Asenath by Anna Patricio. 2011, 144 pages, Imajin Books
Anna Patricio’s debut novel follows the life of the title character, an Egyptian woman living a...moreAsenath by Anna Patricio. 2011, 144 pages, Imajin Books
Anna Patricio’s debut novel follows the life of the title character, an Egyptian woman living around 1500 BCE. Part rags-to-riches tale, part Biblical fiction, the book charts Asenath’s transformation from an orphan of an impoverished fishing village to her adoption by aristocratic parents and her rise into the Egyptian upper class. Along the way, she meets the Hebrew man Joseph (the same Joseph from the Bible) and falls in love with him, eventually becoming his loving wife.
Asenath is a sympathetic and sweet character, kind and ethical without ever coming across as saccharine or goody-two-shoes. The book is a fast read with a quick-moving plot, with continually developing subplots to keep the reader hooked until the end. I enjoyed the clever ways Asenath’s presence was wound into the familiar scenes of the Biblical Joseph story, and the relationship between Asenath and her adoptive parents was often funny and touching.
There were a few historical inaccuracies – deben/coin money, for example, was not used in Egypt until several hundred years later; rather goods were obtained by trade or with vouchers for bread and beer, the state currency of the day. The narrative and dialogue, while accessible for modern readers, often felt too modern for the ancient setting.
Patricio’s writing style is trim and spare, with minimal description provided and much left to the imagination of the reader. This frequently gave the impression of skimming over the story rather than being immersed in it, and if not for the personable main character I may not have liked this book as well. My preference as a reader is for more descriptive imagery, particularly in historical fiction, which I read in order to deeply experience other cultures, times, and places. However, this is a personal preference. Many readers become frustrated by authors who spend too many words on description and prefer a book with an engaging main character and a story that moves at a spanking pace. Those readers, and fans of Biblical fiction, should thoroughly enjoy Asenath.
(Book obtained/reason for review: Given to me as a free ARC in exchange for an honest review.)
I waffled quite a bit on how to rate this book and finally settled on an even three stars.
Nefertiti is an enjoyable book, accessible and readable with...moreI waffled quite a bit on how to rate this book and finally settled on an even three stars.
Nefertiti is an enjoyable book, accessible and readable with a cast of characters that feel familiar and therefore comfortable. Nefertiti is a volatile, haughty young woman who starts out willing to serve her politically potent family's ends, but quickly gets ideas of her own, and runs away with the reins of Egypt in her hands. Her sister Mutnodjmet is placid and eager to please, and quickly allows herself to become her father's tool in an attempt to pull Nefertiti back into the family's control. Akhenaten is unpredictable and strange, and this is probably my favorite fictional portrayal of one of Egypt's most stand-out kings.
I especially liked the scenes between Nefertiti and Kiya. There was enjoyable tension between the two wives, and they went to entertaining lengths to outdo each other. The scenes featuring both women were the most vivid for me -- and though it's been a few years since I read this novel, I still recall the moments where Kiya subtly taunts Nefertiti, and the scene where Nefertiti double-pierces her ears in an attempt to outdo her rival!
While I read through the book quickly and eagerly enough (always a good sign), I did find myself unable to love it as much as I wanted to.
The writing style was a bit more simplistic and pat than I prefer, feeling more like a narrative voice appropriate to YA or even MG fiction. (Some months after reading this book, I did find out that it had a dual promotional campaign to reach both YA and adult readers, so perhaps this was apropos.)
The characters changed very little, which is not necessarily a flaw, but again, not what I prefer in my reading experience. I often found the characters to be so familiar that I could predict their actions before they happened, and this always leaves me with a slight sense of disappointment. (I subscribe more to the George Martin school of thought, where characters continually surprise -- and die -- at unpredictable moments.)
As an Egyptian history nut and an author of Egyptian fiction myself, I was disappointed with certain historical details. The characters were depicted using a form of currency that did not exist during the Amarna period, and it felt like quite a stretch the way the author attempted to link the development of certain modern words (I won't say which ones, because I want to keep this review spoiler-free!) with an Egyptian etymology. I felt many times as I read Nefertiti that the research could have been tighter.
Finally, I found certain details of the plot to skirt rather close to Philippa Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl. I am by no means saying I think Ms. Moran copied Gregory's book, but Nefertiti did feel strongly inspired by it, so that I was left at the end with the impression that I'd read this same story before. I would have hoped for a newer twist on the "ambitious young woman inspires her slightly crazy royal husband to commit grievous political blunders and almost ruins their country in the process" line. But of course, when one's building fiction off of real history, one has only so many plausible options.
All things considered, Nefertiti is a worthy read, a good book for a vacation, and has some memorable scenes. (less)
Boy...I am surprised at how many people here gave this book a low rating and claimed it was "social commentary on women" or that the author obviously...moreBoy...I am surprised at how many people here gave this book a low rating and claimed it was "social commentary on women" or that the author obviously has a low opinion of women or portrays women negatively. Really? Did we read the same book? This book is full of strong and admirable female characters...and even some not-so-admirable female characters who still cannot be said to be dumb, small-brained, only interested in sex, or any other misrepresentation slung about here in these reviews.
Maia is a fantasy novel by virtue of the fact that it's set in an imaginary place, but that's where the fantasy elements end. Otherwise, it's more likely to appeal to fans of historical fiction, with its focus on political intrigue, plots within plots, and the fates of rulers -- and their concubines. (Maybe that's why I found it so palatable. Rather than seeing it as some kind of condescension toward women, it strikes me as fitting right in with the rest of the historical fiction I love to read.)
The book is long, and Adams occasionally becomes long-winded, going into meandering digressions about various characters' histories. But the characters are so interesting and Adams' writing is so typically picturesque that it never bothered me enough to remove this book from my shelf. (In fact, I had three hardcover copies of this out-of-print gem, and I treasured them, but neglected to rescue them from my ex-husband's house when I moved out. :( )
The big strength of this book is its various characters, all of whom are well-painted and memorable. Contrary to what other reviewers thought, I found Maia to be not dumb or simple but compelling in her innocence and sweetness. She is sometimes naive, but she is earnest and kind, and when faced with a terrible situation (such as, for example, being sold into sexual slavery) rather than withering up and dying she adapts to her new world with the most positive attitude she can muster. As the novel progresses she grows a little older and a little wiser, and finally comes into her own as a heroic, brave young woman, willing to put her life on the line to save innocent lives. She's a main character worth rooting for, even if she's not perfect.
Occula is another female character who exudes confidence and power from the first moment she appears on the page. She is intelligent, cunning, possessed of great inner strength and patience that would make a monk envious. Occula is one of the most memorable characters in all of fiction, in my opinion, and for reviewers to write her obvious importance out entirely by saying that this book portrays a poor view of women is just ridiculous. This book wouldn't be what it is without Occula. She is integral to the plot and to the development of so many other characters and their subplots. I have a hard time imagining a sexist author would write such a character into his book. Or at least, a sexist author would "punish" such a character in some way for the mere fact of her greatness -- but on the contrary, Occula arrives in Bekla under her own terms, serves where she means to serve, and, in the end, gets exactly what she wants in exactly the way she wants it, and ends up fabulously wealthy and happy as a clam. This doesn't seem like the creation of a sexist writer.
Maia is a long, sensory, in-depth journey through Adams' fictional world, and the reader is guided by a host of fascinating characters. Don't pass this one up, especially if you love Adams' other works or if you are a fan of character-dense historical fiction.(less)
The fact that I was raised in an LDS family probably has something to do with my liking for this book, although I am not a religious person anymore. H...moreThe fact that I was raised in an LDS family probably has something to do with my liking for this book, although I am not a religious person anymore. However, Saints is more than just "Mormon fiction" or even "religious fiction." It's really good historical fiction, and if you're a fan of the genre you owe it to yourself to read this book.
It was written early in Card's career, before he began (in my opinion) phoning it in. Saints comes from the same inspired, energetic, ultra-creative Orson Scott Card who gave us Wyrms, Hart's Hope, and the Alvin Maker series, not to mention Ender's Game and his exceptional early-career short fiction.
Like his other works from the same era, Saints is astonishingly vivid, in terms of both prose and atmosphere. It paints a gritty, dark scene of Industrial England, with all its societal injustices; and set atop this canvas is the tragic portrait of a family of good people slowly being torn apart. The subtle darkness and deep emotion are pure classic Card, as is the delicacy of the writing. Before the phone-it-in phase, Card was the best of the best at character development, particularly through dialog; and the interactions between the Kirkham family as they strive for their own identities and desires make for a priceless study in character.
The latter portion of the book takes place in America, once some of the Kirkhams have left England to join up with the "Saints" -- the other members of the fledgling Mormon Church. As a no-longer-Mormon, I found it just a tad amusing that a novel written by a staunch Mormon took such liberties in portraying the characters of important Church founders, such as Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. They were not always portrayed in the most favorable light -- which is only a testament to how good Card's writing was during this phase of his career. It would have been easy for this author to make these characters virtually infallible, but Card was better back then at creating real characters. The fact that he chose to portray Smith, Young, and others as men with real, often serious personality flaws speaks to the quality of the reading experience and this novel's deserved place among the best historical novels.
What keeps this one from being a full-on five stars? Two things.
First, in the final fifth or sixth of the book it begins to feel a bit too much like a sermon for this nonbeliever's taste. The majority of the book is excellent, engaging, exceptionally-written historical fiction. The final small chunk goes a bit too religious; but by then, I was too invested in the characters to stop reading.
Second, as good as Card is at creating believable characters (in this work and others), Dinah has a personality change that just doesn't jive with the way her character is established early on. Dinah is portrayed from the get-go as a critical thinker, skeptical and in need of seeing some serious evidence before she'll believe anything anybody tells her. In fact, her rocky relationship with her father seems to have been put into the novel specifically to set her up as the most skeptical character in the book. But once she hears the Mormon message, she is instantly ready to believe it without further evidence.
Undoubtedly Card intended the reader to grasp the inherent believability of the Mormon missionaries' message specifically BECAUSE Dinah is such a critical thinker. We're to think, "If Dinah can believe it so easily, then any of these characters can believe it." Alas for Card, the trick doesn't come off so well. He does such a fine job of establishing Dinah's skepticism early on that her instant acceptance of the message and her total willingness to make enormous personal sacrifices to travel to America and become a Saint come off as being totally out of character.
(As an aside, there is some focus in the latter part of the novel on the urgency the men felt in spreading the "doctrine" of polygamy amongst their congregation. Many readers will find this highly unpalatable, but as a fan of historical fiction, and as a person with a fairly in-depth knowledge of the history of the Mormon church, I found this to be one of the most interesting parts of the book. The "doctrine" was a major sticking point in the church's early development, broke it into factions, and ultimately affected the history not only of the church but of our nation -- read up on the State of Deseret and Brigham Young's very interesting/disturbing life -- and his conflicts with President Buchanan -- for a real eye-opener! I thought giving polygamy such weight in this novel was a smart move...rather than making the book "more Mormon," it made the book more relevant to American history.)
Well, no author is perfect, nor is any book. Saints' flaws are minor in comparison to its strengths, and Dinah is quickly back to her clear-headed self, and the story resumes in a satisfying way with only the slight residual discomfort of having gone over a kind of character speed bump. I still rank Saints among my favorite historical novels, and certainly among my favorite books by Orson Scott Card.(less)
You can't approach this book as historical fiction. It may focus on the last part of Cleopatra IV's life, but it is too dissimilar in tone and deliver...moreYou can't approach this book as historical fiction. It may focus on the last part of Cleopatra IV's life, but it is too dissimilar in tone and delivery to historical fiction. This is not a genre work; it is pure literary fiction, and it's about as literary as it gets.
Told through the translating pen of a scribe who is interpreting the works of a man who took down dictation for an aging/dying Cleopatra (if memory serves me), the book itself was originally written in Mexican Spanish and translated into English for the American market. This leads to a sensory tangle of words (intentional and unintentional) that may overwhelm some readers. But those who love to read literary works in order to be carried away by a river of images will love it.
The essence of the plot, sparse though it is, is a recounting of Cleopatra's memories as she looks back on her life with some pain and regret. But the strength of the book -- and its actual point, I believe -- is its brilliant, powerful writing, filtered through all these fictional and actual translators until it becomes a study in the potency of pure emotion. It leaves you not with the experience of having lived an adventuresome life, as a straight historical novel might, but rather with the feeling that you have felt all the urgency, desperation, and futility of a once-powerful, now-fallen leader as she contemplates the end, and what that end means.
It's a powerful book, and it's not for everybody.(less)