Historical Fiction

“I am Venus” by Barbara Mujica

Today is my stop on the TLC Book Tour for Barbara Mujica’s novel I am Venus.  I received a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

I am Venus is the story of Diego Velazquez and the mysterious model of his only surviving nude painting.  Told from the model’s perspective, it explores Velazquez’s rise to prominence amidst the Spanish court.

Velazquez’s paintings feature a motif of mirrors.  If you look at the mirror in the painting of Venus, you will notice that the perspective is off.  If the mirror reflected the woman in the picture, it would be showing her boobs.  Instead, the mirror disguises the model’s identity.

The mirror motif becomes integrated into the story as Barbara Mujica sheds light into Velazquez’s world.  She highlights the contrast between the rigid Catholic ideology of the Inquisition and the decadence and corruption of the Spanish court.

Mujica integrates the same contrast between appearance and reality into her narration, alternating between the perspective of the aged model who posed for the painting and a third person omniscient point of view.  While I can appreciate the artistry that went into this technique, I felt that it made the writing seem choppy and disjointed.  The abrupt segues into the first person broke my immersion.  At the same time, I don’t think I’d have had the same connection to the painting if the book was narrated differently, and I admire the creativity that Mujica displays.

Even though I was ambivalent on the writing style, the story itself was fantastic.  Velazquez’s relationship to his wife Juana is an integral part of I am Venus, and the author paints a complex portrait of the way that their relationship changes over time.  Juana grew on me as the book progressed.  At first, I found her to be self-centered and naive, especially when expressing her jealousy toward women who modeled for Velazquez’s paintings.  She was particularly venomous toward Lidia, a young servant girl who assisted in Velazquez’s studio.  I felt for Lidia, especially because of the power imbalance between the two women, and felt that Juana was lashing out at the wrong person.  As Juana matured, she became more empathetic.  She learned to see outside her narrow world and to genuinely care about other people.  Her relationship with Velazquez deepened, and she felt a greater connection to his world.

Overall, I was impressed with I am Venus.  Despite the narration style, I felt immersed in Velazquez’s world.  I’d recommend it to fans of historical fiction and art.

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Categories: Fiction, Historical Fiction | Tags: , , , , , | 6 Comments

“The Chalice” by Nancy Bilyeau

Today is my stop on the TLC Book Tour for The Chalice, a historical thriller by Nancy Bilyeau.  The Chalice is the sequel to The Crown Although the two books have separate story arcs and can probably be read independently, this review will contain some spoilers from the previous book.

Joanna Stafford was a Dominican novice up until the dissolution of her convent by Henry VIII.  Now, she is trying to figure out what she wants to do with the rest of her life.  Joanna is fiercely independent and doesn’t want to be controlled by the court or her relatives.  Her dream is to buy a loom and weave tapestries in the small town of Dartford.  She’s also developed feelings for two very different men–Edmund, a former monk, and Geoffrey, the constable.

However, Joanna’s life can never be that simple.  As a teenager, her mother took her to visit Sister Elizabeth Barton, whose eerie prophecy points Joanna on a dark path.  It leads her to once again become involved in espionage, this time in order to ensure that Mary will one day take the throne.

Bilyeau explores the conflict between state and religion at a time when the two were inextricably intertwined.  Joanna finds herself hating what Henry VIII has done to English Catholocism.  At the same time, there are plots overseas calling for an invasion.  As much as Joanna disagrees with what Henry is doing, she doesn’t want her country to be decimated by war and then divided between the great European powers.

One of the central themes of the book is Joanna’s internal struggle with the idea of violence.  Henry VIII is attacking her religion and has destroyed her entire way of life.  At the same time, those who seek Joanna’s help opposing him aren’t above using lies and murder to get what they want.  Joanna must decide whether the ends justify the means and how to stand up for her beliefs without simultaneously compromising them.

Bilyeau plans to write a full series involving Joanna’s adventures.  She makes a strong protagonist, and I’m excited to see what she’ll become involved in next!  There are still some loose ends that haven’t been resolved (*cough* love triangle *cough*), and Joanna’s position among the minor nobility but removal from it puts her in the perfect position to explore Tudor intrigue.

Categories: Fiction, Historical Fiction | Tags: , , , , , | 15 Comments

“The Crown” by Nancy Bilyeau

I received a copy of Nancy Bilyeau’s “The Crown” as part of the TLC Book Tour for its sequel, “The Chalice.”  My post for “The Chalice” is scheduled for mid-August, but I wanted to read and review “The Crown” first to become familiar with the characters and story.

“The Crown” is a historical thriller set in Tudor England.  The protagonist, a young Dominican novice named Joanna Stafford, sneaks away from her convent to attend her cousin’s execution.  Her trip doesn’t go quite as planned, and she and her father are captured and sent to the Tower of London.  The Bishop of Winchester releases Joanna, but on one condition–she is to be his spy, and to locate the whereabouts of the Athelstan Crown, which he believes to be hidden in her convent.  Her father is still held in the Tower, and will not be released unless Joanna is successful in her mission.  Can she betray the sisters and the convent that she calls home?

When I was a teenager, I used to be obsessed with historical fiction set in the Tudor era, and read everything that I could get my hands on.  This book is a throwback to that time of my life, and it was highly enjoyable.  It’s a different point of view than most of what I’ve read, as the bulk of the action and intrigue takes place away from Henry VIII’s court.  There’s also an element of mystery and treasure hunting.  It’s what would happen if you mix Phillipa Gregory with Dan Brown.

I loved that the main character is a nun.  Nancy Bilyeau explores the dynamic between the different sisters and the community that they form.  It’s an unusual setting for Tudor fiction, and it’s absolutely perfect.  Joanna feels at peace at Dartford, and likes it far better than she had serving at Queen Mary’s court.  The fact that she has experienced both shapes her character.  Joanna is level-headed and determined, and completely aware of the way that the world works.  At the same time, she’s very human.  We see her struggle with her conscience and with her faith, especially when she learns about some of the abuses that are going on within the Catholic Church–for example, many of the convents and monasteries have been faking relics in order to generate income from unwitting pilgrims, and the Bishop of Winchester, who should be an upstanding leader, is torturing her father to force her obedience.  It’s an interesting perspective, especially against the backdrop of the Reformation.

Despite the fact that Joanna is a novice at a convent, the book plants the seeds for a love triangle in the sequel.  I’m curious to see how it will go, as right now it’s kind of in the background, and for most of the book Joanna doesn’t entertain any notion of ever having a romantic relationship.  I’m generally not a fan of love triangles, but I’m hoping that it will be tastefully done and that Joanna will choose the path that’s right for her.

“The Crown” had me sitting on the edge of my seat dying to know what would happen next.  It is a fast-paced tale of murder and intrigue set against the turmoil of the Reformation, and I look forward to reading the sequel.

Categories: Fiction, Historical Fiction, Mystery | Tags: , , , , , | 10 Comments

“Red-Robed Priestess” by Elizabeth Cunningham

Red-Robed Priestess

“Red-Robed Priestess” by Elizabeth Cunningham was one of last year’s BEA finds.  Even though it’s the fourth book in a series, I decided to give it a try, because I found the premise intriguing.

Basically, The Maeve Chronicles are a lot like Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Avalon stories, except the main character is Mary Magdalene, and she’s a sex priestess who has a kid with Jesus.  Doesn’t it sound delightfully sacrilegious?

In this volume, Mary Magdalene (Maeve) is an old woman, and Jesus is already dead, but still talks to her sometimes.  Maeve has had an interesting life and is ready to settle down, but one thing still haunts her.  When she was young, her father raped her, and she had a daughter.  The daughter was stolen from her and sent away to be fostered by a neighboring tribe, and she never saw her again.  With the aid of her other daughter Sarah and her lady pirate friends, Maeve embarks on a quest to find her long-lost child and set things right.  Of course, it gets a bit more complicated.  That long-lost daughter is totally the rebel queen Boudica, which can’t end well.  Meanwhile, Maeve becomes romantically entangled with a Roman governor, as she’s having visions about having to warn him that something terrible is about to happen.

If you’re at all familiar with the story of Boudica, you already know that the book is going to have a lot of violent and depressing scenes where innocent people (including children) have terrible things done to them.  Not having heard of Boudica’s story before, I was completely blindsided by this.  I expected the story to be a lot lighter and happier.  At the same time, I was satisfied with the way that Cunningham managed to pull off the ending–even though history comes to pass, she manages to end with a message of hope and resurrection, and a continuation of the cycle of life.

I like the idea of using an older protagonist to tell the story.  Stereotypically, you don’t expect a woman in her sixties to be riding into battles, shapeshifting into birds, or fucking Roman generals.  Maeve is a badass, and even though her years have made her wise, she’s still very much an active player in the story.  At the same time, she feels a great burden after having seen so many people that she loved die.

One of Maeve’s central struggles in this novel is spiritual in nature.  She was raised a druid, but betrayed them when she stole a human sacrifice (Jesus, btw) as a young initiate.  While she still is a priestess and shape-shifter who worships nature goddesses, she also finds herself enthralled by the philosophy of Jesus’ central message of peace and of loving one’s enemies.  She loves both her general and her family, and is torn by her role in the war.  She’s confused by her relationship, because she’s been a slave to the Romans, and she watched them crucify Jesus–rightfully, she should hate them.  Meanwhile, we see Boudica as a foil as she throws her entire being into a war of revenge over violence committed against her family.

This book is an interesting choice for fans of both fantasy and historical fiction.  Even though it’s the fourth book in a series, you can understand it without having read the previous books.  I’m planning on eventually going back and reading the earlier novels at some point, because Maeve’s story was compelling, and I’d like to see the author’s take on Jesus’ life and death.

Categories: Fantasy, Fiction, Historical Fiction | Tags: , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Review and Giveaway: “Glow” by Jessica Maria Tuccelli

Jessica Maria Tuccelli’s debut novel “Glow” is a joy to read.  I’d highly recommend it, and invite you all to participate in a giveaway sponsored by the publisher.  Just leave a comment to enter.  I’ll draw the winner out of a hat on May 31.  Please include your e-mail address so that I can contact you if you win.

And now, for my review…

“Glow” is a historical novel set in the American South.  The story centers around a little girl named Ella McGee.  Her father is black and her mother, a civil rights activist, is Cherokee.  When Ella’s mother is threatened before a protest, she puts Ella on a bus back to her own hometown in Georgia, hoping to keep her safe.

While Ella’s story forms the basic framework of the novel, Ella herself doesn’t appear very much.  Instead, Tuccelli tells the story of several generations of Ella’s family, ranging in setting from mountain cabins to plantations.  Through each story, Tuccelli weaves a compelling commentary on race relations and sacrifices made to protect one’s family.

Having so many protagonists in a book of this length should have turned out very badly, but Tuccelli pulled it off masterfully.  Each character’s story is well developed, and watching the relationships between them intertwine gave this book a layer of depth and complexity that I hadn’t expected.  Each character is memorable and unique.  There is the story of Riddle Young, a Cherokee man who had a son, Alger, with a neighbor’s slave, whom he loved, only to realize that the child would be born into slavery.  Riddle spends years indentured as an overseer in order to convince the plantation owner to let him buy his son’s freedom.  Meanwhile Alger falls in love with Willie Mae, who can see ghosts and spirits.  Then there’s Mia, Ella’s mother, as she realizes for the first time as a child that people hate her because of her race.  Mia is such a strong character, and yet we see her desperate worry as she realizes that fighting for her rights places both her own life and that of her daughter in danger.

Each generation in Tuccelli’s story struggles with its own crises, and her characters do everything they can to overcome the obstacles that they face in life.  There is violence, and bad things happen to good people, but at the same time the overall tone is one of hope.

Oh, and did I mention that there’s a ghost story?

The spiritual and paranormal elements in “Glow” enhance the story, but don’t take anything away from the central message.  Tuccelli’s style reminds me of Isabelle Allende’s magical realism.  There are ghosts, but their presence in the story is subtle, and the overall focus is on creating snapshots of race relations throughout a family’s history over the course of several generations.

If you enjoyed “The Secret Life of Bees,” “The Help,” or anything by Isabel Allende, then you’ll probably love “Glow” as well.  I’m so glad to have had the opportunity to share it with you.

Categories: Fiction, Historical Fiction, Magical Realism | Tags: , , , , , , | 55 Comments

“Blood Eye” by Giles Kristian (giveaway included)

“Blood Eye” is the first novel in the Raven series by Giles Kristian.  When I was approached by TLC Book Tours to review a historical fiction novel about Vikings, I immediately got excited, because I had reviewed A. S. Byatt’s Ragnarok: The End of the Gods earlier this year and had been wanting to learn more about Norse culture ever since.

A brief word of forewarning… there are scenes of blood, gore, and torture in this book.  For the love of God (or Odin), don’t read it during lunchtime!  You will lose your appetite.

“Blood Eye” opens in Valhalla as Osric begins to tell the story of his life to the gods.  He doesn’t know his family.  He had been abandoned and left for dead, but Ealhstan, the kind mute village carpenter, took him in as his assistant.  The superstitious villagers alienated Osric because he has a red eye, but still his life is relatively peaceful.  One day, Norse raiders come and attack the village.  Osric realizes that he understands their language, and the raiders decide to take him with them as they continue their journey because of his value as an interpreter.  Sigurd, their leader, believes that Osric’s blood eye is a sign of Odin’s favor, and gives him a new name worthy of a warrior:  Raven.

“Blood Eye” is at its very heart a historical adventure novel.  The book follows the typical fantasy plotline of a hero embarking on a quest (in this case, stealing a valuable manuscript) and saving the damsel in distress, the princess Cynethryth (try saying that three times quickly).  Cynethryth is a relatively strong character in her own right, taking initiative and defying her father’s wishes when she feels that the Norse Fellowship is being treated unfairly.  Although it’s part of a series, the story arc is self-contained.  I approve of the ending; it leaves the promise of more action, but there isn’t a major cliffhanger.

One of the things that I loved about this book is the way that Giles Kristian weaves Norse mythology into the plot.  The Norse gods are gods of war, and so they are seen as ever-present forces any time that the Fellowship engages in battle.  This is a Viking novel, so there’s battle pretty much all the time.

While I love the depiction of the Norse religion, I felt that the author’s criticism of Christianity was unnecessarily harsh.  Not all of the priests have to be villainous, and it would have created a far more complex picture of society.  I’d have liked to see one or two Christians in the book who actually believed in the religion that they preached and were a bit more tolerant of others.  One of the central themes here seems to be how the priests can sanction atrocities of war when they claim to worship a god of peace, whereas at least the Norse are honest about what they’re doing.

I’d recommend this one to anyone interested in learning more about Norse life.  “Blood Eye” is well-written and fast-paced, packed with historical detail and bloody battles.

The publishers agreed to let me host a giveaway of the novel, which is open to readers in the US and Canada.  To enter, just leave a comment.  The giveaway will be open for a week, and I’ll pull names out of a hat on Tuesday, October 2.  Good luck!

Categories: Fiction, Historical Fiction | Tags: , , , , , , | 29 Comments

Interview with Debra Dean, author of “The Mirrored World”

Today is the release date of The Mirrored World, a novel which tells the story of Xenia, a Russian Orthodox saint who became a holy fool and is revered for her charity to the poor.  I had the opportunity to meet Debra Dean at a book signing while at BEA, and I am delighted to be able to host an author interview with her today.

What inspired you to write “The Mirrored World”?

I was researching my first novel, The Madonnas of Leningrad, and I stumbled on the story of Xenia, this 18th century woman who gave up a life of relative ease to become a holy fool. I wondered, what kind of person becomes a saint? And just as importantly, what would it be like if you cared deeply for this person and you saw her turning onto such an extreme path?

What made you choose to write about Russia?

I can find no logical explanation for it, beyond the fact that Russia has amazing stories. I’m not Russian, I don’t speak or read Russian, and prior to completing The Madonnas of Leningrad, I had never even set foot in the country. My husband says I was Russian in a former life, and I suppose that’s as good an explanation as any.

Have your personal experiences impacted your writing in any way?

One of the things I love about writing fiction is that nothing in your life is wasted. Everything that happens to you – all of it, even the miserable stuff – can be put to use.

It’s hard to imagine a world more foreign to my life than the 18th century Russian setting of The Mirrored World, but there’s at least a little bit of me in all those characters. For instance, like Xenia and Dasha, I am a compulsive collector of feathers and pretty rocks and shells. We have feral peacocks in our neighborhood, and every time I find a feather, I feel like I’ve won a little prize.

What is the most challenging part of being a writer?

For me? Making the time, and then having the courage to show up when I do have the time.

What are some of your other interests?  What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

I have a lot of interests, but I’m afraid most of them get thrown under the bus in favor of whatever book I’m working on. That said, I still squirrel away a little time to practice yoga and to see friends and cook them the occasional dinner.

What are some of your favorite books?

The answer will change depending on what day you ask. Today, what comes to mind are Housekeeping by Marilyn Robinson; James Salter’s Light Years; So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell. Those are a little older. More recent books: I love Luis Urrea’s Hummingbird’s Daughter and Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder. Oh, and Ian McEwan’s Atonement. I like reading slowly, so I gravitate to books that are image-rich and masterful in their use of language.

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Debra Dean is the New York Times Bestselling author of “The Madonnas of Leningrad” and the award-winning short story collection “Confessions of a Falling Woman.”

Categories: Author Interviews, Dead Russians, Fiction, Historical Fiction | Tags: , , , , , | 5 Comments

“Wild Seed” by Octavia Butler

I received a review copy of Octavia Butler’s “Wild Seed” from the publishers via Netgalley.  The book was originally written in 1980, and is being re-released as an e-book by Open Road Integrated Media.

Before I get into my review in which I gush about how awesome Octavia Butler is, I’d like to share this video which is a mini-documentary (it’s only about two minutes long) about her life and writing.  It features Samuel Delaney and N.K. Jemisin talking about her books, and it makes me very happy.

“Wild Seed” is the first book in the Patternist series, but it was the last one published.  It’s one of the C. S. Lewis type deals where the books don’t go in the order that they were written, and I’m okay with that.  Apparently Butler didn’t like “Survivor,” so it hasn’t been reprinted since the 70s.

If you’d like to read the series chronologically, it goes:

  1. Wild Seed
  2. Mind of My Mind
  3. Clay’s Ark
  4. Survivor
  5. Patternmaster

“Wild Seed” describes a power struggle between two immortal mutants, Doro and Anyanwu.  Doro was born in ancient Egypt, but he is able to switch from one body to another at a whim, killing the person whose form he takes.  He is obsessed with trying to find others who could share his longevity, and so he begins a breeding program, gathering up psychically talented individuals in the hopes of creating a race of gifted mutants.  This quest takes him to a small village in Africa, where he discovers Anyanwu, a shape-shifting medicine woman who has been alive for three hundred years.  Anyanwu is lured by Doro’s vision and the hope that she could have children who would not die, and agrees to come with him to the New World, where she begins to realize that she has become his slave.

So, there’s the obvious slavery theme.  Octavia Butler whacks you over the head with the realization of the emotional and psychological impact of slavery, not just in the moment that it happens, but also the way that it shapes future generations.  She’s not gentle about it, and it comes with a bit of a shock.  She makes sure her readers get it.  She’s a very special writer because she is able to explore topics like slavery, race, and gender in her stories in such a way that she perfectly captures the dynamics of different relationships, but at the same time she’s not preachy about it.  Her messages are organically woven into the story, and it’s brilliant.

“Wild Seed” is a mix of alternate-history/historical fiction/sci-fi.  One of the things that I enjoyed was the way that Anyanwu’s powers were described; she has the ability to rearrange the molecules of her body to cure sicknesses or take different forms.

“There were things in your hand that should not have been there,” she told him.  “Living things too small to see.  I have no name for them, but I can feel them and know them when I take them into my body.  As soon as I know them, I can kill them within myself.  I gave you a little of my body’s weapon against them.”

And just like that, she gives Anwanyu knowledge of germ theory as she heals an infection in Doro’s hand.  She can make antibodies.  I can’t stress enough how cool that is.  (Not that we can’t make antibodies, but she can do it better.)  And with the ability to rearrange herself to take any form, Anyanwu isn’t helpless.  Yes, she’s being psychologically manipulated by Doro, and yes, he could kill her and take her body quite easily, but at the same time she could rearrange her molecules to give herself incredible strength and then crush him.  Doro and Anyanwu’s relationship is complicated.  There’s the slavery dynamic, but there’s also the fact that both of them have psychic powers and are relatively evenly matched.  You know that the two of them have to come to terms with each other because they’re the only immortals, even if that takes a couple hundred years for them to work out their differences and make peace with each other.

My favorite scene in the book was on the voyage to America when Anyanwu shape-shifted and swam with dolphins.  Despite the serious tone of the book, it has its share of lighthearted and whimsical moments.

Octavia Butler is a powerful writer, and I am planning on reading the rest of the books in this series.  I would highly recommend “Wild Seed” to anyone who’s interested in sci-fi that explores race and gender themes.

Categories: Fiction, Historical Fiction, Sci Fi | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

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