Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Dead in their Vaulted Arches Review

If you've been following my blog for a while, you know that I adore Alan Bradley's Flavia de Luce series. He publishes about one a year and is up to book six with this current release. Flavia is an almost 12 year old daughter of a formerly wealthy family who lives in a crumbling estate in England. She has a distant father, two resentful sisters and a mother who disappeared in a mountaineering accident when she was only a baby. Flavia is intelligent, headstrong, independent and obsessed with chemistry, especially the making of poisons. The series has taken place over the course of about a year during which time Flavia has been involved in six mysteries, usually involving a dead body. Left mostly to her own devices, Flavia seems to raise herself and both causes and gets out of trouble relatively easy. She's a true, unique voice and an intriguing protagonist.

Anyway, about a year ago, I was sitting in the Trenton train station waiting for my mother-in-law to pick me up for my sister-in-law's rehearsal dinner. She was running late, so I got to finish the previous Flavia de Luce mystery, Speaking from Among the Bones. It ended with a spectacular cliffhanger, which (SPOILER ALERT), I am going to talk about in this review since A. the book came out over a year ago and B. the cliffhanger is central to the plot in this novel. This review is going to be pretty spoiler heavy so please, read at your own risk if you haven't picked up the book yet.

Another reminder - SPOILERS BELOW!

Speaking from Among the Bones ended with Haviland de Luce, Flavia's father, calling his three daughters together and announcing that their mother, Harriet, had been found. I completely freaked out when I read this in the train station, especially when I learned I had a year until the next book came out. I wrote in the review of that book that this wasn't exactly a surprise. Harriet has been a lively and mysterious presence in the books since the beginning. The family's financial issues are even tied up in the fact that Harriet did not leave a will and the property does not just automatically revert to the father or the girls. So it wasn't a surprise that she would resurface, since her body had never been found. However, the more I thought about this new novel, the more I wondered how Harriet's presence will affect Flavia. Of course her return will solve the financial woes of the family and they will no longer lose their beloved family estate, Buckshaw, but how will Flavia cope with having a more present parent?

I was completely let down by the end of the first chapter. The whole family is gathered together, along with most of the townspeople, at the long out of use Buckshaw train station, which has been repaired for this special train visit. Haviland refused to go to London to meet Harriet since they first met at Buckshaw so it was more appropriate for them to meet again at the station. It doesn't take long before I realized that the train full of dignitaries and important members of the government (Winston Churchill himself shows up!) was not escorting home a live and healthy Harriet, desperate to reunite with her family. Instead, it was carrying her body, which had been found preserved in a glacier after ten years. I should have known Harriet wasn't found alive. It would have solved too many problems to easily and Flavia's story would lose momentum. Harriet's actual death makes for a much more interesting plot.

On the platform, Churchill approaches Flavia and says something strange to her about Pheasant Sandwiches. She has no clue what this means. A little while later, a very tall man walks up to Flavia and whispers something to her about the Gamekeeper being in danger and the Nide. She again is confused but is swept up in the moment of her mother's coffin being unloaded from the train. Before the de Luces begin the trek back to Buckshaw, the tall man winds up dead beneath the wheels of the train. Flavia hears someone exclaim that he had been pushed but is quickly ushered back into the family car and heads home to begin the mourning process. Harriet's body is laid out in her bedroom, which has been untouched for ten years and each member of the family from Haviland, to his sister Felicity to the three de Luce girls are charged with standing vigil over the coffin.

Flavia, of course, decides to use her hours to resurrect her mother using some complicated chemical reaction. She has to sneak off to get the equipment, but as usual, she is hardly missed by the family. Alone, finally, with her mother's grave, she cuts through the layers of the coffin and for the first time, sees her mother's face, perfectly preserved and looking remarkably like Flavia herself. She also manages to retrieve a leather purse from her mother's clothing which contains what appears to be Harriet's will. However, before Flavia can continue her experiment, representatives from the Home Office (the branch of the British government that deals with immigration, security and law and order) release her from her vigil to conduct an autopsy.

Flavia also uses her chemistry skills to develop a roll of cinematic film that she found in the attic (or in her laboratory - I can't remember which). It reveals Harriet flying her plane, Blithe Spirit, while pregnant with Flavia, playing with her older daughters and having a picnic with Haviland. She also mouths the words "Pheasant Sandwiches" to whoever was filming when her husband's back was turned. Clearly Flavia's interest is peaked. The various funeral events slow up her investigation as she gets the opportunity to fly in her mother's old plane (twice) and get sidetracked by her annoying young cousin, Undine, the daughter of Harriet's cousin, Lena. However, due to various circumstances, Flavia begins to suss out the truth about her mother.

The big revelations: Harriet was a spy. She was sent to Japan during WWII, where coincidentally her husband was interned in as a POW. Her job was to identify a mole in the British government who was passing on information. On her way home, she went through the Himalayas and met her end (fell or pushed?) She actually came face to face with Haviland while as a guest of the Japanese government (they were showing off their captured British officers) but they could not acknowledge each other. How heartbreaking that this was their last view of one another. Harriet, and possibly Haviland, were part of a secret MI group referred to as the Nide (a group of pheasants). The phrase "Pheasant Sandwiches" acted as a warning about the spy.

The double agent, as it turns out, was Lena de Luce, Harriet's cousin. I was suspicious of her from the start so I sort of figured she was from the "dark branch" of the de Luce family tree, especially when she asked to meet with Flavia alone towards the end of the book. This never actually happened because the police also were onto Lena who during Harriet's funeral tries to flee and ends up meeting a nasty end while attempting to jump through a stain glass window. Yuck.

The other big turn of events is that the youngest daughter of the de Luce families are given certain privileges and responsibilities. Flavia has always been given free reign to explore her own interests. Turns out her father was always keeping an eye on her and allowing her to have freedom, despite others' recommendations. He was also helping to keep her laboratory stocked with the supplies she needed. This explains why her sisters have always resented her - they sensed that she is involved in something they are excluded from. It also explains why Harriet ended up leaving her Buckshaw in the long missing will, and why Churchill approached her at the train station. By the end of the book, Haviland tells Flavia that he has neglected her education and that she is being enrolled in the same school her mother went to. Flavia truly is being groomed to take on her mother's role in the family.

The ending made me think that there might not be another book, but according to Bradley's wikipedia page, he was originally contracted to write six books in the series, but that was pushed to ten just recently, which is awesome. I don't know what will happen next, though. Will the upcoming novels take place in Buckshaw during school holidays or away at the school in Canada (where the chemistry mistress is an acquitted husband killer!). I'm intrigued by the idea that Flavia's world will broaden and she will have to navigate a whole new set of rules. A school has to be more rigorous than her free life at Buckshaw. Also, I'm interested in the idea that she is being trained to take on an important government role like Harriet was. This is going to give Bradley the opportunity to reset the series if he wishes too, which should be interesting. So far, there is nothing on his website indicating the next title or when it will be released but I'm hoping Bradley will stick to his annual book releases because I am dying to know what will happen to Flavia next!

Great article about the series

Buy it at amazon and Barnes & Noble 

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