The Lost Queen

41971059._sx318_The Lost Queen by Signe Pike (website, Twitter)

Her Grace’s rating:  5 out of 5 stars

Genre: historical fantasy

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Toni Frutin

Source: my own collection

Length: 17:44:00

Published by: Touchstone (4 Sept 2018)

In 6th century Scotland, twins are born to Morkan, a petty king of Cadzow. Languoreth and her brother Lailoken lived in a time when the old ways are being destroyed by Christianity, and the result is political instability and conflict. Although Languoreth wants nothing more than to become a Wisdom Keeper (Pike’s term for Druid), it is Lailoken who is chosen for that path. Languoreth is married to Rhydderch, a son of the High King Tutgual who is sympathetic to Christian interests. Rhydderch adheres to the old ways but his fairly tyrannical father has converted. Languoreth’s duty to her people is to act as their emissary, protecting and preserving the old ways as best she can. Through politics, strategic marriage, and ties of loyalty, Languoreth fights for her beliefs. Alongside Languoreth are Maelgwn, a Dragon Soldier for Emrys Pendragon and her lover; her foster brother Gwenddolau, later called the Other Pendragon, or Uther; and her brother Lailoken, who the common people began calling Mad Man – Myrddin, known to history as Merlin. 

Languoreth of Strathclyde was a historical woman, mostly forgotten by history. Thus, the ‘lost’ queen. Fantasy that is based in reality is the best kind, in my opinion, because it takes a beloved story and turns it into something that might actually have happened. No matter how much we suspend our disbelief for the sake of entertainment, it is hard to imagine that a boy really did pull a sword out of a stone and that magic forged the historical foundation of Britain. It is thrilling, though, to find real evidence of men and women on whom the legends are based. Signe Pike did an absolutely stellar job in creating a believable and complex novel on the basis of bits of information. 

The politics in this novel are detailed and readers feel the stress, uncertainty, and fear produced by it. The tensions between the old ways and the new religion are vividly depicted and reflect an awareness of modern social issues as well as ancient. 

The creation of this world and the characters who will eventually become the well-known figures of Arthurian is intricately drawn out. It is not always a fast-paced novel, so for people who want all action, all the time, this may not be the book for you. For me, though, I’ve finally found a book that can replace The Mists of Avalon as a book I can recommend. 

I had initially skimmed an ARC of this from Netgalley and left a brief review. However, I enjoyed it so much that I bought both the hard copy and audio version. I have to say, the narrator, Toni Frutin, is amazing. I don’t know why she hasn’t narrated more audiobooks, because she absolutely ought to. I also liked hearing the way some of the words are pronounced, which definitely didn’t happen when I eyeball read it. 

There were some things I wanted more of, like Ariane needed more time in the story, I had thought. However, this is just part one of a trilogy, so I am hopeful she will make another appearance in the later books. Maybe she will wind up being the Lady of the Lake or something. 

Overall, highly recommended. I am looking forward to reading the next installment. 

Favorite part/ lines:

  • We may not always have the choice we would like. But we always have a 

choice.

 

 

Sorcery in Alpara

47870793._sy475_Sorcery in Alpara by Judith Starkston (website, Twitter, Facebook)

Her Grace’s rating:  5 out of 5 stars

Genre: historical fantasy

I read it as an: ARC

Source: digital ARC from the author

Length: 439 pp

Published by: Bronze Age Books (14 Oct 2019)

This second novel in Starkston’s Tesha series picks up right where the first story, Priestess of Ishana, left off. Tesha and Hattu are newly married and traveling to Alpara, his capitol city. Tesha is to be crowned as Hattu’s queen and rule beside him. Instead, as they travel through hostile lands, a dark force attacks Hattu and his army. Tesha frees the army through the use of her skills as a priestess of Ishana, but at a steep price. Tesha is drained of her strength and power, unable to move or speak. As she gradually recovers, under the care of her sister Daniti, it becomes clear to Tesha that Hattu has been overcome by the same dark force. Tesha must struggle against betrayals that take everything she holds dear from her, save Hattu and her new kingdom, without sacrificing herself in the process. 

Second novels in a trilogy often struggle with a sluggish plot in some odd sort of literary ‘middle child syndrome.’ Sorcery in Alpara definitely does not suffer from this problem. From the start, it is full of action and magic, love and despair. Readers get several gut-punches as Tesha fights to save those she loves, even while being unjustly accused of a crime she didn’t commit. 

A major subplot of the novel involves Tesha’s older sister, Daniti, who was taken captive by a faction of Hattu’s enemies. Daniti uses all her considerable skills to delay her captors from carrying out their plans. Helping her is Marak, Hattu’s second-in-command, who had allowed himself to be taken hostage to protect Daniti. Their whole story, while not quite as fraught as Tesha and Hattu’s, is intriguing and highlights some of the facets of being disabled in the ancient world. Daniti’s blindness doesn’t hinder her ability to be a formidable ally to Tesha and fierce enemy to Paskans and others who would overthrow her brother-in-law. 

Hattu’s people, the Hitolians, are based on the ancient Hittites. Starkston does a masterful job weaving in elements of their culture and religious practices throughout her writing. The religious rituals the Hittites practiced lend themselves extraordinarily well to creating the magic spells Tesha and other priestesses use in this series. Using historically accurate details to turn them to one’s own purpose in a story really helps create a richer reading experience. Starkston has this practice well in hand and she uses her impeccable research on the Hittite culture to modify and implement magic rites within the world she has built around Tesha, who is herself based on a real life Hittite queen, Puduhepa. 

In short, this is an excellent addition to the Tesha series. I can’t wait to buy a hard copy for my own library. Strongly recommended to anyone who loves historical fantasy, or who has an appreciation for well researched books with a seriously fun plot. 

PLEASE NOTE: If you go to the author’s website, you can preorder a copy of this book for $2.99 on kindle. When you preorder Sorcery in Alpara, you get a free short story which continues the narrative of Anna, a prequel story to the Tesha series. The first short story installment comes when you sign up for Judith’s newsletter. I’ve received both and the short story and the newsletter are entirely worth your time. 

Arrr, Ahoy Me Hearties! Books for International Talk Like a Pirate Day*

Mateys. Why be pirates so mean? I don’t know, either, they just arrrrrr. 

I know, I know. Sink me, it’s awful. But I know two jokes and that be one of them. I wasn’t goin’ to be passin’ up the chance to share it with ye. Ye’re welcome. Since September 19 be International Talk Like a Pirate Day, it’s also a jest worthy of the day. Why be there a Talk Like a Pirate Day? Well…why not? It all really started as a parodic (parrotic? Do pirates really have parrots?) holiday for jolly good fun by two silly scalliwags who thought it be a good idea. Nothin’ more to it than that. And really, what better reason be there to drink grog and read about some of the finest swashbuckling crews on the high seas? 

There be pirate books a’plenty, far more than those penned by those most renowned authors Robert Louis Stevenson or Daniel Defoe (or Jonathan Swift, Herman Melville, Jules Verne, Bernard Cornwell, or Patrick O’Brian).  So if ye want to be learnin’ about talkin’ like a pirate so ye sound more like an old salt instead of a sprog, have a gander at some of these fine volumes. Just don’t go droppin’ ‘em in the briny deep or ye’ll be keelhauled. Savvy? 

And yes, I expect all ye landlubbers to talk (and write) like a pirate all the live long day. 

1958775Sea Witch by Helen Hollick. The first in the Sea Witch series featuring fictional pirate Jesamiah Acorne. Hollick’s research be impeccable and many other real life pirates have roles in these tales. This high seas rollicking adventure makes it easy to see why pirates be romanticized so often.

Lost Boy: The True Story of Captain Hook by Christina Henry. This be the story of Peter Pan, told from the perspective of Captain Hook, a Gentleman ‘o fortune who has been mightily abused by literature and that scoundrel Pan.

Winterwood by Jacey Bedford. A cross-dressing lassie privateer captain discovers she has a younger half-brother, inherits a magic winterwood box that might save all of the rowankind (like the wee fairy folk), and has a shapeshifting wolf courting her, to the great annoyance of her husband’s ghost. Read it anon!

32620311._sy475_Hook’s Tale: Being the Account of an Unjustly Villainized Pirate Written by Himself by John Leonard Pielmeier. As the title suggests, this be the autobiography of the illustrious, dashing Hook himself. 

Destiny’s Captive by Beverly Jenkins. Noah Yates sets off on the high seas, seeking adventure, not a wife. And then he be captured and tied up by a woman. Literally. A woman who be descended from pirates. Who then steals his ship. All manner of great, grand adventure ensues. 

Hurricane Dancers by Margarita Engle. A boy be traded from pirate ship to pirate ship as long as he can remember, used as a translator between Spanish and his mother’s Taino Indian language. Then a ruddy hurricane sinks his ship, he escapes, and he gets to decide the fate of his former captors. To keelhaul or not to keelhaul…

33643994._sy475_Daughter of the Pirate King by Tricia Levenseller. A 17-year-old pirate captain allows herself to be captured so that she can search her enemy’s ship for a secret map to a hidden treasure. A true pirate will go to any length to seek treasure and adventure.

Blackhearts by Nicole Castroman. A fancy rich merchant’s sprog wants to flee his strict social class and go to sea to make his own way, while a young orphaned woman wants to return to her mother’s home in Curacao. They meet, fall in love, and must decide whether to follow social rules or not. A pirate would tell rules to walk the plank. The young man grows up to be Blackbeard, the most fearsome and renowned pirate ever to sail the seven seas… 

49851Under the Black Flag by David Cordingly. Written by the former head of exhibitions at the British National Maritime Museum, this novel be all about the fact and fiction of a pirate’s life. Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate’s life for me…

One Piece by Eiichiro Oda. Pirate manga! Monkey D. Luffy wants to be the Pirate King. Instead, he accidentally gained the power to stretch like rubber, at the cost of never being able to swim again. Now, he and some pirate sprogs are on a quest to find the One Piece, which is reputed to be the greatest treasure in all the wide world.

*Originally posted on Book Riot. 

In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse

27778554._sx318_In the Footsteps of Crazy Horse by Joseph Marshall III (website, Twitter)

Her Grace’s rating:  3 out of 5 stars

Genre: children’s fiction

I read it as an: ebook

Source: library

Length: 176 pp

Published by: Harry Abrams (10 Nov 2015)

This children’s novel follows Jimmy McLean as he travels with his grandfather to learn about his famous ancestor, Crazy Horse. Jimmy has a hard time with bullies who mock him for not being full-blooded Lakota. Jimmy’s mother is Lakota but his father is biracial Lakota and Irish. His grandfather takes Jimmy on a road trip so they can visit the sites of Crazy Horse’s most famous moments. In the process, Jimmy learns something of strength, honor, and taking care of people, including yourself. 

I enjoyed this slim novel well enough. I tend not to read children’s fiction much; even the books my 9 year old reads are generally YA. So the writing felt overly simple to me with some information missing that I would have liked to have. However, I had to remind myself that it IS for children and they may not be able to read books that deeply yet. It was fun to learn more about Crazy Horse, especially from a Native American perspective. So much history is written by the victors, so the version of Crazy Horse we tend to get in school here is that he was a rabble-rouser and problematic for the white soldiers. I always took that with a grain of salt anyway, but it is still nice to hear about the story from a different perspective. 

I read this for task #22 of the Read Harder challenge: A children’s or middle grade book that has won a diversity award since 2009.

Favorite lines:

  • “A long time ago,” Grandpa said as he and Jimmy rode down the highway, “people and animals could understand each other’s languages. A person could understand what a hawk said. The hawk could understand people. But things changed. Animals and people don’t understand each other anymore. That’s sad.”
  • “When things like that happen, like to your dad and Crazy Horse, it’s okay for tough guys to cry. Don’t you ever forget that.”
  • Jimmy looked around at the hilly landscape. He had the same strange feeling he’d had at the Hundred in the Hands battlefield. He felt like he should be quiet or talk only in a whisper.
  • “That’s the sad part about war and battles,” he concluded. “Doesn’t matter who you are, what side you’re on. It’s still sad, no matter what kind of uniform you wear or the color of your skin. It’s still sad.”
  • Sometimes you have to do things no matter how scary it is, or how scared you are.
  • …that’s what being a warrior was all about: facing the scary things no matter how afraid you were. That’s what courage is.

River of Teeth

31445891._sy475_River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey (website, Twitter)

Her Grace’s rating:  4 out of 5 stars

Genre: alternative history

I read it as a: paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 173 pp

Published by: Tor (23 May 2017)

Sarah Gailey’s novella, River of Teeth, finds its origins in a little known yet true bill Congress had considered passing in the 1800s. This bill would have imported hippos to the Louisiana bayous to breed as an alternate meat source to cattle. As the publisher’s blurb says, this was a terrible idea. Lucky for us, it clearly didn’t happen. In this alternate history, though, it did, and now shit’s about to get real. Some hippos in the novella’s past had escaped their farms and bred and expanded indiscriminately throughout the area. These feral hippos are tremendously dangerous and like to eat people. (Trying real hard here not to make a comment about how hungry the hippos were since I’m sure it’s been said many times. They were hungry…hungry hippos.)

Former hippo farmer and mercenary hippo wrangler, Winslow Houndstooth, is hired to herd these feral hippos out of the bayou and into a safer, contained region. If they are successful, he and his crew will make a fortune and Houndstooth will get revenge for a past wrong done to him. 

This book was so much fun! I love historical history, but not so much alternative history…unless it is one like this. Gailey pulled off an engaging, boisterous tale with complex characters, complete with their own motives, skills, and backgrounds. Houndstooth was the primary character, but the others were extremely well developed, particularly given that the story was so short. 

One thing I really loved was how diverse the cast of characters is. Men and women work alongside each other nicely (mostly), there are characters of color, nonbinary characters, LGBTQ characters, a woman who is about to become a single mother by choice. So many different people are represented and I fucking love it!

Definitely recommended for anyone looking for a fast, fun, diverse read. 

 

Memoirs of a Traitor

41t033qmoel._sx331_bo1204203200_Memoirs of a Traitor by Lee Levin

I read it as an: ARC

Source: HNS

Length: 384 pp

Publisher: Royal Heritage Press

Year: 2018

Presented as a found document, Memoirs of a Traitor is the story of William Stanley, knight banneret, and brother of Lord Thomas Stanley. These brothers played an interesting role during the Wars of the Roses, fighting for the Yorkists at the Battles of Blore Heath and Tewkesbury, but later fighting for the Lancasters at the Battle of Bosworth. Sometimes you just can’t fucking decide who to fight for, you know? Like most others of their peers, they were primarily concerned with keeping their heads securely attached to their shoulders. One managed to do so, the other, not so much. Just the way the cookie crumbles, I reckon. This book tells the tale of William, the younger Stanley brother, supposedly written from the Tower the night before his execution for treason for his role in supporting Perkin Warbeck’s claim to the throne.

This was a very readable book. The style was conversational, engaging, and yet still informative, if somewhat too informal for my usual taste. First-person narratives are kind of hit or miss for me, but since this was supposed to be Stanley’s own written account, there was no other way it could have been written. Sometimes it worked fine and helped draw me into the story more fully; other times it brought me out of the story because I thought it was cheesy or distracting. I do think it really limited the extent to which the other characters were fleshed out. Only a handful of secondary characters were really given very much attention or life. Most were pretty flat, with a couple notable exceptions such as Baron Simon de Rochford and Owen the squire. It would have been nice to get to know them better. I didn’t think the rest had well developed voices and it was difficult to differentiate them on the page.

I think, too, that the pace might have been a little too fast in that some major events or battles happened too quickly with not enough detail given. I get that the premise of the book was that William was hunched over a parchment, scribbling his thoughts in a hurry in one night before going to the block, but it felt like there was too much lost that would have been good to add depth and flavor to the tale had it included more detail. However, all the main points are touched upon and this really would be a great book to use to introduce someone to the Wars of the Roses who isn’t as familiar with it. The overall historical accuracy and engaging writing style make it easy enough to forgive some glossing over of the finer details, especially given the first-person narration.

All in all, I found this to be an enjoyable read and would recommend it, though with some caveats.

^This is a longer, more detailed version of a review my published via the Historical Novel Society.

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.

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.