Traitor’s Codex

42730289Traitor’s Codex (A Crispin Guest Mystery Book 11)* by Jeri Westerson (website, Facebook)

Her Grace’s rating:  4 out of 5 stars

Genre: historical fiction – medieval, 14th century London

I read it as a: hardback

Source: my own collection

Length: 198 pp

Published by: Severn House (June 1, 2019)

**Spoilers below**

In 1394 London, Crispin Guest, self-styled Tracker of London, and his apprentice Jack Tucker are making ends meet with small jobs here and there. But their world gets turned upside down when a mysterious man drops a package in Crispin’s lap and disappears. Inside is a book written in a language Crispin has never seen. Making use of his varied contacts throughout the city, he learns that the book is written in Coptic and contains a secret gospel, the Gospel of Judas, which claims that Judas was the most beloved apostle and that salvation can come from within a person, not through Christ’s sacrifice. Knowledge of this gospel would overturn the Church’s authority and lead to a dangerous heresy, something even skeptical Crispin isn’t willing to allow. When people who have helped him start getting murdered, Crispin finds himself in the middle of a race to get the book to a safe place. In the meanwhile, someone in London is impersonating Crispin and wreaking havoc on his reputation… 

Throughout this novel, themes of loyalty, oaths taken, and reevaluating what we thought we knew take the lead. Crispin and Jack both are forced to closely analyze the things they had always taken for, well, gospel truth, and both come away from their adventure changed in some fundamental ways. I think it was a good, if hard, lesson for Crispin to learn that Jews are people who have a great deal to contribute to his society and he realises he was not very good to them, or not as good as he could have been, only after two of his Jewish friends are killed. 

The subplot with Crispin’s copycat were amusing, and the way he handled it was very inventive. I liked how it came full circle in the end and Crispin used the man the way he did. It made that subplot more meaningful, rather than just a nuisance to Crispin that had no other purpose. 

The concept of loyalty also comes into play a lot throughout this novel. It was good to see Crispin evaluating his past role in the rebellion to place John of Gaunt on the throne and to understand the impact it had on others in ways he had never considered. Assessing one’s own thoughts and actions is an indication of a well-rounded adult and Crispin has really learned a lot about himself throughout the novels, and in this one especially. 

I am looking forward to the next book in the series with both excitement and bittersweetness, knowing it will be one of the last. But also – Excalibur! YES! I am also really, really curious to see how Crispin’s tale will end. I know *I* have my own ideas and hopes for how it will end and what will become of Crispin, Jack, and the rest. But it will be interesting to see if any of those align with Westerson’s plan for our favorite intrepid, disgraced knight. 

Favorite parts (potential spoilers!):

  • The bookseller’s excitement over his books, especially the Launcelot book that was written in London but which he got in the Holy Land. Book nerds from the Middle Ages geeking out about their books is absolutely something I want more of in everything I read! 
  • When Julian of Norwich comes to visit. I loved the nod to her writing when Julian refers to Mother Jesus, and later her most famous quote: All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.. As a medievalist who focuses on the writings of holy women, including Julian, I dig it when someone makes us if them in their own work. Also, the author’s note explains why Julian was in London and not in her cell, which is where she actually would have been, and does so in a way that is believable within the scope of the novel. Nicely done, my lady Westerson!

 

*Amazon affiliate link.

A Brightness Long Ago

41458663._sy475_A Brightness Long Ago* by Guy Gavriel Kay

I read it as an: ARC

Source: a friend who lent me her ARC

Length: 423 pp

Publisher: Berkley

Year: 2019

In Kay’s newest historical fantasy set in a quasi-Renaissance version of Italy, themes of memory and fate are woven throughout the tale in the memories of Guidanio Cerra. Cerra recalls his life, starting with the day he helped the highborn Lady Adria di Ripoli get away after assassinating a tyrant. From there, his life brings him into contact with Folco Cino and Teobaldo Monticola, both mercenary leaders and bitter rivals. They all revolve around one another’s lives, orbiting around the shared sphere of power, dominance, and subtle machinations of politics and war, through the lens of distant memory. Most of the events are viewed from Cerra’s point of view as his life touches Cino’s, Monticola’s, and Adria’s, along with some more minor characters such as the healer Jelena or a young cleric.

The pseudo-Renaissance Italian land of Batiara is richly described with a deep history of its own. The land and settings are life-like and made me feel as though I’d fallen through the pages into the scene directly; I could see and smell and feel everything he described as though I was really there. Every character, no matter how minor they first seem, is fully developed and identifiable. I love the way Kay takes these minor characters and later shows their connection to the main events, or has them come back in unexpected ways. He provides an interesting discussion on the concept of fate and choice, and how even seemingly small choices can have a dramatic impact on the course of one’s life. Everything is connected and has a purpose in his writing, and Kay is a master at teasing out every bit of detail from a scene. 

I’ve always found Kay’s writing style to be really interesting. In the hands of a different author, it might not work for me, but Kay can transport me into his carefully crafted world, full of a multitude of characters, without confusing me or disrupting the narrative flow. He uses language alternately to soothe and to jar the reader into a deeper reflection of the overarching themes in his works. His ability to do so with singular skill is rare, and an utter delight to read.

This works as a standalone novel, though it would be excellent to read along with Kay’s Sarantium Mosaic since they are connected. Very highly recommended.

Favorite line(s):

  • We are always the person we were, and we grow into someone very different, if we live long enough. Both things are true.
  • The sailors say the rain misses the cloud even as it falls through light or dark into the sea. I miss her like that as I fall through my life, through time, the chaos of our time.
  • Shelter can be hard to find. A place can become our home for reasons we do not understand. We build the memories that turn into what we are, then what we were, as we look back. We live in the light that comes to us.

The Harp of Kings

43316755._sy475_The Harp of Kings (Warrior Bards)* by Juliet Marillier

I read it as an: ARC

Source: Netgalley 

Length: 464 pp

Publisher: Ace

Year: 2019

Liobhan has dreamed of joining the elite group of warriors from Swan Island since she was a little girl. She and her brother Brocc, both talented musicians, have gained places in the newest group of Swan Island trainees and she is determined to earn a permanent position there. Another trainee, Dau, seems by turns as determined as Liobhan to win a spot as he does to make sure she does not. When their trainers Innan and Archu decide that these three trainees will accompany them on an actual mission to the kingdom of Briefne to retrieve the magical Harp of Kings, required to coronate the new king Rodan, Liobhan learns the true meaning of what it will mean to become a Swan Island warrior. 

I am always thrilled to get a new Juliet Marillier book and I enjoyed this one immensely. I did think the writing wasn’t as tight as many of her previous books, in particular Daughter of the Forest or the Blackthorn and Grim series. However, this was still a great story with interesting new characters and quite a few easter eggs for her long-time readers. 

Each chapter is told from the first person point of view of one of the trainees. I’ve read other books that do this as well and they often become garbled or indistinguishable from one another. That was not the case here; each character was so well developed that readers can identify who is speaking even without the benefit of dialogue. Liobhan is the saltier of the two siblings and has a thread of impatience and recklessness running through each of her chapters. Brocc is a gentle soul who prefers music to fighting, even though he is adept at it, and his chapters seem almost dreamy at times. Dau has a lot of anger and bitterness in him, and it is clear he has a history he wants to keep hidden or tamped down. Seeing events through each of their eyes makes for an interesting read since each chapter switches from one to another. It gives a nice mix for readers and lets us get to know the characters closely as well as see their growth as people.

The secondary characters were often intriguing. I thought the best one was Mistress Juniper, though Aislinn came in a close second. I kind of want to be a mix of Mistress Juniper and the Aunts from Practical Magic when I grow up. I felt that a few details were left unanswered, such as who Juniper really was, whether Aislinn will get to leave or not, and why exactly Rodan was so monstrous and whether he’ll chill out since events panned out the way they did. I also wanted to know more about the Crow Folk. Speculation from the various characters was all well and good, but I wanted a more definitive answer than I got. In any case, it had an ending that was exciting enough and makes it easier to overlook the few minor quibbles I had with the plot. I am hopeful we will learn more about these things in subsequent books, at least about the Fair Folk and the Crow Folk. 

Overall, a very enjoyable read, perfect for a weekend indulgence or fantasy break.

Ghost Wall

43660486Ghost Wall: A Novel* by Sarah Moss

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Christine Hewett

Source: my own collection

Length: 03:48:00

Publisher: Macmillan Audio

Year: 2019

Ghost Wall is the story of Silvie and the two weeks in which her father, an amateur ancient historian, drags her and her mother into the woods of north England to live as ancient Britons. They join a group of anthropology students who are also there to reenact living the lives of simpler times and try to understand how the “bog bodies” came to be so. The group forages for food, hunts and fishes, all using Bronze Age tools. When they erect a “ghost wall”, the spiritual barrier made of stakes topped with ancestral skulls intended to ward off enemies, the group taps into a deep-seated, primal connection to their distant ancestors as well as a desire to deeply understand their motivations. What follows is a deeply unsettling narrative of abuse and sacrifice. 

This slim novel (or rather, in my case, short audiobook) highlights how taut prose can tell just as good a story as any giant epic doorstopper of a novel any day. This was an excellent read. Told from the point of view of Sylvie, the young woman whose father, Bill, is the amateur historian, we learn fragments of life about ancient Britons based on what she has learned in turn from her father. More importantly, we learn that her father is an abusive bag of dicks and has convinced her that people only hit the things they care about. Sylvie has a quick wit and salty attitude, which we only see in her internal dialogue; she never really says what she’s thinking for fear of what her father will do to her if she does. However, once they join up with the students and professor of the anthropology group, she begins to envision a different life for herself which includes going to university, having her own money, making her own decisions, living away from home and even away from England. She is afraid, however, to voice her interests since she has learned they will probably be thwarted. 

The anthropology students are an interesting group, ranging from barely engaged in the reenactment to ready to go back in time and embrace prehistoric life. Jim Slade, The Prof, as their instructor is called, leads the group overall, though Sylvie’s dad is the unacknowledged ruler since everyone tip toes around him. The students – Dan, Pete, and Molly – are by turns helpful and dismissive, indifferent and supportive. Molly in particular shines here and is a great example of a strong woman and role model. 

Sylvie’s father uses his love of history as a justification to abuse his family as well as to try to go back to some ephemeral time of British purity. Anyone who actually knows history knows there is no such thing for really any culture, let alone British culture. He names his daughter after a goddess – Sulevia – claiming she is a British goddess when in reality she is Roman in origin. You can’t “take back” a country when it was never pure or yours to begin with. There is a lot to unpack here with regard to cultural or racial purity, cultural and historical ignorance, and the ways in which humans have used history and a connection to past events, imperfectly understood, to justify and rationalize current cruelty and brutality. I could go on a long political rant about this, but suffice to say GOP/Trump.

I think this book makes a terrific argument for why we need to study and understand history. Yes, there is the old wheeze about people who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. More than that, though, is the message that those who imperfectly understand history (not that there is really a perfect way to understand it) can twist it to do awful things on both large and small scales. Bill uses history to justify abusing his wife and daughter; politicians use it as a way to whip up their base with the idea of “making __ country great again”, the implication being that it wasn’t just fine the way it was before, with all the people from all different places living there. Racism. 

It also touches on the vital issue of domestic abuse, shame, and fear associated with it. Sylvie is ashamed and afraid because her dad beats her with his belt. Her mother is useless in protecting her, and while I tend not to understand that mentality – I think I’d kill anyone who hurt my daughter – I am also not a long-time victim of abuse. I don’t know how it must wear you down and make you think it is normal. That is important to try to understand. It is something I have to work on because I felt anger and disgust at Sylvie’s mom for not protecting her, and it isn’t probably fair of me. 

In short, I loved this book. It was deceptively nuanced and complex. Highly recommended.

 

*Amazon affiliate link.

 

The Pearl That Broke Its Shell

40135122The Pearl That Broke Its Shell: A Novel* by Nadia Hashimi

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Gin Hammond

Source: my own collection

Length: 16:10:00

Publisher: Blackstone Audio

Year: 2014

The Pearl The Broke Its Shell is a dual timeline narrative told mostly from the perspective of Rahima, a young woman living near Kabul in 2007. She and her sisters are the children of an opium-addicted father and, with no brothers to help the family, their prospects for improving their life or marriage prospects are grim. Their rebellious aunt, Shaima, suggests that Rahima follow an old custom called the bacha posh, which not only sounds like Klingon the way the narrator pronounced it, but it the tradition of allowing a girl to dress and act as a boy when there are no other boys in a family. She can go to school, run errands for her mother, and chaperone her other sisters. In this way, Rahima becomes Rahim and becomes a boy until she reaches marriageable age and her father marries her and her two other eldest sisters off. By marriageable, I mean she was 13.

The tradition of bacha posh was not unique to Rahima’s family. She had a many-times-great grandmother, Shekiba, who had lived as a man near the turn of the century as well. The secondary timeline follows her story from her small village and farmstead, through the cholera epidemic that wiped out her entire family, and how she lived as a man in order to survive.

This was such a thought provoking novel. Though fiction, it deals with issues which happened in real life and which are still highly relevant today – child marriage, honor killing, domestic abuse, drug addiction, and many other issues. Any one of these things is enough to break a person, but underneath all this is woven the strength of women. Rahima and Shekiba, as well as the other women throughout the book, all suffer hardships, sacrifices, abuses, and losses that are unimaginable. Some, like Rahima’s sister Parwin, are overcome. But others, like Rahima and Shekiba themselves, keep fighting even when they think they’ve come to the end of their strength and can’t go any further or endure anything else life could possibly throw at them. In the end, Shekiba’s story becomes a source of strength for Rahima, and Rahima becomes the pearl that breaks her shell.

I loved the use of bird imagery as well throughout the book. Parwin was fond of drawing birds, there were birds singing and fluttering about in many pivotal scenes. Birds have some significant parts in Islamic culture, from the “Miracle of the Birds” when Abyssinian forces were supposedly annihilated by birds dropping pebbles from the sky to prevent them from entering Mecca and destroying the Ka’bah, to stories found in The Thousand and One Arabian Nights to works by Sufi poets and Islamic mystics. Including the bird imagery elevates the narratives of the women and equates them to many of the mystics or saints from other cultures in some ways, those who were made holy through their suffering, like medieval saints. I am not sure if that is intentional or not, but the image is there all the same.

This mystic thread continues in the book’s title, which is derived from the ecstatic poem “There Is Some Kiss We Want” by Rumi, the 13th century Sufi poet. It is a lovely poem:

There is some kiss we want

with our whole lives,

the touch of spirit on the body.

 

Seawater begs the pearl

to break its shell.

 

And the lily, how passionately

it needs some wild darling.

 

At night, I open the window

and ask the moon to come

and press its face against mine.

Breathe into me.

 

Close the language-door

and open the love-window.

 

The moon won’t use the door,

only the window.

Rainbirds

33026565Rainbirds by Clarissa Goenawan

I read it as a: hardback

Source: my own collection/BOTM credit

Length: 322 pp

Publisher: Soho

Year: 2018

 

***Spoilers for this book are very much present in this review.***

Ren Ishida comes from Tokyo to a small, unnamed town in Japan after receiving the news that his sister, Keiko, has been murdered. Intending to go and finalize her affairs, Ren finds himself accepting a job as a teacher at her old school and living in her old apartment. He essentially takes on his sister’s old life in many ways, hoping to figure out what happened to her while bringing himself closure as well. In the process, he uncovers many surprising truths about his sister as well as his entire family.

Ehhhhh. I get that this was supposed to be written with a minimalist style, but I don’t think it was actually minimalist. I think it needed to be fleshed the fuck out. This story could have occurred anywhere – there was just no sense of place at all, nothing memorable about the town or surroundings to make it special. The characters were mostly flat and Ren, the main character, was stultifying. He has no real personality. The dialogue was mostly painful and lame throughout as well. Do people really talk like that in Japan? For example:

“So, you’re a teacher,” she said.

I nodded. “I teach English at a cram school”

“That makes sense. I was wondering what kind of work you did. You leave the apartment around noon, and return pretty late. I thought you were in retail, like me.”

“That would have made sense, too.”

“Hey, Izumi.” The young man who greeted me earlier approached us. “Sorry to cut in, but your shift is over.”

“Already?” She checked her watch. Her wrist was slim and bony. “You’re right. Thanks for letting me know.” (219)

So stilted. This sounds very similar to some dialogue my daughter wrote in one of her stories. My daughter is eight. It just goes on and on like this throughout the entire book. Nobody seemed genuine at all because of the way their dialogue was written. Maybe I just didn’t care for the style at all, but let’s move past that.

I also didn’t like – at all – how the killer’s identity was discovered but no one cared to give that information to the police, either because it wouldn’t bring back Keiko or because it would ruin the lives of the killer’s family. Um, SO? How would something someone else did have any impact on another person? *I* didn’t kill that person, my relative did it, let me help you throw their ass in the clink! Fuck reputation. Of course it doesn’t bring the murdered person back, but that’s not the point. The point is that you don’t let murderers get away with it. What the fuck? So that was deeply unsatisfying. The end, I felt, just petered out and everything went back to normal and everyone moved on and it was like nothing much happened, just a minor six-month detour in life that we can now forget about and move past. I honestly kept reading this book to see who it was because I wanted them to go to jail, but that didn’t happen and it left a bad taste. I feel like I wasted a whole weekend on this book when I could have been reading the new Guy Gavriel Kay book instead.

I want my BOTM credit back.

Earl of Huntingdon

42551630Earl of Huntingdon (Outlaw’s Legacy Book 3)* by NB Dixon

I read it as an: ARC

Source: Helen Hollick at Discovering Diamonds 

Length: 418 pp

Publisher: Beaten Track

Year: 2019

Earl of Huntingdon is the third in the Outlaw’s Legacy series, a reimagining of the Robin Hood legend by NB Dixon. In this installation, Robin of Huntingdon, formerly of Locksley, is an earl, a former outlaw pardoned by King Richard for his lawless ways. He had married Marian, the heiress of Huntingdon, though his heart was given to one of his companions, Will Scathelock. Now, years later, Robin is facing an old enemy from his Crusading days, Roger of Doncaster, who had been promised to Marian in his youth and never forgave her or Robin for coercing her marriage to Robin instead. Roger is determined to do all he can to destroy Robin, whose only solace now is in the arms of the man whose heart he broke.

The action begins with a new group of outlaws in Sherwood. The difference here is that these outlaws are truly bad people, raping, pillaging, and plundering from the innocent. The new sheriff of Nottingham, Matthew Picard, is as inept as Guy of Gisbourne ever could have been, and does nothing to stop them. Robin takes matters into his own hands and dispatches the outlaws himself with the aid of his loyal men…and Will Scathelock. However, the outlaws were connected to a spy in Robin’s midst working with Roger of Doncaster to bring Robin down and killing the outlaws sets in motion a chain of events neither Robin nor his men could have anticipated.

This was an utterly unstoppable read. While I confess I’ll read just about anything labelled “Robin Hood,” that doesn’t mean all such are actually well written or entertaining; Earl of Huntingdon, however, is both. I enjoyed the rich historical details, such as the training the men did in the lists and at the tiltyard, or the ways in which castles could be besieged. Adding in the historical details in this way make these novels which are based on legend spring to life, making it seem that much more possible that people like Robin Hood really could have existed.

The characters were all interesting and well developed. I loved how very human Robin was – he was conflicted in wanting to do right by Marian and by what I think was his genuine affection for her, but also his desire for Will and wanting to be with the man he truly loves. He isn’t a perfect person, and never tries to be, and it makes him that much more believable.

Marian is not always likeable and her reasons are understandable. She’s endured many losses and suffered a lot of heartache, which makes her rather shrewish at first. We get to know her more as the book goes on and I grew to like her more. Having Marian be less likeable than she often is in more traditional versions makes this novel compelling and more relatable – it reminds readers that she is a woman of her time and subject to the whims of the men in charge of her, and yet she has endured it all as best she can.

All the secondary characters – Will, John Little, Tuck, John’s wife Daphne, Alan a Dale, and so on – have distinct personalities and foibles of their own. Daphne in particular is a woman to be reckoned with. She’s awesome, even though her role in this novel was relatively minor.

Roger of Doncaster is a complex antagonist. He is so incredibly hateful towards Robin that, without having read the previous books, I am left to wonder if he is supposed to have been closeted. He hates Robin and other gay men so much, and bases his hatred for them in his religious devotions, that it makes me wonder if the hatred isn’t really supposed to be a projection of his own self-loathing. That possibility wasn’t really addressed in this book, but it did make me wonder as I was reading.

My only quibble, and it is minor, is that a couple of the secondary antagonists are a little stereotypical. Picard, for example, is very good at being a stupid fop and not much else. It makes him a rather boring antagonist because he is one-dimensional. There didn’t seem to be much else going for him. Again, this is a minor issue and didn’t detract from the rest of the plot overall, other than it made a few things a little predictable.

I loved the queering of the Robin Hood legend. It’s always fun to read a reimagining of any beloved story, and to see it done in a way that is socially relevant is a treat. It brings new discussion into the mix and raises a lot of interesting new questions to the traditional story everyone is familiar with. The chemistry between Robin and Will is unmistakable and fierce, but not over the top. As a non-reader of romance in general, I appreciate it when the romance isn’t actually smacking me in the face. The romance and sex in this novel were, I felt, very nicely done for both the gay and hetero couples.

I do feel I would have enjoyed the book even more had I read the previous two in the series. However, I do not feel like I was lost, plot-wise, for having missed them. Enough of the backstory was given so that any gaping plot holes were filled in, though I do feel like I missed out. I enjoyed the book enough that I went and purchased the first two in the series, and will quickly remedy that deficiency. Even without having read the first two in the series, I still happily recommend this book even as it is, and am looking forward to reading the whole series in order.

*Amazon affiliate link.

The Salt Roads

61nvaeyynml._sl500_The Salt Roads* by Nalo Hopkinson

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Bahni Turpin

Source: my own collection

Length: 13:15:00

Publisher: Tantor Audio

Year: 2003

This is the story of a fertility goddess, Ezilie, sometimes called Lasiren, and the women whose bodies she possesses. The main point of view characters are Mer, a healer and slave on a plantation on the island of St. Domingue, what is now Haiti; Jeanne Duval, the Haitian mistress of Charles Baudelaire; and Thais or Meritet, a Nubian slave and prostitute in Alexandria, Egypt, who later becomes known as Mary of Egypt. In nonlinear timelines, the narrative follows the lives of these women as Lasiren inhabits and influences them. Mer is tasked with clearing the salt roads, the connections between Haitian slaves and their African gods. She tries to do so through peaceful means, even though a violent rebel called Makandal is rising in power and urging slaves to revolt against white slave owners. Mer knows her duty is to heal all the Ginen people. Jeanne Duval’s narrative focuses more on economic freedom. She is trying to support herself and her mother, who is ill and can’t afford medicine. To do so, she becomes a stage dancer in hopes of catching the eye of a rich man who will take her as his mistress and set her up in comfort so she can care for herself and her mother. Thais’s story comes pretty late in the book overall, but I think it can represent freedom from sexual slavery, since she was a prostitute and relied on that for survival before Lasiren began interacting with her, driving her to wander the desert. Her interactions with Lasiren eventually resulted in her sainthood.

At first, I admit I didn’t quite get this story. I really enjoyed it, but it took a few days of really thinking about it for me to find the threads that bound it together. I really love that, when a story makes me think and I don’t get it right away. Maybe I still don’t have it right, but this is what I’ve come up with. The various forms of freedom are, I believe, the overarching theme. The salt is the common element which binds women around the world together, through blood, sweat, tears, birth fluids, and sex.

I really enjoyed the way the lives of these women were linked throughout the story. They were so very different, but they each had their own struggles for freedom which bound them together, and Lasiren teased out their desires and eventually managed to bring comfort to them all, even if it was a long time coming.

Each setting was vivid and complex, containing rich cultural details. I hadn’t known, for example, that Makandal was a real man and that he did actually instigate a rebellion on St. Domingue. I learned as well that the Ginen is the Haitian name for the ancestral home of enslaved Africans, and that it referred to the slaves on St. Domingue. I didn’t know that Charles Baudelaire had a Haitian mistress. I had never heard of Mary of Egypt. Now I have so many new things to read about in more depth because of this book!

The narrator, Bahni Turpin, did a stellar job, as she always does. Her accents really bring the characters to life and she dramatizes the story without being melodramatic. She is one of my favorite narrators.

This is definitely one of the most unique books I’ve read ever, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I highly recommend it and am looking forward to reading more by Nalo Hopkinson.

 

*Amazon affiliate link.

The Column of Burning Spices

43458335The Column of Burning Spices: A Novel of Germany’s First Female Physician (Hildegard of Bingen)* by PK Adams

I read it as a: digital book

Source: my own collection

Length: 370 pp

Publisher: Iron Knight Press

Year: 2019

The Column of Burning Spices is the second in PK Adams’s duology about the renowned medieval holy woman, Hildegard of Bingen. This picks up right where the first book left off and covers the latter part of Hildegard’s life, when she was writing and creating the works for which she is most well known.

Where the first book had given Hildegard an interesting background and a plausible history that filled in gaps in the historical record, this second book continued with what is known of her and fleshed her out in a human way. I don’t feel that there was quite the depth of character as there was in the first book, but I think this is simply because there was so much that Hildegard did in her life that it is impossible to capture it all in the scope of one novel. Authors have to make a choice – are they going to focus on her music or her scientific writing? On her struggles with the men of the church or on her charitable work? Adams is no different, and she did exceedingly well with what she chose to include. I thought the details were sufficient for Hildegard fans like me while also serving to whet the appetite of readers who may not be as familiar with her, hopefully inspiring them to go out and learn more about her.

How Hildegard dealt with the troublesome men of the church was handled deftly, and accurately. One of my favorite parts of the book, as well as actual events of her life, was how she handled the question of the burial of a man who had been excommunicated and then forgiven. He was buried, then the canons demanded that he be exhumed and reburied in unconsecrated ground. Hildegard refused because she said his sins had been forgiven. The canons told local authorities to exhume the body, so Hildegard and her nuns went around and removed all the grave markers from the cemetery. I love that so much. She sounds like my granny, a salty old crone. The canons placed Hildegard, her nuns, and the abbey under interdict, so no Mass could be performed and, worse for Hildegard, no songs could be sung. But eventually, she won and they could have their Mass and music back.

I enjoyed how the relationships between Hildegard and others were developed. Volmar, who was her confessor in real life, was given a deeper place in her life. It is not part of the historical record, but the way it was written in the book was believable and still within the scope of acceptable behavior for a Benedictine nun, and raised a poignant “what if” for them both. Similarly with Ricardis, Hildegard’s personal assistant. The two women had a close bond in real life, prompting some scholars to speculate that Hildegard was actually a lesbian. Maybe she was, but I also think that is a stupid assumption; she lived almost entirely in the company of women from the time she was 8 years old and most of the men of her acquaintance were her adversaries. It is no wonder that she formed her closest bonds with other women. It should have no bearing on her sexual preferences. I disagree, however, with how the author handled Ricardis leaving the convent. There is no indication in the historical record that she left because she’d been spying on Hildegard to Abbot Helenger or that she was in the church only to advance her family’s standing. If that had been the case, I doubt very much Hildegard would have continued to write to her after she left, asking her to come back, which she did several times. That part of the novel required too much of a suspension of disbelief, and didn’t fit with the existing historical record, for me to buy.

Overall, the duology was very pleasing – Hildegard of Bingen is hands down my favorite medieval holy woman, and favorite medieval woman second only to Eleanor of Aquitaine. The first installment was stronger, and I would rate it 4.5 stars, but the second still offered a solid performance and I would rank it at at 4 stars. I heartily recommend both books to anyone interested in this fascinating woman, or to anyone who has never heard of her and would like a starting point to learn about her.

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Wings of Fire 3: The Hidden Kingdom

16100976Wings of Fire Book Three: The Hidden Kingdom* by Tui T. Sutherland

I read it as a: paperback

Source: my daughter’s own collection

Length: 336 pp

Publisher: Scholastic Press

Year: 2013

This is the third book in the Wings (snerk. I mistyped it wongs. I am amused. And, apparently, 12) of Fire series, this time focusing on Glory, the RainWing. The dragonets have decided to travel to Glory’s home in the rainforest to find her tribe, the RainWings, and see if they might be prevailed upon to help them in their quest, or at least shelter them from the SeaWings who are pissed off and chasing them from the previous book. When they get there, they discover that “lazy RainWings” isn’t a euphemism applied to Glory by their mean jailers, it is a breed trait. The RainWings generally know nothing about the land beyond the rainforest, don’t care about anything beyond napping, can’t even read, and basically have nothing much going for them. Nor do they notice or apparently care that various members of their tribe are going missing. Incensed, Glory and the other dragonets decide to find out what is happening and discover magical tunnels, like mini wormholes, that take them in an instant from the rainforest to other parts of the world. One of those takes them directly to SandWing territory, and another to NightWing territory. Glory herself becomes a prisoner after using herself as bait, but makes her escape with the help of a spunky baby dragonet, Kinkajou, and returns to the rainforest to challenge the current queen for the throne.

This was a decent entry in the Wings of Fire series. They are all pretty entertaining so far, for kids’ books, though to date, nothing has managed to come close to my love of the Dragonriders of Pern. But my daughter is enthralled with this series and wanted me to read them, so I am reading them to please her. I remember wanting my mom to read the books I loved when I was little, so I am happy to do the same for my own child.

Anyway. This book focused mainly on Glory as she learned about her tribe, the RainWings. They are perhaps not lazy, more like indifferent to the outside world, ignorant, and irresponsible. It’s like they’ve mentally arrested at the development level of young children, or Republicans but without the generally wilful meanness. They just don’t do things they don’t want to, or that sound boring, or that interfere with their naptime. Glory sees this and is appalled, especially once she realizes that none of them even realise dragons are missing, and no one cares to do anything about it. When she takes her complaint to the Queen, Magnificent, she tells Glory that it’s just a few and there are lots of RainWings, so it’s ok. Glory uses herself as bait to get kidnapped so she can find out where the missing dragons are, gets one tiny dragonet out (with help from said dragonet and Clay), and then challenges the Queen.

Glory develops a lot in this book. She learns to be more empathetic – or else she always was and it just shows more here. When she uses herself as bait, she makes sure to do it in such a way that protects her friends as much as possible. When she challenges the queen, she relies on the RainWings who have helped her to win the throne, which she couldn’t have done if she had used her prophecy friends. She learns to trust people other than herself and rely on people to do their jobs for her when she can’t do it herself. I think that is a good lesson for kids, and for adults as well: we can’t always do everything ourselves, sometimes we need help from our friends, and it’s absolutely fine not to know everything or be able to do it all on our own.

The other dragons are less of a feature, though Kinkajou was sometimes cute and a solid ally. Jambu was as well, though rather annoying. The prophecy dragons were mostly an afterthought in this one and played little role in the plot overall, which may not appeal to major fans of those characters. For myself, I am somewhat indifferent to them and don’t have a favorite, so this wasn’t a problem to me. The story was fine and the resolution of the challenge to the queen was satisfying.

However, there were several unfinished plot threads that I found a bit irksome. I hope they are picked up in book 4 because it would be sloppy otherwise, more so than in the previous book with a couple abandoned plots there. Maybe everything will tie together in later books. This is why I get bored with long series. I like a good, tight plot, dense and intricate but still resolved in two or three books. After that, super long series just become like Grey’s Anatomy or Game of Thrones – bloated and unending and just carrying on for the sake of seeing how much more the writers can wring out of it before sending it to a sad and meaningless death. Hopefully that doesn’t happen here. Sutherland seems a talented writer, so I remain hopeful that she hasn’t forgotten the plots she left behind and will tie them up neatly in the rest of the books.

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