Recommended Read, Review

Review: The Wisteria Society of Lady Scoundrels by India Holton (2021)

Dangerous Damsels, Book #1

Heat Factor: The door is very slightly ajar

Character Chemistry: Banter + assassination attempts + confusing pants feels

Plot: Let’s just say it’s bonkers

Overall: A very fun read…if you’re in the right mood

Full disclosure: I almost DNFed this one. I had read the first few chapters, and this was my face pretty much the whole time:

What the fork is happening?

I’m glad I powered through, because I ended up enjoying it, but the writing is…a lot. It’s manic and twee and over-the-top, and all of that can be really fun, but only if you’re in the right headspace. I found it to be very similar to Gail Carriger’s writing (manic, twee, some steampunk elements), which I generally enjoy in small doses. Martin’s writing also reminded me of Jaspar Fforde’s Thursday Next books (manic, twee, tons of literary allusions which are extremely important to the characters, if not the plot). 

If you’ve never read Carriger or Fforde, here’s a sample passage from The Wisteria Society:

She did not argue, however, because if the matter was examined too closely other questions regarding servants might arise, such as Why don’t you wash your own dishes? and Why don’t you dress yourself for parties?, and Cecilia was careful not to be too clever for her own good.

Now that we’ve established some stuff about tone and the writing style, let’s move on to the story and execution. In this book we have a society of lady pirates who, with the aid of a levitation spell, fly their houses around England doing piracy. Which is, frankly, an awesome premise. Cecilia, our heroine, is a young pirate who wants nothing more than to be offered full membership in the Wisteria Society. I mean, who wouldn’t want to be part of a society whose members give the following advice to young women:

A lady stays tranquil and poised under all circumstances. Instead of panicking, she squares her jaw, protects her heart, and ensures that she has enough ammunition to gun down everyone in her path.

Nobody, that’s who. 

Enter Ned (aka Eduardo de Luca, Italian assassin) (aka Captain Lightbourne, pirate without a house) (aka Teddy Luxe, dreamy fencing master) (aka Agent Smith, in service to Her Majesty) (etc). Ned has been hired to assassinate Cecilia, and also been hired to protect her, and also has some plans of his own. Ned is very sexy, with provocative hips and hair that flops around in a dashing manner and a smile that does weird things to Cecilia’s stomach. He smells like road dust and apple peel. 

Of course, Ned and Cecilia end up working together after all of the lady pirates have their houses stolen by the villainous Patrick Morvath. Adventures ensue, etc. 

The most fun (ridiculous) thing about the book is the juxtaposition between piracy and proper behavior that Martin plays with throughout. Cecilia is very prim. She gets upset when Ned talks about her body parts and/or clothing and/or other unmentionables. On the other hand, she feels no qualms threatening to disembowel Ned with her letter opener. She smells like roses and cannon smoke. 

Martin carries this juxtaposition far beyond just Cecilia’s character traits; the tension between piracy and propriety is repeatedly exploited, often to hilarious results. 

She considered unhitching them, leaving the carriage behind. But the animals had probably never been ridden before, and even if they had, the carriage contained no tack. Furthermore, Cecilia was dressed in colors and therefore could not possibly be seen on horseback.

My main criticism of The Wisteria Society is that sometimes, I felt like it was winking too much at the audience (this goes back to my initial disconnect with the writing style). Occasionally, Martin breaks the fourth wall altogether, addressing the modern audience directly in order to highlight patriarchal systems or draw the reader’s attention to the villain’s nature or, in one particularly jarring instance, translate the verbal sparring so that we definitely know that one character is politely telling another to “Fuck off.” I didn’t think these asides added much to the text, and they were used infrequently enough that when they did appear, they were especially noticeable. 

(Sidenote: this is also my biggest beef with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Zombie fighting? A-ok! Translating Mr. Darcy so that what was once an ambiguous but still cutting set-down becomes him saying “STFU, you dumb bitch”? Thanks, I hate it.) 

In short: if your characters are engaged in the deadly martial art of polite conversation, please trust your reader enough to detect the barbs without mediation. 

Buy Now: Amazon | Bookshop

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3 thoughts on “Review: The Wisteria Society of Lady Scoundrels by India Holton (2021)”

  1. Thanks for this review! I wholeheartedly agree with your opinion that authors need to trust their writers. However, this premise is so good I’m going to have read it nevertheless. I especially enjoyed your notes about the characters’ smells. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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