Ancient Rites and Sexy Flowers: Discussing the Research Behind Historical Fantasy with Judith Starkston

 

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Book cover: Priestess of Ishana

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Author Judith Starkston. Image retrieved from author website

 

A couple of months ago, I sat down to chat with author Judith Starkston about her new book, Priestess of Ishana. With deepest apologies to Judith about the delay in writing this article, especially as she was so gracious about giving me the interview – and feeding me in her own home, no less! – I want to talk a little bit about the awesome lady and the research behind a truly unique new series of books.

The series, which begins with Priestess… and will carry on with a forthcoming book (yay!) is based on Starkston’s research of the Hittite culture. I touched on this a little bit in my initial review of the book both on my blog and the historical novel review site, Discovering Diamonds. Her research is deep and accurate, and I would expect nothing less of her since she is a Classicist who is committed to providing detailed information about the ancient world in a fun and accessible way.

One of the overarching themes I noted in the book involve politics and shows men trying to keep women submissive. Starkston comments, “There are a lot of correlations between the politics of then and now. We like to think of history as progressing, but that isn’t always the case.” She goes on to explain about Hittite culture and how women like Tesha, her main character who is based on the real-life Hittite queen Puduhepa, were allowed to stay queens after their husband died. Often, if they had a son, they would navigate their power to get their sons on the throne, because there was always a king, unlike, for example, in Tudor England with Elizabeth I. But generally speaking, Hittite women had more power and freedom than Victorian women – they had property, could keep children even after a divorce, and they were allowed to initiate a divorce. Priestesses in particular had a key business and financial role as well as religious. The temples are sometimes referred to by scholars as “Little Vaticans” since they held so much power and influence over other non-religious institutions.

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The Great Temple in Hattusa

 

The rites and rituals portrayed in Starkston’s book are fascinating and full of magic. They also come directly from existing Hittite records; none of them are made up. While this might seem unbelievable to modern readers, Starkston explains that the Hittite culture is imminently well-suited for a fantasy novel.

She says, “When I decided to change the series from straight historical fiction to fantasy, it was actually really liberating. There is so much about how they view the world that is hardwired for magic.” For example, there is a detailed scene where Tesha performs a rite in a cave to banish an evil spirit, which they believed was lingering because a man was burnt to death. The entire ritual comes directly from cuneiform records. Similarly, another ritual, not used in the book but which Starkston discovered about Hittite culture, deals with disputes within a family. When such instances occur, the family would call in a priestess to heal them, believing it was an illness. The priestess would make wax tongues, the family would say the words of the argument, then spit on the wax and burn it. Based on court records, Starkston explains that this ritual and other similar ones showed that the Hittites believed words were the most powerful thing, curses were believed to be real and were feared, and correcting bad words is written into the culture. Such belief is woven into the fabric of Priestess of Ishana at every level.

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Cuneiform tablet

Another element of the book I truly loved were the mouth-watering descriptions of the food. I’m a foodie and I love to learn about new places and foods based on the books I read. Some of the foods in Priestess were made up to reinforce the fantasy elements, but overall, the foods in the book were also based on archaeological records and DNA studies of the residue from around hearths or pots, which can tell us if they contained wine, grains, cheese, and so on.

Starkston says, “Food is core to understanding a culture, so I really wanted to highlight it.” Indeed, she did. One of my favorite scenes involved Tesha and Hattu eating the stamens of large flowers in the temple. Who knew that eating flowers could be so sexy?

The flowers in this scene were made up, but the rest of the food in the same scene was not. I asked Starkston if she had ever tried making any of the recipes she had written about in the book or discovered in the historical record. Not only has she done so, she actually made a cookbook based on them. They are based on ingredients and techniques available at the time. All the recipes mentioned in her books are collected there and if you sign up for her newsletter, she will send it to you for free. I have tried some of them and I have to say, they are GOOD. My favorites are her hummus, lamb and lentil stew with raisins (though I hate raisins so I substituted with dried blueberries and it was delish), and the almond-stuffed dates. Seriously, the recipes are scrumptious and are fancy enough to impress your friends at a dinner party. That they are based on ancient recipes is just a delightful bonus for history nerds.

Starkston’s series will continue with a second novel, which I, for one, am eagerly anticipating. As yet, there is not a release date for the second book, though she says Tesha’s sister Daniti will be a point-of-view character. This will prove fascinating, as Daniti is blind, having lost her sight from chickenpox as a child. The way Starkston approaches illness and physical imperfection in the novel struck a balance between actual beliefs from antiquity. She is doing a lot of research to create as authentic a character as possible in Daniti. She says, “Since I found no evidence of how blindness might have been treated in Hittite society, or how the blind might have been viewed, I worked from close cultures like Sumerians to extrapolate. But there were split ideas toward blindness in ancient world. They were either thought to have inner visions sent by a god, like Homer’s ability, or they were thought to have a deformity or imperfection. Daniti is viewed by her father as cursed. Whatever went wrong was always the fault of the sick person, for example. So I made her an outcast, which was historically accurate, except that she and Tesha are close.”

Daniti is a strong woman, something Starkston excels at crafting. She creates women who can take on an enemy and do it without a sword. Tesha and Daniti are both women of deep strength.

Do magic and fantasy sit well together within historical fiction – indeed can such novels even be counted as historical? Should ‘historical’ be as accurate as possible without the addition of magic or obvious fantasy, or is there leeway for diversification? Should a book that is clearly fantasy in essence, but has its background of characters and general plot set very firmly within an accurately researched historical setting be considered as historical or as a fantasy novel, set in a fantasy world that is very loosely based in history, and therefore have no right to be classed as ‘historical’? What actually constitutes history or fantasy, anyway? Is the merging of fantasy into history acceptable? In short, of course it is! Within the varied genres of historical fiction, is it not this diversity which makes reading novels set in the past so exciting? The accurate biographical type novels of the lives of known people (usually kings and queens, or men and women of note) is one branch of historical fiction where the known facts are imperative to ensure the overall feel of ‘believability’ is ensured. For the other genres, mysteries, thrillers, romance, timeslip, alternative, it is the depth of the background research that creates the feeling of realism. If fantasy is not acceptable for historical fiction we would be sadly deprived of many wonderful novels and series: Mary Stewart, Barbara Erskine, Du Maurier to name just three – and there would be no Outlander!

When I find an author who writes a unique story, and who does it really well, it is a delight. When that story is also based on actual fact, as Judith Starkston’s novel is, it undergoes an alchemical change from just a fun story into a jaw-dropping narrative of women in the ancient world, struggling to gain their own agency, find their strength and bravery, give love to those around them, and fulfil a destiny. It provides an insight into what life was really like and shines a light on the human condition. We can look beyond the elements of fantasy and see the real people behind the magic.

And really, isn’t that what good literature is supposed to do, be it fact or fantasy?

42865572Buy the Book

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Find out more about Judith Starkston

Website: https://www.judithstarkston.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/judy.starkston

Twitter: @JudithStarkston

Anthony Bourdain Remembered

43884234Anthony Bourdain Remembered* by CNN

I read it as an: ARC

Source: Edelweiss

Length: 208 pp

Publisher: CNN

Year: 2019

Sometimes when I cook, I have the voice of chef Anne Burrell in my head, telling me I’m using my knife wrong or I need to do something differently. Over the years, though, another voice has been added to hers, overwriting it to tell me that it doesn’t matter if I do it perfectly so long as I’m trying something new, and “screwups are good. Screwups – and bouncing back from screwups – help you conquer fear. … Do not be afraid” (Les Halles). As long as my mise en place is in order (and it had better be or he will yell at me), then everything will be fine. That distinctive voice belongs to Anthony Bourdain.

Probably it’s not normal to have the voices of anyone in your head, but I’ve always been one to have conversations with people I only meet in books, or on TV, or from studying history. I’m not ashamed to admit that some of the best life lessons were ones I’ve received from people I’ve never met in person, some of them fictional. This is far more a tribute to him than is it a book review, so I am going to talk about the late, greatly missed Tony Bourdain. From Tony, watching his shows and reading his books, I’ve learned so many things. Now I know that you should always try a dish twice in case it wasn’t prepared well the first time. Borders don’t matter because we have far more similarities than differences. You’ll never know what you like until you try it. The one truly universal connection between people is food and breaking bread together over a meal, prepared with love and served in a spirit of generosity and openness, is something that transcends religion and politics and language. Traveling to new places and seeing how people in different cultures live is something everyone should do; there is no education in any hallowed institution on earth that can compare with this.

Most of us never got to meet Tony in real life; nevertheless, he had a tremendous impact on our lives all the same. I never met him, but that doesn’t change the fact that I look up to him as a mentor, or that his death left a wound that will always be tender. I know this isn’t how depression works, but I can’t help but wonder if he knew how very many people would be affected by his death, if it would have made a difference. Probably not. I’ll save my rant about the need for better mental health care for a more appropriate place.

As I said, I never got the chance to meet Tony in person. The closest I ever got was a random encounter in London, on opposite sides of a busy street in Soho. That sardonic smile was plainly visible through traffic and crowds and will be a sight I’ll cherish dearly. Nevertheless, I can say that I feel lucky that I was alive and shared the earth at the same time he did. I think the best way to remember him will be to try to approach life like he did – with curiosity and openness and a hunger that can only be satiated by going and seeing and experiencing it for myself.

This book is a collection of memories, left by people who feel as I do. This is not great literature. It isn’t going to move mountains or bring about world peace. It is simply the heartfelt notes of people given in their grief to express a love for a deeply flawed, deeply compassionate, curious, creative, soulful man, someone who touched us all profoundly in some way, and whose loss we feel acutely. People who also learned from Tony that “there is less to fear about the world than we think” or that we should “listen, rather than speak.” We know, because of him, that “it is a privilege to sit at someone’s table” and that we should “go to the place. Eat the thing. Talk to the person.” When we travel, he taught us how to be “less of an observer and more of a participant…”, that we should “offend no one, appreciate the simplest things, and absorb it all”, that “food was a tool through which to understand a place, to broaden your own understanding of the world…”, and that there is “beauty in the sad, and the poignant, and even in the mundane, every day.” He taught us new ways to see, how to be better listeners, and how to find the interesting experiences. I think he’d get a kick out of one comment in particular, written by Amy P, who said, “Tripe. I didn’t enjoy it, but Tony was 100 percent the reason I tried it.” Yes, girl! I have tried things, culinary and otherwise, that I never would have thought to do because of something I learned from Tony. Just try the food. If you don’t like it, then try it again somewhere else, in case the first time wasn’t the best. If you don’t like it after that, well, at least you tried it. But then again, you may discover your new favorite food. You might learn about your new favorite activity. I learned about black pudding in London’s old east end butcher district, and the next time I am there, I’m absolutely going to try some, because that’s what Tony would do. Because the real lesson he left us with is not to be afraid. Go out and try things and see where they take you.

“Travel isn’t often pretty. It isn’t often comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind” (No Reservations). Anthony Bourdain left something good behind, and his presence will continue to be missed. Let’s all go out, have an adventure, and make our own mark on the world. 

RIP, Anthony Bourdain. We still miss you.

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Image retrieved from Anthony Bourdain’s Twitter: https://twitter.com/Bourdain/status/993005310611619840

Bourdain, Anthony. Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook: Strategies, Recipes, and Technique of Classic Bistro Cooking. New York: Bloomsbury, 2004.

—-. No Reservations: Around the World on an Empty Stomach. New York: Bloomsbury, 2007.

*Amazon affiliate link.

Arthurian Novels Round-Up!

It’s been a while since I did any kind of round-up post, and I’ve been thinking a lot about Arthurian novels. Arthurian legend is probably my absolute go-to favorite for fantasy literature. I love a ton of different kinds of sci-fi and fantasy, of course, but if I had to pick one specific subgenre that really blows my skirt up, it has to be Arthurian. I’ll take it in just about any setting, I’ll read it without forgetting, I’ll read it at school, I’ll read it in the pool, I love stories of Arthur the King… I’ll stop. Ahem. Sorry.

Anyway, in no particular order, below are some of my favorites and I hope some are new to you!

51itaibuaqlOur Man On Earth (The Swithen Book 1) by Scott Tilek. An account based on some of the oldest extant manuscripts describing Merlin.

Black Horses for the King (Magic Carpet Books) by Anne McCaffrey. My beloved author wrote an Arthurian novel (yay!) about horses (winning!!), which is even better. All about the quest to find the perfect breed of warhorse for Arthur and his knights.

51ln1vvcazl._sx331_bo1204203200_The Kingmaking: Book One of the Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy by Helen Hollick. An historic retelling, stripped of magic and placed in a realistic medieval setting. One of the best, on par with Bernard Cornwell’s Arthurian Trilogy (The Warlord Chronicles: Books 1, 2 & 3: Excalibur / Enemy of God / The Winter King), which is also legit.

The Guinevere’s Tale Trilogy (Daughter of Destiny, Camelot’s Queen, and Mistress of Legend) by Nicole Evelina. The Arthurian legends told from Guinevere’s perspective. The tales get a fresh, feminist revision with a fierce new look at Camelot’s queen.

Child of the Northern Spring: Book One of the Guinevere Trilogy by Persia Wooley. Guinevere is a Welsh princess tomboy who was raised to become a queen.

Knight Life by Peter David. Arthur and Morgan in modern Manhattan, as told by the hilarious Peter David, whose Star Trek books I have universally loved. Especially Imzadi.

51gzvucvqfl._sx354_bo1204203200_Song Of The Sparrow by Lisa Ann Sandell. Actually, this is the story of the Lady of Shallott, told in verse, and it is lovely.

The Excalibur Murders: A Merlin Investigation by JMC Blair. Excalibur is stolen and a squire is murdered, so Merlin has to use his magic to solve the crime.

The White Raven by Diana Paxson. An historical setting of the Tristan and Iseult story, placed in medieval Cornwall. It is told from the perspective of Branwen, Iseult’s cousin and lady in waiting. Alas, I think this one is out of print, but I know you can get it from used bookstores and Amazon, because that’s how I got my copy. Just sayin’… 

In the Shadow of the Enemy

42070912In the Shadow of the Enemy (A Christine de Pizan Mystery) by Tania Bayard

I read it as an: ARC

Source: HNS*

Length: 224 pp

Publisher: Severn House

Year: 2019

In late-14th century France, Charles VI “the Mad,” rules. Probably a lot of people would like for France not to be ruled by a guy who is off his rocker, including his brother, the Duke of Orleans. Then, at a masquerade ball, the king and several of his friends decide to cause some mayhem and dress up like wildmen. To do so, they stick fur and leaves to themselves using pitch. This turns out to be a spectacularly bad idea, because a spark, presumably from the Duke of Orleans’s torch, catches on one of their outfits, causing four of the men to burn to death and the king to narrowly escape the same fate. Everyone suspects the Duke. However, some other people attending, including Christine de Pizan (yes, that Christine de Pizan) see something others didn’t – another torch, which was thrown from a spot far away from the Duke’s location. He still had both of his torches and yet there was a third torch on the floor, in the middle of the burning men. The Queen, Isabeau of Bavaria, asks Christine to find out who wants the king dead, for she is certain that he was the target of an attempted assassination. Aided by a colorful array of sidekicks, including a prostitute who actually makes her living at embroidery, a dwarf who works for the Queen, and a deaf girl who takes care of the King’s lions, Christine undertakes an investigation. It leads her from the twisted politics of the court, to various potential targets and culprits with different reasons to want the victims dead, and straight into the sights of a killer.

In the Shadow of the Enemy is actually the second in the Christine de Pizan series, but it was the first one I’ve read. That made no difference to my utter enjoyment of the book, though, as this story is a standalone. The first book was referenced enough that it filled in any gaps there might have been, sometimes a little too thoroughly – there are totally spoilers for the first book, so I didn’t think that was very well done at all. I’m still going to read the first book, though, and just hope that I’ve forgotten what the spoilers are by the time I actually get around to it.

I adore the fact that Christine de Pizan, author of The Book of the City of Ladies (Penguin Classics), is the protagonist here. I love it when real women from history are the stars in literature interesting new ways. She is a complex character, and all the secondary characters are multifaceted as well. Marion the prostitute was my second favorite, with her big personality and capacity for warmth and generosity and her inexplicable reluctance to tell people she isn’t actually a prostitute anymore. Christine’s mother, Francesca, was also a fun, minor addition. She reminds me of my grandmother in a lot of ways. The one thing I thought was weird was Klara’s utter and sudden change of heart regarding her husband Martin and her views on her brother, Willem. Those both seemed too convenient for me, but in the scheme of things, I can overlook this minor quibble.

The mix of medieval attitudes towards people, including those deemed “defective”, such as dwarves or deaf people, and even towards Christine herself, is so realistic. People thought Loyse, the deaf girl, had demons because they didn’t understand that she acted as she did simply because she couldn’t hear or understand others. The dwarf, Alips, was viewed with deep suspicion and hatred because it was thought that dwarves bring bad luck, or that the way they look on the outside reflected a corrupt soul.  And, of course, women were viewed as second class citizens and were treated as such. So much religious bullshit. The research that clearly went into the novel is apparent and appreciated. The imagery brings to life medieval France in an immediate way, from the descriptions of the court and its kitchens and gardens to the streets and their various inhabitants. The plot was pleasingly complex and included a lot of history about French warfare, or at least one battle in particular. Overall, this was a fast, fairly light read and I happily recommend it. I even went to the library and got the first one in the series. I’ll read a few other books before I read that one, though, to see if I forget the spoilers for it that were in this book. Hmph.

*This is a much longer and more detailed review of the one which was originally published by the Historical Novel Society.

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 »

The Winter of the Witch

42082394The Winter of the Witch: A Novel (Winternight Trilogy) 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.”

Openly Straight

16100972Openly Straight by Bill Konigsburg

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Pete Cross

Source: my own collection

Length: 09:01:00

Publisher: Dreamscape Media

Year: 2017

Rafe is openly gay and lives with the full support of his parents and community in Boulder, CO. The problem, as he sees it, is that everyone sees his label first. He’s always the gay boy, the gay soccer player, the gay writer, never just Rafe. He finally decides he is tired of it and wants a fresh start, which he will get by moving across the country to an all-boys boarding school near Boston. Where he tells no one he is gay. He doesn’t go back in the closet, he argues, he just doesn’t advertise that he’s gay. Naturally, things get out of hand. One little white lie about not being gay snowballs into Rafe actively asking his family and friends in CO to pretend he’s straight. And then there’s Ben, the quiet, kind soccer teammate who Rafe can’t help but fall in love with, and who may or may not be discovering things about his own sexuality that he doesn’t want to confront.

This was a very interesting and quick read. Well, I listened to it on Audible, but still. I am straight and have never had to deal with coming out, so I can only imagine what it’s like for people always to be labeled as “the gay ____” of the group. I would hate that, and I really hope I have never done that to anyone. If I have, I apologize. It was inadvertent. Which is the point. Labels suck, and they are often placed unconsciously. This realization leads to the two best parts of the book. The first was the discussion in Rafe’s literature class when everyone was talking about tolerance. It really isn’t a very positive word, which is something I have said forever. To tolerate something – she is tolerable, I suppose – implies that it is just on this side of not making you vomit. You don’t actively hate it. You allow its presence but don’t welcome it. I tolerate the cat but I can’t fucking wait not to have a cat. So why do we say that tolerance is good in society? Wouldn’t something like acceptance or inclusion be infinitely better? I wouldn’t want someone just to “tolerate” me. Rather than being tolerant, let’s work on being accepting. Even better, let’s be inclusive. Accepting is better than tolerant, but it is still not perfect, since to accept something has an implication of resignation or surrender about it, that you may not like something but you know you can’t change it so you’re going to just let it go. It is better than tolerating something, but I think embracing or including a person or an idea or whatever is perhaps the best way to go about it.

The second part that I really liked, which may be a spoiler, I don’t know, so consider yourselves warned, is when Rafe realized that the “cameras” he was always so worried about were rarely actually focused on him. He realized that he had been staring at a guy in his group but he was thinking about himself and how concerns and realized what people think didn’t have anything to do with his own sense of worth or his own masculinity or identity. And then he had that lightbulb moment and realized that when others stare at him, it isn’t necessarily that they are judging him, but that they are thinking about themselves and reflecting on something utterly unrelated to him. I think a lot of people need to figure this out, that they aren’t the center of everything and that people aren’t always concerned with them. I know teens tend to have those imaginary audiences a lot, but I think many people never outgrow that. As my grandmother says, “you don’t worry so much about what people think about you if you knew how seldom they do.” It’s true – I think people think about themselves far more than anyone else and, for the most part, don’t care what other people do so long as it doesn’t affect them too much.

I’m a bit off YA at the moment, but this was still a very good book even though it wasn’t one of my favorites. The whole thing was just an interesting discussion and I am glad I read it. The writing style was easy and enjoyable, and apparently the author is local for me. Maybe one of these days I’ll see him at a book thing or something, which would be cool.

Born a Crime

33632445Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Trevor Noah

Source: my own collection

Length: 08:44:00

Publisher: Audible Audio

Year: 2016

Trevor Noah is known to most American audiences as the newest host and replacement for Jon Stewart on late night comedy. But this book chronicles his childhood in South Africa in the last few years of apartheid, through the years immediately after with their unrest and violence, and his own experiences with abuse. And yet, through it all, he kept his innate goodness and kind nature, despite seeing some horrific things. I don’t know that I could have come through as happily as he did.

I’m not generally a fan of memoirs, though I find that I’ve been reading more lately. So I don’t know, maybe I’m more of a fan of them than I thought. In any case, Noah managed to discuss some really heavy topics like apartheid, racism, domestic violence, and crushing poverty with genuine humor. I never thought I would have laughed out loud over eating “dog bones” because you’re too poor to buy better food, but goddamn the way he told it was hilarious. Maybe the best way to effect change is to make people laugh about a thing. I don’t know. But by turning it into something laughable, it kind of felt like it was a little disrespectful. But I am not the one who lived through it, so I also feel like I don’t really get a say in it. In any case, I enjoyed this book and I learned a lot about many things. I definitely recommend this whether you enjoy Trevor Noah as a comedian or not.

Priestess of Ishana

Priestess of Ishana by Judith Starkston

I read it as an: ARC, finished as a paperback

Source: from the author, and I bought a copy for my own collection

Length: 453 pp

Publisher: Bronze Age Books

Year: 2018

Tesha is the 15 year old high priestess of the goddess Ishana, a deity of war and love. Her duties and devotion to the goddess are strong and she carries out her role faithfully at the temple, believing she knows her life’s role. Until one day, two shepherds discover the charred remains of a man’s body in a cave, who had been killed by sorcery, a crime punishable by death. When the Great King’s younger brother, Hattu, arrives to Tesha’s city to deliver a great treasure to the temple as a sign of his devotion to Ishana, he is arrested for the murder of the man in the cave. Tesha and her blind sister, Daniti, are convinced that Hattu is innocent, but their father, Pentip, the Grand Votary and High Priest, believes otherwise. Acting against her father, Tesha meticulously searches for the truth that will set Hattu, with whom she shares an inexplicable bond and visions, free of his prison and save him from execution at his own brother’s command.

You guys. YOU GUYS! This novel is Hittite historical fantasy! Let me say that again:

HITTITE. HISTORICAL. FANTASY!

This is exactly the historical fantasy novel you were looking for to round out your 2018 reading! The world building is intricate and painstakingly drawn, which is always pleasing. The pacing has a nice blend of faster action sequences combined with complex (but not convoluted) politics and religious rites. Each character has depth and personality, some of whom you love to hate. I thought Tesha in particular was a complex person, a woman in her own right who had some power as a respected priestess, but who was also a woman in a very different and much earlier society who adhered to some patriarchal rules. It was fascinating to see her carry out her duties as well as her investigation within the scope of the limits her society imposed upon her.

The excellent author’s note at the end gives further insight into both the creation of the novel itself as well as the Hittites. I think a lot of people don’t know about the Hittites at all, or else only what is mentioned about them in the Bible. But their civilization was enormous and they had a ton of influence on the ancient world. They were literally lost to the sands of time and were only relatively recently rediscovered. There is still a lot we can learn about them, and frankly, learning history by way of well written fantasy novels isn’t a bad way to go. I think Judith Starkston has struck on a totally unique niche within the historical fantasy genre, and I can’t wait to see what she comes up with in her next installation in the series!

**A slightly different, probably longer and better version of this review will also be posted at the very awesome book review site Discovering Diamonds. You should go check them out.