Monday, June 25, 2012

Review: The Emperor's Candlesticks

Hello again, m'dears.  Today we have Petra from Winsome Reviews reviewing Baroness Orczy's first novel, The Emperor's Candlesticks.

The daring capture of the heir to the Russian throne provides a group of revolutionaries with the power to effect the release of some of their imprisoned comrades.  Young Ivàn Volenski secrets the epistle with their ultimatum in one of the Viennese Emperor’s famous candlesticks, planning on smuggling them this way across the border. An incredible set of circumstances, however, takes the candlesticks from his hands and places them in the possession of Madame Demidoff, a well-known spy for the Russian government.  Hope remains that the papers lie undetected in their hiding place, but Ivàn  will have to race against time and match his wits against the power of the government if he wishes to regain the letter and save the lives of both himself and his fellow plotters.

Baroness Orczy’s first novel did not prove a commercial success and even ardent fans of hers can see why.  Though the story contains traces of the traits that would catapult her to fame—international intrigue, beautiful heroines, bloodthirsty villains—the plot proves uneven in pacing and never strays from the predictable. The strength of the book lies in the sensitive portrayal of its characters, but even they struggle for the full interest and sympathy of the readers.

Ivàn Volenski forms part of a group dedicated to overthrowing the Russian government.  Readers do not obtain much information as to their full goals or even most of their methods, though Baroness Orczy takescare to inform them that the majority of the group abhors any plan that would require them to murder in cold blood. Even so, the group carries out a bold kidnapping that could require them to do just that if their plans should go awry, and one suspects that their comrades would not be languishing in jail if they had not concocted some other violent plot.  Orczy attempts to extricate Ivàn even further from such schemes by repeatedly blaming his involvement on his nationality.  Apparently poor Ivàn has no free will in the matter; his heritage dictates that he should join anarchist societies even if he does not fully believe in them.

Unfortunately, this explanation does not succeed in making Ivàn as sympathetic as one suspects Orczy wished.  Readers might respect the man more if he truly believed in his cause, truly desired to form a better future for his countrymen—even if he set about it the wrong way.  Instead, readers have to decide how much they can like a man who gets involved in violent plots without considering the damage they might cause.  Ivàn seems, if nothing else, at least terribly irresponsible.

The other protagonist, MadameDemidoff, does little better in securing the sympathy of the readers.  She has many admirable qualities, including charm and a quick wit, but her position might make the audience hesitant to accept her fully.  Orczy tries once again to shift the blame from her character by stating that the government compelled Madame Demidoff to work for them.  This one can readily believe, but one also has to question why the woman, if she performs her service so unwillingly, is so incredibly good at it.  The only thing that seems to bother her about her work is that she might get caught—and thus lose her admired place in society.

The hints of romance that surround the two opposing characters had the potential to arouse more interest in their fates—nothing makes characters more likable than the sufferings of unrequited love.  Orczy, however, fails to exploit this gift.  She makes one or two offhand remarks about the situation, then leaves the protagonists to focus on other affairs. Fans of The Scarlet Pimpernel cannot help but wonder how the creator of Sir Percy and Marguerite allowed such an opportunity to escape her!

The Emperor’s Candlesticks will interest fans of the Scarlet Pimpernel desirous of seeing how Orczy grew as a writer, but does not have a strong enough cast of characters or an exciting enough plot to recommend itself on its own merits.

Petra is a lover of books who particularly enjoys classics, fantasy, and swashbucklers.  She blogs at Winsome Reviews, where she and her friends discuss books and films in a Catholic light.


Alexandra said...

Wow, great review!!! I've heard of this one, but frankly I've always just been interested in her Percy books. I've heard some of her mysteries are supposed to be pretty good...but yeah. Fascinating post!

Petra said...

I'm glad you enjoyed it--and so thankful I was able to guest post here! I'm actually trying to read more of Orczy's non-Pimpernel books. This one wasn't what I expected, but since it was her first novel, I think I can forgive a lot. It's clear she was just getting started and she later fleshed out a lot of her ideas and themes in the Pimpernel books.

I have read her short story collection The Old Man in the Corner. I thought the mysteries were pretty good, though they did start to develop a pattern. They were rather Chestertonian in the sense that they provided all the clues for the readers to be able to solve the mysteries on their own. I never liked it when Sherlock Holmes would solve a mystery with information he'd kept to himself!