Saturday, November 3, 2012

Literary Showdown: The Charade Vs. Mara, Daughter of the Nile

The Charade
Author: Laura Lee Guhrke*
Genre: Historical Romance
Original Pub. Date: 2000

Mara, Daughter of the Nile
Author: Eloise Jarvis McGraw
Genre: Historical Fiction/YA
Original Pub. Date: 1953

I always know how a romance novel is going to end. So does every other reader of the genre; it's one of its unique charms. Saying I know how The Charade is going to end, leading me to review it before I've even finished it, therefore, isn't going to make anyone sit up and take notice.

Let me reiterate, then: I know exactly how this book is going to end, and not because it's a romance novel. I know how it's going to end because I've read Mara, Daughter of the Nile, Eloise Jarvis McGraw's much better book upon which The Charade is blatantly and, I presume, shamelessly based.**

In Mara, Daughter of the Nile, a young slave girl attracts the attention of not one, but two Egyptian noblemen, both of whom want her to work as a spy at the court of Queen Hatshepsut -- one for a rebellion against the Queen, and the other for the Queen, ferreting out the leaders of the rebellion. The rebellious young lord is handsome, mysterious, and has right on his side; Mara's freedom and future are assured if she betrays him, but of course, and she's put in quite a pickle*** by the clash between her self-interest and her conscience.

I'm not going to give any more spoilers for this book, because it is absolutely in my top ten favorite books of all time, ancient Egypt obsessive that I am, and I don't want to ruin it for anyone. If you haven't already read this book, go get it right now. Five stars.

Now, on to The Charade. It opens with a young fellow standing off to the side of a marketplace in 1775 Boston, watching a ragged young girl steal some food and befuddle some other guy from whom she also steals. Mara opens with the title character stealing some food in a marketplace and befuddling a young man while the hero watches, and that, combined with the double-agent book cover blurb, was enough to send me Googling. I found this review, in which someone else (who'd read the whole book) picked up on the fact that The Charade is a borderline rip-off of Mara.

Unlike that reviewer, who thinks this is okay -- she compares this act of rewriting to writing a romance inspired by a fairy tale**** -- I'm only finishing this book because I paid for it. That reviewer says The Charade "succeeds as a work on its own," and while I agree that it's not the worst book I've read by a long shot, it's also a) very bad form to, ahem, adapt something that's not even in the public domain yet, and b) very bad form to not just borrow the outline of a plot, or steal a character here and there, but write a book over again virtually scene by scene.

I give Guhrke credit for transposing the setting successfully. All of the elements work; a slave becomes a transported indentured servant, an agent of the Queen becomes an agent of the King, the idealistic young rebel playing two roles (lazy aristocrat and commoner with a purpose) stays sexy across all space-time locations, and even the carnelian amulet the hero of Mara wears transmutes to a medal of the Sons of Liberty.

However, I can't forgive this author for the lack of any acknowledgement that this story isn't her own. Let me put this in a way all of my readers between the ages of about 27 and 40 will understand/give a crap about. Reading The Charade is like listening to "Ice Ice Baby." We all know that riff is from "Under Pressure," and no matter how many times Vanilla Ice tells us it's not duh duh duh duh duh duh duh, yo, it's actually duh duh duh duh duh duh ting duh or whatever, it's still David Bowie and Queen. Rather than take the high road à la MC Hammer***** and his sampling of Rick James, Guhrke just goes ahead and pretends that this awesome, exciting plot and these fun, sexy characters were all her own invention.

Also, and doubly unforgivably, while this book isn't bad enough to be the "Ice Ice Baby" to Eloise Jarvis McGraw's "Under Pressure," it's no better than a "Can't Touch This" compared to a "Super Freak." For the mediocre writing but great (unoriginal) plot and scenes, I'd give The Charade three stars. Since it's about one and a half steps up from plagiarism******, let's go with that number of stars.

Final judgment in the Literary Showdown: plot, characters, writing quality, and originality are all in favor of Mara, Daughter of the Nile.

* Does anyone else suddenly want a pickle? Anyone? Has my love of puns finally taken over my brain? I don't know, but I still want a pickle.

** To be fair, I guess it's possible that Laura Lee Guhrke is weeping all over the altar of a Catholic church in a hair shirt right at this exact moment.

*** Seriously, that wasn't even on purpose. I really want a goddamn pickle now.

**** If you're looking for one of these, which actually can be pretty fun, I recommend Eloisa James.

***** And there's a phrase I never thought I'd type.

****** Disclaimer: to my knowledge, there are no actual words from Mara, Daughter of the Nile that have been copied and pasted into The Charade. The similarities, however, warrant a note from the author crediting McGraw as an inspiration at the very least.

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