Best lines from Circe

It’s been a loooooooooooong time since I wrote a ‘favorite lines from…’ kind of post. I can’t think of a better one to start back up with than Madeline Miller’s Circe. Miller’s prose is simply magical. Every pun intended. Assume there will be spoilers below.

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  • When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.
  • That word, nymph, paced out the length and breadth of our futures. In our language, it means not just goddess, but bride.
  • Nothing is empty void, while air is what fills all else. It is breath and life and spirit, the words we speak.
  • What was I truly? In the end, I could not bear to know.
  • It was not a word I knew. It was not a word anyone knew, then. Pharmakis,’ I said. Witch.
  • I thought: this is how Zeus felt when he first lifted the thunderbolt.
  • ‘Tell me,’ he said, ‘who gives better offerings, a miserable man or a happy one?’ ‘A happy one, of course.’ ‘Wrong,’ he said. ‘A happy man is too occupied with his life. He thinks he is beholden to no one. But make him shiver, kill his wife, cripple his child, then you will hear from him. He will starve his family for a month to buy you a pure-white yearling calf. If he can afford it, he will buy you a hundred.’

Fear of failure was the worst thing for any spell.

  • My sister might be twice the goddess I was, but I was twice the witch.
  • This was how mortals found fame, I thought. Through practise and diligence, tending their skills like gardens until they glowed beneath the sun.
  • Whatever you do, I wanted to say, do not be too happy. It will bring down fire on your head.
  • But in a solitary life, there are rare moments when another soul dips near yours, as stars once a year brush the earth. Such a constellation he was to me.
  • As it turned out, I did kill pigs that night after all.
  • When there is rot in the walls, there is only one remedy. …Tear down, I thought. Tear down and build again.
  • Brides, nymphs were called, but that is not really how the world saw us. We were an endless feast laid out upon a table, beautiful and renewing. And so very bad at getting away.
  • They never listened. The truth is, men make terrible pigs.
  • War has always seemed to me a foolish choice for men. Whatever they win from it, they will have only a handful of years to enjoy before they die. More likely they will perish trying.

Witches are not so delicate.

  • Most men, in my experience, are fools.

Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.

  • Would I be skimmed milk or a harpy? A foolish gull or a villainous monster? Those could not still be the only choices.
  • When Achilles puts on his helmet and cleaves his red path through the field, the hearts of common men swell in their chests. They think of the stories that will be told, and they long to be in them. I fought beside Achilles. I stood shield to shield with Ajax. I felt the wind and fan of their great spears.
  • I was a golden witch, who had no past at all.
  • They have wrinkles, but no wisdom. I took  them to war before they could do any of those things that steady a man. … I fear I have robbed them not only of their youth, but their age as well.
  • Heroes are fools.

When you are in Egypt you worship Isis, when in Anatolia you kill a lamb for Cybele. It does not trespass on your Athena still at home.

  • I washed him and rubbed oils into his skin, as carefully as if he could still feel my fingers. I sang as I worked, a melody to keep his soul company while he waited to cross the great river to the underworld.
  • I touched the thought like a bruise, testing its ache.
  • He showed me his scars, and in return he let me pretend I had none.
  • I would look at him and feel a love so sharp it seemed my flesh lay open. I made a list of all the things I would do for him. Scald off my skin. Tear out my eyes. Walk my feet to bones, if only he would be happy and well.
  • Her only love was reason. And that has never been the same as wisdom.
  • Gods and mortals do not last together happily.
  • Witchcraft transforms the world. He wanted only to join it.

‘…I cannot say how I knew. It was as if…as is all this while, my eyes had been waiting for just that shape.’ I knew the feeling. It is how I had felt first looking down at him in my arms.

  • But perhaps no parent can truly see their child. When we look we see only the mirror of our own faults.
  • ‘It is strange to think of a goddess needing friends.’ ‘All creatures that are not mad need them.’

I remembered what Odysseus had said about her once. That she never went astray, never made an error. I had been jealous then. Now I thought: what a burden. What an ugly weight upon your back.

  • ‘I warned her once that grief would come of her marriage. There is no pleasure in hearing I was right.’ ‘There seldom is.’
  • Penelope said, ‘What makes a witch, then? If it is not divinity?’ ‘I do not know for certain. …I have come to believe it is mostly will.’ She nodded. I did not have to explain. We knew what will was.
  • That is how things go. You fix them, and they go awry, and then you fix them again.

Life is not so simple as a loom. What you weave, you cannot unravel with a tug.

  • …some people are like constellations who only touch the earth for a season.
  • One of us must grieve. I would not let it be him.
  • ‘You have always been the worst of my children,’ he said. ‘Be sure you do not dishonor me.’ ‘I have a better idea. I will do as I please, and when you count your children, leave me out.’
  • Do not try to take my regret from me.
  • ‘We are not our blood,’ he answered. ‘A witch once told me that.’

He does not mean that it does not hurt. He does not mean that we are not frightened. Only that: we are here. This is what it means to swim in the tide, to walk the earth and feel it touch your feet. This is what it means to be alive.

Black Lily

39305353Black Lily by Philippa Stockley

I read it as an: ARC

Source: HNS*

Length: 253 pp

Publisher:  Pimpernel Press

Year: 2018

**This review very much contains spoilers**

Black Lily is the tale of Zenobia and Lily. Zenobia was born into poverty, the daughter of an impoverished young girl who became the mistress of a shipping mogul. It is possible he was Greek or Middle Eastern but if it ever said, I missed that part. He was surprised when Zenobia was born blonde. Lily is a black woman who was brought to London from the Caribbean on a sugar and slave ship as a toy to a rich lord. She was a kept woman for a rich merchant who ended up being connected to Zenobia in a surprising way. The lives of these women  continue to intertwine in intricate, often horrific, ways, and they both have to learn how to navigate society to her best advantage when her value is entirely decided by the men who control them. Lily ends up being a hidden driving force throughout Zenobia’s entire adult life in ways she never even knows. In turn, Zenobia unwittingly is a savior of sorts to Lily. Another woman, Lily’s maidservant, Agatha, is yet another link between the three women, forging deeper connections and bonds that are strong enough to keep the secrets they all hide from society and the men around them. Read More »

Circe

CirceCirce by Madeline Miller

I read it as a: hardback

Source: my own collection

Length: 333 pp

Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing UK

Year: 2018

Circe is the tale of a fascinating but somewhat overlooked woman from Greek myth. She is the daughter of the sun god Helios, a lesser divinity, immortal, and a witch. She has the power to transform things and she knows the inherent magic in plants. Most of us know her from her role in The Odyssey, which was significant even if it wasn’t long. This novel tells her tale from her childhood, her self-discovery, and how she finds a place for herself in the harsh world of the gods.

I absolutely loved how Circe deals with her role in and among the gods. She never has an easy time – she has the worst time, really – but she is a woman in a man’s world and she still makes a place for herself. She is seen, and forces the divinities to acknowledge her in some way, whether any of them like it or not, including her. I think this really mirrors the experiences of modern women in that we still struggle to be seen and be taken for granted, not be underestimated, and not shuffled off or ignored as though we are worthless.

When Circe encounters Prometheus, it sets the stage for her entire life. She learns she can defy the gods to an extent. Perhaps she will be punished for her defiance if she gets caught, but she also learns they don’t actually know everything and there are things people can do and get away with that they never know about. She manages to make this idea central in her own life, defying the gods in subtle and not so subtle ways.

I really loved the way crafts were woven throughout as well. They were, however, divided by traditional gender roles. It makes sense within the context of the narrative, though, since Circe, Penelope, Medea, were expected to know certain things and not others, and vice versa for Odysseus or Daedalus. The women knew weaving and spinning, herb lore, healing and midwifery. The men knew smithing, metalwork, sculpting, and woodworking. Breaking down crafts by gender roles reinforces the  roles and highlights the fact that even the gods are similar to humans in this world, which is super interesting because, even though the gods are immortal and have various powers, they are still limited in some ways with what they can do. They are governed largely by their emotions and desires. In many of the ways that count, they act more like immortal toddlers than as wise beings. Humans tend to be more reasonable in some situations than the gods, which I think is interesting. Is it how Circe sees the gods and humans, or is that how it truly is here? Intriguing commentary, either way.

There are just too many things that could be discussed for one review – how parents view their children and vice versa; the relationship between Circe and her sister Pasiphae or her brother Aeetes; how Daedalus affects Circe; Medea; Penelope, Telemachus, and Odysseus; power dynamics; transformations of a multitude variety. Like the Greek myths themselves, you could probably write a dissertation about the ways to interpret this novel, how the characters influence each other and the world around them, gender roles and expectations, or the role of choice and fate. I loved this book, and I love strong women, and strong women figuring out that they are strong is just the best.

I haven’t even gotten into the sheer beauty of Miller’s writing style. I think I will have to do a separate post just with my favorite lines from the book.

In any case, this is very highly recommended and an excellent way to get a ton of Greek mythology without reading the source material, if that isn’t really your thing. Though everyone should read The Iliad and The Odyssey at least once in their life.

Catch-Up: Victorican Era and Pirate novels review*

36269117Brotherhood of the Black Flag by Ian Nathaniel Cohen

Cathy read it as an: ARC

Source: Helen Hollickat Discovering Diamonds.

Length: 260 pp

Publisher: Amazon Digital Services

Year: 2017

In an action-packed, heroic story, Michael McNamara leaves Bristol, England, in search of himself. McNamara starts with a dream to become an officer in the Royal Navy. When an opportunity presents itself, he is accepted into the navy as a volunteer – per – order, after providing a reluctantly written letter from his father. When McNamara is then drummed out of the navy, he uses his skills with a small sword to become a fencing instructor, only to be let go from this position a year later. He then decides to pursue a fresh start in Kingston, Jamaica. Once McNamara arrives there he finds himself in a duel with a group of ruthless Caribbean pirates and thus is set in motion a series of events that leads him to the magnificent Dona Catalina Moore Viuda de Caldeira and her infamous fiancé pirate, Captain Stephen Reynard.  What happens next takes our hero on a journey that comes to define his purpose in life through his experiences with The Brotherhood of the Black Flag, and this is where the real story begins.

Cohen does an excellent job building a fast-paced story that moves McNamara’s adventures forward with vivid descriptions of battles and fights that take place on land and at sea. His knowledge of 18th-century weapons, specifically swords, helps readers to visualize the time period and the character’s personas. Readers feel McNamara’s tenacity and commitment to life by Cohen’s balance of the accuracy of facts with the originality of his fictional story.

Throughout the book, readers come to respect McNamara for his loyalty and duty to those in his life. The character builds relationships and establishes his reputation as a strong, principled individual who holds steadfast to his ideals. Equally, readers also come to know and understand the beautiful Catalina, whom McNamara comes to love; and the pirate Reynard who appears to be working on changing his swashbuckling lifestyle. When Cohen moves the story into a sudden and unexpected twist of events, readers wonder whether they missed something along the way – but soon realize the author’s masterful writing skill.  

The only thing that lets the book down is the cover. The narrative is exciting, the cover isn’t – for young adults or a children’s book it would have been fine, but not for an adult read.

The Brotherhood of the Black Flag is a must read for anyone who is captivated with the Age of Piracy. Cohen has done a remarkable job developing a story that places readers in the middle of the action, and into the heart, soul and spirit of the hero, Michael McNamara.

An excellent read.

34526009Hooks & Eyes (Part 1 of the Ambition and Destiny series) by VL McBeath

Cathy read it as an: ARC

Source: Helen Hollick at Discovering Diamonds.

Length: 442 pp

Publisher: Valyn Publishing

Year: 2017

Set in 1846 England, Hooks and Eyes by V. L. McBeath is the story of Mary Jackson, a young widow, and the journey she takes to ensure that she can aptly raise her two young children during the Victorian Age. After the death of her husband, Mary decides to leave her in-laws’ country home to live with her deceased husband’s Aunt Lucy and Aunt Rebecca in the city.  Determined to make her own choices about what is best for her family, Mary, against the advice of her aunts, marries William Wetherby, her former employer, a bully, and a womanizer.

Throughout the novel, McBeath intertwines the lives of multiple families while incorporating accurate historical elements into each chapter. She touches on how the non-mechanized businesses transitioned into the mechanized factories of the Industrial Revolution. Most importantly, McBeath opens the reader’s eyes to the difficulties faced by widowed and older, unmarried women during the mid-1800s.

The author did a good job capturing the emotional struggles faced by the women throughout the novel. Readers will sympathize with Mary’s emotional and psychological pain. Seeing how women could choose to support one another, as Mary’s aunts try to do, was enlightening. Unfortunately, some of Mary’s choices do not set well with her Aunt Lucy.

Instead of using Mary and Wetherby’s marriage to focus the many subplots more effectively into the central narrative of female strength, McBeath moves the story forward by introducing multiple characters to create short, family dramas that are frequently left unresolved or are irrelevant, and because of this, the one storyline that moves the main idea forward is unresolved. Had it been, it could have given Mary profound insight into her original choice, creating a smoother transition into the final scene.

Hooks and Eyes starts with a narrative that captures the emotions of the main character and the journey she takes because of the death of her true love. The subplots are interesting and build a sense of the period, but  they fall a little short of connecting that main storyline introduced in the beginning of the novel, with the climax in the final paragraphs.

However, an interesting novel for those readers interested in this period.

The Year the Swans Came is a tragic story for anyone who wants to become captivated by the lives of two girls who are literally polar opposites of each other.  It is a story of one girl’s love of herself and her physical world, and the story of another girl’s unconditional love for the people in her life. It is a story of passion and a story of anguish. Spencer has done a wonderful job subtly showing how magical realism is a real part of the mythologies of a culture. 

**This is a guest post by Cathy Smith. 

Round-Up: Christy Nicholas books

One of my favorite authors, still sadly an obscure name, is Christy Nicholas. I had the good fortune to review a few of her books for Discovering Diamonds. A few of her other books are also reviewed on DDRevs by my fellow reviewers which I didn’t read, but they are worth checking out for sure. One reason I enjoy Nicholas’s books so much is because she imbues them with so much feminine power. They are accurate within the scope of their timeframe, yet the women in each one are strong, bold, as feminist as possible. She pushes the boundaries of creating feminist characters and isn’t shy to use mythical characters, such as The Morrigan, to be more feminist. I fucking love it. 

Below are a couple reviews, submitted as a guest post by Cathy Smith, who is also a reviewer at DDRevs. My own reviews of Nicholas’s books that have already been posted can be found both on DDRevs as well as on this blog. 

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Legacy of Hunger: Druid’s Brooch book 1

Reviewed by: Cathy Smith

Read it as a: digital galley

Source: Helen Hollick at Discovering Diamonds.

Length: 306 pp

Publisher: Tirgearr Publishing

Year: 2015

Legacy of Hunger, book one of Christy Nicholas’s Druid’s Brooch Series, takes readers on an unforgettable quest from the shores of 1846 America to the distressed Irish countryside of Valentina McDowell’s ancestors. Driven by her mother’s legends and a desire to find an old family brooch, Valentina finds early on in her quest that she will discover friendship and come to realize the betrayal of enemies. She will see beauty and face tragedy. Guided by her mystical visions, Valentina’s journey is filled with joy and sorrow as each step of the quest prepares her for what awaits at the end.

Nicholas does an excellent job developing the story by painting detailed descriptions of the characters themselves, their past, and their present. Readers also feel the intensity of the characters’ personalities through the descriptive images of the ship’s voyage across the sea and of the Irish villages and countryside. Nicholas stays true to the history of 19th century Ireland. She uses this history, as well as the legends from the ancients, to provide readers with a real-world sense of Valentina’s adventures.

As I experienced Valentina’s journey to find the answers to the mysteries that haunted her from childhood, I thought of a time when my own father told me the story of his grandmother who came to America as an indentured servant during the An Gorta Mór – The Great Hunger. He told the story of how she met my great-grandfather while working off her servitude in a well-known Colorado bar.  As I read Nicholas’ story, I realized that the legacy of hunger is a legacy that affects generations of people even into the 21st century.

Although Nicholas provides closure in the last chapter and epilogue, the happily or not so happily ever after resolutions of the individual character stories left me with deeper questions.  It is my hope to see future novels that develop some of these characters’ journeys.

Legacy of Hunger is the story of the Irish people who suffered during the Great Hunger.  It is the story of how Valentina McDowell journeys to find her strength, courage, and inner soul by overcoming the challenges to complete a quest that reveals her destiny.

Other books by Christy Nicholas:

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Legacy of Truth: Druid’s Brooch #2. I don’t have a link to any DDRevs review of this one.
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Legacy of Luck: Druid’s Brooch #3. I don’t have a link to any DDRevs review for this one, either.
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Misfortune of Vision: Druid’s Brooch #4. Or you can read the exact same review on my blog, since I’m the one who wrote it for DDRevs. 
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Misfortune of Song: Druid’s Brooch #5. I don’t have a link to any DDRevs review for this one. I should see about getting this to do a review.
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Misfortune of Time: Druid’s Brooch #6. Again, you can read it on DDRevs, or the exact same one on my blog since I wrote the review for them. 

Nicholas also has a standalone novel that I reviewed as well, Call of the Morrigu. The full review is here, as I forgot to post it to my own blog before now. 

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Call of the Morrigu 

I read it as a: digital galley

Source: Helen Hollick at Discovering Diamonds.

Length: 217 pp

Publisher: Tirgearr Publishing

Year: 2017

In late 1700s Ireland, rebellion against oppressive English rule was on the rise. In one quiet corner, however, society was still relatively peaceful. Theodosia “Dosey” Latimer lives with her grandfather in their family’s country estate of Strokestown. On the property, they discover a mysterious cave filled with ancient carvings and decide to try to excavate it. In the process, they accidentally awaken The Morrigan. Yes, that Morrigan. The mythical Irish war goddess. Now it is up to Dosey and her grandfather to teach Morrigan how to behave like a proper 18th century lady – and keep her out of the rebellion coming their way.

This was, simply put, a remarkably fun read. Author Christy Nicholas weaves in mythology and history smoothly throughout the narrative. Readers are given glimpses of Celtic myth alongside bits of information about the 1798 Irish Rebellion, led by Wolfe Tone. Parts of the story were surprisingly funny as well. Morrigan learning 18th century table manners is exactly what you would hope for.

The parts of the book that I most appreciated were its many feminist elements. Feminism was a necessary component of the plot for Dosey to be able to grow as a character and a woman. She also was a product of her time and none of her actions were unbelievable or out of place in the story. However, it’s hard for me not to cheer and fall in love with characters who make comments like “I do not understand the shame your society has for the body. It is a glorious thing, full of life and pleasure” or “You are power. You are woman. All woman are power.” Here, Morrigan was reflecting what was understood to be the typical pre-Christian culture of ancient Ireland (or at least the author’s interpretation of it), but it remains highly relevant in today’s society where women’s rights are still challenged and threatened by the patriarchy. Having a mythical character speak the words makes them no less relevant, and allows a certain safe distance from which we can examine our modern morals and values. I loved it.

My only criticism is that I felt some of the secondary characters could have been developed a little more. I wanted to get to know Nan better, and Cillian and Marcus. They were fine, but they felt like they were placeholders or extras just playing a necessary part in a formula. However, they were not totally flat or one-dimensional, either, and they served their respective purposes well enough.

Overall, I loved this book and look forward to reading more by this author.. Strongly recommended for anyone who is interested in Irish mythology, history, or the influence of women on either subject.

Pandora the Curious

13547083Pandora the Curious by Joan Holub

I read it as a: paperback

Source: my daughter’s collection

Length: 256 pp

Publisher: Aladdin

Year: 2012

In this ninth installation in the GoddessGirls series, Pandora opens that bloody box. The Titans, Epimetheus and Prometheus, are new students at Mount Olympus Academy and they are rather outcasts for the role the Titans played in the war between the Titans and Olympians. Spoiler alert: the Titans lost. Epimetheus has a box with him that makes odd noises and, of course, Pandora is intensely curious about it. When the godboys decide to play a game of keep-away with the box, it falls into Pandora’s hands without anyone noticing and it opens. Almost as if it were fated to do so. Huh. The box contained ten bubbles, which all floated out except one. Pandora seems to be the only one able to see the bubbles, so she is also the only one able to observe the effects of the bubbles bumping into people. So when Athena, for example, is bubble-bumped, Pandora hears it whisper “Ditz” and then Athena turns stupid. Similarly, another bubble bumps Aphrodite and whispers “rude,” and Aphrodite proceeds to become a vulgar and disgusting example of everyone one ought not to do, ever. Pandora doesn’t know whether or not to trust the Titans with this information, because she thinks they may have come to MOA to help take over and pave the way for a new Titan war against the Olympians. She has to decide who to trust and figure out how to reverse the effects of the bubbles before all hope is lost. See what I did there?

As with all the previous books in this series, Pandora the Curious provides an excellent way to begin teaching younger readers about the Classical myths. This one also provided a good example of troubleshooting and problem solving as well as making sure to give people second chances and not to judge based on a group but rather on an individual basis. Pandora learns a lot about herself and how curiosity can be both good and bad, depending on how it is used. She also learns that just because a person is a Titan and fought against the Olympians doesn’t make them a bad person and she should always take an individual approach to judging someone. This was a good way to talk about a variety of social issues with my daughter. We see in the news a lot of racism and sweeping generalizations made about entire groups of people. So we had a chat about how any group of people can include bad people, but that we should always try to get to know the person in front of us and not judge them or assume they are bad just because someone else like them did a bad thing. That’s no way to live.

Overall, the series has piqued my daughter’s interest in mythology, all kinds, not just Greco-Roman. At the end of the day, even if some of the stuff is silly or trite, I can live with that because of the interest it’s sparked in her for better things.

 

 

 

Blood and Ink

40821110Blood and Ink by DK Marley

I read it as an: ARC

Source: Helen Hollick at Discovering Diamonds.

Length: 414 pp

Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing

Year: 2018

Blood and Ink by DK Marley is the tale of Christopher “Kit” Marlowe, Renaissance poet and playwright, near contemporary of Shakespeare. In Marley’s novel, our playwright is an unwanted child who is effectively sold to Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster, who noticed the boy’s intelligence when he visited a local school. Placing the young Marlowe under the mentorship of poet and spy, Sir Phillip Sydney, Marlowe continues his education as well as learns how to be a spy for Walsingham. As the years progress, Marlowe convinces Elizabeth to support his plays on-stage in exchange for his services to her. However, when factions more loyal to money and personal advancement than to the Queen step in, Marlowe makes a sacrifice that alters everything he has understood about the world, his writing, and himself.

christopher_marlowe
Christopher Marlowe. I love that the portrait has “Quod me nutrit me destruit” in the upper left. That would make a cool tattoo… 

This was an interesting novel and can potentially be classified as alternate history, depending on one’s perspective. It takes one of the more popular theories about Shakespeare, which is that Marlowe was actually the author of his works, and runs with it in a way that is believable. There are theories that Marlowe didn’t actually die at the inn in Deptford and that his death was, in fact, staged so that he could go either into hiding, exile, or continue his spy work for Walsingham. The author poses some of the more common and interesting questions in her note at the end of the book, including why Shakespeare, one of the greatest playwrights of his day, was buried in a common churchyard rather than in a glamorous cemetery; why the Queen provided her own coroner to preside over the inquest of Marlowe’s death when it wasn’t in her purview to do so; why we never heard anything at all about Shakespeare until after Marlowe’s death; the education of Shakespeare and Marlowe (Marlowe had a degree from Cambridge, Shakespeare was relatively uneducated); and why was Shakespeare’s grave dug 12 feet deep instead of only the usual 6 feet? Marley takes pains to answer these questions and more in the novel and does so quite thoroughly. She also is careful to note that she herself is a Shakespearean, at least until there is solid proof that someone else was the author. But it makes for a good story.

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William Shakespeare

Various themes were at play throughout the novel, ranging from nature vs. nurture to loyalty to ambition to betrayal. The ways in which all these themes intertwine and influence one another are fascinating and very finely wrought, particularly the ways Marlowe had to balance his work as a spy with his calling as a playwright. The mix of blood and ink throughout the narrative is a stark reminder that his dreams come at a steep price, one that may be too much to bear. Overall, I think some of the characters were a tad one-dimensional, though Marlowe himself and the major secondary characters like Walsingham or Queen Elizabeth are complex figures. Shakespeare was the next most well-fleshed character besides Marlowe, which makes sense, though his motives were only apparent near the end of the novel. The last quarter or so of the book felt unnecessarily long and dragged down the pacing somewhat. However, the attention to historical detail was excellent and made for an immersive read. I particularly enjoyed all the bits and pieces of plays and poems scattered throughout the narrative. It was fun to see words that we automatically credit to Shakespeare coming from Marlowe’s pen or lips in this story, and it definitely reminds me that it’s time to reread the plays again. It has been too long. I look forward to more from this author in the future.

The Winter of the Witch

42082394The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Kathleen Gati

Source: my own collection

Length: 14:00:00

Publisher: Random House Audio

Year: 2019

Picking up right where The Girl in the Tower left off, Vasilisa Petrovna finds herself the focus of the rage of Moscow’s people after inadvertently burning down a large part of the city. Accused of witchcraft, with the mob’s hatred fanned by the insane monk Konstantin, Vasya manages to escape into the realm of Midnight, a place where all midnights of the past, present, and future exist, but not before making a sacrifice that absolutely gutted me. In Midnight, Vasya meets many new characters, some friendly, others not so much. One of the best was the little mushroom spirit who made it a point to tell everyone that he was the first to support her quest. Baba Yaga also makes an important appearance. Vasya also learns that she has some surprising new abilities and the reasons for them, which draw the attention of the winter king Morozko. His twin brother, Medved, is bent on creating chaos in the spirit world and world of men, and Vasya and Morozko have to find a way to stop him. As if that all weren’t enough for her to worry about, Vasya also has to navigate the politics of the secular world to help save Rus from an invading horde of Tatars.

There isn’t really a good way to summarize this book. It is a satisfying end to the trilogy and I loved it, though I do think it is my least favorite of the three. I am not sure if it is simply because I was listening to it on audio (as I did the other two as well) and, because of work and personal schedules and things, I had a lot of days where I wasn’t able to listen at all, or not with my full attention. It felt a little disjointed in places, but that could have been me. In any case, Arden’s writing remains as lush and evocative as ever. I think I have to buy physical copies of this trilogy and eyeball read them all now, I loved this series that much.

Winter of the Witch dealt closely with destiny, identity, and loyalty, and how those influence people and their interactions. Just so many factors come into play – love, lust, fear, hate – and each one leaves its mark on Vasya. She learns hard lessons and makes some horrific sacrifices. She finds the only kind of love she could tolerate. She finds the place she belongs. She’s grown from a wild little girl into a strong and capable woman, with her own skills and secrets and pain and joys. Any woman would be proud to have a daughter such as her.

Favorite quotes:

“There are no monsters in the world, and no saints. Only infinite shades woven into the same tapestry, light and dark.”

“Yesterday she saved your life, slew a wicked magician, set fire to Moscow and then saved it all in a single night. Do you think she will consent to disappear, for the price of a dowry – for any price?’’

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Image courtesy of Pixabay. Maybe it’s Solovey?

“I was asleep but those two woke me up. I missed you.”

“Who is to say, in the end, that the three guardians of Russia are not a witch, a frost-demon, and a chaos-spirit? I find it fitting.”

Not Your Angel: Feminism and Social Commentary in The Hollow of Fear

 

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Author photo by Jennifer Sparks of Sparks Studio

Sherry Thomas is no stranger to defying social expectations. Her Lady Sherlock series tackles many of these expectations head on, to the delight of her readers. From gender-flipping and gender fluidity to body positivity, Thomas takes the best of the Sherlock tradition and pushes its boundaries. The newest book in Thomas’s Lady Sherlock series, The Hollow of Fear, challenges assumptions more than ever, couching some important and relevant discussion about modern social issues in the guise of a fun Victorian mystery.

 

One of the most interesting aspects of Thomas’s novels is the interplay of gender identity and expected Victorian gender roles. From the start, Thomas’s Sherlock is a woman who takes on a man’s role in solving crimes, a gender-flipped version of the traditional Sherlock. Thomas explains that she decided to make her Sherlock a woman because it was “the only thing left to do.” Citing Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series as an inspiration, Thomas says that was “the first story in the Sherlock Holmes pastiche that made me want to write an adaptation of my own…” Then along came the BBC’s Sherlock, set in the 21st century, and CBS’s Elementary with its female Watson. After that, Thomas explains, making Sherlock a woman seemed the logical thing to do. Not only does this set the stage for the rest of the series, but it cracks the illusion of the sweet-tempered, sheltered Angel in the House the upper class Victorian woman was expected to be. In so many ways, this mirrors modern society, especially politics, where women are still often expected to hold traditional roles and be likeable peacemakers

Thomas takes the issue of gender several steps further in The Hollow of Fear. Whereas the previous books in the series simply had Charlotte Holmes acting in a man’s role by solving mysteries – she pretends to be her “brother’s” interpreter, who clients are not permitted to see since, of course, there is no brother – in The Hollow of Fear, Charlotte actively flips genders by dressing as a man so that she may travel to the site of a crime. More than that, her friend, Lord Ingram, knows what she is doing and helps her carry out the ruse, treating her as he would any other man despite his qualms about it. There is so much to unpack in this new dynamic, which upends those traditional gender roles and expectations in wonderful ways. The Victorian ideal of the Angel in the House is discarded utterly, both by Charlotte Holmes herself and, by extension, Thomas as her creator. In a time when women were largely expected to be under the care of a man, whether father, brother, or husband, Charlotte bucks expectations by carving out a niche all of her own, on her own, without a man to guide her. She further highlights her own abilities and disregard for social mores when she dresses as a man to carry out her self-designed duties. Doing so was shocking to Lord Ingram, and even somewhat to Mrs Watson, who helped her become Sherlock, but it helps highlight how the institutions of society would keep women subservient to men. These social establishments are still in effect today in many ways, from the hyper-feminine and unrealistic measurements portrayed in films and TV to the way that the majority of emotional labor falls to women.

An element that is closely woven with gender, particularly those who identify as female, is the issue of body image and relationship to food. Charlotte Holmes is not shy about the pleasure she takes in sweets, and makes reference several times to the “maximum tolerable chins” she can have. Some may view this as Charlotte’s use of food as her apparent drug of choice in lieu of Sherlock’s cocaine, as Conan Doyle’s character uses in the traditional tales. However, Thomas explains that, whereas Sherlock took cocaine recreationally when he was bored, he had the disposable income to do so since he is likely from the lower aristocracy or upper gentry. “Charlotte Holmes is in a different situation,” Thomas says. “She does depend on her work to pay the bills and doesn’t have the luxury of whiling away her hours on drugs. So for solace she turns to food, especially sweet thing.” And since she still wants to fit into her clothes and can’t afford to buy new ones, she uses her “maximum tolerable chins” as a gauge to tell when she can have another slice of cake or when she needs to stop. This system may sound very familiar to a lot of women today, using the waistband of our jeans to tell us when we need to start counting calories. More importantly, though, is Charlotte’s views of her body. While she did at one point attempt to fit into the ideal Victorian model of womanhood by being a slim and dainty figure, she recognized that it did not suit her in a variety of ways. When she left her parents’ home, she resumed her preferred habits with regard to food, and she does not feel ashamed of being a bit heavier than the so-called ideal for women of her time. In this as well, Thomas has created a role model of body positivity for women who might be feeling guilty over that second (or third!) slice of cake they just ate.

The real gem with this narrative is the way it highlights women’s intelligence. Charlotte forces Ingram to go along with her ruse, so he treats her as he would treat any other man of his acquaintance. To his consternation, she more than holds her own, blending into the male sphere easily and comfortably, shattering the illusion that women are fragile creatures who need to be tended and cared for. While this may not be the catalyst for a women’s movement within the novels, it does promote awareness that women have a life and interests beyond the men in their lives, something of a novelty to Ingram and even to other women in the book. It further provides a sharp lens through which to view modern feminism, for these topics are still relevant to women in the 21st century as well as the 19th. Even after 200 years of women’s rights activism, that it still comes as a surprise to some that women are intelligent beings with interests outside their homes, marriages, and children is both maddening and discouraging. Thomas’s method in using her characters and their approach to gender to highlight these points creates the perfect way to open a discussion about women and our role in an ever-changing society. We’ve come from the Angels in the House to the Hellions on the [U.S. Capitol] Hill. With characters like Charlotte Holmes and authors like Sherry Thomas, historical fiction remains a vibrant and relevant medium for discussing social change and the issues arising from it.

*Originally published on the Historical Novel Society site.

Vacant-eyed Women, Mattress-Pounding, and Politics: Sexism in Historical Fiction? Do we mention it or keep quiet?*

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Image courtesy of Pixabay

What reader of historical fiction isn’t at least passingly familiar with the statement, “I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too… ?” Queen Elizabeth’s 1588 speech to her troops at Tilbury is one of the most famous and recognizable of the Renaissance. It would be hard to imagine a modern female politician making a similar speech, though, and any man saying something about a feeble woman’s body would be (and should be) immediately excoriated. Reading historical fiction requires authors and readers alike to set aside modern mores and read with the understanding that times have changed, and be sensitive to the fact that none of us can judge another time period or culture by our own standards. But what happens when those standards get distorted? How do we tell the difference between historical accuracy and outright sexism? Does it even matter? 

In a nutshell, yes. It matters a great deal because authors should avoid bias, while keeping authenticity in mind, avoiding unnecessary sexism, and bringing historical fiction into the global discussion of sexual abuse in a meaningful way. 

Authors have to be careful to check their own biases at the door when writing for a variety of reasons. Naturally, their readers will include at least a few who want as accurate a depiction of the time period as possible. That can be difficult to maintain if modern sensibilities are strongly present in a book set in, for example, Victorian England. It must be difficult for authors, products themselves of more enlightened times – see my own bias coming through – to write about women as second class citizens who are not as intelligent as, or even as human as, their male counterparts. How difficult must it be to write about women as the Angel in the House if she is good, or hysterical and subhuman if she is not good. This raises the question of what makes her good? Is the character a murderer? Or does she simply have a mind of her own and isn’t afraid to voice her opinion? Is the period Ancient Roman, Medieval, Renaissance, Victorian? How would women, feisty or otherwise, typically behave in these time periods? It may be tempting to write a woman who flagrantly tells men off, disregards the dictates of her social class, or makes her own choices rather than obeying her father, but she likely wouldn’t have really done that. It probably never occurred to her that she even could do something like that in the first place, and her capacity for actually carrying it out would depend on a variety of issues.

On the flip side, writing male characters has to come with a balance as well. Women may not have had the same rights modern women arguably have now. They may have been considered second-class citizens. Plenty of men throughout history (and now, too, tragically) were misogynists. Aristotle thought women should be “obedient as a slave,” proving that just because he was a philosopher doesn’t mean he wasn’t also a pig; Martin Luther thought women could either be wives or whores, so take your pick; Shakespeare seemed pretty disgusted by the female sex, based on his rants against them in King Lear; and even the enlightened Gautama Buddha apparently thought women were too stupid to understand Buddhism (Saṃyutta Nikāya 4). But there is evidence that many men still loved and respected the women in their lives. Refer to the real life love stories of couples like John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford, Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, Abelard and Heloise, or even Geoffrey and Philippa Chaucer for examples. Writing men as misogynistic blowhards is a dangerous game for authors. If there is evidence to support the misogyny of an historical character, that’s one thing. But to write a character as such simply because he lived in a time when women were not seen as equal poses a number of risks.

There is also a question of authenticity. How accurate is a character’s attitude toward women if he proves himself to be sexist? Is he truly reflecting the attitudes of the time in which the book is set? How is the author determining this? Or is it really a reflection of the author’s own sexism, which is far more disturbing?

Recently, I read a traditionally published book by a well known author that was set in the 14th century. Naturally, I didn’t expect that women would be given the same rights as the men in the story. In keeping with medieval society, I anticipated that women would expect generally to be submissive to their fathers or husbands, stay home and tend to children and the house, and so forth, even if they are salty ladies who feel free to speak their minds. I did not, however, expect the rampant sexism that I found in the book. In just the first few pages, this particular novel made multiple references to women’s vacant eyes being a big turn-on. To whom? To the protagonist? Or to the author? Similarly, there were multiple juvenile references to sex, such as mattress pounding or hide-the-sausage, which seemed like something that would appeal to young boys rather than experienced, adult readers. The sheer volume of remarks in this vein makes it sound as though the author himself finds vapid, vacant-eyed women ready for some mattress galloping a turn-on rather than his revolting protagonist. Is this a fair evaluation of the author? Perhaps not. I’ve never met him. He may be a perfectly lovely man, but his writing, in this novel, makes me automatically wonder. This, in turn, makes me not want to know him, or his books, in the first place.

Another risk historically inaccurate sexism (what a strange thought!) in historical fiction poses to authors is already posed above: the loss of readers. This is the 21st century. As stated previously, experienced readers of historical fiction know how to leave modern customs and social mores behind when reading books set in different time periods. But we do still live in a time when women generally are treated as humans and movements such as #MeToo exist solely to amplify women’s voices. Of course, feminism didn’t exist in antiquity, in the Middle Ages, or in the Victorian Era. However, it exists now, and although readers today want authors to operate within the parameters of historical accuracy, they also expect authors to hold fast to acceptable attitudes towards women as much as possible. 

Do readers have a responsibility anywhere in this? Of course. We, as readers, have to be willing to adjust our expectations appropriately. If I’m reading a medieval fiction and it’s not listed as historical fantasy, I expect the characters to behave within a certain set of parameters and for the major events of the period to be accurate. If I’m reading a book, for example, in a series called Lady Sherlock, I’m definitely not going to expect rigid adherence to Victorian social customs for each and every one of the characters. Though I must say, the novels in that series are more rigorously researched and accurate than the novels in some other series I’ve read which are touted as straight historical fiction. My expectations as a reader were confounded, as were just about every gender role known to humankind, which is a good thing. Using literature to address social issues and gender relations is one thing; using it as a way to be sexist and gross is an abuse of readers’ trust and, in the 21st century, simply unacceptable.

Sexism is an issue that needs to be addressed, and literature is an ideal place for the discussion. Making accurate historical fiction part of that discussion can play an important role in the larger, modern conversation taking place globally in places such as the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements. Don’t use your writing platform to amplify sexism. With well-researched and sensitive characters, historical fiction can provide meaningful, relevant contributions to a powerful topic. Be more than an author – use your voice to be an advocate and ally. 

It is a difficult subject, but one that is starting to cause concern for many (female) readers who are beginning to voice that if it is not necessary for the plot, or to further develop a character or situation – then why is a scene of a derogatory or disturbing sexual nature there?

*Originally published on Helen Hollick’s personal blog, Of History and Kings. If you haven’t read her blog, you should do so immediately, if not sooner.