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September 26 , 2018

Daughter of the Guillotine

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This is the novel we've been waiting for from Linden Salter: a historical novel that's also a gripping page-turner that addresses the timeless themes of love and sex, death and birth, truth and kindness, freedom and responsibility.

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Set during the Terrors of the French Revolution, it will tell you more about those darkening days than Les Miserables, it’s far more accurate than The Scarlet Pimpernel, and it's a hell of a lot easier to read than Hilary Mantel's A Place of Greater Safety.

Daughter of the Guillotine succeeds so well because Linden Salter, known for strong-minded, intelligent female protagonists, has created in Jeanne Berger an ideal voice in which to articulate wit and passion, hard-headed realism and deep seriousness about things that matter. Jeanne is the daughter of the executioner whose job it is to dispatch those who have been deemed disloyal to the revolution. She has grown up isolated in a harsh world softened not at all by her duties to her late husband, himself an executioner.

On the surface, this is the story of her attempt to save the life of a man who was once kind to her, the great scientist Lavoisier, now facing execution for his oppression of the poor before the Revolution. But it is also the story of her emotional, social and moral education as she struggles with ambivalent feelings and fast-changing, perilous circumstances.

Refreshingly, this is a story about many kinds of love, not only of different kinds between men and woman but also love of class and country, love of learning, love between friends and, most important, the massive impact of the love of a mother for her child. The novel begins with a birth that immediately tests the mother-child bond in the face of death, and the strength of love in the face of death is the force that powers the whole narrative.

Daughter of the Guillotine is a genre-blender that's as interested in science, class and gender as in emotions and relationships, but the blend is more of a well-mixed whisky cocktail than a smoothie; bland it is not. It crackles with emotional, and intellectual energy, stings with dark humor, pricks unexamined assumptions with sharply probing questions - and (painlessly) teaches a surprising amount about chemistry!

Meanwhile, the chemistry between Jeanne and Lavoisier provides an unusual and engaging story of love that develops in depth and complexity as the story is told in Jeanne's terse, ardent, candid style, as the French Revolution rages about them. It’s a fine example of the rapidly-developing genre of Lab Lit (fiction about science, as opposed to science fiction).

Jeanne, this tough young widow with a baby on her hip, is a protagonist to remember, in this richly satisfying read that makes a lasting impression.

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