As all of you know, 3 Bluestockings has been participating in YA Bliss’s YA Historical Fiction Challenge. I’ve been going strong with the challenge and I’ve officially made my goal of level 2, with 10 books! I think I might make even make it to level 3, but I’ll have to keep you posted on that. Without boring you with consecutive posts of reviews on each book, I’ve decided to put several of them together. Without further ado, I give you my YA review-a-thon!
Lady Macbeth’s Daughter by Lisa Klein
I normally don’t read revisionist literature or alternate tellings of established fictional plots. The plethora of Mr. Darcy books and books told from the perspective of other characters tend to turn me off. But, Lady Macbeth’s Daughter is an exception. I was a bit hesitant to read Klein’s novel because of my preconceived opinions, but I ended up enjoying it immensely, perhaps because it has been years since I have actually read Macbeth or maybe because the original Shakespearian play was more of a frame for the events of the modern novel than a map for the author to change the original story or characters.
Told from the perspective of both Macbeth’s wife, Grelach, and from that of her and Macbeth’s fictional daughter, Albia, Shakespeare’s play serves as a backdrop for Klein’s account. Albia, discarded at birth because she was born with a club foot, was raised by one of the three witches (of double toil and trouble fame). She goes on to be fostered by Banquo and to meet Macbeth after he slays Duncan and becomes king. While Albia is on the fringes of the action, she is indirectly involved with the events of the play because she both disturbs her father’s declining mental state and has the Sight which she uses in different ways.
What I liked about the story was that Klein created a completely fictional character that was never in the play and placed her outside of the main action that readers are familiar with. She didn’t change characters’ personalities or my conception of their inner thoughts and she didn’t change major plot points. Albia and the characters that were added or who’s importance was expanded don’t do things that are out of character or that interfere with the plot involving Macbeth. What she did do so deftly is to create a very human character that has mixed feelings about the circumstances of her birth, adoption, and her birth parents. Klein gives the reader insight into the lives of the female characters in Macbeth and follows strong women who are limited by the restrictions placed on their gender. The book is both character and plot driven, although anyone who has read Shakespeare already knows what will happen in the background. Klein’s new plot however is engaging enough for readers to stay interested in a somewhat familiar story.
Wrapped by Jennifer Bradbury
I was really excited to read this book because it combines two of my favorite topics: Egyptology and the Regency. Agnes Wilkins, a debutante in London’s fashionable social circle who happens to be fluent in ten languages, attends a mummy unwrapping party at the home of a would-be suitor. When she finds a metal charm with a scroll wrapped around it, she pockets the trinket which will turn out to be the key to secret messages being sent by Napoleon’s network of spies. When she teams up with a common laborer at the British Museum who has been secretly fostering skills in Egyptian history and Coptic, they begin to unravel a conspiracy and save England from falling to the evil of France’s ambitions. Throw in some flying sparks between the two young scholars and a dash of supernatural powers to an ancient Egyptian object, and you have an all-around fun, page-turning novel.
I feel two different emotions toward this book. On the one hand, it is fun, fast-paced, and intriguing; the book definitely kept my interest and I enjoyed reading about the characters and their amateur attempts at counter-espionage. On the other hand, there were several facets of Agnes’ character that annoyed me.
First of all was Agnes’ penchant for quoting Jane Austen novels in various languages. While I love Austen novels, I felt like Bradbury threw the quotations in just because her book takes place in the Regency. While Austen novels today are the end-all in literature of that time (especially for women), I did not need to constantly hear about Agnes’ love for the author to know she was a girl settled in that time period. While she might have very well loved the author if Agnes were a real girl in 1815, I felt that Bradbury’s attempt to use Austen quotations as a device to set the scene as well as to show off Agnes’ linguistic prowess was a bit cheesy.
My other gripe with this book has to do with liberties taken with antiquities. Bradbury was kind enough to explain in an author’s note that mummy unwrapping parties in fact did not gain popularity as a social entertainment until the 1840s. I am willing enough to suspend my historical inaccuracy radar for a fictional book, so this fact only really bothers me in conjunction with all of the other little annoyances. Most of all, I am a bit miffed with Bradbury’s treatment of objects in the Museum. I realize that before modern museum best practices, objects were not cared for as gently as they are today. Mummies were unwrapped for fun or used for fire fuel, people touched everything, and antiquities were plundered from their unfortunate hometowns in times of war and occupation. But, I felt that Bradbury should have at least tried to promote a positive attitude toward museum behavior, if not in keeping with the historical attitude toward the objects, than at least in line with her characters’ outlooks. For instance, I found Agnes’ actions rather contradictory when on the one hand, she is pawing the Rosetta stone and touching objects in the British Museum, while on the other, she is arguing for restitution and wants people to treat the Egyptian antiquities with respect and care. I can’t say that the attitudes expressed about the blasé treatment of objects is not historically accurate. Just look at the “cleaning” of the Elgin Marbles in the 1930s, and that is within some people’s lifetime. What gets to me is that Bradbury gives Agnes an opinion of wanting artifacts to stay in their original location or culture from which they originated, but at the same time contradicts herself. Also, at times her personality just annoys me.
Otherwise, it was a good read, and worthy of a recommendation, despite my ramblings.
Reincarnation by Suzanne Weyn
This wasn’t your typical historical fiction book because it didn’t stick to one particular time period. The story follows two souls as they are reincarnated throughout history from prehistoric times to the present. Surprisingly with the plethora of time periods and plots in this book, I’ll keep this review short and sweet. My feelings are ambivalent about Reincarnation (italicized and capitalized, so not the belief in general). Yes, I believe in reincarnation, and the idea that soul mates exist. Ancient Greek philosophers believed the soul was initially one entity that was separated, causing us to seek our “other-half” not only for companionship, but for union on a spiritual and metaphysical level. It is a very romantic idea that should make for an interesting book. Unfortunately, Weyn tries too hard to spin a tale spanning millennia. There are eight separate lifetimes depicted in the 293 page book alone, not to mention even more brief vignettes alluding to other lifetimes in between the eight major story lines. Quantity is certainly not quality; Weyn just does not do justice to each lifetime because there is not enough space for her to write deep and meaningful interactions and characters in such a short space. If she had perhaps focused on three or four lives or had this been an epic length novel, the quality of each plot would have been better in the end. However, the topical and at times superficial treatment of each lifetime makes me think of the book like my Art History 101 class in college: extensive in coverage, but shallow in depth. I remember the grand scale of art movements, a few major painters, but little in particular from that class. Similarly, I remember the main plot of Weyn’s book, but not much of the heart and soul (pun intended) that I would expect from a book with such inherent potential.
In The Shadow of the Lamp by Susanne Dunlap
This was a five star historical fiction book for young adults. While I admit to knowing very little about the Crimean War (click it, you know you need to), I picked this book up for no apparent logical reason. I hate medicine, I’m not usually interested in war stories, and only remember briefly skimming over the details of the Crimean War in my AP World History class in high school. So, it beats me as to why I chose to read Dunlap’s book, but I am very glad I did.
The story begins when Molly Fraser, a maid in a London household, is accused of theft and dismissed from her position. With nowhere to go and no skills to speak of, she decides to join Florence Nightingale’s brigade of nurses at the front lines of the war, by any means necessary. After stowing away on the ship that brings them to the hospital abroad, Molly is reluctantly accepted by Nightingale into the battalion of nurses and embarks on a journey of self-discovery and loss in the tumultuous environs of war. There is a love triangle amid the touching and sad evolution of Molly’s skills from novice nursing apprentice to an efficient and experienced assistant with a soothing touch.
Dunlap puts you right in Molly’s shoes and the way she writes about the injured and dying soldiers in the hospital is both eloquent and poignant. I would definitely recommend this book wholeheartedly!
Dark Mirror by M.J. Putney
Finally, we have M.J. Putney’s Dark Mirror. Like Suzanne Weyn’s Reincarnation, I’m not quite sure how to categorize this book. It is definitely historical fiction, although it takes place in two different time periods. It is also a supernatural fantasy book.
Victoria Mansfield, daughter of an earl, discovers she is a mage, with powers to fly and channel energy. In the story, set during the Regency in England, magic is discouraged in the aristocracy and Victoria is subsequently sent off to a reform school for moneyed children with magical abilities. There, she joins an underground society that embraces their magic and learns to control and utilize her gifts. When the meeting place of the society is raided, she stumbles into a magic mirror that transports her over a hundred years into the future when England has just become involved in World War II. With the help of her friends from the past and present, she helps save soldiers lives and influences the success of evacuations from France amid German blitz attacks. She makes it back to her own time in one piece, presumably to have more adventures through time with her new league of mage friends, as there is a sequel advertised in the last pages of the paperback.
At the risk of sounding indifferent, I have to say that I neither loved nor hated this book. There were things that were hard to wrap my head around which diminished my overall enjoyment of Dark Mirror. Mainly, it was reconciling a historical fiction novel with a time travel plot and a supernatural theme. I don’t hate any of those genres, but putting them all together was a bit tiring at times. Normally, creating a new universe, however different from our own, in which to place supernatural beings or talents requires a stretch of imagination for the reader. When you add one alternate reality in the Regency where magic exists to another time period that was accessed through time travel, the strain on one’s suspension of disbelief is stretched to the maximum. Yes, I bought into the nineteenth century magical world and followed Victoria along in her new life, but when there was an abrupt change to the twentieth century, I was jarred. First, I was seeing the world of magic through a novitiate’s eyes, learning with her the unbelievable fact that magic runs through her blood. But then when I was just getting used to the magical world Putney created, she introduced another world to be explored and adjusted to by Victoria. 1930’s England isn’t that far back that I myself don’t understand what is going on when Victoria is amazed by flashlights and automobiles, but seeing another new world through her eyes and reading through the necessary preliminaries of wonder, fear, and curiosity becomes boring when you are already in the middle of the book.
That being said, the story isn’t terrible. There is a charm to the simple side of supernatural fiction; there are no werewolves or vampires, just elemental and natural magic. For those of you who don’t know, M.J. Putney is the alias of Mary Jo Putney, a Romance author, so understandably, there are romantic elements to the book (which, of course, I loved). The developing bonds of friendship, tenuous relationship with Victoria’s roommate, and a budding but doomed romance, redeem the somewhat confusing nature of the book.
Again, check out our YA Historical Fiction Challenge page to see our progress and to find out what the other blues are reading!