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Sidonie and Madame Guillotine

Sidonie de Villeduval is Yann Margoza’s love interest in the historical fantasy The Red Necklace by Sally Gardner. When she was very young, Sido was in a carriage accident which killed her mother and left her with a badly broken leg. Ever since she has walked with a limp. She is treated terribly by her father, mostly because she is a girl and is crippled, but also for mysterious reasons the reader learns toward the end of the book.

At first it seems like Gardner commits the cardinal sin of having a character who does nothing through the whole book: Sido lets the story happen to her as if she were no more than an observer. This can almost be overlooked since Sido is not the main protagonist, but a significant reason to read fiction is to read about characters that see, do, and think things that we never will. Even if a character is quiet or shy, they should still bring something unique, surprising, or larger than life to the story. If those qualities are only found in their thoughts, that still says something interesting about the character.

It’s so easy to let a disabled character just sit on the sidelines, lending nothing but their presence to the story, and I was worried that this was Sido’s destiny. She takes very little action throughout the novel. Mostly she sits in her room like she’s told, she says what she is expected to say, and because of the distant point of view, we don’t really see what she is thinking.

I relate to characters that are vibrant and swashbuckling, the ones that wear a sword on their hip and wield magic. They call to me, probably because I’ll never wield anything more deadly than a butter knife. However, this meek and mild girl grew on me, and toward the end, I realized that her quiet strength and resilience were the crowning points of her character. She lives through some of the bloodiest days of the French Revolution, as all other nobles are hunted and killed. Her survival is a coincidence, but to me, Sido is heroic simply for facing her imprisonment, trial, and truncated execution with dignity and courage. When the streets of Paris run with blood and madness, Sido walks out with her head still on her shoulders.

Perhaps it is her disability that gives her the strength to press on through the howling mob. She’s certainly had to live with the pain and humiliation of her father’s censure for her whole life. Now, I’ve never had someone hate me for the way I walk, but in my own past experiences I can see the seed of these reactions. And like Sido, these experiences have strengthened me.

There are other things about Sido’s disability that struck a cord with me. Things like how she tries to hide her limp, walking as slowly and smoothly as she can. Or how she loses that highly prized grace when she’s nervous. I can relate to that. I once put my crutch down on a rolling chair while in a lab practical and ended up on my butt on the floor. I sustained nothing more than a couple bruises, but my pride took a huge blow that day.

Something that I thought was missing from the book was Yann’s reaction to Sido’s disability. He never mentions it. Ever. It seems like he doesn’t even notice it, which may be the point, but I wanted to see some honest conversation about how Yann felt about it. I feel the least disabled around my husband. He makes me feel like I can do anything and it seems like he hardly even notices my disability anymore. However, I know that it affects him and it’s not healthy to ignore it. I got the impression that Yann was supposed to be looking past Sido’s disability, and that’s sweet. But the fact that he didn’t mention it at all seems unrealistic.

I have plenty more to say about this book so check out the full review.

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In the Shadow of the Guillotine

The Red Necklace by Sally Gardner

Life has been straightforward for 14-year-old Yann Margoza. As a gypsy, he has the ability to read minds and throw his voice, and he uses these talents to put on magic shows with his mentor, Têtu. But when they encounter the sinister Count Kalliovski, Yann is caught up in events beyond his control and understanding. Têtu is shot and Sido, a nobleman’s daughter, helps Yann escape. He and Sido meet for only a moment, but a connection is formed that will cross borders and span years. Yann manages to leave France just as the revolution begins to take its bloody toll, but he can’t forget the beautiful girl he left behind. Years later, he is still thinking about her, and when he finds out that Count Kalliovski is using Sido for some nefarious purpose, Yann decides he must return to France to save her. As both the revolution and the past threaten to swallow him, Yann perseveres, knowing that he is Sido’s only hope for freedom.

 

It was the cover of this book that caught my eye, but it was the premise that compelled me to take it home. I was intrigued and wanted to see how Gardner would weave magic into the horrors of the French Revolution and how her characters would navigate that bloody time in history.

The beginning was exciting with the introduction to Yann’s character and the distant grumblings of revolution, and the end had a nice rising motion to it- I especially liked seeing Sido facing her own challenges. But what really kept me reading were several compelling mysteries that were introduced. I wanted to know more about Yann’s origins, Sido’s mother’s death, and how Count Kalliovski fit into it all.

I thought this was a very interesting way to look at a certain period in history. The Red Necklace takes place at the beginning of the French Revolution and the facts are accurate, but this was definitely not a history book. The storming of the Bastille and the arrest of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were present, but we saw them as Sido saw them: distant events that only affected her superficially. The Revolution was an important piece of the story and a particularly striking setting, but it was not constantly in the spotlight. It was only brought to the reader’s mind in small pieces as it brushed the lives of the characters and at the very end, where it played a significant part in the climax.

Several problems with this book kept me from really enjoying it. I had a really hard time getting into it. I wanted to like it, but it’s written in a distant third person point of view that I found hard to relate to. For a long time, I didn’t feel like I had any connection to the characters. And even though the beginning and end were exciting, the middle sagged. Years sped by between two paragraphs. Yann passed several milestones as a character, but they all happened offstage with just a bit of exposition to explain them. This made the book drag while I lost interest in both the characters and the story. However, I was surprised to find a lot that I related to in Sido’s character. More on that here.

Also, Yann’s fascination with Sido is what drives most of his decisions, yet I had no idea what he saw in her. They barely spoke a few words to each other through the entire book, but the reader is supposed to believe in this strange compelling love between them that smacks of Romeo and Juliet. Perhaps the fact that their attraction is described as ‘strange’ should explain away all doubt, but it just wasn’t enough for me.

Overall, it seemed like a good book, but I was left feeling vaguely dissatisfied. I felt like it never lived up to its full potential. The Red Necklace is followed by The Silver Blade, but I’m not sure I’ll bother reading the sequel.

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