Good god, this was a perfectly gut-wrenching read. I just wrote out a bunch of nonsensical, glowing paragraphs and then deleted them because; nonsensiGood god, this was a perfectly gut-wrenching read. I just wrote out a bunch of nonsensical, glowing paragraphs and then deleted them because; nonsensical. But this is one of those novels that is a fucking experience. So much emotional verisimilitude, three-dimensional characters, extensive research, social justice-conscious but steering clear of condescendingly saccharine stereotypes. I'm from Virginia and the gorgeous, gorgeous scenery and setting depictions struck me as deeply true. This is the kind of work I'm always hoping for in historical fiction and so rarely get.
Finally got through this one (like Katherine, I put this book down somewhere in the middle and never got back to it.) This was an extremely dense, metFinally got through this one (like Katherine, I put this book down somewhere in the middle and never got back to it.) This was an extremely dense, meticulously researched mystery that was packed full of moral ambiguity. The ending is a bit rushed but still in keeping with everything that came before. I'll definitely read more of this series....more
Woo finally finished this one! It's a long book but honestly a pretty quick read. However I stalled around the middle section because the focus shifteWoo finally finished this one! It's a long book but honestly a pretty quick read. However I stalled around the middle section because the focus shifted to John of Gaunt's problems and while I understood them (yes they sound silly, but damage done to someone as a kid can have a lifelong impact) I didn't find them the most riveting reading. So I put this book down for a month and never managed to come back to it until this week. I'm glad I did, though. While not my favorite book of all time, Seton is pretty masterful at making use of all her Chekhov's guns and telling a complete story.
Katherine has always vaguely been on my to-read list. It often comes up as one of the most influential historical fiction novels, and I'm often curious about tracing trends back to their roots.
This one also gets called a romance, and romance is definitely in there. I had a clinical detachment to the Katherine and John pairing, however. For most of the book it's passionate, and I actually don't doubt that they genuinely love each other. But also more than a little unhealthy for them both. Due to the circumstances of her life, Katherine is forced to be financially and emotionally reliant on him. Due to the classism of the day and the horror show that is her first marriage, she's stuck thinking he's so much better than her. That this is her ticket out of a tedious, depressing life. John has his paternalistic streak that other reviewers have noticed. And though she helps him face his demons (and I loved that this book came down hard on the idea that a man must be stoic and detached from his partner) he also has one one hell of a temper. And, of course, their relationships with their children do suffer thanks to their obsession with one another. Even when they've finally gotten their shit together, John thinks about how his relationship with Katherine is ultimately preferable to his relationship to Blanche because... with Katherine he's the one in power, and he's the one who elevate her with money and titles. Ick.
A lot of historical fiction I've read is kind of... stuck in the trends in the previous paragraph. Authors exploring unhealthy romantic relationships, and we're supposed to care because they're royals (cue Lorde) I guess? But it doesn't feel like there's much life, there, in the characters. They're projections going along with the known historical timeline. However, Seton's choices elevate her work well beyond this common misstep. That's because this book isn't about the relationship- even though it's significant- as it is a character study of Katherine. Other than her apparently overwhelming beauty, she's not that different from many of the women around her. Up until she becomes John's mistress she leads a fairly typical life for someone of her social class. I especially loved all the passages devoted to how much work went into maintaining a manor. And Seton is very interested in examining her psyche as she grows, regresses, and matures. God, that first section of the book was almost like a horror novel. (view spoiler)[Hugh tries to sexually assault her, everyone is upset. Until he claims he wants to marry her, and then suddenly Katherine is super lucky. After all, his class is so much higher than hers! She can't expect any better! What? Katherine doesn't want to marry her attempted rapist? What an ungrateful wretch! Everyone seems to hold this opinion. Even her beloved older sister, even Duchess Blanche who is otherwise a saint. It was honestly terrifying reading this, but I think it also went a long ways to painting why Katherine felt such low self-esteem, and why she felt so damn indebted to John. As flawed as he was, the other people in her life are otherwise constantly implying that Katherine is nothing, that she can expect no better than a marriage to her attempted rapist (The characters don't really have a conception of marital rape. I'm not sure if the author even knows. But everyone around her knows that Hugh is basically a terrible person. But most of them just kind of sigh, go "poor Katherine" but consider it business as usual). John, meanwhile, gives her a way out, emotionally and financially. (hide spoiler)] A lot of reviews on here posit Katherine as overly perfect, which I think is a ... really misguided criticism. The book is sympathetic towards her, insofar as it's aware that no one wants to think of themselves as the bad guy. But the book is very open about her flaws. Case in point: I wanted to throw the book against the goddamn wall when she held Blanchette captive in order to force her into an advantageous marriage. AKA; probably knowingly leading her own child straight into the same kind of emotional abuse that Katherine herself had to endure with Hugh. But, well, it made sense given what she had had drilled into her head, and these harmful decisions go in cycles. It was very real, it was very human. Katherine might not be the most admirable of people, but this book does bring her to life.
And then, crucially, the thing that made me add on a whole other star was that bit with Julian of Norwhich. Katherine's apotheosis doesn't come from her relationship with John. It doesn't come from taking charge of Kettlethorpe (something the book kept teasing and then veering away from... until it finally came back in a very moving way. See? Chekhov's gun.) It doesn't even come from mending relationships with her oldest daughter. It comes from her mending her relationship with herself. She learns to see her flaws plainly, without aggrandizing self-hatred or denial. And she learns that she is worthy of love as an individual. Not as a person who is attached to someone else. She also works hard to maintain this epiphany. I've not read many books that go into how difficult it is to maintain one's self-worth after breaking out of a depressive episode, but here it was. And then, all her relationships and endeavors flourish after this moment. Her relationship with John almost becomes a sidenote after this revelation. It's important, and she's glad to have him, but it is so much happier and healthier after her realizations.
So, ultimately, this wasn't my FAVORITE BOOK OF ALL TIME. It's not even my favorite historical fiction. But I found that it had something new to bring to the table, despite being quite old.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
4.5 stars. Always nice to see historical fiction that steers clear of the ruling class! Given how many novels focus on the Romanovs, this one takes an4.5 stars. Always nice to see historical fiction that steers clear of the ruling class! Given how many novels focus on the Romanovs, this one takes an especially refreshing alternate POV. There's some gorgeous writing here, and it feels very timely and immediate. ...more
Ahhh this was a very refreshing read. It sort of has the same themes as other historical fiction such as The Heretic Queen (or The Other Boleyn Girl)Ahhh this was a very refreshing read. It sort of has the same themes as other historical fiction such as The Heretic Queen (or The Other Boleyn Girl) but I thought it was a lot more psychologically complex than most books with this type of subject. A lot of the struggles between Ahmose and Mutnofret reminded me of non-fiction I've read about present day polygamist practices, and the toll that can take on families that practice it. Also, I LOVED that Ahmose was presented at first as The Obviously Smarter Ruler as compared to Mutnofret, and how the book kind of subverted it. Yes, Ahmose does eventually prove to be a capable leader... But she gets sidetracked for a while by the trappings of power, and goes off on something of a megalomaniac trip for a while. As probably can be expected when you hand all the power in the world to a 14-year-old! Also loved how Thutmose could be a great ruler to his country and kind to his wives for a while, but also generally a failure at meeting both their needs. And how Mutnofret could be an absolute terror, but is she really that WRONG for being angry? I don't think so. And the novel mostly gives her her due.
So, yeah, an absolutely fascinating clusterfuck. And this is why I prefer it to things like The Heretic's Wife. There are no obvious answers here, and I always appreciate a novel that's comfortable in its own ambiguity. ...more
This is an unusual case where I read the good reviews on here and go "right on!" and then I read the bad reviews and go "right on!"
I think I might neThis is an unusual case where I read the good reviews on here and go "right on!" and then I read the bad reviews and go "right on!"
I think I might need to reflect on this book for a bit, and maybe come back at a later date with a more substantial review. For the moment I will say this essay is a wonderful examination of this book's themes. ...more
This is honestly one of the most satisfying 'historical fiction novels set in biblical times' type novels I've ever read. The characters are vibrantlyThis is honestly one of the most satisfying 'historical fiction novels set in biblical times' type novels I've ever read. The characters are vibrantly, compellingly human. Longfellow gets into some of the apocryphal claims (that Mary and Jesus were especially beloved of one abother) but this is also a very human telling of the story. The author takes great pains to illuminate the historical context these characters lived in and, as such, they really come alive. Early on in her life, Mary Magdalene ends up caught up in some very revolutionary political sects, culminating in Jesus's philosophies and how they compel AND alienate most of the people they meet. By emphasizing the incendiary nature of what the characters are doing, Longfellow sketches these people in as complex people who clearly care about the world around them, and have no idea what's going to happen next. This has the result of making this novel into one hell of a page turner... even if you know how the story will end! ...more
This book had several things working in its favor,if you're looking for something a little different. It's set in Ancient Rome and focuses on VespasiaThis book had several things working in its favor,if you're looking for something a little different. It's set in Ancient Rome and focuses on Vespasian- a nice deviation from the Julio-Claudians and the five good emperors. (Granted large swathes of time take place during the Julio-Claudians' reign, but it was nice to not have them as the focus. Not really.) As another unique choice, the main character turns out to be a slave who rises to the middle class. Granted, Caenis was fortunate enough to work for a very wealthy patron and receive an education, but one of the subplots of this book is the ways in which living as a slave- even one who has all their basic needs met- can be damaging to one's psyche. In a genre that focuses far too much on the rich and the powerful for my taste sometimes, this was a nice change of pace.
The books major fault is that paragraphs upon paragraph are devoted to the recitation of historical events, seemingly shifting far away from the POV of any of the main characters. It was aggravating to read a very powerful few pages in which the protagonists were fully engaged... only to have events grind to a halt with Ancient History 101. And it was doubly a shame because Davis really has a talent for conveying what living during tumultuous times can be like. The character gossip and fear what the emperors will do next, but they also plan marriages, fuss over children, live in crappy apartments, and wonder where their next paycheck will come from. It feels weirdly complementary to present times. If she could have better integrated this wonderful aspect of the book with the history lesson, this would have been a five star read.
And of course this book is pretty romantic at the heart of it. The love story is sweet and unpretentious and I bought their affection for one another. Glad I spent time on this book....more
I realized as I was downloading the audio book version, that this is the same person who's one of the scriptwriters for Game of Thrones. GAHHHHHH I caI realized as I was downloading the audio book version, that this is the same person who's one of the scriptwriters for Game of Thrones. GAHHHHHH I cannot escape that series.
Anyway. If you're in a "war is hell" mood (which is where I seem to be, lately), this book will do the trick. The brutality is right there from the very beginning, and it never relents. Which, um, is probably a good thing when you're writing about the Siege of Leningrad! Benioff is skilled with combining consistently bleak material with some shockingly hilarious stuff, which I wasn't expecting. Every few pages something would happen that would have me cracking up for half a minute. Koyla's over the top nature contrasts amazingly well with Lev's deadpan snarkiness. The book is also compulsively readable. I probably could have finished it in one night if I hadn't needed to catch some sleep.
I got back an forth on whether I believe the ending or not- one moment in particular seemed a little convenient for me, given what came before, and in some ways it felt like Benioff had written himself into a corner. Still, it didn't bug me, really. The only part where I felt the author had screwed up bigtime was when the two main characters are in a cabin with a couple of women forced into prostitution. They have a discussion about which of the women they'd most like to sleep with. Again, this would be pretty harmless under most contexts, but it occurs minutes after they hear that the women knew a girl whose feet had been sawed off to keep her from running. I appreciate irreverence and gallows humor, but the presentation of this moment struck such a false note.
Otherwise, the main characters are well drawn. For such a short book, one really gets a sense of Lev and Kolya, where they came from, why they are the way they are. The friendship that develops between the two of them (and Vika, later) is well-earned. I'm glad I read this one.
And to tie it back to Game of Thrones, I now have yet another reason to want to fast forward to the second season now, to see how Benioff et al handle A Clash of Kings. The themes there strike me as quite similar. ...more
Fun historical mystery. Marred somewhat by moments of awkward writing. In particular, I refer to the passage around 75% of the way in during which theFun historical mystery. Marred somewhat by moments of awkward writing. In particular, I refer to the passage around 75% of the way in during which the narrator drones on and on and on and on about the Social Wars and Sulla versus Marius. Prior to this moment the author had seamlessly mixed historical exposition and original plot. Docking half a point for this, I was so annoyed. My wrath, this review can haz it.
There's lots to like about this, though. Cicero is as 'gray and gray morality' as he seems to be in all fictional incarnations in which I've encountered him. It's especially fun to see him as a (reckless, arrogant) young man at very beginning of his career. As narrators go, I rather like Gordianus (his "hangover cure, do you haz one?" intro seemed overdone, but he promptly calmed down, so no real harm dine) and I'm sticking with the series on that account. Tiro was pretty great and Bethesda shows promise; withholding judgement there, because her serene attitude towards slavery and... Well, everything, all seemed a bit too convenient. The mystery itself is engaging, though sometimes feels like a prop for (surprise, shock) the larger social upheaval at hand. Frankly, I think I prefer it that way. Crimes that seem to exist in a vacuum bore me.
Overall, this is a vivid and fast read, for better or for worse. Thankfully, more of the former!...more
Because I have a short reading attention span, reading Cleopatra: A Life reminded me that I had this book on my mental to-read list. And today I decidBecause I have a short reading attention span, reading Cleopatra: A Life reminded me that I had this book on my mental to-read list. And today I decided to take a detour into reading Cleopatra's Daughter before resuming that one. I wasn't super impressed with Nefertiti; in presentation, it struck me as a warmed over The Other Boleyn Girl... this time in Egypt! (And with a more interesting main character, to be fair.) Still, I have been curious about Cleopatra Selene for some time now and historical fiction is like my literary comfort food. tl;dr: I was totally destined to read this someday and, hurray!, this book proved to be well worth my while.
I will say that I was frustrated in some points; some of the character are tiresome caricatures and boring tropes, sticking out like sore thumbs among the more well-developed ones. Likewise, Moran's writing style is a puzzle to me, wherein stronger emotions occasionally fall flat. Nothing comes across as maudlin, but she had an unenviable task considering the sheer number of tragedies in Selene's life. Also, and this is probably petty, but I rather wish this book had been a duology. I really wanted to read about Selene's life after the time span covered in this book, because it's some pretty fascinating stuff. As it stands, the ending feels a bit abrupt, and I think a chapter or two more wouldn't have hurt.
Still, Cleopatra's Daughter is compulsively readable and ridiculously entertaining. Prickly, conscientious Selene is an appealing heroine, and a number of the side characters are equally interesting. Julia in particular steals the show, and I was so glad that the author made her and Selene have a somewhat complicated relationship. (Actually, and this might have been because I was just reading this books, I was slightly reminded of Gemma and Felicty from A Great and Terrible Beauty. This is a good thing!)
Moran is also pretty decent about sticking to historical fact. She does invent a slave uprising out of whole cloth, but this didn't bother me. It fit well into the climate of the day, and it didn't come across as the author going "well I think THIS should have happened instead!" Furthermore, Cleopatra's Daughter does a pretty damn decent job of developing the character's personalities, rather than merely going from point A to B in history.
This is more like a 4.5. Pretty much a perfect rainy day read! ...more