First off, I really loved Jo Graham's books Black Ships, Hand of Isis, and Stealing Fire. The General's Mistress however, threw me for a loop. Her previous books were steeped in mysticism and the pantheon of the Greek, Roman and Egyptian gods. There was some level of sensuality in the stories, but it didn't overpower anything. The General's Mistress read more like an 19th century Fifty Shades of Grey. Being thrown by the very overt sexuality of the main character, I had to think that this was done purposefully. Not to compete with E.L. James but because the character is actually based on a real person who left behind letters and her own diaries, and in serving as a courtesan for some of the most powerful men in Europe, her life would be one that revolved around sex.
After I got over my initial shock, I began to really like the main character. She was spunky, resourceful, and accepting of her sexuality. The freedoms she found in dressing as a man and becoming a courtesan reflect the freedoms that were personified by the French Revolution. As a woman, she could own property, she could have her own bank account, and as a man she could move freely and belonged to no one. Part biography and part exploration of freedom, this novel really explores what it means to be alive and in charge of your own fate. Graham's descriptions of clothes and society make it feel like you are actually experiencing everything Elza is.
Graham's writing is also quite steamy. If you enjoyed Fifty Shades of Grey, then this might be your next book if you also like historical fiction. My problem with Fifty Shades of Grey is that the writing was not very good and the book went on much too long. Graham keeps the interactions short and sweet, and knows just when to move the plot along without dragging the reader down in mindless details or inner monologues.
My only problem with the book was that it felt like something was missing. Her previous novels had all had mysticism play a big part in the character's life, but here the interactions Elza has with the Archangel Michel and other spiritual elements feel like they are unconnected and could have been left out. I know that this was probably done intentionally because of how her previous books had ended but I think the book would have read better without them. I also wish I knew more of what happened to her father and what is lurking in the walls at her mother's house. It felt like there could have been so much more said about Elza's life before she ran away, but maybe that means I should track down the actual diaries and letters of Ida St. Elme and learn more about the great lady from her own hand.