Tag Archives: women in history

World Without End, by Ken Follett

Title: World Without EndWorldWithoutEnd (Kingsbridge)
Author: Ken Follett
Year of Publication: 2007
Length: 1025 pages
Genre: historical fiction
New or Re-Read? Re-Read
Rating: 4 stars

Kingsbridge of the 14th century is a different place than Kingsbridge of the 12th. Two hundred years does a lot for England, and the sense that you get in World Without End is that it’s more advanced yet less imaginative in some ways, more dogmatic but less truly spiritual. Politics are no more stable than ever, but at least they more or less confine themselves to the nobles, rather than tearing apart the countryside in civil war like in Stephen and Maud’s time. There’s a sense of stagnation. Things are the way they are because that’s the way they’ve been, and few people think to question it. Life is more orderly, and less free.

And then the plague hits, and everything changes.

The book starts about twenty years before the plague, when Merthin and Ralph, sons of a knight who’s fallen on hard times, join up with Caris, daughter of the richest wool merchant in town, and Gwenda, daughter of a landless labourer, playing in the woods on a festival day. They oversee an altercation between several knights. The survivor, Thomas, makes Merthin help him to hide a letter, with the promise to deliver it if he should hear of Thomas’s death. The mystery clearly has dangerous political origins, but Merthin can’t learn anything more about it, and Thomas enters the monastery, determined to live a quiet life from now on.

Ten years later, Caris and Merthin are in love, Ralph is struggling to win acclaim as a squire, and Gwenda is pursuing the serf Wulfric. Their trials are, as you can imagine, many. Caris can’t figure out what her place in the world should be, as a clever woman who would like to be a physician but clearly can’t be, and Merthin is finishing an apprenticeship under a master who is jealous of his talent (a descendant of Jack Builder, Merthin has clearly inherited that genius). Unlike in Pillars of the Earth, the enemies are inside the walls here. The prior, Godwyn, is no righteous protector of the city, but a greedy abuser of it, and he has help from Gwenda’s brother Philemon, a sycophantic kleptomaniac. The townspeople and the nuns both find themselves at odds with the monastery under his leadership, and Merthin and Caris in particular have to battle him for the good of Kingsbridge — particularly when it comes to rebuilding the bridge into town following its collapse. From Gwenda, we see the point of view of the lowest of the low — and the main villain in her piece is Merthin’s brother Ralph, no noble knight, but a raping and murdering brute whose shame over his own failures leads him to oppress his tenants.

It’s hard to talk about a lot of this book without giving away major plot points, but suffice it to say that World Without End does a nice job examining the major social changes happening in England in the early- to mid-fourteenth century. Years of famine and poor weather start the trickle, racheting up the tensions between the peasantry and the nobility, and then the plague turns the tables entirely. For the first time, the lower classes have power, in the form of a labour shortage — with fields going untilled and harvests going unreaped, landless labourers can demand higher wages, and even serfs try to negotiate new terms for their tenancies. The plague also up-ends religion in some major ways, making some people doubt the power of God, leading others to give themselves over to fanaticism. I remember how astonished I was back in high school, when my AP Euro teacher explained to us (with the backing of Simon Schama) that without the Black Death, the Renaissance likely could not have happened. This book doesn’t cover enough of a span of time to really see that happen, but you can see the first snowballs of the avalanche.

I enjoy this book, but I feel like it falls down in a lot of places that Pillars of the Earth doesn’t. For one thing, its villains don’t have the sort of sweeping power that the original’s do. There’s no one with the sort of broad scope and vaulting ambition that Bishop Waleran had. Godwyn and Philemon don’t demonstrate any larger aims — they’re confined to Kingsbridge, and the things they choose to care about are so much more petty, so small, so pedestrian. They’re middle managers, not evil overlords. Even Ralph’s sadism pales next to that of his opposite number from Pillars, William Hamleigh. William at least had drive as an antagonist. He was a brute, no intellectual and no planner, but he had naked hunger and a lust for revenge in him, which made him a more interesting opponent. Ralph is just a thug. His villainy is almost casual.

Caris feels anachronistic in ways that Aliena doesn’t. I don’t know if Follett was attempting to write a heroine that would more strongly appeal to modern female readers, but mostly it just ends up ringing falsely. Her desire for such complete and total independence just isn’t rational inside the world she lives in — but even more than that, it also comes off more as selfishness than as some sort of proto-feminism. I do appreciate that she comes to find satisfaction in her work, as it demonstrates that she’s not totally irreconcilable with her reality, but still, there is so much in her attitude that seems peevish rather than autonomous. She wants people to do as she wishes, but she doesn’t want to give anything back, and she’s hellbent on the idea that forming any sort of attachment to anyone will jeopardize her own sense of self. The secondary female characters — Lady Phillippa, Mattie, Madge — actually give a more realistic view of how a woman could be successful and as independent as possible in the Middle Ages while still being part of her family and community. Unfortunately, as in Pillars of the Earth, we never get any other female POVs, so we don’t get to experience a lot from that angle. I also end up finding the romantic drama between Caris and Merthin tedious, rather than inspiring. Their conflict never really changes, and it takes them rather longer than seems sensible to arrive at the logical solution to their problems.

The book’s views on medicine are also somewhat anachronistic, but I’m more willing to forgive that as cast in the same light as the exceptionalism in Pillars of the Earth. Such wholesale rejection of the theories of Galen wouldn’t start happening in Europe for about another century, though, and it wouldn’t really catch on in the general populace until much later on. The same goes for some of the religious notions that creep in towards the end of the book.

Despite all of that, World Without End is still a cut above a lot of historical fiction. I appreciate how much Follett deals with those outside the aristocratic sphere — townspeople, merchants, nuns, priors, and serfs. Gwenda in particular is a great character: tough as nails, pragmatic, hard-working, and sharp-tongued. Caris’s cleverness is great fun when she’s not being too cantankerous, and through Merthin we get more insights into architecture and principles of building. The world is well-drawn and detailed, breathing in a way that makes it easy to visualise life in a village of the fourteenth century. The book also deals, without much obliqueness, with the idea of homosexual relationships in the medieval period, a topic which gets little treatment, either in non-fiction or fiction. I appreciate Follett’s willingness to combat the erasure. Really it only suffers by comparison to its exemplary predecessor, which is perhaps an unfair mark to hold it against. If you enjoy historical fiction, and if you like a good long epic as much as I do, you’ll enjoy World Without End.

Follett has announced that he intends to write a third Kingsbridge novel, which he will probably begin writing in 2014. I can’t express how fervently I hope that it’s going to take place another two hundred years later, during the dissolution of the monasteries. It would be a perfect way to round out the trilogy — watching how the town deals with the Reformation, factions on each side, trying to protect the books and artwork belonging to the cathedral and the monastery when so many across England were destroyed — there’s just so much potential! I’ll be eagerly awaiting further word.

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The Sister Queens, by Sophie Perinot

Title: The Sister QueensThe Sister Queens, by Sophie Perinot
Author: Sophie Perinot
Year of Publication: 2012
Length: 503 pages
Genre: historical fiction
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 3.75 stars

The Sister Queens tells the story of Marguerite and Eleanor de Provence, the eldest two sisters in a noble family destined to shape the political (and genetic) future of Europe. Marguerite marries King Louis IX of France, a quiet and introspective young man whose outlook on life is shaped by an overbearing and pious mother. Eleanor marries Henry III of England, a good man but an inefficient king who spends most of his reign struggling to control his barons and to regain some of the territory (and respect) lost by his father, the notorious King John. Though their younger sisters Sanchia and Beatrice would also be queens in time, Marguerite and Eleanor had snagged the great prizes — but neither is entirely fulfilled. Marguerite’s marriage starts well, but Louis grows ever more pious over time, to the point where it seems to begin to fracture his sanity. As his devotion to God increases, his attention to his wife wanes. Eleanor, meanwhile, has in Henry an attentive and faithful husband and an exemplary father, but she finds that his political acumen leaves much to be desired.

The book follows the sisters through nineteen years of their lies, though in chopped bits. Eleanor’s domestic life is largely blissful, though after some years, Henry begins showing more capricious behaviour. She bears several healthy children and cherishes them, but her ambitious nature is often frustrated by Henry’s struggles. Marguerite’s husband, meanwhile, has all the power and prestige one could want, but drifts ever further away from Marguerite emotionally. After a near-death experience, Louis determines to go on crusade to the Holy Land. Though it took a while to get going, it started well, with the capture of Damietta. Unfortunately, Louis made the catastrophic decision to pursue the Ayyubid forces up the Nile towards Cairo, rather than sticking to the coast. His forces were utterly annihilated, a humiliating defeat for Christian Europe and a personal blow to a king who thought there was no way his god would allow him to fail. Throughout this endeavour, Marguerite grows closer to Jean de Joinville, a handsome and charming knight who had attracted her attention back in France. After a bit of moral struggling, Marguerite and Jean enter into an affair, and their love story is probably the most compelling element of the book. Their love feels real and powerful, and watching them negotiate the necessity of keeping their affair secret adds personal conflict to the story. Throughout the novel, the sisters stay close, communicating through letters, too often measuring themselves against each other rather than appreciating what they have, but eventually learning lessons from each other.

I was excited to read this book because of the time period it covers. The thirteenth century is often overlooked in historical fiction, and though I have a passing familiarity, I don’t know as much about it as I would like to. Henry III’s reign gets little attention because it lacks the sweeping drama of both earlier and later Plantagenets.  (and though he is often derided as an ineffective ruler, I feel it is worth noting that he managed to hold onto his throne for over fifty years, and held it secure for his dynasty, who would rule unbroken until Richard II’s deposition in 1399, so, y’know, that’s something). As for Louis, my French history isn’t as complete as my English (except where they overlap), and I mostly knew about him from studying the Seventh Crusade. And I always love history as seen through the eyes of women.

Honestly, I give this book almost-four stars a lot on credit, because of my interest in the time period. Thematically, I quite enjoyed it, and I got quite wrapped up in Marguerite’s and Jean’s story in particular. Technically, though, it left a lot to be desired for me. It’s told in first person present tense, swapping between Eleanor and Marguerite each chapter. I increasingly dislike first-person narratives. I think too many authors are using it as a cop-out, and Perinot doesn’t do a great job of differentiating the sisters’ voices. Their experiences are disparate, but their speech and thought patterns are not. I also found the use of the present tense quite jarring — it’s always something that throws me, but it seems all the more out of place in a historical novel.

The book is also very episodic, particularly at the beginning — several chapters have to awkwardly work in reminders of how many years have passed since the last time we were with the narrator. There often isn’t a strong sense of connection between one vignette and the next. This also leads Perinot to glance over a lot of historical details — we spend a lot more time hearing about Marguerite’s and Eleanor’s pregnancies and their thoughts about their marriages than we do about, say, life on Crusade, the rebellion of Simon de Montfort, the tension between Queen Eleanor and the citizens of London. Even the Siege of Damietta focuses more on Marguerite’s childbirth than on the fact that she led the defense of the city. And perhaps that’s just the sort of book it is, but I would have appreciated more history to balance out the domestic feelings — particularly since these women were such powerful political figures in addition to being wives and mothers. Perinot seems less concerned with the former roles than the latter, which was a bit of a disappointment to me, particularly since it obscured exactly the historical depth I was hoping to get from this novel on an era I wanted to know more about. As it was, I didn’t learn much that was new, and I felt like Perinot sold the sisters a bit short.

Overall, though, this book as an enjoyable read. Once I got past the oddity of the first-person-present style, and despite the somewhat disjointed flow of events, I enjoyed the stories that Perinot told. I haven’t read any of Philippa Gregory’s novels, so I don’t know how they stack up against what they’re most often compared to, but I can make the comparison to Jean Plaidy’s historicals — and in that regard, The Sister Queens is definitely lighter fare, but still enjoyable. Readers who enjoy emotional journeys will definitely appreciate this, and if you’re tired of the typical Tudor plotlines, spending some time in the thirteenth century will be a refreshing change.

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Caesar’s Women, by Colleen McCullough

Title: Caesar’s Women (Masters of Rome #4)
Author: Colleen McCullough
Year of Publication: 1996
Length: 928 pages
Genre: historical fiction
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 4.5 stars

The fourth book in McCullough’s Masters of Rome series follows the early political career of Julius Caesar. In some ways, this narrows the scope of the series — or at least, it compresses the locations. Most of the book takes place in Rome itself, not out in the provinces. During this book, we see Caesar’s rise to true prominence in Roman society, finally achieving the age and status in the cursus honorum that heralds his position as one of the greatest figures in all of history. He marries Pompeia, continues his tempestuous affair with Servilia, arranges his daughter Julia’s marriage (twice), gets elected curule aedile, staves off his creditors, puts down the Catiline Conspiracy in somewhat reluctant partnership with Marcus Tullius Cicero, arranges the First Triumvirate as the fulcrum holding Pompey Magnus and Marcus Crassus in balance, and gets elected to his first consulship. At every turn, he has to battle the machinations of the so-called boni, the “good men”, conservatives who oppose his meteoric rise almost as much as they oppose Pompey’s impetuous upstart nature and Crassus’s economic success.

When the book opens, the boni, led by Porcius Cato (Servilia’s half-brother), move to block the triumphal parade to which he is entitled, returning as he is from the governorship of Spain where his troops hailed him imperator on the field. They do this by refusing to let him stand for election in absentia, and he cannot enter the city without losing the imperium, and without imperium, he cannot triumph. (Roman politics are full of these sorts of complex nuances and bizarre strictures, and it’s to McCullough’s credit that she renders them in a way that readers can follow — though not necessarily easily; careful attention must be paid). Caesar surprises them all by foregoing the triumph so that he can stand for election. It’s near-unbelievable. A triumph was one of the highest honours a Roman man could claim, and no more than a handful ever managed to (at least up to this point; they became rather more common in the following decades and centuries). That he would forfeit it utterly bewilders his opponents, but it’s a masterful stroke, and shows, right from the start of the book, not only how formidable Caesar is, but that he sees the big picture. Caesar will make the immediate sacrifice for the greater gain; he sees more and recognises far more than his peers, and that makes him dangerous.

As befitting the title, the women of the story play a greater role in this novel than they have in the past, and so too does the world of women, the domestic counterpart to the men’s machinations in the Forum and on campaign. One of the best examples of this is in the Bona Dea scandal. The rituals of Bona Dea were one of the most fiercely female spheres of Roman society, a strictly women-only religious event on which hinged the very equinoctial balance of the universe. In 62 BC, the young renegade Clodius Pulcher dressed in drag and sneaked in while the rites were being hosted, as they always were, by the wife of the senior magistrate in the city — at that time, Pompeia, second wife of Julius Caesar. The scandal not only shocked but terrified the entire city, who worried that the desecration would so offend the gods as to cause natural catastrophe. McCullough does a great job of making this esoteric bit of history seem quite relevant, particularly in light of how much it hinges on what many people would now consider “superstition”.

One of the most noticeable changes in Caesar’s Women is how McCullough’s cast of characters is evolving. Most everyone we started out with back in First Man in Rome is dead (I think, honestly, Aurelia might be the only character from Book 1 still hanging on). The people who were young in the early books are now middle-aged or older, at the height of their power, having finally succeeded the previous generation. Everyone’s hoping that, after decades of civil wars and near-invasions, they’ll get a chance at some peace. And they will, at least for a very little while, thanks to the thinly-yoked Triumvirate. And behind these men stands a new generation of up-and-comers, young men who seem far more reckless and openly liberal than their immediate forebears. Clodius Pulcher and Mark Antony stand prominent in this crowd, and one of the interesting things in this book, which I hope McCullough takes through to Caesar, is watching Julius Caesar decide to take his cousin Antony in hand, to rescue him from himself, in a way, by pointing out that youthful indiscretions can mar a man’s dignitas for life.

Though the cast of characters remains as large as ever, this really is where everything becomes about Caesar. His dominance over Rome asserts itself over the text as well, inexorable. What’s magnificent is seeing such a larger-than-life figure rendered with the mix of awe and realism that McCullough offers. She’s a little in love with her subject, and no mistake (and I don’t blame her; Julius Caesar is one of my huge historical crushes), but that doesn’t stop her from showing Caesar’s foibles. As he gets older and more powerful, arrogance starts to take hold; he demands much, and continues to demand it because he usually gets it. It’s an oddly magnetic arrogance, really — his certainty in himself is so rock-solid that failure is truly inconceivable for him. We might hate him for his presumption, as the boni do, if the gods didn’t reward his perseverance and high-handedness at every turn. He always comes out on top. If you’re opposing him, that would be unimaginably frustrating (as we see through Cato and Cicero and the rest); for a reader, it’s bewilderingly enchanting. Caesar wraps us around his finger just as he does Rome, and there’s no resisting.

Overall, Caesar’s Women is another exemplary entry into both the genre and the series. McCullough manages to render the twists and turns of Roman politics — not the most accessible of topics — in a way that a reader can not only follow them, but understand why they mattered so much. It feels very much like watching our modern political debates — it’s just that the values and considerations are somewhat different. No doubt our congressional battles will seem nigh-inscrutable to readers two thousand years from now — but the basic motions of people seeking power, seeking revenge, seeking glory will always be the same. McCullough captures that brilliantly. As I’ve said about the whole series, she really drives home that these were real people, living real lives, with the same petty concerns and daily frustrations as all of us. In some ways, expanding her world to such breadth and depth, exposing so many details of life in the period, going beyond the outline of events that most people know just through cultural osmosis — all of that epic scale actually makes the characters more realistic and less like the towering figures in our history books. Seeing them in situ, as it were, in their culture, without the magnificence of centuries’ worth of reputation puffing them up — it brings them back down to a relatable level. And that is McCullough’s real triumph with this series.

And now — I’m not sure what to do. Caesar is still out-of-print, and even if I get my hands on an old copy, it will make me a little crazy to have a mismatched set, since my first four copies are all from the most recent reprint. But I’ll figure something out. I have to seethe saga through to the end, somehow.

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The September Queen, by Gillian Bagwell

Title: The September Queen
Author: Gillian Bagwell
Year of Publication: 2011
Length: 389 pages
Genre: historical fiction
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 3 wobbly stars

I have tremendously mixed feelings about this book. The 3-star rating is sort of an average, which is why it’s wobbly and rather blurry around the edges. There are things I liked about it better than that, and there are things I disliked it on the level of a 2-star book.

The September Queen is the story of Jane Lane, who played a critical part in helping Charles Stuart, who would become Charles II, escape from England following his defeat to Parliamentarian forces at the Battle of Worcester. During their flight, Charles and Jane become lovers. Most of the book takes place during the Interregnum, an under-represented period in historical fiction, but the events cast their shadows both forward and backward, as the narration reveals what came before and the nuances of the political struggle, and as most readers inclined to pick up this book probably know that Charles does, in fact, reclaim the throne of England. (Hope I didn’t just spoil the 17th century for anyone, there).

So, we begin with Charles about to make what would be his last great stand against Cromwell’s forces, through the eyes of a well-bred girl from the local gentry. I was inclined to be on Jane’s side from the start.

I have come to the great age of five and twenty, and but one man has stirred my heart, and that came to naught. An old maid, her eldest sister, Withy, would say.

What is wrong with me? Jane wondered. Why can I not like any man well enough to want to wed him? It is not as though I am such a great prize. Pretty enough, I suppose, in face and form, but no great beauty. Witty, and learned, but those features are of little use in a woman, of little use to a man who wants a wife to be mistress of his estate and mother to his heirs.

What if there will never be someone for me?

I empathize. As the book went on, though, it got a bit harder for me. Jane wishes for adventure and gets far, far more than she bargained for — and in that sense, her story rings as a cautionary tale. And she loses herself in the bargain. She falls desperately in love with Charles while helping him escape and spends the rest of the book mooning over him, despite not seeing him for years at a time. Years. Years during which she lives a celibate life, shuffled between the courts of his relatives, while Charles is out doing pretty much everyone he encounters, occasionally dropping Jane a line to let her know that he’s going to give her some money someday. It’s a terribly uneven relationship, and it paints Jane in a pretty pathetic light. I do appreciate that, eventually, at the end, she tells Charles just what he’s done to her. She forces him to own up to that, and it’s a very powerful moment. But this flicker of self-awareness and empowerment comes far too late in the story, and she backs away from it pretty quickly.

As I read more books about the Interregnum and Restoration (the period appears to be growing in popularity, perhaps as authors and readers both realise that it has a whole lot more sex appeal built right in than the Tudors did), the overwhelming message seems to be one that reinforces the importance of female fidelity, while casually shrugging off male philandering. If you really love him, this model says, it doesn’t matter how many other women he’s seeing. He’ll value you for staying true even when he ignores you for years at a time. That’s how you know that your love is pure, and that you’re superior to all those other avaricious/libidinous whores. Since so much of Jane’s story is a historical blank, I would have loved to have seen Bagwell take some more exciting risks with it — give her a love affair with someone else, some other dashing Cavalier in exile, rather than just swallowing her feelings for ten years and enduring like a good little neglected cast-off. Instead, she ends up in emotional paralysis for a full decade and for most of the book — and that’s both frustrating and a little boring to read. Ultimately, it made it much harder for me to like Jane as a character. I lost respect for her, more and more so as the book went on and she shied away from every opportunity to assert herself. I would have liked to have seen some show of spirit from this woman that Bagwell so clearly wanted us to believe was intelligent, capable, and special. Perhaps this is why I’ve always had a soft spot for Barbara Palmer, even though in many ways she really was a nasty piece of work. She was a fascinating study in contrasts, vivacious and temperamental, kind and cruel, extravagant and exuberant, envied and detested — and she, at least, didn’t allow Charles to hold her to a higher moral standard than he held himself to. Perhaps some historical novelist will take up the challenge of Barbara soon — I would find it a tremendously welcome change from the narrative of pathetic, doomed fidelity.

Other things I disliked were more on the side of technique. Jane is, emotional paralysis aside, a little too perfect. Everyone adores her, from men she spurns to half the princesses and queens in Europe. Though she undoubtedly has trouble in her life, she has no personal enemies whatsoever — or even personal rivals. She never encounters most of those she competes with for the king’s affection, or encounters them only briefly and at a distance. Not only is it rather unbelievable, it makes the story a little dull in places. I was aching for something — anything — by way of actual conflict. In the first half of the book, we at least get the excitement of evading Cromwell’s army, but in the second half of the book? Nada. Even Jane’s conflicted feelings about Charles mostly take place at a distance, and when her cousin and then her brother find out about her affair, their anger with her lasts less than two pages. This utter lack of personal conflict gives the book a rather meandering feel, without a real drive, particularly since the exciting historical events happen at such a distance once Jane is removed from the immediacy of Charles’s story.

My other major criticism is of pacing. The first half of the book takes place in a matter of days; the latter half over a decade. That alone makes for a somewhat odd read. There are ways in which I feel this book might’ve been better if it had been more of the first and hardly any of the second. Even within each half, though, there are definite pacing oddities, and for the first hundred pages or so, the book seems very uncertain what it wants its mood or even its genre to be. The story doesn’t flow particularly well.

Overall, this is a very sad book, I think. The reader knows from the start, if she knows anything at all about Charles II, that the romance is doomed. Honestly, I’m surprised that in the thorough peppering of Shakespearean quotations (appropriate in places, annoyingly intrusive in others), Bagwell resisted the urge to refer to Charles as “one who loved not wisely but too well” — which is (taking the quote removed from original context) how I’ve always thought of him. Bounteous with his affections, not a drop of malice in him — but utterly faithless, incapable of loyalty, and very much an “out of sight, out of mind” sort of man. And so I find Jane’s story very sad — and not in a moving or cathartic way, just in a vaguely dissatisfying way. Charles ruins her life, flat-out. Not only does he tear her from her home, her family, her country, her friends, not only is he the direct cause of dire misfortune for her, but he steals her heart and never gives it back. It makes him seem tremendously selfish, among other faults. He strings her along for ten years, knowing he can’t promise her fulfillment but unwilling to let her go. She loses a decade to him, and, despite the ending (which I’m trying very hard not to spoil), I never got the sense she ever really breaks free of his influence. Which I think is more tragic than anything else that happens to her.

So, really, I don’t know how to recommend this book. If you don’t mind being as conflicted as I was, or if you just plain like the Restoration that much, it’s worth the read. I do commend Bagwell for taking on such a little-known heroine. It was a treat to read a historical novel without an awareness of the major details of the story; I mean, though I knew she couldn’t end up with Charles, I didn’t know what would happen to her, if she would marry eventually and who, where her travels would take her. I got to find all of that out as I went along, which is almost never the case for such a thorough history geek like me. (And I somehow mastered the urge to get on the DNB and spoil myself, which is even more impressive). I did also enjoy the sexy bits — while they lasted. One of the many genres The September Queen tries on in those first hundred pages is straight-up romance novel, and those are actually some of the best bits (not least because they seem to have the strongest sense of intention). As I stated at the beginning of the review, this book averages out to 3 stars… but just barely, and that mostly on the credit of taking on an obscure character. After having enjoyed The Darling Strumpet so much, this one rather let me down.

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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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The Grass Crown, by Colleen McCullough

Title: The Grass Crown (Masters of Rome #2)
Author: Colleen McCullough
Year of Publication: 1991
Length: 1132 pages
Genre: historical fiction
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 4.5 stars

The second book of Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series follows up admirably on the first. The scope of the world expands, Rome faces new crises, and the Republic continues to crumble inevitably towards its own destruction. The reader gets to see it all through the eyes of some of the most fantastic characters who’ve ever lived, men and women who are at once larger-than-life and all too real.

Much of the first half of the book focuses on events in the east. First Gaius Marius and then Lucius Cornelius Sulla travel through the nations that border Rome’s province of Asia Minor: Bithynia, Pontus, Armenia, and even into the westernmost part of Parthia. We get some background on the labyrinthine genealogy that dictates the succession of eastern kings, we see Mithridates grow to power and eliminate his rivals — and we see him tuck tail and wait for better times when faced with the Romans. But wait he will. Mithridates dreams of ruling an empire that stretches far further than his little Black-Sea-bordering Pontus; he wants to take Rome’s provinces, and then take Rome. So though Marius and Sulla finagle some negotiations to keep him behind his borders for a while, he’s still lurking, waiting for the first opportunity to strike out.

The first half of the book also spends some time on domestic matters in Rome. We become better acquainted with Livia Drusa, whose brother Marcus Livius Drusus married her off in the last book to his friend Quintus Servilius Caepio (son of he who stole the Gold of Tolosa). I really love her arc for a lot of reasons. It’s the most in-depth view we get from a woman in either this or First Man in Rome, and I like that. I’m glad McCullough takes some time out from the heavy politics and the wars to give us this angle on events. Women’s history is too often overlooked, and particularly in the case of Livia Drusa, that’s a shame — because without her, the next generation of Rome might’ve looked quite different. When we left Livia Drusa last, she’d been forced to marry Caepio, a man she despised, to solidify an alliance for her brother. To his credit, Marcus Livius Drusus eventually realises what an error he made — the Battle of Arausio changed him, and he starts moving away from the conservative ideals that his friend Caepio still stalwartly adheres to. Bitterly unhappy, Livia Drusa takes advantage of Caepio’s absence from Rome to engage in an affair with Marcus Porcius Cato Salonianus, grandson of the famous Cato the Censor and a freedwoman (and thus not at all of the appropriate patrician pedigree). When Caepio returns and finds he has a new redheaded son, he takes to beating Livia — and when Marcus Drusus finds out about that, he and Caepio have a falling out, Caepio divorces Livia, and Livia marries Cato. Through all of this, Livia is spied on and betrayed by her eldest daughter, Servilia, as nasty a piece of work as you could possibly imagine. And yes, this is the Servilia who will become Julius Caesar’s mistress.

And speaking of Julius Caesar — he’s old enough now to be a proper character, though still a child. McCullough portrays him as a true prodigy, whose mother has to fight to keep him firmly rooted in some kind of humility (considering how little of it he demonstrates, one wonders what would have happened if not for Aurelia’s influence). Remarkably intelligent, both book-wise and possessing a keen insight into human nature, Young Caesar shows tremendous promise even at a terrifically young age. Unfortunately for him, this (and the prophecy of Martha the Syrian) mark him out as the man who will someday overtake Gaius Marius’s legacy — and Gaius Marius intends to have none of that. Of course, readers know better — Gaius Marius won’t be able to keep Caesar down — but it is an interesting insight into little-known details of his youth and early life.

Meanwhile — Drusus’s plot intertwines with that which takes over most of the second half of the book: the Social War when the Italian Allies rebelled against Rome over issues of political enfranchisement. Drusus tries desperately to find a way to reconcile the old guard with the demands of Rome’s rapidly expanding and changing world — but to no avail. War breaks out, instigated in large part by his friend, Quintus Poppaedius Silo, one of the other survivors of the Battle of Arausio. And the war is devastating; war in Italy is civil war, with no plunder to be taken, just wealth and food to be lost. It does, however, provide Sulla at last with his opportunity to shine. He takes command following Gaius Marius’s second and more debilitating stroke, seizing the opportunity to show Rome his worth. That, while it saves Rome from Italy, eventually provokes conflict between Sulla and Marius, and their strife is what dominates the last section of the book.

Interestingly, despite dangling him in front of us for the first half of the book, McCullough actually holds off the confrontation with Mithridates until the next book — for this one, he’s just a spectre, the boogeyman haunting the edges of the realm. He does take advantage of the Social War to start attacking at Rome’s borders, taking over Asia Province and ordering towns throughout the region to put to death over 80,000 Roman citizens. But we don’t actually see this or what happens next. We hear about it from poor exiled Publius Rutilius Rufus (who escapes the slaughter and reports back from Smyrna), and we see Sulla eventually head off to do battle with him — but we never actually get there. In a way, this is a little maddening — all the buildup in the beginning of the book doesn’t pan out — but in a way, it’s also rather magnificent. McCullough knows she’s writing a serial, after all, and history rarely ties itself up neatly. By structuring the book the way she does, you get a better sense of how Rome could be blindsided by Mithridates’s attack; the reader gets as consumed in the conflict with the Italians as Rome herself does, and so by the time we remember to think about Mithridates, it’s too late. He’s already made his move.

There’s only one point where the story really starts to drag, and it’s towards the end, in the complicated political situation that leads to Marius’s return from exile during his conflict with Sulla. Things get pretty twisty, and since most of the major players involved at that point aren’t folk we’ve been following all along, it’s a little confusing. Other than that, McCullough does a great job leading the reader through the twists and turns of Roman politics and military maneuvers.

At the end of the book, McCullough leaves Rome in dire straits: ravaged by civil wars, starving, blood-soaked, and with the threat of Eastern invasion still looming large. I promised myself I wasn’t picking up Fortune’s Favorites just yet — not least because I have five books to read before the end of the month if I want to win my 100-book Challenge, and starting another 1000-page monster is not a good way to make sure that gets done — but I’m anxious to get back to it. I so enjoy being immersed in McCullough’s Rome, precisely because total immersion is so possible. McCullough drops you straight into history, fully-realised, not sketchily glanced at. It’s a wonderful indulgence.

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Catherine, Called Birdy, by Karen Cushman

Title: Catherine, Called Birdy
Author: Karen Cushman
Year of Publication: 1994
Length: 224 pages
Genre: historical fiction – young adult
New or Re-Read?: many, many times re-read
Rating: 5 stars

This is one of my all-time favourite books, and has been since I first read it at the age of 9. I return to it about once a year, just out of sheer joy.

Catherine, Called Birdy is the tale of a fourteen-year-old girl in England in the year 1290. To please her monk brother Edward, who thinks the exercise will make her more observant and thoughtful, she sets to writing down an account of her life. The reader follows Birdy through a transformative year. The major plot is her attempt to avoid marriage to one of many odious suitors, but there are dozens of smaller plot points as well, threaded in and out of the main story with a casual ease that very much gives the sense of day-to-day life. The best aspect of the novel, though, is Birdy herself. Quick-witted and short-tempered, she grumbles, fusses, and curses her way through her life with a delightful sort of unpolished charm. Sometimes pragmatic, and at other times incredibly soft-hearted, Birdy is above all strong-minded, aching for an independence her world cannot give her, beating her wings against the bars of her cage. She approaches her frustrations head-on, often acting first and thinking later, and her observations on her life, her family, and the villagers are often hilariously funny.

Cushman gives remarkable detail to the nuances, idiosyncrasies, and oddities of medieval life, particularly for a young adult novel. From holiday customs to the cycle of the year, from the tremendous lack of privacy to the mysteries of childbirth, Cushman draws the world out in a way that is educational without being didactic. I appreciate that she treats the period with a sensible perspective: neither doom-and-gloom nor idyllic. Yes, life could be hard, and yes, hygiene was still a few centuries off, and yes, death was a more constant companion than we typically think of it today — but people still celebrated triumphs, fell in love, reveled during holidays (and got hangovers), cherished their pets, and basked in the sunlight. Cushman blends the hardships with the joys magnificently. I also like the status she chose for her main character. Birdy is the daughter of a common country knight, a man with some land but no title, very much a large fish in a quite small pond. This position frees Birdy from the tedium of a serf’s life, but is not elevated enough to allow her true luxury — as she complains:

If I had to be born a lady, why not a rich lady, so someone else could do the work and I could lie on a silken bed and listen to a beautiful minstrel while my servants hemmed? Instead I am the daughter of a country knight with but ten servants, seventy villagers, no minstrel, and acres of unhemmed linen. It grumbles my guts.

Like most teenage girls, Birdy sees almost everyone else in the world as possessing a position more favourable than her own. She envies the villagers for the freedom they have to marry where they will and to be outside in the sunshine rather than stuck indoors, but eventually recognises that their labour is harder than hers, and that their freedoms are few, tied as they are to the land and to their feudal obligations. She envies ladies wealthier than her, but comes to learn that higher rank only brings more responsibilities and entanglements, not fewer. She envies men that they can have adventures, go on Crusade, spit and swear, and generally make their lives what they want them — but later realises that’s really the case for only a few of them, and that adventures are mostly dangerous, Crusades bloody, and responsibilities generally far more numerous than freedoms. She hates her father and eldest brother, but by the end of the book, has seen different sides of each, causing her to at least rethink her assessment and consider them from someone else’s perspective, even if she still doesn’t like them any better herself. Birdy yearns to be someone else — anyone else — a puppeteer, a Crusader, a peddlar, a songmaker, a bird-trainer, an outlaw maid — her fantasy life is rich and vivid, and she shares her daydreams with us without hesitation, then shares her awareness of their impossibilities just as frankly. The major lesson for Birdy is that she has to learn to be happy with who and what she is. As a Jewish woman (on her way out of England, thanks to the purge of Edward I — another interesting inclusion of historical reality) tells her, “‘Little Bird, in the world to come, you will not be asked “Why were you not George?” or “Why were you not Perkin?” but “Why were you not Catherine?”‘” It takes Birdy rather a while to grasp the meaning of that, but when she does, you can see her start to get more comfortable with herself.

There are some inaccuracies in the mix, but considering that this is a young adult novel, not a historical treatise, I really don’t mind. Yes, Birdy would have been an astonishingly unique character in 1290 England — but women like her did exist, even if they were few, far between, and rarely as successful in their rebellions. Cushman doesn’t cheat the typical experience of a thirteenth-century woman, and Birdy has to confront, again and again, what she cannot do. I think Cushman balances the historical reality nicely with the need to appeal to modern readers. Perhaps the greatest fiction is the premise of the novel itself — that anyone would have wasted paper and ink, expensive luxuries, on personal thoughts. But that’s not an anachronism that’s ever going to occur to the target audience, and the conceit allows the reader to enjoy Birdy’s fantastic voice all the way through.

I wish that, at some point, it had occurred to me to keep better track of my reactions to this book throughout my life. I know that from the start, I adored Birdy for being feisty, short-tempered, and impatient — all flaws I could easily relate to. As I said, I was 9 when I first read this (the year it came out), and then, fourteen seems so very far away. I remember re-reading it a year later, to the shock of one of the priggish girls in my class, who had taken great offence at Birdy’s realisation that she cannot run away and become a monk: “…with these apples on my chest, I would not fool even the most aged of abbots. Deus! Last year they were but walnuts and I might have gotten away of it.” Still far away from even walnut category, my prim classmate had been deeply uncomfortable with Birdy’s frank discussion of bodily changes. Well into apple territory already at age 10, early bloomer that I was, I appreciated Birdy’s honesty. Through the years of puberty, Birdy remained a friend, eminently relatable, someone who knew all about the awkwardness, emotional turmoil, and desperate confusion of that span of life. Her temper fits, her sulks, days of euphoric optimism contrasted with days of hopeless despair — What teenage girl doesn’t know precisely what that’s like?

I’m older now, and I look back on my early teenage years with no sentimental fondness whatsoever. Though I’m well past Birdy’s age (indeed, for someone who calls her mother old at thirty-odd, I would seem well and truly past my prime to her, I suspect), her struggles are still relatable, even if some are in hindsight now. Others, though, remain relevant. At 26, I’m still working out the question of how to be the version of myself I most want to be. How do I reconcile my dreams with my reality? How do I find joy in every day of my life? These are some of the questions Birdy tackles, and they’re ones I’m still exploring. And on this read, probably for the first time, I’ve started thinking about how I’ll someday share this book with my own daughters, and how I hope that they’ll find Birdy as true a friend as I always have.

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The First Man in Rome, by Colleen McCullough

Title: The First Man in Rome (Masters of Rome #1)
Author: Colleen McCullough
Year of Publication: 1990
Length: 1152 pages
Genre: historical fiction
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 4.25 stars

I love a panoptic. I really do. Nothing pleases me better than a truly epic story, crossing decades, with a cast of thousands. I have no trouble keeping track of it all, and so that never detracts from my enjoyment. Rather, it enhances it — I love to feel as though I’ve been dropped not into an isolated story, but into an entire world, fully realised and teeming over with real people.

Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series (at least the first four books, which are all I’ve managed to read thus far) is a masterful example of this sort of literary indulgence.

The First Man in Rome, the first book in the series, chronicles the meteoric rise of Gaius Marius. He’s not a name most of us know anymore, unless you’re a devoted classical scholar. But he was a huge name in his own time, and he is, in fact, the reason so many of the things we do know about Roman history are the way they are — particularly with regard to the army. Gaius Marius is a New Man — meaning he’s the first man in his family to have entered the Senate. Though some of the Romans deride him as “an Italian hayseed with no Greek” thanks to his Picentine origins, Marius has his thumb on Rome’s pulse better than most of the Senate. He also has unparalleled military instincts — and he can tell where trouble’s going to come from (Africa, then the Germans). Fed up with the mismanagement of patrician generals, who have gotten tens of thousands of Romans killed with their ineptitude, Marius decides that no one but him can really set things right. He sets about restructuring the legions, improving the training of the troops, and knocking the self-important senatorial generals off of their high horses. His most controversial measure is to begin recruiting from a new source. Typically, Roman soldiers had to come from a certain rank — Roman, Latin, or Italian citizens who were landowners. Marius begins recruiting from the Head Count, the poor men who own no land, but who might just be in need of a good solid career. The old guard, of course, squabbles and fusses about this move degrading the sanctity of the armies — but with so many men of the proper rank dead, they really have no choice, unless they want to get invaded.

Marius is well past the traditional age to be consul for the first time (42), but when he’s in Numidia, warring against Jugurtha, he meets the Syrian prophetess Martha, who tells him that he’ll be consul not once, but seven times. This ought to be impossible; the traditional rules of Rome stated that ten years had to pass between consulships. Not fussed by that, Marius sets his sight on that goal and goes for it. He has a lot of enemies — mostly patrician men loathe to support a New Man from the provinces — and the political tangles are rendered in a fascinating way. McCullough makes a reader feel these battles, manipulations, and gossips every bit as keenly as the politics of the modern world — and we see these ancient Romans not as removed figures, but as very real people with very real foibles.

The secondary plot focuses on Lucius Cornelius Sulla, a man escaping his family’s downfall. Though the Cornelii are patricians, Sulla’s father was a drunk who left his son in penury, reliant on his mistresses (a Greek and his stepmother) for his livelihood. But when he turns 30, the age when he should be entering the Senate, Sulla decides to turn his life around. It takes him a few years (and a few murders), but he manages to get into the Senate and embark on a promising career. His rise starts when he serves as quaestor to Marius in Numidia, demonstrating a keen mind and a talent for covert ops. Marius and Sulla become linked not just by their military ambitions, but by their wives — Julia and Julilla, two daughters of Gaius Julius Caesar. No, not that Gaius Julius Caesar — he won’t be born for a while yet. These women will someday be his aunts.

Finally, there’s Gaius Marius’s best friend, a sensible man loyal to him, though he doesn’t always agree with his politics: Publius Rutilius Rufus, who is related to almost every other important character in the books. Among the most important of them are Marcus Livius Drusus, a young politician who will become more important in the second book, and Aurelia Cotta, who marries one of the Julian sons (and she will someday be our famous Caesar’s mother). Much of the story gets relayed through Publius’s letters to Marius, and those letters have a wonderful voice to them. It’s a clever way of summarizing the gaps in the story without getting too bogged down or making it feel like a history lesson. Publius gives colour to some of the dryer parts of the timeline.

The story follows these men and women through the beginning of the end of the Republic, from 110 to 100 BCE. This period sees the subjugation of Numidia as well as an invasion from German tribes, and McCullough gives both depth and breadth to those events. The Jugurthine War gets wonderful detail, both in the lead-up to it, the personality of Jugurtha, and the complex politics that governed Rome’s intervention. This is really the war that kickstarts Rome’s period of rapid expansion. Up till then, they had mostly acquired territories almost accidentally; from this point forward, they will go after them with greater initiative. We see the tragedy Rome suffered at the Battle of Arausio, when Cimbri and Teuton tribesmen slaughtered over 120,000 Romans in a day, through the eyes of a few young legates (including Marcus Livius Drusus). And we see the politics, the ins and outs of Roman elections, the power of the tribunes (especially one Lucius Appuleius Saturninus, a populist-turned-revolutionary), the nuances of religion, and the tensions between patrician and plebeian, between the Five Classes, in vivid, colourful detail.

There are points where the book drags, at least for me — they tend to be the sections more heavily focused on military history, rather than personal, and I confess that’s where my attention wanders a bit. I also wish McCullough gave more time to the female characters. They get a better shake later on — even the very next book features several rather more prominently — but there are definitely some wasted opportunities here. Julia and Julilla are counterpoints to their respective men, rarely granted individual voice, and the formidable Aurelia does not even appear until a few hundred pages in, and does not assert herself so magnificently until almost the tail end of the book.

Still, this book is fantastic in so many ways that I’m willing to overlook those shortcomings. McCullough does a magnificent job bringing Rome to life. This book is educational without being a textbook, which I also enjoy. The maps are astonishingly helpful, and the extensive glossary of terms (and by extensive, I mean almost 100 pages in itself) provides all the detail you could possibly want about these facets of ancient Roman life. Better than all of that, though, McCullough presents characters. The First Man in Rome has people in it — weak and strong and in-between, prejudiced and considerate, conservative and liberal, hot-tempered and cool-headed. Even the minor characters are nuanced and three-dimensional, and the major characters are so well-drawn that, by the end of the book, you’ll feel like you’ve known them forever. Reading The First Man in Rome is an all-over wonderful experience.

Recommended to: history geeks, fans of HBO’s Rome, and anyone who loves awesome stories.

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