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 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.

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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.

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All Soul’s Rising: All Kinds of Poetic But Pretty Confusing

High school English was an interesting time for me. I have always enjoyed reading but I mainly read science fiction and fantasy at that time. Mainly science fiction, to be completely honest. Once I entered high school, I was forced to read a wider variety of genres and engage in more critical analysis. No longer could I just read a book–I had to analyze the symbols and crystalize my interpretation in written form. I didn’t much enjoy it at the time, but I will admit I am a better reader for the efforts of my English teachers. Moreover, I also understand better that certain books have a very niche audience. All Soul’s Rising is one of those books.

Bell is a very talented writer and I applaud him for exploring a subject often overlooked in English fiction. The Haitian Revolution had a profound impact on world history–try to list even five other slave revolts that led to permanent independence for an entire country–but it has yet to receive much attention in historical fiction circles. I picked up All Soul’s Rising specifically because I wanted to learn more about Toussaint L’Ouverture and the struggle to free Haiti from slavery, but I think that was a bit misguided on my part.

That’s not to say Bell dropped the ball when it came to research. I have only a cursory understanding of the Haitian Revolution but as far as I know, he didn’t include anything that would have scholars up in arms. He did, however, write his story in a way that the narrative will be accessible only to a select reading group. 

Hardcore literary fiction fans will probably find much to enjoy in All Soul’s Rising. Bell clearly put a great deal of thought into every turn of phrase, and his poetic prose will undoubtedly appeal to English professors and professional linguists. I can recognize that Bell employs some really great literary devices in All Soul’s Rising, but I just didn’t understand what was going on for most of the story. 

If I were given a test on the book, I would struggle to name a single character in the book besides Toussaint L’Ouverture and I knew about L’Ouverture long before I read the book. I can remember certain scenes very well, the scene where the aggrieved wife attacks her husband’s slave is very poignant and a great example of Bell’s skill with prose, but most of it went over my head. Some narratives were easier to understand the others and while I understood almost none of the chapters told from the perspective of L’Ouverture’s friend, I did understand some of the chapters told from the aggrieved wife’s perspective. Unfortunately, I don’t feel like I retained much information about the book once I finished it.

Some of this deals with my own shortcomings as a reader. When I read Thurston and Morrison and Fitzgerald in class, I struggled to intuit the deeper meaning of their words on my own and had to rely on my English teachers for guidance. I think some of it also deals with Bell’s choices as a writer. For the most part, Bell doesn’t really write about documented incidents. Sure, the story recounts a few revolts and some skirmishes but the great battles and the high-stakes negotiations are given relatively little attention. Instead, Bell asks us to imagine how people from various walks of life might have experienced the Revolution. As a result, we get more a social history rather than a traditional history. 

The drawback to this approach is that readers don’t have much to latch on to and I think it’s compounded by Bell’s choices as a writer. The protagonists think in broken English and their private musings don’t always follow a logical train of thought. Moreover, the characters tend to be isolated from the most important happenings of the Haitian Revolution. Not just in a physical sense. In a temporal sense also. Consequently, we learn a great deal about what a person in the late 1700s might have spent their time thinking about if their life was violently upended but we don’t learn much about what happened during the Haitian Revolution. 

To some, this is appealing. It can be a great way to explore overlooked narratives. But I think it’s worth noting that some narratives offer more insight than others. Reading about people involved with the Normandy campaign–whether it’s because they clean the gear or because they determine the strategy—will probably teach me more about the event than reading about the family that hid themselves in an isolated cabin for the duration of the campaign. Both can be enjoyable reading experiences but if I spend all my time with that family and the story ends with family still in hiding and the family rarely interacts with anybody outside the cabin, the family hasn’t really given me new insight into the Normandy Campaign. Rather, I have gained new insight into what it’s like to spend a lot of time in a closed space with a small group of people isolated from the outside world. Much as I enjoy immersing myself in unfamiliar worlds, I read historical fiction because I like to read stories anchored in something tangible. 

Ultimately, All Soul’s Rising is more about prose than plot and I struggled to enjoy it because prose is not enough for me. To enjoy a story, I need to understand the events of it or, at the very least, understand why those events matter. For the most part, I didn’t really know what was going on in All Soul’s Rising and pretty turns of phrase couldn’t make up for that. 

Check Out Calling Crow While You’re Self-Isolating

As of this writing, 49 states have reported at least one case of CV-19 and considering how fast the virus is spreading, it is very likely that most of us will spend the next few months self-isolating. What with all the extra time I now have, I have been reflecting more on the books I have read and I decided to write about Calling Crow this week. Whereas many historical novels focus upon the trials and tribulations of kings and queens, Calling Crow takes place in the American South of pre-Columbian times, a land where kings and queens do not exist. Instead, there are chiefs and mystics. The latter plays an important role in the story and gives readers a hint of the two events that will shape the plot of the story: a foreign invasion and a devastating pandemic. 

Calling Crow, the protagonist of the story and the inspiration for the title, hopes to become Chief one day and looks forward to the day he can marry his childhood sweetheart. After neatly resolving a conflict with a neighboring village, Calling Crow is quickly elevated to Chief but he has little time to celebrate because he is soon informed of a strange sighting. Mountain People have returned from the Far South and claim to have seen things that defy conventional explanation. Nobody in the village knows what to make of their “cloudboat” sighting but Calling Crow believes he has an obligation to investigate. 

Worried there might be a supernatural calamity afoot, Calling Crow enlists the help of the village mystic and consumes a noxious drink to travel to the spirit world. When it comes to my own writing, I tend to stay far away from magical divinations, but the novel’s brief turn towards fantasy works well because it foreshadows key plot points in a way that’s intriguing without being over-the-top. During Calling Crow’s drug-induced vision, readers are introduced to an eerie entity known only as the Destroyer. The identity and the motivations of the Destroyer are a mystery to us just as much as Calling Crow, but Calling Crow feels compelled to discover more.

Convinced he cannot do without going to the Far South himself, Calling Crow informs the villagers he will personally investigate the matter of the cloudboats and travels south with a handful of trusted warriors. Calling Crow underestimates the danger involved with getting close to the cloudboats, and they are taken captive by a strange white-skinned people who speak an unknown language called Spanish. 

Calling Crow’s captivity dramatically changes the direction of the story and author Paul Clayton introduces us to a fascinating pageantry of characters, some indigenous and some European. In the interests of not revealing all the story, I will avoid delving deep into the details but Calling Crow eventually escapes slavery and makes it back to his village after many years away. 

The village folk are pleased to see him again, but they do not know what to make of his ordeal or his unexpected return. Everyone assumed he was dead so a new Chief was elected and his former wife found a new husband. Calling Crow expected to be welcomed back a savior, but he is derided as a crazed fool instead. They have no interest in changing their comfortable lifestyle on account of some shadowy menace nobody has ever heard of and some people begin to question his sanity. After all, none of them have ever beheld the Spanish explorers so his stories regarding horses and cannons and rifles strike them as fantastical. 

Calling Crow is tolerated at first, but it does not take long for him to wear out his welcome. A strange sickness is stalking the village, one unlike any they know and one that did not exist before Calling Crow returned to the village. Men and women, young and old, are all susceptible and the sudden specter of death leaves everyone unsettled. Healers are powerless to help the afflicted, and many fear for their health. Aggrieved and angry, the villagers turn on Calling Crow and he is forced to flee the very same village he tried so very hard to save.

Calling Crow had no idea he could transmit smallpox to others simply by returning home and it’s not until he leaves that he realizes he is the Destroyer. The irony of this will be apparent to anybody who reads the book to completion and gives the book an ending both powerful and insightful. I highly recommend Calling Crow to readers interested in North American history, pandemic history, or indigenous history. Check out the book from your local library or find it on Amazon.

Here be a great book! A review of Penman’s Here Be Dragons

I first discovered Sharon Kay Penman in the Silver Spring library and I’m glad I did as I consider her to be one of my favorite historical fiction authors. Often times historical novelists can be described in one of two ways: they are either very good at prose or they are very good at research. Gore Vidal has a great talent for sentence construction and pithy sayings but the research that informed The Golden Age is sub-par to say the least. Evaluating the prose of a historical novel is inherently subjective, some of my friends love Hilary Mantel and some can’t get past the first chapter of Wolf Hall, but I think anyone who reads a lot of historical fiction has come across at least one well-researched novel they just couldn’t get into.

Sharen Kay Penman, however, is different: she excels at prose and research. Her stories are filled with beautiful, heart-rending scenes–colored by Penman’s vivid imagination but always informed by pain-staking scholarship–and there may be no better example of this than Here Be Dragons.

The story begins in the late 12th century and within the first fifty pages, we are introduced to a litany of characters. Many of these characters have little importance to the plot, some never show up again, and some readers will probably find this off-putting. Historical fiction has many unwritten rules–stick to one POV per section, avoid omniscient narrating, stay away from confusing names–and Penman breaks pretty much all of them. Nonetheless, her writing and her research are so compelling that I think most readers can forgive her these sins.

At times the number of characters we are supposed to keep track of can get overwhelming but the first half of the book revolves largely around three characters: John, Joanna, and Llewelyn.

Each character is interesting in their own right but John’s POV was unexpectedly moving. By and large, we don’t have much reason to like John. He is a narcissistic philanderer with few redeeming qualities and he only becomes worse once he gains more power.

In his mind, he is ever the victim, even when is carrying out terrible atrocities, and he cannot comprehend why anyone would dare to disagree with such a simple truth. Unwilling to heed the advice of learned statesmen, he careens from crisis to crisis with alarming speed and Englanders soon grow weary of his ineptitude. By the end of his life, John has lost favor with just about everyone he holds dear: his wife, his relatives, his advisors, even his children. His final days are filled with unbearable pain, but he accepts it all with impressive equanimity. The imminent prospect of death inspires no small amount of introspection and John remarks, “I think I always knew I would die alone.” It is his most powerful line in all the book and I often find myself thinking on this line when I reflect on John’s storyline. John is an undeniably cruel man and while the line doesn’t justify his cruelty, I think it does help explain his vindictive tendencies and his bitter persona. 

John, however, is by no means the only interesting character in the book. His illegitimate daughter, Joanna, makes for a fascinating character and her decisions often drive the plot. Many readers will probably find her thought process frustrating, I often put down the book because I’d be so upset by Joanna’s actions but then I’d have to pick it up again to see how things would play out, but I suspect there are few readers who hate or even strongly dislike her character. If that’s not a testament to Penman’s skill as a writer, it’s hard to know what is.

As for a character that’s easy to like, few of Penman’s characters can hold a candle to Llewelyn. An accomplished diplomat and a skilled warrior, Llewelyn dedicates his life to winning independence for Wales. His ambition is as consuming as it is absolute, but as Penman notes in the epilogue, his dream did not long survive him. Considering the many sacrifices that Llewelyn made on behalf of his country, his inability to win meaningful independence for Wales is all the more galling. 

Whether readers are interested in British history or social drama, I highly recommend Here Be Dragons and look forward to reading more of Penman’s work.

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Sons of Texas review: Tons of fun and insightful, too

I never had much interest in Westerns when I was younger but I figured I would give Sons of Texas a read in the interests of trying something new. I’m glad I did as it’s easily one of the most engrossing books I have happened across this year. Considering we are not even one month into the new year, I know that may not mean much but I did really enjoy the book.

Sons of Texas starts in 1816 and transports readers back to a time when the west was a rough, dangerous place and borders were as fluid as the Sabine. Having spent all his life on a small farm in Tennessee, Michael Lewis has largely been sheltered from frontier violence but his wayward father, Mordecai, served with Andrew Jackson and know just how violent the western territories can be. Nonetheless, he can’t help but pine for the free lifestyle offered by frontier living.

The author makes it clear that Mordecai is far from the first Lewis to suffer from wanderlust, Michael wonders to himself at one point if his family would have ever crossed the Atlantic had it been any other way, but Mordecai’s wanderlust verges on deadly. Often times, he goes days without his food and weeks without seeing his children. Such hardship exacts a toll but Mordecai is quite content with “living on water and air for days at a time” because he figures that “a man was not so easily killed as was commonly supposed.” Nonetheless, his penchant for exploring and adventuring is not without risk and Mordecai has borrowed more than he can ever hope to pay back. Unless of course he can pull off his latest get-rich-quick scheme. To pull it off, all he needs to do is sneak into the mysterious place known as Texas, round up some wild horses, and then return to Tennessee with them. Only problem is Mordecai will have to break the law to do so and the Spanish authorities have little love for the “Americanos” who sneak over the border to help themselves to the bounties of Texas.

While Mordecai has little compunction about breaking the law, he fully understands that capturing the wild horses will not be easy. Convinced, however, the money is worth the risk he returns to Tennessee to recruit men and gather resources. His own children hardly recognize him, but Mordecai only stays a few days before he leaves Tennessee to return to Texas. This time, however, Michael follows him and learns for himself just how rough frontier life can be when he comes across two outlaws with a penchant for violence. He barely escapes the encounter with his life, but it will not be his final brush with violence. Michael assumes that he will be safe once he links up with his father’s posse, but a group of Spanish soldiers ambush them after they have caught the horses and Michael suffers a near-fatal injury.

In the interests of not giving away the entire story, I won’t say any more about the plot but it’s worth noting that Michael’s first encounter with the Spanish soldiers is not the climax of the story. It is certainly a high point, but the book does not lack for harrowing sequences, whether it’s an encounter with a murderous priest or a blood feud with a neighbor. As gripping as these plot points are, I think what I will really remember about this book is the way author Elmer Kelton makes us sympathize with characters we shouldn’t like.

There may be no better example of this than Mordecai. Mordecai is a terrible father–he provides next to nothing for his children and spends almost no time with them–but he’s a surprisingly sympathetic character. Absentee fathers are a staple in Westerns but Mordecai is different. He neglects his family not so he can tend the bottle or chase skirts, but to search for greener pastures. He’s convinced that he can always find something better for his family and constantly casts his gaze west in search of that better living. He can’t give up on the hope that greener pastures can be found elsewhere so he can never be there for his family as he should be. There’s something very heart-rending about that and I suspect that readers will remember the characters of Sons of Texas long after they finish it. I strongly recommend the book to anyone interested in frontier history, Antebellum history, or Texas history and will be sure to read more of Kelton’s work. 

Malintzin’s Choices

By the time I read Malintzin’s Choices, I already knew that I was going to write a historical novel about the Spanish-Mexica war. I picked up the book not so much because I liked the cover or because I knew the author but because I knew I wanted to read a book about Malintzin. I’m glad I picked up Townsend’s book and I consider it to be one of the best history books I’ve ever read. 

Considering my strong interest in the Spanish-Mexica war, I will be publishing the second installment in the Tenochtitlan Trilogy later this year and wrote my undergraduate history on the subject, I figure this type of praise may be easy to brush off. After all, nobody would be surprised to learn that a francophile enjoys macarons. But if I am going to be completely honest, I really didn’t know much about the Spanish-Mexica war (better known to the general public as the conquest of Mexico) prior to reading this book. 

The thing is, I thought I did. After all, I had learned about the event in my AP world history class as well as my intro to world history class at GWU. My knowledge of the conflict was admittedly shallow but I was quite familiar with the legend that Cortes was perceived as a returning god. The idea that Cortes could return the exact same year the god was fated to return, and that he even shared a similar complexion, was incredible to me and almost Shakespearian. As it turns out, this great coincidence is more fiction than fact and Townsend makes a convincing argument that Cortes, like the Spaniards before and after him, were not perceived as gods. Those interested in the particulars of this argument ought to read the book and can expect to learn a great deal by doing so.

In all honesty, I did not expect a book about a long-dead translator to delve so deeply into Mesoamerican theology or the politicization of history, but that’s part of what makes the book so great. It’s so much more than a biography–it’s a reflection on how we study the past and which narratives get prioritized. History books, the good ones at least, ought to challenge our assumptions and broaden our horizons, and I suspect Malintzin’s Choices has done that for a great many readers.

Townsend’s interests can be admittedly niche, I have yet to meet the layman who can expound at length upon the complex political alliances of central Mexico in the early 16th century, but even readers who do not have a strong interest in the Spanish-Mexica war will find much to enjoy in this book. Townsend’s prose is both engaging and insightful, investing her book with the type of energy and wit more typical of fiction than non-fiction. I strongly recommend the book to readers interested in women’s history, Amerindian history, or historiography, and I look forward to reading more of her work.

Pause what you’re doing and read Panther in the Sky

In honor of Indigenous People’s Day, I feel I should write about James Alexander Thom’s Panther in the Sky. As far as I can remember, this was one of the first books I ever read that was told primarily from the perspective of indigenous characters and remains, to this day, one of the best books I have ever read. Prior to read this book, I knew next to nothing about Tecumseh. His name was vaguely familiar to me, my father had tons of books about Tecumseh all about the house, but I don’t remember learning much about him in my history classes. I suspect I am not alone in this regard and that’s a shame because Tecumseh is a fascinating historical figure and James Alexander Thom does a great job bringing him to life in Panther in the Sky.

It is worth noting that Tecumseh was an enemy of the United States government. It would be wrong, however, to equate him with the likes of Emperor Hirohito. Whereas Emperor Hirohito was an enemy of the US for launching a sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, Tecumseh was an enemy of the United States government because he sought to protect his homeland from a US invasion. America is an exceptional country in many regards but we are not an exceptional country in how we gained territory—like pretty much every other country in the world, we invaded neighboring nations, killed the military leaders who opposed us, and then defended the land from anyone who tried to take it from. Might is right has been the governing philosophy of nations for millenia, it really only stopped being the international norm this past century, and such thinking played a key role in the westward expansion of the United States during the 19th century.

The Shawnee nation, like many of the other indigenous nations, could not compete with the United States military. Tecumseh understood this well, as did many of his contemporaries. Nonetheless, Tecumseh was not the surrendering type and came up with a rather simple solution to this vexing problem: he would make the Shawnee nation more powerful by allying with other indigenous nations. But whereas others might have been content to ally with one or two other nations, Tecumseh had something much bigger in mind and sought to create a confederacy that would draw in every indigenous nation that stood to lose territory to the United States. It is hard to overstate just how revolutionary an idea this was. Many of the nations that Tecumseh sought to draw into his confederacy had been at war for generations, centuries in some cases. While the concept of pan-Indianism is fairly entrenched in the modern political ethos, it had few proponents in the early 1800s and Tecumseh was very much for unique for putting credence in a pan-indigenous identity.

In some respects, he might have been better off had been less unique in his thinking. Prominent spokespersons found his thinking alien and rejected his overtures of friendship–the best example of this may be when Tecumseh travels south to recruit allies and basically gets told to get lost by a very eloquent tribal leader. Nonetheless, Tecumseh was still able to cobble together a fairly strong military coalition by 1811 and ended up attracting some unwanted attention from the US military. He did not, however, believe in rushing into war and insisted upon waiting for the opportune time to strike, much to the chagrin of some bellicose followers. The insistence upon waiting, however, ended up being a smart gamble. War broke out between the British and the US in 1812 and Tecumseh capitalized on the chaos by attacking key military strongholds, often times with the support of the British. In doing so, he wrested control of Fort Detroit from American forces, despite being outnumbered by the defending force, and embarrassed the US military so thoroughly that General Hull, former commander of Fort Detroit and veteran of the Revolutionary War, was forced to go before a court martial to explain his humiliating defeat.

Unfortunately for Tecumseh, Hull’s successor ended up being much more competent. William Henry Harrison may not command much name recognition today—try to name an American general in the War of 1812 other than Andrew Jackson—but he was an undeniably talented general. Those talents availed him greatly in his battles against Tecumseh and he eventually triumphed over him in the Battle of the Thames. As readers of the afterward know, Harrison’s military triumphs eventually paved the way for his Presidential run and for a few precious hours, he held the most powerful position in all of American history. Why such a short period of time? Well, as Thom notes, Harrison was never the type to use one sentence when two would do and ended up contracting pneumonia during his marathon inauguration speech.

Considering the rich history that made up Tecumseh’s life, it’s a wonder more historical novels have not been written about him. Alas, the failure of other writers to mine this rich vein is James Alexander Thom’s benefit as Panther in the Sky will probably be the authoritative novel on his life for many years to come. Thom’s novel is rather exhaustive, it follows Tecumseh’s life from his birth to his death, but it was never a slog to read as Thom does such a great job of fleshing out the characters. Tecumseh’s friendship with Brock, Tecumseh’s various shenanigans as a child, Tecumseh’s conflict with his brother are still vivid in my memory, despite not having picked up the book in almost half a decade. I think it is important to note, however, that Tecumseh is not the only narrator in the story. Many sections are told from the perspective of other characters, though the vast majority are told from Tecumseh’s perspective, but I can’t think of any POV I found boring. Considering how long the book is and how many different characters are included in the book, this is quite the accomplishment. This is not the first James Alexander Thom book I have read, my first was Follow the River, but Panther in the Sky is a great introduction to do his work and fits in well with the larger body of his work. Those who have already read novels like The Long Knives will find some of the events or mentions familiar, but there is no reason this should be a deterrent to reading Panther in the Sky. If anything, it’s more of a reason to read the book as fans will get the chance to experience events through a different perspective. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Amerindian history, American history, or biographical novels.