Sarah's Reviews > Changeling

Changeling by Philippa Gregory
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Jul 31, 2012

it was ok
Read in July, 2012

Philippa Gregory has tried her hand at writing a young adult historical fiction book, only a slight departure from her other historical efforts. This time, though, the characters have nothing to do with either the Tudors or even England. I'm not convinced of the overall success of this enterprise, however.
(Possible spoilers ahead. Read at your own peril. Alternatively, read on to be forewarned.)

Let's start with characters:
Our heroine, Isolde, is introduced in the first chapter, as a young lady who has had somewhat more freedom than her average contemporary, and whose indulgent father is dying. Moments after his death, she is told by her supposedly kind brother that she will not inherit half the estate (as she and her father had agreed) but will either marry an old, fat pervert or be the Abbess of a nearby abbey. There is an attempted rape by said fat man (in which her brother's implicit approval is noted) and then she decides to go to the abbey to escape the horrors of her life to come.
At the abbey, despite allegedly being RAISED TO MANAGE AN ESTATE, she completely shuts down (partly out of grief, of course, but more out of authorial laziness), closes herself off from the world (except for her maid/friend/slave/token non-white character) and lets the abbey start to fall apart with horrible visions and stigmata. Throughout the book, she does nothing useful. Nothing. She is pretty and sad and needs to be rescued – even planning to go to Wallachia to get a man to help her. Oh, and she has a maid-friend that is a human Swiss Army Knife.

Our hero, Luca, was born in mysterious circumstances and given to a monastery in mysterious circumstances and has a mysterious way of looking at the world (hint: evidence- and fact-based calculations. HERESY!). In fact, his idea that FACTS are a way to prove/disprove things almost lands him in the martyrs' permanent penalty box, but instead gets him a role of Fear Investigator. Other than that, I have nothing to say about Luca.

There are a few other characters, too. I almost hate to mention them.

Ishraq is a Moor, raised since the age of seven by Isolde's father, but she retains a bone-deep affiliation with her, ahem, “culture.” Otherwise known as Plot Device, since she knows everything that needs to be known at the time it needs to happen. Need an expert archer? Ishraq can do it. Need an expert in medicine? Ishraq's on the case! Need an herbalist? Ishraq is a walking Field Guide to Medicinal, Heretical, and Vision-Granting Plants. Need to pan for gold? Ishraq knows the best way to do it. Need to disappear from a locked room, chained to the wall? Ishraq is part ninja. But you cannot touch her, foolish mortal man! For Ishraq is also well-versed in hand-to-hand combat and apparently Greco-Roman wrestling. (I find it particularly troublesome that the ONLY dark-skinned person is also the only character to have the insinuation of “magic dark person” follow them around.)

Frieze, Luca's companion, is the unfortunately-named Comic Relief. (I like to think his middle and last names are Bas Relief.) He's also freakishly good with animals. ALL animals. Even, ahem, werewolves.

Peter is the stodgy old guy. The Wet Blanket. The Mysterious Guide who never guides them anywhere but whose job it is to hold pre-written, "open at this date" missives for Luca and Company. (Yes, the Church knows ahead of time where heresies are going to spring up and when. So they'll send a seventeen year-old kid out with his doofus friend and Signore Crankypants to deal with them.)

Okay. So the characters are...not so good.

How about the plot?
This book (my HC edition) is about 260 pages long. You would think that, in a book that length, in which nuns are having stigmata-inducing visions, people are about to be burned at the stake, werewolves allegedly exist, and there is a massive secret society dedicated to finding real heresies and terrors, that this would be a bullet-fast book.
You would be wrong.
The book feels written to be internally episodic, meaning that each piece of the narrative and each crucial plot turn is an end of itself. There is a primacy of “setting + plot” over “character + motivation.” So we have the “Damsel in distress loses her father, her future, and her inheritance and almost gets raped” in one episode. “Hero gets taken from prison and inducted into Super Secret Society” in another. “Mystery at the Abbey” is one particularly long episode. Then there is “Hijinks on the Road,” the glue that brides the “Abbey” episode to “Is this a werewolf? I’m not telling!!” episode. Honestly, each plot segment got sillier than the previous one. The werewolf one was really the crème of the crap. (No, that’s not a typo.)
Each episode is engaging enough of itself that you want to know how it ends, but the resolutions are almost uniformly a let-down.

Details and Setting:
Once you start to look closer, you’ll start to be bothered by other things. Individual details start to nag and irritate, especially if you have the slightest grasp of medieval history.
"I'm not misogynistic, honest!"
Isolde’s abbey is a monastery-plus-nunnery. The men around act like it’s a scandal for a WOMAN to run such an institution. While women certainly weren’t the ruling class of the time, and women leaders were the exception and not the rule, abbeys such as these were USUALLY run by a woman, and the Abbesses of these institutions were usually high-born (or long-serving) women that were well-respected in their communities (in which they mingled and acted as a kind of local leader/figurehead). After all, high-born women were often trained from childhood to manage estates, like Isolde allegedly was. However, she shows no understanding of how to lead people. She complains that her birthright was taken from her, and that she knows how to take care of people, but she shows no ability to manage anyone. There is a rampant amount of misogyny throughout, spoken by many male characters but NOTHING the *white* protagonist does refutes anything they say. She cannot lead people. She has no grasp of the finances or state of the abbey. She cannot control or govern people, not even nuns who have taken a vow of obedience. She cannot take care of herself or do anything without the conveniently-close and helpful Luca and Company. Bah.

Heresy in a Foreigner: Several times Ishraq does something that makes all those around her suspicious or afraid. One major event is consider completely evil, and is first attributed to the ever-so-pretty-and-useless Isolde, for which she [Isolde] should die a heretic’s death. Once it’s discovered that Plot Device did it, though, Luca actually says “She’s not a Christian, so she’s not under the church’s jurisdiction.” I’m sorry? Did I read that right? I’m fairly certain that if you committed a crime of that magnitude, your religion wouldn’t matter. It would be like saying today “You want to sell children as slaves? That’s SO not okay – oh, it’s part of your religion? Nevermind then. We have no jurisdiction here.” It almost made my brain break.

(MASSIVE SPOILERS IN THIS SECTION- TURN AWAY NOW)

Superstition and Werewolves:
There is a whole theme about superstition and how it's Bad because the Fear of Superstition prevents you from seeing the Fact-based Truth. This is why nobody thought to question anyone in the nunnery about the stigmata and the hallucination-like visions. This is ALSO why, when a "werewolf" is spotted in a village, the villagers can't identify a beast that has a "mane" and walks "sometimes on two legs, sometimes on four." Okay. I didn't have a frickin' clue what was going on in this episode. I should have realized that, in a world where a Moorish girl, raised by Christians since age seven, can keep her cultural identity and study all the Moorish (read: heretical) studies IN SPANISH UNIVERSITIES (brain...shattering...) without anyone thinking a thing of it, then a four year-old boy could wander off into the woods and be raised by wolves, forget how to WALK UPRIGHT, become so filthy he was unrecognizable as human, but could remember how to talk. You know why no one could tell he was a dirty eleven year-old? Superstition.
FYI - that sound you hear is your own brain overheating. I would put some ice on that if I were you.

(END SPOILERS)


Honestly, I didn’t really realize the amount of Fail in this book until I started writing this review. Holy cow.

Summary:
I blazed through it in a few hours, I liked it.
I wrote this review; I like it at lot less now.

I’m donating my copy to the local library so it can misinform the next generation about life in the middle ages.
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message 1: by Em (new) - rated it 1 star

Em Interesting. I didn't like this book, but I didn't know about the historical inaccuracies. I actually am ok with characters being sexist in historical fiction, because it's usually obvious that it's not ok and that they're a product of their time. I'm not ok with it in modern fiction unless it's made known that it's not cool, which a lot of modern fiction fails at because it is purely misogynist. However, I didn't know that there was no reason for the men to feel so scandalous toward the nunnery. I'm not that knowledgeable on this time period. I just want to ask Philippa why.


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