Tatham Mound: A Book Review

I received Tatham Mound as a Christmas gift I don’t know how long ago, but I did not pick it up until recently. To be honest, I feared it would be a tedious read as I had already read about De Soto’s expedition in the Gears’ excellent Contact Trilogy. I decided to give it a try not so long ago and I think historical fiction fans will find much to enjoy in the book. 

Owing to the book jacket, I figured De Soto’s expedition would be the focus of the novel. To my surprise, it played a rather minor role. The book is a little over five hundred pages long, but Hernando De Soto’s expedition takes up no more than a hundred pages. The big clashes that are covered in the Contact Trilogy–the Napituca battle and the Mabila battle for example–are also covered in Tatham Mound, but the protagonist does not play an active role in either so the narration is a bit detached. I personally didn’t mind this but readers looking for a blow by blow account of de Soto’s major battles in the Southeast may be disappointed. 

De Soto’s expedition was, in certain respects, one of the less interesting aspects of the book. What really made the book special, in my mind at least, was the author’s narration style. The story is told from first-person but switches perspectives often since the narrator is often relating the accounts of others. As a result, Anthony gives the reader a great deal of ability to toggle between different places (the bulk of the story takes place in pre-Columbian Florida but readers also get to spend some time in Tenochtitlan and Cahokia) and times. Not only does this give us a very expansive portrayal of pre-Columbian life, it gives us the ability to explore the backstory of numerous characters in a way that’s reminiscent, in a good way, of Lost. 

However, if I had to pick one thing I liked the most about the book, it would probably be the ending. It can be difficult to tie all the loose ends together in a novel, especially a historical novel that tries to stick close to the known facts, but Anthony does an exceptional job with the final scene of the book. It is truly a standout scene and I suspect readers will reflect on Tale Teller’s last conversation with the spirits long after they finish reading the book. 

Truth be told, Tatham Mound is probably not for everyone. Readers squeamish about intimacy should probably stay away from the book. It is definitely not erotica, but sex does play a pretty large role in the narrative. 

Anthony takes a little bit of time to explain why in the afterward of the book and also shares with readers his personal connection to Tatham Mound. As it turns out, he has a fairly strong connection with the historical site of Tatham Mound. Besides personally visiting it on numerous occasions, he also paid tens of thousands of dollars to have the site excavated. Learning about his personal investment in Tatham Mound didn’t make me like the book better per se, but it did give me a deeper respect for Anthony’s creative decisions as well as his research bona fides. All in all, I think there’s much to enjoy in Anthony’s Tatham Mound and I recommend the book to anyone in pre-Columbian history or literary fiction. 

The Yellow Wife

**I received a free copy of this book through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review**

The happy house slave is a trope as enduring as segregation. It is featured most prominently in novels dating back to Reconstruction but can push its way into modern art also. One need look no further than Django Unchained for evidence of this sad truth. Even celebrated civil rights activists like Malcolm X trafficked in the trope which makes it all the more notable that author Sadeqa Johnson chose a different tack with The Yellow Wife.

Like Gone With the Wind, The Yellow Wife is told through the perspective of a young woman living in the South of the 1800s. But whereas Gone With the Wind sanitized and glamourized the racial caste of 19th century America, The Yellow Wife confronts the horrors of slavery head-on. Sexual violence, infanticide, and family separation all play an important role in the book. No person who reads the Yellow Wife will come away with the impression that any enslaved person had it easy in the Antebellum South, whether they worked in the field or the big house.

The Yellow Wife is in many respects too short, the story covers numerous decades once you include the epilogue and some of the key narrative events receive only passing mention, but it is a compelling read all the same. Johnson put an admirable amount of research into the book and her passion for the subject shines through in her writing. The Yellow Wife is not an easy read but it is an important work of literature and deserves a wide readership.

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 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.