Brian Preston, A Lady Under Siege

 This month, the Beer and Books crew are reading Brian Preston’s Stag, whose subtitle is the glorious A Novel for Guys Who Haven’t Read a Novel in Years (briefly noted here). I thought it was great fun, enough so that I’ve invited Brian to our meeting in the hopes that the conversation will go smoothly

Stag’s subtitle, A Novel for Guys Who Haven’t Read a Novel in Years, doesn’t apply to our group, but we do skew hard toward books by male writers. When I met up with Brian (first name for people, last name for authors? Twenty years a literature prof, and it's still weird!) in order to buy several copies of his novel, he gifted me with a copy of a previous novel, A Lady Under Siege, commenting that his readerly friends had said that if Stag was for guys, A Lady Under Siege was for, well, ladies.

This novel depends for its success on Preston’s ability to depict the internal and external lives of both men and women. It’s genuinely a romance novel, and as the meme has it, in such situations there’s always a risk of a character “breasting boobily down the stairs,” so to speak. As a stay-mostly-at-home father, Preston’s got an advantage in this area. From our conversation, though, it also seems that he’d listen carefully to the thoughts of advance readers anyway, and he does use readers in this way.

I thought he did well, myself, and the cover image might be one clue for the reasons behind that success. For the front cover, Preston chose the less-common version of Artemisa Gentileschi’s painting of Judith, namely the 1611-12 Judith Beheading Holofernes rather than the 1620-21 Judith Slaying Holofernes.2 Yes, admittedly the art historians think that Slaying is an improvement over Beheading, but never mind that. (And maybe it was just a question of which one’s proportions suited the cover better? Or worries about licensing? Never mind!)

For me, the immediacy and rawness of Gentileschi’s earlier version much better suits the situation that Preston’s characters find themselves in, particularly the key female characters Meghan and Sylvanne. Everyone in A Lady Under Siege is making it up as they go along, living without a plan (and with no ability to plan!) but trying to make things work out okay, and that’s MUCH more the spirit of the earlier Gentileschi.

It’s tricky to say much about this novel without giving it away, but in brief, A Lady Under Siege is a romance novel whose events happen partly inside dreams, dreams that may or may not represent time travel (similar to the version of time travel [or whatever it is] in Emily St. John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility, which I read not that long ago, but with no elements from science fiction). The newly separated Meghan, now living with her young daughter next to the boorish Derek, has been plagued by dreams that she’s come to obsess over, and the question is how her waking life should relate to and deal with the life she sees in her nightly dreams, the travails of the Lady Sylvanne. Per the novel’s back cover:

“… a fast-paced, complex and quirky story of courtly love, contemporary romance, and affairs of the heart that span the centuries. When lovers collide across time, a twelfth-century Lord can find life lessons in twenty-first-century pop songs, and a modern woman can find a champion in the unlikeliest of places.”

Like Stag, this book’s just really great fun, and absolutely I can imagine it making a lot readers happy.

Now, I mostly read Serious Books, and in my professional life that infects the rest of my life, I also Take Them Seriously, so in many ways I’m deeply ill-equipped for something like A Lady Under Siege. In others … I mean, this is exactly the kind of thing that self-publication is built for. I can’t imagine smaller Canadian publishers, whose survival depends in large measure on publishing subventions even for fiction, ever taking on a 350-page romance without literary pretensions, and I don’t see much here to say that it was written with an eye to please a publisher rather than a reader.

Definitely this novel will please its readers, too, not just in the complicated relationships that Meghan and Sylvanne have with Derek and Thomas, respectively, but in Meghan’s relationship with her precocious daughter Betsy. Although at times I’d distrust a scene or a character’s action, I was never distracted by that, and I always looked forward to picking it up again. I found all kinds of satisfactions here, and was gratified by the conclusive but non-quite-closed ending.

Back to my own subtitle: do we need big publishers, or publishers? No, but authors need marketing, and they need access to an audience. Publishers have no advantage in the specific realm of publishing, but they do have a massive and semi-monopolistic advantage in the Rube Goldberg apparatus they’ve built around themselves: marketing, distribution, legal, and all the rest. That’s why small publishers, especially newer ones like the remarkable Fish Gotta Swim Editions (every single one of whose lovely books everyone should buy for their best friends!), face such an uphill struggle with sales.

I’d love to hear that Brian Preston was selling lots of copies of his books (click here to read about them!), even if through Amazon (I hate Amazon, and have never once bought a book from them, but click here if you must), but I worry. Publishers suck up virtually all the energy in the room.

Poke a big publisher in the eye, and buy A Lady Under Siege. If you live in Victoria, BC, you might even find a copy in a local independent bookstore. Who doesn’t need a fun read once in a while?

(Cross-posted from my Substack: hardly any readers over there, and I don't really want to do the hustling needed to get more even though it's a beautiful platform.)


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