the French capital, Eleanor becomes further entrenched in the League’s schemes even as she begins questioning her own obligations to Sir Percy, witnessing firsthand for herself the chaos of revolution.
I was glad I tempered my expectations because Scarlet is very different from The Invisible Library. The language is heavy in a writing style that might be appropriate for tone of this particular historical fantasy, but it made getting into it a little more difficult. Having never read The Scarlet Pimpernel, I can’t speak to how Cogman’s reimagining compares but I wonder if it also had a long leadup because an inordinate amount of time was spent establishing Eleanor’s backstory with the Baroness and her eventual recruitment into the League. I understand the need to establish a solid foundation, but you also run the risk of losing your readers if you belabor the process.
Having prepared myself for a slower start though, I knew that greener pastures were ahead and indeed the plot picked up once Eleanor was on her way to France. This marked the moment when the tantalizing concept of “The Scarlet Pimpernel but with vampires” finally lives up to its potential, or in other words, the real fun begins here…
Eleanor also works as a character capable of objectively looking at both sides of the conflict. Charmed by Sir Percy and his fellow aristocrats, she saw a worthy cause in saving lives but at the same time also sympathized with the suffering of the poor. Being of common birth, she was often struck by how out-of-touch and ignorant her noble traveling companions were, realizing with dismay that, even as allies, there was a gulf of understanding between them due to their class differences.
On that note though, I wish there had been more depth to the story to explore these themes. Eleanor’s self-examination is surface-level and hardly scorching, as one doesn’t get the sense that her mind has really been changed at all when all is said and done. The backdrop of the French Revolution is also just that—a backdrop, fabric-thin and one that feels hastily painted. The idea of a vampiric aristocratic class was also a nice touch, but one that was underutilized. I mean, somewhere in there is a metaphor for the blood-drinking highborn classes being a life-sucking drain on the ordinary folk, but other than that, vampires were mostly relegated to the background.
Still, it’s clear Scarlet was written to be a swashbuckling caper rather than a deep historical novel or an analytical critique of the source material. I wish there had been more time to expand upon some of the story’s themes or explore certain elements, but overall, it was an entertaining read and I had fun with it.
Having read the original Scarlet Pimpernel novels in my teens I would be curious to see how this book compares – that is, if I could remember something about style and writing…
Still, the presence of vampire in this context might be motivation enough! 🙂
Ooh, I hope you’ll get to check it out. I would love to get the opinion of someone who has read the original! 😀
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Oh my goodness, really?
I realize a lot of story telling is borrowing ideas from others, but I am so tired of authors coasting on the success of older books that have stood the test of time. the problem is, they pretty much destroy the original with their own pathetic and half-assed ideas.
Not that I have strong feelings on the issue! hahahahahaha 😀
As much as I love creative retellings, I also get where you’re coming from. Books used to be where you got the fresh ideas, now its gone the way of Hollywood where almost everything is a remake, sequel, adaptation, or retelling.
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I enjoyed the storyline but the book fell flat for my with its lack of decently written characters. None of them apart from Eleanor had any real character
I agree, I liked Eleanor but I none of the side characters really stood out.
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How believable is an englishman trying to save french nobles during the revolution exactly? Having only read the first chapter of the classic, I can tell you… well, nothing. I found the concept ridiculous there too and stopped 😅 I feel like this would’ve been better if she’d leaned heavily on the vampires, and lighter on the… saving the aristocrats
I don’t know about the motivations in the original, but in this one, just the very idea of nobles being attacked and executed was an affront! I believe the English noblemen were also worried that the revolution would spread, if I interpreted it correctly.
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I’m often torn with these stories that are retellings, or at least inspired by classics that I’ve not read. Do I read the classic first and then the retelling, or just jump into the retelling? Seems each might give a different perspective to the story.
I agree, and I’m of two minds about it too. Sometimes I wish I’d read the original because I’m sure I’m missing a lot of cool references. Other times, I think I’m just happy to lie back and enjoy the ride! 🙂
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