Ghosts of 1876

The 1876 Presidential election is one little remembered today. Such is only natural—the election took place more than a hundred years past and turned on some rather quaint issues. History may repeat itself from time to time but lands grants for railroads and treaty protections for naturalized Americans who traveled abroad are hardly hot button issues today. But if there was one issue that transcended all the others in importance in 1876, it was the issue of the federal occupation of the South. 

The Civil War had ended eleven years before, but slavery had been re-established in many parts of the South via the Black Codes. The Klan Act had brought the worst paramilitary groups to heel in the South, but the Grant administration had yet to withdraw troops. Many urged him to reverse course, but Grant would not budge. Black Americans were still being persecuted and could not count on much assistance from state and local authorities; federal troops had to stay. 

Despite an economic slump and some embarrassing political scandals, liberals had good reason to feel confident about the outcome of the 1876 election. The conservatives were closely allied with violent white supremacists, and liberals assumed that would prove toxic with general election voters. After all, black Americans finally had the right to vote and they knew the danger of letting the Confederate sympathizers back into the Presidency better than any group.

Liberals, however, severely overestimated the electoral strength of their candidate and minority voters showed up at the polls in smaller than expected numbers. As a result, the conservative candidate, a colorful New Yorker with heterodox views, won a plurality of the votes in the Electoral College.     

The outcome shocked many, but neither candidate had enough votes in the Electoral College to claim outright victory. For the sake of peace, conservatives and liberals meted out the Compromise of 1877. Conservatives would agree to recognize Hayes as President, and Hayes would, in exchange, withdraw federal soldiers from the former Confederate states. Both sides kept their end of the deal, and Hayes gave the order to recall troops from the South shortly after taking office.

Following the withdrawal of troops, conservatives quickly established political dominion over the South. For generations to come, it persisted. Time and again, progressives impulses would be beaten back by conservatives from the South, dashing the hopes of activists and reformers. 

It is difficult to overstate the importance of the Compromise of 1877 when it comes to the political trajectory of the South. This naturally begs the question: why did so many black voters avoid the polls in 1876?

There are a myriad of reasons of course but none can match the primacy of voter suppression. Liberals seriously underestimated the extremes conservatives would go to in order to prevent marginalized people from getting access to the ballot box, and paid a price for it at the polls. Black voters had good reason to like Hayes, he was an outspoken abolitionist and a Civil War hero, but paramilitary groups prevented many of them from being able to cast their votes in states like Louisiana and South Carolina. As a result, Hayes underperformed in the Electoral College and had to make a hideous deal to assume power. 

Thankfully, political violence is far less acceptable in American politics than it was in the era of Reconstruction. Black voters will be able to go to the polls without fear of lynching or torture, but it would be a mistake to think that voter suppression is no longer a fixture of American politics. CV19 has given the GOP a superb vehicle to suppress the vote, and the Trump administration seems intent upon taking full advantage of it. Democrats missed the chance to tie economic stimulus to voter protection measures, but Trump is desperate to keep unemployment from rising higher so they may get another chance. Let’s hope they remember the lessons of 1876. Otherwise, it may not be just black voters who end up being undercounted this November.  

Excerpt from The Bend of the River

Malintze hugged her legs close as a cold blast of wind tore through the mountain pass, prompting a bout of howling and cursing from the teteo. Their loud protests warmed her about as much as her thin woolen hose, but it did provide some validation. During the first few hours of the march, the teteo had been merry as children and spent practically every minute extolling the beauty of the land. They marveled over giant felines that could tread water like a dog, dragonflies that zipped by with the speed of arrows, four-legged river animals with plated skin, trees that reached thrice as high as any mast… but that was in the lowlands. 

Thereafter, the route gave way to highlands dominated by an enormous rocky mountain range stretching all the way to the horizon and beyond. During the first day of the ascent, the teteo refused to give voice to their pain and, had it not been for their continuous grunting and panting, Malintze might have forgotten their presence altogether.

Come evening, the army encamped on a large plateau, but none of her traveling companions made mention of the stunning view. The lowlands were visible in every direction for countless long-runs, as well as the beach where Fort Veracruz had been erected and the bay where Cortés scuttled the fleet. Nevertheless, the weary marchers appeared to only be concerned with the monstrously steep trail that seemed to ascend all the way to that place the teteo called Heaven.

Come morning, the marching began anew, and she joined the long procession of teteo, Totonacs, soldiers, and slaves moving up the trail. A suffocating silence hung over the group, and there were few sounds other than labored breathing and muttered curses. She had grown used to the teteo blurting out every little thing that came to mind—Malintze now knew exactly how much a feline pelt would fetch back in Spain and how long it would take to convert a copse of pine trees to lumber—so their failure to remark on the rigors of the march was jarring. Surely they also noticed the sharp rocks that stabbed through leather soles, the miserable chill brought on by the thin air that gave her such terrible headaches. 

The temperature had to be the worst aspect of the climb. Never in all her life had she been so cold. She wrapped herself in every layer she could find but that was not enough to keep the shivers away. Judging by the dreary expressions of the porters and the slaves, they were just as ill-prepared for the drop in temperature. Even the teteo were struggling with the cold, despite their thick cotton armor and their familiarity with that strange season called winter, a time when lakes froze over and the skies rained ice. Not so long ago, those stories about winter seemed ridiculous. Now she wondered if she might see some of those wonders for herself.

Malintze buried her chin in her chest and rubbed her frozen arms. Tired as she was, she hoped the march would soon resume. Stillness brought on a cold that no amount of layering could protect her from. As much as her back ached from marching, she knew she could not stay seated more than a few minutes.

I would give anything for some hot pepper soup. A soup so hot it could warm not only her mouth, not only her face, but her entire body. She looked for ingredients but saw only rocks, shrubs, and trees. She shook her head and bit her lip in frustration. 

A teotl sat down next to her and offered his canteen. Armor covered so much of his body that it took her a moment to recognize the figure as Cortés. Malintze wrapped her layers tighter rather than reaching for the canteen. “Too cold… to take out arms,” she said in Spanish.

Cortés nodded. “Tilt your head back so I can pour.” She did as commanded but watched with some trepidation as he clicked open the container. “You don’t have to drink it, but it will warm you.”

She nodded. Cortés brought the canteen to her lips, slowly tipping it upwards so she could drink at her own leisure. The taste—first sweet, then sour—was so startling she almost spat it out. A combination of exhaustion and thirst was all that stopped her.

When Cortés pulled the canteen away, she was tempted to ask for more. Then the effects became more pronounced, and she decided against it. She suppressed a burp, and her eyes widened in a mixture of surprise and embarrassment.

“What was that?” she asked in an awed voice.

“We call it wine.” Cortés leaned back, looking very pleased. He propped himself up on an elbow and stroked his chin. His stubby fingernails disappeared into the dark curls of his beard. What would happen if he stopped shaving altogether? His sharp chin and his pale cheeks would probably disappear from view completely, followed afterward by his creased, vellum-thin lips.

Malintze cleared her throat. “Your wine does the same as our octli—but the taste. It’s as if it…”

“Came from a different world?”

She nodded half-heartedly and wiped her mouth on the blanket, surprised but grateful the droplets had not frozen to her lips. 

“Still adjusting to the cold?”

She nodded again and flashed him a small smile.

“Such a pretty smile,” Cortés said. “But hidden behind so much pain.”

Malintze gazed at the ground. A strand of hair dangled in front of her face, still damp from the morning fog, and she blew it aside with a small gust of air.

“The Totonacs say our march will take us to places even colder,” Cortés continued. “I know not to trust all the Totonacs, the Fat Chief promised me an army of thousands and delivered me a sorry lot of half a thousand instead, but I think they are telling the truth this time.” 

Malintze tried wiggling her toes. It felt as if she were trying to shift stone. “This cold causes me unpleasantness. I hope we start marching soon.”

Cortés chuckled under his breath. “What’s the name of that mountain?” He pointed southwest to a massive protrusion of rock that stabbed into the sky like a white-tipped spearhead.

“Citlaltepetl,” Malintze answered.

Cortés looked at her expectantly.

“It means Star-Mountain.”

Cortés arched his brow.

“Sometimes the mountain becomes angry and throws boulders all the way to the stars,” she explained.

He turned his gaze back toward Citlaltepetl. “We have star-mountains in the Old World also. We call them volcanoes there. But we don’t have anything half as big as that in my country.” 

Malintze nodded and rocked back and forth for warmth. She wondered if she would ever see his country, if she even wanted to see his country. She honestly did not know, just as she did not know how to feel about Cortés. She admired his tenacity and ambition, but they caused her no small amount of angst and alarm.

“That mountain is very pretty, like you,” he said. “I would refer to that mountain by your namesake, but certain men would take offense. A shame that beauty must always stir up strife.”

Malintze rubbed her arms and tried to stop her teeth from chattering. 

“God as my witness, that is the most magnificent mountain I have ever seen,” he added. “However, I would be none surprised if we came across greater beauties during our march. This land never ceases to amaze.”

“What do you mean namesake?” Malintze asked.

Cortés stared at her with a blank expression.

“You said you would refer to mountain by my namesake—”

“I would name the mountain after you,” he said.

Malintze blinked and took a moment to gather her thoughts. “It is not yours to name,” she said.

“Why not?”

“It already has a name.”

“And this means I cannot give it a new name? Caesar and Alexander would beg to differ. I suspect that some great man probably looked at this mountain and gave it the name you know. Long ago there may have been a different name in a different tongue for this very same mountain.”

Malintze furrowed her brow. “I do not know of Caesar and Alexander.”

“They are great men who conquered vast territories and won many vassals.”

Malintze nodded. She wondered if there were any places in the world where men were not idolized for wreaking destruction, a place where women did not have to form a bond with cutthroats to rise above bondage. “They are like Ahuitzotl and Motecuhzoma then,” she replied. “When Caesar and Alexander conquered, did they not leave territory the same?”

“Heavens no. They named nearly everything they saw after themselves. Or those dear to them.”

Malintze’s chest tightened. “The mountain already has name.” She drew her legs in to conserve warmth. “Remember, the Mexica are the conquerors of the One World.”

Cortés smiled. “For now.”

The Bend of the River will be released later this year. Be sure to check back in for more details.

High Praise for Zoe Saadia’s The Highlander

I first picked up The Highlander about a year ago and stopped after the first chapter. I am a big fan of Zoe Saadia but the book just didn’t click with me. I put it down and came back to it only a few weeks ago. Much to my surprise, I couldn’t stop reading the book once I picked it up again and finished it in one sitting.

In retrospect, the reason I didn’t like the first chapter is totally on me. I enjoyed Saadia’s Pre-Aztec series immensely and I assumed those characters would be the principal protagonists in the Rise of the Aztec series. Consequently, I was a bit confused when the first chapter introduced a bevy of characters who had never shown up in the Pre-Aztec trilogy. 

This is a silly reason to dislike a book opening, the Pre-Aztec series and Rise of the Aztec series are distinct book series so there was no real reason for me to significant narrative overlap, and I am glad I put aside my initial dismay to give the book another go. I have a strong interest in Mesoamerican history, I write about it and I read about it, so I am naturally drawn to Saadia’s work. However, what I like most about her novels is just how accessible they are. 

It helps, of course, if readers are familiar with historical figures like Tezozomoc and Nezahualcoyotl, but it is by no means mandatory. If anything, I think readers who are not familiar with these historical figures may enjoy Saadia’s work a little bit more since they will have less ability to predict the twists and turns of the plot. Whether or not readers are familiar with the individuals in the book, I think most readers will find their motivations understandable. This is the goal with every fiction author of course, but I think it’s worth noting that it’s more difficult with some stories than other stories. After all, it’s not like many modern-day readers can relate a world in which the Abrahamic religions do not exist and electricity does not exist but this was the reality for people living in pre-Columbian Mexico. Nonetheless, Saadia does a very good job at getting us to care about the characters in her story and I think many readers will find themselves rooting for Kuini despite his penchant for trouble. 

To be fair, there are other characters for readers to latch on, Coyotl and the Chief Warlord are both important characters in the book, but the romantic sup-plot of Kuini’s storyline makes his character arc especially compelling. Romance always plays a role in Saadia’s books–at least, each one I have read–but the Kuini/Iztacayotl sub-plot is strikingly tender because of the way it ends. In the interest of avoiding spoilers, I won’t get into the details but I think readers will be quick to pick up the second book in the series.

Having said that, people who don’t care much for romantic storylines will still find much to enjoy in The Highlander. The plot is fairly easy to follow and Saadia’s research is above reproach. Whether it’s knowledge of inciting incidents or cultural norms, readers can learn quite a bit by reading the Highlander. I recommend the book to anyone interested in Mesoamerican history or historical romance.

The Land Beyond The Sea: A Book Review

Historical fiction is a genre dominated by stories set in Europe. Whether you are looking for a  book about the rise and fall of fascism in Europe or a book about the military exploits of Roman soldiers, there’s no shortage of books to be had. Novels about Mansa Musa, history’s wealthiest man if we are to believe recent reporting, or the An Lushan revolt, history’s deadliest event if we are to believe Pinker and his ilk, are decidedly harder to find. Having said that, historical fiction is undergoing some profound changes as a genre and I am heartened to see new stories and voices coming to the fore. Readers interested in branching out, to learn about Middle Eastern history for example, would do well to check out Sharon Kay Penman’s The Land Beyond the Sea.

To be fair, Penman is not exactly a new voice. She has been writing since the 80s and has the large fan base to prove it. For the most part, her stories are set in Western Europe but the Land Beyond the Sea represents a marked departure in that is set entirely within the Levant. The story is told primarily from the perspective of the Poulains, a term that refers to Christian settlers during the time of the Crusades, and offers fascinating insight into many battles fought on behalf of the Holy Land. 

The Land Beyond the Sea covers a time period of roughly twenty years and, true to form, Penman makes use of multiple POVs in the book. Each character is interesting in their own right but three characters stand out as particularly interesting: Baldwin, Balian, and Sal-al-Din. All of them are real historical figures but Sal-al-Din is the one best known to contemporaries, though he is often referred to in Western literature as Saladin. He is known primarily for his military prowess, but Penman is careful not to depict him as infallible. I think what I like best about Penman’s depiction, however, is that Sal-al-Din is more than just a military general in her story. He is a man who is honorable to a fault, a commander so used to projecting stoic strength that he struggles to let his guard down even around intimates, and a man with sincere religious convictions who breaks bread with “enemies of the faith.” 

As Penman tells it, researching Sal-al-Din was not all that easy. Sure, there are plenty of sources but he is the devil incarnate in some sources and a flawless warrior-king in others. She opts for a more complex depiction, and I admire the research she put into Sal-al-Din’s backstory and those of his family members. Penman is so familiar with the key events in his life that she is able to quote directly from Sal-al-Din at times, and the story is all the more impressive for it. At one point in the book, Sal-al-Din takes the king of Jerusalem hostages and executes a captive right in front of him. Horrified, the king assumes he will also be executed and braces himself for the worst. Sal-al-Din is quick to put him at ease, however, and assures him that “kings do not kill kings.” It’s a great line and one that’s all the more interesting because it’s true to history.

Baldwin is Sal-al-Din’s chief antagonist for most of the story, but the two never get a chance to cross blades. Afflicted with leprosy early on in life, Baldwin is afforded few opportunities to prove himself on the battlefield. Keeping in mind that kings were often expected to lead their troops into battle in medieval times, his leprosy causes many to question whether he should be king. Despite many health complications, Baldwin rules over Jerusalem for almost twelve years. The longevity of his rule is a testament to Baldwin’s political acuity. He outmaneuvers his foes, those inside his kingdom and those alien, with impressive skill and leads his kingdom through numerous crises. 

Nonetheless, if there is any one character who stands out for bravery, it’s Balian. A soldier from an undistinguished background, Balian is tasked with defending Jerusalem after Sal-al-Din’s army succeeds in surrounding the city. He didn’t have to defend the city, he could have fled for safety with his family, and he took an enormous risk by agreeing to serve in this role, Sal-al-Din had promised to lay waste to the city once the people refused to surrender, which makes it all the more notable that he chose to stay and fight. In the interest of not giving away too much of the plot I won’t say more, but I can fully understand why Penman considers Balian to be one of the bravest individuals she has ever written about. 

Long story short, The Land Beyond the Sea is a great read and I recommend it to historical fiction fans interested in the Crusades, Middle Eastern history, or medieval warfare.

The Assassination of Gianni Versace and the Perils of Accuracy

FX has been on a good streak with shows. The People v OJ Simpson was a great show and I hear only good things about Snowpiercer. Because I liked The People v OJ Simpson, I decided to check out the second installment in the American Crime Story, The Assassination of Gianni Versace. Compared to The People v OJ Simpson, The Assassination of Gianni Versace is slow-going but it gets to be pretty good by the end. I don’t think it ever surpasses the People v OJ Simpson, but it’s definitely compelling television.

Like The People v OJ Simpson, The Assassination of Gianni Versace takes place in the early 90s ad shines a spotlight on how the media covers important social events of the day. For the most part, the spotlight is not flattering, but that’s par for course in some respects. After all, everybody loves to criticize the media. Some more than others–cough cough, Donald Trump–but media critics can be found in almost every industry.

It goes without saying that free and independent media plays an extremely important role in a democratic society, and The Assassination of Gianni Versace avoids any over-the-top anti-media tirades. Instead, the show takes a more nuanced approach and explores issues related to media ethics.

Some organizations completely eschew ethics and release everything they get a hold of, Wikileaks being the most notorious example, but most major media outlets adhere to some set of ethics. Ultimately, however, there is no governing body that polices media outlets when it comes to editorial decisions and every individual outlet must self-police. I think almost anybody who watches The Assassination of Gianni Versace will come away with the impression that self-policing often fails. 

There may no better example of this than Episode 3, A Random Killing. Gianni’s killer came very close to being captured by the police after he killed Lee Miglin. As the show tells it, Gianni’s killer manages to get away, however, because a local radio outlet breaks the story that the police are tracking him by means of a car telephone. He immediately proceeds to disable that car phone and then hijacks a car from a random civilian who he murders execution-style. Much to my surprise, these events weren’t just made up for the show. Granted, we can’t know for sure that Gianni’s killer actually heard the radio announcement, but it is fact that a local outlet broke the story of the live tracking and that Gianni’s killer went on to commit two more grisly killings because he managed to evade capture. 

From an accuracy standpoint, it’s hard to fault the radio outlet. After all, the police really were tracking Gianni’s killer with the car phone and did have plans to arrest him. From a moral standpoint, however, I think the radio outlet was very much in the wrong. The outlet succeeded in giving listeners the inside scoop, but they failed to consider whether the story deserved widespread dissemination. As a result, a serial killer was able to escape justice and went on to kill at least two more people. A terrible tragedy could have been avoided if the outlet had taken greater heed of the perils of accuracy, and I am glad the show creators included this plot detail as it does a great deal to enrich the show’s story. Nonetheless, it’s worth noting that the show blunders into the same trap as the radio outlet when it comes to issues of accuracy.

Just to be clear, there is plenty about The Assassination of Gianni Versace that is disputed or inaccurate. However, it does get one very important fact right: the identity of Gianni’s killer. This matters a great deal because Gianni’s killer seems to have been motivated primarily by a desire for fame. Simply put, he wanted his name to be well-known and he considered murder an expedient way to achieve notoriety. By choosing to use the actual name of Gianni’s killer, the show gives him exactly what he wanted.

To be fair, Gianni’s killer is dead so it’s not like he’s rejoicing about his increased fame. Nonetheless, the decision of the show makers to use his actual name is not without consequence. If many viewers are like me, they knew next to nothing of Gianni’s killer before watching the show but now know about some of the most intimate aspects of his life. The show never glorifies Gianni’s killer and his victims do get significant screen time–with the exception of William Reese, we get a decent amount of backstory for all of his victims–but I do think the show could have benefitted by better considering some of the perils of accuracy. All in all, I did enjoy the show and I think there is a great deal about the show that is worth commending. Despite certain misgivings with the show, I recommend it to anyone interested in social history or media ethics.

Like this review? Check out my work on Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

The Tempest at Dawn: A Book Review

I bought The Tempest at Dawn I don’t even know how long ago. Whenever it was, it was not something I started right away and many months passed before I opened the book. To be honest, I forgot I had it on my Kindle and it wasn’t until I started browsing through my catalog recently that I rediscovered the book. I knew very little about the novel or the author, but I find early US history interesting so I decided to check out the book.

The prologue places the readers in Antebellum Virginia, and we get a vague sense that civil war could erupt but it still feels remote and unlikely. With the first chapter of the book, we jump back about forty years or so and we are soon introduced to the two primary characters in the book, James Madison and Roger Sherman. Having majored in history, I was already vaguely familiar with James Madison, but I can’t say I knew much about Roger Sherman before reading this book. Of the two, Sherman comes across as the more compelling character but Madison’s political philosophy, regarding government structure at least, is more sensible. Who knows, that could just be my own biases at work, though. In any case, both are interesting characters in their own right and the clash between the two makes for compelling reading. 

Madison is an erudite optimist who is convinced that history offers the best guidance when it comes to the structuring of government and has spent poring over ancient tomes to discover the best form of government. He considers the Articles of Confederation an abysmal failure and hopes to replace it with a more centralized, more powerful government. Sherman is not altogether convinced that the Articles of Confederation have failed, but he is adept at sensing political currents and quickly realizes he can do more to shape the structure of the next government if he is in the building making suggestions as opposed to lobbing stones from outside the building. While he respects Madison’s intellect, he is far more interested in what people want in the here and now, regardless of whether or not it has worked in the past.

In the interests of not giving away any important plot points, I won’t say who gets the better of the argument, but I think their clash makes for interesting reading because it’s still relevant to modern-day politics. The question of who we can make a deal with and when we can make a deal is fraught with ethical considerations, and the Tempest at Dawn explores these issues with grace and sensitivity. Moreover, I really appreciate that the author did not try to elide the issue of slavery as it relates to the Constitutional Convention. It is worth noting that pretty much every country in the world had slavery at the time of the Constitutional Convention, and the peculiar institution was supremely important in post-Revolution America. Some because they thought it morally abhorrent and wished to abolish it, some because they thought it a benign practice and wished to preserve it. Best does a good job of how explaining how the Founding Fathers grappled with the issue and, ultimately, navigated around the issue during the convention and I’d say he did a great job of threading the needle were it not for the epilogue.

In the epilogue, Best veers dangerously close to lost cause mythology and even dabbles a bit in the faithful servant trope. I concede I probably care about these things more than other readers, but I have other misgivings with the epilogue that are a bit more basic in nature. To me, the primary purpose of an epilogue is to tie up loose ends and/or provide some measure of closure. An epilogue doesn’t need to tie up every single loose end–that would be an especially difficult, perhaps impossible task in many historical novels–but the epilogue can be useful opportunity to tie up the simple ones. One of the simple loose ends in the book is whether or not Madison marries the woman he meets during the Constitutional Convention. The book has over twenty characters and keeping track of everybody gets difficult at a certain point. Yes, readers can control F search in their Kindle or flip through a bunch of pages to see if the woman he briefly talks to during the convention is the same one from the epilogue, but I think that’s an unnecessary hurdle for readers. Moreover, it’s not one that would provide much clarity anyway, since the woman he met had a fairly common name. I personally would have appreciated if Best had been a bit more explicit in the epilogue as it regards the identity of the wife, but it’s an admittedly minor grievance. Despite a weak epilogue, I think there is much to enjoy in The Tempest at Dawn and I recommend the book to anyone interested in American history or political history.

Like this review? Check out my work on Amazon and pay it forward by leaving a review.

I Spy a Good Show: A Review of Netflix’s The Spy

When I first read about The Spy, I remember thinking that it was impressive that Sacha Baron Cohen learned Syrian Arabic for the part, but I didn’t feel any burning need to watch the show. I kind of just went huh, that’s cool to myself and then moved on with my life. What with cv19, I am indoors a lot more than I used to be so I decided to check out Netflix’s bountiful offerings. As someone who finds it really hard not to binge a good series, I figured it would be smart to find a miniseries to sink my teeth into, rather than a multi-season epic that would probably destroy my sleep cycle. The Spy kept coming up on the list of best miniseries on Netflix so I decided to check it out and I am really glad I did.

James Bond films would have us believe that international espionage consists mainly of glitzy parties, casual sex, high-octane car chases, frenetic fisticuffs, and diabolical plots to destroy the world. The Spy would have us believe otherwise and gives audiences a much grittier depiction, one less glamorous but more grounded. To be fair, there are many edge-of-your-seat moments in The Spy and I wouldn’t be surprised if the writers played up the drama surrounding certain events for the sake of the audience. However, what makes The Spy different than the typical Bond film is these sequences aren’t exciting so much as they are exhausting. 

Exhausting has negative connotations, and I want to be clear that I don’t mean that in a bad way. Part of what makes The Spy compelling is that we know from the very first episode that Eli Cohen, the protagonist of the show, gets captured by the Syrian government. As a result, every time we see Eli put himself in danger, we have to think to ourselves: is this how he gets caught? Any relief we feel when he survives a brush with danger is fleeting because we know every success only encourages him to take greater risks. And boy, does he take some great risks. He doesn’t just pop into Syria for a quick peek–he ends up living there for nearly half a decade, brushing shoulders with some of the dangerous people in all the country and building a facade so consuming it ends up, well, consuming, him.

Reading some reviews online, I notice some critics took issue with the depiction of Eli Cohen and contend that the show writers should have done more to develop Eli as a character. To some degree, there is validity to this criticism. There are only a few episodes in the series and Eli gets precious little time to be himself–rather than his altar alias, Kamel Amin Thabbet–or spend time with family. However, I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing we know Eli primarily as a spy. I think in some respects, it makes for a more honest depiction. Eli has to play the part of his altar alias so much that it becomes him and his downfall is all the more brutal because of it.

His handlers should have stepped in before he was caught, but they do as much to enable his downfall as Eli’s penchant for risk-taking. Eli has given them such great information, has triumphed in the face of such spectacular odds, they convince themselves Eli can’t be caught. This delusion proves deep-seated and, ultimately, tragic. In an odd twist of fate, Eli becomes so valuable to the state of Israel that he becomes expendable. His eagerness to serve dooms him, and the Israeli Intelligence Services lose their golden goose because they are unwilling to quit while they are head. Instead of pulling Eli out when he relays extremely privileged information, they encourage him to discover even more privileged information even though they can do nothing to protect him once the Syrians start wondering who is leaking the privileged information. Sure, he’s their hero, but that just means he has the honor of taking more risks on their behalf.

The question of how we treat our heroes is an important one then as much as now. Many of the same people who are lauding frontline medics for their selflessness in the fight against cv19 are loathe to practice social distancing measures themselves. In some cases, they flagrantly violate them. One has to wonder if we perhaps ask too much of our heroes.

The Spy probably isn’t for everyone. It’s hard to imagine the show has much viewership in Syria, which is ironic considering the trouble Sacha Baron Cohen went through to learn the lingua franca, and it has flown under the radar with a lot of American viewers also. The Spy is not as action-packed as a modern Bond film, nor is it as heady as a John le Carre adaption, but it’s worth checking out and I recommend it to all viewers interested in Israeli history, Syrian history, or foreign espionage.

Like this review? Check out my work on Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

A Review of Strongbow’s Wife

*I received this book in exchange for an honest review*

Strongbow’s Wife is a quick, easy read. Frank Parker clearly knows the era well and the research he put into the novel is admirable. I think the story, however, is a bit too lean and would have been stronger if the pacing weren’t so breakneck. 

By and large, I think historical novels tend to revolve around romantic storylines or some type of key event. As far as romance goes, there’s not much of it in Strongbow’s Wife. Truth be told, I don’t think that’s a great loss as I have never been one much for love triangles and literary courtships can be a bit formulaic. Nonetheless, a romance angle might have been a good way to spice up the story as it lacks a big event. Technically, the story has many notable events. The decision of the king to annex Ireland, the battles to take control of Ireland, and the pacification process are all alluded to in this story. Unfortunately, they all get short shrift. Sure, they get mentioned by the protagonist but the protagonist isn’t personally involved in any of these events so they are all tangential to her own story arc. 

I suspect the reason the author did not insert Strongbow’s wife into these situations is that it would have been ahistorical for him to do so. I respect his commitment to the historical accounts, but historical fiction does leave room for imagination. Had the novel included more than just one POV, I think it may have been possible to depict some of the important events in more depth and give readers a bit more to latch on to.

To be fair, there are plenty of great historical novels that are told exclusively from one perspective. The Moor’s Account and The Kingmaker’s Daughter are good examples of this. I think the reason these novels work well from a reading standpoint deals with the narrative decisions of the author. In the Moor’s Account, Lalami uses the first-person narrative to add more depth to the protagonist’s world view and give him more agency than he is credited with in primary sources. Sure, her telling diverges from the official account given to court authorities but never in ways that are unrealistic. In some respects, the account that Lalami offers is more trustworthy than the one passed down to posterity. 

For the most part, the protagonist of Strongbow’s Wife is a mystery. Yes, she reflects on some of the changes wrought by the foreigners in Ireland, but this mostly happens in the form of a few rhetorical questions. Even death gets short shrift in the story. Characters die or disappear, but we don’t learn much about how that makes the protagonist feel. The climax of the book is the death of a character we hardly knew and lacks much-needed oomph because we lack a strong connection to that character and the protagonist.

Ultimately, Strongbow’s Wife fails for me because it’s not fleshed out enough. To be truly compelling, the story needed to either go deeper with the first-person POV or it needed to offer more POVs. Parker has created a good skeleton for a story, but it needs more heft. To be fair, readers who want a quick rundown of the colonization of Ireland will probably enjoy this read. There’s pretty much no bloat with this read and we cover a pretty large expanse of time in just a few pages. Personally, I like having something to sink my teeth into and I think the story would have been stronger had we not rushed through so many important events. Parker is a prolific writer and I suspect he will put out more work soon. If he can resist the urge to skim over the important happenings, I think his other novels will be much stronger.

The Mule Spinners’ Daughter: A Challenging but Rewarding Read

When I first started The Mule Spinner’s Daughter, I wasn’t sure if I was going to like it. A great deal of the story is written in non-standard English and the book isn’t set against the backdrop of any big historical event so it feels more like a social drama than an HF novel. The Mule Spinner’s Daughter is a sometimes challenging book but it is a rewarding read, and I am glad I stuck with it to the end.

Set in a rural village in 19th century England, The Mule Spinner’s Daughter is a multiple protagonist novel. I tend to gravitate to multiple-protagonist novels so I did not consider this a deal-breaker but I can understand why others might, especially if that style of story-telling is combined with occasional time skipping and unfamiliar diction. Truth be told, I think the story could have done without the time skipping as flashforwards tend to deflate narrative tension. Having said that, I suspect most readers won’t mind as many stories do not rely unfold on a chronological timescale.

Nonetheless, Griffith’s diction does set The Mule Spinner’s Daughter apart from many contemporary books. Instead of saying about, characters say abart and instead of saying after, they say arter, and they often use three words instead of one or two. To be fair, Griffith did not do so simply to set his book apart–he did so because he wanted to use time-appropriate language. It took some getting used to but once you get past the first few chapters, it’s easy to enough to understand. To my surprise, I came to enjoy the unusual turns of phrase. I think it gave Griffith a chance to not only show off his chops as a writer, but to also add some spice the narrative. It gave the book a very historical feel and I think that’s something that matters a lot to historical fans.

Even readers who care little for mood and atmosphere will appreciate the humor in The Mulespinner’s Daughter. The scene with Pud, the police officer, and the British ladies had me in stitches and a great lampooning of formal sensibilities. The truth strength of The Mule Spinner’s Daughter lies in Griffith’s narrative choices, though.

The police officer’s investigation helped give the story some narrative thrust but the John Wroe storyline is where everything really came together for me. The Wroe cult is mentioned early on in the book, but I assumed it would be unimportant from a plot standpoint. Following a disastrous wedding, the Wroe cult takes center stage in the climax of the book and I really appreciate how everything came together in such a logical way. I could completely understand why each character decided to seek out John Wroe–some because they are desperate for comfort and some because they are outraged by his predatory ways–and I also understood why the other characters tried to hide the truth about John Wroe. The race to get to Dover made for exciting reading and serves as a great example of how a story does not need duels or sword fights to be exciting. I recommend The Mule Spinner’s Daughter to anyone interested in the Victorian era, historical romances, or social dramas and I will be sure to keep an eye out for more of Griffith’s work in the future.

Like this review? Check out my work on Amazon and pay it forward by leaving a review.