Review copy provided by Serial Box
Each episode of this serial has its specific authors listed, but there are thirteen episodes, and I don’t think you care who wrote episode one and who wrote episode seven, so the six contributing hands are Liz Duffy Adams, Mary Robinette Kowal, Madeleine Robins, Barbara Samuel, Delia Sherman, and Sarah Smith.
For those unfamiliar with Serial Box, their very conscious model is a TV season, only with written fiction. You can subscribe to get the serial every week when the new episode comes out, catching up with a “season pass” if you find a serial you like that’s already out. You can also buy on an episode by episode basis, and all the serials have their “pilots” available to read for free.
For many people, the serialization is part of the fun, and reading a sample will help you decide what you like. For people like me…not so much. Right up front: I fundamentally dislike serialization. I am a really fast reader, and I never got into watching TV on a weekly basis before DVDs and Netflix were widely available, so I’m not at all accustomed to the idea of having to wait for the end of the story. For me, this is not a feature. But! There is a solution to all this, and I’m doing it with Chaz Brenchley’s Crater School serial, which is subscribe to support the project and let it pile up in my Kindle until there’s enough to make a satisfying amount of story. So when the publicist for this project asked if I wanted to review it and told me the pitch and who was writing for it, I said absolutely…if I could have the whole thing. If it had a definite ending. It does and I could! So here we are.
Whitehall is the story of the early days of Catherine of Braganza’s marriage to Charles II of England. I basically always want another historical novel that’s reasonably well-researched and grounded in its period, and the Restoration is a period I know enough about to be annoying, so I was on board in an “I will catch the two nits that got through your meticulous editing process” way. (But the fact that this book did not make me run screaming in the first episode is a very good sign, because I am easily to send screaming about this period.) Catherine herself is a major point of view character, but so is the king’s acknowledged mistress, one of the queen’s serving girls, the king himself, and a few others as the story demands. Whitehall traces Catherine from her earliest alienation from the English court as a new, foreign, Catholic princess to finding her place as a beloved and acclaimed queen.
Unlike some collaborative works, each writer writes all the characters–you can’t break it down and say, “Oh, Jenny is written by Delia” or “Barbara writes the stuff with Rochester,” even if you could recognize writing style. Instead there is continuity of characters for each episode. Further, I felt that there was some effort to create a consistency of voice throughout the project, as one would see in a TV show. This has its good and its bad points. The good: Whitehall read a lot more like a novel in parts than like a series of short stories written by various people around a common topic, each with a slightly different idea of what James II would have been like in the time before his reign, etc. The bad: if you are craving a Delia Sherman novelette, a Mary Robinette Kowal novelette, etc., this will probably not scratch that itch, as the voice is a lot more averaged-out, with a lot of the quirky individuality of prose and characterization lost. This happens at least a little bit in any collaboration process, the more so with each additional collaborator, but when you have collaborators who have vivid voices you love to read, having a smoothly written group voice can be a bit more of a letdown if you’re not expecting it.
I found that there was not a lot of the kind of reminder you would find if the writers did not trust the readers–at least not the obtrusive kind. So if you’re like me and want to read your serials all piled up into one longish novel, this will not be a repetitive novel that cycles back to “remember who Lady Buckingham is? she’s the one who…” over and over again. I think that the presence of a “who’s who in Whitehall” webpage link and other links to keep you grounded will help those who are reading on a more weekly basis if they get lost in the English court. I felt that there was also enough incluing of why these people are important to the plot and why they should have some of the political/emotional triggers they have so that if you don’t have a solid grounding in Restoration history, it should not be confusing to you–while still not going into pages of backstory that would bore the fetchingly fitted trousers off those of us who already know that Catherine of Braganza wore them.
So if you’re interested in historical drama, especially in serial format, Whitehall scratches that itch, and you can give the pilot a try without committing to more. If you’re like me and a pilot will frustrate you, I can promise that there’s a whole story coming in all the pieces if you’re just a tiny bit patient.