Book Review: Daughter of the Gods by Stephanie Thornton (2014)

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Review #6


Egypt: 1400s B.C. Hatshepsut is the indulged second daughter of Pharoah Tutmose I. After the tragic death of her older sister, Hatshepsut is expected to wed her half-brother and become the Great Royal Wife. But Hatshepsut has ambitions for greater things than living out her days in the Hall of Women, and begins a journey that will end with her becoming one of the most powerful female rulers in ancient history.

I was obsessed with ancient Egypt as a child. This alien culture growing and thriving on the banks of the Nile was always so delightfully mysterious. That same alienness might be why ancient Egypt is rather underrepresented in historical fiction. Readers have a glut of novels detailing World War II, ancient Rome, and don’t even get me started on the Tudors. But ancient Egypt, a land where it was the height of fashion to have every hair plucked off your body, where it was considered practical to bear your brother’s children in order to preserve bloodlines, can be a little difficult to wrap our heads around.

Thornton’s novel doesn’t shy away from any of this. She presents her novel through her heroine’s eyes, and for Hatshepsut, all these things that are extraordinary to our modern sensibilities are perfectly normal. Going in, it does help to have a basic understanding of the Egyptian pantheon. Within the first few pages, the gods Re, Hathor, Bastet, Sekhmet, and Nut are mentioned. They are not accompanied with a lot of explanation, so it might be useful to have a chart of their mythology available. Same goes for a map of Egypt and perhaps a basic chronology of their civilization.

With or without the extra research, this novel is easily to submerge yourself in. Once you understand the numerous references to various deities, the story of Hatshepsut and her journey to the throne of Egypt is a compelling one. She is acknowledged as one of the first women of power, and yet almost everything we know of her life is pure speculation. Thornton does an admirable job of filling in the gaps, adding a small romantic element, and painting a portrait of a woman who uses her intelligence, daring, and political acumen to cement her place in Egyptian history.

Why is Hatshepsut so shrouded in mystery? It’s impossible to know, but historians all agree that sometime shortly after her reign, nearly all her images were stricken, and her monuments pulled down. Because Hatshepsut’s rule was marked by a long period of peace and prosperity for Egypt, it is thought that subsequent male rules wanted to erase all evidence of a successful female pharaoh from the historical record. Call it an ancient case of fragile masculinity. Whatever the case, a few carvings and monuments survived to tell Hatshepsut’s story, and Thornton picks up these pieces and runs with them.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. Anyone interested in learning about one of the most fascinating civilization in ancient history, as well as one of the first powerful women in the world would do well to go find a copy of The Daughter of the Gods.

My rating: 4/5

You can find The Daughter of the Gods here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: The Traitor’s Wife by Alison Pataki (2014)

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Review #4


The novel can be summed up by using its full title: The Traitor’s Wife: The Woman Behind Benedict Arnold and the Plan to Betray America. The primary focus is on Peggy Shippen, a Philadelphia debutante who ensnares Benedict Arnold and convinces him to defect to the British Army during the Revolutionary War. The tale is told through the eyes of Clara Bell, Peggy’s personal maid.

This debut novel from writer Alison Pataki follows the growing trend of telling the stories of great historical figures through the eyes of women. Half the historical fiction novels lately seem to be the “somethings wife” or the “somethings daughter”. Here, at least, we are drawn to the woman behind the curtain. This novel attempts to pinpoint the lion’s share of the blame for Arnold’s defection onto Peggy Shippen. She is depicted as a kind of colonial Lady MacBeth, twisting the mind of her previously good and decent husband until he takes action against the country that he supposedly loves.

“If you can’t break the rules, you might as well seduce the man who makes them”

Peggy Shippen is portrayed throughout this novel as a spoiled, selfish brat who doesn’t care about anyone in the world except herself. She manipulates the hearts and minds of the men around her to get her way and seems almost sociopathic in her lack of sympathy for her fellow man. The only problem is that she is utterly two-dimensional. At least with Lady MacBeth we felt her desire for power and her hunger to place MacBeth on the throne of Scotland. Peggy Shippen is given no more motivation for the overthrow of the Revolutionary War than wanting a large house and pretty gowns to wear. She is unsympathetic in every aspect, therefore we as readers don’t particularly care about her. Had Pataki instilled Peggy with even the barest shred of humanity, we might have felt more of a pang when her carefully constructed plans fall about her ears. As it is, I was just happy the novel was nearly over. Benedict Arnold is given a similar lobotomy, depicted here as a weak, vain, and rather vapid man who is too easily besotted by a pretty smile. I expected more from a man whose very name has become synonymous with treason and betrayal.

This book could have done with a more careful editor. At times I wondered if it was self-published due to the blatant errors that kept popping up. Champagne the drink is a common noun, however here it is always capitalized. A horse is referred to as “mare” and a “he” in the same sentence. The last forty pages are repeated almost completely verbatim from flash-forwards that take place in earlier chapters.

Overall, I found this novel to be interesting in concept but a bit of a mess in execution. Pataki has several other novels out, and I plan to pick up one of her later works to see if her writing style has improved.

My rating: 2.5/5

You can find The Traitor’s Wife here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Beneath A Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan (2017)

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Review #3


Beneath A Scarlet Sky is a novel set in the city of Milan during the final year of World War II. Pino Lella begins as an ordinary teenager, obsessed with girls and excited about learning to drive. When he is evacuated to a seminary school high in the Alps to escape the Allied bombings , Pino finds himself risking his life to escort Italian Jews over the precipitous heights of the mountains to sanctuary in Switzerland. This sets him on a course of danger and espionage that will echo throughout his life and the lives of his family.

It is very important to read both the foreword and the afterword that Sullivan uses to bookend his novel. Pino Lella is a real person, who is still alive as of the publication of this review. In the foreword, Sullivan details how he stumbled across the story of this unsung hero and how he managed to track Lella down and record his memories of Italy in 1944. Sullivan is also very clear that Beneath A Scarlet Sky is a work of historical fiction.  Some of the events and characters seem a little too contrived, and this has led some people to claim that the all of the events detailed within the pages of the book are therefore falsehoods. Since we only have Sullivan’s word to go on, it is left to the reader to determine what is true and what is false.

I chose to believe the story of Lella’s life. The story is told in too straightforward a manner to have been fabricated in any large part. One of the things that makes Sullivan’s novel so magnetic is that he largely avoids any subplots. He focuses on Pino Lella’s specific story with utter precision. There are few extraneous descriptions of people or scenery. We view this story through Lella’s eyes entirely, and therefore his becomes the only voice that matters. We feel his desperation as he leads terrified refugees over the dangerous alpine cliffs into safety. We are there with him as he fears for the lives of his brother, his uncle, his parents. The reader is given only as much information as Lella has. Since most of the education I was given on WWII focused on the German and Japanese fronts, this was a very informative look into what Sullivan describes as the “Forgotten Front”.

My favorite aspect of this novel is that it was utterly unpredictable. Most literature follows a relatively straightforward arc. Exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution. But real life rarely follows such simple lines, and I often felt wrong-footed while reading this novel. Characters I thought would live did not. Characters I expected to die did not. No one’s story wraps up neatly in a bow, instead it all just kind of ends. Not all heroes are remembered and not all villains get their comeuppance. Throughout the dozens if not hundreds of historical fiction written on WWII, I found this novel, with its infinite number of unanswered questions, to be one of the most haunting.

Overall, I would highly recommend this novel. I was immediately drawn into the story of Pino Lella’s life, and finished the book eager to research and learn more. Unfortunately, his story remains largely unacknowledged outside of Sullivan’s pages.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find Beneath A Scarlet Sky here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!


Book Review: Dragon Springs Road by Janie Chang (2017)

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China, 1908. Seven year old Jialing is abandoned by her mother in their run-down residence on Dragon Springs Road. Because she is zazhong, mixed race, Jialing is met with scorn and derision from her neighbors. She must rely on the residence’s new owners, the Yangs, to take her in and save her from a life of destitution.

I recently finished reading a fantastic historical novel about China during the Communist Revolution, so I went into this book very excited to explore a slightly earlier time, the China during the fall of Imperialism. However, Dragon Springs Road focuses primarily on the relationships between its characters than it does on the historical context. A major theme of the novel is the isolation and restriction of women in Imperial China. Jialing and the other main female characters are utterly powerless to control their fates. They are bought and sold like cattle in order to settle gambling debts or to fuel an opium addiction. Chang does a wonderful job of making the reader feel the futility and claustrophobia that would accompany this kind of subjugation. We feel Jialing’s desperation as she tries to seize control of her own life. We feel her hopelessness when her efforts are repulsed time and again. Chang’s novel is at its best when it focuses on the trials and triumphs of the women living in these difficult circumstances.

Where this book fell flat for me was its lack of historical context. The reader is given glimpses into what day to day life was like during this time period, but we are never really submerged in the era. I was left wanting more. For example, Jialing observes that one of the Yang women has bound feet. This detail is mentioned once, and then never brought up again. Tell me more! I want to hear about the limitations that such a deliberate disfigurement would have on a person’s life. Another example is the abdication of the last Qing emperor. The reader is given virtually no background information on this ruler or why he chose to abandon his lands. Nor does the fact that China just lost its leader carry with it any sense of urgency. It’s simply acknowledged, like a weather report.

Dragon Springs Road is an insightful glimpse into the lives of women in pre-war China. I enjoyed Chang’s depiction of the characters and their struggle to assert their own destinies. I also loved that she painted the entire novel with the softest brush of magic realism. But the novel was crying out for a greater explanation of the historical circumstances, which ultimately left me unsatisfied.

My Rating: 3/5

You can find this novel here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!