The Muse of Kill Devil Hills: A Historical Fantasy by Mary K. Kaiser

Hot Off the Presses scours the internet for newly published books from unknown authors, and saves everyone else the trouble of actually reading books to find out if they’re good or not. New posts every Tuesday and Thursday. This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.

My wife frequently asks me “Madeline, are you an internet bully?” to which I reply “If anything, I’m the victim here.” This week we have our first requested review, which means you all enjoy watching me roll a stone uphill for all eternity enough to poke me and offer a bigger stone. The Muse of Kill Devil Hills: A Historical Fantasy by Mary K. Kaiser follows Polyhymnia, the Greek muse in charge of church music, as she teaches her crush Wilbur Wright how to make airplanes.

Polyhymnia, Polly to her friends, is the youngest of nine sisters. Her job is normally to inspire people to come up with sick dance moves and Gregorian chants, but for some reason her latest project is to teach the mortals how to fly. Her sister Urania stops by periodically to dump a bucket of cold water on the whole idea. Urania can tell the future, and continually fails to understand how weird it is to mix past, present, and future events in a conversation. This is helpful for the reader, but pisses Polyhymnia off every time, which means she is obviously doing it on purpose.

Our heroine visits some of the early aviation enthusiasts, and tries to steer them away from starring in that famous montage of glider crashes that you’ve probably seen set to Yakety Sax. She briefly meets up with the Wright brothers, but at this stage there are other men, men with much, much bigger mustaches, who are bigger players in the aviation game. There’s just one problem. While Polyhymnia can take corporeal form, she cannot appear as a different sex than the one she was assigned by a bunch of dead Greeks. This means that no one listens to her. She goes from one inventor to another, offers some highly specific advice about aileron angles and widget flanges, gets completely ignored, and watches them glide off a cliff with only their mustaches to cushion the fall. This is the best plot device that has ever been written. So many authors struggle to give their divine characters a weakness to maintain tension in the story, and come up with elaborate schemes ranging from ancient blood pacts to crypto-Kryptonite. Meanwhile, Mary K. Kaiser is like “Nah. Just girl.” Polyhymnia offers her assistance to an august professor at the Smithsonian, and he places a coffee order for the whole office. Chef kiss.

After seeing the Wright brothers tinker with wing designs when they’re not working their bicycle shop, Polyhymnia becomes increasingly convinced that they offer the most promising chance of achieving heavier than air flight. Or maybe she wants them to quit their day job repairing DIY groin injury machines that make you sweaty and angry. Urania informs us that this is a foolish decision, since her prognosticating powers tell her that Langley at the Smithsonian is a more likely candidate.

Polyhymnia becomes closer to Wilbur as she offers subtle aid to the brothers. It turns out, Wilbur is unusual among mortals in that he can see her when she is in her ethereal form. She accompanies Wilbur on his early glider experiments, and joins him in his brainstorming sessions. As the two get closer, things slowly get steamy. Very slowly. One of the early highlights of their budding relationship is when she rides behind him on his bicycle, the closest mortals get to flying. This scene is unrealistic, since they are not both miserable and trying to cough up a fly, but otherwise it is endearing. Their flirting at this stage mostly consists of bicycle-based double entendres, because you can sneak the words “ride” and “hard” and “tube” into a conversation about bicycle repair fairly easily. Wilbur is thoughtful and kind, and for most of the book we don’t even know if he has his shirt off or not. He is the thinking woman’s lumberjack.

True to the mythical source material, Polyhymnia thinks and behaves more or less like a normal person smitten by a hot thinky dude. I won’t give away how the story eventually deals with the dilemma of an immortal being loving a mortal, because it doesn’t become a big issue until later, but it was all I could think about from the beginning. And it’s because of The Walking Dead.

The Walking Dead is an immortality simulator based on a hit TV show from many years ago called The Walking Dead. To maintain tension, the writers want you to know that anyone could die at any time, and no character is safe. For this threat to be valid, they need to actually kill off a large fraction of the fan favorites every season. And since the show is of legal drinking age by now, that means that everyone is dead, and everyone who replaced them is dead. Heroes, villains, the dog. All dead. The blood bath has reach such levels of Taylorisation that some characters’ entire arc consists of “Hi, my name is- ARGH!” What’s the point in carrying on when all the characters you’ve invested in are long dead, and the new ones discourage emotional investment with their mosquito-esque life spans? Being a Greek goddess must be like watching season 37 of The Walking Dead and trying to give a crap what happens.

Another point about our hapless help-meet Polyhymnia. There is a scene early on in which our protagonist remarks on a secretary’s obsequiousness, and compares him to the slaves of old. I thought that was a pretty cringey thing to say, like something my mom’s white lady friends would say on facebook. Then the pieces came together in my mind. She is European, and from ancient times. Polyhymnia is an Old White Lady. It all makes sense: her effusive praise of George Washington Carver, her constant complaining about the weather in Ohio, all of it. This is the story of your parents’ Boomer friend who sticks her nose into other people’s business.

Polyhymnia glared at her sister. “So much for my gang plow,” she said.

Meanwhile Langley is awkwardly stumbling his way to an airplane design, so the clock is ticking for Orville and Wilbur. Polyhymnia is fully invested in the brothers “winning” by this point, and urges them to step up their experiments. This is wonderful, because it takes them away from their iron-maiden-on-wheels shop, saving countless people from seeing themselves in the mirror wearing lycra shorts. The team returns to their launching zone on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

Historical fiction and low fantasy are a classic pairing, and have been since Homer retconned the Trojan War. Also every vampire story set in Poorly Researched Colonial New Orleans (surely in Napoleonic times it was called the “Us Quarter”). But you rarely see it done with humor and a lighthearted tone. Kaiser’s characters all talk like old White people remarking that they “got here at the right time” at a Perkins, but that’s exactly what they should sound like. The book is polished enough that the jokes that don’t land don’t suck the air out of the room, and its quirkiness is more charming than annoying (a famously tricky target to hit). The Muse of Kill Devil Hills: A Historical Fantasy is five dollars on Kindle, and for once that’s priced just about perfectly.

I sat through another one of Madeline’s dumb reviews, so now you do too.

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