Recent Reading: Emissary by Melissa McShane

Okay, so, first, I’m glad to say that I am indeed finally moving forward with Invictus. For the first time in I don’t know how long, I’ve written a whole new couple of chapters rather than just revising stuff I wrote two years or more ago. Hopefully nothing will derail forward progress before I’ve finished a complete draft, but I’m expecting various distracting events in the near future, so we’ll see. Regardless, I’m definitely finished with revision until I have a complete draft, which is a great relief.

Coming up next, I need to have the protagonist plausibly make an important decision and then I need to transition into the next scene, which should hopefully be at least moderately exciting for me even though I do know how it works out, and with any luck significantly more exciting for eventual readers.

I set a minimum of just 1000 words per day, btw, on the theory that I can make that on almost any day. I’m happy to say that I’m actually averaging twice that, which is satisfying. I didn’t touch my laptop on the 8th, but I knew that would happen because I was scheduled to spend most of the day helping judge the local science fair (Middle School Life Sciences) and then most of the evening helping with a fish fry. The best few science fair entries were excellent, incidentally. The kids did a great job presenting their projects and demonstrated impressive grasp of relevant background material and the basics of how to design projects. I’ve probably judged that category, I don’t know, ten or a dozen times, and I always enjoy it very much.

But, moving on to the actual topic: now that I’m in a period where I’m not nearly as absorbed by my own writing, I’m naturally much more interested in reading books by other people. Various commenters here have pointed me toward Melissa McShane before. As a result, I had three of her books on my Kindle TBR pile, so I picked Emissary because it is a short standalone novel.

So, overall conclusions first:

I wasn’t going to say this novel was a nice surprise, because honestly I expected to like it quite a bit. After all, I nearly always do like the novels you all recommend. But on the other hand, this novel was a nice surprise, because I did not expect it to remind me so strongly of the White Rat series by T. Kingfisher. I know many of you like that series, so let me suggest that if you haven’t yet tried anything by McShane, you might give this novel a try. A bunch of things struck me as similar, including some elements of the style, the romance plotline, and the worldbuilding.

Writing style: While the writing style is similar in many ways, with plenty of witty dialogue between the protagonist and the male lead, I will say that this novel is not overall as lighthearted. Not that it lacks humor. But the White Rat novels seem rather tongue-in-cheek in so many ways and Emissary doesn’t.

But, though I wouldn’t say that Emissary is lighthearted, and definitely not tongue-in-cheek, it does have a positive feel to it. I trust saying that I found this a low-stress story doesn’t constitute a spoiler. I don’t think the reader can possibly doubt that a happy ending is coming up, and even when various events might suggest otherwise, that confidence in a happy ending isn’t likely to be shaken.

 Romance plotline: The White Rat novels are explicitly fantasy romances, which is extremely clear from the first paragraphs. The romance is centered in each of these novels. In contrast, at first I thought Emissary was going to feature a platonic M/F friendship all the way through. When I realized the story was actually going to turn into a romance, my first reaction was disappointment. I would have liked a centered friendship. However, I have to admit, once I adjusted my expectations, I honestly did like the way McShane handled the romance element.

I liked how slowly the romance is introduced, with none of the more over-the-top elements common in modern romances. I mean the he’s-so-hot swoony elements. Generally I just tolerate that sort of thing and I was happy not to have to tolerate it here. Then, once the protagonist realizes she’s fallen in love with the male lead, there’s a mercifully brief burst of angst, which amazing enough is not painful to read through. Then, boom, a solid relationship, which is not shaken by any later events.

Worldbuilding: You know how in the White Rat series there are all those gods and they’re quite real and rather active. Same thing here, though of course all the specifics are different. I wasn’t too crazy about the gods when they stepped on stage. They were just like people, not especially awe-inspiring or hard to understand or whatever. Just, basically, people, full stop. Not that gods can’t be shown that way; that’s how gods are shown in, oh, MWT’s Thief books, pretty much, or for that matter the Greek gods from actual mythology. Just not my favorite presentation, that’s all.

The one worldbuilding element I thoroughly dislike in the White Rat series – that awful religious sect, whatever it’s called – is totally missing in the world of Emissary. It’s true that the priests of the god of death may be viewed askance, but that’s because, you know, god of death, the whole concept makes people understandably nervous.

The most entertaining worldbuilding element is that McShane takes the most typical, ordinary ghostly manifestation possible, has those apparitions appear in this novel, and declares, These aren’t ghosts. Sure, they look like dead people and they echo the actions of those dead people and they don’t respond to the living and they’re immaterial and everything, but nope, those aren’t ghosts. Ghosts are something totally different. I appreciated the way McShane built her world, with zero infodumping and a lot of snazzy little details slipped into the story. Also, I love the way the priests of the god of death refer to dealing with a ghost as Consolation. This is one of the many details that creates the positive feel of the story.

Characterization: Maskelle in Martha Well’s The Wheel of the Infinite is a great favorite of mine for any number of reasons. One of those reasons is that she’s both powerful and confident of her power. Zarafine in Emissary is neither that powerful nor that confident, but she’s in the same basic category. She’s a priestess, more or less, of the god of death, and you know what, you really do not want to irritate the god of death. Anyway, she takes her duties seriously and I liked her a lot.

I liked her bodyguard, who’s been her best friend for six years. I suppose you all just immediately guessed how the romantic element is handled in this story, and you would be right. I like bodyguards and I liked this bodyguard, and I particularly liked the fight he had with Zaraphine in the middle of the book. That was believable and it kept either of them from being too perfect, plus it was an important transition toward their mutual realization that they both wanted to reconsider the platonic friendship thing.

The single element of characterization I appreciated most wasn’t at all important. Nevertheless, I appreciated the way McShane neatly shifting an unsympathetic character to the sympathetic category late in the story. I didn’t see that coming and I always, always like that kind of reorientation of the reader’s view of a character. McShane handled that just about as neatly as Barbara Hambly does it. Not that Hambly does it in every book, but it’s not rare, which is how I realized that “Barbara Hamilton’s” mysteries were actually by Barbara Hambly. Anyway, in this case this shift is not all that important to the plot, but I really liked seeing it.

Overall rating: Four and a half stars? Something around there.

I liked Emissary a lot and I most particularly liked it as a well-written low-stress novel, pretty much exactly what I wanted. Not as beautifully written as Marie Brennan’s Rook and Rose series, which I haven’t been able to bring myself to pick back up because it’s so high-tension; substantially better written than KM Shea’s Court of Midnight series, which I enjoyed but which did not make me want to look for more of the author’s books.

Having finished Emissary, I immediately went on to another of McShane’s books. This is the first Tremontane book. I like it very much so far, and since this one is very obviously a romance, I won’t have that little moment of disgruntlement that I had when Emissary moved in that direction.

I’m still very close to the beginning, so all I can say right now is I do kind of wish Alison would say directly, “I don’t know how you can have failed to realize this, but I just can’t stand that kind of compliment, the kind you just trotted out with that stupid little purr in your voice that you probably think sounds seductive. Cut it out and I’m sure we’ll get along much better.” I’m pretty sure Anthony would respond well to a really direct approach. Also, if somebody isn’t stealing valuable books from the royal library, I will be absolutely astonished.

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4 thoughts on “Recent Reading: Emissary by Melissa McShane”

  1. I like how all her women characters have agency and take charge. In that series each book is complete in and of itself, which I appreciate. In the saga of Willow North, the series builds which I also appreciate. They are all low key, well written, positive books. I like her Company of Strangers series a lot, too. Her extraordinaries series and The Last Oracle series, not as much.

  2. Good to know, Alison. I haven’t met Willow, who must be introduced later. I like Zara. I like everyone, really. Anthony has grown on me a lot. Anyway, I expect I’ll go on with this series, and then based on your comment, probably try the Company of Strangers series next.

  3. “Like the White Rat books but a bit more serious” sounds like exactly the book I’m looking for right now. Picked up a copy!

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