Monday, December 27, 2010

Book review: The Wedding Shroud, by Elisabeth Storrs

Few authors have fictionalized the Etruscan civilization, especially when compared with the many who write about Rome. Though separated from the Roman Republic by a mere twelve miles of river and forest, Etruria was seen as alien and hostile by its neighbor to the south. Much remains unknown about its people, though numerous sculptures from this ancient land reside in museums today. In her absorbing first novel The Wedding Shroud, Elisabeth Storrs takes us up close and personal with the Etruscans, situating us in a vibrant, complex society ruled by elected magistrates and divine portents.

Caecilia, a well-educated Roman maiden, is adopted by her patrician uncle after her beloved father dies in 407 BC. Soon after, she is forcibly wed to Vel Mastarna, a wealthy aristocrat from the Etruscan city of Veii, as a means of establishing an alliance. The Romans are dying from starvation and need the Veientanes’ corn to survive.

Shocked by the loose morality expected of her as an Etruscan nobleman’s wife – elaborate hairstyles, sheer embroidered gowns, gambling, wine-drinking, and socializing with men – Caecilia dons her rough linen stola and tunic and vows to remain true to Rome. Her unwillingness to adapt doesn’t earn her any admirers. Neither does her status as a member of the hated Aemilian family.

Caecilia is quickly seduced by her husband’s teachings in the bedroom, although Mastarna’s heart still belongs to another woman - at least at first. As the political climate shifts within Veii, and tensions heat up on many fronts, she makes a desperate and dangerous attempt to forestall her predicted fate.

Storrs writes in the third person, but the tone is unexpectedly intimate as we experience Caecilia’s isolation and culture shock as she lives amongst the enemy. Her stubbornness in clinging to Rome may lose her some sympathy points early on, but her path from innocence to maturity is believably rendered, and her futile goal of retaining her so-called dignity makes her even more human. Caecilia’s interactions with three others of her sex – her caring mother-in-law, her Greek slave, and a proud Cretan hetaera – provide further insight into her personality and women’s roles in ancient Italy.

Special attention has been paid to the Etruscans’ belief system. We may think of ancient religions as mythology, supernatural fables of a sort, but the gods have a very real presence in the lives of these characters. While Mastarna follows the Cult of Fulfluns, which celebrates the exuberant pleasures of life, his brother Artile oversees worship among the Cult of Calu, the god of the underworld. The wedding shroud of the title, a transparent veil draped over a newly married couple that will also cover them at death, conveys the theme that death and life are opposing but connected forces. It’s also illuminating to observe the two nations at this pivotal point in their history; many elements thought of as classical Roman traditions were in fact imported from the Etruscans.

By the novel’s end, only a year has passed, but Caecilia has been profoundly changed by her experiences. Over this time, Etruscan society has become more familiar, but it still hasn’t lost its strangeness. With her page-turning story, Storrs revivifies a long-ago past while reminding us that it’s a place utterly unlike the world we know: the mark of a skilled historical novelist.

The Wedding Shroud was published by Pier 9/Murdoch Books in September at $32.95 Australian (489pp, trade paperback).  Converted to US$, the price is about $25.  Overseas readers interested in buying a copy might try Dymocks in Oz or The Nile in NZ; both ship internationally.  I'm an occasional customer of both.  Other suggestions welcome!  Per the author's website, a sequel is in the works, which is great news.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Best wishes for the season

For those readers near and far who are celebrating Christmas, I wish you and yours a very happy holiday. 

NUC Christmas Tree @ Gleeson Library, photo by Shawn Calhoun
About the above: Many university libraries own the National Union Catalog (NUC), a 754-volume set which served as a catalog of printed books in American and Canadian library collections beginning in the '50s.  It's mostly a relic now, though places keep it around for historical significance (and because nobody else would want it, really).  Around the holidays, several creatively-minded libraries, including the one at University of San Francisco, find a more decorative purpose for it. 

For the first time in eight years, Mark and I are spending Christmas at home in Illinois, and from the looks of things (snow is coming down outside as I write...) it was a good decision.

On the left, below, is my current read, the only Kate Morton novel I haven't read yet.  I figured it was a perfect choice for a snowy winter day when I wanted to lose myself in a book.  So far so good.  On the right is my latest purchase, which showed up in the mail from Book Depository this afternoon.  When I put the two side by side, the resemblance was unmistakable.  It's not a duplicate, but the fonts and scenic backdrops are very similar.

Hothouse Flower
takes place in Britain and Thailand during World War II and the present day, and reviewers have compared it to Kate Morton's novels, so I'm hoping this holds true.

I'll return on Monday, with a review of a novel set in ancient Etruria.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

A visual preview of the spring season, part two

As usual I'm a little late getting these posted, but here are some more upcoming titles to look forward to.  The good thing is you won't have long to wait for them, especially if you find any monetary gifts in your Christmas stocking.

This is the US appearance of Sarita Mandanna's debut novel, a historical epic that plays out amidst the undulating hills, coffee plantations, and picturesque local villages of Coorg in southern India in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  I reviewed it from the UK edition in May.  Which cover do you prefer?  Grand Central, March.

This one sounds right up my alley: a multi-period novel about an Englishwoman determined to unravel the mysteries in her family's past.  Per her website, the author based Larkswood House on a place in the Hampshire countryside that was the setting for two devastating tragedies, years apart.  Set in the late 19th century and in the pre-WWII years.  Dutton, May.

Michelle Moran moves from the ancient world to the French Revolution with her biographical novel about a strong-willed woman whose talent for creating wax masks helped save her life.  Great expression on the part of the cover model... I wouldn't want to mess with her.  Crown, February.

Unlike her previous meaty historical epics, this is a slim yet haunting time-slip set in the French Pyrenees in the 1920s.  An Englishman still troubled by his brother's death in the Great War hopes the fresh, clean air of southern France will help him recuperate. Then he meets a mysterious young woman who understands all too well his feelings of loss.  Putnam, February.

Second in the series following The Witch Doctor's Wife (see my earlier review), The Headhunter's Daughter is set deep in the Belgian Congo.  In 1945, a Belgian infant girl found abandoned in the jungle is raised by a Bashilele tribesman.  Thirteen years later, American missionary Amanda Brown begins investigating the truth behind the story.  This leads everyone involved into danger.  Avon A, January.

Great title, great cover.  No surprise this one's set in France - during both World Wars and in the present day, to be specific.  When an American academic discovers a box of decades-old artifacts in the office he's renting in Paris, he begins imagining what its owner's life may have been like. The author, who grew up in Paris, presents a fictionalized story about the real-life Louise Brunet.  Reagan Arthur (Little, Brown), February; also Headline Review, Sept 2011.

Edinburgh-based novelist Sheridan's latest takes place against the backdrop of the Arabian Peninsula in 1833, as a young Abyssinian girl finds herself sold to a British naval officer and fortune seeker.  Historical adventure with a touch of romance in an exotic land.  Avon UK, February.

The deep blue waters of Lake Superior connect three distinct stories across the centuries: that of an Ojibwe woman in 1622, a Norwegian fishing couple in the early 20th century, and a female bar owner in the present day.  A debut novel of literary fiction for this Minnesota-based writer.  Milkweed Editions, May.

Andrew Taylor's latest (previously out in the UK) is literary suspense set in Cambridge, England, in 1786. A bookseller hired to catalog a wealthy family's extensive library is drawn into a mystery involving a mentally incapacitated man, the mysterious death of a young woman, a secret society, and quite possibly a ghost or two.  Hyperion, January.

Although two years have passed since Alfred Dreyfus's conviction as a traitorous spy and subsequent deportation from France, one family believes him innocent.  They hire civil lawyer François Dubon to prove their case.  A tense and evocative thriller set in late 19th-century Paris.  Crown, January; published by Doubleday Canada in August 2010.

Vreeland's first American-set novel brings to light a woman whose artistic talent was concealed behind the name of her successful male employer: Clara Driscoll, the lead designer in Louis Comfort Tiffany's New York art studio at the turn of the 20th century.  I look forward to learning more about the art of stained glass and seeing the Gilded Age through Clara's eyes.  Viking, January.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Y is for Yellowstone

Based on the cover and title, does this look like women's historical adventure fiction to you?  Me neither, and this dissuaded me from giving the book a second glance until recently.  Maybe I shouldn't pigeonhole it to such a degree, but it's one of the better examples in the subgenre.

Linda Jacobs' Lake of Fire takes place in and around Yellowstone National Park in June of 1900.  It's the beginning of tourist season, and Laura Fielding, a banking heiress from Chicago, defies her father's wishes by traveling alone to Yellowstone by stagecoach.  After Cord Sutton rescues her from a violent robbery in which her driver is killed, the two make their way together from Jackson Hole to the park, a three-day journey.

They grow steadily closer as they cross treacherous waters, face dangers from local wildlife, and camp out in Wyoming's magnificent high country, but both are keeping secrets.  Cord claims to be a rancher, which is true, but he also has plans to purchase Yellowstone's elegant Lake Hotel - an ambitious scenario for a man whose grandmother was Nez Perce.  Laura's rich father is backing a different buyer.  Hank Falls has been managing the hotel for the Northern Pacific Railroad, and now that the railroad has decided to sell, he wants to own it outright.

Jacobs doesn't make the mistake of dragging out the misunderstanding between Laura and Cord.  Although they're forced to see one another in a new light, they don't suddenly change their personalities once they arrive at the park.  It's a foregone conclusion that they'll fall in love, but many obstacles stand in their way, including Cord's previous attachment and Forrest Fielding's intent to make a match between his daughter and Hank.

There's a lot more going on than just Laura and Cord's growing love story. While this aspect is emotionally gripping, the novel's much meatier than that, and the richness of the background makes the romance even more poignant and real. Subplots reveal the park's complex history and the U.S. government's shameful treatment of the Nez Perce, or the Nimiipuu as they called themselves.

Although I can appreciate the author's attempt to provide a panorama of regional history, she sacrifices some clarity in the process. The sheer number of viewpoints and flashbacks to past events is disorienting at times. One thing that remains clear, however, is the author's deep love for Yellowstone.  She vividly recreates its breathtaking imagery: the bountiful forests, the surprising geologic formations, and the beauty of the sunrise as it tints the snow-capped mountains in rose.

Lake of Fire is an exciting glimpse into how refined society adapted to the park's rugged wilderness in the early 20th century.  It also serves as a reminder of the brave Western women, both white and native, who dared to live against the grain.

Lake of Fire, a finalist for the WILLA Literary Award from Women Writing the West, was published by Medallion Press in 2007 in mass market paperback (540pp, $6.99 US/$9.99 Canada).  Quite a bargain, in my opinion.  This is my pick for the letter Y in Historical Tapestry's alphabet challenge.  Incidentally, the title fits the pattern of the author's previous books, which are set in modern-day Yellowstone.  It does have a connection to the story, though it's a slim one, imho, and you'd have to read it to see why.

Monday, December 13, 2010

X is for Xenia

“Two offenses ruined me,” wrote Ovid, “a poem and an error.”

Using the technique of many successful historical novelists, Jane Alison takes a mystery that has remained unsolved through the ages and provides an intriguing solution. Ovid, the Roman poet best known for his masterwork The Metamorphoses, was exiled to the remote island of Tomis in 8 AD for reasons unknown. In Alison’s haunting interpretation, the poem is Medea, of which only two lines remain, and the error involves a witch and mystic from the far reaches of the Empire who becomes Ovid’s tragic muse.

After incurring the wrath of Emperor Augustus, who was upset by the indecency of his recently published erotic book, The Art of Love, Ovid travels to the Black Sea’s eastern shores for respite and inspiration. There he meets Xenia, a young woman with yellow-grey eyes and wild, glassy hair who seems to personify his most heartfelt fictional creations. Xenia, who lives apart from the native Phasians in this already isolated country, has the ability to glimpse the future, and what she foresees for Ovid’s legacy is extraordinary.

Enraptured by his poetry as well as by the man himself, Xenia wonders what it might be like to be “loved by the love-artist,” to be the woman who inspires his next masterpiece. She’ll soon get her wish. Ovid, craving the immortality that Xenia seems to promise, brings her back with him to Rome. There he'll craft his new work under the secret patronage of the emperor’s granddaughter, Julia, who hates Augustus for forcing her into an unwanted marriage. Ovid has never written a tragedy before.  But with Julia’s vengeful ambition urging him on, and Xenia’s apparent willingness to serve his interests, he believes he may have what it takes…

Ovid has the name recognition to attract readers to the story, but the novel as a whole belongs to Xenia. Trapped in a web of mutual obsession, she finds herself led towards a devastating finale -- unless she can use her mystical talents and innate intelligence to break away and save herself. Her journey, as she slowly awakens to Ovid’s plans, is suspenseful and engrossing. The atmosphere is dark, eerie, and electrically charged.

Alison shapes her language in ways that create striking and sensual impressions in the mind. Her carefully chosen images brilliantly illustrate Ovid’s hunger for the theatre of Rome: “The stage would be glowing saffron red, and there would be the murmur of all the voices, and the intricate hairstyles, and the bare shoulders, and the messages flying, and the swift, appreciative glances, and the limb-weakening applause, which has often been for him…”

In exploring the dangerous intersections between art and life, between the poem and the poet, Alison has created a highly original work that evokes the majesty of the imperial Roman world and the price exacted in the quest for literary fame.

The Love-Artist was published by Farrar, Straux, & Giroux in 2001 (currently out of print).  This is my pick for the letter X in Historical Tapestry's Alphabet in Historical Fiction challenge.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Winners of the Lady's Slipper giveaway

Thanks to everyone who entered the giveaway for Deborah Swift's The Lady's Slipper.  I've enjoyed reading all of your comments, and I agree with what many of you said; the setting for this one is different than the usual, and I'd love to see more novels along the same lines.

The two winners, chosen by the random number generator at, are Avid_Reader and Mystica... so it looks like these copies will be heading out soon to Canada and Sri Lanka.

I'll be in touch to obtain your mailing addresses.  Congratulations, and I hope you'll enjoy the book as much as I did!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Book review: The True Memoirs of Little K, by Adrienne Sharp

How much room is there for truth in a fictional memoir with an unreliable narrator? The answer to this complex question sits at the heart of Adrienne Sharp's provocative new novel. The True Memoirs of Little K is written as a first-person, no-holds-barred account of the life of Mathilde Kschessinska, the petite star of the Russian Imperial Ballet who became mistress to the last tsar, Nicholas II. In 1971, as a longtime émigrée living in Paris, Mathilde records her story for posterity, proving that even at age ninety-nine she can still command an audience.

The younger daughter of a Polish Catholic family of dancers in St. Petersburg, young Mathilde grows up knowing her ticket to success, artistically and personally, hinges on finding a rich nobleman to be her patron. It becomes her great fortune to attract, at seventeen, the most eligible bachelor of all, the handsome tsarevich.  “Niki" is a shy young man who needs persuading, at first, to take her to his bed.

Several years later, after he sets her aside to marry the woman he's loved since childhood, Alix of Hesse, “Mala” takes up with two of his cousins, the Grand Dukes Sergei and Andrei. She remains mostly faithful to both until – in this tale, if not in history – Niki seeks her out again, disappointed after Alix produces her fourth daughter in a row. The parentage of Mathilde's son, Vova, remains a mystery to this day.

Tsarist Russia honors its artists “with ceremony and treasure,” she writes, and the novel overflows with vivid portraits of each, from glittering receptions following performances to the delicate Fabergé eggs presented to the tsar. Most captivating are her descriptions of the politics of ballet, both on the Maryinsky Stage and off. Mathilde lights up every scene she's in, a statement that would no doubt please her, but the narrative loses that spark of immediacy when she digresses at length about more distant events.

A dancer whose talent is matched (and more) by her high opinion of herself, Mathilde resorts to childish pranks and more devious schemes when she fails to get her way. But with time and hard-won experience comes wisdom. What feels almost intolerably arrogant in a young, ambitious diva becomes admirable and even charming in an aging retiree who, as the Russian empire crumbles during the Bolshevik Revolution, risks everything she has left for the sake of a loved one.

Adrienne Sharp sticks to the format of an imagined memoir; the text is pure narrative, with conversations related only in brief through Mathilde’s assured voice. (This takes some getting used to, as does the woman herself.)  However, in the hidden spaces between her words, "Little K" unwittingly shows as much as she tells. The tender romance of Nicholas and Alexandra plays out behind her jealous rages, as does the story – actually two separate stories – of a mother’s fierce, protective love for her only son.

The real Mathilde Kschessinska wrote her own autobiography in 1960 (Dancing in Petersburg), a version our narrator calls “full of fiction and lies.”  In exploring the details of her life story, the author stimulates discussion about what people set down as their legacy, and why. Though reading Little K's “true memoirs” doesn't require prior knowledge of its subject, those more familiar with her life may take away from it a deeper message than those who haven't. The triumphant ending is a stirring tribute to a bygone age and a determined woman who knew, above all, how to survive.

The True Memoirs of Little K was published in November by Farrar Straus & Giroux ($25.00, 378pp, hardbound).

Saturday, December 04, 2010

In which I decide to challenge myself

Before I get into the main topic of today's post, I need to choose the winner of Anna Elliott's Dark Moon of Avalon. has selected commenter #1, which is Linda.  Congratulations, Linda, and I hope you'll enjoy the book!  I'll be in touch to obtain your address.

Around two years ago, I started seeing mention of reading challenges on book blogs.  It took me a while to catch on to what they were, as well as what their appeal was.  They hadn't really penetrated to the historical fiction corner of the blogosphere until recently, it seemed.  Later, I finally understood - they're about setting reading goals for yourself while participating in an online community of readers with similar goals and interests.

During 2010, I've been participating in Historical Tapestry's Alphabet in Historical Fiction challenge and having a great time, both picking out the books that fit the letter of the fortnight as well as seeing what all the other participants had chosen.  I'm eagerly anticipating seeing what the possibilities are for the letter X!  (I have a good one...)

For 2011, I've chosen two new challenges that look both interesting and doable - plus they cover topics with which I'd like to become more familiar.

Audra from Unabridged Chick is hosting the Nautical Fiction Reading Challenge.  The criteria: "If the book involves a boat, or sailing, or sailors, or Navy life -- it counts!"  I'm aiming for Dinghy level, which is up to 5 books, though if I find my sea legs easily, I may make it up to Sloop or higher.

The YA Historical Fiction Challenge is hosted by Sabrina at YA Bliss, a blog that's new to me.  Young adult historicals have been growing in popularity over the last few years; I haven't reviewed any here before, though that's not for lack of interest.  Participating in the challenge should help me focus on my ever-growing TBR of YA historicals and help me get to know the genre a little better.  The library where I work has a sizable collection, too, so I shouldn't lack for choices.  I'm aiming for Level 1, five books.

I've got a large shelf of review books to cover for Jan and Feb already,  but these two challenges should be both manageable and fun.  I look forward to meeting my fellow participants!

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Book review and giveaway: The Lady's Slipper, by Deborah Swift

The title of Deborah Swift's eloquent debut novel refers to two things: a beautiful orchid all too rarely found in England, and the delicate embroidered footwear worn by Alice Ibbetson when she sneaks out at night to uproot it from her neighbor’s lands. The losses of both prove to have fateful consequences.

The year is 1660, in the old county of Westmorland in northern England. Although the Civil War is over, and Charles II is restored to his throne, animosity continues to rankle between the country's Royalist and Puritan factions. Mistress Alice, a young wife from the village of Netherbarrow still in mourning for her younger sister, spends her days growing plants in her summerhouse and capturing their beauty in art.

When Richard Wheeler first shows Alice the lady's slipper, growing in an isolated wood on his property, she feels she must remove it for its own protection and paint it before the flower fades. Richard, a former officer in Cromwell's army who found peace among the Quakers, knows she has taken the orchid but can't prove it. As Alice continues to deny the theft, Ella, the Ibbetsons’ crafty maidservant, finds Alice’s discarded slippers, ruined after her late-night expedition, and steals them for herself.

Two others are drawn to the orchid: Sir Geoffrey Fisk, the hard-nosed local squire, who hopes its roots will cure his skin condition, and Margaret Poulter, a pagan wise-woman. "There was an odd scent about it, as if it was half in this world and half in some other darker world," thinks Margaret, knowing Alice’s obsession with the plant will bring her more than she intends.

The plot moves along smoothly as it speaks to universal themes such as honor, redemption, and finding a place to belong in a land marked by class inequities and religious intolerance. In a work that displays such a strong love for its regional setting, perhaps it's no mistake that the most sympathetic and rounded characters are those with their eyes open to nature’s wonders and mysteries. Their surroundings, both outdoors and in, are described with remarkable clarity of detail.

It takes talent to write about characters' spiritual beliefs without sounding preachy. Alice is a skillful creation, and her troubled path to understanding is realistic and heartfelt, but Richard's inner conflicts concerning his faith ring especially true to the time. Those who might be tempted to dismiss this as a women's novel should reconsider, for the novel shifts easily between male and female viewpoints. Only one brief scene towards the end seems oddly out of place.

A dark and gripping tale deeply rooted in rural English history, The Lady's Slipper reads at times like a 17th-century folk ballad come to life. Though neither bawdy nor ostentatious, as novels of the Restoration court in distant London can sometimes be, it stands well on its own merits, a novel as rich and haunting as the setting it evokes.

The Lady's Slipper was published in late November in the US by St. Martin's Griffin (trade pb, $14.99, 464pp; photo at very top).   My copy, which I'd preordered from Book Depository long before I knew a US edition would be available (this happens a lot), was published by Macmillan New Writing in June in hardcover at £12.99.  St. Martin's has generously provided me two copies for a giveaway.  For a chance to win, leave a comment on this post by the end of the day Friday, December 10th.  International entrants welcome.  Good luck!

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Guest post from Stephanie Dray: How Cleopatra Selene Saved Isis

Today Stephanie Dray, author of the forthcoming Lily of the Nile, is stopping by as part of her blog tour.  She offers a fascinating guest post about religion and politics during the lifetime of her heroine, Cleopatra Selene.  Her novel will be out in January from Berkley, and I'll be posting a review around the publication date.

How Cleopatra Selene Saved Isis
Stephanie Dray

The heroine of my forthcoming debut novel, Lily of the Nile, is Cleopatra Selene, daughter of the much more famous Cleopatra VII of Egypt. Only ten years old when her parents committed suicide, Selene was taken prisoner by the Romans and marched through the streets in chains. Her life was spared, however, and Augustus, Rome’s first emperor[1], took her into his household, where she had to curry favor to survive.

Like her mother before her, Selene was a worshipper of Isis, the all-powerful sorceress and mother-goddess of the Nile. Unlike her mother, however, Selene practiced her faith in a time during which it was politically disadvantageous, and perhaps dangerous, for her to do so.

Generally speaking, the Romans employed a liberal philosophy when it came to religion. If a conquered nation submitted to Roman civil authority, they were free to worship their native gods. There were notable exceptions to this policy, however. The early Roman hostility towards Christianity is well-documented. Druids were persecuted and effectively wiped out. During the Augustan Age, Rome was also particularly antagonistic to the worshippers of Isis.

Augustus had a special enmity for the Isiac faith, no doubt owing to the fact that Isis was the patron deity of his arch rival, Cleopatra. Like the Ptolemaic queens before her, Cleopatra embraced Isis, presenting herself as a veritable living incarnation of the powerful mother-goddess. The worship of Isis often eclipsed that of her husband Osiris and her son Horus, such that she made a perfect symbol for queens seeking to rule on their own. Cleopatra knew this and made great political use of the Isiac priesthood to further her political aims.

By the time Rome declared war upon Cleopatra, Isis worship had spread throughout the Mediterranean world, so Cleopatra’s religious influence was a genuine threat. However, Augustus remained hostile towards Isiacism even after Cleopatra’s death[2].

This was almost certainly because the Isiac temples promoted values antithetical to the “back to family values” political campaign that Augustus was waging to consolidate his power base. In short, Isiacism wasn’t simply the worship of some foreign goddess, nor even simply posthumous support for his conquered enemy, but the promotion of a set of political and religious philosophies that Augustus did not want to spread.

For the Romans, religion was typically public business. Roman temples were generally open and visible to the street, and their private chambers were generally limited to an inner sanctum for the cult statue. By contrast, Isiac temples typically fostered a more intimate atmosphere by enclosing the temple by walls so as to preserve the privacy of the worshippers. This sense of privacy was greeted with mistrust by some Romans who considered Isiac temples a hotbed of conspiracy where the disaffected could gather and secretly plot against the state.

Perhaps they were not entirely wrong. Isiac temples admitted freedmen, women, and even slaves to their community, not just to foster a more personal relationship with the goddess, but also to help promote the cause of social justice. That Isis was a goddess of mercy who allegedly frowned upon slavery and other social ills may not have been half as dangerous as the notion that a great goddess like Isis might take the part of a lowly slave over the cause of his master. Or that she might take interest in a slave at all. After all, this was still an age of orthopraxy versus orthodoxy, where the emphasis was upon correct ritual toward the gods rather than any intense personal relationship with the realm of the divine. As a forerunner of Christianity, Isiacism was starting to change the very idea of religion.

Moreover, during the Augustan Age, Isis worship promoted a more egalitarian relationship between the sexes and admitted both men and women into the priesthood. While there is evidence that Isiacism promoted chastity and periods of abstinence, Isis was a great favorite amongst prostitutes and was also associated with sexual license and mysterious fertility rites.

All this ran counter to Augustus’ policy of preserving the social hierarchy and his place as the religious leader of the state. At a time when he was regulating sex, marriage, and the role of women[3] to conform with traditional values--or what he imagined those traditional values to be--Isiacism was an obstacle. That it was a popular religion made it only worse; he closed Isiac temples, forbade the worship of Isis within the old sacred boundary of Rome, and eventually sent his second-in-command, Agrippa, to put down an Isiac rebellion of some sort[4] and prohibit the worship of Isis in Rome and her surrounds.

That this assault on Isis worship happened during Selene’s lifetime--much of it while she was actually living in Rome--is nothing short of astonishing when we recall that she was, like her mother, an important figure to Isiacs. For her mother’s partisans, she represented a chance to return to power and for Isis worship to flourish where Augustus tried to stamp it out. As Cleopatra’s daughter, a surviving Ptolemy, and an heir to that dynasty, Selene was also, undoubtedly, the faith’s most prominent adherent.

Under the circumstances, especially considering that her survival depended upon Augustus’ good will, one might have expected Selene to renounce her patron’s least favorite goddess. But if the numismatic evidence of her reign is any indication, Selene never wavered in her faith. This little captive princess eventually became Queen of Mauretania where she explicitly adopted Isis as her goddess. Selene’s coins--the currency of her realm, all but guaranteed to be seen by Augustus himself--repeatedly would display Isis symbols. Moreover, Selene and her husband Juba II would go on to establish in Mauretania a giant temple of Isis where sacred crocodiles were kept.

As the most prominent client queen of the Augustan Age, Selene’s actions would have made her an influential religious dissident. Whether she paid a political price for this is unknown, but if Augustus ever considered returning her to the throne of Egypt, this may have tipped the scales against the idea. With apparent determination, Selene expanded the reach of Isiacism into Western Africa[5] and created a safe-haven for Isis worshippers at a time when their cult was imperiled. What’s more, Selene’s spiritual influence may have reached into Augustus’ own household.

Though Augustus’ successor, Tiberius, was also hostile toward the Isiacs to the point of crucifying some of them, the other emperors of the Julio-Claudian dynasty gave Isis an elevated status in the Roman world that would last for hundreds of years. Claudius, Nero, and Caligula all descended from Selene’s half sisters, the Antonias, leading one to speculate whether or not these women were receptive to Selene’s religious ideas and passed them on to their sons. Moreover, Selene’s beliefs may have influenced Augustus’ daughter, Julia, whose villa featured a painting of flamboyant priestesses of Isis wearing high headdresses and shaking rattles. One can only speculate what her father may have thought of that.

It is possible that the persecution of Isiacs only made her worshippers stronger in their faith and that the religion would have grown even without Selene’s active participation. However, the Queen of Mauretania’s unambiguous support of Isiacism must have encouraged worshippers throughout the Mediterranean and may well have protected the faith during the Augustan Age so that it could later flourish. This is especially relevant since Isis is a living faith even today and Cleopatra Selene is one of its unsung heroines.


Stephanie Dray is the author of a forthcoming trilogy of historical fiction novels set in the Augustan Age, starting with Lily of the Nile: A Novel of Cleopatra's Daughter. Before she wrote novels, Stephanie was a lawyer, a game designer, and a teacher. Now she uses the transformative power of magic realism to illuminate the stories of women in history and inspire the young women of today. She remains fascinated by all things Roman or Egyptian and has–to the consternation of her devoted husband–collected a house full of cats and ancient artifacts.

She is currently sponsoring the Cleopatra Literary Contest for Young Women, the deadline for which is March 1, 2011, but join her newsletter now for updates and a chance to win a free copy of Lily of the Nile and additional prizes.


[1]Some might argue that Augustus was not Rome’s first emperor, but given the outcome of his climb to power ended the Roman Republic, I always refer to him as such.

[2]In spite of this hostility, he appears to have allowed himself to be portrayed in reverence to Isis in carvings throughout Egypt. Historian Diana E. E. Kleiner suggests that this is because the power of Isis iconography was so influential in Egypt that it was easier for Augustus to portray himself as Cleopatra’s successor in Egypt than her conqueror. In the rest of the empire, the political situation differed, and Augustus marked the Isiacs as his enemies accordingly.

[3]One of the ironies of the Augustan Age is that while Rome’s first emperor apparently held deeply misogynistic ideas that would be used to oppress women for the next two thousand years, his wife Livia was one of the most powerful women in history.

[4]Why Agrippa needed to restore order by suppressing the Isiacs isn’t well understood. Whether Isiacs were protesting their treatment or involving themselves in intrigues against the state isn’t known, but it is significant to note that this occurred in 22 B.C. following a period of famine and food riots. Perhaps the Isiacs were agitating for charity. Or perhaps they had involved themselves in the Murena-Caepio conspiracies surrounding Augustus’ new regime. They may even have been angry or emboldened by the invasion of Egypt that year by the Kandake of Meroe.

[5]While the worship of Isis was not unknown in the amorphous area then known as “Libya,” the dominant goddess was Carthaginian Tanit. That Selene clung to Egyptian Isis even while trying to win over her new Mauretanian subjects is a testament both to her faith and her intention to re-found her mother’s dynasty.

Friday, November 26, 2010

W is for Wishnia

Kenneth Wishnia's historical mystery takes place in late 16th-century Prague, a setting that has inspired several other novelists (Frances Sherwood's The Book of Splendor and Lisa Goldstein's The Alchemist's Door are also set there).  Perhaps the fascination is thanks to its ruler, Kaiser Rudolf II, whose support of fine art and scientific discoveries led his empire into the scientific revolution.  He also took an interest in alchemy and astrology and experimented with both - some may say too much.

In Wishnia's The Fifth Servant, the Jews of Prague find the city a contradictory mix of tolerance and repression.  While Rudolf has granted them his protection, they're forced to live in a walled ghetto and wear yellow badges whenever they leave it.  Rumors of their wealth and magical practices are pervasive, causing Christians to eye them with suspicion.  And this, in a crowded, multiethnic capital still reeling from the Reformation. While Catholics view the Jews as misguided, they see Protestants as heretics.

The entire plot spans a three-day period, from Passover to Easter Sunday, in the year 1592.  Benyamin Ben-Akiva, a Talmudic scholar, has just arrived in Prague from rural Poland. An outsider with no connections, he's very grateful to be offered a post as shammes, or sexton, at the Klaus Shul (synagogue) under the great Rabbi Loew.  He also hopes to reunite with his estranged wife, who has returned to join her family in the ghetto.

After the butchered body of a young Christian girl turns up in a Jewish merchant's shop, Christian mobs accuse the shopkeeper of killing her for her blood - the classic lie, the blood libel, that has followed Jews for centuries. Benyamin believes him innocent. The sheriff allows him three days to uncover the killer, or else everyone in the Yidnshtot (Jewish town) will be held responsible.

Benyamin approaches his task with intelligence, wry humor, and chutzpah, and he'll need all three.  His down-to-earth, slang-filled voice enlivens the narrative; that, plus his knowledge of Christian doctrine, surprises officials who are all too ready to dismiss him.  Key to his investigations is the help of other freethinkers like himself: a Christian butcher's daughter who works as a Sabbath maid to the ghetto's mayor; a Bohemian herb-woman; and his supervisor Rabbi Loew.

The novel is a sometimes uneasy balance of entertainment, enlightenment, and erudition. Wishnia's knowledge of the city, its geography, and the literature and beliefs of its 16th-century residents gives his book a strong sense of period. All the content on Talmudic scholarship, Jewish folklore, and German and Yiddish vocabulary can be hard to work through, but I felt the effort paid off.  The map at the beginning helps, as does the glossary at the end.

Benyamin's can-do attitude and amusing remarks keep the pages turning, and the way he and Rabbi Loew use the words of appropriate Jewish sages to justify unorthodox decisions (it's their bad luck to have to work on the Sabbath) is a clever touch. Finally, the themes of religious tolerance, the courage to explore others' beliefs, and the importance of opposing censorship - which are all interlinked - have clear relevance for today. 

I started The Fifth Servant wondering if it would be a book I admired more than I liked, but came away feeling sincerely impressed by the way it was all put together.  The ending was satisfying and appropriate. Well done.

The Fifth Servant was published by Morrow in March 2010 ($25.99, 387pp).

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Book review: Heidegger's Glasses, by Thaisa Frank

The theme of illusion versus truth is woven throughout Thaisa Frank's debut novel, which examines the Holocaust and its aftermath from a new and intriguing perspective. Within Heidegger's Glasses, many of the deceptions are absurd, while others are necessary for survival, and some are both at once.

The surreal premise, while fictional, feels bizarrely compatible with the paranoia and supernatural beliefs of the Nazi regime. Ten meters beneath the woods of northern Germany sits an oversize compound, a converted mineshaft populated by sixty or so scribes: multilingual men and women who were recruited from among those waiting to be transported to concentration camps.

Their sole purpose is to reply to letters written to people already in the camps, in order to reassure anxious relatives and others that their loved ones are fine and healthy. In reality, though, both the original writers and the recipients are likely no longer alive. The ruse not only conceals the truth about Hitler's Final Solution, it's also meant to ensure (in the minds of the occult-obsessed Nazis) that the dead will lie quietly, knowing their letters were answered.

Although the war isn’t going well for Germany, its leaders pretend otherwise. The Compound of Scribes is another elaborate fiction: a large underground chamber built with cobblestone streets, gaslights, artificial pear trees, and false ceilings made to resemble day and night. But even though its residents' task is pointless – the letters they write will never be read by anyone – and their hideaway a monotonous prison, the existence of the program has saved their lives.

Gerhardt Lodenstein and his lover Elie Schacten supervise the project, but both secretly work for the Resistance. Elie, an attractive woman admired by the others for her ability to sweet-talk SS officers and perform covert rescues, has a past she hides even from the man she's closest to. Then the lives of everyone in the Compound are thrown into disarray when philosopher Martin Heidegger's letter to his friend and optometrist Asher Engelhardt – a man he doesn’t know has been deported to Auschwitz – ends up in the hands of Goebbels, who orders that an answer be sent. How will the scribes craft a convincing response?

Frank writes with clarity and compassion about the individuals given no choice but to live (and die) under the shadow of the Third Reich. She avoids the overarching grimness one might expect from the subject without minimizing its unavoidably tragic nature. The prose flows well; its tone becomes melancholy, dark, thoughtful, and hopeful in turn, and sometimes all of these simultaneously.

Each character has a story that’s revealed only in part, in keeping with the heightened fear of the era. At the same time, the reader gets to experience their poignancy of their individual lives – their loves, worries, interactions, dreams, and secrets, all the seemingly little things that stand out as human in a world refracted from reality. Elements of Heidegger’s philosophy make their way into the story, though prior knowledge of his work isn’t necessary.

Because of its delicate approach, Heidegger’s Glasses would be a good choice for those who wouldn’t normally opt for Holocaust fiction. Its pages echo the question: what responsibility do we, the living, have towards the dead, and towards history? It’s a complex, emotionally moving work that leaves a haunting message at the end, and it does so with imaginative skill and subtlety.

Heidegger's Glasses was published by Counterpoint in November at $25.00 (hb, 337pp).

Monday, November 22, 2010

A visual preview of the spring season, part one

Here's the first of several visual previews of historical novels for winter/spring 2011.  These are some personal picks, with my usual eclectic mix of settings and timeframes.  Most of these also appear on the HNS forthcoming books list I posted about last week, but as several of you pointed out (and I agree), seeing the covers can really amp up the interest level!

Carol Carr's debut is a hilarious, exciting, and sometimes naughty romp through the grimy lanes and elegant boardrooms of Victorian London, as seen through the eyes of India Black, proprietor of the Lotus House brothel.  India gets drawn into an international mystery when a high-profile civil servant drops dead while visiting her place of business.  Review forthcoming.  Berkley Prime Crime, Jan.

The novels of Chiaverini's Elm Creek Quilts series - some contemporary, some historical - are slices of Americana that celebrate women's friendships and neighborly ties.  Her latest is set in Water's Ford, Pennsylvania, in 1862, and follows the women of Elm Creek Valley as they cope with their changing roles.  Meanwhile, letters from the men in their lives, off fighting for the Union, are read aloud at their quilting circle.  Dutton, Feb.

The astute observations of Miss Dido Kent, spinster aunt and talented detective in early 19th-century England, were a highlight for me in Anna Dean's Bellfield HallIn her followup investigation, the sudden death of her cousin Flora's neighbor turns out to be murder -- just as Dido suspected all along.  Minotaur, Feb.

Margaret George takes her time in researching and writing her biographical novels (like the others, this one's nearly 700pp long), but  they're worth waiting for.  This is the historical epic that even those weary of Tudormania will want to read:  the story of the later years of the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I, as told by her flame-haired cousin and rival, Lettice Knollys.  And did you know the author has a new blog?  Viking, April.

Hart's fifth novel presents the deep and mysterious relationship between Edgar Allan Poe and Sissy Clemm, his cousin, child bride, and the love of his life, the woman whose death haunted his writings and nearly destroyed him. The blurb promises hints of the fantastic in its exploration of Sissy's innermost self in this world and the one that lies beyond.  St. Martin's Griffin, Feb.

Following the international success of the Otori series, historical fantasy set in an alternate feudal Japan, Lian Hearn turns to mainstream historical fiction with an epic set in 1857, as Western powers begin pounding at the gates of isolationist Japan.  Amid the tumult, a young woman prepares for marriage and studies medicine, yet the changing times lead her into an uncertain future.  The cover is too frilly for my taste (too many blossoms, too few shadows?) but I've got this one on preorder from Book Depository.  No US deal as yet.  Quercus (UK), April; it's already out in Australia.

The Salem Witch trials are an event that historical novelists return to again and again.  Hill is a British writer who's written several nonfiction works on the tragedies of Salem Village, and she's sure to bring a unique perspective to her fiction.  A dark cover for this dark portrait of how a children's game sparks a town's rapid descent into madness.  Overlook, March, and Duckworth (UK), June.

Cobbs Hoffman's self-published novel, In the Lion's Den, garnered a Director's Mention for the Langum Prize for American Historical Fiction in 2009; it also won a San Diego Book Award.  This is a reissue under the new title Broken Promises (see a related article from the SDSU News).   A tale of loyalty and love, it reveals the little-known story of Charles Francis Adams, son of John Quincy Adams and father of novelist Henry Adams, and his involvement in the US Civil War.  Ballantine, April.

Elizabeth Loupas's debut novel is many things at once: a magnificent portrait of an Italian city during the glorious Renaissance; a memorable depiction of Barbara of Austria, the intelligent second wife of Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara; and a creative retelling of Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess," as well as what might have come before and after the events in the poem.  I've just finished reading a galley and will be hosting Elizabeth here for an interview next spring.  NAL, March.

Karen Maitland's Company of Liars is a book I've come to appreciate more over time, for both its creepily twisting plot and the authentic-seeming worldview of its medieval characters.  The Gallows Curse looks to evoke the same grim, strange atmosphere.  In 1210, all of England has been placed under interdict, thanks to the religious schemings of King John.  And in the village of Gastmere, a servant girl is dragged into a conspiracy to absolve the lord of the manor's sins.  Penguin UK, March (no US details as yet).

Friday, November 19, 2010

Guest post from Anna Elliott: Ghostly Voices, Faith, and the Otherworld

Good morning, everyone!  Anna Elliott is stopping by the blog today with a guest post about her heroine Isolde, Isolde's grandmother Morgan, and the gradual shift from Celtic paganism to Christianity in 6th-century Arthurian Britain.

I thoroughly enjoyed Twilight of Avalon, book 1 of Anna's trilogy, when I read and reviewed it a year ago.  It's become one of my favorite renditions of the Tristan and Isolde legend, both for the gritty, authentic feel of the setting as well as her powerfully rendered characters.  And so I was pleased to be asked to participate in the blog tour for book 2, Dark Moon of Avalon, in which Trystan and Isolde unite once more to protect Britain's throne from the cunning Lord Marche and his Saxon allies.

Thanks to Anna and her publisher, we also have a giveaway opportunity.  Details can be found at the end of the post.  In addition, should you have any questions for or comments to share with Anna, please leave them below.  Welcome, Anna!

Ghostly Voices, Faith, and the Otherworld

The prologues to all three books of my Twilight of Avalon trilogy are narrated by my protagonist Isolde's grandmother Morgan. (Morgan le Fay, for those familiar with Arthurian legend.) Morgan is dead before my story begins, but she's still a very real force in Isolde's life. In hard times, Isolde often tries to imagine her grandmother there, to picture what advice or comfort Morgan might have given.

Morgan was one of my favorite characters to write, and judging by the response I get from readers, her voice and personality seem to come across equally strongly on the page. But I've also been asked whether she's 'real'. Are the conversations between her and Isolde actually happening? Is Morgan a ghost? Or just a figment of Isolde's imagination?

The sixth century, when Dark Moon of Avalon is set, was a time of religious change in Britain, a time when the old nature-centered pagan beliefs were being absorbed into the new Christian faith. One of my favorite parts of writing the books was exploring the intersection of those beliefs, the ways in which the Christian and the pagan belief systems could be seen to worship a single unified Divine, albeit in very different ways.

Morgan, for me, represents the old pagan faith and the Celtic belief system in which the Otherworld was no far distant heaven up in the sky, but a place separated from our own world by the thinnest of veils. A cave, a lake, a river, all could be portals to this Otherworld in the Celtic worldview. I think Isolde herself stands very much at the crossroads of the old ways and the new, and part of her journey through Twilight of Avalon and Dark Moon is to find her own faith system, to understand both the Christian and Pagan beliefs and see the wisdom in each.

So whether Morgan is part of the Celtic Otherworld or an answer to a more Christianized version of prayer, my answer to the question of, "is Morgan real?" is: She is absolutely very real to Isolde.

And for any readers who enjoy Morgan and would like a peek at her when she was young, I've written a free short story prologue to the Twilight of Avalon trilogy, which centers on Morgan as a young woman. It's available for free download in various e-reader/printer friendly forms here:

A longtime devotee of historical fiction and fantasy, Anna Elliott lives in the DC Metro area with her husband and two daughters. She is the author of Twilight of Avalon and Dark Moon of Avalon, the first two books in the Twilight of Avalon trilogy. For more information, visit her official website.

Dark Moon of Avalon was published in September by Touchstone/Simon & Schuster at $16.00 in paperback.  To enter to win a copy (US and Canada residents only), please leave a comment with your email address.  Deadline is Friday, December 3rd.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Siobhán Parkinson's Painted Ladies: A review with illustrations

I came across Siobhán Parkinson's Painted Ladies while browsing the historical fiction listings at Book Depository and purchased it on impulse.  It turned out to be a wonderful decision.

The novel centers on a community of artists who lived and worked in Skagen, a small fishing village on the northern tip of Denmark, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  I had never heard of the Skagen Painters before, and I'm grateful to the novel for introducing me to them.  Reading it is like stepping into an Impressionist painting: full of light and color, and enhanced with sophisticated touches that bring the characters and era to life.

Fishermen Hauling Nets, P.S. Krøyer (1883)
Painted Ladies also possesses a strong historical framework, although the author states up front that she's taken some license with regard to names, dates, events, and interpretations of characters' emotions and motives.

Sewing Fisherman's Wife
Anna Ancher (1890)
At top, on the book's cover, is Marie Triepke Krøyer Alfvén, the novel's central figure.  The story opens in 1888, when Marie first arrives in Paris from Copenhagen as a young and enthusiastic art student, and ends with her second marriage in 1905.  (Not a spoiler; this event is hinted at in the prologue.)  While in Paris, she meets up with other Danish artists gathered there, most notably Michael and Anna Ancher, and becomes part of their circle.  Uncommonly beautiful, Marie struggles to be noticed for her talent rather than her looks.

She falls in love with Søren Krøyer, an older man who's the leading light of the Danish art world, and they marry.  Despite her independent spirit, however, Marie's traditional upbringing doesn't fit in with the bohemian ways of her husband's friends. The others have affairs, raise one another's children, and adjust to sudden changes in their unconventional lifestyles with an ease that baffles Marie.  Her inner conflict in this respect is skillfully conveyed.

Summer Evening on Skagen's Beach, P.S. Krøyer (1899); portraits of artist and wife
Anna Ancher becomes Marie's closest female friend, and intervening sections reveal her backstory.  The only one of their close-knit group to be born in Skagen, she grows up the daughter of a large family who owns Brøndums Hotel, and her talent becomes visible at an early age. (I wish the novel had given us more of Anna, as she seemed the most emotionally grounded character.) Both Marie and Anna are fortunate in that their parents support their artistic efforts.

The plot moves between Skagen, Copenhagen, Paris, Sicily, and elsewhere in Europe, following the artists and their extended families as they form romantic connections, have families of their own, and create breathtaking works of art.

Hip, Hip, Hurrah!, Peder Severin Krøyer (1888);
many of the novel's characters are depicted here
Skagen appeals to them not only for its seaside landscapes - the interplay of sunlight, sand, and water is a favorite subject - but for the rustic way of life led by its fishermen, who figure in numerous paintings.  Parkinson adds a touch of irony in this respect, for while the locals willingly serve as models at first, their tolerance grows thin when they have to clean up champagne glasses tossed carelessly onto the beach after a late-night party.

The relationship between art and real life is one of the novel's strongest themes, and Parkinson's literary re-creations of the painters' masterworks are a joy to read.  Some are spontaneous creations, such as Søren Krøyer's depiction of his wife and Anna Ancher taking an evening walk on the beach following their friends' anniversary celebration:

Summer Evening on the Skagen Southern Beach, P.S. Krøyer (1893),
with portraits of Marie Krøyer and Anna Ancher
After the feasting was done and most of the guests had left, Marie took a walk with Anna along the water's edge in the long evening light.  The sea was blue and silver and the sand was silver and blue.  The strolling women in their best party frocks inclined their heads to one another in a gesture of tenderness that excluded the world ... Mystery hung, like the evening star, in the light, silvery air.  

Søren sat with Michael on the beach, amidst the debris of the feast, and watched the slow progress of the women away from them, still conversing, into the blue.

Not all of the poses are so casually arranged, however.  Martha Johansen, Anna's long-suffering cousin, feels very frustrated by the presence of a Christmas tree in her messy house for months after the holiday - all because her husband Viggo can't get his painting to turn out right. 

Merry Christmas, Viggo Johansen (1891)
The novel dips into the viewpoints of many of the artists, as well as those of their wives and lovers (and their wives' lovers, in some cases).  Emmy, third wife of poet/artist Holger Drachmann, is one of several women who discover that romantic involvement with an artist isn't all it's cracked up to be, and their plights are rendered with dexterity.

And the children, shuffled from place to place while their parents journey abroad for inspiration or simple R&R... they bear some of the heaviest burdens of all.

Midsummer's Eve Bonfire on Skagen's Beach, P.S. Krøyer (1906)
Painted Ladies draws to a close not long after a large gathering of the denizens of the Skagen colony at a party on the beach, complete with the lighting of the St. John's Eve bonfire. At first I found the ending overly abrupt and off-putting.  Now that I've had time to reflect, I find it fitting, particularly in how it shows how Marie has weathered the emotional changes in her life.  On that, I'll say no more and suggest you read the book!

If you enjoy how novelists like Susan Vreeland, Tracy Chevalier, and Stephanie Cowell render art into lyrical prose, this is the book for you.  It's best read with images of the paintings within easy access; I found that this enhanced the reading experience for me.  See the Wikipedia page for additional paintings and links to individual artists, or the Skagens Museum for historical background, details on technique, and more images.

Painted Ladies was published by New Island Books (Ireland) in October in paperback (£12.99, 326pp) and is available at Book Depository.  Siobhán Parkinson is the current Laureate na nÓg (Children's Laureate) of Ireland; this is her second novel for adults.