Monthly Archives: January 2012

The Dovekeepers, by Alice Hoffman

Title: The Dovekeepers: A Novel
Author: Alice Hoffman
Year of Publication: 2011
Length: 504 pages
Genre: historical fiction
New or Re-Reads? New!
Rating: 4.25 stars

The Dovekeepers is the story of four women, Yael, Revka, Aziza, and Shirah, who find themselves at Masada in 70 CE. I don’t consider it a spoiler to give away what happens at Masada, because it’s an at-least-relatively well-known historical event anyway, and because the bookflap tells you right off. I’m pretty sure nearly 2000 years is long enough for a spoiler warning to expire, and as with most historical fiction, it isn’t the what but rather the how that makes the book interesting. Masada was a fortress, the last holdout of the Jewish rebellion against the Roman Empire, famous for the fact that rather than surrender or be captured when the siege broke, the rebels committed mass suicide. The Romans found only two women and five children surviving when they finally broke through. I didn’t mind that I knew, going in, that most of the characters would be dead by the end; instead I was wondering the whole time who would be the 7 to survive. (I was right on both women and on three of the children, for what it’s worth). Hoffman explains, in a short note at the end, some of the things that inspired the work — a trip to Masada and a collection of artifacts. Disjointed as they are, Hoffman draws imaginary threads between them, weaving them into the tapestry of the story. I love that she gave us that glimpse, to let us know that this book, while entirely fictitious, has such concrete roots. It’s a lovely marriage of fact and invention, masterfully handled.

For this review to make any sense, I have to introduce you to the women. Yael is a young woman whose mother died in her childbirth, for which her father has never forgiven her. She’s carried the psychological stigma of a murderess her whole life. She and her father, a famed assassin of the radical Sicarii, flee Jerusalem after the destruction of the Second Temple, and spend months wandering in the wilderness before they come to Masada. Revka is an older woman, a refugee from a sacked town, traveling with her two grandchildren and her son-in-law, all of whom have witnessed shattering atrocities. The two young boys are so traumatized they no longer speak, and the son-in-law has turned into a Jewish version of a berserker warrior. Revka holds the family, such as it is, together. Aziza is a girl who was raised as a boy among the nomads of the Moab desert. She knows how to fight, how to shoot, how to ride, but has had to suppress that identity entirely in Masada, where women cannot so much as touch weapons without making them “unclean”. Shirah is the Witch of Moab, Alexandrian born, cousin to the leader of the rebels, and thus occupying a strange liminal state between outcast and honourable. All four of them end up working in the dovecotes, which indirectly keep the fortress afloat — their droppings are the fertilizer used in the fields and orchards. Their lives intertwine and entangle as their world decays around them, and they face not only personal challenges but the increasingly desperate situation of Masada. As the Roman legions draw near, the rains fail to come, and the food stores dwindle, fraught nerves and the threat of danger brings many secrets to the surface.

I was troubled, at first, by the structure of this book. It begins in first-person narrative from Yael, and remains in her voice for fully the first third of the book. I’m not a big fan of first-person narration to begin with; it’s difficult to do well, can become tedious, can lead to large gaps in the story, and has, for a lot of authors, become something of an easy crutch. But Hoffman’s quite good at what she does, and Yael’s voice was compelling enough that I overcame my distaste. Then, rather abruptly, we switch to Revka’s first-person narrative. Then Aziza’s. Then, finally, Shirah’s. Initially I felt cheated by this; I had gotten so invested in Yael and her journey that being ripped out of her head and plunked down in someone else’s felt unsettling. Yael remained in the story, still a part of events, but I no longer knew how she felt about things — I only got Revka’s perspective. And then that feeling repeated each time the narrator changed. Towards the end of the book, though, the stylistic reasons for the shifts became apparent. In many ways, this is a story about secrets, about what you hold in your heart and what you choose to share. It would be more difficult to convey that sense in a third-person or a more frequently rotating first-person narrative. I still wish I’d gotten more from each of the women along the way, but I can appreciate why Hoffman chose to tell her story in the way that she did. Of the four, Aziza’s was the story that felt least connected to the others — odd, perhaps, in that she’s the daughter of one major character and the lover of two secondary characters. But in a lot of ways, her voice seems the least well-developed; it felt as though her section could have as easily been told from Shirah’s perspective without much being lost. I still appreciated her presence, though, because she cast an interesting light on the gender issues of the story — and perhaps she had to have her own voice for that, if no other reason, in which case I just wish it had been better integrated.

Magic permeates this book, without turning it into a fantasy novel. It’s a tremendously thin line, and Hoffman walks it with great care. There’s no point where more than a few pages goes by without mention of some incantation or protective amulet or prophecy or divine intervention or ghostly presence — and yet it blends seamlessly into the world. It isn’t even particularly mystical, not so much esoteric or occult as just another side of life, another tool to use. There’s also not so much of the tang of the unknown about it; Jewish holy men perform magic regularly; a lesser caste peddle charms and talismans; the magic of women is forbidden yet tangibly present in the shadow-world they live in, hidden from the men. And it’s on that last that the book focuses. What I found particularly interesting is the way it all intersects with religion, absolutely inextricably, and how much of that focuses on the feminine and on polytheistic traditions — but not in an obnoxious way. It doesn’t overwhelm the story, and it isn’t as burdened by some of the more woobly Neopagan ideals as books like Mists of Avalon are. There’s something refreshingly plain and straightforward about it.

The trade of magic dominates so much of the interpersonal reactions in this book. Debts to each other, debts to god, debts to the dead, all of these things are real and vital for the characters; magic affects their lives on every level. And it’s dark — both the magic and the book overall, as you’d expect from something centered on a tragedy. But a lot of the darkness has nothing to do with the eventual outcome of the rebellion; these women suffer, sometimes by their own errors, sometimes by fate, sometimes by sheer bad luck, sometimes just through the consequences of living. As they suffer, so too do they persevere. There’s a lot in this book that felt very psychologically real to me — from issues of denial to self-harm, stages of depression, degrees of guilt and grief. In some ways, this makes it a bit of a brutal read, but I actually enjoyed that. It’s cathartic, in a way, and quite intense.

This book is not fluff. If you’re looking for historical fiction treated with a light hand, this is not it. The magic is bloody and requires sacrifice, the imagery is almost disturbingly vivid, the main characters are not always thoroughly likeable, and the whole thing does end in, you know, mass tragedy. I adored it. It’s one of those books that got into the back of my head and took up residence. It’s an oblique approach to history, a compelling story, and a thoroughly good read. I don’t think it’s a book that will please everyone, but it certainly pleased me.

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Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff

Title: Cleopatra: A Life
Author: Stacy Schiff
Year of Publication: 2010
Length: 400 pages
Genre: biography
New or Re-Read? New!
Rating: 4 stars

This is a very strong biography, and Schiff does an admirable job rescuing Cleopatra’s reputation from the vagaries of history. Her story as the world commonly knows it is one of erasure and revision. The men who wrote her earliest biographies were not only men but her enemies, Romans eager to blame her for the downfall of the Republic.

Unfortunately, just due to the fragmented nature of the historical record, that means Schiff does spend a lot of time defining her subject in the negative — talking about Cleopatra by talking about who and what Cleopatra wasn’t. And that does become tedious in places. I can’t blame Schiff for this — it’s the nature of the beast, and as someone who spends most of her life with her head in the 16th century, I know how many frustrations there are when it comes to trying to circle in on what the truth might’ve been. It does, however, make for a bit of roundabout reading. She also has to spend a lot of time on Caesar and Antony’s lives, despite her frequent assertions that Cleopatra wasn’t defined solely by her relationships with them. I don’t know that there’s a way around that — her readers need to know the political entanglements of the time, and those entanglements were largely engineered by those specific men — but it is a bit of an odd juxtaposition with her intended goal.

I like the book best when it’s extrapolating Cleopatra’s probable life based on what we do know about the culture of the time, about Alexandria, about other leaders of her ilk. Those are the passages that come most to life and which show Cleopatra nearer to who she probably was: a clever, resourceful woman holding onto her survival — and that of her country — with both hands. Schiff spends considerable time on Cleopatra’s likely education, on the social culture of Alexandria, and on the conflicts between the native Egyptians and the Greek immigrants. That structure created a fascinating dichotomy both within Alexandria and between Alexandria and the rest of Greece; I enjoyed learning more about how Cleopatra, grateful to the native Egyptians from her period of exile, worked further towards ingratiating herself towards them and towards improving their lives than had previous Ptolemies. She learned their language, adopted their religion, took part in their rituals, all to a far greater degree than anyone else in her dynasty had. It made her unpopular with the Alexandrians — a new level of political turmoil to add to the swirling charybdis Cleopatra had to negotiate — but it gave her a lot of support in other ways and from other quadrants.

Another fascinating political narrative is that of the East. So often, Rome in this period overshadows the history of what was going on elsewhere, which is a shame, because the machinations of Parthians, Armenians, Anatolians, Judaeans, Nabataeans, and other peoples of Mesopotamia, the Arabian peninsula, and the eastern Mediterranean are well-worth consideration. Cleopatra’s ongoing feud with Herod — as well as the complex and murderous dynamics of his family, to which Schiff devotes some time — is a narrative all in itself, and one which directly refutes claims that Cleopatra seduced every man who dropped into her path.

I also like this book because of the ways in which it remains so relevant. The shaming of women’s sexuality, the body-policing, the castigation of an independent woman, the naked fear of a woman in power — these things still resonate so clearly. The vitriolic criticisms of Cicero would not be out of place in conservative mouths today. As Schiff deftly notes:

It has always been preferable to attribute a woman’s success to her beauty rather than to her brains, to reduce her to the sum of her sex life. Against a powerful enchantress there is no contest. Against a woman who ensnares a man in the coils of her serpentine intelligence — her ropes of pearls — there should, at least, be some kind of antidote. Cleopatra unsettles more as sage than as seductress; it is less threatening to believe her threateningly attractive than fatally intelligent.

This is still true. So much about modern culture imbues women with the idea that they are only worth as much as their body, that their sexuality and ability to bear children defines them — the source of all virtue and all vice, depending on how it’s used. And, of course, men get to decide whether you’ve used it properly or not, now as then; modern women are subject to the same binary judgment as Cleopatra was, cast as the vile, ambitious seductress opposite proper, devoted, modest Octavia. In that way, this book is importantly feminist; we need more of this version of history in the world.

I’ve seen a lot of criticism about this book being dry and boring — and, well, it is a non-fictionalized history. There’s a lot of difference between this book and, say, Hand of Isis, Lily of the Nile, or even the particularly dense Masters of Rome series. But one should not be judged by the other’s standards. Cleopatra: A Life is a bit dry in some places, perhaps, but definitely not boring. It is a comprehensive and engaging biography which clears away the accumulated detritus of centuries’ worth of defamation. Well worth the read.

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Fortune’s Favorites by Colleen McCullough

Title: Fortune’s Favorites (Masters of Rome #3)
Author: Colleen McCullough
Year of Publication: 1993
Length: 1093
Genre: historical
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 4 stars

This starts off Sulla’s book, but it ends Caesar’s.

Fortune’s Favorites spans 83-69 BCE, and as any Roman historian can tell you, quite a lot happens in that period of time. The fall of Sulla, wars in Spain, the rise of Pompey, the flourishing of Cicero, Mithridatic Wars, trouble in Bithynia, and a slave uprising by a man who may or may not have been named Spartacus. McCullough has a lot to cram in here, and she’s expanded the cast of central characters outward from the relatively narrower scope she started with in First Man in Rome. Still, the predominant focus is on Sulla, until he dies, when Pompey and Caesar take center stage.

And Caesar’s been waiting for that for a while. In the world of the books, he’s still waiting, still nowhere near the heights of fame he’ll eventually reach. But for McCullough’s purposes, he finally gets the screen time he deserves. He’s been asking for it since he was a kid, way back in First Man in Rome, when he appears as a precocious toddler. McCullough gives young Caesar the full aura of inevitable glory — not that his story is entirely without misstep or error.

First, though, we have to get rid of Sulla. Having conquered over Gaius Marius and won a victory, though not a resounding one, over Mithridates, Sulla gets made Dictator of Rome, so that he can try and put the pieces of a shattered city back together. What’s more, he’s made Dictator without any term limits, an unprecedented move — previous Dictators served for no more than 6 months, but the Senate allows Sulla to take power for as long as proves necessary. He’s far from heroic in appearance at this point, however — falling to pieces, really. I didn’t catch this on the first read-through, but I think McCullough might have been inferring he suffered from diabetes. Some of the symptoms sound similar, as do the measures taken as remedies. Whatever the cause, he hardly resembles his former self.

Fanatically conservative, Sulla takes broad steps to restore Rome to its glory days of a perfected Republic — never mind that Rome has quite outgrown its humble origins. He seeks to resettle power in the hands of the patricians, where he believes it not only rightly belongs, but where the gods intend and expect that it belongs. This involves a lot of undoing of the progressive measures we saw in The Grass Crown, particularly those with regards to tribunes, to the electability of magistrates, and to treason courts. His proscriptions tear through the ranks as he ruthlessly culls the herd of wealthy Romans in order to refill Rome’s treasury (an utter necessity to pay Rome’s legions). Still, his capacity for the ridiculous remains undiminished, and some of his actions certainly tang of his strange sense of humour. When he orders Caesar to divorce his wife Cinnilla, daughter to Sulla’s lesser enemy Cinna, Caesar refuses — and eventually has to go on the run. He makes a poor job of it, takes fever, gets caught — and it’s left to his womenfolk to plead for mercy on his behalf. They prevail, due largely to Sulla’s appreciation for the theatrics he coaxes out of them. By refusing to divorce Cinnilla, Caesar can no longer remain flamen dialis, the restrictive religious position settled vindictively on him by Gaius Marius — and nothing could please Caesar more. Freed from the hobble of that office, he takes off for a military life, to make a name for himself.

After his sweeping reforms, Sulla does the most extraordinary thing imaginable — he resigns and retires to a pleasure villa on the coast, bitterly declaring that he’s done what he can for Rome and will now leave her to her own destruction, as he is left to his. McCullough doesn’t shy away from describing the vices Sulla and his guests indulge, but what makes this section more intriguing than lurid are the figures of Metrobius and Valeria, tenderly devoted to Sulla even in his moral and physical decay. Metrobius has been a periodically appearing figure since Book 1, a Greek actor who Sulla has loved since he was a boy; Valeria is Sulla’s fourth wife, young and beautiful and somehow rapt by this powerful, complicated man. He dies in their arms.

Meanwhile, Caesar’s having adventures off in the eastern half of the Mediterranean. He makes friends with King Nicomedes of Bithynia and his wife, whom he comes to regard as sort of grandparent figures to him. As Nicomedes was a notorious homosexual, this friendship becomes the source of gossip back in Rome (but once he’s back on the scene, Caesar puts those rumours to rest by swiftly seducing any number of his rivals’ wives). He explores Asia Minor. He raises fleets in absurdly short amounts of time, to the chagrin of his military superiors who seek to humble him. And, he gets kidnapped by pirates. This is one of my favourite stories about Caesar — he gets kidnapped, insists they double his ransom because a paltry 20 talents doesn’t reflect his worth, spends a season amiably joking with the pirates but reminding them all the while that he’s going to have them crucified — and then does so. He finds their lair when no other man has been able to remember the way back. The whole story is a credit to his luck, his charisma, his ferocious intelligence, and his utter ruthlessness.

The next major event in the book is the war against Quintus Sertorius in Spain. Sertorius, a relative of Marius, grew up in the military tradition, won the Grass Crown at a young age, but somewhere along the line got disenchanted with Roman politics and decided to rebel, setting up his own state in Hispania. Metellus Pius hasn’t gotten very far with him, but young Pompey Magnus, a hero in his own mind, thinks he can sort it out. There are some important lessons to be learned there, for sure, but my favourite part involves Sertorius’s white fawn — a strange historical reality that McCullough weaves into her epic tale. It’s the blend of scope and detail that always make these books so wonderful, and this is a great example of that conjunction.

Things wrap up with the rebellion of Spartacus, which in some ways provides an interesting look at the life of gladiators and the details of the revolt, but in other ways feels a bit tacked-on. I think this is perhaps because none of our main characters are the ones who deal with the problem; Pompey is only tangentially involved towards the very end, and it’s all “off-screen”, so there’s less emotional investment. Still, it’s a major historical event that McCullough couldn’t very well overlook, and she does bring her usual deftness with character to it. The leaders of the rebellion become well-drawn humans in just a few pages, and the struggle is well-portrayed.

As with the rest of the series, this book is best when involved with wonderful personalities, and worst when dealing with tortuous legal circles. The Romans did few things better, to be sure, and McCullough is to be commended for navigating them in anything resembling a coherent fashion — but they just aren’t as exciting reading as the rest of the book. Those sections pass, though, leaving us with the wonderful stories of these tremendous characters. And, as I said, it’s really all about Caesar at the end. He leaves off well on his way to earning an illustrious name, in the military, in the law courts, in the Senate, but deciding that he needs to spend a bit more time abroad — so he heads off for a quaestorship in Spain.

This book covers, in a lot of ways, a strange gap. In some ways, it’s a down period between major events — but, as is so often the case with history, there are so many small things going on. McCullough triumphs in taking the reader through all of them in such a way that you don’t lose the thread of the story and that the characters remain distinct and fully-realised. If you know your history, you generally know where things are headed, but because this is a lesser-known period, how they all get there remains a surprise — and many of the minor characters are complete revelations. Fortune’s Favorites continues McCullough’s masterful series and ushers in the maturity of its ultimate tragic hero.

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It Happened One Autumn, by Lisa Kleypas

Title: It Happened One Autumn (Wallflowers #2)
Author: Lisa Kleypas
Year of Publication: 2005
Length: 382 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 4.25 stars
Spoiler Warning: I generally find it very silly to put spoiler warnings on romance novels, because the outcome is pre-determined. The characters on the back cover are going to end up Happily-Ever-After. That is a foregone conclusion. However, because there’s a twist to how it happens that I wouldn’t want to give away, and because it affects the next book in the series, Devil in Winter, I will place a mild spoiler warning on this review.

Lillian Bowman and Marcus, Lord Westcliff have fought like cats and dogs since the moment they laid eyes on each other, which in romance novel terms clearly indicates that they are meant to be together.

I’m a sucker for this trope, and I freely admit that. It showed in some of my earliest ships. Han/Leia, Indy/Marion, Beatrice/Benedick, Dimitri/Anya — my sexual awakening was characterised by this dynamic. Anyone who read my review of Julia Quinn’s The Viscount Who Loved Me has already witnessed how strongly this sort of relationship will attract me in a romance novel. So, in some ways, It Happened One Autumn was almost too easy for me to like. The cards were stacked in its favour from the beginning.

As in Secrets of a Summer Night (and many of her other historical romances), Kleypas complicates her love story with the realism of the society her characters live in. Westcliff represents the old guard in some ways, though he’s innovative and progressive in others. An aristocrat who knows that he must move with the times or get left behind, Westcliff focuses himself on finding ways to use his inherited wealth and status to integrate himself with the new, industrial world. Progressive as his economic views are, however, personally, he’s turned into a stoic, unyielding man, due in great part to his upbringing. I found myself wishing his family had been fleshed out a bit more — they’re important and yet periphery at the same time, which is an odd combination. His sisters seem like interesting characters, but they don’t get nearly enough screen time (and I still can’t figure out if they have prior novels that I’ve somehow missed or not). His mother is a classic dragon, though, and figures into the end game in a critical way.

By contrast, Lillian is new money and American. The Bowmans have traveled to London after utterly failing on the New York social scene, aiming to catch aristocratic husbands for the two daughters, thus uniting their money with a bit of class and respectability. Lillian the soap heiress is utterly unsuitable for Westcliff — loud, boistrous, bold, unrefined, incapable of keeping her opinions to herself (are we catching on yet as to why I like her so much?), and he doesn’t need her money. The attraction is inescapable, though, particularly when the Bowmans find themselves back on Westcliff’s estate for an end-of-season shooting party.

Predictably, chaos ensues, but the great fun of it is watching Westcliff thaw out. In Secrets of a Summer Night, he definitely comes across as the staid and immoveable businessman; in It Happened One Autumn, his sense of humour creeps out. He warms to Lillian, beginning to appreciate her good spirits and her energy. An impulse turns into a kiss which turns into quite a bit more — as ever, Kleypas does excellent sex scenes, and this book is no exception. Things heat up between Marcus and Lillian even as they’re denying they want anything to do with each other. And Marcus starts questioning whether it’s really all that important to have a respectable, proper, English rose of a wife — maybe a high-spirited, impetuous American who can knock him down a peg might be just the thing. We also see Marcus getting possessive — and as I’ve noted before, I rather like that in a hero — when his old school friend St. Vincent, who’s turned into an utter reprobate as an adult, starts wooing Lillian in all apparent seriousness. I love that Lillian actually gets presented with a choice — and she reacts to it spectacularly and in a way I totally related to. It can be alarming, to all of a sudden find yourself the focus of incredibly sensuous attention from a known charmer, and Lillian responds to that in a very real way.

One of the things I like best about this book is that the climactic action genuinely surprised me. I didn’t at all see it coming — and considering that this genre is a fairly formulaic one, that really counts for something. So, here’s the spoiler-heavy part of the review: Westcliff’s mother, who most emphatically does not approve of the potential match, lures Lillian into a trap, and she ends up abducted by none other than Westcliff’s old school friend, St. Vincent — impoverished, badly in need of a wealthy wife, and moved to desperate straits. Put in a pin in all of that; we’ll be back for it in Devil in Winter. He intends to take Lillian to Gretna Greene and coerce her into a marriage that will solve his financial problems, though he knows it comes at the expense of his friendship with Westcliff (and possibly at the danger of having his wife murder him fairly soon after the wedding). This is a romance novel, however, and so of course Marcus catches up to them, only to find Lillian midway through rescuing herself already; Marcus beats St. Vincent to a pulp; he and Lillian move on to happy-ever-after.

This book is great fun because of the colourful characters, and as ever, Kleypas takes great care to round out her world with a magnificent supporting cast. Lillian and Marcus both have friends and rivals to bounce off of, which always serves to make characters seem more fully realised. The pacing is good, moving between points of action and quieter moments, and there are a few scenes where Kleypas gets to show off a talent for description that is, I think, often underappreciated in the genre. I knock a bit off the assessment because of a weird subplot involving Lillian’s preternatural sense of smell and a supposedly magic perfume; the book didn’t need it, it’s entirely extraneous, and a pretty pointless distraction. Ultimately, though, this book is an exciting, joyous romp with thoroughly entertaining characters. Highly recommended.

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