Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Kate Tattersall Adventures in China by R.S. Fleming

This little novel is the first in what is expected to be a ten part series by R.S. Fleming about the adventures of a young woman, Kate Tattersall. Fleming was a member of the Canadian military, serving as an instrument, electrical and aviation technician. The real Kate Tattersall was one of the author's ancestors and he has taken information from her diaries and letters and created a fictional character who worked as  a clandestine operative for the British in the middle 1800's.  You can read more about the fictional adventures of Kate on the website katetattersall.com

Adventures in China opens in 1849. Fifteen-year-old Lady Katelyn Elizabeth Beaufort has just "come out" in British society and has also been presented to Queen Victoria . Kate's father, Lord Beaufort, was a widower for thirteen years and has recently remarried. Her stepmother, Lady Jane Beaufort, is only twenty-five, and determined to see Kate engaged withing the year, preferably before her upcoming journey to China with her brother Jack. Lady Jane encourages Kate to consider an older nobleman so as to inherit a title and fortune, but Kate is reluctant. Kate mentions her brother's friend, Henry Tattersall, a brilliant, eighteen-year-old doctor who runs a clinic in Canton, China. She remembers him as being very intelligent and considers Henry to be a prospective husband.

Kate has hundreds of invitations, most of which she will refuse. But one she doesn't refuse is that of Lord Palmerston, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs who asks her to meet with him. Lord Palmerston questions Kate regarding her planned voyage to China, asking her if Jack has mentioned a "clandestine operation". Kate knows nothing about this, believing that they are travelling to China to deliver two crates of bibles to the Church of England Mission in Ningpo. What she does learn from Palmerston is that he and Jack have known each other for years and that her brother recommended her for this secret "mission".

When she meets Jack at his home in Hastings, Kate is shocked to learn that Jack will not be accompanying her on the journey. Instead, she will be travelling with Mrs. Farewell and her grandfather will meet them in Suez, Egypt. She also learns that Jack has been working for Palmerston and that they would like Kate to take pictures of all the new buildings in the various Chinese ports she visits on her journey.

Kate and Mrs. Farewell have an uneventful journey from Portsmouth to Rosetta, Egypt, travelling by ship through the Mediterranean Sea. From Rosetta they travelled by paddlewheel up the Nile River to Cairo where by caravan they cross the desert to Port Suez. It is at Port Suez that they rendezvous with Kate's grandfather, Sir Thomas Roberts, a tall, elderly man who served as a general.

Their trip to China is not so quiet as they repel an attack by fierce sea pirates. When Kate arrives in China, she finds Dr. Henry Tattersall desperately ill and obviously unable to complete the mission.  Kate, who finds him attractive, has her grandfather arrange for Henry to be taken to Bombay to be treated. Meanwhile, she gives Henry the package and he tells her that she must get the special rifle to a Mr. Wu in one of the nearby factories. Kate learns from Henry that Wu is to assassinate an Englishman who is smuggling large amounts of opium into China through Canton, and taking young girls as slaves out.  That Englishman turns out to be Aloysius (Wish) James Napier, a childhood friend. Can Kate and her grandfather accomplish their mission to stop the opium smuggling and the slave trading without resorting to assassination?

One of Mia Lane's illustrations
The concept behind this series is very good, but the writing doesn't always live up to expectations. Some of the dialogue is awkward (for example when Lady Jane describes her stepdaughter, Kate, as having "alabaster skin contrasting nicely with your onyx hair.") and strangely, at times the writing gets bogged down with descriptions of Kate's wardrobe.

There isn't much character development - Kate's initially presented as a headstrong girl who isn't interested in marrying young. Kate wants an grand adventure and that's what she gets. Rather suddenly she comes into her own, fending off pirates, entering an opium den, and outwitting a man in pursuit of her. Unfortunately, other characters in this novel are not developed and mostly one dimensional.

However, I'm willing to give this series a chance, in the hopes that the writing improves because the concept is unique - a young noblewoman as a British "clandestine operative" or spy. Judging by the author's website, he's done considerable development of the series which I hope will be demonstrated in the next novel.

Detailed illustrations such as the ones done by Canadian artist,  Mia Lane for Fleming's website katetattersall.com, would make these books much more appealing. Lane's exquisite illustrations would flesh out the novel, adding more character and flare to the series. The addition of a map showing Kate's journey from Portsmouth to Canton, China would also help readers place where events in the novel occur and a diagram of the area in Canton and region would also be helpful.

My only other concern is that the cover, done in the style of the "penny dreadfuls" published in the 19th century,  suggests that this is a novel for upper middle grades to early high school. However, some content is too dark for this age group; Kate works in an opium den, is sexually harassed there, and witnesses the assassination of a man.

This first installment of the Kate Tattersall adventures is set against the backdrop of the Opium Wars which most young people are likely not familiar with. The BBC has an excellent webpage, The Opium Wars: When Britain made war on China, which provides background information on understanding what the Opium Wars were and how Britain became involved in smuggling opium into China. The Victorian Web also has a webpage devoted to England and China: The Opium Wars, 1839-60.

The novel, published by Dancing Cat Books, has small, dense text which makes it not the easiest of  books to read, but it is short and sweet, which is always a bonus for reluctant readers.

This fascinating book trailer sets the stage for the first novel and the series:

Book Details:
Kate Tattersall: Adventures in China by R.S. Fleming
Toronto: Dancing Cat Books, an Imprint of Cormorant Books Inc. 2013
138 pp.

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