While working long hours last Fall, I slowly made my way through Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree by Tariq Ali. Set in 15th Century Spain, a family of Muslim landowners cope with Ferdinand and Isabella’s Reconquista.
I am always excited to read a tale from Long Ago & Far Away. Unfortunately, this one was a struggle.
For the first half of the book, it was difficult to know which character was the protagonist. Most of this portion is back story, or story within story. Who am I supposed to care about? I nearly put it down but hung in there because of what I had already invested. I love books set in other cultures and I accept that the target audience might be more accustom to the slower pace. So, thinking it could just be me, and not wanting to miss out, I slogged on.
Then things got more interesting and focused on two characters.
Then everyone died.
Except one fellow.
And the whole thing felt like a setup for the next phase of his life. A sequel?
The book is part of the Islam Quintet – a series by Mr. Ali. But the next book is not a sequel. It’s a story about Saladin – who is not a part of Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree. As far as I can tell, we don’t ever get back to this story.
The problem is structure and focus. I love the idea of the book, but it meanders and then ends. Clearly Mr. Ali wants us to care about the loss of a centuries-old culture. But it’s the lives of people which draw readers in and I couldn’t care about anyone because the story is everywhere at once and therefore emotionally nowhere.
I wanted so much to love it. I may be willing to try the others in the series simply because I want them to be good.
Stephanie Dray’s Lily of the Nile, is an imaginative rendering of Cleopatra Selene’s formative tween years. Selene, daughter of theCleopatra and Mark Anthony, was raised in the Roman household of Caesar Augustus after his triumph over her parents led them to commit suicide.
Rough start for a kid. But Dray’s Selene is no ordinary princess.
I usually resist anything suspect of girlishness but had picked up the book at the Historical Novel Society’s 2013 conference after hearing Ms. Dray talk about her work. Having recently read Wilbur Smith’s River God and The Quest, I figured I should get the last of my ancient Egypt stack taken care of. Although Lily of the Nile mostly takes place in Rome, the protagonist fits in my Egypt category.
I was pleasantly surprised at the unsentimental nature of Dray’s work and her ability to embed the historical context within an engaging story. I confess to an irresponsible lack of knowledge about the times and events so I was at Ms. Dray’s mercy for the facts but came away feeling better inform on all levels: people, events, culture and worldview.
Three areas of particular note:
1. Culture clash: I’d never given thought to how cold and rigid Roman culture must have felt to the conquered peoples. Selene’s Ptolemaic Egypt now seems the perfect foil to Augustus’ masculine authoritarianism.
And Dray’s representation of Isis worship in conflict with Roman religion was eye-opening. I’d always thought of Rome as primarily universalist – as long as the official gods were publicly honored. Dray makes it clear why the Romans might have seen Isis as a threat to their ordered social strata.
2. The Isis faith: Before reading Wilbur Smith’s stories mentioned above, I knew next to nothing about Isis or any of the Egyptian religions. In Lily of the Nile, Stephanie Dray does an excellent job of showing how the Isis religion may have contributed to the receptivity of Christianity and it’s eventual expression. Since Sunday School, I was taught that Rome’s Pax Romana paved the way for Christianity by facilitating the swift spread of ideas. I have some understanding of Hellenistic influence on the early church, and have a better-than-average awareness of other influences on the historical development of Christianity, but I was not aware of an active Egyptian religion contemporary with the birth of Jesus which preached love, appealed to the downtrodden and had a “Queen of Heaven” at the center. Okay, Isis also married her brother and included temple prostitution and magic in her cult. So there are plenty of differences. But after Dray’s portrayal of Isis it is hard to miss the universal tendency of human felt need for a Mother figure.
3. Dabbling in Fantasy: As with Wilbur Smith’s The Quest, Dray’s Lily of the Nile allows the magic of the worldview to manifest itself in the “real life” of the historical fiction. Maybe Smith’s The Quest prepared me for it here since I found it less disconcerting in Dray’s work. Possibly I was more jarred by it in The Quest because Smith’s earlier work, River God, with the same characters, did not blur the lines of genre. Suddenly, finding myself in a fantasy world threw me for several hundred pages. In reading reviews of The Quest and Lily of the Nile some readers are seriously put off by this genre mashup. I do not have a problem with it in principle – hey, we’re primarily telling fun stories here – as long as I feel prepared for it in some way. Since I don’t read back covers, synopses or reviews before reading, I take a bit of a risk when I venture in unaware. But I think that’s my own problem, not the writer’s, if there has been some hint beforehand.
I’d like to know what others think about this question. I love a story that goes deep into the worldview of the characters, but how do you feel about blurring the genre lines between historical fiction and fantasy? Historical fiction is fraught with plenty of debate already. (How much are you allowed to make up or change “history”?). I suspect some folks will want to keep the categories tight. I’m more inclined to let imaginations run wild as long as we all know we are reading fiction, in spite of my own experienced disconcertion. I do think the reader needs some kind of “heads up” though. How much of the supernatural should be there before labeling the book with a sub-genre?
Lily of the Nile: Recommended
If you would like to read story synopses and reviews for Lily of the Nile, check out the following links:
In my efforts to expand my exposure to Long Ago & Far Away historical fiction, it was past time that I read some Wilbur Smith. His novels of ancient Egypt intrigued me so I picked up River God and ventured in – as always without reading the back cover, reviews, etc.
From the first page I knew that Smith was writing my kind of historical fiction: accent on adventure and mostly fictitious main characters allowing lots of room to play. I am observing that, the more locked to historical figures, the more difficult it is to craft a satisfying story. (Though the likes of Sharon Kay Penman and C. W. Gortner do it with aplomb). Call me low-brow but I like heroes and villains and adventure rooted in some other world than ours – historical fiction, fantasy, sci-fi, etc. For historical fiction I want the context to be accurate but after that, I just want a good story.
So, River God: the most compelling aspect of this work is not so much the story as the voice of the main character. Our first-person hero, Taita, borders on the fantastical – no, is fantastical. He is a Renaissance Man in extreme: playwright, architect, administrator, military strategist, physician, mural painter, jeweler, hydraulic engineer, embalmer, musician – what have I missed? There are chariot battles, damsels in distress and adventures into sub-Saharan Africa. I know so little about the history or geography that, besides the epic exaggerations, I had to largely take Smith at his word on the basic facts. But it’s Taita’s voice that carries this book. His voice will stay with me when the story is forgotten.
Imagine my shock when I opened The Quest and found a third-person narrative, mostly in Taita’s point of view, but also from other characters and even much use of the omniscient. I had skipped two books in the series, so I knew there would be story I’d missed and I expected subtle changes in the author’s style but I grieved the loss of Taita’s voice for 100 pages before I finally let it go.
Also, by the time you reach The Quest, there has been a shift in genre from imaginative historical adventure to what is essentially a fantasy set in ancient Egypt/Africa. Taita is no longer simply skilled at everything. In the interim he has become a mage and a long-liver. Rather than the natural enemy of an invading force (River God) Taita is now pitted against a thousand year old witch.
I read fantasy so it should have been easy to make the transition, but it took me about as long to let the historicity go as it did to relinquish Taita’s voice. I do not want to be the one to pigeon-hole writers into strict genre distinctions but I really struggled with it. I like historical characters to take on as much of their own worldview as I can possibly comprehend, and the people of ancient Egypt would understand the world very differently from me, but that’s not what The Quest is. The Quest is fantasy – best to make that mental switch in your head before you start page one.
It would be interesting to read the interim books and observe when and how Smith makes this transition. I suspect it is gradual and would not have shocked me so if I had read the progression as written. I’d love to hear from folks who have read all four to learn if this is the case or if The Quest was a leap in style and or genre.
And, a warning about The Quest: this story is sexually visceral. For the most part, the sexuality is rooted in the themes of power, identity and transformation that run through both books, but there were bits that seemed gratuitous.
River God: Recommended – here is it’s review page on GoodReads (interesting that the reviews are mostly divided between love it/hate it. Few in between.)
I have mentioned before that I prefer to approach a book knowing only the genre and that it is recommended by someone aware of my interests. Reading back covers, reviews and synopses prevents me from experiencing the story the way the writer intended – a deliberate unfolding of information and events.
I began The Gift of Rain in the same manner. I knew it was an historical fiction set in WWII Penang, Malaysia – nothing more. I was excited about it because I spent four years across the Malacca Straights in Sumatra and made a brief visited to Penang while in the region. I suspected the book would have a Chinese focus because the author’s name indicates a Chinese heritage. (Malaysia is primarily Malay, Chinese and Indian.) I hoped though that there would be enough Malay environment to feed my hunger for something familiar but rare in literary resources.
Unfortunately for me, The Gift of Rain takes place at the crossroads of English, Chinese and Japanese cultures. Other than the tropical weather and interspersed Malay words and food, there is little of ethnic Malay culture here.
More importantly, this book is driven by a deep psychological study of a relationship between a charismatic, middle-aged Japanese man and a coming-of-age teenage boy. The writer’s fascination with mentorship through martial arts is clear but I just could not enter into it.
Early on, I broke my habit of not peeking. I was having trouble getting into the book so I did a quick, reluctant scan of the blurbs. That intrigued me enough to me keep me going but also grieved me because that foreknowledge broke the immediacy of the first person narrative. I didn’t like knowing what the writer had not already revealed. But it did add some tension – knowing what was coming, identifying the clues along the way – and it gave me hope that I would eventually be gripped. I never really was.
I couldn’t identify with the Japanese character’s seductive power over the protagonist. (To be clear, this is emotional and cultural seduction, not physical.) I understood it and it was intellectually believable, but it didn’t do it for me. That made it difficult to remain sympathetic to the main character as he became drawn into the Japanese atrocities. It’s hard to walk with a first person protagonist when you can’t identify with his motivations.
I had several other difficulties connecting with the story. Japanese martial arts figure prominently – no attraction for me. There was little action other than about 30 pages towards the end of the book. Without more emotional connection to the story I needed something to keep me turning the page. The Japanese horrors did make me angry. That was more reason for me put the book down.
But after all of that, I still intend to read Mr. Eng’s next book, The Garden of Evening Mists – another intersection of Chinese and Japanese culture. At least I am forewarned this time. I will read it because it is set in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia where I spent an important, rare vacation in 2002. It was there that the plot of my own novel came tumbling out of my brain. Something about the cool air and the tea. I am passionate about tea and this is a plantation area. And I remain hungry for anything set in the Malay environment. The only other English language fiction I have ever read placed there is Clavell’s King Rat. (Oh, WOW, what a story!) And it is, again, about the intersection of Westerners and their Japanese oppressors with nothing of the Malay context other than a few locations, words and food references. I will also read it Mr. Eng’s next book because he is a wonderful word crafter. I am well aware that my lack of passion for The Gift of Rain is all about me and not about his skills as a writer. I understand why this book has turned heads and won awards. He deserves the accolades. Few books can capture the heart of every reader.
This brings me once again to my decision not to write starred reviews. My purpose here is to describe my response and offer my observations in case they are helpful to someone else. I would love to interact with anyone who has read the book and had a different experience. Clearly this book is a great read to the right audience.
If you are interested in psychological character studies, Chinese Malay or Japanese culture or martial arts and beautiful word-crafting – recommended.
If you want Malay culture or action adventure – not so much.
Next up: River God – Wilbur Smith (This is my first Wilber Smith read – as usual, starting with zero info ahead of time. Already fun.)
Dancing Girls Rehearsing – Photo Copyright Lausanne Davis Carpenter
I thought I would start some regional reading lists for our ready reference.
Since Central Asia has long been my personal fascination I will start there.
Here’s what I have found thus far:
Historical Fiction set in Central Asia by Asians:
Chingiz Aitmatov’s name rises to the top of any search. Aitmatov wrote in both Russian and Kirghiz. Many of his works are out of print but several are available on Amazon. Prices range from $0.01-$400.00.
White Steamship, Hodder & Stoughton Ltd (August 14, 1972). ISBN 978-0-340-15996-5 (Soviet Era Kyrgyzstan)
The White Ship, Crown Publishing Group; 1st Edition (November 1972). ISBN 978-0-517-50074-3
Tales of the Mountains and the Steppes, Firebird Pubns; Second Printing edition (June 1973). ISBN 978-0-8285-0937-4 (Soviet Era)
Ascent of Mount Fuji, Noonday Press (June 1975). ISBN 978-0-374-51215-6 (Soviet Era)
Cranes Fly Early, Imported Pubn (June 1983). ISBN 978-0-8285-2639-5
The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years, Indiana University Press (February 1, 1988). ISBN 978-0-253-20482-0 (Soviet Era Kazakhstan)
The Place of the Skull, Grove Pr; 1st edition (March 1989). ISBN 978-0-8021-1000-8
The Place of the Skull: Novel, International Academy of Sciences, Industry, Education & Arts (USA) (2000). ISBN 978-5-7261-0062-3
Time to Speak, International Publishers (May 1989). ISBN 978-0-7178-0669-0 The time to speak out (Library of Russian and Soviet literary journalism), Progress Publishers (1988). ISBN 978-5-01-000495-8 (Genre unclear)
Mother Earth and Other Stories, Faber and Faber (January 8, 1990). ISBN 978-0-571-15237-7 (Soviet Era Kyrgyzstan)
Jamila, Telegram Books (January 1, 2008). ISBN 978-1-84659-032-0 (World War II,Caucasus)
The Blue Sky: (translation in print from Der blaue Himmel, 1994)- Galsin Tschinag. (1940s Communist Mongolia).
Tschinag was from the Altai mountains of western Mongolia and wrote in German.
Wolf Totem – Rong Jiang (pseudomnym for Lu Jiamin) A bestseller in China, the story takes place in Mongolia – multiple periods.
The Railway– Set in 1900-1980 Uzbekistan by Uzbek writer: Hamid Ismailov
Of course Khaled Hosseini’s three novels set in Afghanistan (Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns and, most recently, And the Mountains Echoed) are not to be missed even though they are set in the current milieu.
Central Asian Historical Fiction by Non-Central Asians:
I Rode a Horse of Milk White Jade – Diane Wilson (YA) (14th Century China)
The Conqueror Series (Five book saga of Ghengis Khan/Kublai Khan – 12th Century) – Conn Iggulden
Kim – Rudyard Kipling. Set during the Great Game as British India and Russia vied for control of Central Asia.
The web site states: “This year’s festival, which will take place in London, UK, to awaken the interest of the English reader to read the Central Asian literature translated into English, will also attract the public’s attention to the development of the publishing industry, as well as the publishers themselves to the potential of the Central Asian literature in the world market. The event will be attended by as many recognized in his home country of authors, including Hamid Ismailov and Casati Akamatova and British authors with works devoted to Central Asia.”
Unfortunately, I can’t find anywhere on the site which provides descriptions of works translated to English so I am not able to glean potential reading lists.
If anyone out there knows where to find this information, or happens to be at the festival, please let me know if there is any historical fiction we should know about.
Following that lead by googling Silk Road Media takes you to silkpress.com which mentions their recent publication of Christopher Marlowe’s play Tamburlaine the Great into Uzbek – the language of the protagonist. Who knew? That’s definitely going on my TBR list – the English edition, of course. My Uzbek is rusty.
Please let me know if you have anything to add to this list!
Annamaria is the author of three murder mysteries set in South America. She has graciously agreed to take a little time out of publicizing her new murder mystery, Blood Tango, to answer a few questions for our blog. (Yay! Our first interview!)
I came to Blood Tango with zero background knowledge of the events surrounding Peron and Evita – in my theatre days I neither worked on nor saw a production of the Broadway hit “Evita”. Even so, I was able to enter right into the story context with Annamaria as my guide.
Why historical fiction?
I read my first historical novel when I was fourteen:Katherine, by the great Anya Seton. I hated studying history in school. It was all about memorizing dates, the causes of war and which country won. No context, no understanding of the people involved, certainly not of their emotions. Dry.
I did not think of writing historical novels myself, however, until I went to Potosi (Bolivia) and became entranced with its beauty and then its history. That’s when I decided that, rather than continue with the contemporary fiction I had been working on, I would write a historical mystery that took place there, as a way of communicating more broadly some fascinating and mostly unknown history. The result was City of Silver. (See the YouTube interview of Annamaria discussing her inspiration for City of Silver!)
Why Argentina? Why not some topic more familiar to readers?
Blood Tango is my third historical mystery. Once I set out telling about South American history, I stuck with it through three books. You are right. It is unfamiliar territory for many North American readers, but that is why I chose it. I think fiction readers in general, and mystery readers in particular, like to learn as well as be entertained. Most North Americans know very little about the history of the intriguing continent south of ours. There aren’t many novelists writing about that and I hoped to open a niche for myself there.
Did you come to the project with much background knowledge? Or did you have to start from scratch like I did while reading the book?
In all three cases, I began on unfamiliar ground. I had to research thoroughly to get a sense of the times, the place, and especially the historical characters.
What was the hardest part about writing this story in this context?
In the case of Blood Tango, all most American’s know about Evita, for instance, is what they learned from the Broadway musical. And that version of the history is distorted. That made the writing more difficult because I wanted to tell a compelling story, and try to do it without fighting too hard against the readers’ possible misconceptions.
I understand you’ve done some particularly creative events to publicize the book. Can you tell us about those? What did you learn from these efforts?
My daughter is a dancer, and we came up with the idea of doing a film featuring tango dancing. She produced and directed it, the choreography was done by the Paul Pellicoro Dancers. You can see it on YouTube here.
It got quite a lot of compliments and has been seen by, as of today, almost 1500 people. I am proud of it, especially since the choreography between the principal dancers captures what I think was the real relationship between Evita and Juan Peron.
You said to me at conference that you planned to be back at work writing the next book by July 1st. Have you managed to do that with publicity and life continuing to demand attention?
I DID! With the book touring, I have not been able to throw myself into it completely, but I am closing in on 20,000 words. This is a first draft of course. It will need a LOT of polishing before it is done.
I’m always interested in other writers/artists’ work habits. Do you have a daily writing schedule or goals that you try to stick to?
When I am in the first draft, I try to work six days a week. It takes a lot of energy to get my head into the story. If I leave it for two days, it is harder to get back into it to keep going. I am much more productive if I can hold on to the thread of the story. Even if it is just for an hour. Besides, I am happy when I am in the story. All the slings and arrows of everyday life can’t reach me if my mind is in the long ago and far away. I do not have to be coaxed to write.
Any time management tricks you recommend? Or is it “just say no” to everything else possible?
Your readers may not want to hear this, but I gave up reading magazines and almost all TV watching. I stay in touch with friends mostly on FaceBook and email. I don’t chat much. I cook, which I love to do, but only my thirty-minute meals except on Sundays. I take care of my family responsibilities. After that, my first priority is writing. Period. Full stop.
And anything else you would like to add would be great!
I love the idea for this blog. Lots of historical fiction is appealing and I do read and enjoy the stories that take place in the familiar times and locations. But I have such a fascination with the exotic. I am happy to be able to come here and find out what’s new on that horizon.
Ah, another tome to add to the stack. I just purchased Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies a few days ago but am currently reading Sharon Kay Penman’s Devil’s Brood, so I’ll be while yet. I’d love to hear about it from anyone who gets to it before I do.
In a prior post I explained that I do not intend to write proper reviews of books. I also mentioned that for a book to receive five stars from me, it would have to be more than entertaining and well written. It must also stick with me past the final page. Some books are technically perfect but forgettable. Others are unforgettable but could do with another hard edit, or they have some niggling thing that prevents the perfect 10 in my eyes. And, as I explained, trying to review books as a beginning novelist just feels awkward.
I don’t generally read reviews either. When I choose a book (or film) I like to know as little as possible before I begin. I don’t even read back covers. Writers work incredibly hard to create a story that unfolds and reveals information in exactly the right way. I hate to miss that experience by knowing anything before the writer wants me to. Tell me the genre and the period and that you recommend it – let the writer do the rest.
However, I would like to use this blog to make observations about various books and invite dialog on certain aspects. Which brings me to these thoughts about My Name is Red.
My Name is Red appears on many historical fiction “must read” lists and is set in a time/place which is well off the beaten path. So it seemed a good candidate for a lover of long ago and far away tales. Also, although 16th century Istanbul is many hundreds of years and miles from my current period of study – for my interests, that’s really close!
This murder/mystery was written in Turkish by Orhan Pamuk, winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature. With all the accolades, I figured I’d better read this and was excited to find something so intriguing.
At the time I read it, I was working about 60 hours per week at a brutal day job. I think it took me four months of dozing off before bed to get through this book. At times it was only the need to finally learn the identity of the murderer, and my general reluctance to ever abandon a book, that kept me going. (Don’t worry, no spoilers here. After all of that, I can’t remember who the murderer turned out to be.)
Many aspects of the book appealed to me: as an artist, I loved that the story is set among a community of miniaturist painters; the structure, voice and non-western worldview is compelling; the characters are complex and therefore unsentimental in their portrayal. But I felt vast portions of the book were repetitive and going no where, slowly. I could have enjoyed more of this world, these characters, if it had been additional material rather than the feeling that I was going in circles.
By the time I was done with it, I was relieved. And finding out the answer to the whodunit was, meh.
But here’s additional support for why I won’t formally review this book or others. Sometimes it is only after time and distance that the true impact of a book is realized. I am now 5-6 months from finishing that slog but find the book is still with me. Something of it’s essence lingers. What is it and why? I’m not really sure. I think a large part of it is the believability of the characters. They were just fickle, inconsistent and imperfect enough to truly breathe.
One intellectual question persists – I wonder if I were capable of reading the work in the original language, would the word crafting have extraordinary merit? Is it more beautifully written in the original? Did I miss some important aspect of the work by reading a translation?
This question buzzed around my head while I read the book and resurfaced when I read the article in the last Historical Novel Review, “Translating a Genre” by Lucinda Byatt. Ms Byatt makes a great argument for more historical fiction to be translated into English (Hear! Hear!). She also notes the difficulty for publishers to be sure of their translator’s skills. I couldn’t possibly critique Erdag M. Guknar’s translation of My Name is Red, but I can’t help wondering if I’ve missed out on something in the writing?
This book is also steeped in historical references that are probably familiar to eastern readers but are well outside of my exposure. It was fun though, just today, while reading The History of al-Tabari for my own research, to come across the historical account of Shirin and Husrev, who’s love story figures so prominently in My Name is Red. I felt like I’d run into an old acquaintance.
I get the feeling that My Name is Red opened my mind to things I have yet to realize. The more reason not to rattle off hasty book reviews using the grade-inflation-tainted star system.
I’d love to hear from others who have read My Name is Red and your reaction to it. Is it just me? How do you feel about official/starred book reviews?