Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #233: Delilah Dirk and the King's Shilling by Tony Cliff

Sometimes a series tries to go serious. Say, for example, that Roger Moore has just retired, and so now you're thinking maybe the silly gadgets and clunky one-liners can do so as well.

This can work, or not work, for any one of a million reasons -- it's done well or badly, it fits or doesn't fit the essential tone of the series, it thrills or alienates the people that actually care about that series, it's in tune with the wider Zeitgeist or not.

It's not common for that to happen with the second installment in a series, at least, as far as I can remember. Then again, does a series really have an established tone after one outing, anyway? Well, let's assume it can, since I'm about to tell you about one case where it did:

Tony Cliff's Delilah Dirk and the King's Shilling is the second book in a lightly fantastic and purportedly historical series of adventurous graphic novels about a female...um... "freelance problem-solver?" [1] in the early 1800s. The first one, ...and the Turkish Lieutenant, was all swashbuckling and introduction and cool flying machines and falling great distances without being hurt.

But, this time out, it's personal.

No, I mean, literally, Delilah heads back to her ancestral home because a random evil Redcoat is going to slander her in England as a French spy. Has no one ever caused trouble before? Does she have a perfect rating on the Jane Austen equivalent of Yelp? This seems unlikely.

But, even though she managed to escape Major Jason Merrick and his attempt to outright murder her in Spain, she chases him back to Old Blighty with a vague hope of using her family connections to find out something bad about him and thus foil his plans.

Luckily, he is a secret agent for the French, with the requisite nefarious plan, so she does have a path to her desired end. But he easily could have just been slightly more open about his male-piggishness than normal for the time, and she would have been out of luck.

And, yes, her plan really does come down to "go back home, visit with her mother, ask some relatives if they know the Merrick family, and hope for vengeance." We (and her faithful sidekick Selim) learn that her birth name is not "Delilah Dirk" -- which is not all that surprising after the fact, but makes for good drama -- and our Delilah has many cups of tea and struggles to fit her mother's view of her as a respectable young lady, as her uncle works in the background looking up the Merricks in DeBrett's (I assume) and similar activities.

(No heroine of any book set in the early 19th century and written in roughly the last hundred years was actually a "respectable young lady," and no reader would want it so. They are boring.)

There is a dramatic confrontation at a country-house ball, several chases by horse and carriage, a fiendish plot to cripple Wellington's army, and more than a little swordplay. King's Shilling is somewhat deeper and more nuanced than Turkish Lieutenant, but it's still at heart a big, boisterous adventure story set in a world where the right young woman can become a legend because of the skill of her sword arm and the strength of her will.

That, sadly, doesn't describe our world, but that's what fiction's for: to make things better and more like what we want them to be.

[1] She's almost a soldier-of-fortune, but the being-a-woman-in-1807 tends to make that a bad descriptor. She's also much too on the side of the righteous for that label to stick.

Frankly, she has the kind of "job" that only works in fiction because her creator loves her and keeps his thumb firmly on the scales to make it turn out right. What she does is odd, vaguely violence-related jobs (retrieving runaway daughters, finding fabled artifacts) that are given to her by a loose international network of "good families" on both sides of the Napoleonic Wars, who pay her on completion whatever fee they feel is appropriate.

This clearly can only make any sense -- even for a man doing the exact same thing, which would be only slightly more plausible -- because Tony Cliff thinks it's cool.

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