The Oracle Glass

One of the great joys of reading is the ability to vicariously test drive other lives, other jobs and other historical eras. Fans of Gone With the Wind may put themselves into Scarlett's shoes and imagine what it’s like to scheme and plot to get what they want and put off all consequences until a tomorrow that never comes, or they might pull on Rhett's coat and not give a damn while also pursuing their fondest dreams.

A book in which the protagonist also steps into another's shoes adds yet another layer of deliciousness to the seven layer burrito of the reader experience. When Sherlock Holmes puts on of his many ingenious disguises and hits the streets it's as though we too are wearing another mask and it's exciting, albeit secondhand excitement. So when I read the first chapter of The Oracle Glass by Judith Merkle Riley and saw that the protagonist, a 15 year old French aristocrat, was pretending to be a century and a half old fortuneteller preserved by an alchemical accident I was thrilled and intrigued.

Genevieve Pasquier is daughter to a scheming unfaithful mother, a scholarly poverty-stricken father, and sister to a radiantly beautiful blonde who attracts every man who sees her. Unfortunately Genevieve is not just tiny, dark and not nearly as pretty as her sister, she's also deformed with a twisted back and clubfeet. Rejected by her mother at birth, she flourishes under the tutelage of her father, spending the rest of her time with her opinionated and bedridden grandmother.

Then one day she leaves the house for a routine errand and her life changes forever. She meets the most handsome man in Paris, a destitute poet called Lamotte who fancies himself in love with Marie-Angelique, Genevieve's beautiful sister, a woman he has only glimpsed through a window. His cynical friend D'urbec, who supports himself by writing broadsheets that have been outlawed by the King, accompanies Lamotte. D'urbec is taken with Genevieve's wit and learning, but sadly she only has eyes for the poet.

When Genevieve's mother takes the two daughters to see a fortuneteller, a frightening woman called La Voisin, Genevieve is intrigued to see images appear in the glass of water the fortuneteller reads. Assured that it means nothing she thinks no more of it until her father and her grandmother die on the same day, leaving her at the mercy of her mother and terrible uncle who torture her because they believe she is hiding a treasure her father left her. She leaves the house and is on the brink of throwing herself in the river when along comes La Voisin with an interesting offer. Come to work as a seer, reading the fortunes of the aristocracy of Paris and Madame will make sure that Genevieve is revenged on her horrible family. When she accepts she steps into a world of political intrigue filled with poisoners, rogues and diabolists.

I wasn't sure I was going to like this book. A friend recommended the author to me so I grabbed the first two books of hers I found and was somewhat dismayed to realize this book was going to have a lot of French politics in it. I've read a lot of historical/political books that were rather dull and I don't have the patience to read any more. The Oracle Glass succeeds as a splendid novel because the politics are just background and Genevieve's story of passion, revenge, deceit and love is the focus of the book.

Many of the characters are based on actual people, including several mistresses of kings as well as most of the various witches, fortunetellers and the like. A character I was particularly intrigued by is also based on a real person, Lieutenant Desgrez of the Paris Criminal Police. At one point he goes to absurd lengths to obtain a confession from a suspected poisoner - he's like a cross between a bloodhound and a terminator. He circles Genevieve for most of the book, trying to discover her secrets and the author does a brilliant job using him to create a great deal of tension. The Oracle Glass has a little bit of something for everyone, romance, history, politics, detectives, murder, mayhem, suspense, impersonation and a nice dose of the paranormal. But I'm afraid if you're looking for werewolves or vampires you're out of luck.

One-Paragraph Review

This week's one-paragraph review is from Jayson who reviews Ghost Squad for the Wii saying, "It is a good homage to the classic arcade game although the graphics could be better. Calibrating the aim is good but the missions can get tedious at times. It's basically true to the reviews. Party mode is interesting with its ninja and paradise mode and all the changes made to the characters. There are a bunch of unlockables, but you have to go through the game so many times to get the all important panda suit. Oh yeah, it has a panda suit!" Have you got a one-paragraph (or smaller) review you'd like to share? Send it in to me and I'll run the most interesting ones. You can reach me at feedback@qualitytimeweekly.com.