The Porcelain Dove: A gothic fairy tale

The Porcelain Dove by Delia Sherman science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Porcelain Dove by Delia Sherman science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Porcelain Dove by Delia Sherman

Years ago, I got into “fantasies of manners” at about the same time as I was going through a big Revolutionary France phase. When I heard about Delia Sherman’s The Porcelain Dove (1993) — a fantasy set in that time period, and which won the Mythopoeic Award for 1994 — it sounded like the perfect book for me. I could never find it in the used bookstores, though. (I did, before I successfully committed the title to memory, buy two different other books thinking they might be it.) The rise of e-books has fortunately made it possible for us to track down some of our elusive great white whales, or in this case, our porcelain doves.

I don’t know what gave me the idea The Porcelain Dove would be a light, frothy novel. It is not. It is also, contrary to what you might expect, not a novel of court intrigue; when the characters go to court, it is dealt with only briefly. Nor does it focus on the Revolution as much as one might anticipate. If you are looking for lots of courtly or revolutionary content, Paula Volsky’s Illusion has more of both of these. If anything, The Porcelain Dove is a sort of gothic fairy tale, revolving around a woman stuck in a house filled with nasty secrets.

Berthe Duvet is the loyal, sensible lady’s maid to a noblewoman, Adele. She follows her mistress first to convent school and then, upon Adele’s marriage to a duke, to the estate of Beauxprés. The first half of the novel contains little fantasy, simply narrating the events of the noble family’s lives and those of their servants. It’s a slow start, and the mannered writing style will also not be for everyone.

The Porcelain Dove by Delia Sherman science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsGradually, the ugliness at the heart of Beauxprés is revealed to the reader. I started out thinking, OK, this family is kind of vapid. Then it was OK, they’re vapid bigots. Then, OK, they’re vapid bigots, and several of them are abusers and rapists. Then a curse falls upon Beauxprés and the family’s fortunes begin to decline. The curse has its roots in the crimes of a depraved ancestor (he’s based on a horrific real-life figure, and the description of his acts is extremely upsetting to read). Berthe stays on, even when most people would nope out; she’s devoted to her mistress, and besides, she doesn’t have anywhere else to go.

To break the curse, someone will need to embark on a quest to find the mysterious Porcelain Dove. That someone is not Berthe. Her role is to try to keep everyone at Beauxprés alive, through increasingly bad conditions, until the curse can be broken.

Essentially, we end up with a book that’s roughly half conversations with unpleasant people, and half trauma. It’s strangely compelling, though, and kept me reading it as doggedly as Berthe persisted in serving Adele. There are some fairy-tale elements threaded throughout. Some are overt; Beauxprés has a room dedicated to the magical treasures featured in various classic tales. Others are more subtle. There are plotlines that echo Bluebeard and Sleeping Beauty, for example, and a nod to every story in which three siblings in turn set off on an adventure.

I found The Porcelain Dove disappointing overall. There are too few likeable characters, the pace is too slow for long stretches, and the curse doesn’t make much sense if you look at it too closely. Why wouldn’t the wizard have cursed the man who actually wronged him, rather than his descendants? Yet I can tell a great deal of work went into the novel, and as I mentioned above, it did keep me reading and curious what would happen next. I’m glad I finally had the chance to read it.

Published in 1993. A castle locked in time, before the Revolution turned France to a bloodbath . . . A young girl, married off to a ducal collector of exotic birds . . . A boy enslaved, torn from his homeland, finding another path to power . . . A child, bound to break her family’s ancient curse . . . . The lady’s maid Berthe sees it all with her sharp eyes . . . and silently keeps her own secret. Eighteenth-century France is the setting—a time and place where age-old superstitions shadow an age of enlightenment, where the minuet of aristocratic life is deaf to the approaching drumbeats of revolution, where elegance masks depravity and licentiousness makes a mockery of love. Against this background, Berthe Duvet, maid to Adele du Fourchet, later mme la duchesse de Malvoeux, tells her tale of a doomed society and of a family seeking to break a terrible curse. Vivid in its re-creation of a vanished age and delightfully iconoclastic in its view of women and history, The Porcelain Dove is a triumph of the imagination.

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KELLY LASITER, with us since July 2008, is a mild-mannered academic administrative assistant by day, but at night she rules over a private empire of tottering bookshelves. Kelly is most fond of fantasy set in a historical setting (a la Jo Graham) or in a setting that echoes a real historical period (a la George RR Martin and Jacqueline Carey). She also enjoys urban fantasy and its close cousin, paranormal romance, though she believes these subgenres’ recent burst in popularity has resulted in an excess of dreck. She is a sucker for pretty prose (she majored in English, after all) and mythological themes.

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7 comments

  1. I heard Delia Sherman at a conference and she mentioned that many readers don’t see the love relationship at the heart of the novel. That surprised her.

  2. Huh. I liked this a LOT more than you did, Kelly. If I still have the book (which may not have survived our recent move), I’ll have to write a contrasting review.

  3. I think Sherman is a writer who always gets mixed reviews.

    • Kelly Lasiter /

      And I always like her actual writing itself; I remember loving several of her short stories over the years in anthologies.

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