The Green Phoenix

36085083The Green Phoenix: A Novel of the Woman Who Re-Made Asia, Empress Xiaozhuang by Alice Poon

I read it as an: ARC

Source: Helen Hollick at Discovering Diamonds

Length: 372 pp

Publisher: Earnshaw Books

Year: 2017

The Green Phoenix by Alice Poon is a sweeping saga of a fascinating woman, the Empress Xiaozhuang. She began as Bumbutai, a Mongolian princess who became a concubine at the Manchu court when she was 12  and later, became the first empress of the Qing Dynasty. She guided her country through political machinations, upheaval, and strife to see it become one of the most powerful dynasties on earth.

I confess that I know nothing at all about Chinese history. Going into this, I couldn’t have been more ignorant about a topic if I tried. That said, The Green Phoenix was an absolutely riveting novel, and appears to be meticulously researched. The atmosphere hooked me from the start and I simply didn’t want to put it down. I lost rather a lot of sleep over this book. The politics of court life were complex and, at times, harrowing, on par with anything the Tudors or Plantagenets could come up with. The intrigues and plots were so intricate and delicately wrought that I found myself breathless, wanting to know how this woman would make things right or take advantage of the situation. I found myself rooting for a person who has been gone for nearly 400 years – her story is over and unchanging at this point, but it was as gripping to me as if it were happening in real time.

The characters in this novel are people readers grow to care about. Some of them I hated, but I was supposed to. I admit that I did have some trouble keeping many of them straight, partly because there were so many of them and partly because I was having a hard time with the names. That is all on me, though; I wonder if it might be easier to keep characters straight if I could listen to this as an audiobook. Perhaps one day it will be available through Audible, but it seems not to be at the moment.

Poon’s use of language can only be described as elegant. I highlighted many of my favorite passages, as is my habit when reading any book, but I think my favorite was, “A kind ruler is an invincible ruler,” something many leaders even today need to learn. Hong Taiji really embraced that when Bumbutai first joined his court as a child bride/concubine. He allowed her to continue her education, something that was precious to her, and he was kind to her. It can be hard to understand, even for seasoned readers of historical fiction, a girl marrying at 12 years old. For Bumbutai to go from a child at the beginning of the book to the formidable woman she was is a treat to witness, all thanks to Poon’s masterful wordsmithing. Bumbutai was a woman of great strength, generosity, love, and humility. I would have liked to know her, and after reading this book, I felt almost like I did.

Overall, this was a captivating book, and it read very quickly despite its length. Very highly recommended!

 

Circe

CirceCirce by Madeline Miller

I read it as a: hardback

Source: my own collection

Length: 333 pp

Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing UK

Year: 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.